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Some Golden Harbor: Chapter Seventeen

       Last updated: Tuesday, July 18, 2006 19:25 EDT



Port Dunbar on Dunbar's World

    Daniel awoke in near darkness. In the instant it took for his eyes to begin working, Hogg whispered, "Wakie, wakie, young master. The fish won't wait."

    "It's bigger game tonight, Hogg," Daniel said, pulling on the trousers he'd hung as usual on a chair by his bunk; his tunic waited under them. "Is Officer Mundy up?"

    "Yes," said Adele from the hallway. "And I believe I heard Fallert speaking to the Councilor."

    Daniel slid his feet into his soft-soled ship's boots. He'd been only a child when he got the trick of awakening at any set time without need for an alarm; he didn't know whether it was Hogg training him always to be ready on time for a fishing or hunting trip or if the training had simply uncovered an innate ability.

    "Here you go, master," Hogg said, handing Daniel a stocked impeller. "You were never much use with a pistol, so I found you this instead of having you weight your belt down for no good reason."

    "Thanks," Daniel said, turning the weapon over and trying the balance. It was a carbine, perhaps from Gendarmerie stocks. He didn't bother asking if Hogg was sure it worked: he wouldn't have given it to Daniel without testing it for function and accuracy.

    Daniel also didn't ask how Hogg had 'found' the weapon. It didn't bother Daniel that the means were probably illegal–so were some of the ways Daniel had used to arm and equip the Princess Cecile the way she needed to be–but there were things that he'd object to if he knew about them. Hogg had fewer scruples or better focus on the task in hand, whichever way you wanted to describe the difference. Best not to explore the details.

    "Commander?" said Corius, entering the cubicle where Daniel had slept. "I've decided that Fallert will drive. We've decided, that is; he suggested it."

    Daniel snapped his equipment belt around him. The communicator, handlight, and first aid pouch were there, but the pistol in its flap holster and the extra magazines had been removed: Hogg had spoken literally. He generally did, a habit that would've made many people uncomfortable if they'd realized he wasn't exaggerating.

    They'd eaten and slept in a warehouse belonging to a merchant who'd done business with Corius in peacetime. The man–Adele probably knew his name, but it didn't matter to Daniel–had fled to Sinclos when the fighting started, but the armed staff he'd left behind had made Corius and his entourage as comfortable as the circumstances permitted.

    "It's your vehicle," Daniel said. He'd never thought about the snakeman being able to pilot an aircar; there was no reason why he shouldn't. He smiled: Tovera had learned, after all.

    Woodson was technically as good a driver as you could ask for, but Daniel didn't trust him to push a reconnaissance as close to the enemy defenses as was necessary for it to be useful. Daniel hadn't been alone in that opinion, apparently.

    He put on his goggles. He'd planned to wear his commo helmet, but he couldn't get a proper cheek weld on the carbine's stock if he did; he'd make do with the earclip communicator attached to the goggles' frame.

    They walked into the main bay of the warehouse where the aircar was parked. The long translucent panels in the building's roof let in enough light through years of bird droppings and general grime that Daniel didn't need his goggles.

    A mélange of rich odors filled the big room: spices, Daniel thought, but of course they might've been from exotic forms of decay. Two attendants talked in low voices near the waterside door, watching the foreigners covertly.

    Corius frowned when he saw Daniel's impeller. "I'm not proposing to attack Arruns' base tonight," he said. "Just to get a look at it. I wouldn't think those guns were necessary."

    "They might be necessary," said Fallert unexpectedly. "Therefore they are necessary, Councilor. Hogg informs me that his master is expert; that permits me to drive instead of keeping watch."

    "All right, if you feel it's the right thing to do," Corius said with a shrug as he got into the aircar. Its roof panels had been removed, leaving the tubular framework they were ordinarily locked onto. Daniel wondered if they were sturdy enough to act as a roll cage, though as the car'd be over water on most of this patrol it probably didn't matter.

    "To be honest," Corius added, "I wouldn't have guessed that the Cinnabar navy spent much time on marksmanship training."

