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The Way to Glory: Chapter Sixteen

       Last updated: Monday, April 11, 2005 18:31 EDT



Over Yang

    "Here's Heavenly Peace, the capital of Yang," Adele said, placing the image on a quadrant of Daniel's command display. The crew could view it on their visors or goggles if they liked, though she'd learned that few spacers were interested in anything about landfalls except the harborfront dives. "Ships land in Sunrise Bay, but there's half a mile of marshes between the harbor and the city proper... here."

    As Adele spoke, she highlighted first the broad body of water opening to the sea through a neck only three hundred yards wide; then the band of marsh surrounding the bay; and finally the city itself. Heavenly Peace straggled in much the same undisciplined fashion the marshes did.

    So far as Adele was concerned, planets tended to be pretty much the same from orbit. Yang was mildly unusual: the native vegetation was reddish, almost purple, so the patches humans had hacked out of the forests to grow Terra-derived crops looked like green mold on fresh meat.

    It was also unusual that a great deal of up-to-date imagery was available for Yang, permitting Adele to sharpen her real-time display for this briefing. 614 was half a million miles out from Yang, too far for a cutter's optics to get real detail. Daniel could've brought them much closer--and no doubt would after he'd gotten a look at the situation--but the rebel base on Big Florida Island had ship-killing missiles, and it was at least possible that the planet had sprouted other serious problems.

    The imagery was available because over the past several years RCN vessels had been arriving on Yang with the regularity of a courier service. They'd carried--Adele had skimmed them all--Remonstrances, Protests, and occasionally Collegial Greetings.

    Those last occurred when the Republic of Cinnabar addressed the new president of its sister republic, Yang. Often the Greetings were coupled with Remonstrances or Protests, however, since governmental change on Yang was a robust activity that not infrequently swept up Cinnabar citizens. As had happened this time, come to think; though the government hadn't changed quite yet.

    "This is the Presidential Palace," she went on, increasing the magnification and highlighting a cluster of buildings. "It's in a walled and moated compound enclosing a total of three or four acres. We'll have to go there to see President Shin, since he rarely goes out. Also the prison where the Burdock mercenaries are presumably held is part of the same complex. We won't know their location for certain until I've spoken to the Consular Agent here, Mister Kwo."

    She pursed her lips. "Unless they've already been shot, of course," she added.

    "Hell," called Dasi, one of the senior riggers. "Me'n Barnes'll shoot'em ourself if it means we go straight back outa here. We heard stories about this place on Sinmary, and that's no paradise port neither."

    There was general laughter. Dasi was joking, of course; but if Daniel'd asked them to, he and his partner Barnes would probably have done just that. They were hard men in a hard line of work. They trusted Captain Leary, and they didn't worry much about things they figured were officers' business.

    Daniel would never give such an order, of course. Several of those aboard 614 might carry out such a massacre without orders or even against orders, however. Hogg would beyond question kill any number of people if he thought it'd keep his young master safe.

    And so, Adele supposed, would Signals Officer Mundy. She wouldn't like herself afterwards; but she didn't like herself anyway, so saving Daniel by slaughtering innocents wouldn't have a real cost for her.

    "And where is Big Florida Island, if you please, Mundy?" Daniel asked with his usual public formality. "Since we're to avoid it on pain of being blown out of the sky, everyone tells me."

    "It's here, a hundred and seventy miles north of Heavenly Peace, just off the coast," Adele said. She drew the image back considerably to bring Big Florida into the frame with the capital, then shrank the scale again to focus on the rebel stronghold. "The Chrysoberyl made a low-level survey of the island seven months ago, before the missile batteries arrived, so we know the layout very accurately."

    The island was heart-shaped and about a mile across in either direction. The point was to the south, and on the heart's seaward lobe were something over a dozen sheds and buildings. A starship rested on the other lobe. The ground around it must've been soft, because a corduroy road--a track of tree boles laid side by side--had been built out from the center of the island to the vessel's main hatch.

    "The missile batteries are here...," Adele said, putting a red caret at the point of the heart. Her wands flicked two more carets to life, on the shore of each lobe. "Here, and here. We don't have closeups of them, of course."

    "One moment," Daniel said. "According to what I heard, the missiles are first-class weapons. The round that was fired at the Cutlass four months ago would've been fatal if it'd struck the center of mass instead of being decoyed above the hull because a jammed antenna hadn't folded properly."

    "Yes, that's right," Adele said. "The missiles appear to be recent manufacture from one of the industrial worlds of the Alliance, Gransby or DeLoit."

