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The Way to Glory: Chapter Seventeen

       Last updated: Friday, April 15, 2005 20:10 EDT



Heavenly Peace on Yang

    Adele and her escort picked their way through the streets of Heavenly Peace. Daniel had offered as many armed spacers as she wanted, but that would be threatening in the wrong way. For Adele's purpose, the two servants were better.

    Hogg led by three paces; Tovera trailed by the same distance. The premises of Acme Trading Company were within a few blocks of the palace--to the extent that 'blocks' were a real concept in this twisting warren--but the state of the streets made the journey seem longer.

    Filth wasn't the problem they'd expected: spring tides scoured the streets. The high water marks on the buildings were above what Adele could reach with her arm outstretched. There were more substantial barriers, though: burned-out vehicles, tree trunks swept in on the tides that took out the garbage, and the rubble of a collapsed building. That last had been blown up from the inside, and from the smell there were still human bodies buried in the ruin.

    "There it is," Hogg said. "I've seen prisons I liked the look of more."

    He carried a stocked impeller ready to use; Tovera held her sub-machine gun openly instead of concealing it within her attaché case. The problems of getting from Cutter 614 to here didn't include the local residents, all of whom had fled or at least hidden at the approach of murderous looking strangers.

    Acme Trading Company was a fortress with a walled compound at the left side and to the rear of the main building. The cast-concrete walls hadn't been painted, but the yellow dust of the city'd weathered into their pores. There were no windows on the building's two lower stories; those on the topmost were small and covered with heavy grates.

    "Maybe it's a prison for the people outside it," Tovera said. She made a sound like a small reptile laughing. "That would seem justified."

    The compound backed onto one of the channels that meandered through the swamp to the harbor after. A barge was tied up there now, under the automatic impeller in the tower above the gate on the water side. A similar gun pointed at the trio from the top of the main building. They tramped on stolidly toward the street door, which put them too close for the gun to bear on them.

    A pair of rats--huge things, dappled brown on fawn and weighing at least a pound and a half apiece--were bickering over a rib bone in the door alcove. It was too big for a human rib, Adele thought, though she didn't suppose that mattered.

    The rats turned at the approach of Adele and her companions. Instead of fleeing, they hunched down and bared their long chisel teeth, clicking them together.

    "Stand aside," Tovera warned quietly.

    "Don't shoot!" Adele said over her shoulder. The crackle of the sub-machine gun could bring any kind of frightened response, including a grenade from the guards on the roof of the building.

    Hogg had balanced his heavy gun in his left hand. His right made a sidewise motion, snapping out a four-ounce sinker on the end of monocrystal fishing line. He jerked it back as though it'd been a yo-yo. The line curled around the neck of one rat and decapitated it neatly. The blood-spouting corpse sprang in one direction while the living rat ran the other way.

    "Well, I guess the bone's ours, Hogg," Tovera said.

    "I'm a captain's servant now," Hogg said, dropping the weighted line back in a pocket, but he continued to wear the mesh glove that let him handle the monocrystal without cutting off his own fingers. "I eat better'n that."

    Adele smiled faintly. "I wish I could say I always have," she said. "But there've been times I was very poor and very hungry."

    And I may be both those things in the future, Adele thought, but I'll never again be without friends. Since now I know what it's like to have friends.

    The door was metal and opened outward. The upper hinge sagged, so at some time in the past Acme had had to grind down the stone lintel and dig a trench in the street so that the door's lower edge cleared. There'd once been a peephole, but a thick plate had been welded over it; instead, a video camera was glued to the jamb and connected to the interior with a length of flex snaking up to the third-story window.

    "I'm Mundy of Chatsworth," Adele said. She was wearing RCN utilities--she hadn't brought civilian clothes with her on the cutter--but her present business wasn't, strictly speaking, that of a signals officer. "You've been informed that I'm coming. Open your door."

