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Some Golden Harbor: Chapter Nineteen

       Last updated: Monday, August 7, 2006 19:33 EDT



En Route to Dunbar's World

    Woetjans was already waiting for him in the airlock, but Daniel spent a further moment on the hull to watch the heavens. They flared in a splendor unglimpsed by those who never left the sidereal universe. Colors and hints of color–hues Daniel was sure formed in his mind rather than on his retinas–spread to infinity wherever he turned.

    Every spark was a universe, every color was as meaningful as a woman's glance. At times like this, Daniel felt that the only reason for the sidereal universe was to permit a man to eat between visits to the Matrix.

    Daniel grinned as he stepped into the lock, dogging the hatch behind him. There were important things besides eating that one couldn't do on the hull in the Matrix, but the social life of Ollarville didn't lend itself to them either. Unless one chose to pay, of course.

    Light from the diodes in the ceiling softened as air filled the lock. Woetjans was glaring at Daniel. As they lifted off the helmets of their stiff rigging suits a moment before opening the inner hatch, she muttered, "You should've let me go, sir."

    They exited onto the foyer just aft of the bridge. Off-duty Sissies stood in the corridor, waiting expectantly. The riggers were suited up, ready to furl the sails and lower the antennas in preparation for landing. Woetjans joined her people, still looking morose.

    Riggers could remain outside while a ship transitioned from the Matrix to sidereal space, but the experience was disorienting–and therefore dangerous–even to veterans. Daniel would order it if the situation required, but otherwise he kept his crew within the hull during insertions and extractions. That was true even when the Princess Cecile had a full military crew, which she certainly didn't at present.

    Cory had been in command of the Sissie from the navigation console while Daniel was on the hull. "Five minutes to Extraction, sir!" the midshipman said when he saw Daniel come through the hatch. "Shall I relinquish command now?"

    Daniel didn't snap at him. The lad was keen, after all. Unfortunately he wasn't overly bright, and he was far more concerned to avoid doing the wrong thing than he was to do the right one. Regardless, not a bad sort and an astrogator who was showing an unexpectedly good feel for the Matrix once Daniel started pointing out the subtleties to him.

    "No, Mister Cory," he said, clumping onto the bridge. He didn't remove his rigging suit, though he unlatched and pulled off the gauntlets. He doubted he'd be going out again before landing, and this was the first time since they'd lifted from Pellegrino that he'd had the entire crew inside. "You can deal with the Ollarville authorities and take her down–but on automatic, I believe. I'll address the crew from the command console right now, though."

    "Aye-aye, sir!" chirped Cory. He'd really make a decent officer if he ever got his head around the fact that he was an officer, a person who might be expected to make life and death decisions on very little information. A good officer can get away with being wrong, but he can't be indecisive.

    Daniel settled onto the console and gave it a moment to adjust to the added bulk of his suit. He manually set his output to General: the loudspeakers in every compartment as well as all commo helmets would project his words. It struck him as he made the adjustments that though this was a familiar task for most captains, he hadn't had to perform since Signals Officer Mundy had joined the strength of the Princess Cecile.

    "Ship, this is Six," he said, hearing his voice repeated from the compartments opening onto the A Level corridor. "I haven't explained my plans to you because I wanted you all to hear it from me at the same time. This is the first opportunity I've had to do that."

    There was a way to project a real-time image of his face as he spoke, but also a way to hide it. The green bar behind the legend General on the bottom of his display meant one or the other, but damn him for a heathen if he could remember which.

    He grinned, breaking his burst of frustration. If that was the worst thing he lost by not having Adele aboard, he was doing better than he'd feared might be the case.

    "Our fellow Sissies under Lieutenant Vesey and Officer Mundy–"

    Under Adele in reality, but even the most junior commissioned officer was superior to any warrant officer. Daniel would at least pay lip service to RCN protocol.

    "–should by now have captured the Rainha in dock on Pellegrino and have lifted for Dunbar's World. When they land on Mandelfarne Island, they'll disable the missile battery emplaced there."

