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Some Golden Harbor: Chapter Thirteen

       Last updated: Wednesday, June 14, 2006 22:47 EDT



Dunbar’s World

    Adele wasn’t too lost in her world of data to notice that the buffeting was worse than usual as the Princess Cecile dropped through the atmosphere of Dunbar’s World, but she didn’t care very much. It was very unlikely that something had gone so badly wrong that Daniel wouldn’t be able to save them from a crash. If it did, well, it wouldn’t have happened because Signals Officer Mundy had failed.

    Carrying out her duties in an accurate and efficient manner was one of Adele’s highest priorities; personal survival was not. She’d seen death too often to doubt that it would come for her also, later if not sooner; and she’d meted it out so frequently that her death would only be delayed justice.

    “Adele?” said Daniel through the intercom. “There’s an anti-ship missile battery at the Pellegrinian base on Mandelfarne Island. It’s point-defense, but they might try something as we slant past to Ollarville. If you get anything before the ordinary threat-warning alarm sounds, it could be a lifesaver. Over.”

    “Yes, I’ll try,” said Adele, her wands sorting before she’d given them conscious orders. Any craft carried to the level of art–and Adele’s ability at information retrieval was art–required more than intellect and training. “Oh. Oh. The ventral turret’s extended; that’s why I’m smelling ozone!”

    “That’s correct,” Daniel said. She heard the smile in his voice even without looking at the image on her display. “Sun is looking forward to shooting down missiles. I’m much more interested in avoiding a situation in which he has to try. We may be able to do that with a little forewarning, over.”

    “I’ve copied the inputs from the installation’s targeting computer to you,” Adele said. I should’ve said, “Over,” when I spoke before, but I forgot. Again. “I didn’t see anything of concern, but you may… that is, I’m not competent to judge. Over.”

    “Right,” said Daniel. “Excellent. The battery’s default is to track only objects on a course approaching within one degree and to launch at thirty klicks unless countermanded. Since the computer is in default mode, we’re safe. And so, I presume, are Corius and his force. Over.”

    That explained the severe buffeting also. Starships, even with their antennas telescoped and folded, were nothing like streamlined. Turrets, particularly belly turrets, were normally retracted into the hull during reentry since they were offset–toward the stern in the case of the Sissie–and the gun barrels acted as lever arms on the leading edge besides.

    Adele pursed her lips and glanced at Sun hunched over the gunnery console beside her. His lips were spread in a smile of bright anticipation.

    “Daniel?” she said. “Would he actually be able to hit missiles at such short range? Over.”

    The plasma cannon were intended to deflect incoming missiles at ranges of hundreds of thousands of miles in vacuum. Plasma bolts were extremely effective against nearby ground targets even in an atmosphere, but the chances of destroying hypervelocity missiles launched from a few thousand miles away seemed remote to Adele.

    “He thinks he can,” Daniel said. The smile was back. “I think the possibility that he’s right is worth a little extra turbulence–and perhaps some water leaking in when we land.”

    He paused, then added, “There, we’re below the missiles’ horizon. Break.”

    He’d switched to the command push.

    “Captain, this is Six. We’re clear of the battery on Mandelfarne Island. Over.”

    Adele felt rather than heard–she couldn’t hear anything over the wind noise and the thrusters blasting at high output–the turret begin to retract. Though the turret race rode on a magnetic suspension, a gear train raised and lowered the barbette. The regularity of the vibration made it noticeable through more violent but arrhythmic noises.

    She nodded to herself in understanding. Daniel couldn’t–well, chose not to–give Sun orders, but the gunner was sharp enough to understand what Six said on the command channel. If Daniel’d given the information to Vesey alone for relay through the formal chain of command it would’ve been delayed too long to be of any use.

    The Princess Cecile flared to a hover, suspended on thrust in a pillow of steam ten feet above the surface of Eastern Harbor. Adele glanced at a topographic display for an instant, though in a manner of speaking it didn’t matter to her where they landed.

    The jaws of the shallow bay were open, and there were no moles to extend them. According to the Sailing Directions, before the war the harbor’d served only the immediate region and hadn’t been important enough to rate expensive improvements. Now it was too late: the ships carrying military supplies and entrepreneurs drawn by the chance of quick profits in a war had to take their chances with the southeast storms that sometimes wracked this coast.

