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The Road of Danger: Chapter Twenty One
Last updated: Wednesday, April 4, 2012 20:24 EDT
Halta City on Cremona
By the time the elevator thumped to rest on the ground floor of the warehouse, red strobes in the ceiling were pulsing while a musical but penetrating gong tolled. The light blurred through the dust of the building’s interior, turning the drab volume into an angry dawn.
Adele felt silly walking around with the pistol in her hand, so she returned it to her pocket. She knew from experience that she would be able to get it out quickly enough if the situation required her to do so.
The workmen Adele passed as she followed Brock’s quick strides hadn’t paid any attention to the pistol, however, nor to the more obtrusive weapons which her companions carried. Equipment was shutting down in response to the alarm, so the building was somewhat quieter than it had been when she and Tovera entered.
An amplified voice called, “All employees report to your section manager at once! Report to your section manager at once!”
Adele thought it was Brock’s grandson speaking, but distortion from multiple speakers and the building’s bad acoustics kept her from being certain. The delay before the general announcement was enough to have allowed him to give instructions to the foremen before he sent the common laborers to them.
Three trucks were backed into the loading dock: a flatbed which had arrived with a pair of sealed shipping cubes, a hopper truck into which pink rice was pouring from an overhead spout, and a three-axle vehicle with four-foot sides of corrugated steel around the bed. Brock went to the last.
The truck driver stood on the dock, looking concerned as the cargo handler who’d been with him disappeared inside at the loudspeaker’s summons. A double pallet of eight-inch piping hung from an overhead track, ready to be swung onto the bed.
“Tony, I’m going to borrow your truck,” Brock said to the driver. “I’ll square it with Norgay, or else Klaus will if I don’t get around to it. Okay?”
“Okay, Brock,” the driver said; his eyes were on the big pistol whose grip protruded above the outfitter’s waistband. “Hey, is everything okay? What’s going on?”
Brock stepped onto the truck bed, then gripped the side with both hands and swung over to stand on a back tire. He stepped from the tire to the running board and there opened the driver’s side door.
“We’ve got a bloody ratfuck for the moment, Tony,” he called to the driver, “but me and my friends here’re going to straighten Mangravite out. Then it’ll be fine.”
“Whatever you say, Brock,” the driver said with nervous brightness. “Hey, I’m sure not going to bet against you!”
Adele had detoured to the flight of steps at the other end of the high dock; her boot soles pattered on the concrete. Tovera remained on the platform, trying to watch in all directions. She held her sub-machine gun close to her chest where its outline wouldn’t be immediately obvious.
“Shake a leg, both of you!” Brock said. Adele opened the cab door and slid in. There was plenty of room for concealment under the dash if she curled her legs under her.
Tovera stepped into the truck bed. She reached for the gate with her left hand.
“Here, you can’t lift that alone,” the driver said, bending to help her. Before he touched it, Tovera straightened, pivoting the gate upward to clang shut; the catches snicked home.
Brock chuckled. He twisted the handle of the hand-brake, then let its tensioning spring pull it open.
“Next stop, Halta Harbor,” he said as he lifted the transmission lock from its detent. His foot settled onto the throttle. Motors whined; the truck accelerated slowly but as smoothly as a falling rock.
“I took this one because she’s got electric motors in each wheel-hub,” Brock said, pitching his voice so that Adele could hear him over the chorus of whines. “Don’t get me wrong–I could handle any of them: I started out in this business driving a diesel with a crunch box. But I figured not having to worry about missing a shift right now was maybe a good thing.”
Adele, under the dashboard, twisted so that she could look at Brock. She was pleased to see that he was watching the road and keeping his hands on the big, nearly horizontal wheel as he spoke.
“I see,” she said. “You’re the expert, so of course I accept your decision.”
She didn’t really see. Why would the outfitter, who was driving into a gunfight with apparent willingness, be concerned that a stranger thought him unmanly for choosing a vehicle with a transmission that was less difficult to manipulate than those of the other options?
Adele would say that she didn’t understand men, which was true; but that might imply that she did understand women, which certainly was not true. She had often thought that humans were an interesting species, but that she wasn’t a member of it.
Brock swore softly, switching the weight of his foot to the back of the single, center-pivoted, control pedal. The whining changed note and grew louder; each separate motor was turning the truck’s inertia into electricity which it pumped back into the capacitors. Daniel had explained the system to her not long after they met, for no better reason than his enthusiasm for hardware; and she had remembered, because her enthusiasm for information was just as great.
“We’ve got cops ahead,” Brock warned. “Just keep your head down and I think I can talk us through.”
“All right,” said Adele. The data unit in her pocket relayed the conversation to Tovera’s earbud, but that was probably redundant. She had never known Tovera to shoot unless she thought it was necessary–or to refrain from shooting because someone else didn’t see that necessity.
The truck slowed to a halt, but Brock didn’t lock the transmission. He stuck his head and burly shoulders out the side window and called, “Hey, buddy? Can you give me a break? I got something hot on back at the office–if I get there before her husband comes to pick her up.”
“Sorry, we gotta search all vehicles,” said a muffled voice from outside. “I feel your pain, believe me I do.”
“Look, I just dropped off a load of pipe shipped from Norsk on the Asphodel,” Brock whined. He reached into his breast pocket. “There’s nothing to search, all right? And here’s ten thalers to see it my way. Hell, here’s ten for each of you. Believe me, she’s special.”
“Well, I dunno, Jerry…?” the outside voice said. There was no reply, but his partner must have shrugged. A hand reached up to take the Alliance coins which Brock offered.
Brock’s foot shifted on the pedal. “Give’r my best,” the voice called, more faintly.
“Stop where you are!” a new voice shouted–more distant, but making up for that with volume.
Brock came off the throttle, but he didn’t rock the pedal back to brake. A sub-machine gun ripped out a short burst. It must have been aimed in the air, because Adele didn’t hear the nasty spatter of pellets hitting something hard.
“You bloody well stop or the next one’s through the windscreen!” the new voice shouted.
