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The Way to Glory: Chapter Thirteen

       Last updated: Wednesday, March 23, 2005 22:55 EST



Sinmary on Nikitin

    Adele settled herself, feeling the log beneath her gurgle a little against the soggy soil. Her utilities were waterproof within limits, but she suspected she'd be exceeding those limits tonight.

    Not that it mattered, of course. Her data unit was sealed against dampness and the weather was warm enough that her fingers wouldn't stiffen on the control wands. Mere personal discomfort was too ordinary a part of her life to be worth considering.

    Adele, Daniel and Hogg were in the gully that led to the Grand Gallery, simply because it provided concealment. They were well to the east of the parking area and a full five hundred yards from the entrance. Tovera had placed herself to watch for Mondreaux's approach without alerting him.

    Adele hadn't asked where Tovera'd be. The pale sociopath had training in that sort of thing, and Adele herself did not.

    "I wish we had a camera in the cave," Daniel said softly. "If we can't be inside ourselves."

    "He's on the way," Tovera said. "He's walking from the housing estate instead of flying here. He'll reach the parking area in two minutes or less."

    Adele and Daniel wore RCN commo helmets; Hogg did not, but Daniel made a quick hand-signal to him and got a nod in return. They were, Adele recalled, old hunting companions.

    "We can't be inside," Adele said, "for the same reason we can't have a camera there. Tovera says if he's a member of the Fifth Bureau--"

    Which Tovera herself had been, the intelligence agency reporting directly to Guarantor Porra.

    "--he'll have been taught to sweep the area for watchers and electronic devices before he enters it. We have nothing to gain by assuming Mondreaux is badly trained or incompetent."

    The first of Adele's five surveillance cameras showed movement. She expanded the image on the right half of her display. A man in a brown, shapeless cloak and a broad-brimmed hat came down the pathway, showing neither haste nor obvious caution. Only Tovera's identification made Adele sure he was Mondreaux.

    Hair-fine optical cables linked the miniature cameras to Adele's personal data unit. The lines had no thermal or electro-optical signature, and to infra-red sensors the cameras themselves looked like the local equivalent of cicadas calling from tree branches. Even so Tovera'd been unwilling to risk placing one in the Grand Gallery itself.

    Mondreaux walked past the first camera and into the field of the second; Adele expanded that image in turn. Though he was abreast of her and her companions, fifty yards of earth and vegetation hid them from one another's direct sight. The mesh walkway squealed against the posts that supported it, but the pedestrian's feet made no sound at all.

    Mondreaux reached the parking area and the field of the third camera. He kept to the edge framed by knee-high bushes, not concealing himself exactly but positioning himself so that his outlines were blurred. He stepped into the gully, crossed it, and followed the broader path into the woods on the other side.

    Tovera had placed the fourth camera to cover as much of the route as possible, but Mondreaux was occasionally out of sight among the trees. Adele found she tensed each time she lost the image, but Daniel and Hogg scarcely seemed to notice.

    Hogg slipped a set of brass knuckles onto his right hand and clenched his fist. Adele said nothing, but she winced internally. She couldn't interrogate Mondreaux if his jaw was broken.

    On the other hand, the knuckle-duster wasn't the worst option Hogg might've picked. She smiled slightly. Hogg's tool of choice for close-in work was a large folding knife, which would make interrogation even more difficult....

    The last camera was pinned to a tree fifty yards from the cavern's entrance. Because of its height, it had a narrow but uninterrupted line of sight through the Gallery. By increasing its magnification and light-amplification, Adele could get as good an image of the third sinkhole as she could've from the end of the cavern proper.

    Mondreaux paused at the entrance to the Grand Gallery, then walked down the steps slowly with his left arm slightly raised. He might've been looking at a wristwatch. Adele presumed he was checking a multi-function sensor disguised as a watch.

    Within the cavern he sauntered along the left-hand--seaward--side. He looked mostly ahead and to his right but occasionally turned suddenly to glance back at the entrance. His behavior dispelled any doubt that Adele might've had that Mondreaux was more than a gigolo... though in fact, she hadn't had many doubts.