    "The RCN doesn't," said Daniel, deliberately taking a seat behind that of Corius. Tonight Quinn could ride with the Councilor; Daniel wanted to be able to concentrate on the terrain and the data feed Adele would be providing. "It's an accomplishment expected of a country gentleman, however, which in my younger days–"

    He smiled to suggest he was joking. In all truth, his civilian life seemed a lifetime distant. Though seven years didn't seem like a long time even to him when he spoke the words.

    "–I was."

    Corius nodded. "Yes, of course," he murmured.

    "Daniel," said Adele, standing beside the vehicle. "I can monitor the spectra just as easily if I come along with you. I linked my data unit through the car's radio on the flight from Ollarville, you know."

    Daniel frowned as he tried to puzzle out what she was actually saying. "There's not an advantage to your being in the car, is there?" he said.

    "Well, no, but I can be," Adele repeated.

    "Mistress," said Tovera, "neither of us can use long arms well enough to be useful tonight. Rather than add weight to the car, why don't you stay in the warehouse office as planned while I defend you against Pellegrinian infiltrators."

    "And cockroaches," Hogg said from the front bench beside Fallert. "Some I saw tonight could carry away a rat."

    "Officer Mundy?" Daniel said now that he understood the question, "I'd prefer that you be in a place where you can concentrate on keeping us alive, rather than worrying about being thrown out of the car if we have to maneuver. I'm fairly confident that there'll be other occasions soon on which you can demonstrate your manly courage."

    "Yes, of course," said Adele. "I'll get up to the office right now."

    She cleared her throat and added, "That was very foolish. Sorry, I'll be more careful."

    "The RCN," Daniel said softly, "has built its reputation on the habit of taking the more dangerous course unless some other method could better achieve the desired result. In this case, I'm ordering you to stay on shore because you'll be more effective. But no, that wasn't foolish, Mundy."

    Fallert fluffed the car's ducted fans, four of them in pairs forward and aft. "We are prepared, Councilor," he said over the intake noise. Dust whirled and eddied among the crates and bales.

    "All right, open the door!" Corius shouted. When the attendants didn't act for a moment he waved violently. Finally they started shoving the heavy panel sideways. Fallert lifted and slid the car forward before the opening was sufficient; the attendants shouted and put their backs into the job.

    Accelerating and with no more than inches to spare on either side, the aircar shot out over the barge dock. They skimmed the water for a moment before Fallert rose ten feet so that they no longer kicked up an obvious plume of spray. Mandelfarne Island lay ahead.



    Adele stepped into the warehouse office and communications center, a small room on the flat roof. Under other circumstances you could call it a penthouse, but she didn't suppose the word applied here.

    Under other circumstances, Adele Mundy could be called a librarian. Not now.

    She glanced at the modern equipment. It was operating properly, just the way she'd left it four hours ago before she went to sleep. She hadn't thought she'd be able to get her eyes to close, but she'd been wrong. She'd learned a great deal since Daniel brought her into the RCN.

    Instead of sitting at the console, Adele turned abruptly and walked toward  the end of the roof overlooking the barge dock and the harbor beyond. There was no railing, and fitful breezes flicked across the water; she stopped a full pace back but even then felt uncomfortably close.

    She smiled. Daniel would've gone to the edge without thinking about it.

    "Is something wrong, mistress?" Tovera asked. She'd been standing just outside the office; she'd to step aside quickly when Adele reemerged.

    "No, nothing," said Adele, looking out to sea. "Some people prefer seeing things with their own eyes, you know. I find that much less informative than my instruments."

    An automatic impeller to the east pecked out short bursts. Even without her goggles, Adele could see the haze of light from the discharges; the gun was within the Pellegrinian lines, firing into the city.

    Dust spurted skyward; several seconds later Adele heard the rattle of masonry collapsing. Another building had been reduced to ruin, or more complete ruin. She couldn't imagine that result aided anyone at all in the human universe, but that wasn't a question she'd been  asked to answer.

    Mandelfarne Island was in the direction she was looking, but it was under the horizon even though she was thirty feet above the water. The mast-mounted antennas behind her had a direct line on it, though. And somewhere out there in the darkness was an aircar heading out in a wide arc that would eventually carry it around the back of the Pellegrinian base.

    Tovera didn't say any more. Did she understand why Adele was standing here?