“Hey!” said Brock, heeling the brake hard. Even so, the truck slowed gently. “These patrolmen have already searched me. And what’s the Navy doing stopping honest truckers anyway?”
“They didn’t search you, you bought ‘em off, which you won’t do with us,” said the voice, now on the driver’s side of the cab. “And as for the Navy–”
The passenger door jerked open. The moon-faced man in blue utilities was holding his carbine upright by the balance in the hand not on the door handle. He didn’t have time to look surprised before Adele shot him through the right eye and, as his head jerked back, through the open mouth.
“Drive!” she said, but the truck was already accelerating at its slow best. She straightened to look out. Forward motion hadn’t swung the hard enough to latch, so she pulled it closed.
Tovera’s sub-machine gun crackled a three-shot burst, then another, then a third. It sounded like water dripping into hot grease.
Adele couldn’t see the first two targets from her angle, but Tovera’s third burst threw forward a man wearing non-descript trousers but a crossbelt over his dirty white tunic. He had been trying to duck behind the stone steps to the entryway of an office building. The back of his tunic speckled, and he sprawled across them instead. The pistol flew out of his hand.
The policeman had probably been too frightened to shoot at the truck as it disappeared down the street, but Tovera wasn’t one to take chances. Neither was Adele, not in this unpredictable chaos.
The police must have been on foot, but turned crossways to block the street ahead was a small blue van with a Navy of Cremona shield on the side in gold. The truck rolled into the van with a crunch and skidded it sideways. Brock continued to accelerate.
A tire rubbed off the smaller vehicle; the wheel rim sparked across the cobblestones until it found purchase in a crack. The van flipped onto its side, then roof, and was pulled under the truck’s axles one by one, shedding parts with the scream of metal on metal.
The truck continued on; the wreckage of the van didn’t catch fire. Brock seemed to be whistling between his teeth, but his mouth was set in a rictus.
The street ahead kinked slightly to the right. Two blocks past the angle and coming toward them was a flatbed truck. People standing in the back looked forward over the cab. Adele thought, Are they–
The windshield starred in three milky patches between her and the driver; the truck body rang like a quickly hit anvil as the slugs passed through. Brock hauled the wheel to the right, hand over hand. Their truck turned onto a cross street, lumbering over the curb. They scraped the corner of a tavern; glass and bricks shattered, spraying the sidewalk.
The gunman in the flatbed hit the back with another round from his automatic carbine, but the rest of the burst flew wide. The range was too great for Tovera’s weapon to be lethal, but a light pellet in the face would throw off the aim of the most focused marksman.
The bullet-pocked windshield was as hard to see through as a heavy fog. Adele pounded at it with her right hand, but she only succeeded in stretching the sticky middle sheet of the glass sandwich even nearer to opacity.
Brock lifted his pistol and punched the barrel through the windshield in front of him. He swung his arm sideways, grinding the butt through the glass like a ship’s bow crushing pack ice.
He drew back his arm, then repeated the stroke to clear the top of the windshield. When he dropped the pistol onto his lap, his wrists were bleeding. Hauling hard on the steering wheel, he turned the truck left onto a street parallel to the one on which they had left the warehouse.
Two ground cars and a light truck were stopped in the street ahead. Men with pistols, clubs, and lengths of chain were climbing out of the vehicles, warned either by radio or the sound of shots coming toward them. They all wore scarves striped red/yellow/black.
When I have a moment, I’ll learn which gang uses those colors.
Adele leaned out the open side window where she didn’t have to worry about jagged edges. Two shots spun the man on the right. His right arm stretched upward like that of a hammer thrower, but his grip must have frozen on his spiked mace because it didn’t come out of his hand.
Two shots more, holding for the center of the chest because the jouncing truck didn’t allow for delicacy; the driver sprawled out of sight behind the hood of the car he had started to get out of. Two more and a gunman crumpled backward into the man behind him–who dropped next, coughing up bright pulmonary blood.
Brock guided–aimed–the truck between the back fender of the car in the middle of the line and the hood of the truck behind it. There wasn’t room to clear either vehicle, but the big truck bounced them in opposite directions. If Brock had smashed into one straight on and ground it down, he would have chanced ripping out his truck’s wiring harness or a hydraulic line.
There were bodies on the left side of the makeshift roadblock also. Like her mistress, Tovera had started at the edge and worked toward the center.
The street ahead to the next bend was almost empty of people, though there might be some hiding on the floors of cars. Vehicles had been driven over the curb to either side and seemingly abandoned.
The visible exception was a heavyset woman in a loose, floral-print dress. She must have just stepped out of a shop when the shooting started. She had dropped her string bag, spilling brightly colored fruit, but she seemed unable even to throw herself to the ground. She gaped red-faced as the truck rumbled past.
Adele gave her only a glance. She wasn’t a threat.
The shroud around the barrel of her pistol was glowing yellow because of waste heat from her shots. She had expended at least half her twenty-round magazine. She would replace it with a fresh magazine as soon as she could, but she had learned to wait until the weapon cooled. Without protective gloves, the hot barrel would raise blisters.
If, as seemed likely, Adele emptied the pistol in the next few minutes, she would have blisters tomorrow morning–if she survived. She smiled wryly: that was a cheaper price than others were paying this afternoon.
Heavy firing burst out some miles to the north; at least one automatic impeller was involved, below which a buzz of lesser weapons sounded like a swarm of wasps. So far as Adele knew, no ‘Blue’ forces were in that direction. She wondered whether two or more gangs had collided and were slugging it out with one another due to the lack of planning for the sudden attack.
A slug dimpled the fender in front of Adele and punched downward. That tire was already flat, but to hit it from that high angle–
“Aircar!” Tovera said. “Aircar!”
Another slug hit the pavement twenty feet ahead, shattering a cobblestone as osmium sprayed in a score of vivid pastels. Adele leaned through her side window and looked upward at the aircar curling slowly into sight ahead.
The shooter leaned out from the back seat, aiming a stocked impeller. It would be an awkward weapon to use from a platform circling above the rooftops while keeping a hundred yards out from its target, but a hit with it would rip through the truck’s capacitor bank as easily as it would any of those riding.