    Until recently Ollarville, the city which spread halfway around the bay’s curve, had a population of ten thousand. The federal authorities now estimated it was double that. Adele had also entered the data banks of the Eastern Provinces League, a political party before the invasion and now the self-proclaimed government of the East Coast. The EPL claimed Ollarville was over a hundred thousand, half again as big as Port Dunbar, but even party activists seemed to treat that figure as a pious wish rather than a fact.

    The Sissie settled in tiny jerks, the minuscule overcorrections of a landing using the automatic system. The computer never made a huge error that’d splash waves over the neighboring quays, but neither did it anticipate conditions the way a really skilled human pilot seemed to do.

    “Adele?” said Daniel. “Do you see what Vesey’s doing?”

    Probably realizing the answer would either, “No,” or more likely, “Yes, but it doesn’t mean anything to me,” he continued without waiting, “She’s doing a dummy manual landing while the ship lands itself. She’ll go over the recordings later to see where she could improve. It’s an exercise I set my junior midshipmen, and she’s still doing it. Out.”

    “Ship, touchdown in ten seconds,” announced Midshipman Blantyre from the Battle Direction Center.

    Adele heard and understood the sadness in Daniel’s voice. Vesey was through study and practice doing everything possible to make herself an accomplished officer. What both Adele and Daniel knew was that machines would always be better at the mechanical aspects of command.

    The things that machines couldn’t do were the really important ones. These required humanity, and Vesey was determinedly walling herself off from all that’d been human in her.

    Adele smiled without even a hint of humor. The core of being human was the ability to feel pain. She’d had too much personal experience of that to want to call it a virtue, but perhaps she was wrong.

    The Princess Cecile settled into her slip with the usual deafening roar. The sound of steam cut off the way fabric tears, quickly but not quite instantaneously, when the buzz of the thrusters stopped.

    “Ship, this is damage Control,” said Midshipman Cory, trying to sound magisterial from the BDC. Vesey’d instituted more formal procedures than Daniel had thought necessary. “All compartments report green, over.”

    “Pasternak, you may open the main hatch,” ordered Vesey. The chief engineer was Chief of Ship as the bosun was Chief of Rig, though Pasternak was of course busy in the Power Room with shut-down procedures and damage assessments. A pair of techs would cycle the hatch with a few off-duty riggers present for extra muscle in case something’d warped enough to stick.



    Adele heard the squeal and clang of a score of hatches all over the ship opening–without orders and by implication against orders. Vesey was rising from the command console. Her pale face flushed. She sat down again hard and reached for the commo switch.

    “I wonder, Captain Vesey,” said Daniel very loudly. Despite the pings of differential cooling, the bridge was quiet enough for normal talk now that the thrusters had shut down. Daniel’s volume was suitable for shouting across the harbor. “Would you come here for a moment and see if my course plot agrees with yours?”

    Vesey hesitated between what she’d sttarted to do and obeying Daniel’s summons. Adele disconnected the command console from all communications links save the cable going to the Signals Console. She supposed that was mutiny, though she doubted that she’d be tried for it. In any case, it was better than letting Vesey give an order that Daniel was obviously trying to prevent.

    Sun was raising the dorsal turret to make room in the hull. Ollarville wasn’t a bad place to have the cannon available besides, though the turret power was off so that the guns couldn’t be loaded, let alone fired.

    At the sound of Daniel’s raised voice, Sun turned to look. Adele caught his eye and pointed one of her wands–disconnected for the purpose of the gesture–toward the hatch. The gunner’s mate scrambled up from his console, pausing only to shut it off.

    Adele rose also, moving more deliberately than Sun but not wasting time either. Hogg and Tovera stood on either side of the hatchway, awaiting developments.

    Vesey had gone white again. “Sir,” she said, “I gave no orders to open any hatch but the main one where we can control access.”

    “Mundy, I’d appreciate it if you’d stay and chat with me and Vesey here,” Daniel said easily. He remained seated, apparently at ease. “And Hogg, please close the hatch behind yourself and Tovera.”