    Adele sniffed. She herself didn't fully understand, so it was unlikely that Tovera did. She returned to the office and closed the door between her and her servant before sitting down at the console and getting to work.

    She'd been surprised at the quality of the commo suite, not least because government electronics on Dunbar's World had proven old, shoddy, and in poor repair. This wasn't the government, however. Though the Merchants' Guild collectively ran the planet much as was the case on Bennaria, the individual houses were in fierce competition with one another.

    The office here–and presumably the similar offices in Port Dunbar's other warehouses–was set up to communicate by laser and tight-beam microwave with ships both in orbit and while floating in the harbor. Neither method was completely safe, but coupled with a good encryption program either would protect commercial information from rivals long enough to retain a competitive advantage.

    Tovera had disconnected the identification transponder from Corius' vehicle. A transmitter could call enemy attention to the car whose best chance of survival would come from being ignored. Sensors sensitive enough to keep a laser beam aligned with a ship in orbit, however, were easily capable of tracking the electromagnetic signature of an aircar's motors a few miles away. All it took was the correct software, and Adele's personal data unit provided that.

    Adele placed the car as a blue dot in a display centered on Mandelfarne Island; the scale changed as she watched, decreasing as the car neared the base and the image area shrank accordingly. Pellegrinian emitters–communications, range-finding, targeting, and even recreational–were red dots with brief legends indicating their type and intensity. Full data would appear as a sidebar if the computer determined the threat to the aircar had increased or if Adele moved her cursor over a particular dot.

    Laymen were amazed to see what information Adele could draw from the simplest electronic signatures by matching them against the information in her database. A search radar with a particular pulse frequency and amplitude was a standard fitment for the command unit of Alliance ground batteries of 5-cm plasma cannon; the same weapon but with a different radar armed Alliance airborne armored personnel carriers.

    Arrruns' troops used both types of radar. Twelve cannon in gun pits guarded the perimeter of Mandelfarne Island, and five APCs escorted the barges ferrying supplies from the island to Arruns' fortified camp in the east of Port Dunbar. From personal experience as well as her data banks, Adele knew that the APCs were very lightly armored; even empty they weren't nearly as fast or as nimble as Corius' aircar.

    But an aircar couldn't outrun a plasma bolt. Even the small guns the APCs mounted could turn an aircar into a fireball and memories from hundreds of meters away.

    The blue speck moved outward, skirting the northern tip of the island at a distance of ten miles. It moved slowly, keeping close to the water so that only the most careful radar operator could separate it from the clutter of wave tops.

    Adele would know when the Pellegrinians noticed the car, if they did; then she would warn Daniel. Until then she remained silent, doing her job with professional skill as she did all things.

    She didn't pray. A prayer by someone who didn't believe in God would be hypocritical. She knew Daniel believed in an amorphously benevolent Being somewhere, however.

    Adele hoped that Daniel's prayers would be answered.



    Daniel could see scores of lights across Mandelfarne Island. A few were on moving vehicles. More were area lights on poles erected in front of pre-fab buildings–operations rooms and officers' quarters, presumably; Daniel's goggles easily picked out the details. The largest number were low-wattage incandescents which snaked on jury-rigged lines from the fusion plant on the north shore of the island and through the tents of the enlisted personnel.

    From the lack of visual security at the base, one got the impression that the Pellegrinian garrison didn't think it was at war. To a degree they were right: the Federal troops had no long-range artillery, and an air attack would be quick suicide against plasma cannon. The sloppiness still made Daniel frown.

    Though of course they're the enemy, he thought. He'd forgotten that. His face broke into a familiar smile.

    Fallert was stooging along at thirty miles an hour so that he could keep the car's underside close to the wave tops without lifting spray. They'd raced northwest across the sea till they were out of sensor range of Mandelfarne, then dropped low and returned slowly to avoid notice.

    Daniel wasn't sure what Corius and Quinn intended by this reconnaissance, but for his own part he wasn't particularly interested in what he saw at the present. The goggles, however, were gathering and storing multi-spectral data which he and Adele would analyze at leisure. They'd be just as useful with Hogg wearing them, and very nearly as useful strapped to the aircar's frame.

    "Leary?" said the Councilor, leaning over the back of his seat. "The Colonel here thinks there must be a thousand personnel on Mandelfarne. What do you think?"