Tovera shot, but the light pellets of her sub-machine gun weren’t accurate at half that range and the gunman was wearing a helmet with face shield. The impeller lifted from recoil; from the muzzle puffed metal which the coils’ electromagnetic flux had vaporized. The slug ticked the roof of the cab and rang through the truck bed. If Tovera had been in the way, then Adele had lost a frequently valuable servant.
Adele ducked back inside, dropped her pistol on the seat, and took the larger weapon from Brock’s lap. He said, “What–”
“Drive!” Adele said. She leaned on the window frame again, presenting the heavy pistol.
The car was traversing clockwise. The impeller recoiled, but the slug hit nothing useful this time. Adele shot and shot again. Brock’s pistol jolted back harder than she was used to, so it took longer than the usual heartbeat for her to bring the sights in line.
The impeller dropped, spinning like a tossed baton; the shooter had slipped into the car’s interior. The car reversed its curve to dive away to the left.
Adele shot, aimed, and shot again. The aircar turned on its back. Two bodies spun away before the vehicle dropped out of sight behind the buildings. There was probably a crash, but the sound of the shredded front tire slapping the truck’s wheel well was too loud to hear much over.
“Bloody hell, woman!” Brock said, but even now he didn’t turn to look at Adele instead of watching the road. “What did you do? How did you do that?”
Adele picked up her own pistol in her right hand. It had charred a streak in the upholstery fabric, and the foam padding beneath had started to melt; there was a smear of it on the titanium shroud.
“Do what?” she said. “I shot the gunman and his driver, if that’s what you mean.”
If she understood the question, it was absurd. It was like being asked what the bright thing lifting over the eastern horizon at dawn was.
“From a moving truck, you shot down an aircar with a pistol?” Brock said.
The road kinked again, this time a fairly sharp left. Ahead was a convoy of cars two abreast–civilian and probably commandeered at gunpoint. Spacers sat on window sills and on the roofs of the vehicles, armed to the teeth.
“Friends!” called Tovera, who wasn’t dead after all. I should have checked, I suppose. “It’s the Sissies come to get us!”
“It’s a very good pistol,” Adele said, setting the weapon down between them. The barrel was too warm to be laid on an ally’s lap. “If you hadn’t brought it, we would have been in difficulties.”
She leaned out the side window and waved her little pistol in the air. It would be embarrassing to be shot dead by her rescuers. She knew that the Sissie‘s crew, though faultlessly brave, was more likely to demonstrate enthusiasm than fire discipline.
“I suppose you can drop us here, Master Brock,” Adele said. “I appreciate your help. As soon as possible, I will pay for the damages you’ve incurred in this business. Assuming I survive, of course.”
Cars were turning around or parking on the sidewalks so that Sissies could pile aboard the big truck. Cory, holding a sub-machine gun, jumped onto the running board and cried, “Mistress, you’re all right?”
“Yes, Lieutenant,” Adele said. “Thanks to your timely warning, I am.”
There was room ahead to get through safely; Brock started the battered truck rolling forward again. “If it’s all the same, lady,” he said, “I’ll take you to the dock. This has been the first real excitement I’ve had in twenty years.”
He barked a laugh. “And I’m bloody glad,” he added, “that I picked the right side!”
The horizontal line below the horizon ahead was too even not to be manmade, but that was all Daniel could tell with his unaided eyes. He thought again of putting on his commo helmet. The visor’s magnification would be useful, and he could switch to the infrared spectrum to search the landscape for camouflaged watchers.
“Careful!” Freedom–Tomas Grant–warned. The level of the surface didn’t change, but boggy soil became a shallow pool. The car lurched; brown water sprayed to all sides.
A commo helmet looked military and more than that would be the only one Daniel had seen thus far on Sunbright. Presumably they were in general use among the Alliance garrison in Saal, but that was an even better reason not to wear one here in the backcountry. A helmet’s round outline was unique for as far as it could be seen, and a stocked impeller was deadly at equal range with the right marksman behind it.
The car’s underside ticked the lip of the other side of the pool as they came up; the vehicle lofted a hand’s breadth into the air and flopped down again uncomfortably. Daniel grunted, though he had braced himself on his arms when he saw what was coming. Hogg cursed in a tone of familiar misery.
Daniel was in the passenger seat, though he and Hogg had traded several times. The luggage was tied onto the frame of the vehicle so that the extra man could squat in the luggage space behind. It was too narrow for Hogg’s hips, but at least he wouldn’t slip off if the aircar slammed hard on a bump.
The car didn’t have enough power to fly safely with three grown men aboard, so they were travelling the entire three hundred miles in ground effect. That was better than wobbling to a sudden crash from fifty feet up, but the ride hadn’t been a lot of fun so far and Daniel expected it to get worse.
“That’s the Grain Web,” Grant said, glancing to the side and gesturing toward the line Daniel had been watching. “Part of what was completed, anyway. That’s really what convinced people to support the revolt, you know.”
Daniel thought back to the briefing materials he had studied during the voyage from Madison. Adele had loaded them into his helmet and had included a very good natural history database.
“How is a rail system a cause for revolt?” he said. “From–well, to an outsider like me, it looks more efficient to get the rice to market by hauling it cheaply to Saal where bigger ships could land. Everybody gains.”
“It would be a very efficient way for the person at the center of the Web to control everything,” Grant said. “Which would have concerned the farmers even if they hadn’t had experience of Blaskett already. And it would have cut out the small shippers, since they couldn’t compete with long-haul vessels. Big ships would have ten times the capacity and could carry the rice straight to Cinnabar or Pleasaunce without transshipping.”
Grant canted the steering yoke to the right, angling to mount a waist-high dike. He must use the car in ground effect frequently, because he maneuvered with the skill of practice. Control inputs were quite different from what would be necessary if the vehicle had been airborne and could bank.
“So a lot of the little shipowners would have been willing to haul arms to us even if there hadn’t been so much money in it,” Grant said. Then, bitterly, “But there is money, lots of money. Until everybody’s dead!”
