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Some Golden Harbor: Chapter Four

       Last updated: Saturday, April 1, 2006 22:57 EST



Above Pellegrino

    Daniel'd moved onto the bridge after liftoff from Cinnabar. He figured he'd made his point and--unlike Adele--his world was primarily what he could touch with his hands, not within a computer display. He was at the astrogator's station, however, leaving the command console to Vesey; Hogg sat on the jumpseat, whittling a block of structural plastic into a chain. The knife he was using looked much too big to do such delicate work.

    The Princess Cecile was in a powered orbit above Pellegrino to maintain the illusion of gravity. Many worlds required that vessels wait in freefall until they'd been boarded and inspected--Cinnabar did for one--but according to the Sailing Directions, Pellegrino had a more relaxed attitude toward visitors, at least under normal circumstances.

    Vesey's dialogue with Pellegrino Port Control was running on Daniel's audio channel, but his attention was on two ships: the freighter Rainha rising from the port, and the Pellegrinian light cruiser Duilio waiting in orbit to escort her to Dunbar's World. The cruiser was a fairly modern ship, built in an Alliance yard or at least to an Alliance design.

    Six of the Duilio's thirty-six masts were telescoped and apparently out of service, suggesting she was short-crewed. Conned by the right officer, the light cruiser could still show her legs to the smaller Sissie. Daniel doubted Pellegrinian navy had anybody who could put so potentially handy a vessel through her paces, but he wouldn't bet his life on that belief.

    He smiled. Unless he had to, of course.

    The airlock just aft of the bridge cycled open for a team of riggers to clump ponderously into the foyer. They'd removed their helmets in the lock chamber. Their fellows from the other watch helped them out of the heavy suits, talking with loud enthusiasm about the task just completed and the ground leave to come.

    Woetjans would normally've put both watches on the hull to telescope the masts and fold them against the hull in preparation for landing. She hadn't done so this time because the size of the Sissie's crew would've given the lie to the tale Vesey was spinning to Port Control.

    Vesey sounded determinedly bored: "Pellegrino, we're a private yacht carrying our owner to Ganpat's Reach. No, he's not a merchant, he's a Cinnabar nobleman. We're setting down here to refill our reaction mass tanks and to give the crew ground leave. We've got two turrets, each fitted with a pair of 4" plasma cannon. I'm not crazy enough to come so far beyond the established trade routes without at least that. Yes, the Sissie used to be a naval vessel, but she isn't now. Our missile magazines are empty."

    The story was mostly true, and more important it was perfectly believable. Chancellor Arruns wouldn't willingly provoke the RCN into sending a fighting squadron, but it wouldn't be a good idea to tell him and his bureaucracy that Commander Leary'd come to Ganpat's Reach to thwart the plan that'd absorbed half of Pellegrino's military. An accusation of smuggling could delay the Sissie's departure for months and risk nothing worse than a note from the Ministry of External Affairs on Xenos.

    The Rainha was an ordinary regional freighter, a plump cylinder of three thousand tons burden and sixteen masts--as many as such a small crew could handle properly. She was rising ponderously on four plumes of plasma; when she reached orbit her captain would switch to the High Drive to build the velocity that she'd take with her into the Matrix.

    High Drive was vastly more efficient than plasma discharge, but the process of turning matter and antimatter into energy was never perfect. If the High Drive was used in an atmosphere, there was always enough antimatter in the exhaust to destroy the motor and its mountings in spectacular fashion.

    As soon as Daniel was sure the Rainha was an ordinary freighter, he shrank her image to a cameo in one corner and expanded the Duilio across his full display. His trained eyes could pick out tags of dangling cable and smears of leaking hydraulic fluid. One of the missile tubes was missing the hatch that should've closed it, though that didn't mean the launcher itself wasn't working; even if it were, the cruiser had seven others.

    The corvette's lack of the missiles that should've been her primary armament worried Daniel. If he'd had time on Cinnabar he'd have gotten missiles one way or another, but if the Sissie hadn't lifted immediately somebody would've noticed her crack crew.

    How many missiles were there in the cruiser's magazines, though? That was the important question, and there was no way to tell from an image of the ship's exterior.