    "And I ought to be with them!" Woetjans snarled. She wasn't using intercom or even looking at Daniel when she spoke from the lock foyer, but her voice, throbbing with emotion, carried.

    "Lieutenant Vesey and I chose our crews on our best judgment of the needs of both ships," Daniel continued. "The choices weren't easy. We both could've used every one of you and more for the jobs we each need to do. I counted on every Sissie to work like three of any other spacer, and I'm glad to say you've performed. I'm confident that Vesey will tell me the same when we meet on Mandelfarne Island."

    The choices had been tricky, though there'd been factors Daniel didn't intend to discuss with the crew he'd kept aboard the Princess Cecile. No spacer was likely to be a coward, but some weren't as ready to face gunshots and the possibility of knife work as others.

    Even more to the point, some people couldn't easily–or simply couldn't–take the life of another human being. The assault on the Pellegrinian missile battery had to be handled swiftly, without the least flinching or hesitation. Daniel's stomach turned at the notion of commanding a crew of vipers like Adele's servant Tovera, but for the present task thirty Toveras would've been very useful.

    Woetjans would've been handy for the assault party also, but Daniel had decided that her appearance was simply too identifiable to risk sending to the Stoddard. Adele had assured him that the Pellegrinian police weren't watching the crippled freighter, but the bosun's appearance was striking enough that a passing patrol might notice and comment.

    Quite apart from that, eighteen of the thirty spacers in Vesey's crew were riggers, leaving the Princess Cecile herself very short-handed on the hull side. Woetjans' strength and skill–she had an instinct for where a line would kink or a block might freeze–had kept the Sissie's rig from descending into a complete shambles during the voyage back from Pellegrino.

    Despite the good reasons for it, Daniel hadn't expected Woetjans to be happy with the decision. He'd been right.

    "Now, you'll be wondering what this means for you and me," Daniel said. "It's pretty obvious that thirty spacers, even thirty Sissies, can't fight off a counterattack by a thousand Pellegrinian troops. As soon as the Rainha reaches orbit over Dunbar's World, Councilor Corius' mercenaries will load aboard one of his transports just like they did to come from his estates to Charlestown. This time they'll fly across the continent to Mandelfarne Island and finish what Officer Mundy's started."

    Daniel licked his lips, wondering if the listening spacers understood how close the timing had to be. He supposed they did: his Sissies had more experience with firefights than most companies of the Land Forces.

    Certainly Adele and Vesey understood. The transport couldn't come within missile range–say, three hundred miles–until the battery was captured, but it could be only a matter of minutes after the attack began before the Pellegrinians' overwhelming numbers blotted out the Sissies.

    "I'll be at the controls," he continued, "and Mister Pasternak will run the gauges, because I don't trust any civilian to do the job fast and clean the way it has to be done. The RCN way!"

    There were several cheers, but they seemed to rattle forlornly down the Sissie's corridors. There wasn't enough of a crew to make the ship ring properly, and those present clearly did know how chancy the business was for their friends and shipmates.

    "So what does that leave for us, sir?" asked Rosinant, seated at the gunnery console because Sun was part of the assault force. "Do we come with you and the pongoes?"

    "The rest of you," said Daniel, giving the answer as a full statement because most of the crew wouldn't have heard Rosinant's question, "stay aboard the Sissie under Midshipman Blantyre. You'll follow me in the transport to Mandelfarne Island. You'll pick me and Pasternak up and also our shipmates who arrived aboard the Rainha."

    This time the cheers were real–sparse by necessity, but full-throated. Rosinant shouted louder than most, obviously looking forward to the chance to use plasma cannon on ground targets. It was quite obvious to everybody aboard that the battle for the base would still be going on when they landed on Mandelfarne Island.

    "Ship, thirty seconds to extraction from the Matrix," Cory announced. He'd kept an eye on his duties during Daniel's confidence-building speech. Definitely a lad with promise.

    The world around Daniel began to ripple and fold, causing alternate waves of nausea and vertigo to wash through him.

    He hadn't lied to the crew, but he was very well aware that when he said they'd pick up 'our shipmates from the Rainha,' he'd really meant 'our shipmates or their bodies.'