The car fishtailed as it rose onto the dike, but the rebel leader kept it under control. They could travel faster on compacted earth than they had in the paddies where Grant kept their speed down to avoid spraying themselves with the liquid muck. The surface was narrow, even for so small a car, but they sped along it without difficulty even where a spiky native tree grew from the side and required a twitch of the yoke to avoid.
Hogg leaned sideways so that his head was between those of the others. “I could spell you on the driving, y’know,” he said.
Not for the first time, of course; and perhaps not for the twenty-first thus far on the ride. Hogg’s enthusiasm for driving wouldn’t have been as much of a problem if he hadn’t also been a really terrible driver.
Daniel didn’t reply. Grant said, “We’ll be coming to a farm shortly. I think we should overnight there. We have another hundred kilometers ahead of us, but it’s nearly dusk now and it’s unwise to try to enter Saal after dark.”
They bumped up onto the right-of-way for the Grain Web. It was a magnetic levitation system; the current-carrying rails had been buried in a smooth pavement of stabilized earth. Even after four years of disuse and damage, it seemed a real thoroughfare.
“There’s a curfew?” Daniel said, glad for a change of subject.
He deliberately hadn’t questioned Grant about how he was going to enter the fortified capital. The fellow was an excellent driver, but he had a tendency to look toward the person he was speaking to and wave his hand. That had already led to some near misses as a result of this broken terrain and the fact that the overloaded vehicle didn’t handle the way he expected it to.
“There’s no regulation,” Grant said. “My identification would be checked, the same as any other time. My concern is that it would be checked in the morning, when they sent out a patrol to investigate the wreckage. The troops in the bunkers at night don’t like to see vehicles driving toward them.”
He slowed. “We should see a track leading to the left soon,” he said, scanning the brush on that side. Interspersed with spiky bushes were hollows which were covered with flat circles of leaves. Vivid yellow spikes shot up to knee height from the middle of each green splotch.
“How is it you gallivant all over this bloody mudhole however you please?” Hogg said, sounding accusatory. Not only was he wedged into the back of the car, he really had wanted to drive–almost as much as Daniel didn’t want him to drive.
“I’m responsible for Saal’s water supply,” Grant said, twisting to look back at Hogg. “I make inspections every–”
“Is that the road?” Daniel said, stretching his arm past the driver to indicate the wallow of mud angling into the hills to the left.
“The devil!” Grant said, turning sharply and lifting the outer edge–Daniel’s side–of the car as though they were on a banked track. Even so they skidded through brush that slapped the car’s body and occasionally twanged from the fans before the vehicle looped back to the mud path.
“They’ve been using heavy trucks,” Grant added in a doubtful voice. He was looking over the side of the car at the crushed vegetation.
“I think that tracked vehicles have come this way,” Daniel said, looking out his own side. “See the way the heavier stems are chewed, not just broken?”
He hadn’t brought a weapon himself, a decision for which he now felt a vagrant regret. Still, if this was what he thought it was, a pistol–or even a stocked impeller–wouldn’t make a great deal of difference.
“Tractors, I suppose,” Grant said. He spoke more loudly than he needed to. “They must have gotten heavy tractors instead of using the ground-effect transport.”
“There’s smoke, young master,” said Hogg, his lips close to Daniel’s ear but his hoarse voice loud enough that Grant must have heard him. The smell was obvious regardless; not just the sharp, sneezing tickle of wood smoke but also the rasp of electrical insulation and the sludgy black stench of paint and rubber.
“Grant, perhaps you should wait here while Hogg and I–” Daniel said, but the driver had thumbed forward the verniers on the yoke. One switch controlled the fan speed, the other the blade angle.
Grant was holding the car low, but they quickly accelerated to a speed faster than even Hogg would have been willing to drive a track punctuated with stumps and branches standing upright from toppled boles. Daniel gripped the side of the open car with one hand and the edge of his seat with the other, smiling pleasantly.
“There’s a watchtower,” Grant shouted. He had to compete with the throaty howl of the fans, of course. “Herrero’s Farm is very well defended!.”
Then, “Where’s the watchtower? We should be–”
They came over the ridge at speed. Grant tilted his yoke to raise the bow, using the car’s underside to brake their rush. They mushed down onto the track instead of slamming. The maneuver must have been instinctive, because his eyes and surely his mind were on the ruin ahead.
The watchtower of coarse red limestone was still there, the base at least, but the upper portion had been shot away. Daniel couldn’t be sure how much was missing but he guessed about ten feet, judging from the gravel which slugs from automatic impellers had sprayed around and beyond the remnant.
There had probably been a watchman, given the enthusiasm with which Sunbright’s skin-winged “birds” fluttered over and dug into the gravel. They were tracking the scent. The stone had been crushed too thoroughly to make a good cairn.
“You really need sensors that give you warning at a greater distance,” Daniel said as the car slowed to a walk. “If they knew where the tower was, and I suppose they did, then they were shooting as soon as they came in sight of it. No matter how good the watchman’s reflexes were, he didn’t have a chance.”
“I’d have had a chance,” said Hogg in a voice like rocks in a tumbler. He was looking at the farmstead itself and imagining Bantry in the place of these smoldering buildings. “I’d have had a bloody chance!”
“Easy, friend,” Daniel said, reaching back to put a hand on his servant’s shoulder. “We’ll take care of what we can.”
The older buildings were stone; the rest were of structural plastic. The latter seemed to have been placed on tracts between the stone ones or around the farmstead’s original perimeter. The square, peak-roofed house in the center and the barn attached to it must have been ancient.
A dozen plump black-and-tan dogs had been penned behind orange plastic fencing to the west of the main house. About a dozen; Daniel couldn’t be sure, since the burst from an automatic impeller had shredded them thoroughly.
“There was no call for that,” Hogg said, swinging out of the car with a lithe grace that belied his cramped seating for the past two hours. He held his pistol along his right leg where from a distance it was hidden by the baggy fabric of his trousers. “Maybe some day I’ll meet this dog-shooter and discuss it with him.”