    Daniel adjusted his goggles as he eyed the speckles of light. They weren't going to tell him more than they already had, but the activity gave him a moment to consider.

    "At least that, I should think," he said. It depended on the size of the tents and how densely Arruns packed his troops into them, but allowing for a similar number of lights on the other side of the island… at least a thousand. "We don't have to guess, though. I'm confident that Officer Mundy will have an accurate figure by the time we return."

    "How's she going to do that?" said Quinn. "I thought she was waiting for us back at the warehouse."

    Daniel shrugged, though he didn't suppose the gesture was visible in this light. "Pay records," he said. He'd worked with Adele long enough to have an idea of her methods, though in truth it still seemed like magic to him. "Movement orders. The location of unit HQs coupled with their tables of organization."

    "She can do all that from the warehouse?" Quinn said. He sounded plaintive. "I thought she was just a signals officer."

    "She's a signals officer," Daniel said dryly. "But no, she's not only that."

    He switched his goggles to infrared; Pellegrinian equipment showed up as bright blotches on the cooler land. To see details he'd have had to raise the magnification higher than he could hold on target without engaging the stabilizer, but the four plasma cannon in pits near the shore were obvious. The psychological effect of plasma bolts would be as crushing to an assault as the bolts themselves–and those would blast any aircraft or troop-laden fishing boat into flaming debris.

    "Check with her now, Commander," Corius said. "It'd be helpful to know the numbers immediately. You do have a link, don't you?"

    "No sir," Daniel said. In strict honesty he did have a link, but he had absolutely no intention of using it for pointless chatter. "We'll have the data before we start the actual planning on our return, I'm sure."

    "The Rainha is beginning her approach," said a voice in Daniel's ear. He knew it was Adele speaking only because it had to be; compression and the distortion-correcting algorithms in the laser communicator stripped all the personality out of the words. They were at the very limit of line-of-sight communication here.

    Daniel picked out the shimmer of plasma thrusters in the western sky. The ship was still high enough that the atmosphere blocked the dangerous actinics, so the goggle filters didn't deploy.

    He bent forward and said, "The Rainha's coming in. If we can get closer to the island, I'd like a good view of their landing procedures."

    He'd been speaking to Corius, expecting him to relay the instruction to Fallert if he approved it, but the reptileman was apparently able to hear better over the fans than a human could. Daniel felt the direction of thrust shift as the aircar swung slowly toward the island.

    The distant ship's thrumming vibrated the night even over the car's intake whine. The flare of ionized atoms returning to their normal state was first brighter than any star, then brighter than the small moon. It continued to increase. Daniel's goggles dimmed the discharge, but a ghost of the thrusters' rainbow aura remained.

    Only one ship was landing: the Duilio remained in orbit. The warehouse personnel had told Daniel that was the procedure. He hadn't doubted what they said–it was the logical way for the Pellegrinians to operate, after all–but he liked to see things for himself. He didn't have a plan or an inkling of a plan at the moment, but when he did he'd have the facts right.

    The Rainha swelled into a fat, blunt-ended cylinder flanked by the lesser cylinders of its outriggers, bathed in its own exhaust. The roar of its descent sent ripples across the sea's surface, even miles away. Daniel smiled, unconsciously moved by the sight of a starship and all the wonder and delight that brought to his mind.

    His earpiece blipped at him. He couldn't hear the message over the Rainha's thunder.

    "Say again, over," he said, cupping his hand over the earpiece. His response went out as VHF because the aircar's commo suite didn't have a laser emitter. Daniel was taking Adele's transmission's through the goggles, but the tiny RCN sending unit was useless beyond intercom range.



    As he spoke, he switched his viewing mode from light amplification to IR. He saw an APC lifting from the opposite shore of Mandelfarne Island even as Adele said, "You've been… The APCs they use to es… are to shoot you … … was manned when the alert sounded. O…"

    "Fallert!" Daniel said. He pointed his carbine as the snakeman's head turned enough to catch the motion with his peripheral vision. Air compressed by the APC's fans was a warm plume spreading beneath the vehicle. "They're on us!"