    "Why?" said Daniel. "Hypervelocity missiles cost a fortune. You could buy another junk courier ship--" he gestured "--like this Beacon of Yang for less than any one of those batteries cost, so what are the missiles intended to protect?"

    Adele cleared her throat. "I don't know," she said. "I'll...." She'd have continued, "... try to find out," but as her mind formed the words she realized she didn't have any idea where to begin researching the question. Instead she added, "I'll keep that in mind."

    "Switch back to the harbor, if you would," Daniel said, "and then return control of the imagery to me."

    "Yes of course," Adele said, shifting to a display in which the harbor filled half the image area. Ships winked like bubbles on a cup of hot cocoa. Most of the remainder was marsh, but she'd deliberately chosen a scale in which the edges of the city appeared as well.

    She wondered about his comment. Adele hadn't locked Daniel out of his own display--though she could've done so easily if she'd had a mind to. She wasn't sure whether he really thought she'd been that discourteous, of he were instead delicately asking her not to interfere with the display while he was working with it.

    Using his virtual keyboard, Daniel ran a cursor across each ship in the harbor. They were mostly small freighters carrying plasma cannon for short-range self-defense. None had missiles nor the rocket batteries that were a pirate's favorite weapon. The only moderately large vessel, a 6,000 tonner built originally as a livestock carrier, had been a hulk for a decade.

    Each time the cursor touched a ship, a sidebar including name, registration, and officers, appeared at the side of his display. Adele smiled faintly. Did Daniel realize that this information came from his Signals Officer's digging rather than some piece of software installed on the equipment?

    Yes, probably he did. Daniel noticed things. When he got a moment, he'd even thank her for it. Now he had other matters to attend to.

    "How do people and cargo get from the harbor to the city proper?" Daniel said, reducing his field and shifting it around the belt of marsh. "There aren't any roads that I can see, and the port facilities don't seem to be operating either."

    "There's been no maintenance on the quays and slips since the Alliance left Yang eighty years ago," Adele explained. "There's no port control either, though I gather there'll be what call themselves customs inspectors coming aboard and demanding fees. Previous RCN vessels have sent the inspectors away with scant respect, though if I read the records correctly, a few years ago the Bayonet did make a payment. Her captain hoped the bribe would ease his way with the government."

    "Did it?" said Daniel, raising his eyebrows in wonder. "I suppose we could find a reasonable sum if...."

    "No, of course it didn't," Adele replied tartly. "There's very little connection between the various bureaucracies and whoever's President for the moment. Certainly no connection that works from the bottom up. Bribe President Shin if you like, but don't bother with the small fry."

    "Ah," said Daniel agreeably. "And the question of transport? If we don't choose to hijack the customs boat, I mean."

    Adele grinned. "I haven't ruled that out," she said. "The larger RCN vessels which've called here in the past carried aircars. We don't and couldn't have because of available volume. Freighters are met by barges from commercial houses in the city, either factors they already have an arrangement with or otherwise a mob struggling for the pick of the cargo. A warship won't have that option. I presume we can hire a barge after we've landed, however."

    "That's one possibility," said Daniel in a detached tone which Adele took to mean, "That's not going to happen." He moved his image field onto the Presidential Compound, still at the large scale with which he'd been searching for routes from the harbor.

    Daniel's dismissive attitude irritated Adele a trifle. Well, it irritated her a good deal, but without any justification. The decision wasn't one for Signals Officer Mundy--and it certainly wasn't one for Mundy of Chatsworth, which is how she'd been unconsciously viewing herself in her mind as she lectured the crew.

    "Do we have any information on the palace defenses?" Daniel asked, increasing magnification on one of the guard towers built onto the compound wall. "It looks to me like an automatic impeller here. Are the rest the same?"

    Adele's wands sorted data. She had the answer, but she hadn't expected to need it above any one of a thousand other bits of information about Yang, its government, and its foreign relations, so it took her longer to find than she'd have liked. As data poured across her display she saw on the quadrant echoing the command console that Daniel was working his focus around the walls. He stopped at each tower to make his own assessment.

    "There're six automatic impellers," Adele said sharply to draw Daniel's attention to her. "There's a three-tube laser in the northeast tower, but it was installed thirty years ago and wasn't used when President Shin--"

    She paused for a smile of sorts.

    "--Field Marshal Shin as he then was, when his forces stormed the Presidential Compound a year and a half ago. And there's a twelve-rocket launcher stripped from what'd been the Yang Navy before it sank in harbor. It's somewhere in the compound but apparently in storage."

    "That's good to know," Daniel said, shifting his image to examine the moat surrounding the compound. "Mind, an automatic impeller can put enough holes in a cutter's hull to make it unflyable."

