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The Way to Glory: Chapter Nineteen

       Last updated: Monday, April 25, 2005 19:42 EDT



Fishhead Cove on Yang

    Daniel stood on the cutter's port outrigger, just to the right of the hatch. "Well, fellow spacers," he said to the crew gathered in an arc on shore facing him. "We've got our work cut out for us this time."

    Insectoids whirred in the darkness, and occasionally something larger swooped over the cove with a whick-whick-whick of wings. Yang had no visible moon, but it was located in the center of a globular cluster that turned the night sky into a milky haze.

    "We're going up against hundreds of rebels," Daniel said. He paused deliberately before going on in a deadpan voice, "The best soldiers Yang has to offer."

    Woetjans guffawed. Harsh, delighted laughter rang from the assembled spacers.

    "Not only that," Daniel continued in feigned portentousness, "but there's an Alliance naval base going up in the north bay of the island. From the look of it there's probably a hundred or so people in the construction crew, and they may be from Alliance planets."

    There was more laughter. Daniel had always hated politics: the deals, the lies, and so often the truth stated in a false way. That's what he was doing here, setting out the dangers 'honestly' but making a joke of them.

    Speaker Leary would be proud of his son. Well, it had to be done.

    A hologram ten feet in diameter hung in the air over Daniel's head. It showed a direct overhead view of Big Florida Island, corrected from the slant image recorded by the aircar's sensor suite as Tovera approached. A saffron highlight now pulsed over the jaws of land and the water beyond where the pilings were going in.

    Harrison and a team of riggers had shifted 614's console into the airlock so that Adele could project images that the whole crew could see without depending on their helmet visors. That'd be perfectly adequate in a technical sense, but it'd mean an additional distance between Daniel and the crew when he wanted--needed--to fire them up for a very dangerous mission.

    The down-side was that Daniel couldn't lift the cutter until the console had been returned to its normal position in the bow; indeed, they couldn't board the cutter until they'd shifted the console so it didn't block the hatch. That was a chance Daniel was willing to take, because the operation he'd planned was going to need all the verve and enthusiasm his crew could muster.

    "We're doing this to rescue a girl from Waystation...," he continued. An image of Maria Mondindragiana appeared above him. Daniel had no idea how Adele had gotten that visual, since there'd been stone walls between the woman and the aircar's sensors all the time that he knew of. "And she's not even my type!"

    This time the laughter redoubled. And it was all true, every word of it....

    "You mean she's grown shut, Captain?" Sun called.

    "I bet that wouldn't stop our Mister Leary!" Enescue put in, rousing another gust of laughter.

    "The rebels have a three-thousand ton packet that used to be on the Cinnabar to Baltoon run," Daniel continued. Adele responded promptly with visuals of the Beacon of Yang, rotating her first on her horizontal, then on her vertical, axes. "They're trying to convert her to a warship. I don't think they're going to succeed in my lifetime, but there's still the bones of a ship there. Her fusion bottle works--"

    He'd queued the series of highlights, just for color since the spacers didn't need help locating the basic elements of a starship. Adele brought them out on call.

    "--her dorsal turret works though it can't be retracted, and about a third of her thrusters work. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that some of her High Drive motors work too, but since she doesn't have enough thrusters to reach orbit, that doesn't matter."

    A creature in the cove slapped the water three times, with about thirty seconds between one whap and the next. The first time Daniel'd heard the sound he'd thought it was a fish jumping to avoid a predator. It was too regular, though, and always from the same direction; probably it was the mating call of a creature whom he'd never have a chance to identify. That'd remain one of his lesser regrets, he supposed.

    "We'll put off for the island tonight at oh-three-hundred hours local time," Daniel said, no longer pretending to joke. "I'm leaving Whitebread and Racine as anchor watch in the cutter--"

    "But sir!" cried Whitebread. The spacers to either side of him drew back as if he'd been declared contagious.

    "All of you!" Daniel shouted. He wasn't using a loudspeaker, but his voice was pitched for command and the cutter's hull acted as a sounding board. "This is the RCN and I'm your captain. Shut up and follow my orders, or by God! you'll never ship with me again."

    If you survive and I do, he added in his mind. But they were all operating on the assumption that would happen. Aloud he went on, "Do you understand?"

    Whitebread didn't speak. Racine muttered, "Aye aye, sir, but I wish you took me too."

    "Right," said Daniel, "Whitebread and Racine on anchor watch, so we don't get back and find some fisherman has managed to lift the cutter while we were gone. Or lock us out, that'd be as bad. The rest of us'll be in the aircar, heading for Big Florida to land at the point here."

