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Some Golden Harbor: Chapter Sixteen

       Last updated: Monday, July 3, 2006 23:52 EDT



Port Dunbar on Dunbar's World

    Daniel slid back the aircar's roof panel as they cruised slowly down the center of Southern Boulevard. They were only thirty feet in the air and the apartment houses on the right side of the street were mostly five or six stories high. He wanted to be able to see their roofs.

    "I wouldn't do that," Corius warned sharply. "Those tents down there and the buildings're full of refugees from the northern part of the city. You don't know how they'll react to a limousine. They might start throwing things."

    "And they might start shooting," said Hogg. He was standing beside the driver to watch the left side of the boulevard. He held his impeller across his body, ready to shoulder it. "Which is why the master and me're keeping an eye out. Sir."

    "I'm afraid he's right, Councilor," Daniel said apologetically. "If it were only the chance of a flower pot or a roof tile, it wouldn't matter; but people can get very angry when their lives've been turned upside down. And there could be Pellegrinian agents, you know."

    Daniel'd seen enough of mobs during his own short lifetime to appreciate the risks. He'd taken his service pistol from its holster and laid it on his lap, ready for use. He wasn't under any illusions about his pistol marksmanship, but if worse came to worst he thought he could come close enough to disconcert a sniper.

    He thought of suggesting to Adele that she take over the duties with his heavy pistol; her own wasn't intended for use at the hundred feet or so of slant distance to the rooftops. She was lost, though, in whatever flood of information she was gathering as the aircar proceeded toward the Emergency Ministry building. It was a converted secondary school, from what they'd been told in Ollarville.

    Besides, Tovera and Fallert were standing in the back of the vehicle: she with her sub-machine gun and the snakeman holding a wide-mouthed weapon with a drum magazine. Daniel didn't know just what Fallert's gun did, but he was confident that it'd be adequate for whatever purpose he put it to. Tovera obviously respected him, which was as high a recommendation as you could give a conscienceless killer.

    Corius grimaced. "Woodson, can't you get us up a little higher?" he said to the driver. "Over the roofs, I mean."

    "Best not to, Councilor," the sergeant replied. He was a bearded man with a bland expression; a native of Pleasaunce from his accent, Adele said, but apparently happy to serve under a former Cinnabar officer. "They've got plasma cannon on Mandelfarne that'd eat us right up if we gave'em a shot. I'm keeping low so they don't."

    Daniel was wearing his RCN helmet. He brought up a topographic map of the region as a 30% mask through which his eyes continued to search for potential snipers. The coast of Mandelfarne Island was a good ten miles away.

    While cannon the size of the Sissie's–it was unlikely the actual guns were that big–might do lethal damage to an aircar at that distance, there was only the most remote chance of any gun crew managing to bring its weapon on target in the fraction of a second which a moving vehicle offered. Woodson was skillful and he'd managed the full ten-hour drive without relief, but he obviously wasn't a man to scoff at risk.

    Daniel shrugged mentally. That was how a lot of old soldiers managed to have lived to become old soldiers, of course.

    A snarl like giants ripping metal made Daniel hunch reflexively. The quick WHAM/WHAM/WHAM/WHAM/WHAM three seconds later was reassuring. The impacts were over a mile away, in the city's northern suburbs.

    The Pellegrinians had launched a salvo of bombardment rockets at the Federal positions; it had nothing directly to do with the aircar. Black smoke rose beyond the buildings but quickly dissipated: residue from the warheads, not a secondary explosion.

    "They've increased the number of shells they fire every week since the invasion began," Corius said, frowning. "By now half the Rainha's cargo on each resupply run is more rockets."

    "I've never understood why…," Daniel said.

    He paused, his attention drawn by something suddenly stuck over the cornice of a building they were approaching. It turned out to be a wooden pole. A woman began hanging diapers on it to dry.