    Nothing happened for a moment. Hogg fingered a dimple in the face of the door that a bullet had made; the fragmented projectile had splashed a star around the impact. "What d'ye think, Tovera?" he said. "This must've been a pistol. Would one of these--"

    He patted the butt of his impeller.

    "--punch clear through, d'ye suppose?"

    "I doubt it," Tovera said, giving him a thin-lipped smile. "But you could certainly shoot the hinges off."

    They both laughed. What are the people inside thinking? Adele wondered, but that was merely an idle thought: she didn't care, not really, about the opinion of Masters Bonn and Herbrand, late of Xenos on Cinnabar but now doing business on Yang as Acme Trading Company.

    The door creaked open. Behind the two beefy locals who were doing the considerable labor of pushing it stood a plump, frightened looking man whom Adele recognized as Tre Herbrand from the image in his citizenship file. He was a Lantos native but he'd been granted Cinnabar citizenship by the governor of his home district, the Queen's Globe.

    "How are you doing that to our console?" Herbrand demanded. He had rounded features with eyes as close set as a pig's. Adele suspected it wouldn't make her happier to learn what personal services this man had provided the district governor to gain citizenship. "How are you making it play your message? It's shielded!"

    "Not very well," Adele said coolly. "Take us into your office and I'll break the loop. It's served it's purpose."

    She gestured him back with the fingers of her right hand; not the hand resting near the pocket holding her pistol. That was merely habit. Herbrand was no threat and his two laborers were unarmed. A man with a sub-machine gun waited a little way down the hall, but that must be a normal precaution against rats that might come in when the door was open--four legged and two legged both.

    "You can't order us to help you," Herbrand said, shuffling quickly down the passage ahead of them. The laborers were squealing the door closed again; the gunman stayed where he was but dipped his head in acknowledgement as they passed. "I wish Bonn was here. He has influence in Xenos, you know. Real influence!"

    Boxes and bales were stacked ceiling high on both sides of the room. Along the back wall were a circular staircase, a freight elevator and--partitioned off from the remainder of the volume--an office from which Adele could hear her imagery blaring at high volume. She didn't see anyone else on this floor, but voices echoed down from the upper stories.

    "He has no influence with my commanding officer, Speaker Leary's son," Adele said, walking in and seating herself at the merchant's console without asking permission. The machine was some twenty standard years old, obsolete by Xenos standards but quite adequate here. "And more to the point, Master Herbrand, he has no influence with me and it's me that you're going to have to satisfy."

    She'd looped an image of President Shin directing Daniel to recover his mistress from the rebels, using video taken from Woetjans' helmet so that Daniel himself in uniform would be visible. At the end she'd cut in a clip of herself telling the proprietors of Acme Trading to expect her within the half hour. She'd entered the fortress through the microwave antenna on its roof. Her feed claimed to be from the Harbormaster's office with information on recent arrivals--information for which the company paid a regular bribe.

    It was a neat job, but nothing Adele would get a swelled head over. A proper Alliance military target was better protected by an order of magnitude, and--

    Adele allowed herself a satisfied smile as she typed in the code series that returned the console to its owner's control. She didn't even bother to couple her own data unit to do the job.

    --she'd penetrated those targets too.

    "Well, you still can't threaten us," Herbrand muttered in a despairing attempt at bluster. "Yang is an independent state. You have no authority here."

    Hogg chuckled. He took his throwing line from his pocket and used the seat of an upholstered chair for a towel to wipe the monocrystal clean of rat blood. Bits of stuffing flew out and drifted around the room.

    "Leaving that question for the moment," Adele said, turning to face the merchant, "I think you should be asking yourself how President for Life Shin will react to hearing that you refuse to help us carry out his request. Given that I'm offering you payment at the rate you'd expect from commercial captains, I'd be surprised at your refusal as well."