    The terrain image reappeared above him. This time a red bead pulsed at a notch on the southwest shore. A fold of land ran up from it till it was nearly parallel to the Beacon's port side. It'd be scarcely noticeable to a person standing at a moderate distance, but it was nonetheless sufficient to conceal someone moving on all fours.

    "In ground effect, the car should carry thirty," Daniel added. "If there's any doubt, we'll tow the life raft with a few of you in it. We'll be going in slow anyway so we don't arouse attention. Are you all clear so far?"

    Nobody asked questions. Daniel would've been surprised if they had. This was all new to the spacers, but the plan was simple enough in outline. They weren't talkers, and asking questions wouldn't make the operation easier to execute.

    "Now the ship, the Beacon of Yang," Daniel said. "It isn't properly manned, but a number of the rebels are living in it. Hogg and I, and Portus with Tovera, will go in ahead to secure the bridge and power room without noise. When we've accomplished that, we'll summon the rest of you."

    Easier said than done, of course. But possible for fast, ruthless people who knew what they were doing. Portus was a crag-featured countryman who'd done his share of poaching. Hogg vouched for him.

    "According to our information," Daniel said, "Generalissimo Ma is using Hold One on F Deck--"

    The lowest of the Beacon's six decks.

    "--as a suite for himself and the prisoner we've come to rescue, Mistress Mondindragiana. He apparently finds it comfortable, and by Yang standards I suppose it is. His bodyguard company is quartered in Hold Two, just astern. Ma apparently thought that because a starship's hull's very thick and that nobody can approach him without going through the guards, he'd be really safe."

    Daniel paused, grinning. "It doesn't seem to have occurred to him," he added, "that whoever controls the bridge can close the hatches on him and his guards both. As I intend to do."

    This time the laughter was mixed with cheers and catcalls.

    "That leaves us the problem of how to get them out, of course," Daniel continued. "I propose to do that by bringing the ship to this cove, skating it across the strait, and opening Hold One's main hatch."

    He shook his head in amusement and added, "I'm afraid the Generalissimo isn't much of a naval architect, since he doesn't appear to have known that the side of a bulk storage hold hinges down."

    Daniel wasn't worried about getting Maria out unharmed, since Ma didn't look the sort to fight a battle to the death in which his prisoner might catch a ricochet. There might be a few guards or attendants in Hold One with the happy couple, but Daniel planned to have the cutter's rocket launcher aimed into the opening as the hatch lowered.

    He wouldn't use it, of course; in the worst case, single shots by Hogg or Tovera would end the problem without danger to anything but whoever was resisting. It was very unlikely that anybody would resist when they found themselves staring at the business end of a dozen rockets, however.

    "Now, I want to warn you," Daniel said. "According to the Beacon's gauges, she's got plenty of reaction mass in her tanks to get us here, and according to my calculations the five thrusters she's still got are enough to move her in ground effect. There were more when she landed on Yang, but the rebels robbed three of them to outfit a cutter they were using to boost their income by piracy."

    That venture'd failed three months earlier when the entrepreneurs met the Cutlass. So small a vessel wasn't really worth a missile, but she'd gotten one anyway when her captain unwisely tried to flee instead of surrendering.

    "I trust my calculations farther than I trust the Beacon's gauges, but I could be wrong and they could sure be wrong," Daniel said. "I'd still rather have a starship's hull plates rather than an aircar's between me and whatever the rebels get around to shooting as we leave."

    "Sir?" called Sun. "You say the dorsal turret works?"

    "As best as we can tell from the ship's internal diagnostics," Daniel said. "And the rocket launcher they mounted astern also. You'll get a chance to see as soon as I light the thrusters, Sun."

    The gunner's mate patted his hands together in enthusiasm. One crewman was sure ready for this operation.

    Actually they all are, Daniel thought, looking around the arc of faces illuminated by scatter from the big display above him. The crew he'd brought with him from the Sissie was used to ground operations that most RCN spacers would never dream of. That didn't make them a trained commando, of course, but they had the skill and lack of hesitation that past successes bring to a veteran.

    "We'll have to play this by ear, I'm afraid," Daniel said. He felt a sudden warmth toward these spacers, his siblings in a sense that Deirdre could never have been. "The rebels aren't organized enough for me to make detailed plans. Chances are they'll be scattered all over the ship, in corridors and storage areas as well as the ordinary compartments. If they'll surrender, tie them with cargo tape. If there's any doubt in your mind, don't risk yourselves or your buddies."

    "No fear, Captain!" Woetjans said. Even without the chorus of growls, Daniel wouldn't have doubted she was speaking for the whole crew.

