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Some Golden Harbor: Chapter Twelve

       Last updated: Friday, June 9, 2006 22:24 EDT




    The spacer from the Armed Squadron unlocked the riverside wicket in the fence surrounding the Pool; he gave it a tentative push. The vines growing through the wire meshes held it closed. “It’s stuck,” he said to Daniel in apparent surprise.

    Woetjans stepped past Daniel and gripped the frame with both hands. Planting her left boot on the gatepost, she pulled hard. The gate opened; the thicker woody stems popped like burning brushwood.

    “Bloody hell,” the Bennarian said when he got a good look at the bosun. Unlike the Sissies he didn’t have light-enhancing goggles and Bennaria’s moon, though full, was too small to be more than a gleam in the haze. “You’re a big one, ain’t you!”

    “Yes, she is,” said Daniel. “Now–seeing how short we are on time, let’s get to the missile warehouse at once, shall we?”

    “You’re not the only one on duty tonight, are you?” Woetjans said harshly. “Where’s the rest of you?

    The bosun had spent much of her working life on the hull of starships in the Matrix, an environment utterly hostile to any kind of life. Clearly she wasn’t a coward, but she didn’t like darkness. Daniel knew the long ride upriver in the water taxi must’ve been slow torture for her.

    Hogg was a skilled boatman, but the river wasn’t marked; they’d twice run onto mudflats that were indistinguishable from rafts of floating weed. Besides, the taxi was overloaded with five. Daniel’d brought two Power Room techs, Kaltenbrenner and Morgan, for their expertise in handling missiles. Woetjans was in a bad mood.

    “Look, they’re in the admin building,” the Bennarian said. “We cut cards and I lost, so I’m the one letting you in. I’ll show you the missiles and the lighter, then I leave too. What you do then’s your business. We don’t know a thing!”

    “Let’s go,” Daniel said quietly. He’d made the deal with Commandant Brast over a channel that Adele swore couldn’t be tapped by anybody on the planet except herself. The missiles were costing a fortune because every member of the detachment on duty at the Pool had to be paid off; but Daniel had money, now, and he couldn’t think of a better use for it than to arm the Princess Cecile before she lifted tomorrow for Dunbar’s World.

    If it worked, of course. The trip upriver had already taken two hours longer than planned, and Daniel didn’t kid himself that returning to the harbor in a heavily-laden barge was going to be any easier. They’d still be transferring the missiles to the Sissie when dawn broke.

    Well, one problem at a time. If Daniel had to use his cannon to keep the Bennarian authorities away while he finished loading the missiles, that’s what he’d do.

    Their guide didn’t have a vehicle. The path from the gate was covered with pierced steel planking, slick and likely to trip the unwary where the sections fitted together.

    The local man had more trouble with the surface than Daniel and his crewmen did, only in part because they had night vision goggles. They also had much more experience moving in difficult conditions. As rarely as any Bennarian warship lifted, the Squadron’s spacers must spend most of their time playing cards in the administration building.

    Hogg didn’t wear goggles: he’d been a poacher too long to allow machines to come between his senses and the night around him. He walked beside the track in soft, shapeless boots that wouldn’t leave identifiable tracks. In his arms was cradled a stocked impeller. Just in case, he’d said, and Daniel hadn’t been disposed to argue the point.

    The Bennarian skidded; he’d have fallen over backwards if Daniel hadn’t caught him by the shoulder and held him upright. He fumbled a light out of his belt pouch, muttering, “I never have no luck!” he muttered angrily. “Bloody never!”

    He switched on a small light, but its razor-thin beam did more to conceal than illuminate the path. He resumed slipping and sloshing toward the row of barrel-vaulted warehouses backed against the Pool itself. Kaltenbrenner said something to Morgan; both men chuckled.

    There were five warehouses, though Daniel wouldn’t have been able to tell that in the darkness. The front lights of the U-shaped Administration Building were on, throwing a faint glow skyward, but the floods on the sides and rear had been switched off.

    The warehouse aprons were concrete, a pleasant change after the PSP. The path to the water was for maintaining the downstream locks, but it must not get much use. Well, no part of the Armed Squadron seemed to get much use under the present Council.

    The guide took them around to the back where loading docks jutted into the water. He stopped at the second warehouse and fumbled with a switch. The full-width door began to rumble upward; it didn’t appear to have been locked.