    He slid his frame counter-clockwise, keeping the outer wall on the left of the image. Two keystrokes overlaid the moat with a scale ticked at one-foot intervals.

    "Sir?" said Sun, watching Daniel intently from the gunnery board. "If you just lift high enough above the harbor to give me a line, I can take out all three towers on the facing side with pairs of rockets. Then we can assault easy."

    "Come now, Sun," Daniel said with a broad smile. "We're not assaulting anybody. We're diplomats in uniform, come to clarify an unfortunate circumstance with the president of an independent world. Is that the correct terminology, Officer Mundy?"

    Adele shrugged. "I think we're permitted to remonstrate," she said. "Since President Shin admits that he's holding Cinnabar citizens, but he hasn't freed them on his own account."

    "Remonstrate, then," Daniel said, nodding cheerfully, "but not to the point of blowing a hole in his little fortress. At least until after we've tried other forms of reason."

    He highlighted the moat on his display. "Fellow spacers," he said, raising his voice but not keying the intercom, "give me your attention. We'll be making another hop through the Matrix to bring us to within five thousand miles of Yang's surface."

    "Woo-ee!" called Barnes. Woetjans, standing before the hatch, shouted, "That's our Mr. Leary!" Captains who trusted their extra-sidereal navigation to within five thousand miles, even at intra-system distances, were rare even in the RCN. Crews who trusted their captains to be that accurate were even more rare.

    "Yang has no planetary or port control, so I don't intend to give the people on the ground time to wonder what we may have in mind," Daniel explained. "We'll go straight in. Rather than landing in the harbor--"

    His orange highlight pulsed. This was an informational briefing, Adele realized, but it was also a pep talk. 614's crew would follow their captain wherever he led, but they were all experienced enough to understand the risks in the present situation. Daniel was showing them that he understood the danger--also firing them up so that their obedience would be not only willing but enthusiastic.

    "--we're going to land here beside the palace. The moat itself isn't wide enough even a cutter can fit into it. We can straddle it, though, and it'll soak up our exhaust just fine. We can even refill our reaction mass when things quiet down. I know this'll be tricky--"

    "Not for you it won't, sir!" cried Raymond.

    "Yes, even for me," Daniel said, his smile spreading again. "But if I didn't expect to succeed, I'd have made a different plan."

    He sobered. "Now," he continued, "that leaves the problem of the guns in the towers. I don't expect the sort of guards President Shin has around him to be exceptionally alert or courageous, either one, but there's a risk nonetheless."

    "I can take care of them, sir!" said Sun.

    "Land with the outer hatch open and facing the place," Hogg called from the back of the cutter's bay. "Leave me in the lock with an impeller. A little steam and sparkling isn't going to keep me from making those towers real unhealthy for any wog who points a gun at us."

    Adele had been going over the list of electro-optical transmitters within the Presidential Compound. Earlier RCN vessels had recorded that information along with reams of other data that no one had looked at until she did just now. Gathering data was much easier than retrieving and analysing it.

    "I think," said Adele, "that I can clear the towers as we come in. Though I have no personal objection to having Sun and Hogg ready to act if I fail."

    "Ma'am," said Hogg. "If you say you can do it, then I'll take that to the bank. But I'll still be watching through my sights, because nobody's a problem when seventy grains of osmium've splashed their brains across an acre or so."

    Adele joined the general laughter. Her RCN family had a sense of humor that wouldn't have done at meals in the Mundy household, but Adele found that it suited her very well indeed.



    Landing a starship in an atmosphere was always a tricky business, and Daniel found that despite his care 614 was buffeted particularly badly. A cutter's four thrusters had plenty of power, but they didn't give the captain the delicacy of control available from the Sissie's eight nozzles or the much greater arrays of large ships.

    Keeping 614 from shaking herself apart--or flipping on her back; the cutter had so little mass that a thruster could be misaligned badly enough to do that--gave Daniel something to do rather than worry about what was going to come next, but he'd never been one to worry once he'd made a plan. As he'd told the crew, if he hadn't thought he could pull this off he'd be trying something else instead.

    Though Daniel had to admit that if people told him that he was out of his mind and doomed to failure, he'd have agreed that they might have a point. What Daniel knew on the basis of this crew, the nimbleness of the cutter, and his own confidence in himself, was that they were going to come through at least the first part of the operation in fine shape. For the rest, well, they'd deal with it as it developed.