“Dogs fatten on rice, and the wet doesn’t rot their paws,” Grant said, sounding as though he were talking in his sleep. He shut off the fans in the courtyard formed by a U of ruined buildings. “All over Sunbright, they’re eaten as often as chicken or pork. It took me years to get used to that.”
At least two automatic impellers had raked the farm. One shooter had simply sprayed slugs across the buildings, rarely holding below shoulder level on an adult man. The other, though, had kept his bursts at knee-height. He had brought down the front and sides of every stone building and probably killed most of those who had thrown themselves to the floor when the shooting started.
The plastic buildings fared better: small punctures at six-inch intervals dimpled the sheeting, but the plastic didn’t absorb all the energy of the hypersonic slugs and shatter to dust and gravel as stone did. It wouldn’t have made much difference to the people inside, of course.
“Get out of here!” a cracked voice screamed. “Get out! There’s nothing left to steal!”
Hogg had vanished; Daniel hadn’t seen him go. Grant whispered, “May the gods forgive me.”
A man tottered out of a shed covering three carts–their drawbars canted up so that they nested–and a winnowing machine. The equipment had been riddled, but the rubber tires on the carts were the only things which could have burned, and the slugs hadn’t ignited them.
“Get out!” the man screamed. He walked with two sticks, one of them a recent makeshift cut from a wooden pole. Age might have been enough to explain his feebleness, but blood stained the bandage around his head.
He tried to wave a cane, but it slipped from his grip. He slumped sideways. Daniel strode toward him, but a woman ran more quickly from the plastic barn nearby and caught the old man before he fell to the mud.
“Here,” Daniel said, reaching out. “I’ll–”
“Don’t touch me!” the man wheezed, though he dropped his remaining cane when he waggled it toward Daniel.
The woman was younger than he’d first thought–younger that him, in fact–and would be attractive when her swollen face recovered from bruises and crying. She said, “I have–”
She gasped and doubled up, clasping her belly. One thing at a time, thought Daniel as he lifted the old man. He carried him at a trot to the barn the woman had come from.
As he had expected, there were shakedowns of bedding in the emptied rice storage bins. Eyes stared at him around posts but vanished when he turned toward them; nearby a child began crying.
Daniel laid down the now-quiet man and turned to get the woman. She had followed him into the barn. She walked haltingly while pressing a hand to her abdomen, but she waved away his unspoken offer to help.
She seated herself on an upturned basket. “I suppose I’m bleeding again,” she said bitterly. “Well, it could be worse, couldn’t it?”
Daniel stood erect with his feet slightly apart and his hands crossed behind his back as though he were facing a superior officer. He said, “My servant and I are both countrymen. We can help with first aid.”
Then he added, “I’m Captain Daniel Leary, RCN. That is, I’m from Cinnabar.”
“If you’d come two days ago,” the woman said, “you could have helped dig graves. In the evening, I mean. If you’d showed up any sooner, you’d just have been three more to bury. I decided we had to bury them, you know. But it didn’t help with the smell. I don’t think the smell will ever go away.”
“Coming through!” Hogg called from outside. “Coming through!”
“Clear!” said Daniel. He wasn’t the sort to blaze away at sudden movements. For that matter, he didn’t have a gun at present, though he supposed he might have found one. Anyway, Hogg was being careful in a difficult situation, which wasn’t something to complain about.
“There’s thirty-odd more in another barn,” said Hogg as he entered. He’d concealed his pistol, but he carried a shotgun in the crook of his elbow. “Kids and women, mostly.”
He nodded toward the seated woman. “No others as young as her, though. And some men, but they’re shot up pretty bad.”
“They thought I was dead, I suppose,” the woman said. “Maybe they were right.”
Turning to Daniel and sitting straighter, she said, “My name is Floria Post. Emmanuel Herrero, whom you carried in, is my grandfather. Thank you.”
She gestured to the barn’s interior; several small children had appeared out of the bins. She said, “I brought the younger orphans here.”
Grant entered the barn, looking stunned. “It was Captain Kinsmill’s force,” he said. Daniel wasn’t sure who he was talking to, or if he was really talking to anyone outside his own mind. “Two of the women in the Seed Barn said they heard men call their leader ‘King’. That’s Kinsmill’s nickname.”
“A blond man with moustaches?” Floria said, using both to mime a moustache that curved into sideburns. Her voice lilted as though she were about to break into peals of laughter. “Men offered him a turn with me, but he said he didn’t want sloppy thirds. More like sixth, I think, though I lost track eventually. The King took my niece instead. She was ten.”
The lilt turned to sobbing. The woman bent over, her face in her hands. Daniel was afraid that she was going to sag onto the floor, but he thought better of putting an arm around her for support.
A pair of middle-aged women must have been standing near the doorway but out of Daniel’s sight. They entered silently. One held Floria’s shoulders; the other touched her companion’s elbow in frightened support.
“Kinsmill’s a cultured man!” Grant said. “He’s from Bryce, he was educated in the Academic Collections there!”
I wonder if he was Adele’s classmate?
Daniel thought. I’m sure she would have something to discuss with him now. Briefly.
Floria had stopped crying. She raised her eyes to Daniel and said, “Captain? What do we do now? What can we do?”
Daniel nodded twice, giving himself time to consider the question. The elements were simple enough; and if he didn’t particularly like the answer, that didn’t change reality. A ship’s captain frequently arrived at answers he didn’t like, and the captain of a warship did so more often yet.
“Go to Saal,” he said. “You’ll have to walk, but you have carts to carry invalids and enough food for the journey. I’m sorry that we won’t be able to accompany you, but we have our own duties.”
One of the older women said, “We supported the revolt. We always sold our rice through the Provisional Government. Always!”
Until Captain Kinsmill decided there would be more profit if he cut out the middleman, Daniel thought. Which was true, in the short term.
“I’m sorry,” Daniel said. “We have to be going now.”
They would sleep rough tonight rather than shelter in the remains of Herrero’s Farm. They would get far enough away that no vagrant breeze would bring a reminder of the smoke and death of this tomb.