    "Right," Daniel muttered. "I don't understand why people seem to believe that filling the streets with broken rubble makes a city easier to attack. You could scarcely ask for a better place to conceal your enemies than a jumble of bricks and timber. Even an old woman with a wooden spear can be dangerous in a mess like that."

    "I suspect Arruns is getting desperate," Corius said. He chuckled. "I'd certainly be desperate if I were in his shoes. But–"

    He sobered as quickly as he'd laughed.

    "–I will be in his shoes if I commit my troops to the fighting in the city itself. The only way I can really be effective is to turn their flank, it seems to me."

    Daniel switched his visor display to imagery the Princess Cecile had captured from orbit; the Pellegrinian positions were highlighted in red. He didn't really look at it, though, because he'd absorbed the relevant details while he was waiting for the Bennarian ships to arrive above Dunbar's World.

    "The Pellegrinians have brought heavy equipment," Daniel said. "There're earthworks around their entire position. Their flanks are on the sea. It seems to me that their supply routes are the only place they're vulnerable. Either destroy the barges they're using to ferry supplies from Mandelfarne to the mainland, or prevent them from bringing supplies from Pellegrino itself by threatening the Rainha."

    "Can you do that?" Corius said sharply. "Keep the Rainha from landing on Mandelfarne?"

    "Not so long as she's escorted by a cruiser," Daniel said. "At least not while the Sissie is the closest thing to a warship that I have to work with. I'm second to none in my belief in what the RCN can achieve with limited resources–"

    He smiled to emphasize the humor of what he was saying, but it was the flat truth as well.

    "–but I won't throw away my ship and the lives of my crew for a gesture on behalf of the Federal Republic of Bennaria."

    Corius grunted and said, "Then we'll have to find another way to do it, won't we?"

    The median strips on Southern Boulevard were as wide as the traffic lanes on either side. Originally they'd been grassy and dotted with flower beds, but now shanties made from scrap wood and plastic sheeting covered them. Downdraft from the aircar's fans ruffled the flimsy structures, though none actually collapsed.

    Refugees looked up, their expressions unreadable. A surprising number were men of what Daniel thought of as military age.

    Well, he wasn't here to help the Bennarian government reform its military recruitment policies. Though he was beginning to wonder why he was here at all, given the general lack of enthusiasm for his mission on Bennaria and the absence of resources on Dunbar's World.

    "I think this is the place, sir," said the driver in a raised voice. Without waiting for direction, he eased back on the yoke and curved the aircar down toward a complex of two-story brick buildings ahead on the right. The complex filled much of a city block whose perimeter was bounded by chain link fencing. Vehicles, mostly ground cars, were parked inside the fence. The sandbagged blockhouses at each of the three driveway entrances were newly built.

    Daniel laughed cheerfully. Corius gave him a wary look and said, "I'm not joking, Commander. I intend to defeat the Pellegrinians."

    "And so do I, Councilor," Daniel said, "so do I. Because if we don't do that, why, the only reason I'd have for being here would be to keep me out of the way of Admiral Vocaine. I have too much confidence in the leadership of the RCN to believe in anything so cynical."

    He laughed again as the car landed, but the Councilor's expression became even more guarded.



    As Adele stretched, working out stiffness from the long ride, Hogg called to Tovera, "You want to stay with the car or shall I?"

    "You're the sturdy outdoorsman, Hogg," Tovera said. "Besides, that great clumsy impeller wouldn't be nearly as useful inside a building as my attaché case."

    She tapped the case of pebble-grained black leather that she always carried. The small sub-machine gun nestled inside wouldn't show up even under a fluoroscope.

    "Yeah, right," Hogg said, but he wasn't arguing the decision. "I could maybe kick one in the crotch, don't you think, mistress?"

    Corius turned in surprise and mild irritation. "You can both come in if you like," he said. "Woodson will stay with the car."

    "That's all right, sir," Hogg said. "I'll keep him company."

    The front entrance was up three broad, concrete steps. The uniforms of the two guards there didn't fit; the men themselves were very young and looked younger. They straightened as Corius, his bodyguard, and Quinn a step behind strode toward them.