    The Duilio mounted two pairs of 15-cm cannon, powerful weapons but much slower firing than the Sissie's. Wondering if all the guns were in operating condition, Daniel boosted magnification and focused on the forward ventral turret. As he did so, vivid purple letters crawled across the bottom of his display:



    He glanced over his shoulder reflexively, seeing only the back of Adele's head at her console across the compartment. She's probably watching me on her screen--and laughing, he thought. Well, not laughing. He'd heard Adele laugh, but no more often than he could count on one hand.

    Signals Officer Mundy was entirely a marvel. His friend Adele was something even better.

    Daniel touched the second button with his right index finger, stabbing it hard as though the empty air could feel the difference. Data for the Duilio flashed up as a sidebar, shrinking the main image to make room.

    Nineteen officers--far too many; naval commissions must be a perquisite of the Chancellor's friends and their families--and 229 enlisted personnel, where 350 would've been the bare minimum to handle the cruiser properly. Sixty-seven missiles in magazines which could hold 120.

    The Duilio wasn't nearly as formidable an opponent as she might've been. Nonetheless she hugely outclassed the Princess Cecile, even if the corvette'd carried her maximum load of twenty missiles.



    The Rainha had reached orbit and shut down her thrusters. Now she and the cruiser began to accelerate together on thread-fine ultraviolet jets from their High Drive motors, slowly building momentum against the moment when they shifted out of the sidereal universe.

    "Sir?" said Vesey on the channel she shared with Daniel--and with Adele, of course. "We've got clearance for Central Haven as requested. We'll be inspected on the ground, but they're not putting anybody aboard here in vacuum. Shall I proceed, over?"

    "Take her down, Vesey," Daniel directed. The Rainha and Duilio were drawing slowly away; they'd remain in the sidereal universe for an hour or hours, but there was nothing to gain from watching the vessels further.

    Even as Daniel spoke, he felt the corvette's plasma thrusters kick as the landing program engaged. The ship's computer ordinarily did a cleaner job of setting down than a human on the controls could manage; besides, manual landings were unusual, and the Princess Cecile didn't want to call attention to herself.

    Braking effort increased. The High Drive motors were on the outriggers where the oleo struts damped their vibration somewhat, but the buzz of liftoff and landing came directly through the ship's fabric. The thrusters were mounted on the lower hull, clear of the water in which a starship normally put down.

    Daniel grinned: there was a fish-processing plant at Bantry. To this day, the odor of fish offal made him nostalgic. Similarly, the vibration of plasma thrusters at maximum output hinted at adventure and homecoming instead of making him feel that someone was sawing his joints apart.

    He switched his display from the starships on their way to Dunbar's World to a view of Central Haven. The port was on the other side of the planet from where the Sissie was on her long curving descent, but the computer brought up the most recent image. If Daniel'd wished, he knew that Adele could've imported a real-time view from a ship or satellite in a suitable location, but he didn't have anything that time-critical on his mind.

    Central Haven appeared to be natural in outline, but a major engineering project had diverted a river to fill a valley that'd been cut by a tributary. There were extensive slips along the south shore and a considerable city below them; quite a number of lesser vessels were moored on the north side also, though the facilities there were rudimentary.

    By now the Princess Cecile was deep in the atmosphere. Even with masts down and locked, a starship wasn't a streamlined entity. The buffeting was fierce, completely masking the snarl of the thrusters.

    "Daniel?" said Adele over a locked channel. The fact she used his given name rather than calling him Commander Leary indicated that what she had to say wasn't in her opinion a part of their professional duties. "There's a disabled Cinnabar freighter in the port below, the Stoddard."

    She highlighted a ship near the southwest end of the haven. Daniel expanded the image from its initial matchstick size to his full display. It was quite an ordinary vessel, probably a little over 6,000 tons.

    "Something went wrong with her antimatter converter," Adele continued. "It and all the High Drive motors have to be replaced, but they've been waiting for parts for over a month. I mention it because the owner--well, the owner after you go back through several corporate entities--is your father."

    "Ah," said Daniel. "As a matter of courtesy, I'd visit distressed Cinnabar spacers regardless. I'll make a particular point of doing so because of the relationship. Thank you for telling me."

    "Two minutes to touchdown!" Midshipman Cory warned from the Battle Direction Center. "Two minutes!"

    The captain of a Cinnabar ship that'd been in Central Haven for a month would be a good source of information on support for the war on Dunbar's World. A captain who was being questioned by his employer's son was likely to be an even better source. Estranged son, of course, but that wasn't a fact Daniel intended to dwell on.