    "Payment?" Herbrand said in amazement. He stood nervously in the middle of the office. Adele's companions lounged against the walls on either side of him, and Adele remained seated in sedate comfort at his console. "At commercial rates?"

    "That's right," Adele agreed. "The transfer will be made from the Gold Dust Cluster secret account to whichever correspondent bank you use on Nikitin. This is public business, you see."

    "Oh," said Herbrand. "Oh."

    He sat on one of the chairs beside the console and said, "What is it precisely that you'd like from Acme Trading Company, Mistress Mundy? I assure you our rates are competitive with any you'll find on Yang."

    "I assure you that's correct," Adele said with a faint smile. "Because I've checked your records for the past three years to determine what those rates are. I'm not here to haggle, sir. But you will be paid."

    Herbrand nodded, making a steeple of his hands on his lap. "I'm very pleased to hear that," he said. "In the past, you see, the Admiral--who I know is the only person authorized to use the secret fund--hasn't taken such an interest in affairs on Yang."

    "On my honor as a Mundy, the payment will be made," Adele said.

    And so it would, though it'd come as rather a surprise to Admiral Milne when she learned that it had. This was an absolutely proper use of secret funds, precisely what the funds were meant for in fact. But had Adele--or worse, Lt. Leary--requested a line of credit from them for this mission, the Admiral would've refused angrily.

    Adele wouldn't use her information skills to steal any more than she'd use her pistol to rob people in the street. Putting those skills to the purpose of causing others to act as they ought to, however--well, what could be more proper than that?

    "As for what we need," Adele continued, "the immediate requirement is for an aircar."

    "All right," said Herbrand, nodding and now rubbing his hands together. "Acme has three aircars, there's one that we can lease to you--with proper indemnification against loss, of course."

    "You have one aircar that has a reasonable chance of making it to Big Florida Island and back," Tovera said. She giggled. "The twelve-place Metrolight. And I'll try not to lose it."

    "Hey, how come you get to drive the aircar?" Hogg said. "I know how to drive one too. We'll roll dice for it."

    "You don't know how," Tovera said, "but I learned on Todos Santos while you were partying after we got back from Radiance. And I'd rather bet on the sun rising in the west than against you rolling your own dice."

    Herbrand pursed his lips. "Well," he said, "I'm sure we can accommodate you, though with not the Metrolight--not for a trip to Big Florida, especially. The--"

    Hogg snicked his folding knife open and stepped closer to the merchant. "You wasn't listening," he said. "The mistress told you we wasn't here to haggle."

    "Hogg is quite right, Mister Herbrand," Adele said coldly. "My expert--"

    She'd had no idea that Tovera knew how to fly an aircar. She'd been expecting to use Barnes for a driver, hoping against hope that his skills would've improved since the most recent time she'd seen them demonstrated.

    "--has chosen the Metrolight, so that's what we'll have."

    She coughed slightly, then resumed, "You can think of this as an exercise in eminent domain, if you wish. It's immaterial to me whether you feel the taking is by the government whose citizen you are or that of Yang where you reside, but--"

    Adele smiled, very slightly.

    "--since we'll pay you and we intend to return the vehicle, I think the situation better fits an action by the Republic of Cinnabar."

    "All right, all right," Herbrand said, seemingly more resigned than angry. Hogg closed his knife but didn't move away from the merchant for the moment. "You have no idea how hard it is to get a working aircar to Yang, but all right. Is there anything else you need?"

    "Yes," said Adele. "The Republic will use you as our agent to arrange transport for some two hundred Cinnabar citizens back to one of the Burdock Stars. I'm not fussy about which planet they land on. I want them to arrive alive and in good health, but this isn't a luxury cruise. Anything suitable for cattle will be good enough for this purpose."

    "Just as well you don't want luxury," Herbrand said, "since I'm a businessman, not a wizard. Does it have to be one hull?"

    Adele thought. "Yes," she said, "though if there's a significant price difference we'll consider alternatives."