Central Haven on Pellegrino

    The diesel engine was rumbling, but the barge that'd brought the new High Drive motors was still tied up to the Stoddard's outrigger. Though it wasn't time to set off, Vesey and the majority of the assault party were already concealed by the tarpaulin over the top of the barge's forward hold.

    Tovera, Dasi and Barnes stood with Adele as she talked for the last time with Captain Evans, at the head of the short boarding bridge between barge and starship. The other officers remained aboard the ship, avoiding the knowledge of what was going on. Adele didn't mind the riggers' presence–she had nothing to say to the Stoddard's officers that the Sissies shouldn't hear–but the stocked impellers they insisted on holding might very well attract attention even at this hour of the night.

    "Master Nordeen is seeing to it that more workmen will arrive in the morning, Captain," she said. "While I don't expect them to be of quality equal to those who're leaving tonight, they will at least be shipyard workers by profession. They should have you ready to lift within a matter of days."

    "If I'd known what you were doing, I'd have told you not only no but hell! no," said Evans in a miserable voice. "Bloody hell, woman, Chancellor Arruns doesn't fool around with treason. I'm for the high jump and so are all us other poor bastards!"

    Dasi rapped him over the ear with his impeller's muzzle. It wasn't a heavy blow, but it was more than a tap for attention.

    "She's Officer Mundy to you, boyo!" the rigger said. "Or you can call her sir, your choice."

    "I didn't ask for your permission," Adele said calmly. "I told you your duty. If you keep your mouth shut, however, there won't be any repercussions before you've taken the Stoddard off Pellegrino."

    She hadn't wanted or needed Dasi, her self-proclaimed escort, to deliver that etiquette lesson, but it'd more than a little pleased the part of her that was still Mundy of Chatsworth. Her father had been leader of the Popular Party and the people's friend, but he'd never forgotten he was Mundy of Chatsworth either.

    The big freighter on the opposite side of the slip was being loaded under lights. A sharp whack! followed by a ringing whang and the crunch of a heavy weight hitting the ground sounded from it. The ship's masts were telescoped but not completely folded; in silhouette against the floodlights they looked like spikes of hoarfrost, enormously magnified.

    "A cable parted," Barnes said with a chuckle. "We seed that happen often enough, right, Dasi?"

    "They'll be lucky if somebody didn't get killed," his partner agreed. "Cut right in half. Remember Trent Johns?"

    They laughed together.

    "Look, I see the guns," Evans said, his whisper harsh. His head was bent away from Dasi and his left hand touched his scalp. "If you think you can use them on Pellegrino and the cops look the other way, you're bloody wrong!"

    "You don't know what we're doing," Adele said, her voice so cold that the captain wilted away from it, for the moment forgetting Dasi's mere physical threat. "If you're not too stupid to live, you'll avoid speculating on the question. You'll tell anyone who asks that the work on your ship was carried out by Pellegrinian shipwrights and that you were glad to get off planet. Do you understand?"

    "It's easy for you to say there won't be trouble," the captain said, "but–"

    "Should I kill him, mistress?" Tovera said. "We can be sure he won't do anything foolish if he's dead."

    "No," said Adele. "Well, only as a last resort. It'd cause more problems than it'd solve."

    She looked at Evans again. The quiet discussion had frightened him in a fashion that Dasi's blow had not… which meant he was beginning to understand.

    "You will not tell anyone that you ever saw us," Adele said. "You will finish the work on your ship and lift. Do you have further questions?"

    "No ma'am," Evans mumbled to the toes of his boots. "Whatever you say. We didn't see anything, not a bloody thing."

    "Mistress?" Vesey said over the intercom. She and Dorst had always called Adele "Mistress" or "Sir" even though midshipmen had general command authority and a signals officer did not.

    "Yes, time to go," Adele said aloud. "Good night, Captain Evans. I suggest you forget us."

    "You can be bloody sure I'll try," the civilian muttered as Adele climbed from the boarding bridge down into the barge.

    "Cast off," ordered Casuaris, who'd been a fisherman before he became a spacer; a civilian at the bow and a Sissie at the stern freed hawsers from ringbolts on the outrigger. Master Nordeen had provided two crewmen with the barge, but they were simply carrying out RCN orders on this trip.

