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Some Golden Harbor: Chapter Twenty One

       Last updated: Saturday, August 26, 2006 09:37 EDT



Mandelfarne Island on Dunbar's World

    The landing jounced Adele so hard against her terminal's simple lap belt that it broke her concentration on the message traffic swirling around the Pellegrinian base. She turned her head with a frown. Vesey was sitting rigidly at her console, hands poised over the controls.

    Of course. Vesey had to follow Captain Cootzee's standard operating procedure, so she was letting the Rainha's computer land them instead of easing the ship in manually the way Daniel'd taught her to do. With an ordinary water landing it didn't make a great deal of difference, but the reflected thrust made a ship coming in over land quiver like a ball on a vibrating table. A skilled pilot could land much more smoothly by matching thruster output to the terrain.

    Of course an unskilled pilot could drop his ship sideways or even flip it onto its back. Cootzee preferred discomfort to a chance of disaster, and Vesey perforce had to use the techniques of the man she'd supplanted.

    Was the capture of the Rainha piracy or an act of war? Probably piracy, because we weren't in uniform… and for that matter, Pellegrino isn't at war with Cinnabar. Though that might change if Chancellor Arruns loses his temper as badly as he may when he learns whats happened on Dunbar's World.

    The Rainha touched hard, her stern slightly below her bow; Adele's torso swung to the right. The bow dipped and the stern rose with a second paired Clang-g! from the outriggers. Adele swung left, wondering if this was the way the ship always landed. Probably, probably; but how did they stand it?

    Vesey–slight, pale, self-effacing Lieutenant Vesey–shouted, "Fuck this fucking piece of shit!"

    The thrusters shut off while the Rainha was in the air. The ship fell–only a few inches, but three thousand tons hits bone-jarringly hard even in a short distance–with a ringing crash. Adele had enough experience with machinery to understand what'd happened: Vesey, conditioned to the razor sharp controls of the Princess Cecile, had switched off the thrusters when the Rainha was down. The lag in the freighter's mushy circuits and feed pipes meant the vessel'd lifted again before the command took effect.

    As the freighter hissed and pinged, cooling till it'd be safe to open the hatches, Adele unbuckled her lap belt. The strap appeared to have left bruises over her hip bones.

    That didn't matter. As well as the little weapon in her tunic pocket, Adele was carrying a service pistol. She secured its holster flap in the open position, leaving the butt clear to be gripped. She found the big weapon heavy and awkward, but the tiny pellets from the pocket pistol weren't effective beyond fifty yards. She was likely to need greater range tonight.

    Most of the crew was already in the entry hold, but Wheelus and Heska were poised at the dorsal airlock with stocked impellers. Under normal circumstances that hatch was used only by riggers coming and going from the hull. At present the two spacers were waiting to be told to take firing positions on the upper hull.

    Sun rose from his console, looking in silent expectancy from Vesey to Adele. He slanted his sub-machine gun across his chest; he'd removed the sling. Adele got up also, feeling–

    Not feeling much of anything, she supposed. She wondered with detachment whether she'd be killed in the next few minutes.

    Tovera carried a full-sized sub-machine gun but wore the miniature weapon from her attaché case in a belt holster. She'd strapped a pack in front of her where she could reach the contents easily.

    Tovera was smiling. Adele didn't know what that meant. It irritated her to think that despite her skill as an information specialist, she couldn't answer questions about those so close to her.

    "Fellow Sissies!" Vesey said, using the public address system. Her voice buzzed out of the tinny speakers in each compartment. "You all have your instructions. The most important one is that you don't shoot, none of us shoot, until Officer Mundy orders or the wogs start shooting at us. We're going to go out there as quiet as mice. With luck we'll take the missile battery without a shot being fired."

    Adele had to force herself not to fidget. Intellectually she knew that it would cause questions if they lowered the ramps too early. Plasma exhaust baked the ground as hot as fired porcelain. Even experienced spacers couldn't leave the ship for several minutes after landing unless they were wearing rigging suits.

    Adele knew that, but she was keyed up and desperate to get on with what she knew was coming. It was half-possible that they'd capture the battery without shooting, but even if they did the night wouldn't be over.

    "Remember, Sissies," Vesey went on. "No one on Cinnabar may know where we are or care, but Mister Leary's counting on us. Let's not fail him. Out!"