    The ship's computer had picked the point at which they'd entered Yang's atmosphere and had controlled most of their descent. At ten thousand feet Daniel took over, mostly to get a feel for how 614 behaved on the way down. He'd been pleased with the way she'd climbed from Nikitin; going the other way she was skittish but instantly responsive. That was good to know, though in ordinary circumstances a cutter had little cause to land under its own power.

    Heavenly Peace was in sight so Daniel expanded the image to cover the main part of the command display. The thruster data--output, flow, temperature, erosion, and reaction mass remaining--became a sidebar, balancing the flight information--air speed, speed over ground, location, and attitude--on the other side. If something went badly wrong--if a nozzle fractured, for example--the thruster data would fill the display again, though in that case Daniel would be concentrating on the feel of the ship in his hands rather than figures.

    Along the bottom of the display crawled a block of text, the message that Adele was broadcasting through every medium available in the city below: MISSILE ATTACK! GET TO SHELTER. MISSILE ATTACK! GET UNDERGROUND OR YOU'LL DIE. She'd explained that every radio, telephone and computer, especially the National Command Net, would be shouting the same panicked warning.

    614 approached from the southwest, thundering over natural vegetation and the farms of peasants who harvested bark but also grew their own food. At low level Daniel could see that each dwelling was a fortlet, and the small towns where the local magnate processed the bark into hallucinogenic drugs were fortified on a larger scale.

    Occasionally somebody'd shot at 614 on the way down--the cutter's sensors could pick up the RF discharge of an impeller--but those appeared to be the ordinary vandalism of louts with guns rather than serious attempts to harm them. Nothing had pinged on the hull, at any rate.

    Daniel'd chosen this approach because it didn't bring them close to Big Florida Island northwest of the city. The Cutlass had started a low-level pass to see just what was happening on Big Florida. They'd been rather too successful in learning, and in fact had been extremely lucky to survive.

    The rebels' missiles could engage any vessel in orbit, and during its descent the cutter remained in range until it was within a mile of the surface. Daniel assumed that the rebels didn't waste missiles against ships that didn't look like a threat, so he'd plotted the course to be non-threatening.

    Daniel didn't care about who ran--or claimed to run--the government of Yang. He had enough problems with the current president that he didn't need to bring in his enemies.

    614 was coming in over the city proper, which Daniel hated to do--the citizens of Heavenly Peace might be individually reprehensible but as a group they were human beings even if they had a terrible government. There was no choice, though, since the palace was right in the middle of the built-up area.

    When they were only a thousand feet above the surface, Daniel started braking at nearly 4 gravities. A larger ship couldn't have sustained that deceleration without breaking up. He didn't dare hover to a landing in normal fashion, but neither did he want to come in like a meteor. Four lobes of rainbow thruster exhaust bathed the cutter, curling over the hull to merge some distance back along their track.

    The ground swelled abruptly. Daniel trusted his judgment. He'd calculated the burn and in addition to the figures the deceleration felt right, but despite that it never looked right at this stage of a descent.

    It was bad enough when there was only water beneath, beginning to sparkle under a gust of ions. This time people ran screaming in the streets or threw themselves flat on the roofs of three-story buildings. Daniel'd known 614's passage would do some damage, rattle dishes and maybe singe clothes drying on the parapets of the houses closest to touchdown, but until this moment it hadn't occurred to him that folks might break their necks fleeing from the thundering apparition.

    Death by violence was probably common in Heavenly Peace. The thought that he might be accidentally increasing the risk bothered Daniel, though.

    The wall of the palace compound flashed by to port. The guard towers were empty. Daniel didn't see even the backside of one of Shin's gunmen abandoning his post. Apparently Adele's warning had taken effect as Cutter 614 plunged toward the city.

    Which was just as well for the gunmen. Hogg was in the airlock, just like he said he'd be. Daniel was sure he'd have been able to nail his target despite buffeting, the goggles he wore to protect his eyes, and the sting of plasma wherever it touched his unprotected skin.

    The cutter squelched down in an enormous plume of steam. The feel was completely different from either a conventional water landing or the more dangerous set-downs on hard ground where reflected exhaust was likely to unbalance the vessel in the last few feet of descent. The moat's muddy banks gave under the cutter's weight initially, then baked firm and held the vessel without the usual bobbing. The water flowing through the channel directly beneath the vessel continued to dissipate the plasma for the several seconds it took before Daniel was sure that they were safely on the ground.

    "Visors down, people!" Woetjans bawled as she swung open the inner airlock hatch. "Try not to drown yourselfs, because the rest of us are likely to be too busy to fish you out!"

    Steam swept into the cutter's bay, mixed with ions dancing like miniature rainbows as they absorbed electrons to merge with the atmosphere. RCN commo helmets had filters that slapped in place at need when the visors were down. They weren't gas masks, but they removed particles and anything active enough to be trapped in a ceramic that mimicked the convolutions of natural charcoal.