    She wished Daniel's sister Deirdre were here, a banker and heir apparent to Corder Leary's business interests. Adele didn't know and didn't care about things like rates and discounts. She knew the words, though, and she knew to use them now because if she didn't Herbrand would sense weakness. Then, because he was... not a fool, not exactly, but because he was completely unfamiliar with who he was dealing with, he'd attempt to cheat her.

    She was Mundy of Chatsworth. Disrespect for a Mundy would not go unpunished.

    Adele rose. "Mister Herbrand?" she said. "A piece of advice for you. I've come to do business in a fashion that provides a fair profit for Acme Trading Company, including an indemnity for replacing your Metrolight if things develop badly. I do not wish to shoot you. But be very clear that I will shoot you if you insult my honor. Do you understand?"

    "Don't dirty yourself, mistress," Hogg said, grinning. "Let me'n Tovera take out the trash. She likes it, and I don't mind."

    Tovera's laugh didn't sound like it came from a mammal, let alone a human being.

    "I hear you," Herbrand said. His voice was quiet and the way his eyes flicked from one servant to the other suggested that he meant what he said.

    "We'll return to the cutter now," Adele said. "A party will pick up the aircar in an hour's time. I'll have sent you the necessary credit information by then."

    She walked out of the office. This time Tovera was leading while Hogg brought up the rear.

    "Mistress Mundy?" Herbrand called.

    Adele looked over her shoulder. The merchant stood in the doorway. "Yes?" she said.

    "You might be able to come back alive from talking to Generalissimo Ma on Big Florida," Herbrand said. "And I'm more than willing as a businessman, as well as a loyal Cinnabar citizen, to take the Admiral's money for chartering a ship to the Burdocks. But mistress, do you honestly believe you're going to get the President's fancy bit off the island and trade her for those Burdock mercenaries?"

    "Yes, I do," Adele said. "I'll admit that I don't know how, but I don't need to know."

    She smiled. "I do know Lt. Leary," she added as she walked toward the outer door.



    614 rested on a sandy islet just within the jaws of Sunrise Bay. Daniel, on his back in an inflatable raft beneath the cutter, felt the low-frequency thrum through the water. Seconds later Claud at the gun on the top of the hull shouted, "Incoming aircar! It's headed straight for us!"

    "Do not shoot!" Adele's voice snapped through the intercom channel and the outside speakers both. "The vehicle's ours with only our people aboard."

    "Carry on by yourself while I go ashore, Sentino," Daniel said to the motorman in the raft with him. He tugged them over with the tether, then clambered up onto the port-side outrigger. "I think this needs me more than the thruster nozzles do."

    The truth was, neither activity needed Daniel very much. The two nozzles they'd checked were good for another six hundred hours of continuous service, and there was no reason to expect the stern thrusters to be in any worse shape than the bow pair. Similarly, the only business he had with the rented aircar was to ride in it to Big Florida Island and, if things there went at least moderately well, to ride back.

    Daniel smiled brightly to the spacers who'd been watching the approaching vehicle with concern. He was the captain. His only important job at the moment was to show his crew that he had matters under control, but there was no more important job than that.

    Adele came out of the hatch, bending lower than the opening required. Daniel gestured her to join him as he walked to the end of the outrigger where they could speak privately despite remaining in plain sight of the crew.

    The aircar was mushing along at no more than thirty miles an hour. Adele made a slight gesture toward it and said, "Tovera's obviously at pains not to look threatening. Mind, if somebody does shoot at her and miss, she'll probably respond."

    "I don't think Barnes and Dasi would be pleased about it either," Daniel agreed mildly. "To be honest, I hate to issue weapons to spacers. They're good people, absolutely the best, but I don't think they're safe with guns, most of them."

    Barnes and Dasi were journeyman mechanics and strong enough to manage repairs that'd normally require heavy equipment. He'd assigned them to accompany Tovera in the aircar while he moved 614 out of the city proper.