    Fallert shifted his throttles and steering yoke. The car stayed low as it accelerated, but to Daniel's surprise the stern lifted slightly. The downdraft threw up the expected roostertail, but because the car wasn't level the spray was nearly the length of the vehicle behind where Daniel would've expected it to be.

    Oh, yes. Fallert knew how to pilot an aircar.

    "I am returning to base!" the snakeman called. "We could not be fully recharged before we left tonight. If I let them chase us out to sea, I do not know that we will be able to return."

    We ought to be able to make it, Daniel thought. He loosened his seat belt with his left hand as his head turned to follow the APC. No plasma cannon had much range in an atmosphere, and that was true in spades for the little popgun the APC carried.

    It wasn't a popgun compared to an aircar, of course.

    The faint hope that the APC didn't see them–that it'd been sent out because somebody on shore had heard sounds–was dashed when the big vehicle curved toward the aircar. It was seven miles distant but on an interior course, and the aircar had ten miles to go to the safety of the shore. Though the Federals didn't have plasma cannon of their own, a burst of multi-sonic osmium slugs from an automatic impeller would turn an APC into a colander in a heartbeat.

    Daniel disliked using goggles for data display, but he'd been very wise to pick the headgear he had. He grinned at himself. Not that there'd ever been doubt: he'd always go for the tool that'd be best in a fight.

    The APC fired. The dazzling bolt was on the right line but it sizzled out in a bottle-shaped plume a few thousand yards from the muzzle. Even the most incompetent gunner must've known the aircar was miles out of range, so why–

    Two more APCs came around the west end of Mandelfarne Island, three miles from the aircar. They'd stayed low in the strait, but now that they were in sight they lifted to get a clear shot at their quarry against the sea.

    Though the APCs were relatively slow, they'd be between the shore and the aircar before it could cross their line. The bolt's ionized track was fading, but sufficient glow still hung in the air to point the newcomers toward their prey.

    "Between them!" Daniel said. "Stay low and get between them!"

    Fallert swung the car up on its left side in a hard turn, deliberately overcorrecting; for thirty seconds only inertia was keeping them airborne. Instead of locking into a straight new course, he made them fishtail to the right as they settled.

    The APC still over the island fired, hitting the sea a quarter mile from the car. The bolt slaked its energy in iridescent steam. An instant later the APCs on a converging course fired also. Daniel felt the bare skin of his face and hands prickle, but the nearer of the two bolts nonetheless struck well behind the speeding aircar.

    Fallert nudged his steering yoke again, not hard–a serious input would slow the aircar in the kill zone–but enough that the trailing flag of spray pointed momentarily in a direction different from the car's present course. The APCs were dead ahead, high enough that the fan ducts on their undersides were visible from the sea skimming car.

    Daniel aimed over the left side of the vehicle and squeezed off a shot–

    And a shot–

    And a shot–the osmium pellet ricocheting from the target's sidewalls of high maraging steel, a flash at the point of impact and a neon spark wobbling into the high sky–

    And a–

    Daniel's target banked hard to the right, making it more vulnerable. As he swung his weapon to follow the eight swelling ovals of the fan ducts, Fallert twisted to the right again. The carbine's barrel slammed the roof support, jarring the round off wildly into the empty night.

    Hogg's target crashed into the sea sideways. Either the impact or the gunner's reflex triggered the plasma cannon while the muzzle was already underwater. The fireball lifted off the turret as the APC skipped upward like a flung stone.

    "Got the bastard!" Hogg was shouting as he twisted in his seat–good God, he must not be belted in at all!–to point his heavy RCN impeller directly over Fallert's head. "Got him!"

    Fallert steered through the geyser from the first impact while the APC–now a collection of scraps and fragments spraying out like a shotgun charge–hit a third time. A few of the bits continued on to splash in a wide arc. The aircar bucked. Falling water drenched the passengers, but they were through and headed for home at nearly 150 mph.

    Daniel popped his own belt loose to aim over the back of the vehicle. To his surprise he had no target: both surviving APCs had dropped to the sea's surface to cover their vulnerable fan ducts. They hadn't a prayer of tracking, let alone hitting, the aircar, there.

    The rainbow bubble of the Rainha's exhaust was dimming, but there was still enough to color the froth around the wrecked APC like a tapestry of jewels.