    Vesey'd been rising as she finished her speech. She took the sub-machine gun hanging from the back of the console and turned toward the hatch. Sun, cued by the movement, started for the companionway. Tovera nodded the lieutenant ahead of her and Adele; Vesey hesitated an instant–but only an instant–and obeyed.

    As the group from the bridge passed, Wheelus and Heska climbed into the airlock and cycled it shut. The inner and outer hatches were interlocked so they couldn't both be open at once.

    Adele kept her right hand over the companionway railing as she followed, knowing how easily she could lose her footing on the wear-polished steel treads. She wasn't afraid of dying, but if she lived to be a hundred she'd never learn to shrug off embarrassment.

     She grinned coldly. It didn't seem likely that she'd live to a hundred. Well, it'd never been a priority.

    The Rainha's entry compartment was smaller than the Princess Cecile's, in keeping with the freighter's civilian crewing standard. Twelve spacers would've been comfortable in it; thirty carrying weapons and bandoliers of reloads were squeezed together like canned fish.

    "Ten of you up the up companionway now!" Sun bellowed. The force included two bosun's mates, Schmidt and Quinsett, but they hadn't taken charge in this situation. Sun, the armorer and gunner's mate, was in his element



    There was an immediate undulation in the crowd, enough that Adele could worm her way to the front with only a modicum of pushing. Her skin felt hot and prickly as though she were about to faint. She'd be all right when she started down the ramp, but the packed hold was working on her agoraphobia. It crushed her with the weight of so many people who weren't moving and couldn't move.

    "Remember, we wait for Officer Mundy!" Vesey said. She had to raise her voice, because shuffling and the sound of excited breathing created a susurrus like the incoming tide.

    At Vesey's nod, Quinsett gave a 90o turn to the wheel controlling the hatch mechanism. The machinery groaned for a moment; then the heated seam broke free. The ramp dropped slowly with a peevish hydraulic whine. Hot, dry air swirled in, sharp with ozone and hints of cremated organic materials.

    The ramp creaked to horizontal, paused minusculely, and continued winding down. Adele stood frozen in a cocoon of her own thoughts. Ordinary spacers would start across the ramp long before it was fully down; often they'd jump the last of the distance to the ground and saunter off, gay in their liberty rigs and their hope of a good time.

    Adele wasn't a spacer; she was a librarian who lived and worked in space. But she was RCN and she was a Sissie, and those were all that mattered.

    The words know thyself had supposedly been written above an ancient oracle. Adele had that lesson down as well as anyone she knew. So long as she didn't have to like the person she knew she was, she was fine.

    The ramp banged to the ground with a shudder that would've knocked her off her feet if she'd been on it at the time. She started down now, smiling to herself and at herself. Tovera was to her right side, half a step back.

    They were dressed for the occasion in loose, dark blue clothing. The garments weren't a uniform, but in the darkness they looked a great deal like Alliance Fleet fatigues. Her RCN commo helmet was white, not dark gray like the Fleet equivalent, but that couldn't be helped. The Alliance communications unit with Arruns didn't use helmets anyway.

    Tracked vehicles were rolling toward the Rainha, their rectangular headlights knifing through swirls of dust and fumes. Adele turned toward the battery's control unit, a hardened trailer a hundred yards from the supply ship's landing place near the eastern end of the island. Because of the danger of exhaust and missile backblast, the positions nearby had to have heavy overhead cover. There were bunkers on the shoreline, but the troops in them were concerned with an attack from across the channel rather than one that'd dropped straight down on the island.

    Two men buzzed up on a wheeled scooter. If they wore insignia, Adele couldn't see it even with her visor's light enhancement. The man on the back called without dismounting, "Do you have the manifest?"

    Adele thumbed toward the open hatch. "You'll have to talk to the captain about that," she said, trudging on nonchalantly. She didn't look back.

    Powerful engines honked and hooted, moving equipment toward the Rainha. Adele walked faster. She'd seen during Daniel's reconnaissance that the Pellegrinians brought banks of floodlights on wheeled carriages up to the ship to illuminate it so that unloading could go on night and day.