    "One minute!" Cory warned. Daniel settled back in his couch, smiling broadly. He didn't know what he'd learn, but he expected the visit to be worth his time.



Haven City on Pellegrino

    Chancellor Arruns and his government were on a plateau three hundred miles away at Highlands, but Haven City on the port's south shore was the commercial capital of Pellegrino. Hijaz Nordeen, the Cinnabar consular agent, lived in a Haven City townhouse, and it was there that Adele and Tovera had traveled on one of the electric minicabs which wound their way through the streets however the whims of their drivers chose.

    The front door opened. The room beyond was dim, lit solely by a skylight in the roof thirty feet above. "Yes?" said the doorkeeper.

    A child, Adele thought, but she was wrong. The fellow was a short, slight adult, bald and beardless in a loose tunic and trousers.

    "Mundy of Chatsworth," she said. "To see Master Nordeen, as arranged."

    "Come in, my lady," called the man standing across the atrium. The room's only furnishings were a high-backed chair and portrait busts along the walls. "A pleasure indeed to see you."

    Nordeen was as small as the doorkeeper and much, much older. Adele followed him around the central fishpond into a small side chamber. Tovera stepped ahead of them, then gave Adele a sardonic glance and backed out again. Nordeen dipped his head to Tovera and closed the door.

    "So, Lady Mundy," he said, gesturing toward the bottles and glasses waiting on the sideboard. "How can the House of Nordeen help you?"

    Adele glanced at the offered drinks and shook her head curtly. "Tell me about the invasion of Bennaria," she said. "Can Pellegrino be convinced to back away from it?"

    Nordeen was a native of Cesarie, a world independent alike of Cinnabar and the Alliance of Free Stars. He'd been a merchant on Pellegrino for more than forty years. The amount of direct trade between Cinnabar and Pellegrino was too slight to justify an officer from the Ministry of External Affairs, so Xenos had arranged for Nordeen to carry out such consular duties as might be required:

    "Perhaps some tea or coffee?" Nordeen said, walking to the sideboard. "Or water, milady; I drink water myself. Water and knowledge, the finest things in life."

    Nordeen was also an agent in Mistress Sand's organization. This windowless room had the deadness of active sound cancellation. Adele was confident that she'd learn it was shielded as well if she tried to connect through her data unit.

    "Some water, then," Adele said. The muted illumination diffused across the ceiling from hidden fixtures. "Though that wouldn't have brought me away from the Princess Cecile. Its distillation unit has proved quite adequate to my palate."

    Nordeen giggled as he filled matching glasses from a carafe with a fishing scene inlaid between two layers of crystal. His skin was the color of fresh bone, faintly yellow with a hint of texture.

    Adele couldn't guess Nordeen's age. He'd been an adult fifty-three standard years ago, but he gave her the impression of being a great deal older than the minimum that implied. Mistress Sand's records on her agent were surprisingly incomplete, even granting that the region wasn't of great importance to Cinnabar.

    Nordeen gave her the glass. The inlays were remarkable; shadings were conveyed by the use of gold, copper and their alloys. Adele had been wrong about the subject, though: the fish were nibbling at a human corpse.

    She sipped water and raised an eyebrow toward her host.



    "There is no chance of Pellegrino withdrawing," Nordeen said, seating himself across from her. The chairs were straight-backed and simple; delicate to the eye but very uncomfortable to sit on. "Not while Chancellor Arruns lives, that is."

    He made a chirrup that might have been laughter and added, "Perhaps you plan to assassinate the Chancellor, then?"

    "I do not," Adele said without emphasis. "It appears to me that when Pellegrino's initial quick stroke failed, the long-term cost of carrying through had become greater than the tributary value of Dunbar's World."

    She kept her disgust out of her words; or mostly out. She knew there were people within the Republic's government who thought that murder was a simple--they sometimes used the term 'elegant'--solution to political difficulties. In Adele's opinion, they were too stupid to understand how vast a web of side-effects their 'simple' action set atremble.

    And as for elegant: she'd seen the face in her sight picture bulge as brains sprayed out the back of the skull. There was nothing elegant about killing. Nothing at all.

    "The invasion wasn't about turning Dunbar's World into a tributary," Nordeen said, watching Adele over the rim of his glass. "The Chancellor is in some ways a kindly man, unwilling to execute his son and heir Nataniel. Nataniel is a bold, manly young fellow, a born leader. A credit to his father."