    Adele was sitting at the checker's desk when the two attendants raised the overhead door. Noises from the night outside became louder and sharper: occasional shots, a klaxon in the far distance, and the growing murmur of the returning aircar.

    The desk terminal was intended only for inventory control, but it was cabled to the database that the communications suite on the roof fed. Adele hadn't found it difficult to link her personal data unit to the terminal and through it to control the entire system. The display in the commo center was far better and so, she supposed, was the security; but neither of those things was as significant as being on hand when Daniel and Hogg returned.

    The aircar paused on the loading dock, then turned slowly–counterclockwise–to back into the warehouse. Adele frowned. She hadn't thought about positioning the vehicle to leave quickly; Fallert had. It was his job, of course, but that was the sort of information which might be important to her present duties.

    Echoes deepened the whine of the car's motors as it crawled inside. Adele couldn't make out the features of the persons aboard without pulling down her goggles, but there were five of them. That was all that really mattered, that they'd all come back. Against the lighter background of the night sky she saw that the left side of the windshield was crazed and milky.

    "They hit something," said Tovera quietly. "Not bullet holes, a collision."

    Had she been worried also? Probably not; the statement was analytical, though the fact Tovera made it aloud showed that she was at least trying to act the way a normal human who was worried would act.

    The door rattled and rumbled down, stopping with a jangle against the lintel. Fallert had already shut off the motors, but the fans roiled the air still further as they spun down. Adele sneezed, then sneezed again. The downdraft had driven a strong vegetable sharpness–ginger root?–out of the wooden flooring.

    "Turn a bloody light on!" Colonel Quinn shouted. "Now, dammit! All I bloody need tonight is to break my bloody neck besides!"

    A panel on the right door pillar flickered into greenish life. "Make do, buddy," growled an attendant. "If we turn on the overheads, the pigs'll see it through the skylight. We don't draw rockets here, not even for the Lord God Incarnate!"

    After nearly complete darkness, the luminescence was more than sufficient. Adele left her data unit on the desk and walked to meet Daniel as he got out of the back of the car. His uniform was wet–dripping wet, in fact–but he flashed her a brilliant smile.

    "I'm glad to see you're safe," Adele said. Part of her mind observed that another person would've added flourishes, but the words she'd used were sufficient.

    "You ought to be bloody glad!" Quinn said angrily. "Do you know how close we came to being killed? If that Hogg hadn't been luckier than anybody alive, we'd be cinders out there right now!"

    I do indeed know how close it was, Adele thought. I watched you. I watched the whole thing.

    Turning from Adele to Hogg, Quinn added, "I don't know why you're working for a living, bub. If you're that bloody lucky, you ought to just play roulette!"

    Hogg ignored him. He'd walked over to a stack of crates which were unmarked except by stenciled numbers. He pried up the lid of the top one with his big folding knife.

    "Master Hogg is indeed lucky," Fallert said with a little more than his usual emphasis of the sibilants. "I would guess that Master Hogg is often lucky with a long gun, not so?"

    Hogg pulled a liter bottle from the honeycombed interior of the crate. He cut the foil seal and worked the stopper out.

    "It's been known to happen," he said. His tone was mild enough, but his eyes had a look of hard speculation as they rested on Quinn. "But luck, sure. You know that as well as I do, Fallert. Just hitting the bastard was doing good, what with that wind and you throwing us around like granny jogging without a bra."

    "You and the Commander each hit twice," the snakeman said. "That is very good. I could not have done as well."

    He bowed to Tovera. "I did not doubt you, mistress-s-s," he said. "But what I saw tonight was very remarkable."

    "Here you go, young master," Hogg said, handing the bottle to Daniel.

    Daniel drank and returned the bottle to Hogg. "I'm afraid I can only claim one," he said, turning the carbine over in his hands to look at the underside of the receiver. "And other than perhaps startling the crew, that didn't do any harm."

    "You hit twice and Master Hogg hit twice," Fallert said. "One of our enemies fled and the other was destroyed. This was very good. This was worthy of great honor."

    "Did you kill the driver, then, Hogg?" Corius said. "I thought the car just went out of control and crashed. And at a very good time, I must say."

    "I put a round through a fan duct," Hogg said. "It's what I wanted, but I don't pretend I could do it more'n maybe one time in five."