    To capture Port Dunbar would require great expenditures either of men or of shells, and the Chancellor couldn't provide more men. There were no permanent port facilities on Mandelfarne Island, so Arruns had to speed delivery of the necessary munitions in some other way.

    The control trailer was the center of a web of leads to the array of vertical spike antennas thirty meters out from it. The edges of the narrow path to the door were taped so that those entering and leaving didn't trip over the lines. Adele thought of spiders. The corners of her mouth curled up: she and Tovera were the predators, not the technicians on watch inside.

    A light stuck out above the lintel like a tiny shelf fungus, casting a fuzzy glow over the door and the ground in front of it. An optical pickup with a wide-angle lens was tacked to the panel at eye height in place of a vision block; beside it was a small grating, also an add-on, connected to the inside of the trailer by a hair-fine fiber.

    The door was outward-opening; its latch plate doubled as a handle; Adele pulled it with her left hand in her pocket. The plate didn't give. She rapped on the door with her knuckles and called, "Open up! I'm Lieutenant Delacrois from the Signals Section."

    "What are you doing here?" said a voice from the grating. It was so distorted Adele wasn't sure whether the speaker was a man or a woman. "We can't let anybody in without authorization from Group Captain Rousch."

    "Look you bloody fool!" said Adele, glaring at the camera. "This isn't something I can shout through the door about. Field Marshal Arruns sent me. Open up!"

    Adele saw her servant only from the corner of her eyes. Tovera had opened her pack. She patted the upper door hinge, then squatted and touched the lower one. She left a putty-like lump on each.

    "Look, you can't come in, I don't care if you're the Chancellor himself!" the angry, sexless voice snarled. "Only authorized personnel are allowed into the antenna farm, and you're not authorized!"

    "Step away, Mistress," Tovera said. "To the side."

    A siren on the roof of the trailer ran up to a piercing howl, and a strobe light on a short mast nearby began to pulse alternately red and white. Adele stepped around the corner of the trailer with Tovera, wondering how thick the armor was. After a moment's hesitation, she drew the heavy pistol from its holster, leaving her personal weapon in her pocket.

    Tovera thumbed a remote control. The twin blasts sounded more like colliding anvils than explosions. The trailer shook like a wet dog. The siren choked off but the strobe continued to flash with painful intensity. The helmet's active sound cancellation saved Adele's hearing, but the concussion–even with the trailer between her and the source–felt like a ton of sand shoving her.

    She was around the corner with Tovera. Gray gases swirled; the helmet filters dropped over Adele's nose. The door was askew, blown loose at the hinge side but still hanging from the latch; light from inside outlined it sharply.

    Tovera seized the door's back edge with her left hand and pulled hard. She was ungodly strong, but the blast must've warped the bolt; it bound. Adele saw movement and fired through the crack. The pistol lifted on the recoil of the heavy pellet, but she lowered the muzzle to present as Tovera threw her weight into the door and tore it loose.

    A dying man sprawled forward, spraying blood from his mouth and the bullet hole over the top of his breastbone. Another man was on his back on the floor, scrabbling to get up; he'd probably been at the door when Tovera's plastic explosive went off, knocking him down deafened.

    Adele ignored both to shoot the third man swinging a bell-mouthed weapon toward her. Her bullet punched through his right eyesocket and out the back of his skull. He triggered a blue-white blast into the trailer's ceiling.

    Vaporized metal sprayed Adele, graying her visor and searing her bare skin. Her finger twitched again, blowing a hole in the control console before the slug ricocheted back from the armored wall beyond.

    Tovera put a three-round burst into the face of the man on the floor. His spine arched, then bowed, and his heels drummed violently.

    A snake of crackling light writhed across the pedestal of the control. A transformer in the cabinet to the right of the console exploded with a dull whump. Smoke the color of fresh asphalt poured through its cooling louvers, brightened by an occasional orange flame.

    Adele turned, flipping her visor out of the way. She could see through the coating of redeposited armor plate, but not well. She supposed the visor had saved her eyesight, but now it was just in the way.

    "There's manual controls on the battery itself," Adele snapped to Tovera. "We have to disable them too."

    She started toward the entrance to the missile pit. Construction engineers had heaped and compacted the spoil into a berm, then topped it with a spool of razor ribbon. Though it was so close to the control trailer that several of the northeastern antennas were on the slope, the single opening was some distance around the circuit.