    “There!” the Bennarian said. “The missiles’re against the north wall and the boat’s tied to the dock. Now you’re on your own, all right?”

    He started off in the direction of the Admin Building. Daniel caught his arm again. “Where are the lights, please?” he said.

    “Look, they’ll show up for miles with the door open,” the Bennarian said peevishly. “Can’t you use your handlights, all right?”

    “I’m afraid we can’t, no,” Daniel said. “The sooner we finish this job, the sooner–”

    As he spoke, a red bead appeared in the field of his night vision goggles and pulsed to the right. Adele was obviously listening to what was going on and–as now–always offered help when she thought it was useful.

    Daniel turned to center the bead, then put out his hand to a switchbox with a row of toggles. He threw them in pairs; fluorescent lights with a distinctly greenish cast flickered on in the ceiling.

    “Do as you please, then,” the spacer muttered. “Since you’re going to anyway.”

    Woetjans and the two technicians strode into the warehouse and stopped. The bosun muttered, “Well, what’d I bloody expect?”

    “There’s an overhead crane,” said Morgan. He started for the back, where a ladder led to the tracked crane above. “I’ll get it going. If it will go, I mean.”



    The southern half of the building had racks, but crates and a jumble of loose gear were piled in the aisles. Daniel saw the noses of several missiles facing out from the other half of the building, but there were boxes in front of them and more on top. From what he could tell at a quick glance, much of what was stored here was junk.

    The guide started off again; Hogg thrust the barrel of his impeller out like traffic barrier. “Come look over the boat with me, buddy,” he said. “It won’t take a minute if everything’s the way it should be, and I guess you can straighten things out for us if it’s not.”

    “It’s all right,” the Bennarian said sullenly. He turned without objection, though. “Anyway, what do I know about boats?”

    As they walked toward the water, Hogg said, “You know, that’s like me and missiles. I don’t know squat. But with this little darling–”

    He slapped his palm against the fore-end of his impeller.

    “Why, one of these I can just about make sit up and beg,” Hogg said, his voice brightly cheerful. “Even at night, like now.”

    They started down the short ladder to the barge moored to the end of the dock, the Bennarian leading. Ten missiles would be an overload for it.

    Woetjans climbed onto the pile covering the missiles, then turned to look down at Daniel. “Sir?” she called, her hand on a swivel-chair with a broken seat. “We need to clear the eye-bolts so we can hook the crane to’em. D’ye care what happens to the stuff on top?”

    “No,” said Daniel without hesitation. Quite obviously the Bennarians didn’t care about it either or the warehouse wouldn’t have been treated like a rubbish dump. “Just don’t throw it where we’ll have to move it again.”

    Woetjans snorted. “Right,” she said as she hurled the chair deeper into the warehouse. “That’s the sorta thing a mere bosun like me wouldn’t ‘ve figured out, sir.”

    “Sorry, Woetjans,” Daniel said contritely, making his own way up the heap of heaven-knew-what-all. The overburden covering the missiles was five feet deep and occasionally more. “I was thinking out loud. And not thinking as clearly as I should have.”

    He grabbed a crate that’d originally been for signal rockets, judging from the stenciled legend; it now held light fixtures and their cords in knotted confusion. Daniel shoved it away like a shot put instead of using an over-arm motion the way he’d started to. All he’d need was to throw his arm out by being hasty….

    The lights in the cab of the crane came on. The mechanism squealed, then began a rhythmic thumping. “Now if I can just–” Morgan called down. There was a loud clank and the crane began to crawl forward along its track down the middle of the vault.

    “Sir?” said Kaltenbrenner. He held the rim of a transmission casing in both hands. Though light metal and empty, it was a full meter in diameter. “Give me a hand with this and I think we’ll be able to hook the crane to the forward attachment point. We can shake her free if we do.”

    “Right,” said Daniel, moving toward the tech. What he thought was something solid under his right boot started to tilt up as soon as he started to put his weight on it. He stepped over it, balanced a moment to make sure he had firm footing, and heaved himself up opposite Kaltenbrenner.

    “I think we’ll be all right if we just roll it toward the shelves behind me,” he added, looking over his shoulder. With the power of the crane to lift, the casing wouldn’t be a problem even if it were pressing against the flank of the missile. “On three.”

    Daniel braced himself. “One, two, three!” He lifted and at the same time pivoted at the waist.