    She'd set her display on briefing mode again; Daniel watched it intently, but Hogg gave most of his attention to their present surroundings, the gully and the vegetation to either side. Adele assumed--and Hogg probably did also--that Tovera would warn them of any threat from outside, but Hogg watched anyway. He regarded it as his task to keep the young master safe. It wasn't one he delegated, ever.

    Mondreaux reached the end of the Grand Gallery and pulled the rope supports out of the way. "Do you have a sound pickup in the cavern?" Daniel whispered urgently.

    "No," said Adele. She didn't add, "For the same reason that I don't have a camera in there." She even kept the irritation she felt at a silly question out of her tone. Well, mostly out of her tone. "And a parabolic microphone wouldn't help while he's facing away from us."

    There'd been a signal of some sort, though it might've been merely the clink of the metal stands on the cavern floor. A figure appeared in the alcove on the other side of the sinkhole, then vanished for a moment. Mondreaux waited with his hands on his hips.

    The second figure reappeared in the alcove, pulling a narrow structure. "It's a ship's ladder," Daniel whispered. "We use them for access to the holds."

    Adele focused her camera on the face and dialed in maximum light intensification. Mondreaux bent to catch the end of the ladder being extended toward him. That gave the camera a good angle at the second person. The image was blurred and grainy, but it was Lt. Pontefract beyond question. He wore a 2nd Class uniform.

    "Got him!" Daniel said. "Got him! Adele, are you storing the images for evidence so--"

    He paused, frozen. Adele hadn't opened her mouth, but white fire licked her mind.

    "I'm very sorry," Daniel said. He was squatting beside her. He didn't stand up, but his back stiffened as though he were at attention and his eyes locked on the infinite distance ahead of him. "Yes, of course you're storing the information. I beg your pardon."

    "Your apology is accepted," Adele said. A tiny smile tugged the corner of her mouth. Everybody makes mistakes. It's what you do next that separates the men from the weasels....

    The ladder slipped from the hands of one man or the other, raising a tinny cling-g as it hit the rock. Mondreaux walked across, his arms spread for balance. He wobbled slightly.

    "Well, at least we know he's not from Alliance Fleet Intelligence," Daniel said, the hook of a sneer hidden in his smile. The RCN trained its midshipmen to the same standards as riggers: Daniel could've danced across that ladder blindfolded while carrying another man.

    Which Adele certainly couldn't do. On the other hand, Master Mondreaux's professional skills appeared to be quite respectable, even if he didn't have a gymnast's sense of balance, or a rigger's.

    Bending low, Pontefract and Mondreaux disappeared around the angle of the passage on the other side of the sinkhole. They left the ladder in place behind them. Adele let out her breath.

    "Mundy, would you show me the plan of the cavern's extension, please?" Daniel said formally. "The part we can't see."

    "Yes," Adele said simply. She hadn't been expecting that particular request, but she'd queued for immediate access all the files she'd used during their operation. She brought up the sonogram with a twist of her wands, then shrank the image area to limit it to the pigtail leading toward the Admiral's Mansion.

    "All right, Hogg," Daniel said, using a stripped twig as a pointer. Adele noticed that he didn't stick the tip into the hologram but rather indicated his subject from outside where he didn't disrupt the image. "The neck just across the ladder is the narrowest point, but then the cavity swells out considerably before shrinking again. If we wait in the neck, we can prevent Mondreaux from escaping back into mansion. And if he somehow gets away in the other direction, I think we can be confident that Mundy and Tovera will stop him before he leaves the cavern."

    He gave Adele a smile that had only a perfunctory dash of humor. "By shooting him in the kneecap, if necessary," he added.

    "I don't guess he'll get that far," Hogg said. His words were neutral; their implications were not.

    "Any comments or questions, Mundy?" Daniel said, with the professional formality he affected when they were discussing RCN business.