    Adele was furious with herself. If she'd captured the trailer intact, they wouldn't have to worry about the battery controls: she could simply have locked them out. By using the heavy pistol–

    She turned, caught the strobe in the weapon's holographic sight, and squeezed off. The light exploded in a shower of sparks. The pistol's barrel, already glowing from the previous shots, shimmered yellow.

    –she'd destroyed the controls instead of just killing the gunman. An alert technician–it's never safe to assume your enemy isn't alert and skilled–in the cab of the launch unit could blast the Greybudd out of the sky as it approached Mandelfarne Island.

    There was shooting from the direction of the Rainha. Adele didn't know what'd happened. Probably some of the Sissies had just killed a truck driver or someone equally innocent; out of nervousness or mistake or simply the desire to kill somebody now that there was a colorable excuse.

    It didn't matter. This was war. This was what happened in war.

    Lights went on, then very quickly off, on the other side of the berm. Adele could see the entrance at an angle. A soldier stood in front of the guardhouse. The gate, more razor ribbon on the frame of metal pipes, was partly open.

    Three ground vehicles with sirens howling jounced east from the direction of Base Headquarters. At least the first two, painted by the headlights of those behind, were light trucks with pintle-mounted automatic impellers on the bed. The rudimentary road was choked with supply haulers, so the emergency vehicles had pulled around them onto terrain that didn't even pretend to have been improved.

    The leading vehicle disintegrated in sparks and flashes, ripped at point blank range by a volley from stocked impellers and sub-machine guns. The members of the emergency response team, probably military police, were so focused on racing toward the alarm at the battery control trailer that they hadn't noticed the Sissies who'd poured from the Rainha until they were on top of them.

    The truck flipped and rolled, flinging out equipment and the corpses of several men. The second vehicle braked screechingly. Its body lost definition in a sleet of shots, and it crashed into what was left of the first vehicle.

    The third truck skidded left to avoid the wreckage and roared past spacers who were shooting enthusiastically without leading the fast-moving vehicle enough. They need Hogg, Adele thought, or Daniel. She lifted her pistol, aiming at where the driver's face would be when the truck was within seventy-five yards.

    The gun's pintle sparkled and the windshield blew out. The driver slumped forward, the gunner who'd been trying to horse his heavy weapon around flew off the left side of the bed, and the officer in the back with him crumpled, dropping his handgun. Somebody with a sub-machine gun had made up for the twenty-odd Sissies who were wasting ammunition.

    The truck bounced away in a slow curve, its headlight touching sea foam as it headed for the shore. The Pellegrinians hadn't fired a shot.

    The man in front of the gate in the berm was staring at the carnage screaming, "Oh shit! Oh shit!" He caught movement in the corner of his eye and turned to face Adele, twenty feet away.

    "Who're you?" he said, raising his impeller. Adele shot him through the forehead. The heavy pellet flung him back into the gate; the wire sang and the pipe framework made an ugly jangling. A man unseen till that moment shot from the guardhouse window. A bullet kicked Adele in the left side.

    Tovera fired into the guardhouse; one pellet of her burst hit the Pellegrinian's weapon and ricocheted through the roof of the shack in a neon helix. She jumped to the window, leaned in, and fired again toward the floor.

    Adele stumbled forward. The muzzle of her pistol was slowly sinking; it'd gotten too heavy for her to hold up. She licked her lips and gripped her left wrist with her right hand to raise the weapon. It slipped out of her fingers.

    "Mistress?" said Tovera. She jerked Adele's tunic up and slapped something cold and astringent in the hollow of Adele's shoulder.

    "Go on," Adele said. She was whispering. "Go on! We have to disable the missiles!"

    Three men, blurry in the randomly lighted darkness, approached the gate from inside the enclosure. "Dauphine?" one called. "What the hell's–"

    Tovera shot the speaker, then shot the man next to him as he started to present the weapon he'd held out nervously in front of him. Razor ribbon sprang apart, the ends of the strand white hot where a pellet had clipped it. The third soldier turned to run but sprawled headlong at the second step when Tovera shot him in the back.