    Casuaris had told Adele that he'd sold his catch for a good price in Xenos and awakened in the morning with a bad hangover as the destroyer he'd been carried aboard lifted. His experience with small boats came in handy now; and though he grumbled about the way he'd been pressed into service, he'd spent the past fifteen years in the RCN despite his many opportunities, formal and otherwise, to get out.

    The civilian helmsman eased his throttle forward as he engaged the single prop. The diesel lugged for a moment, then built back to a burbling grumble as the barge backed into the pool.

    Adele prepared to squat as she pulled out her personal data unit. "Here you go, ma'am," Sun said, guiding her against the bulkhead where to her surprise a seat–a metal tray with a cushion of coiled rope–stuck out from the sheer metal.

    "I bolted it there for you, ma'am," the gunner said proudly. "We didn't want you sitting in the bilges again, you know."

    "Thank you, Sun," Adele said as she sat as directed. They were really very good to her; they cared. They were her family.



    The terminal in the Rainha's entry hold was being used to display a pornographic video involving a human female and three aliens of different species. Adele frowned for a moment, wondering if there was a way she could identify the aliens more quickly than calling up an anthropological database–which her little unit didn't have–and sorting by eye. Though of course it didn't matter, except to her desire to properly catalogue everything with which she came in contact.

    What did matter was that the crewmen on entry watch weren't any more concerned than their fellows on the two previous nights had been. The Rainha had filled its manifest and would be lifting at mid-morning, but the crew had a final night of liberty.

    The anchor watch was six spacers under the second mate. The remaining twenty-one officers and crew were supposed to return at dawn but would, Vesey assured her with all the listening Sissies nodding agreement, dribble in over the course of the morning. That timing wasn't necessary for the success of Adele's plans, but it'd be helpful.

    "Sir, we're nearing the Rainha," Vesey whispered. Her lips were close to Adele's ear so she could hear over the chugging of the diesel.

    Adele looked up, shut off her display–she'd been checking the freighter's main computer for readiness estimates on the thrusters and High Drive–and put the little unit away. She hadn't been really concerned about the Rainha being able to lift as planned and she wasn't the person to determine that anyway, but it'd been something to do instead of stare at steel bulkheads and at spacers who were quivering with anticipation.

    Standing, Adele said, "Barnes and Dasi with me, and nobody else. Lieutenant Vesey, see to it!" She climbed the ladder gracelessly but without difficulty and stood on the gunwale-level walkway with Tovera and the two riggers. The barge nosed toward the slip at which the Rainha was anchored.

    They clanged against the concrete quay and glanced away. Adele swayed against the railing, but Dasi was holding her firmly by the shoulder. The diesel grunted unhappily as the helmsman did something to his controls.

    "Get a bloody fender out, you clot-brains!" Casuaris shouted, springing forward and hurling out a bundle of coiled rope between the quay and the ship's side. They'd recoiled three feet and were swinging farther away.

    "Ma'am, we're gonna pass you ashore!" Dasi said in an urgent voice. He seized Adele around the waist as Barnes vaulted the railing. They'd left their impellers in the hold as ordered, but each had a length of pipe under his belt.

    Dasi tossed Adele over the railing to Barnes, who lowered her to the dock. She hadn't heard the riggers discuss this plan; perhaps they'd just instinctively come to the same conclusions by dint of long experience of working together. Tovera jumped also, holding the attaché case close to her body; she landed lightly.

    "Come along," Adele muttered as she strode toward the Rainha's entry ramp, her boots clicking against the concrete. Behind them the barge was rumbling toward the dock again, but that had ceased to be her concern.

    She was in civilian clothes, a suit of dark blue fabric. Thin diagonals of powder blue kept the garment from looking like a uniform in sunlight, but Adele had chosen it for the ambiguity it had at night. Tovera looked like a clerk as usual, and the riggers were in the dull, loose garments of working spacers anywhere. Utilities were formal wear for on-duty RCN personnel.