    Adele thought, then shrugged. "No," she said. "Since they've left the ladder in place, that appears to be the safest plan. Tovera and I will wait just outside the gallery's entrance and act as the situation warrants."

    Things could still go wrong. Things could always go wrong. But all four of them had a demonstrated ability to act with intelligent dispatch in a developing situation. With dispatch and--Adele's smile was dry--with ruthlessness. She'd have her belt ready to use as a tourniquet in case she or Tovera blew Mondreaux's leg off at the knee.

    She thought she heard a faint thump from direction of the cavern. It could've been a door closing at the end of the passage; alternatively her mind might've invented the sound. Still, it was about right length of time for Pontefract and Mondreaux to have reached the Admiral's Mansion.

    Daniel and Hogg must've come to the same conclusion, because they both rose to their feet and looked toward the gallery. "One thing before we get into position, Hogg," Daniel said. "Are you carrying a gun?"

    "If I was," Hogg said in low-voiced belligerance instead of answering, "it'd be only common sense, wouldn't it? I guess our boy Mondreaux is packing one, ain't he?"

    "I don't know whether he is or not, Hogg," Daniel said calmly. "I am sure that I'd rather be killed myself than to survive to explain to Admiral Milne how I accidently killed her Flag Lieutenant. Leave the gun behind, please. Officer Mundy will take good care of it."

    "Master, you know I won't use it unless--"

    "I know things go wrong," Daniel said, not sharply but as relentlessly as a hornet. "I know mistakes occur. I try to minimize the possibility of irremediable mistakes."


    "Leave the gun, Hogg," Daniel said, "or stay here with it. Now."

    "Aye, young master," Hogg mumbled, reaching into a pocket of his baggy jacket. He withdrew a squat, massive pistol which he handed to Adele. She eyed it, then slid it beneath her waistband.

    Hogg's pistol threw a slug several times the weight of the tiny pellets from Adele's weapon. If you chose your target properly--an eye, a temple, the soft flesh at the base of a throat--the extra mass was unnecessary and the smaller projectile's reduced recoil let you swing onto the next target more quickly; but each to his own taste. Hogg could be depended on to get the job done, no matter what tool he was using.

    "Good hunting, then, Mundy," Daniel said, smiling brightly. "Let's hope the morning finds us heroes instead of goats, eh?"

    "Let's just hope the morning finds us alive, eh?" said Hogg. "I'll settle for being a live goat."

    "Yes, well," said Daniel, setting off toward the Grand Gallery. "Adele, if Mondreaux kills me and Hogg, please shoot him in both knees, if you would."

    "Yes, Daniel," said Adele Mundy.

    And then I will shoot him in the back of the neck, before deciding whether to shoot myself as well. Because life really won't have much of value if anything happens to you.



    Daniel used his helmet's light-amplification to study the cavern's wildlife while he waited for the spy's return. The mode was passive, just a matter of increasing the energy of every photon which struck the visor to the equivalent of many photons. It could be detected, but not as easily as Daniel's body heat could.

    The chamber in which he and Hogg squatted was six or seven feet wide and ten in length. Rocks that'd scaled off of the roof and sides littered the floor. There must've been more debris in the recent past, but somebody'd cleared a path down the center.

    Pontefract wouldn't have dared to delegate that task. Daniel smiled, amused to think of Milne's elegant Aide de Camp lifting rocks like a navvy.

    His smile faded. This was going to be a very bad thing for Pontefract who, by everything Daniel had seen, was a perfectly decent fellow. His Academy scores were good--Adele had checked, of course--and one of his grandfathers had been an admiral. Admiral Pontefract had passed away years ago, but not before he'd nurtured a number of officers currently holding high rank in the RCN.

    Pontefract should've gone far. Because of bad judgment in what he'd thought was a purely private matter, he'd be lucky if he was allowed to resign his commission instead of being court martialled as a traitor.

    An eep-eep-eep echoed through the passage. Daniel and Hogg both tensed for a moment, then relaxed. The sound could've passed for mechanical, but it was really an insectoid which'd been calling at eleven minute intervals ever since they'd entered the cavern three hours earlier.