    “Yes, of course, Commander,” Adele said. Her mouth was dry. She considered sitting down again but decided not to.

    “Guess we know when we’re not wanted, don’t we, Tovera?” Hogg said cheerfully. “Come on up on the spine with me and let’s pick fields of fire.”

    The hatch closed with a sigh and a restrained clink, automatic mechanisms completing the task they were directed to do by a human push. Daniel’s eyes flicked to the portal, making sure the sound hadn’t deceived him.

    “Not ‘Commander’,” he said, “because this is just a chat. Three friends together, you see?”

    Vesey didn’t speak. She looked worn beyond life, a mummy draped in loose utilities.

    “Yes, of course,” Adele said. “We’re all friends.”

    That was true, but it was also true that she’d shoot Vesey dead if Daniel ordered it. Daniel knew that and surely Vesey did also; but it was equally true that Daniel wouldn’t have kept Adele Mundy present for her willingness to do a job that Hogg or Tovera would’ve handled with less concern and equal skill.

    “And you’re right that you didn’t order the crew to ventilate the ship now that we’re down, Vesey,” Daniel said, his fingers laced on his lap. He leaned back in his console. “But I don’t see why you thought that would be necessary. The Sissie’s fortunate to have an extremely experienced crew who’ve made, oh, tens of thousands of landings in all, wouldn’t you say?”

    “Sir, do you want my resignation?” Vesey said. She was trembling and her eyes, though focused on the bulkhead beyond Daniel’s right shoulder, didn’t appear to be seeing anything but the misery in her own soul.

    “No, I don’t,” Daniel said calmly. “But I will ask for your resignation if you attempt to turn this crew into robots. You won’t succeed, of course. But you might just push them to mass desertion, which would be almost as bad as ruining the best lot of spacers who ever graced the RCN. Now, what about it?”

    “Sir, there ought to be discipline,” Vesey said. She sounded desperate. “There has to be discipline!”

    “Yes, there does,” Daniel said. His tone was much harder than it would’ve been if he’d been agreeing. “And if you think either Woetjans or Pasternak doesn’t know how to enforce discipline, then you haven’t seen them put a draft of landsmen through their paces with starter of flex to get their attention. A crew like this one doesn’t have to be told to pull their utilities on zipper-end front, though. Do you understand?”

    “If I’m captain, I have a right to set procedures,” Vesey said. Her voice had sunk from desperation to despair. “Isn’t that so?”

    “Certainly,” said Daniel. “But these aren’t dogs you’re training for the circus. Vesey, you’re a crackerjack officer and that’s why I hired you. But if you decide you have to regulate everything around you just to say you did, then I’ll recommend you for a training post in the Academy. You certainly won’t be of any use on a ship that I own.”

    Vesey didn’t speak. She looked as though she was tied to a stake, waiting for the firing party to execute her.

    Adele suddenly realized why Daniel had asked her to be present. “Elspeth,” she said. She wondered if she’d ever used Vesey’s given name before. “I’m not sure that Daniel understands why you might react to loss in the way you have. I understand very well.”

    Vesey turned to look at her. The movement had an odd jerkiness as though Vesey’s conscious mind had to control actions that were usually instinctual. “What do you mean?” she said, her voice soft.

    “The need to control things, because all you cared about has melted away like sand in the ocean,” Adele said. “I was an orphan on a distant planet, living on sufferance. The only thing I could control was myself, and I got very good at that.”

    She grinned at Vesey. It was actually as broad a smile as she ever managed.

    “I’ll bet I was better than you could be,” she went on. “I think I was always missing a piece of what it means to be human. But if you think you can top my record, go right ahead. Just don’t try to apply the same degree of control to anything beyond your own skin, because it’s improper to treat human beings as though they’re game pieces. Besides, as Daniel said, it won’t work on anybody worth having around you.”

    Vesey swallowed, then forced a smile. “Sir?” she said. “I understand and I’ll try. But I can’t lead the way you do. Nobody can! But I’ll try not to….”