    Daniel raised an eyebrow.

    "Well, one time in three, then," Hogg admitted. "And then it bounced the right way and put paid to the motor."

    Hogg drank again and held the bottle out to Fallert. Fallert shook his head, but his whole long jaw was smiling. "I thank you, Master Hogg," he said. "But ethanol would kill me."

    The snakeman laughed.

    Hogg shrugged and looked at Corius. "I couldn't shoot through the driver's cage on one a' those, Councilor," he said. "Not at two hundred meters, which is as close as we got, you'll recall. The armor's too thick."

    "Those APCs weren't heavily loaded," Quinn said. "Even if you did shoot out a fan, it could still have flown. The driver just lost control."

    He sounded frustrated, a man desperate to find an answer to a question that was completely beyond him. It didn't make Adele like Quinn any better, but viewing him as a mongrel dog invited to give a lecture permitted her to interact with him without getting angry.

    "Yes, Colonel, he did lose control," Daniel said. Adele could hear the edge beneath his cheerful lilt, but Quinn probably didn't. "He panicked because his fan had been shot out–it hadn't just failed. He poured maximum power to the remaining units before adjusting his angles of thrust. That overbalanced the vehicle, and by then he had no chance to recover."

    He patted Quinn on the shoulder. Much as he'd pat a dog, Adele realized, and wondered whether Daniel had formed the same mental image she had of the man.

    "Let's all take that as a lesson not to panic," Daniel said with a smile. "In case the enemy has somebody as good as Hogg is, right?"

    "As lucky, you mean, young master," Hogg said, lowering the bottle. Half its contents were gone. He'd been frightened too, though frightened wasn't quite the right word. He'd been very well aware of how close they'd come to being killed, him and the boy it was his duty to protect.

    "Here you go, Tovera," Hogg said, offering her the bottle. He was making a point of not including Quinn in his forced camaraderie. "Finish it if you like. There's plenty more where this one came from."

    "I'm working," Tovera said. Her smile was as wide as her thin mouth permitted and looked–at least looked–real.



    "Mistress-s-s?" Fallert said. "Do you mean that if you became drunk, you would not be able to kill?"

    "Not that," said Tovera, still smiling. "I might forget to stop, though."

    She laughed, and Fallert laughed, and Hogg laughed so hard that some of his big mouthful of wine squirted out his nostrils. Corius looked a little queasy. Adele wasn't sure he understood all the by-play, but there was enough going on even at a surface level to disturb anybody who wasn't used to it. And he'd been in the car also when the APCs bore down on it shooting….

    "Look, I don't see that there's any more to do tonight," he said. "I propose to get some sleep and discuss the details in the morning."

    "Adele, I have a few questions," Daniel said. "Can we go over them now, or–"

    "Of course," Adele said, striding back to the desk and her data unit. If she was going to work, she'd have the wands in her hands. The wands or a pistol, and not the pistol tonight.

    Corius had been heading toward the line of locked storerooms which the addition of cots had turned into sleeping quarters for him and those who'd accompanied him. He paused and without comment joined Daniel.

    The desk was meant to be used standing, which didn't matter to Adele one way or another. Hogg slid over a crate and sat, but the others decided to stand also. The two attendants watched from beside the door. Adele wondered if she should order them to leave. For the moment she didn't see any reason to.

    Tovera walked over the pair and spoke briefly. They left the warehouse through the pedestrian door.

    "We've been told there're ship-killing missiles at the base," Daniel said. "Are there, and are they operational?"

    Adele had been gathering electronic data simultaneously through the antennas on warehouse roof and from the pickups on Daniel's goggles. As she sorted them, she heard Quinn say plaintively, "How's she going to tell that? You'd have to be right there with the missiles, wouldn't you?"

    No, of course you wouldn't. You could determine whether the targeting radar–and lidar, Adele learned on checking her database on Metex Group AS9 missiles–were active, whether the signals were being relayed to the missile battery, and whether the missile control panel registered the six missiles as being ready to launch.

    "Yes," Adele said. "The missiles are here and are live."

    She threw up a display of Mandelfarne Island, then shrank the scale to focus on the missile battery in a pit two hundred yards from the chalked cross on which the resupply vessel landed. This inventory-control terminal didn't have projection lenses, so she had to use those of her little data unit. They weren't really adequate at the present scale, but her audience would have to make do.