    Daniel wondered if the squeal of the door into the mansion a quarter mile away had brought the little fellow to this cave. Nothing seemed to be answering him, so he must be pretty frustrated by now.

    He grinned, thinking of Ginny Raynham. No matter how things went tonight, he'd been luckier than the bug.

    He and Hogg had gotten here through the slit connecting to the Grand Gallery. The passage twisting northward out of the chamber narrowed but never to the tight crawl in the other direction. The last fifty feet were saw-cut, ending at an armored door with a keypad lock. The inertial navigation system in Daniel's helmet proved the obvious, that the basement level of Admiral's Mansion was on the other side of that door.

    The plan Daniel had made on the basis of the sonogram was still the correct one, though. There wasn't a better place than this chamber in which to wait for Mondreaux's return.

    Hogg reached into a pocket and brought out a flask. He handed it to Daniel, who took another swig of the brandy. When he returned it, Hogg drank in turn.

    "Looks like I should've brought the whole keg," Hogg said morosely.

    "I don't imagine Mondreaux is going to sleep overnight in the mansion, Hogg," Daniel said. "Apart from anything else, Captain Molliman tells me that Milne spends quite a lot of time there herself. Keeping clear of her husband, according to rumor."

    He wondered where Hogg'd come by the liquor. It was excellent stuff--certainly better than anything aboard the Hermes.

    He didn't ask where the brandy came from, of course. Either Hogg wouldn't tell him; or worse, Hogg might. Knowing Hogg, that would probably make Daniel an accessory after the fact.

    You wouldn't have thought enough light penetrated this deep in the cave for algae to grow, but the wet rock had blotches of it--pink rather than green when Daniel had examined it with his hand lamp earlier, though simply dark against lighter stone now. His visor's light amplification would show shapes and textures, but not colors.

    Adele had downloaded part of Nikitin's natural history database into Daniel's helmet on her own initiative, so he'd had something to occupy his mind while he waited. Larval insectoids, slowly wriggling worms with a myriad tiny legs, were browsing the algae. They were relatives of a finger-long hopper that chirped in the surface forests, but this species was neotenous: the larvae bred and died without ever metamorphosing into adult forms.

    A clink! echoed down the long passage, followed by clink-clink. Hogg grunted and straightened to his feet like a dog rising as his master appears. Daniel had offered him a helmet or RCN goggles with the same range of optical enhancements, but he'd refused.

    That wasn't simply braggadocio. Hogg had hunted and snared for close on fifty years using the senses he'd been born with. Electronic 'improvements' risked masking sensory inputs that'd meant success in the past.

    Daniel rose also, stretching limb by limb. There was no need for haste. Mondreaux and Pontefract--who had to come down to pull the ladder back into hiding--couldn't get to this point in less than three minutes, and they had no reason to hurry.

    Algae and insectoids had kept Daniel calm during the long wait, but now he had something else to occupy him. He spread the 6-foot minnow net to make sure it wasn't knotted, then brought his hands together again. The net had a weighted rim and a drawstring to pull it closed.

    It was intended for catching bait, but instead of casting it Daniel intended to drape it directly over Mondreaux's head and torso. He'd thought of bringing some sort of club--a wrench or a length of high pressure tubing like Woetjans carried--but the net would keep the fellow from pulling a weapon. A good whack with a club risked turning him into a vegetable who couldn't answer questions.

    Daniel heard feet shuffling down the passage. There were two people, as expected, talking in low voices. He couldn't make out their words. The entrance to the chamber brightened perceptibly; one or both men were lighting their way with hand lamps at minimum output.

    Portions of the passage were wide enough for two men to walk abreast, but the slot into this chamber was not. Daniel, standing beside the entrance, spread the net before him with his arms raised. If Pontefract was the first through the opening, they'd have to hope that he was too focused on the narrow cleared path to notice the men poised to either side.

    Mondreaux came through first. He didn't have a light, so the faint glow of his companion's lamp threw his shadow into the chamber.