    Adele reached into her tunic pocket with her right hand and brought out her little pistol. She normally shot left-handed, but her right was her master hand and she practiced with both. Besides, it didn't matter. If she had to hold the gun with her toes, she would.

    Tovera knelt, ejected the loading tube from her sub-machine gun, and slapped in a fresh one. Her barrel shroud glowed bright yellow, and the bore of synthetic diamond must be hot enough to have melted any lesser substance. Haze from vaporized driving bands twinkled in the air before her.

    Soldiers inside the pit were firing long bursts toward the gate, emptying their impeller magazines and reloading to fire again. There were at least three of them, maybe four or five. The osmium pellets left glowing tracks as they snapped through the air and danced like miniature fireworks displays when they hit wire or the gate frame.

    Adele walked to the gate. A pellet hit a stone in the soil and howled away, spraying chips of rock. Some bits cut her shins above her RCN ankle boots.



    The operations and maintenance staff for the missile battery was quartered in six bunkers on the inner face of the berm to the right of the gateway. They were accommodation trailers which'd been sunk waist deep, covered with spoil from the battery pit, and sand-bagged across the portion of the front that was still above ground. So long as those within were lying flat, they had sufficient protection even if the missiles were launched.

    Now soldiers inside were kneeling to shoot out from the doorways. The nearest was twenty yards from Adele, the farthest some thirty-five.

    "Mistress!" Tovera shouted.

    Adele fired twice at the pale oval of the nearest face; it vanished. She shifted left, fired twice; shifted left–

    Metal splashed from the gate and spattered her; a spark burned through her tunic just above her navel. The backs of her wrists were oozing blood from the burns she'd gotten in the control trailer.

    She fired twice and shifted left.

    Two faces appeared in the nearest doorway, replacing the first gunman Adele had killed. She ignored them–one thing at a time and she had very little time left–and fired twice at her fourth target, a Pellegrinian using a rifle whose chemical propellant made great red flashes and spat bits of jacket metal at every shot. The soldier slipped backward, leaving his weapon on the step of the bunker.

    Tovera was at Adele's left side, raking the nearest bunker with two neat bursts instead of a single long one. Adele had no doubt that when the bodies were examined, those men would have patterns of three holes each in the middle of the forehead.

    The last Pellegrinian vanished down into his bunker, leaving only an ionized haze to show where he'd been punching pointless holes in the air and gate. Tovera called, "Cover me!" and slipped like a wraith through the gap by which the gate was ajar.

    The barrel shroud of Adele's pistol glowed yellow-white, blurring the sight picture. That was only a theoretical problem, though; she didn't think she'd missed a shot tonight.

    Her head felt cold. Her scalp was sweating and she'd lost her commo helmet. Had she taken it off? She didn't remember that.

    Just as Tovera reached the end bunker, the man inside raised his head. The sub-machine gun clacked like an angry woodpecker, flinging him back where he'd hidden.

    Tovera had stuck a blue strobe into the berm, a signal to draw the rest of the assault force, but there wasn't time to wait for them. Adele eased through the gate. She'd memorized the battery's layout, but the terrain was rippling in her mind as though it'd been drawn in colored smoke. She moved deliberately down the curving ramp into the pit, aware that if she lost her balance she wouldn't be able to get up.

    The missiles were mounted in trios on either side of an armored cab. They were forty-six feet long and fat in proportion. The battery was still in its horizontal travel position, and Adele didn't see a light on in the cab.

    She reached the bottom of the ramp and took another step. The change made her dizzy; she closed her eyes briefly, then opened them and walked toward the steps. Her pistol had cooled to a red glow that was barely visible, but she still couldn't put it back in her pocket; besides, she might need it.

    Adele reached the steps; they were already folded out. If she'd had to unlatch them and pull them down… well, she'd have managed somehow. She started up to the cab, unable to grip the railings. She couldn't feel her left arm at all, while her right throbbed as though she were gripping a burning coal instead of the butt of her pistol.

    There was more shooting above her; it could've been either inside or outside the berm. It didn't really matter. She heard the snarling discharge of a plasma cannon and saw the sky brighten momentarily in her peripheral vision. If the Pellegrinians ever figured out what was happening, they could crush the assault in a matter of minutes with their APCs.