    "Remember you're a guard of honor!" Daniel said, bellowing but using intercom as well. The ping of cooling metal and the bubbling rush of water replacing what'd been boiled out of the moat might overwhelm even his unaided lungs, especially when the spacers were so keyed up. They filed out carrying sub-machine guns and stocked impellers. "Don't shoot till I order you, I don't care what the wogs are doing!"

    RCN vessels had external speakers to allow those inside to reach work parties outside on the ground who might not be wearing radio helmets. Cutter 614's speakers began playing brassy music, startling Daniel as he put his hand on a spacer's chest in order to make a place for himself in the line of those leaving through the airlock.

    "It's The Song of the Liberator Hwang," Adele explained on their two-way link. "It's the national anthem."

    I suspect there're two people on the planet who know that, now that you've told me, Daniel thought. But it was the sort of detail he'd come to expect from Adele, and who knew? It just might help.

    A short ramp connected the hatch to the port outrigger. Normally in port there'd be a temporary ramp from the outrigger to the quay or shore. There was no need of that here, so the twenty spacers Daniel'd picked to escort him were jumping to the ground to face the wall of the palace compound ten feet away.

    Hogg waited for Daniel on the outrigger, the stocked impeller cradled on his left elbow. He looked worse for wear, but by no means as bad as he sometimes did after a night of partying. The goggles were up on his forehead now, but the kiss of the plasma had inflamed his cheeks and the backs of his hands.

    "There's no fight in this lot," he said disgustedly, indicating the palace with a twist of his right thumb. "Dunno what I was so worried about. Mind, it's the sort of place you go whoring with a buddy so that her pimp don't scrag you from behind while you're anchored."

    Nobody'd returned to the guard tower frowning down above the gate. That might be connected with the fact that Sun had aimed the cutter's twelve-rocket dorsal launcher straight at the tower. The warheads wouldn't have time to arm in the short distance they'd travel, but the impact of just one or two rockets would smash the yellow brickwork like so many wrecking balls.

    Yang stank. Heavenly Peace stank, at any rate. It stank like a cesspool rather than with the normal swampy odor of decaying vegetation that landings on primitive planets usually brought.

    The buildings across the moat from the palace had originally been of three or four stories, high enough to look down on the compound. In some cases portions of the walls still poked up fingers of masonry or wooden posts with rags of wickerwork remaining, but all floors above the first had been hacked or blasted away. Only at a quarter mile or so from the palace were buildings habitable to the original rooflines.

    Habitable was a flexible concept, of course. From the look of the rickety structures, they'd be unsafe and uncomfortable even by the standards of spacers crammed aboard a starship.

    The gate leaves were frames of angle iron wrapped with barbed wire. The mass was badly rusted, but fresh wire had been woven into it in the past month or so. Through the openings Daniel saw sheds straggling along the walls of the compound; in the center was a colonnaded building with stuccoed walls and a gilt dome. People were looking back at him through the pillars; they ducked out of sight when they caught his eye.

    The national anthem cut off in the middle of the phrase, "To die is a fine thing!" In Adele's voice the speaker called, "The Republic of Cinnabar sends greetings to its respected brother, President for Life Shin!"

    Eyes poked out from around pillars, then disappeared again. Was one of those nervous peepers President Shin himself?

    "Adele, can you cut me into the loudspeakers myself?" Daniel asked.

    "Done," Adele replied a heartbeat later. "Toggle it by saying, 'speaker.'"

    "Speaker," said Daniel. In a thunderous voice he continued, "President Shin, if you're all right, please admit us to your compound. Otherwise we'll have to attach a grapnel and line to your gates and pull them open with our winches so that we can bring aid to you if you're incapacitated. Speaker."

    "Hell, we don't have to do that, sir," Woetjans growled from Daniel's left side. "I can shin up that and open the gate from the inside. It looks like just a bar to pull outa the staples."

    "I think we'll wait a moment for our host to admit us properly, Woetjans," Daniel said mildly. He didn't add--because Woetjans would've taken it as a challenge--that if she started climbing the latticework, she was likely to draw fire from the darkened interior of the palace. Daniel neither wanted to lose the bosun on whom he depended nor to start a full-scale war--which that would do, since if anything happened to Woetjans he'd order Sun to put the whole sheaf of rockets into the palace facade.