    "Next Thursday, then, dear--" he was saying over his shoulder. Daniel stepped toward him, whipping the minnow net forward and down.

    Mondreaux ducked, raising his left arm as his right hand snaked toward his hip pocket. He was very fast. Daniel kicked, the toe of his boot meeting the gun as Mondreaux brought it out and sending it clattering down the passage.

    Somebody shouted. Mondreaux's companion flicked the lamp to maximum output. Daniel's visor went black momentarily to save his retinas. Mondreaux, lizard-quick, kicked Daniel in the ankle and darted past him through the chamber. The minnow net still dangled from his head and left shoulder, but he had his right arm free.

    Daniel leaped for Mondreaux. Fallen rock skidded under his right foot. He caught the spy's sleeve rather than the cord of the net; Mondreaux twisted and jerked hard. Daniel crashed to the cave floor on his left side, clutching the torn-off sleeve.

    Hogg's weighted fist smacked something hard. The shouting stopped. The hand lamp turned to light the ceiling instead of glaring at Daniel and Mondreaux.

    Bent double, the spy dodged into the narrow throat between this chamber and the Grand Gallery. Daniel threw himself after the man. His left wrist was a mass of stabbing needles, but the pain didn't matter now. He ducked but he didn't duck low enough, and his head smacked the ceiling.

    Daniel slid face-forward. The helmet had kept him from a concussion, but maybe if he hadn't been wearing the bloody thing he wouldn't have hit the rock in the first place. It was askew now. He flung it behind him and scrambled the rest of the way out of the throat.

    Mondreaux was already across the sinkhole. "Don't shoot!" Daniel shouted and stepped onto the ladder. Neither Adele nor her servant was likely to blaze away without being sure of her target, but Hogg had drilled it into his young master that your fellow hunters were likely to be more dangerous than any animal you were after.

    Mondreaux bent and grasped the ladder. He jerked it toward him, twisting it on edge at the same time.

    Daniel was midway across the sinkhole. He jumped, not forward or back but to the exiguous ledge along the wall of the cavern to his left. Without his weight to anchor it, the far end of the ladder slid into the sinkhole.

    Mondreaux screamed. He tried to fling the ladder away, but he'd already overbalanced. He teetered on the edge, his arms flailing in circles.

    Daniel's ledge was less than a hand's breadth wide and generally only half that. He couldn't have stood still on it, because the arch of the wall pushed his center of mass out beyond his footing. The ladder sank into the pool beneath him with a bubbling splash.

    As he'd found many times in a starship's rigging, speed could save you when nothing else would. Using the inertia of his sideways leap, Daniel sprinted along the curving ledge in two strides. The third put him into the floor of the cavern proper.

    Mondreaux toppled forward with a despairing wail. Daniel grabbed his left wrist and pulled. Daniel's balance wasn't good enough to support his own weight and the spy's at arm's length; he went into the sinkhole also, still holding Mondreaux but catching the edge with his left hand. Gods! how his wrist hurt, it was burning in half and it didn't matter, not now.

    "Adele, throw Mondreaux the rope!" Daniel shouted. Would the decorative cord support the spy's thrashing weight? Better than Daniel's own wrist would, at least. This couldn't go on. "I can't hold him much longer!"

    The pool boiled. Bloody hell, the squid! There was Hogg on the other side of the sinkhole but he couldn't do anything, while Adele and Tovera had the whole length of the gallery to run.

    Light leaking from Pontefract's lamp in the far passage glittered on the thousands of diamond points slashing upward, the tiny claws unsheathing as the squid reached for the struggling men. Mondreaux screamed like he was being gelded, and maybe he was.

    Daniel felt his boots and trousers ripping downward. The pain in his legs was enough to make him forget his wrist for a moment.

    Hogg leaned forward. Daniel twisted his face against his left shoulder as a tentacle curved toward his head. Six of the arms were longer than the others, the database had said....