    Daniel leaned close to Adele and whispered. "Did you notice Fallert's throat sack? It's flushing. If he were a real lizard, I'd say it was a courtship display."

    "And what makes you think it isn't?" Adele said, settling her data unit into its pocket as she and Daniel followed the Bennarians.

    "But Adele," Daniel said. "There's no…. My God! You mean Tovera! That's…. That's disgusting!"

    "Well, Daniel," Adele said. "There are some of us who put all human reproductive behavior in the 'disgusting' category. Though I know you and I probably differ on the point.”

    Daniel laughed at the humor of it. "I know perfectly well that we humans are animals," he said as they climbed the steps together. "But I just don't think of us that way."

    "Good," said Adele. "Because if you did, you'd be a different person."

    A person more like your father, she thought, but she didn't let the thought reach her tongue.

    "I'm Councilor Corius with my staff," Corius said to the sentries generally. From what Adele could see, they were untrained recruits and bored rather than worried. "I have an appointment with General Mahler."

    Adele frowned: that wasn't precisely true. Corius had spoken to Mahler from Ollarville before setting out, but they hadn't–couldn't have–set an exact time for the meeting.

    Her expression softened into the wry smile that'd become more frequent since she'd met Daniel: she was focusing on words again instead of on the purpose for which the words were spoken. That purpose, to get into the presence of the military commander of Port Dunbar, was a valid one, so she shouldn't object to the way it was achieved.

    The smile grew wider: so long as she didn't have to tell lies herself.

    "Sure, sir," said a guard–the one on whom Corius had fixed his gaze, probably at random. "His office's upstairs and all the way to the right. He may not be in, though."

    "He's in," said Adele as she entered the building beside Daniel. Mahler was arguing with the Minister of Defense in Sinclos, the temporary capital, about his need for water purification equipment; the Pellegrinians had captured the water plant in their initial assault.

    "How do you know?" Colonel Quinn asked plaintively as they stepped briskly up the central staircase.

    Adele had been listening to Mahler's conversation among others from as soon as she'd gotten close enough to the city to conect her data unit through the aircar's transceiver. Federal communications security was appallingly bad, and the Pellegrinian field units weren't much better.

    Arruns' headquarters on Mandelfarne Island, on the other hand, was thoroughly professional–and, judging from various recognizable quirks, was almost certainly staffed by an Alliance signals detachment. Given time and the full facilities of the Princess Cecile Adele could break their security, but for the present it remained impenetrable.

    Adele simply shrugged; she was concentrating on the present situation. Besides, Quinn wouldn't understand any better if she described the process to him, so he might as well think she was a mentalist of some sort.

    Fallert bounded to the top ahead of the rest of the party; his thin legs took three steps at a time without apparent strain. Tovera was backing up at the rear, her eyes on the outside door.

    "They're well matched," Daniel whispered, indicating Fallert with a tiny nod. He smiled at his joke, but Adele thought the expression was strained. That made her smile.

    The rooms to either side of the hallway were occupied by men in uniform–though not quite the same uniforms–and women, seated at one-piece writing desks which were bolted to the floor in neat rows. They were working with ledgers and loose sheets of paper;

    Adele noticed only one computer as she passed, on the combination desk and lectern at the front of one room. The portly man seated there wasn't using the equipment or doing any other useful work that she could see. He watched with increasing outrage as Corius and his entourage walked by, then cried to their backs, "You there! This is a restricted area!"

    A hand-lettered sign reading Commander in Chief had been taped over the original legend painted on the frosted glass of the room at the end of the corridor. Nobody was in the outer office. Corius opened the door to the inner office and walked through.

    "What?" said the bearded man seated behind the desk inside. He'd been speaking into a phone connected to his computer. "What? Who're you?"

    "I'm Yuli Corius, commander of the Bennarian Volunteers," Corius said. "I want to discuss the deployment of the two thousand troops I've brought to Dunbar's World."