The old man’s eyes opened. They were blank for a moment; then he focused on Tomas Grant and sat bolt upright.
“You!” he said, pointing a frail hand. “You did this! It’s all your doing!”
The rebel leader turned and stumbled out of the barn. He didn’t speak.
Daniel cleared his throat and said, “Yes, well. We need to be going also. Come along, Hogg.”
“In a moment,” Hogg said; he held out the shotgun to Floria. He had removed the lockplate while Daniel and the others were talking, but the weapon was back together now.
“The contacts were corroded,” he said. “That’s why it didn’t go off. I cleaned them.”
The older women shrank back. Floria took the weapon, giving Hogg a questioning look. He took three electromotive shells out of his pocket and handed them over also.
“They’re just bird shot, but they’re better than nothing,” he said. Then with a broad, terrible grin, he added, “If you don’t trust yourself with it, you could do worse than give it to the lad I took it away from. He’s young, but he’s got spirit, he does.”
Hogg looked at Daniel and said, “Much like another tyke I knowed once back t’ Bantry.”
“Come along, Hogg,” Daniel repeated. He strode out of the barn.
He had a lump in his throat.
Halta City on Cremona
The truck slewed left as it pulled up in the pall of steam hanging over the Princess Cecile. Adele grabbed the frame of the side-window again. The angle of the massive front bumper had stopped within a finger’s width of the back of the car on which Dasi and a squad of spacers had been riding.
“Sorry, lady,” Brock said in genuine apology. “I didn’t realize I’d lost my hydraulics on the right side until those yahoos dropped anchor right in front of me.”
Pasternak had shut down the corvette’s thrusters as the truck and its escorting cars turned up the quay. Adele smiled in self-mockery. If it had just been spacers returning, Pasternak–and whoever warned him of the convoy’s approach–might have continued running the thrusters at low output.
Mistress Mundy–she was always that or “ma’am,” to the Sissie‘s crew–was known to be as awkward as a blind bear. Nobody was going to increase the risk of her falling off the gangplank into the plasma-heated slip. And every Sissie in sight would dive in to save her if it happened, even those who couldn’t swim….
“No harm done,” Adele said as she stepped out into the dissipating steam. “Master Brock, I’ll do my best to see that you don’t regret this.”
“I don’t regret it now, lady,” the outfitter called after them; he was out of sight in the high cab. “But Mangravite’s going to.”
“Mangravite certainly will regret this,” said Cory as waved Tovera across the floating walkway ahead of her mistress. “So will all the other gangs who contributed troops to the affair.”
So that he’s behind to grab me if I stumble, Adele realized. She smiled even more coldly.
He grinned and added, “We had most of them careted before I went off on my tour of the city. I’m sure Master Cazelet will have plotted the rest since then. The lairs, if you will.”
Adele crossed the gangplank and strode up the boarding ramp briskly with no difficulties–as she had expected. She felt a little miffed at this particular concern, though she would never let her shipmates know that.
Yes, she was clumsy; she would never deny that. But she had a great deal of experience in negotiating slotted-steel stairs and scaffolds which had been polished by the feet of generations of librarians. She didn’t slip on slick metal flooring.
But the Sissies were well meaning in their concern. If they were also less observant than Adele might wish, well, that was true of most people. And as a general rule, she preferred to be a blur to whom no one paid attention. Still, she deliberately mounted the companionway at a pace that pressed Cory to match.
A Power Room tech was leaning over the railing to look down from the head of the stairs on A level. He vanished when he saw Adele. His voice echoed faintly down to her, however: “Five? The mistress is on her way!”
Vesey was now captain of the Princess Cecile, but she didn’t allow the crew to refer to her as “Captain,” let alone “Six.” She remained in her mind–and in truth, in the minds of all the Sissies–Five, the corvette’s first lieutenant.
Adele walked onto the bridge while the main hatch was squealing upward and a score of lesser hatches were clanging shut. By pairs–two/four/six/and all eight–the thrusters resumed their burring; steam roared up from the harbor in response to their rainbow breath.
The signals console was already live. Cazelet must have overridden her lock. Adele didn’t think that he could have entered the Personal Access Only sectors, but–she smiled–she couldn’t be sure. She had taught Cazelet well.
“Ship!” said Vesey over the PA system and the general intercom frequency. She was handling the liftoff herself, because the junior watch-standing officers were otherwise occupied. “Prepare to lift!”
The main hatch banged against its coaming. When the dogs shot ringingly home to seal it, they sounded like a volley of slugs hammering the outer hull. The thrusters’ bellow became a bone-deep shudder, and steam buffeted the ship like an enormous pillow.
The dorsal turret would normally be lowered and locked during liftoff or landing. Now Adele heard its metal-to-metal gaskets squeal as it rotated.
She hadn’t given orders, but she wasn’t completely sure that her orders would be obeyed if she tried to stop what was about to happen. Officer Adele Mundy was, by the ship’s table of organization, a very junior officer indeed.
However the mistress, who had been attacked and insulted, was a person of veneration to the Sissie‘s crew. They weren’t going to ignore that.
Not that Adele had any problem with her shipmates’ response. The main reason she hadn’t given orders about what to do next was that she knew she didn’t need to.
Instead of asking a question, Adele went straight to a preset she had prepared before the Princess Cecile had begun to brake out of Cremona orbit. The harbor was protected by a pair of anti-ship missile batteries, and a third battery had been placed on what ten years before had been the edge of the city. That one had been swallowed by the northern suburbs which grew with the expansion of trade to the Sunbright rebels.
Adele didn’t want to use the plasma cannon on the emplacements, particularly the one surrounded by civilian tenements, but they had to be taken out of action if the Princess Cecile was to escape safely. Using the batteries’ own electronics to freeze the launchers in their Safe position, locked horizontal to the ground, was just as good for that purpose as blowing them up would have been.
Someone had already locked the launchers. The missiles couldn’t be fired until the software had been wiped and reloaded, a day’s work for an expert–after somebody diagnosed the problem.