    The pool lifted in a bubble of white light. The shock and roar were volcanic. Water spouted into the cavern's ceiling and sluiced along it toward the entrance.

    For an instant Daniel hung in the air, several feet above the Gallery's floor. He'd have dropped back into the sinkhole, roiling and thundering as seawater rushed through the channel to refill it, but Adele twisted and threw him like a sack of flour to the wet stone.

    "I have the other one!" Tovera said. Her voice remained emotionless but she spoke louder than Daniel had heard her before. "You can let go of him, Lieutenant."

    Am I still holding Mondreaux? Daniel thought; and he was, he had to consciously relax the fingers of his right hand and Gods! how his left wrist burned, it was a bonfire searing that whole side of his body.

    "He's dead," Tovera said. "There's a compartment in his belt buckle, though. That's where the information will be."

    She laughed--tittered would've been a more descriptive word--and added, "We were lucky it stayed attached."

    Daniel rose to his knees and right hand, keeping as much weight as he could off his left side. Gods! but he hurt.

    "Tovera, do you have bandages in your case?" Adele said. "Lt. Leary is bleeding."

    Daniel looked at Mondreaux, sprawled on the stone beside him like a blood-soaked sponge. The spy had lost not only his trousers and shoes, his right arm had been ripped off at the shoulder and the grip of a hooked tentacle had flayed his face to the bare skull.

    "I'll take care of him, mistress," Tovera said, handing Adele the belt and opening her attaché case. A small sub-machine gun was cradled in the center so that it presented itself to the hand of whoever opened the case, but around it were nestled a series of discrete compartments. Tovera took a spray flask from one, closed the case, and knelt beside Daniel.

    He hadn't lost his hand lamp, for a wonder. He shone it down into the sinkhole. The pool had refilled, but the water thrashed and swirled with the rush of its flooding. The squid's body floated on top in a tangle of tentacles which the blast had torn off.

    I didn't ask Hogg if he was carrying a concussion grenade, Daniel thought. And a good thing I didn't....

    "Hold still if you please, Lieutenant," Tovera said. The fingertips of her left hand touched his shoulder to keep his attention. "This is a styptic and antiseptic. I have something for the pain also, if you need it."

    "I don't," Daniel said. His voice was harsh. A spray hissed prickly iciness down the back of his right calf, then the left one.

    Daniel hadn't looked at his legs. He was afraid that they'd look like what was left of Mondreaux. He'd be able to handle that in a little while. If he was crippled, he was crippled; he knew the risks of his profession. Just at the moment, though, he was too close to slipping into shock to want to push himself in quite that fashion.

    Hogg stood on the opposite side of the sinkhole. He'd brought his coil of deep-sea fishing line from his pocket and was swinging the weight on one end in the cavity. When it looped around the topmost rung of the fallen ladder, Hogg gave the line a quick jerk to set it, then lifted the ladder out hand over hand. The grenade had twisted the light metal badly, but it'd still do to cross the sinkhole.

    The narrow throat leading from the Admiral's Mansion brightened as Mondreaux's companion squirmed through behind a hand lamp. Hogg glanced over his shoulder but continued to haul up the ladder; Tovera opened her case minusculely.

    "Tovera, please take your hand away from that immediately," Daniel said quietly. He stood, putting himself between Adele's pale spider and the opening across the sinkhole. He couldn't feel anything in his legs, but they seemed to hold him upright. He felt as though he were balancing on very long stilts. Louder, he called, "Lt. Pontefract?"

    Mondreaux's companion stepped into plain sight. It was Admiral Milne herself.

    Nobody spoke for a moment. Daniel felt himself swaying.

    Adele put a hand on his elbow and guided him back from the edge. "You'd better sit down, Daniel," she said. "I've only had time for a cursory examination of the material Mondreaux was carrying, but I believe on the basis of it I should be the one to discuss the situation with Admiral Milne."

    "Good luck," Daniel said, bracing himself to sit down as directed. He'd stood up easily, but that was because he hadn't had time to think about it. "And I mean that very sincerely."

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