    The casing resisted, then came away with unexpected ease: it’d seemed much heavier than it really was because it’d been caught under other trash. Daniel followed it down with a crash, barking his knuckles but not doing himself serious damage. There wasn’t any real distance to fall.

    “Oh, bloody hell,” Kaltenbrenner said. “Bloody fucking hell. Sir, we’re screwed. On this one at least.”

    Daniel climbed back up the trash hillock, using his hands to help himself this time. He looked down into the opening they’d created by digging out the casing.

    The hole was deeper than that. An access panel in the missile’s hull had been removed. The missile’s antimatter converter had been taken out through the opening.

    “Hell, the bastards cannibalized this one, sir!” Morgan shouted from the cab. His vantage point didn’t show him any more than Daniel could see from thirty feet below him, of course. “D’ye suppose they gutted the rest of this lot too?”

    “Drop the hook!” Daniel called. “Jerk this one out of the way, just shift it against the back wall, and we’ll be able to check the next one pretty easily. Maybe we’ll be lucky.”

    It took an hour and a half to examine the ten missiles. All were missing the converter and High Drive motor: they were steel tubes, no more weapons than so many empty well casings.

    Hogg entered the warehouse while the last missile hung tilted on the hook. Daniel and the spacers with him stared at it glumly.

    “Young master, we’re screwed,” Hogg said. “The lighter they got moored here, the motor shorted out when I switched on the power. There’s two barges up by the admin building, a little bigger even, but neither of them’s got a bloody motor in it! We can’t carry a missile in the boat we came in, no way.”

    “Well, that’s not a problem, Hogg,” Daniel said. He laughed at the absurd humor of it. “All the taxi has to do is get the five of us back to the Sissie. We’ll be going to Dunbar’s World without missiles.”

    “What about that Pellegrino cruiser, sir?” Woetjans asked.

    “We’ll try not to get in a fight with it,” Daniel said, stretching some of the kinks out of his back. He’d managed to tear his left sleeve badly, he now noticed. “And if we have to engage, well, who knows? Maybe Pellegrinian supply and maintenance is no better than what we’ve found tonight on Bennaria.”

    He laughed so cheerfully that the other spacers joined him, though they seemed a little doubtful.



    Adele wouldn’t have said that she liked liftoffs, but so long as she was at her console aboard the Princess Cecile she liked them as much as she liked any other part of life. She was running a panorama of the harbor as a narrow band on her display, but her attention was on the communications traffic as usual.

    She grinned slightly as her wands danced, sorting messages. The last of Councilor Corius’ troops were boarding his four freighters. One of those, the Todarov, was sealed for liftoff. The IMG40 and Zephyr were fully loaded also, as best Adele could tell, but peevish intercom transmissions indicted their crews were still trying to settle their military passengers into the available space.

    She checked on Daniel by echoing his display on hers, the way most natural to her. The upper half was a real-time view with the four freighters broken out as icons in a sidebar so that he could quickly expand them if he thought he needed to; the lower half was a schematic of the Sissie’s plasma and High Drive systems, all comfortably in the green. None of that was critical, so–

    “Daniel?” Adele said over their two-way link. Should she’ve said ‘Commander’? But no, this was her personal curiosity. “Why is Corius taking four ships to Dunbar’s World when he was able to get all the troops in one when he brought them from his estate here to Charlestown? Are the ships themselves important? Over.”

    “No, the ships are still just transports,” Daniel said. His face smiled cheerfully, but there was a tight readiness in the muscles that they always got when he was preparing for action. “And it’s not a long run to Dunbar’s World, that’s true–a day or two, even for freighters. But that’s still far too long to keep two thousand soldiers aboard one or even two ships the size of those. When they lifted from Corius’ estate, there must’ve been men packing every corridor and compartment.”

    His tiny image grinned at her from the top of her display. “You couldn’t feed them like that,” Daniel added, “Which is a good thing because they certainly wouldn’t be able to cycle them through the heads. And then there’s their equipment too. They aren’t tourists, they’re carrying all their weapons and munitions, remember. Over?”

    “Ah,” said Adele. “Yes, thank you.”

    She focused for a moment on her display. She’d started to say “Out”–she was getting much better about RCN communications protocol–but before the word reached her lips it became, “Daniel, Commander, the Todarov is starting liftoff.”