    The two men could also break heads in situations which Tovera would solve by shooting whoever was in the way. Tovera doubtless preferred her own methods, but Daniel didn't.

    "I don't think safety has a high priority on this mission," Adele said. She looked at him and quirked her minuscule smile; it made her look ten years old. "I don't think it ever has with you, does it, Daniel? And the rest of us have all volunteered to serve under you."

    "Well, there's risks you can't avoid," Daniel said. "But really, I think we have a very good chance of coming through the operation. It's not a suicide mission."

    He felt his face shift into harder planes than usual. "Adele?" he said, his voice pitched very low. "I wouldn't throw away this crew just to keep Shin from burning some gutter-sweepings from Burdock. If that were the choice, I'd light the pyre myself. Duty, yes; and RCN personnel have to be ready to die for the Republic. But my crew are citizens as well, so I'll make the decision as to what's worth them dying for."

    "Yes, of course," Adele said. She smiled faintly at him. "The Learys always treated their retainers well."

    Daniel laughed. "So you think I'm acting like a Cinnabar nobleman instead of an RCN officer?" he said. "Well, you may be right."

    "I don't think there's a great deal of difference," Adele said, her attention back on the aircar as Tovera brought it in for a landing. "Not among the good ones, that is."

    "Or the bad ones," Daniel said with a momentary frown. There were officers who treated their spacers much the way callous nobles treated their dependents. They tended not to be fighting officers, however, if only because dangerous situations gave aggrieved underlings opportunities for redress that'd send a house servant to the execution dock.

    The aircar landed ten yards up-beach from 614. The stern was high and therefore slammed hard after the bow hit. The sand the fans kicked up blew away at a slant instead of flaying the spacers outside the hull.

    That was typical of Tovera's calculated handling. Her driving was skillful in a cold fashion, but she had absolutely no aptitude for the business. She hadn't realized till she touched down that one of the bow fans was badly misaligned.

    Daniel grinned, amused that the insight made him like Tovera a little better than he had. He'd thought of her as a machine that killed, a creature with no more personality than a poisonous reptile has. Seeing her struggle to do something that she found so uncomfortable made her human in a way. Made her the sort of human Daniel respected, because by God! she was driving the vehicle.

    "Daniel?" said Adele, who'd been watching his expression.

    "I was thinking," he said, shading the facts slightly. The Mundys treated their retainers responsibly also, and he had no wish to seem insulting. "I'd rather be driven by somebody who knows what she's doing despite her awkwardness executing it, than by Barnes who has a real instinct but... well, if he behaved that way when he was out on the hull, I'd ground him. If he survived his first climb up the rigging."

    "I suppose that's what Tovera thought also," Adele said, smiling faintly. "I'm surprised that she isn't better at it, since she's such a good shot. A lack of practice, I suppose."

    Daniel looked at her. "I think a lack of aptitude, rather," he said. He thought but didn't add, Perhaps if we mounted scythes on the car, Tovera might improve. Instead he went on aloud, "She's competent, though, which is a considerable improvement on what the Sissie's had in the past."

    He heard what he'd just said and chuckled. "Or Cutter 614 has had, which is what I ought to have said, I suppose."

    The two riggers waited by the aircar while Woetjans and six more spacers, two of them carrying a heavy toolbox, joined them. Tovera walked back to the cutter. She nodded to Daniel and Adele as she stepped through the hatch.

    "She's getting the equipment she'll install on the vehicle," Adele explained quietly. "The others will remove body panels and do other heavy work necessary."

    "Should you be there?" Daniel said, afraid that he'd been taking Adele from her duties.

    She shook her head. "I'm not a technician, Daniel," she said. "I use the equipment, but Hogg would do a better job installing it than I would."

    Daniel laughed. "If it's at all similar to rigging a wire snare," he said, "I'm sure Hogg would do very well indeed. But I take your point."