    He didn't look forward to the possible massacre he saw ahead of them, but this was war. The difference between victory and failure was very often the willingness to see what had to be done, and to do it instantly and with all the strength at your disposal.

    "Apart from that," Daniel said, "be careful, especially those of you with stocked impellers. If a cutter's arsenal had enough sub-machine guns and pistols to arm everybody, that's what I'd issue. I don't want to lose half of you to ricochets, and that could happen."

    Daniel cleared his throat. "Any questions before we put 614 back in shape and get some rest?" he added.

    "Sir?" said Whitebread. "This is a big base the Alliance is building?"

    "Yes, it is," Daniel said. Whitebread wouldn't have spoken if he weren't peeved at being left behind, but the question Daniel saw coming was a good one nonetheless.

    "Sir, then why aren't we beating it back to the squadron soonest? Instead of grabbing up some bint like you could rent a hundred of on the Parade at Waystation?"

    Yeah, that was the question.

    Daniel could've lied. He could've said he wanted to get additional information on the status of the base, or that the rebels were obviously intriguing with Alliance envoys and it was therefore the duty of an RCN officer to punish them immediately to the extent of his ability.

    Both those things were true, and there were other true things that he could also have said; and the crew would've believed him because he was Mister Leary and they were his siblings and his children. But because he was their Mister Leary, he was unwilling to tell little truths in the form of a lie.

    "Whitebread, you're quite correct as to where my duty as an RCN officer lies," Daniel said. "I'm willing to take this risk because the base is months from completion and I think we'll get away with it. But the reason I'm taking it is that I saw the girl, and I saw Generalissimo Ma. I won't leave her in his hands if there's a way to get her out."

    There was dead silence on the bank of the cove.

    Daniel took a deep breath. He was trembling. "I told you," he said, "that we're the RCN; but I've just admitted this isn't properly an RCN mission. 614 hasn't become a democracy, but this one time--if any of you want to opt out for tonight, you can stay with the cutter and no questions asked."

    Whitebread looked around his fellows. "And if any of you does," he said loudly, "I'll take his fucking place, got that?"

    From the cheers that went up in response, Whitebread and Racine were still on anchor watch.



    By now Adele had been on enough planets to see the way people travelled on less developed worlds where vehicles were imported, expensive, and rare. There'd been a six-wheeled truck on Sexburga that must've held a hundred passengers, and on Falassa families of five and six rode to the port with their stock in trade--ten-foot lengths of sugar cane--sticking out to either side of scooters that looked small for a lone driver.

    By those standards, the aircar she'd leased from Acme Trading wasn't overloaded with thirty people clinging to it. By any other standard, this was insane.

    To Adele's surprise the car actually had enough power to carry the load, though only with the underside of the vehicle so close to the ground that the fan thrust acted as an air cushion. The crew'd bolted two ladders to the body, crosswise on either side of the center of gravity. These provided seats of a sort for the people who couldn't by any stretch of the imagination fit into the passenger compartment.

    Adele was on the front bench. Tovera was to her left, driving with an expression of frozen blankness quite different from her normal bland amusement at the world around her. Daniel was to Adele's right, holding a baton cut from two-inch high pressure tubing. He was smiling, though his eyes weren't focused on the island just ahead.

    To Daniel's right was Hogg, his left leg in the passenger compartment and his buttocks riding on the top edge of the door. The perch looked terribly uncomfortable, but Hogg seemed more pleased than not. He held an impeller with its butt resting on his right thigh, and he'd slung a sub-machine gun across his chest. That was probably for Daniel if they got into a situation where the baton wasn't enough... as they might, as they certainly might.

    Adele's pistol was in her tunic pocket, as usual. On paper a heavy service pistol would've been a more reasonable choice, since they were going into action and had no reason to conceal their weapons.

    Adele stuck with what she had. She was Adele Mundy, librarian, who carried a pocket pistol for defense as other Cinnabar nobles did--at least nobles from houses as pugnacious as the Mundys of Chatsworth, and there were many. The person who'd killed scores, maybe hundreds of people by now, wasn't really Adele Mundy....

    Most members of the raiding party hugged their weapons to them, kneading the grips or running their fingers caressingly over the receivers. In their hearts they hoped that the guns' power to destroy would somehow protect them against their own destruction.

    It wouldn't, of course. There was always the chance of a terrified peasant triggering a shot into the night and snuffing out the life of someone as skilled as Tovera or as Adele herself. But even hardened spacers needed talismans against the uncertainties of life and the certainty of death at the end of it.

    Adele's personal data unit was open on her lap. She doubted that she could use it because of how tightly the four of them were packed into the front seat, but it was there. Everyone needs a talisman.