    Blast, I’ve done again! Switching to the command channel she repeated, “Captain Vesey, the transport Todarov is preparing to lift off. The IMG40 and Zephyr should be ready in a few minutes. The Greybudd hasn’t sealed its hatches yet, but Corius is aboard that one himself and both the crew and his soldiers seem to be better organized than the remainder of the force. Out.”

    “Thank you, Mundy,” Vesey said. “Break, Commander, all our systems are go. I propose to wait for the last of them to actually get floats up before I light our thrusters. Is that acceptable to you, over?”

    “I’d do the same if I were captain, Vesey,” Daniel said carefully. “Though of course I’m not.”

    To take the sting out of what Adele knew was a rebuke, he added, “Six out.”

    It was clearly an uncomfortable situation for Vesey, because Daniel was not only the former captain but also the ship’s owner. Using Ship Six, his call sign from when he’d been captain, was a way of acknowledging her problem while the form of the statement itself made it clear that she was had command of the corvette and that he expected her to exercise it.

    Adele smiled broadly enough that a stranger seeing her would’ve recognized the expression. The duties of both her present positions–signals officer and spy–required her to be skilled at breaking codes. Not all the codes she’d learned to deal with were formal ones, however.

    The Todarov’s image wrapped itself in fireshot steam, plasma mixing with the water vapor. The thump-p-p of the thrusters lighting in quick sequence was followed by a buzz as they settled into a low-output flow. Static from atoms changing phase washed across the RF spectrum.

    Councilor Waddell had left a twenty-man section in Charlestown to observe events in general and particularly to see what Corius would do. Adele knew as much about the Councilors’ secret deliberations as anyone on the planet; more than any single Councilor, even Waddell, because she had tapped the internal conversations of the various cliques as well as what they told each other.

    Waddell and his fellows were nervous. They were willing to sacrifice the city to riots that’d leave the mob starving and homeless, but they feared Corius would try to conquer the whole planet with his two thousand troops. They were sure he’d fail, but he might try anyway–

    And barely whispered among themselves was the thought that just possibly Corius could conquer Bennaria after all. They couldn’t imagine how he’d do it, but if.

    Waddell’s observers were split into four posts and a command unit on the roof of Waddell House. The squads kept up a running dialogue, and the command unit sent a constant flow of information back to Waddell on his estate. Either the observers were too low-ranking to’ve been told that Corius might be planning a coup, or they were remarkably phlegmatic individuals. Their tone and words suggested nothing more than bored professionalism.

    The curtain of steam shrouding the Todarov billowed into an anvil-topped cloud. Shockwaves transmitted by the water made the Princess Cecile shudder an instant before the roar reached them through the air. The transport lifted high enough for the savage rainbow beauty of her exhaust showing through the steam. The IMG40 and Zephyr lit their thrusters also, unnoticed in the thunder of their colleague’s liftoff.

    It was natural that the other Councilors wouldn’t know what Corius had in mind. What bothered Adele–and what she absolutely refused to consider proper–was that she didn’t know what Corius would do.



    The ships’ captains, all civilians, and the mercenary commander on each vessel had sealed orders to open after liftoff. Nobody knew what was in those orders except Corius himself. Adele’s skills and equipment were both of a very high order, but they wouldn’t take her inside the skull of a man wise enough to keep his own counsel.

    The Todarov must by now be at mid-sky, out of range of the visuals Adele had chosen to import. She tracked the ship’s transmissions–the normal clutter of a working vessel, nothing more–but she had no reason to adjust her imagery.

    The thrusters of the IMG40 and Zephyr were building volume also. Adele expected the ships to stage their liftoffs at least a minute apart, but instead they broke from the harbor’s surface within seconds of one another. The IMG40, starting marginally behind its fellow, climbed faster and soon was leading the track into the sky. Either her thrust to weight ratio was significantly higher than the Zephyr’s or her captain was overstressing his thrusters. The latter behavior would be nonsensical, but it was well within what Adele had come to accept as normal for human beings.

    She quirked a wry smile, directed at herself. She’d generally felt like an outsider, not really a member of the human species. In this particular case, she was capable of exactly the same sort of pointless rivalry. Perhaps she was more human than she thought.

    “Adele?” said Daniel, using their paired connection rather than an official channel. “Can you get me access to what’s going on aboard the Greybudd? I want in particular what’s being said on the bridge and ideally an echo of the command console. Over.”