    She let her voice trail off. Daniel’s smile was warm as a summer day. He rose from the console with compact grace and said, “We’re just friends talking, Elspeth, so I’m Daniel. Now, we’ve got the local authorities to deal with. After that we’ll reconnect with Corius, since I hear his ships coming down now. But at some point, this evening I hope, The three of us can have a friendly drink in the owner’s cabin. If you’re amenable, that is?”

    “Thank you,” Vesey said. “I’ll try to make you proud of me. I–”

    She turned her head away quickly. “Thank you, Daniel,” she blurted and put her hands to her face.

    Adele was closer to the hatch, but Daniel reached the latch plate before her. They were both mumbling inconsequential things to mask the sound of Vesey’s sobs as they stepped into the corridor. The tears were a release of course, nothing to be ashamed of. Still, as a matter of courtesy and duty both Adele and Daniel had reason to get off the bridge.

    More than two minutes ago Blantyre had excitedly reported that a local delegation was on the quay demanding access. Woetjans with a squad of armed spacers was keeping the officials from stepping onto the boarding ramp.

    But Daniel’d always been good at prioritizing. First things first.



    The Greybudd had landed two slips away from the Princess Cecile and the air still roiled with hot steam and the sharpness of ozone from her thrusters. Rust obscured the transport’s number, but a checkerboard of replacement hull plates made Daniel sure of his identification. Besides, Corius would’ve brought his own vessel down first.

    He and Adele walked down the boarding ramp to meet the four officials. They wore berets with a red-and-white rosette. Two were in khaki uniforms; one wore a uniform jacket with shapeless blue trousers; and the last had similar trousers, a horizontally striped shirt, and went barefoot.

    All wore pistols and belt knives. The barefoot fellow carried a crude-looking shoulder weapon with a drum magazine, probably a shotgun powered by chemical explosives.

    Daniel continued to smile, but in all truth they weren’t a prepossessing bunch.

    “I’m Pennant-Leader Onsbruck,” said the huskier of the men in full uniform. He was in his mid-twenties, a little older than Daniel but younger by a decade than the other uniformed man and the thug with the shotgun. The fellow in the khaki jacket was a slight teenager with acne and close-set eyes. “We’re here to take charge of your ship till the full Committee can assess it.”

    “And your guns,” said the older uniformed man. He was over six feet tall but stooped and soft-looking. A bookkeeper before the war, Daniel thought. Some sort of office worker, at any rate. “Foreigners aren’t allowed to have guns in Ollarville.”

    Woetjans, standing on the ramp with five husky spacers ready for anything, spat into the water. She cradled an impeller in the crook of her left arm, but Daniel suspected that if trouble started she’d kick the man with the shotgun in the balls and then strike right and left with the stock of her weapon. The bosun was a good shot and big enough that the impeller’s heavy recoil didn’t faze her, but shooting was just a job to her. She took personal pleasure in breaking bones, however.

    “Yes,” Daniel said, nodding agreeably. “I think for now it’s best that you consider us Dunbar citizens since we’re here to help your government against the Pellegrinians. And there’s no question of turning over an RCN warship without a decree of the Cinnabar Senate, of course, so you’ll have to pass on that also.”

    “Who do you think you’re ordering around?” Onsbruck demanded, his face getting red. The kid with acne looked even more like a rat than he had to start with; his hands were twitching. “If you foreigners come here, you either obey our regulations or you’re no better than those piss-ants from Pellegrino!”

    Hogg was on the Sissie’s spine, sitting on a telescoped yard and goggling at the harbor. An impeller was concealed in the furled sail beside him. Given how quickly Hogg could snap off a shot, Woetjans might not get much chance to crack skulls after all.

    Daniel’s smile grew broader. This lot wouldn’t make trouble, though. Not when Yuli Corius was landing with two thousand troops even as the discussion took place.

    Adele’s eyes had a bright, unfocused look that Daniel had learned to interpret: she’d been listening to something through her commo helmet. Her gaze suddenly locked on the chief of the local delegation.

    “I assure you, Master Onsbruck,” she said, snapping out syllables like a series of mousetraps closing, “that as representatives of Cinnabar, we’ll be punctilious about dealing with the Federal Republic of Dunbar. We have no right to become involved in your domestic politics, however, nor do we intend to do so. Whether you’re here as private citizens or as members of the Eastern Provinces League, you have no right to involve yourselves in our mission.”