    Armed men and a few women--also armed, and with the left side of their faces painted red--began to appear from the palace, taking a few tentative steps beyond the colonnade. Daniel waited, wearing a false smile and gleaming Dress Whites with all his medals. It'd been hard to carry the uniform on a cutter without getting it soaked with oil, and he knew it'd be the worst possible costume if the negotiation turned into a gunfight. It was necessary, though, if the mission were to have any chance of success.

    The soldiers came forward in a tight, chattering group, reminding Daniel of a flock of chickens rushing toward grain spread on the ground. They wore khaki uniforms, though different dye-lots gave them a motley appearance. Well, many things gave them a motley appearance. Their weapons were a mix of electromotive and chemically fueled types. Some of the latter were so new that splotches of packing grease still blackened the receivers. Daniel wondered if the bores were clear.

    The woman in the center had gold rings with bangles the length of both forearms; she wore a bicorne hat covered with gold braid. Daniel would've thought of her as ridiculous despite the sub-machine gun and the half dozen long knives stuck through her belt if it weren't that he noticed her three-strand necklace was of human teeth.

    "I'm Captain Ding-wei!" she said in an angry singsong. "You got no right coming to Yang and giving us orders! Go away back to Cinnabar!"

    Daniel saluted. "We're not giving orders," he said calmly. "We're here to greet our brother President Shin. The rocket launcher--"

    He gestured.

    "--is locked in that position. We have no intention of blowing the palace off the face of the planet with it."

    "Now that we've made nice-nice, Captain," Hogg said loudly. He rapped the gate frame with the muzzle of his impeller. "How about you get this open so we can come in and all have a nice civilized drink? Eh?"

    The iron continued to ring off-key. Ding-wei scowled, then noticed that the impeller was now aimed up her left nostril. She cried, "Wau!" and jumped back, colliding with one of her coterie. He dropped his automatic rifle with a clatter. It didn't fire. Judging by the rust on the bolt and receiver, it might not be able to fire.

    "Captain Ding-wei," Daniel said in a stern voice, "the sooner you do your duty and take us to see the President, the better off we'll all be. There could very well be an accident out here!"

    He rather wished that weren't so true. Some members of his escort were good shots, but even they were spacers carrying powerful weapons instead of soldiers who'd been trained in gun safety as well marksmanship. It'd be very bad if one of Daniel's escort blew a guard's brains out accidentally. It'd be even worse, at least from Daniel's viewpoint, if one of them blew his brains out--and that could certainly happen.

    "Corporal Jing!" Ding-wei snapped. "Open the gate at once. Now! Now! Now! you dirty little man!"

    That was a fair description of Jing, who looked at the captain in terror before jumping to the gate and sliding the bar from its staples. His khaki trousers had been cut into shorts with the left leg six inches longer than the right, but Ding-wei wasn't anything to brag about either. She must've been eating when she ran outside, because her face and both hands were greasy. Her hair was a mat of its own oils and the dull yellow dust blowing along the city's streets.

    As soon as the bar dropped clear, Barnes and Dasi shoved the leaves open with the soles of their boots. The hinges protested shrilly, but the riggers were big men and determined. They strode on, their impellers pointed forward. The remainder of the escort followed, driving the Presidential Guards before them like wind-blown thistle-seeds.

    "Captain, lead us to President Shin, if you would," Daniel said. He made a shooing motion with his left hand. He'd have taken Ding-wei by the shoulder and turn her around, but her tunic looked like it'd been used to swab out an abattoir.

    The captain flinched from the almost-contact and moved back into the building at a quickening pace. Daniel and his spacers followed closely, while the remainder of the guard detachment seemed to melt into the shanties to either side of the courtyard.

    The hallway was covered with ceramic tiles whose glazing formed murals. Oversized figures led armies or addressed crowds of people only half their size. The giants had been defaced: gunfire had erased their heads and blown craters in their groins. The underlying walls were reinforced concrete, but in several places the shots had smashed through into the next room.

    "What the Hell's that?" Hogg muttered, elbowing Daniel and nodding to the damaged murals.

    "A political statement, I presume," Daniel murmured. "I'm as glad I wasn't here when it was happening, though. The ricochets would've terrified anybody who wasn't crazy. Or crazy drunk, of course."

    Ding-wei gestured to a door of bronze filigree over velvet in a tall archway, then stepped out of the way. "Through there," she muttered. She wiped her face with her left hand, smearing the red paint. "He's in there. Go on, then."

    "Right," said Daniel, striding forward. Hogg grabbed the vertical handle and dragged the door open, but Daniel stepped through first. He wasn't sure what he'd find on the other side.

    The reality was a hall sixty feet high to the top of the palace dome, filled with several hundred armed women painted the same way as the captain. Sunlight coming through dome and clerestory windows slanted across their grotesque faces and made the scene look like the throne room of Hell.