    "What?" said the man. Adele recognized General Mahler, a former district governor who in his youth had been a cadet officer on Novy Sverdlovsk. In the most recent image he'd had a neat goatee, but it had spread into a ragged brush in the past month. Into the phone he continued, "Minister, I'll get back with you!" and banged the handset into its cradle.

    "General Mahler?" Corius said. "This is my staff. Commander Leary here is an advisor sent to me by the RCN."

    Adele felt her lips purse in disapproval. Daniel simply smiled engagingly, though, clearly not troubled by the way Corius had described his mission. Daniel was doubtless correct as to what was important in the greater scheme of things, but Adele had rather different personal priorities.



    Mahler ignored them both and didn't even blink at Fallert. "I didn't expect you so quickly," he said. "Where are your troops?"

    "At present they're in Ollarville," the Councilor said, "but–"

    "Ollarville!" Mahler said. "What bloody good is that? How quick can you get them here?"

    There were two straight chairs in front of the desk. No one else was using them, so Adele sat down and brought out her personal data unit.

    "We might differ about what's useful," Corius said in an increasingly distant voice. He wasn't, Adele surmised, the sort of man who took well to being interrupted. "And they'll stay in Ollarville until we've determined–"

    "Do you have artillery?" Mahler said. He wasn't so much having a conversation as dropping questions into an answer machine. "If I had real artillery, I could–or tanks? By God, with tanks I can smash these pigs right into the sea, into the sea to drown!"

    Adele had been sorting communications, as usual, but without really thinking about it she brought up a sidebar from the unit's internal memory. Normally she'd have the unit linked to far more extensive databases, but this was adequate for her present purposes.

    As she'd expected, the cost of a tank of the sort in current use with the Cinnabar and Alliance armies was comparable to that of a moderate-sized starship. When one added in the expense of transporting the tank from, say, Xenos to Dunbar's World, Mahler's question became either remarkably uninformed or remarkably stupid.

    Or both, of course. Nothing Adele had seen thus far convinced her that Mahler wasn't both.

    "My troops are light infantry," Corius said, his tone as thin as piano wire. "It's my understanding that the Pellegrinians are also light infantry, so that isn't a handicap. Indeed, I can't fathom how one could obtain tanks and heavy artillery anywhere in Ganpat's Reach."

    "Well, beggars can't be choosers," Mahler muttered. He sounded extremely tired; perhaps fatigue rather than stupidity explained his behavior. "They'll be a help even if they won't break the pigs once and for all. I can't get the conscripts to hold with the pigs blasting shells into them. No bloody discipline, that's the problem!"

    "I didn't bring my Volunteers here as cannon fodder," Corius said. "I–"

    "Look, Julie or whatever your name is!" Mahler said. "I'm the Commander in Chief, and I decide who goes where!"

    "Shall I damage him, Councilor?" Fallert asked. His tone was pleasant but the slight lengthening of the sibilants gave it a hint of menace. "If I cut off his foot, perhaps he will listen."

    "Chew it off, I would've thought," Tovera said.

    Mahler stiffened in his seat. He started to open the middle drawer. Daniel leaned over the desk and banged the drawer shut again with his left hand, narrowly missing the fingers Mahler jerked out of the way.

    "Let's not," Daniel said with a smile. "These utilities are rumpled after the long flight, but they were new when I put them on. I don't want to get blood on them, the way I certainly will if you try to shoot it out with my colleagues here."

    "I would not shoot him, Commander Leary," said Fallert. "But yes, there's blood everywhere when one bites through human necks. It is very colorful."

    The snakeman and Tovera laughed in their separate fashions. Adele wasn't sure which was the more unpleasant to hear.

    "Enough!" said Corius sharply. His face lost its momentary blocky stiffness. Smiling again, he went on, "General Mahler, I wouldn't think of usurping your authority, but you must recall that I'm not a Federal citizen under your direct control. I want to work with you to defeat the invaders, but throwing my troops into a battle of attrition against five times their numbers will at best only delay a Pellegrinian victory."