    The cutter's centrifugal pump had been purring at low volume as it filled 614's tanks with reaction mass. The high volume setting would've accomplished the task long since, but Daniel hadn't felt the loud whine and vibration were required.

    He cleared his throat and went on, "I don't want to seem anxious, but do you have an idea of how long the modifications are going to take?"

    "There're six separate sensors," Adele said, "but they can be glued in place. The body panels are plastic and transparent on most of the wavelengths we'll be using. The only delay will be disguising the installations. Since you're penetrating a rebel base on Yang rather than an Alliance Fleet anchorage, I don't expect that will require much effort."

    She paused in startled concern. "Ah--that is, unless you think we should spend the effort, Daniel," she said. "Your opinion of the danger is paramount, of course."

    "Oh, good God!" Daniel said. "Adele, why in the name of heaven would I worry about some drug-sodden wogs finding equipment that you and Tovera feel is adequately concealed? Her life's at much at risk as mine is, you know."

    Adele smiled. "Yes, Daniel," she said. "But Tovera doesn't really care, you know. And I do care about you."

    Hogg and Tovera had joined the spacers at the aircar. At Woetjans' command, riggers on the cutter's hull were running a mast out parallel to the ground. It'd act as a derrick in case they wanted to lift the big car, Daniel supposed.

    "If the work's done within the hour," he said, thinking aloud, "we'll set off this evening. Two hours to get to the island, plus however long Generalissimo Ma spends talking to me. Not long, I would expect."

    He grinned. Adele nodded but didn't grin back.

    "And then two hours back. With any luck we'll have returned before nightfall."

    "There's been one change of plan, Captain," Adele said. "In accordance with my authority as granted by officials of the Republic--"

    She means her spymaster, Daniel thought. He looked at Adele sharply. She was staring in the direction of the aircar. Two body panels lay beside the vehicle, and Tovera was squirming into the cavity.

    "--I've determined that you'll pilot the cutter to a place named Fishhead Cove, on the mainland three miles south of Big Florida Island. It's generally uninhabited and at any rate doesn't have a garrison from either the rebels or the government army. Tovera in the aircar will join us there. You and Tovera will then fly to the island proper. The cutter will be in position to make an immediate attack if the rebels--:"

    She shrugged.

    "--behave badly. Behave like a gang of drug-sodden wogs, in the words of a friend of mine."

    "Oh, I can't allow that," Daniel said, shaking his head in disbelief. "Adele, a direct attack doesn't have any chance of success. If the rebels cut up badly, I've given Woetjans orders to return to Nikitin. It's a matter for Admiral Milne, then."

    "Lt. Leary," Adele said, her tone as cold as Daniel had ever heard it, "I assure you that my authority in this matter supercedes yours. If necessary I'll remove you from command and place the cutter under the bosun until we've reached the cove."

    Her smile, minute but warm despite that, flashed again. She added, "Though I hope you won't force me to do that. Woetjans says that because of the missiles on Big Florida Island, we can't rise more than ten feet above the sea throughout the approach. She thinks we'll be much safer with you at the controls."

    Daniel looked at the aircar. Only Tovera's feet were visible. Hogg, squatting beside them, took a thumb-sized bead from a carrying case and reached into the vehicle.

    He cleared his throat and, without turning his head, said, "I don't think Woetjans could keep the cutter within the necessary parameters. That's my duty and I'll take care of it."

    Hoping that he had the stinging in his eyes under control he faced Adele and went on, "I honestly don't believe attacking with 614 has any chance of success. With me in charge or with anyone. I really wish you'd scrap that plan and simply go back to Nikitin."

    "Daniel," Adele said with a shrug, "there's not a person in this crew who'd leave you to die in order to save his own life. Not one."

    She gave him a broad smile, an expression as unnatural to her as religious ecstasy would've been. "So as the same friend said," she went on, "'There's some risks you can't avoid.'"

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