    The only man in the hall sat on a high dais in the center. He wore a purple robe and a chaplet of gilt flowers bound his hair.

    The man called something but his words were lost in the cries of the women, a snarling, squealing surf of noise. Those nearest the door pointed their weapons at Daniel; at his side Hogg, his sub-machine gun slung, reached into a pocket and came out with another concussion grenade.

    The smell of anger, sweat, and female hormones filled the crowded hall. Daniel blinked, but there was no help for it. With his left hand he pushed away the muzzle of the impeller aimed at his Kostroma Star, pointing it toward the ceiling instead. He bellowed, "Make way so that the Republic of Cinnabar may greet his excellency President for Life Shin!"

    He doubted many of the women could hear him, but affecting those to his immediate front would help. "Woetjans, Hogg," he said. "Start forward. We don't want a brawl, but get the mob moving aside."

    "For the honor of the Democratic Republic of Yang!" shouted a public address system so crackly that it was a moment before Daniel recognized the voice as Adele's. He hadn't been sure the hall had a PA system, and from the sound of this the speakers were in doubt themselves. "Make way for the respectful envoy of the Republic of Cinnabar! Make way for the envoy to greet his excellency President for Life Shin!"

    The women between Daniel and the throne seemed more startled than obedient, but at least they didn't actively object when Daniel's escort began shoving them aside. He felt a little embarrassed to be carried through the crowd like a doll in tissue paper, but neither his uniform nor his pose as the plenipotentiary of a great power would survive the scrum.

    Besides, the spacers were having fun. The smallest of them were bigger than all but a few of the painted women, and those few were fat, not large. The opportunity to push around obnoxious little people might be morally questionable, but beyond doubt spacers as aggressive as those Daniel'd picked for his escort found the activity spiritually fulfilling.



    As the spacers advanced Woetjans stepped aside and let Barnes take her place at the point of the wedge. She leaned close to Daniel and rasped in a voice that probably wouldn't be overheard in this cacophony, "Hey, cap'n? You know, if this lot's the royal guard or whatever, we don't need to talk to anybody. If we go back out in the hall and toss a few grenades in, the ones that're left'll likely keep outa the way while we get the prisoners out. They're supposed to be here too, right?"

    That'd mean slaughtering hundreds of people out of hand! Daniel thought. But the bosun knew that too, so rather than state the obvious Daniel said, "We'd have to march the prisoners through the city, I suppose to the harbor, Woetjans. Then we'd have the further problem of what to do next, because 614 can't carry two hundred extra bodies to Nikitin."

    He smiled, adding in an understatement that Woetjans certainly wouldn't understand, "And there might be political problems also. With Admiral Milne."

    And with Admiral Anston. And with some three-quarters of the Senate, though Daniel knew from comments his father had snarled when he was Speaker, there were Senators whose view of foreign relations was just as simplistic as the bosun's.

    "The respectful envoy of Cinnabar brings greetings to his excellency President Shin!" the PA system shouted through its pops and sizzles. The single working speaker seemed to be on the dais with the President. He'd jumped to his feet and was staring at it in frightened anger with his hands over his ears.

    Shin's chaplet was disarranged. Daniel's helmet damped the sound down to safe levels, but it must've been very uncomfortable for the locals who didn't have similar equipment.

    One effect of the snarling racket was to move the female guards away from the dais. Daniel stepped into the cleared area and saluted the President. He made a better job of it than usual, but Shin probably wasn't a good judge.

    "Your excellency!" Daniel said brightly. "I greet you in the name of the Speaker and Senate of Cinnabar. May you reign long in the friendship of the Republic!"

    Shin was in his late thirties. Though he was getting soft he remained a handsome man except for a broad pink scar starting at his right eyebrow and trailing diagonally into his scalp. His chaplet now hung from his right ear, and he wore an expression of petulant disgust.

    "Why are you here?" Shin demanded. "And why are you shouting like that? You know, I could have my Death Virgins kill you all! I could have them kill you with their teeth!"

    "Your excellency," Daniel said with a broad smile as though he thought the threat was a joke between friends. "If you mean, 'why is your own equipment behaving like that?', I'm sure I don't know. And as for why the Republic sent me, I'm here to arrange the repatriation of the Cinnabar citizens you gathered up for us. I believe there's about two hundred of them? We'll get them off your hands at once and send them back to Burdock where they belong."

    President Shin sat down again. He tried twice to straighten his gilded chaplet, but it slipped off each time he removed his hands. Perhaps it'd originally been held in place with a hairpin which he'd lost in covering his ears. He flung the ornament to the floor.