    Mahler leaned back in his chair and rubbed his eyes. "I'll take a delay," he muttered. "I'll take any bloody thing I can get."

    He opened his eyes and said, "You know how I got this job? Because I was willing to take it and nobody else was! I don't have any real troops–the Port Police and the Federal Gendarmerie had some discipline but no training, and by now they're mostly gone. Not much in the way of guns and less ammunition. The main off-planet cargos come in mostly through Ollarville now, so bugger-all gets through to us who need it here!"

    Another salvo of bombardment rockets slammed down. A moment after the fifth warhead detonated, a secondary explosion shook the school building; the windows rattled. Mahler winced.

    "You say you're not under my control?" he said ironically. "Well, neither's the Port Dunbar Militia, the Farmers Brotherhood, the Federal Struggle Association–for all they were raised by the Federal Unity party that's supposedly the government in Sinclos. And we won't even talk about the Action Battalions of the EPL that've arrived here. Best I can tell, they're here to loot Port Dunbar before the Pellegrinians take it over. So why should you be different?"

    "General," Corius said, nodding politely. "My staff and I will conduct a reconnaissance of the war zone, if we may, and then I'll get back to you. I'd appreciate it if you let people know who we are and ask them to give us full facilities, but we won't be a burden on your supply system."

    "Supply system?" Mahler said. "It'd be a fine thing if I had one of those, wouldn't it? But all right, Councilor, do what you can. While I try to stop the pigs from eating the city away one block at a time because I don't have troops who'll hold their position while they're being shelled. Till the pigs get it all."

    "Then we'll–" Corius said. The Whack! of a powerful impeller firing outside the building ended the conversation.



    Adele drew her pistol. She didn't have time to case the wands properly, but her right hand slid them with the data unit into her thigh pocket as she turned in the direction of the shot. At a conscious level it would've made more sense to leave the little computer on the desk, but she was operating on reflex.

    And it was a good reflex. A workman who doesn't put her tools away when she's done with them probably isn't much of a craftsman.

    Fallert faced the door, his weapon aimed down the empty corridor. It'd be a bad time for office workers to run out waving their arms in panic, Adele thought, but that wasn't a present concern.

    Daniel and Tovera were at the outside windows. She held her sub-machine gun–of course–but Daniel hadn't drawn the heavy pistol he wore with his utilities as an officer on detached service.

    Quinn had dropped to the floor and was trying to pull Corius down beside him; the Councilor was looking in the direction of the shot but seemed startled rather than afraid. Adele stepped on the small of Quinn's back in her haste to look down onto the parking lot, but she was off again as quickly and she didn't weigh enough for the accident to matter.

    Six men in black shirts, workman's trousers, and black berets surrounded the Bennarian aircar thirty feet away. Two of them held pistols openly; the others wore holsters. It didn't surprise Adele to see that the red-and-white rosette of the EPL was pinned to the berets. Woodson had gotten out of the vehicle but was trapped against it, his hands half-raised.

    Hogg had backed toward the building to keep the EPL goons in front of him. He held the stocked impeller in his right hand like a huge pistol; it was pointed skyward. The weapon's powerful flux vaporized the aluminum driving band of its heavy-metal projectile. That glowing cloud had dissipated, but Adele's nose wrinkled with the sharpness of ozone.

    "Any time, mistress!" Tovera said. Her voice had the quivering eagerness of a cat poised to spring.

    "Don't shoot!" said Daniel. "We can't afford civil war!"

    He jumped out of the window. It was twelve feet to the ground. Or perhaps fifteen? The only way Adele could've been sure would be by checking the building's blueprints, and she wasn't quite obsessive enough to go searching for them at the present instant.

    Daniel scrunched heavily on the gravel but didn't fall. Straightening–his knees had flexed–he strode purposefully toward the car.

    "Mistress?" Tovera said. "Any time!"