    “We are the government here!” the little rat said. “We’ve got the power!”

    “You’ve got shit,” said Woetjans in an even voice. When the youth reached for the pistol under his belt, Woetjans stepped forward and stiff-armed him into the water.

    The thug with the shotgun looked at Onsbruck and said, “What? What?”

    “Don’t!” Daniel said, but talking didn’t seem a sufficient way to deal with the situation. He grabbed the shotgun at the balance with both hands and twisted counterclockwise. The thug twisted back. Daniel reversed his effort, swinging the weapon in an arc that ended when the gun-butt thumped the thug’s right temple.

    The thin fellow dropped his clipboard and stood transfixed. Onsbruck himself threw his hands in the air and cried, “I’m not fighting! I’m not fighting!” in a voice that rose into the treble range.

    “I am!” said Dasi. He grabbed Onsbruck by the throat and right arm; his partner Barnes seized the other wrist and elbow and started to twist them the wrong way.

    “Belay that!” Daniel said. “Barnes, let him go!”

    “Aw, sir…,” said Dasi, but he was grinning. He released Onsbruck’s neck but kept hold of the wrist. His now-freed right hand drew one the knives from the local’s belt and cut the belt itself through. It fell to the ramp with the other knife, the holstered pistol, and a trio of grenades.

    “Somebody fish the little one out of the water, will you?” Daniel said peevishly. “Woetjans, pull him out, if you please.”

    He was breathing hard and he’d lost his cap. He looked at the shotgun. The closed breech showed a gap of over an eighth of an inch; the casing of the chambered round was readily visible. I wonder which end’s the more dangerous. He grimaced and tossed the weapon into the harbor.

    Woetjans bent over but apparently decided that she couldn’t easily reach the man struggling in the water. Grinning she poked the muzzle of her impeller down while gripping the stock with both hands. “Here you go, sonny,” she said. “Just catch hold. And don’t worry, the safety’s on–I think!”

    Simkins, another of the spacers on guard, was looking over the other side of the ramp. “Hey!” she called. “There’s a body here. Bloody hell, there’s two bodies!”

    Daniel stepped to her side. The bodies were so ripe that they bulged at the necks and wrists where their clothes constricted them. One wore a striped shirt and workman’s trousers like the EPL thug; the other had pantaloons and a tunic with puffed sleeves, female fashion on Pellegrino and the planets trading with it.

    The corpses had been shot in the back of the neck. The wounds were red and swollen; the flesh was black everywhere else it was exposed.

    “What’s this?” Daniel said sharply, glancing at the EPL officials. Onsbruck was rubbing his left elbow with his right hand. He looked up sullenly and said, “It’s nothing to you. They were traitors, probably. We don’t coddle traitors in Ollarville.”

    Daniel noticed his hands were clenching and unclenching. He deliberately spread his fingers wide. He’d really like to throw this fellow into the harbor and hope he couldn’t stay afloat as well as the boy accompanying him had, but that wasn’t the job of an RCN officer. What happened between citizens of Dunbar’s World was a domestic affair.

    “Go on back to your kennel, Master Onsbruck,” he said pleasantly. “And take the rest of your pack with you, if you please.”

    Onsbruck bent to pick up his equipment belt. Daniel shoved him: not a blow, simply a matter of placing his hand on Onsbruck’s head and pushing. The EPL official shot backward, off the ramp and several feet beyond. He sprawled on his back when his feet couldn’t backpedal fast enough to keep him upright.

    “I believe I gave you directions once already, Onsbruck,” Daniel said, his voice still quiet. He used the side of his boot to skid the belt into the water with a loud splash.

    Daniel looked over his shoulder. There were automatic impellers mounted in three open hatches, and the dorsal turret was trained on the city. Another twenty spacers stood in the main hatch under Cory; they were armed to the teeth. Hogg and Tovera slipped through them, grinning like the fiends they were.

    “Master Cory,” Daniel said, “take charge of the security here if you will, till Captain Vesey gives you other orders. Woetjans, you and your squad to accompany Officer Mundy and myself just down the quay to the Greybudd. I have some matters to discuss with Councilor Corius.”

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