“Mistress?” said Cazelet over a two-way link. “I’d been ready to override the controls since you left the ship this morning, but I didn’t engage it until Captain Vesey ordered liftoff. I didn’t want to chance somebody noticing the problem and maybe coming up with a fix.”
“Very good, Rene,” Adele said. He just might be able to enter the personal sectors of her console. He had been very well trained indeed.
The ventral turret, offset to the stern as the dorsal installation was to the bow, cranked downward for use; it had been under water while the ship was in the slip.
Ordinarily vessels rose through the atmosphere as quickly as their thrusters could lift them. A starship couldn’t be streamlined. Furling the sails and clamping the telescoped antennas to the hull prevented them from being ripped off, but they still created enormous turbulence in the airstream. The faster a ship moved near the ground, the more its crew bounced like dried beans in a rattle.
With Vesey at the controls, the Princess Cecile rose slowly, mushed out to sea, and began to curve back in a slight bank. A stylus would have rolled across the deck, but not quickly.
Adele’s communications intercepts showed the expected amount of chatter on Halta City’s emergency bands, but it was all concerned with the firefights which had rolled through the heart of town. Groups that hadn’t been involved were nervous and confused. Survivors of groups that had met either the truck or Cory’s relief force were in a shrieking panic. No one seemed to have noticed that the corvette had lifted off.
As a matter of reflex, Adele checked the displays on the Sissie‘s other active consoles. Cazelet was splitting the commo board with the atmosphere controls. If Vesey had a sudden stroke, he was ready to act without hesitation.
Cory was in the Battle Direction Center. He preferred his familiar bridge station, but the Princess Cecile was in combat. As first lieutenant, his primary duty was to take over in the event that the corvette’s whole bow was destroyed.
Cory had the atmosphere controls on half his display also. Vesey would have set a sequence in which the junior officers would take over should she be incapacitated, but which of them would be first on the rota didn’t concern Adele. The remaining half of Cory’s display echoed the gunnery boards of Sun, controlling the dorsal turret, and his mate, Rocker, in independent command of the ventral guns.
“Gunners, you may fire as you bear,” said Vesey calmly. The last syllable wasn’t out of her mouth before a bolt slammed from each turret.
Two warehouses on the sea front erupted into mushrooms of flame. The plasma was literally as hot as the sun. Everything it touched which could burn, did: plastics, metals, even stone. A human who happened to be in the way simply vanished like chaff in a furnace.
Cory had created a targeting grid to which Cazelet had made additions. Carets in blue or red marked buildings, equipment lots, and three modern gunboats. The Navy of Cremona owned a destroyer, but it was a hulk; the gunboats were capable of at least intra-system voyages.
Sun was firing single shots. One bolt from a four-inch gun was sufficient for any ordinary frame or brick building at this short range, but Adele knew that the gunner was really showing off.
The paired guns in the turrets were designed to syncopate one another to put out a nearly continuous stream of plasma which nudged incoming projectiles off course. It took a delicate hand and a great deal of practice to fire a single round, but that considerably extended the life of the cannon’s bore.
Structure after structure disintegrated in balls of orange fire with flecks of iridescent plasma at their heart. The corvette ambled in a slow arc around Halta City, uncovering additional targets as the angle changed.
The central police station was an old building–old enough that Adele felt a faint twinge of regret at the thought of Pre-Hiatus records which might have been stored there. But probably not, and anyway it was too late to worry. Rocker hit its ground floor twice. The stone walls survived to channel a roaring inferno three stories upward, lifting the roof and licking toward the clouds.
Each shot was a miniature thermonuclear explosion, shaking the corvette like a hammerblow. The shells were laser arrays aimed inward toward the pellet of tritium at the heart of each. When tripped, the lasers compressed the tritium to fusion and directed its energy toward the one missing tile in the thermonuclear furnace which was aligned with the bore.
The laser array directed the charge. The guns’ iridium barrels were necessary to reduce side-scatter caused by the inevitable atoms in the jet’s path in even hard vacuum. That problem and the resulting bore erosion were much worse in an atmosphere.
The gunboats were allotted to Sun, who put a bolt into the outside pontoon of each. The hull plating of even a small starship was several inches thick, but the outriggers were of much lighter material and exploded in steam and white fire.
The gunboats tilted as they lost buoyancy, bringing open hatches in the hull proper under water and listing further. Within a minute or two, each of the three vessels had turned turtle in its slip.
Rocker spaced four rounds the length of the naval barracks. The result couldn’t be called surgical, but it was thorough beyond question. Adele thought of the naval officer who had precipitated the firefight in Halta City; she felt her lips smile.
Start a fight with the RCN and you’re likely to find that we’re the ones who end it
, Adele thought. Her mother would have said that was an attitude unworthy of a Rolfe or Mundy; but her mother’s head had decorated the Pentacrest in the center of Xenos.
Smudgy fires were burning in scores of locations, covering the city in haze that blurred or even concealed the buildings underneath it. The carets continued to give the gunners aiming points until there was no surviving target to shoot at.
The Princess Cecile was some distance from the sea, now, having described an arc beginning at Halta Harbor. Vesey had been holding them at two hundred feet in the air. Despite asymmetrical pounding from the guns and the pulsing irregularity of the thrusters, the ship’s altitude didn’t vary by as much as six feet up or down.
The corvette’s bank reversed and they curved sunwise as they moved deeper inland. The turrets squealed again as they rotated to bear on the corvette’s starboard broadside instead of to port.
A forest of carets sprang up, pointing to every building in a large complex surrounded by a fence and watchtowers. Adele smiled coldly; she knew what the compound was without checking–but she checked anyway.
Master Mangravite had started a fight with the RCN.
The Sissie‘s guns slammed, destroying a pair of guard towers. Why those? Adele wondered, but when she magnified a surviving tower–there had been eight originally–she saw the towers mounted automatic impellers. Their osmium slugs wouldn’t penetrate the corvette’s hull, but they could damage the thrusters and High Drive and might even put holes in the outriggers.