    "You there!" Daniel called. He seemed to have forgotten his holstered pistol. "Do you know who I am? I'm Commander Daniel Leary of the RCN! See this?"

    He fluffed out the left breast of his jacket with one hand and pointed with the other at the tape reading RCN in subdued lettering. It was probably unreadable against the blotched gray pattern of the utilities, but the bit of business consumed time enough for several more steps. "Cinnabar! Republic of Cinnabar!"

    "Is this car yours?" said a red-haired thug whose darker moustache flared into his sideburns. He seemed to be a full head taller than Daniel, though the angle prevented Adele from being sure. "I'm Storm-Captain Pintada. There's a war on, buddy, and we're taking the car for military purposes!"

    "That's a bloody lie!" shouted General Mahler, standing at the other window beside Tovera. "Get out of here, you thieves! Guards!"

    "Right!" said Pintada. "We're taking the bloody car and anybody who–"

    He put his hand on the latch of the car's front door. Daniel gripped Pintada's elbow. Pintada spun, jerking his arm free, then swung his left fist at Daniel. Daniel caught Pintada's wrist in both hands, kicked him in the crotch, and continued to twist and lift the bigger man's arm to keep him from doubling up.

    "Mistress!" Tovera said.

    Each of the six thugs wore a target in Adele's mind, over the eye or the temple or the side of the neck. She waited with her little pistol vertical beside her left ear because she'd been trained as a duelist rather than a combat shooter, but at this range she wouldn't miss; she never missed.

    She'd only get one or possibly two of them, though. As soon as her shot started the game, Tovera's sub-machine gun would finish it. And Adele didn't shoot, because she knew–and Daniel knew, that's why he was risking his life down there now–that killing EPL thugs would mean civil war among those who'd been trying to stop the invaders. Navy House hadn't sent her and Daniel to Dunbar's World to decide the war in the Pellegrinians' favor.

    "RCN!" Daniel bellowed, shaking Pintada like a cat toy. "Is that what you want, you backwoods dog-turds? War with Cinnabar?"

    A squat, black-haired thug was dancing about with his pistol drawn, trying to decide whether to risk a shot. The EPL contingent hadn't expected their victims to start the violence, and their leader was screaming too loudly to give coherent orders.

    "I wouldn't do that, sonny," said Hogg. The gunman turned his head, saw the muzzle of the big impeller three inches from his right eye, and squealed. He tried to swing his pistol.

    Hogg stabbed the impeller like a blunt spear, tearing the man's cheek open and smashing the thin bones behind it. The man threw his hands up, hitting himself in the face with his own pistol. He gave a gobbling cry and ran blindly into the cab of a parked truck. He bounced off, hit the ground, and collapsed.

    The three men who hadn't drawn their pistols began to back away. The last had one hand on the grip of his weapon and the other on the muzzle. His mouth was slackly open. Daniel stepped toward him, holding Pintada close to his body, then shoved him hard against the gunman. The pistol fell to the ground. The man who'd dropped it fled toward the open gate, drawing his three fellows along with him.

    Several men in Federal uniforms stood beside the blockhouse. They let the EPL squad run past unhindered, just as they hadn't interfered with the attempted car theft. Daniel let Pintada fall to the ground and bent over, leaning against the aircar so that he could gasp air into his lungs.

    "We need to go now," Adele said crisply, swinging away from the window. The drop to the ground was too far. She hadn't trained as a midshipman, chasing like a monkey among the antennas of starships. If she jumped she'd at best make a fool of herself and very possibly wind up a cripple besides. She ran down the corridor, still holding the pistol.

    Before Adele'd reached the stairs, Fallert bounded past. Tovera would be guarding the rear, then. A good team, indeed.

    When they reached the parking area, Daniel'd stood up and was tugging at his utilities. Loose as they were, he'd  torn the right sleeve off. Woodson stared in disbelief as Hogg lifted the groaning Pintada's head halfway into the driver's compartment.

    "You want the car, wog?" he shouted.

    And slammed the door with his foot.

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