    Both the crewmen on watch stepped to the top of the entry ramp to see what the noise was about. Adele continued to walk briskly toward them without waving or calling.

    "We're not supposed to get cargo tonight," one of the watchmen called. "You've got the wrong ship, I guess!"

    Adele reached the end of the ramp and started up it. "I'm from the Chancellor's office," she said. "We're here for Officer Luntz."

    Luntz was the watch officer tonight. He was a Pellegrino native, like the captain and first mate. The crewmen, according to the ship's records, were mostly from various places in Ganpat's Reach. There were three Pellegrinians and three more spacers born on Alliance worlds.

    "I'll get–" said the watchman who'd spoken before. He turned into the compartment.

    "Don't warn him," snapped Adele, "or you'll be guilty of treason yourself!"

    "What?" said the watchman. He held his hands out to his sides in horror. "Look, I'm no traitor. Bloody hell, what'd Luntz do, anyway?"

    "I really think you'd be wiser to avoid that question," Adele said tartly as she stepped between the spacers and walked toward the flat terminal on an internal bulkhead.

    The woman and her three companions continued to caper on the display. Perhaps they were all computer simulations?

    Adele locked the terminal and turned to watchmen. Both were staring at her with worried expressions. "Unless you're already involved, of course," she said. "Are you?"

    "No!" said the nearer watchman. He had a ruddy face and was sweating profusely. "We–"

    Barnes and Dasi swung their short clubs together. They were using lengths of the high-density plastic tubing intended for the hydraulic system that worked the Sissie's rig. The hollow whop-p! of the impacts echoed in the compartment.

    The silent watchman crumpled in place as though he'd been shot. The speaker pitched forward–mouth open, arms windmilling, and blood spraying from the cut in his scalp. There was a bald patch on the peak of his skull. Adele stepped aside; the man hit first the bulkhead, then the deck.

    Her nose wrinkled. She'd started to say, "Did you have to hit them so hard?" but swallowed the words. Yes, they did have to hit the watchmen that hard. There was a near certainty of concussion, a real chance of permanent brain damage, and the possibility of death from blows like that–

    But if the watchmen hadn't been put down certainly from the first, Tovera or Adele herself would've shot them dead. There couldn't be any chance of them getting away or giving an alarm.

    Barnes was strapping the watchmen's arms behind their backs with cargo tape while Dasi stood in the hatchway and signaled Vesey with his left hand. One man was snoring loudly; the other lay as slack as a half-filled bladder, his mouth and eyes open. His scalp wound should be bandaged, but perhaps the Sissies coming from the barge could take care of that when they arrived.

    "To the bridge," Adele snapped as she stepped into the up companionway. "And Tovera, put that thing out of sight!"

    Tovera had taken her little sub-machine gun from its case. If they'd been intending to assault the Rainha, killing everyone they met, that would be appropriate. It wasn't what Adele had in mind, however–as her servant well knew.

    Tovera appeared bland on all but the closest contact, but she really did have a personality; she possibly even had a sense of humor. What she lacked was a conscience.



    Adele trotted up the companionway past open hatches on three levels. The stacks in the old section of the Academic Collections on Bryce had grated floors and wrought-iron spiral staircases with brass finials. Adele wondered how many times she'd gone up and down those stairs in the years when she was a student of, then assistant curator to, Mistress Boilleau. Those were probably the happiest days of her life before she joined the RCN–and they were very good training for getting from one deck to another on a starship.

    She reached the top of the companionway on A Level, traditionally not only the bridge but also the accommodations deck on a civilian vessel. A warship's larger crew usually required that the enlisted personnel be berthed lower down, but of course a warship's interior wasn't given over to cargo holds.

    All the hatches along the A Level corridor were open. The sound of snoring came from one of the accommodation blocks toward the stern. Lights were on in the bridge forward; Adele already knew that the main console was live.

    She paused, not indecisive but waiting for Barnes and Dasi to come out of the companionway. They were followed almost without pause by half a dozen Sissies who must've run from the barge as soon as they got the signal. Sun was at their head, holding a sub-machine gun at high port with the air of a man who knew how to use his tools.