    "Send them where they belong?" Shin said in a high, angry voice. "I'll send them where they belong, never fear. They were fighting me! I'll burn them all alive in Shin and Hwang Stadium on Liberation Day next week!"

    "Personally I share your sense of humor, your excellency," Daniel said, continuing to smile, "but I'd greatly regret if some of the hotheads in the RCN heard you say you were planning to murder Cinnabar citizens. Why, the very commander of my squadron, Admiral Milne, would insist on blasting Heavenly Peace to a glowing crater. Such a terrible thing to happen simply because a woman didn't understand that you were making a joke."

    "They were fighting me," Shin said indignantly. "Fighting me."

    "Yes, your excellency," Daniel said. "They'll be punished for their interference in Yang's affairs. But they're Cinnabar citizens, so the Republic will punish them."

    In all truth, he suspected the mercenaries wouldn't be punished; that was at the discretion of the Civil Administrator of the Burdock Stars. They might even be allowed to hire a transport to Yang and rejoin the rebels on Big Florida Island. It wasn't fair or proper, but that wasn't the business of an RCN officer.

    Daniel rather doubted that "fair" and "proper" were concepts that President Shin thought much about either. Perhaps the universe was displaying a certain rough justice.

    Shin stared at Daniel, his expression suddenly calculating. He bent and picked up the chaplet, toying with it as he continued to watch and think.

    Daniel waited, his back straight and a friendly smile on his face. That was his usual expression, and it did as well in this place as any other would.

    He didn't press for a reply. Judging from what he'd seen of Shin, the fellow's reflex was probably to order his Death Virgins to murder the Cinnabars out of hand. Anything requiring more thought than that was a good result. The result might not please Admiral Milne, but that was a matter to sort out weeks and light years away.

    Shin's female guards were pressing closer, forcing the spacers into a tight arc around Daniel and the edge of the dais. The women weren't hostile, at least overtly, but there were too many of them for the space and they wanted to hear what was going on.

    They couldn't possibly hear over their own echoing shuffles, whispers and clinking equipment. The smell of the hall was overpowering.

    "You came to save Cinnabar citizens, that's what you're telling me?" Shin said, spinning the chaplet on his joined index fingers. He didn't look angry any more. Daniel had a suspicion that the President for Life wasn't the stupid savage he'd assumed.

    "That's correct, your excellency," Daniel said. He had to raise his voice to be heard, even as close as he stood, but he tried to pitch it so that the volume didn't make it threatening. "It's a principle of the greatest importance to my republic."

    "If you want to save Cinnabar citizens," Shin said, "then you can save my great friend Maria Mondindragiana. The rebels captured her in her villa and took her to Big Florida Island. You bring back Maria and I'll give you my prisoners. There!"

    Shin straightened, looking smug.

    Daniel kept his face blank for a moment as he thought. "Your excellency," he said, "do you mean that Mistress Mondindragiana is a Cinnabar citizen?"

    "Of course she is!" said the President. Daniel could barely hear him. "She comes from Waystation. That makes her a Cinnabar citizen."

    It certainly does not, Daniel thought. Waystation was a Cinnabar protectorate, but only a quarter of the residents were actually citizens of the Republic. This wasn't the time to halt negotiations for a records search, however.

    "We'll operate on the assumption that she's a citizen, then," Daniel said aloud. "What else can you tell me about how the lady's being held?"

    "She's on Big Florida Island!" Shin said, petulant again. "What do I know about what goes on there? The rebels stole her and I want her back, that's all that matters. You bring her back, all right?"

    He set the chaplet on his head. This time it remained balanced.

    "And one more thing," the President said. "You bring her back before Liberation Day, you hear? That's a week. Because if you don't, I burn those dirt in the stadium to teach other dirt not to fight against me!"

    Daniel saluted again. "Very well, your excellency," he said. "We'll proceed immediately with our preparations. Good morning to you!"

    "Make way for the respectful envoy of Cinnabar, leaving to carry out the instructions of President for Life Shin!" the loudspeaker shouted. "All hail the friendship between the Democratic Republic of Yang and the Republic of Cinnabar!"

    A surge trembled through the packed hall. The women gave way minusculely, enough for the spacers at the key of the arc to start advancing toward the door.

    The motion reminded Daniel of the times he'd watched a startled snake regurgitate recent prey. This was better than some outcomes.

    Though he had to admit that the thought of attacking the rebel stronghold with thirty-odd spacers and a cutter didn't seem a great deal better than being chewed to death by hundreds of crazy women.

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