Not these weapons, though: tower guards, colorfully dressed in green uniforms, were abandoning their posts so quickly that one cartwheeled to the ground after missing a rung of the ladder. A fifteen foot fall might mean a broken neck, but at least–Adele smiled–your family would have something to bury.
Rocker’s three rounds destroyed the gatehouse and the ground car racing toward it. Somebody trying to escape. Fragments of the car’s metal body sailed off like scraps of paper in a storm.
The main house was a rambling structure of glass on stone foundations. Sun hit not the house but a shed adjacent to it. The plastic roof exploded, making the aircar underneath flip like a tiddly-wink and shattering glass on that side of the house. The vehicle was still in the air when the second round hit it. Cory and Sun had planned this affair very ably.
The Sissies were cheering their lungs out. Some of the uninvolved crew could watch events on flat-plate displays in their compartments, but the rest were caught up in the moment and imagining what the cannon’s regular pounding meant to the folks down-range.
Even before the Sissie shifted to Mangravite’s estate, it had carried out the most lengthy and thorough attack on ground targets of Adele’s memory. Sun and Rocker didn’t aim at individuals running in terror, but they ignited every vehicle and outlying building before they destroyed the main house with half a dozen bolts.
Sun was seated beside Adele, but she expanded his face on her display instead of turning her head. The gunner moved his pipper and thumbed the trigger with a look of concentration and glee.
All the targets were gone, ablaze or glass-edged scars raked into the soil.
The turrets fired simultaneously, devouring a small outcrop just beyond the fence line with four bolts. The rock shattered and fused simultaneously
Sun shifted from a targeting grid to a terrain display. He leaned back against his cushions, his face glowing with perspiration and exhausted delight. He closed his eyes.
“Sun,” said Adele on a two-way link. The gunner, at least, thought his job was over for the time being. “What was that last target, if you please?”
Sun turned and gave Adele’s profile a beatific smile. “Mistress…,” he said, using the intercom perforce to be heard over the rumble of the ship under way. “It was Cap’n Vesey’s idea. You see, she figured as soon as the shooting started Mangravite would heigh himself off to the bunker Master Cazelet found. So we gave him plenty of time to do that.”
“I see,” said Adele, nodding. She waited for the rest.
“Last thing we did was seal the other way out,” said Sun, “which Cazelet found too, using the commo routing. Since the bunker was a big secret, there may not be anybody even trying to find the fat bastard, right?”
“I see,” Adele said, marveling at the watchwork complexity of the revenge which her RCN family had planned and executed on her behalf. She smiled. Mother wouldn’t have understood. But I understand. “Thank you, Sun.”
“Ship, this is Five,” said Vesey over the general push. “Master Cazelet, you have the conn. Carry on according to plan. Over.”
“Acknowledged,” said Cazelet. Adele, watching over his electronic shoulder, saw the midshipman fill his display with the ship status readouts. “Ship, prepare for acceleration to orbit, out.”
The corvette steadied. Vesey had been using three-quarter flow with the thruster petals in their middle position. Cazelet now sphinctered the throats to maximum compression. As the Princess Cecile started to rise, he steadily increased the flow of reaction mass to the thrusters; acceleration built with the gradual majesty which the inertia of thirteen hundred tons demanded.
“Officer Mundy,” Vesey said over a two-way link. “I regret there wasn’t time to discuss plans with you, so I hope you’ll approve. Ah, the blockade runner Ella 919 just returned from Sunbright, and I made the acquaintance of her commander, Captain Tommines.”
“Go ahead, Vesey,” Adele said, since the acting captain seemed to have lost her tongue. Vesey viewed Daniel with religious awe. Though her professional qualifications were of the highest order, she struck Adele as emotionally younger than midshipmen several years her junior.
Vesey’s relationship with Adele was more complex and not a little disquieting. Their RCN status was clear–and perfectly acceptable to Adele, who in her heart felt that the only really useful power would be the power to force people to leave her alone.
Vesey, though, appeared to regard Adele as a mixture of mother and of high priestess of the Cult of Daniel Leary. The first role disgusted Adele; the second was so ludicrous that Adele would have broken out laughing if she had been the sort of person who did that.
Daniel was a brilliant officer and a friend better than Adele had thought existed outside of Pre-Hiatus romances. He wasn’t a god, however.
Her lips twitched in a hard grin. Well, perhaps one of the lustier gods of ancient myth. Adele was fairly certain that Vesey saw Daniel in a more reverent–and very false–light.
“Ah, yes, mistress,” Vesey said. The dorsal turret rang against its barbette just astern of the bridge bulkhead; dogs clamped it in place. Lesser shudders were probably the ventral turret doing the same. “Tommines was singing the praises of Kiki Lindstrom, owner of the Savoy, because she had drawn Alliance cruisers away from his ship and saved him from certain capture. She’d then escaped by an amazing transit into the upper reaches of Sunbright’s atmosphere.”
She coughed. “Tommines thought the Savoy‘s captain was a Novy Sverdlovsk officer named Petrov. I’m fairly confident Tommines was wrong on that point, so I set a course for Sunbright. With your permission.”
“I agree with your conclusions and with your plan, Captain,” Adele said in an expressionless voice. She thought for a moment and said, “I watched the way you dealt with Master Mangravite, Vesey. Do you recall my suggesting once in the past that you might lack the ruthlessness which an RCN officer requires?”
“Ah,” said Vesey. Adele didn’t turn to look at her, but she could easily imagine how stiffly the younger woman sat at the command console. “I remember a discussion, mistress, but I believe that suggestion was made by your servant.”
“If you believe Tovera made an unchallenged statement of that sort without my acquiescence,” Adele said, her enunciation as sharp as a microtome, “you are mistaken. In fact I did have that concern. I was wrong to do so.”
She made a chirp which was as close as she generally came to laughter. “I don’t think even Tovera could have bettered the way you dealt with Mangravite, Captain.”
“Ship, we have reached Cremona orbit,” Cazelet announced as the High Drive kicked in. “Next stop, Sunbright!”
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