    Adele pointed to the accommodation block, then turned and with Tovera at her side walked silently onto the bridge. The man at the main console was slumped so that she couldn't see his head, but his worn boots were splayed out to either side. There were two flat-plate terminals–not all-purpose consoles–on the right side of the compartment, but their integral seats were empty.

    Adele stepped toward the console, then leaned forward quickly and switched off the power. She brushed the man dozing on the couch. He woke up, muttering, "Whazzat?"

    "Officer Luntz," said Adele, clearly but without shouting. "Wake up, please."

    Luntz was very young. He had pale blond hair and he shouldn't have tried to grow a moustache; it simply made his upper lip look furry.

    "What?" he said, straightening. He was fully awake, though he didn't seem particularly alert. "Say, who are you?"

    "I'm Mundy from the Chancellor's Planning Office," Adele said calmly, giving the deliberately deceptive title of Arruns' secret police. "You and the entire crew are under arrest until we've gotten to the bottom of the smuggling. Zastrow–"

    There must be a dozen Sissies in the accommodation block so Zastrow–a Power Room tech as broad as he was tall–had tramped into the bridge compartment instead. He wore a slung sub-machine gun, but the prybar in his right fist and knuckleduster over his left made clear the kind of fight he preferred.

    "–tie him up now."

    "I don't know anything about smuggling!" Luntz said. He got up but staggered against the console as his knees threatened to give way. His face was white. "Oh my God, look, I'll tell you everything, you don't have to torture me!"

    Tovera giggled. She waggled the muzzle of her weapon toward Luntz as though it were a black finger.

    Zastrow'd stuck his bar under his waistband. He grabbed Luntz' wrists with his left hand; the knuckleduster didn't seem to get in his way. He efficiently trussed the weeping Pellegrinian officer with cargo tape from the dispenser on his belt.

    "We have four of them, sir!" said Vesey from the hatchway. "One was passed out drunk in the head."

    "Officer Luntz, how many crewmen are aboard?" Adele said. "Luntz, answer me!"

    "Six," Luntz gurgled through his sobs. "Look, Duval runs the smuggling, I don't get anything out of it. Hardly anything!"

    "Put him with the rest of them in the room they sleep in," Adele said. She frowned at her sloppy terminology and said, "The accommodation block. Keep them tied at least for now."

    She turned the console back on as two Sissies hustled the Pellegrinian out by the elbows. The crew would probably have to remain tied, taped that was, for the entire voyage. They couldn't be left on Pellegrino where they might be able to give the alarm soon enough for a courier ship to get to Dunbar's World before the Rainha and her escort, and there weren't enough Sissies in the assault party to provide more than an exiguous guard on the prisoners.

    "Ma'am, I've sent the dock party out," Vesey said from the hatchway. "Barnes and Dasi are in the entrance compartment."

    "Very good," said Adele without looking up from the console display. "I'll leave that to you, Lieutenant."

    The console had an infuriating delay, presumably some software problem. She finally found the external optical pickups and focused them on the quay outside. The party of six under Sun sauntered toward Harbor Drive carrying the packing case which held their weapons.

    Barnes and Dasi would deal with the crewmen as they returned to the ship, barring the lower end of the companionway while a large armed party waited at C Level, the next deck above the entrance hatch. Their story, that they'd just signed on to the crew, was flimsy, but it should be adequate for drunks who were doing well to stagger aboard. Sun's party was ready to deal with anybody who made it out of the ship and ran for the street.

    "Sun, this is Mundy," Adele said. She used the Rainha's FM intercom but passed the signal through an RCN scrambler to Sun's tiny plug earphone. "The man coming toward you is Wilkes, the chief engineer."

    Sun didn't have a sending unit with which to reply, but he made a hand signal behind his back. The display was too blurry and distorted for Adele to see more than the fact of the signal–but that was enough.

    She let out her breath slowly. So far, so good. Perhaps in eight or nine hours, they'd be off this wretched planet–and on their way to Dunbar's World, which was even more wretched and where she would kill an uncertain number of people.

    Adele smiled wryly. Family obligations often require a degree of personal discomfort.

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