    Nordeen's face looked like a minimalist ivory carving. His smile could've been etched with two strokes of a sharp burin.

    "But not one to stand in his father's shadow for the next twenty years, you mean?" Adele said. She sipped again but washed the water around the inside of her mouth instead of swallowing it directly. There was nothing unusual about the taste.

    "More than twenty, in the normal course of things," Nordeen agreed. "The Chancellor's scarcely fifty; fleshy, perhaps, but a man who takes care of his health. Occupying his ambitious son away from Pellegrino was part of that care. Bringing Nataniel back to Pellegrino in disgrace would be... say rather, would not be survivable for the Chancellor."

    Nordeen shrugged, more a nuance beneath the thin, slick fabric of his robe than a gesture. "The war isn't popular here," he said, "but it isn't seriously unpopular either. There was a Grand Patriotic Levy to defray the initial cost--renting twenty-one large vessels, and at rates that made the owners willing to accept the risk. That was a 10% surcharge on merchants--on citizens, that is. It was 20% on resident aliens."

    He chirruped again and cocked an eyebrow at Adele. "You're sure you wouldn't like to assassinate the Chancellor?" he said. It was a joke. "Well, I thought not."

    Adele set down her glass--on the floor; there was no table save the sideboard--and brought out her data unit. The information it held on Pellegrinian trade was old and of doubtful reliability, but it calmed her to have the control wands in her hands.

    "The running costs aren't serious, though," Nordeen continued. "A cargo of munitions and replacement equipment on a twenty-day cycle, five days each to Dunbar's World and back, and five days turnaround at either end. There's no return cargo, not even wounded returning; for fear of alarming the Pellegrinian citizenry, I believe. Even so emptying the ship on Dunbar's World takes as long as loading it here does. The invasion base on Mandelfarne Island is primitive in the extreme."

    He spread his left hand, as delicate as a feather. "It adds up, of course, and eventually it will cripple the economy; but not for two years. Or perhaps three. But what is a father to do?"

    "Does the Rainha carry troops as well as materiel to Dunbar's World?" Adele said. She wore a hard expression as she scrolled through data.

    Her information on Pellegrino came from commercial sources--largely from the Mancos, in fact. It was obvious to her that Nordeen could've provided far more precise figures and analysis, but nobody'd asked him to do so. The failure wasn't important except in the sense that it was a failure; but that mattered very much, to Adele Mundy if not to the Republic more generally.

    "No more troops, no," Nordeen said. His face had never lost its almost-smile. "Nataniel would like more troops, I am informed, and perhaps the Chancellor would like to send them, but the army is the government's real base of support. Half of it is already far away from the Chancellery. If more troops should embark today for Dunbar's World, who knows who would be Chancellor tomorrow?"

    Adele shut down her data unit and looked at her host. If the invasion remained bogged down there would come a time when Arruns needed more money, probably much more money. It might well be more cost effective for merchants, particularly merchants who were resident aliens, to finance a change in government instead of paying another ruinous assessment.

    "Do you personally have a prognosis of whether the invasion will succeed, Master Nordeen?" she asked. Her expression of cold disgust wasn't meant for him, but he nonetheless stiffened noticeably.

    "I am not clairvoyant, my Lady," Nordeen said softly. "Until now I thought it would succeed, yes. The polity of Dunbar's World fragments further every day, and Chancellor Arruns can not give up for the reasons I described. But today... who knows?"

    He repeated the graceful gesture with his left hand.

    "What happened today?" Adele said carefully. The data unit remained in her lap though she'd slipped the wands back into the case.

    "Why, today the redoubtable Commander Leary arrived in the region," the old man said, "and with him Lady Mundy, whose deeds are even more storied in certain quarters. More storied in my quarters, I assure you. I do not see how they can turn the tide with no resources but those of Bennaria to draw from, but age has shown me the wisdom of judging men rather than mere objects. I will not bet against that pair."

    Adele stood up and put her data unit in its pocket. "I'll want a complete list of all the personnel and material that's been committed to the invasion," she said. "Along with the rate of usage and your best estimate of losses to date."

    "I have prepared this," Nordeen said, rising also. He bowed to her and stepped to the door.

    "You are a good servant of the Republic, Master Nordeen," Adele said, smiling faintly. "Commander Leary and I will do our best not to disappoint you."

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