    Daniel sucked his lower lip for a moment and nodded. "Well, I was willing to hope they were bluffing," he said. "I had visions of bringing the Sissie down and ending the war with her ventral turret while we hovered."

    "But Arruns has plasma cannon even if he didn't have missiles, doesn't he?" said Corius. "We know he does–on the armored vehicles at least. They shot at us."

    "There's twelve guns around the perimeter of the island," said Daniel, turning his head slightly. "But they're two-inch weapons, Councilor. Serious enough against boats and aircraft, but no danger to a starship. A ship's plating's thick enough to take half a dozen bolts on the same point–plasma doesn't have much penetration, you see. The missile battery's the problem."

    There were only ten guns in working order, but Adele didn't correct Daniel on a point that didn't change the basic reality. And of course the most basic reality was that missile battery.

    "They don't engage the Rainha, though," Daniel said, turning back toward Adele and resuming with his next topic for discussion. "Adele, can you forge her electronic signatures?"

    "It doesn't matter if she can," Corius protested. "They'll see the difference between your corvette and a transport even if Lady Mundy mimics the Rainha's transmissions perfectly."

    He didn't raise his voice unreasonably, but his whole manner emphasized that he was an intelligent, powerful man who was proud of his ability to grasp situations better than those around him. In that and in other ways, Corius reminded Adele of her own father.

    "Yes, we'll have to use one of your ships, I'm afraid," Daniel said. "I'd bring it in normally and then your assault troops would rush the positions. The ship-owners wouldn't approve if you told them ahead of time, but I doubt there'd be damage that my Sissies couldn't patch in whatever shipyard Port Dunbar offers."

    "Commander," Adele said, "I can't do that. The landing procedures involve Base Control making coded exchanges with both the Rainha and the cruiser in orbit. The encryption is single-pass, truly random, and I can't enter the nodes where they're stored. Arruns has an Alliance communications unit with personnel on both ships. They won't be fooled, not by me at least."

    "Then not by God Himself, eh, Councilor?" Daniel said with a rueful smile. "We need a starship to assault the base, and the Pellegrinians themselves have the only ship that can do it."

    "So we capture their ship," said Hogg. "The Rainha. We've done that before, young master–captured a ship, I mean."

    "Yes, but not a ship with a cruiser for escort," said Daniel. "Except…."

    His smile grew wider. Adele saw the expression and smiled as well. "Yes, of course," she said. "The Rainha won't be under escort while she's being loaded in Central Haven."

    She shifted her display, replacing Mandelfarne with an image of the transport built up from data recorded when it and the Princess Cecile crossed above Pellegrino. A moment ago Adele had thought it was a middle-sized vessel of no particular interest; now she highlighted the hatches through which the ship could be entered.

    "I'll have to go myself, you realize," she said.

    "Umm, no, I don't think that's a good idea," Daniel said. "I'll send–"

    "Commander," said Adele sharply. "There's no one else available who can use the Rainha's identification transponder to respond correctly to the ground interrogations. You can't, Tovera can't. And that's why we're planning to capture the ship, you'll recall."

    "Ah," said Daniel. "Yes, I do recall that."

    He turned to Corius. Hogg was standing again. "Councilor," Daniel said, "I need to get back to Ollarville–to the Princess Cecile, that is–as soon as your car's accumulators can be recharged. Do you agree with this course?"

    "I agree," said Corius, "but it'll take eight hours to get a full charge. And we'll need a full charge–it ran completely flat flying here in the other direction."

    "The forklifts in this warehouse use the same accumulators," Hogg said. "Only one apiece instead of three; they're a standard size. There's four forklifts and they're charged, which I checked before we went out tonight."

    "Come along, Hogg," said Daniel cheerfully. "Let's swap accumulators. It's a good thing Woodson has had a chance to sleep, because he's going to driving straight through to Ollarville. And then–"

    He and Hogg were trotting toward the bank of forklifts against the sidewall, their boots scuffling against the timber flooring.

    "–it'll be my turn to make the fastest run from Dunbar's World to Pellegrino that anybody's ever dreamed of!"

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