    The aircar ticked a ripple, then almost at once slammed hard onto the surface of the water. They staggered aloft again in a fine salt mist; Tovera's hands were rigid on the control yoke. Only the fact the strait was sheltered and the air was generally calm made this operation thinkable, but even so it was proving a near thing.

    Adele swallowed and prepared to slide the data unit back into its pocket; the jolt had almost sent it sailing out of the vehicle. They were within half a mile of the shore anyway. Lights sparkled through the mansion's windows and open hatches on the Beacon of Yang.

    "Bloody Hell," said Daniel in a low, urgent voice. "There's a starship landing! Hear it? Adele, do you know anything about this?"

    She'd been wrong to think she couldn't use the data unit in these close quarters. She'd coupled it to 614's console and sensor suite, of course, and she scarcely had to move her arms at all to enter commands through her familiar wands. There the ship's identification code, there the conversion of that code....

    The data came off Adele's tongue at the same time it touched her own higher faculties: "Daniel, they're Alliance Fleet Ship Greif, a twelve-hundred tonne courier vessel. They've announced they're landing, but there's been no reply from the ground that I can find."

    Adele could hear the thrusters now, the thrum at high altitude. If she'd looked toward the western sky she'd probably have seen the pulse of plasma growing brighter with the vessel's swift approach.

    "Lieutenant?" Tovera said without turning her head. "Do we return to the ship?"

    "Crew," said Daniel, keying his intercom instead of answering Tovera alone. "An Alliance courier is landing on Big Florida. They'll touch down about the time we reach the Beacon. We're continuing the operation. I hope and expect the courier will provide a diversion for us. Break. Adele, I sincerely hope that they don't land on top of the swale where we're making our approach. Any way to check that, over?"

    Adele copied the image from the Greif's command console onto Daniel's visor. It meant nothing to her.

    "Good, good!" he grunted. "They're putting down beside the headquarters."

    The aircar burped over the muddy shallows, then grounded with a heavy shock that would've thrown Adele into the wind screen if Daniel hadn't placed his left arm across her chest like a padded restraint. His feet, she noticed as she grabbed her data unit with both hands to keep it from sliding forward, were braced against the front of the compartment.

    Tovera shut the motors off. The feathered fan blades continued to spin down in a deepening whine. The riggers on the ladders had sprinted clear before the car'd fully bumped to a halt, and the larger number of spacers wedged into the passenger compartment were jumping out now.

    The courier vessel's exhaust was a wavering flare in mid-sky, throwing distorted shadows at the spacers' feet. Blotches of light brightened on the mansion as the rebels quartered there pulled tarpaulins aside to see what was happening.

    They'll burn their retinas out if they do that for long, Adele thought as she climbed out of the aircar after Daniel. That would make the raiders' job easier.

    "Get down, you bloody fools!" Hogg snarled. He'd already started up the swale, cradling the big impeller on his forearms as he crawled forward on elbows and the inner edges of his boots.

    Daniel was immediately behind him, staying equally low. The length of tubing was thrust under the back of his belt; it wobbled behind him like a stiff tail but didn't get in his way as he crawled. The mottled utility uniform blurred his outline, but the yellow commo helmet winked in the glare of the descending exhaust.

    Portus followed Daniel. He'd slung a sub-machine gun over his back so that the muzzle would hang down when he stood, but for now he too was worming up the swale on knees and elbows. There was a large knife strapped to his right calf; the tip of the sheath was down inside the boot.

    Hogg was already out of sight. Shutting down the aircar had slowed Tovera, but she was right behind Portus now. Her sub-machine gun, smaller than the RCN weapons, was holstered on her right hip since she wasn't carrying the attaché case in which she normally concealed it. A square container on her left balanced the weight of the weapon. It was of a size to be a first aid pack, but knowing Tovera it was something quite different.

    On the shore, Woetjans was organizing the crew to follow when Daniel gave the word. The spacers were squatting with their weapons pointed in all directions, including one fellow whose impeller bore was a black hole if Adele glanced in that direction.

    She didn't move for a moment. She'd intended to be the last person moving toward the Beacon of Yang, but....

    Adele got down on her hands and knees and started upward. She wasn't able to stay as low as the hunters ahead of her, but her hips were still below the edge of the swale. She didn't really have a place in an assault, so she might as well be close to the front.

    The courier vessel had slowed its descent almost to a hover, preparing to land between the Beacon and the rebel headquarters. Its exhaust hammered downward and made the ground shake.

    Adele smiled faintly. She was a librarian; but she was a crack shot as well, and right now her friends were likely to need that skill more than they did information services. Close to the front....

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