    “Yes,” said Adele, her wands opening links to shunt to Daniel information that she was already gathering for herself. She’d almost said, “Of course I can!” but people–even people like Daniel who knew her very well–didn’t understand quite how completely information was her life.

    She’d entered the Greybudd through an automatic channel intended to exchange course and operational data with a similar unit at port control. In Charlestown–and generally on the fringes of civilization–port control was conspicuous by its absence, but the transponder was a standard fitment in every astrogational computer.

    It was possible to isolate the telemetry channel from the rest of the computer, but almost no civilian vessel bothered to do so; and Mistress Sand’s technicians had supplied Adele with tools to defeat most firewalls as well. There was no need for that here: Adele had better access to the captain’s console than the Greybudd’s other officers did: the output relay to the Power Room and Mate’s consoles was sticking.

    And because Daniel’d asked her, he now had that access.

    She returned to her task for the Princess Cecile as opposed to the Princess Cecile’s owner. “Captain,” Adele said over the command channel, “the Greybudd is about to test her plasma thrusters. She’ll be lifting in a few minutes, over.”

    “Roger, Mundy,” Vesey said. “Break. Mister Pasternak, prepare to light your thrusters. Over.”

    “Been ready this hour past, Captain,” the Chief Engineer said. “Just say the word, over.”

    “There!” Daniel said. “Adele, you’re a treasure that a squadron of battleships couldn’t match! Break, Captain, may I address the ship’s company? Six out.”

    “Go ahead, Six,” Vesey said. Adele frowned at the flat tone, professional and nothing more. Vesey had become a skilled machine with no emotions save anger which she primarily directed at herself. Adele had spent too many years in that gray world to wish it on anybody else.

    Still, so long as skill remained, so did a reason for living. Perhaps something would eventually change for Elspeth Vesey, as it had for Adele Mundy.

    The Greybudd lifted with the same shivering grace as the previous three ships of Corius’ argosy. Its image immediately rose out of Adele’s display, but sound diminished with a suddenness that was equally vivid to her now-experienced ear.

    “Fellow Sissies,” Daniel said, “this is Six. You may’ve wondered why we’re sitting here in harbor, waiting for Councilor Corius to lift for Dunbar’s World. Well, the answer is that I wasn’t sure he was going to Dunbar’s World. You and I have been places where politics get played with guns.”

    You and I come from a place where politics has been played with guns, Daniel, Adele thought. She blinked but then opened her eyes very quickly. If she kept them shut for as much as a second, she’d imagine something she hadn’t really seen: her sister Agatha’s head nailed to Speaker’s Rock.

    “The first of those transports has just switched to High Drive and set a course for Dunbar’s World,” Daniel said. “That means it isn’t going to set down again on the plantation of some Councilor who doesn’t approve of the way Yuli Corius does things. So we’re going to Dunbar’s World too, Sissies, with nothing to worry about except a few thousand Pellegrinians and probably half the wogs who’re supposedly on our side. That’s nothing to the RCN, right Sissies?”

    From the volume of cheers echoing through the corvette’s interior, you’d scarcely have known that she was short-crewed compared to what Adele was used to. And by now Adele was used to hearing the Sissie’s crew cheering Daniel’s Leary’s words.

    He plays them like a flute, Adele thought, and they love it. We love it.

    “Six out,” Daniel said.

    He’d scarcely spoken the closing before Vesey said, “Power Room, light your thrusters. Break, Ship prepare to lift in sixty, six-zero, seconds. Captain out.”

    The high-pitched roar of plasma discharging into the water beneath the Princess Cecile blanketed ordinary sounds within, but noise cancellation by the commo helmets kept Daniel’s voice clear as he said, “Adele, we won’t be in company with the transports so I expect to reach Dunbar’s World six or more likely twelve hours ahead of Corius. We’ll have enough reaction mass left to hold a powered orbit for days, probably. Unless you see a reason to land immediately, I propose to spend that time in orbit to get a better look at what’s going on than we would in Ollarville harbor. Over.”

    “I think that’s an excellent idea, Daniel,” Adele said. “You go ahead and look, and I’ll be listening to their transmissions. Out.”

    She didn’t add, “And I’ll learn more than you will by an order of magnitude.” That would’ve been discourteous.

    And besides, Daniel already knew it.

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