    Adele pulled the cab door open and flopped across the bench seat inside. She'd memorized the layout of the controls, but she'd expected to have the use of her left hand. Now she had to reach across her body and switch on the interior lights with the muzzle of the pistol.

    She laid her pistol on the seat beside her and brought live the control module in the center of the dashboard, then methodically locked each of the functions out with a separate eight-digit password. When she was done, she aimed the pistol at the module and fired three times. The casing was armored, but her pellets shattered the projection lenses for the display.

    Adele rested her forehead on the dashboard, but the cab stank of burned insulation, ionized aluminum, and her own sweat and blood. She lurched upright, slid to the cab door, and managed to step out onto the pressed-metal landing.

    Tovera was waiting there. She caught Adele around the waist and walked backwards down the six steps to the ground.

    "I'm all right," Adele whispered. "I can stand."

    The second part was true. Maybe the first was also; she was better than the many people she'd shot at tonight, anyway. She hadn't missed, not once.

    Tovera released her carefully but watched her for a moment. Adele smiled. "I can stand," she repeated in a stronger voice.

    A burst from an automatic impeller stitched the sky over the pit, the hypervelocity projectiles glowing with the heat of their passage. They'd splash into the sea miles away, harmlessly unless some fish picked the wrong moment to surface for a gulp of air. Adele giggled with the humor of the thought.

    Tovera bent and picked up something from the ground with her free hand. It was Adele's commo helmet. A bullet had struck the peak, cracking the shell nearly into two pieces.

    "I brought this to show you, Mistress," Tovera said. "The next time you decide to shoot it out with five of them, they may not miss you."

    "I didn't expect them to miss me tonight," Adele said softly. "I thought…."

    I thought it would be over. I can't stop killing other people till I'm killed myself. I will not stop.

    Another plasma cannon fired. To Adele's surprise, people were cheering from the edge of the pit. She heard Vesey among them. They had to be the rest of the assault force, but why were they cheering?

    The sky to the southeast brightened from the glaring exhaust of a starship three hundred feet in the air, thundering across the strait toward Mandelfarne Island. Daniel was bringing in the Greybudd.

    Adele thought of the face of the man she'd shot inside the control trailer, his gaunt features swelling as her pellet ruptured his skull from the inside. And it isn't over yet.



    Daniel wore a smile as he fought the transport's controls, but even he had to admit that it was rather a fixed one. Starships aren't meant to fly in an atmosphere, and the Greybudd was particularly a pig.

    The valves in the lines feeding reaction mass–water–to thrusters Seven, Nine, and Eleven were sticking; if they weren't kept full on, they were likely to cut out unexpectedly. Daniel kept them flared at maximum flow but ran the other nine at normal apertures and lower throttle settings. If he'd mushed along with all twelve thrusters at full flow, he'd have emptied his reaction mass tanks before he got across the continent.

    "I didn't realize it'd be so rough!" shouted Corius over the buzzing roar. He was sitting at the second console, the one meant for the navigation officer. "My God I didn't! Do you think the men will be in shape to fight?"

    For your sake they'd better be, Daniel thought grimly. He didn't speak aloud, both because he was busy and because he didn't have anything useful to say. I don't expect to be staying around very long myself.

    The Greybudd yawed but righted herself. Daniel kept his hands steady. If he'd acted as instinct urged him, he'd have overcorrected and very possibly lost the ship for good and all.

    The left side of his display was a real-time strip map of the terrain over which the transport flew. The top was the limit of the land painted by the ship's mapping radar at this low altitude, somewhere between twenty and thirty miles ahead of them as the transport porpoised along.

    Port Dunbar came in sight, its northern suburbs outlined by muzzle flashes and explosions in the optical feed on the upper right of the display. Daniel saw the channel, then seconds later the low bulk of Mandelfarne Island beyond.

    Hogg was sitting on a flip-down seat against the starboard bulkhead, seemingly as placid as a mushroom on a tree stump. He held a stocked impeller between his legs.

    Fallert had been on another of the three jumpseats, but he'd gotten up and begun pacing within minutes of liftoff from Ollarville. His long legs gave him a wide stance, and his balance was better than a cat's.

    A corner of Daniel's display showed the bridge compartment. He'd been sure some of the lurches the Greybudd made when crosswinds conspired with vagaries in the thrusters would throw the snakeman to the deck, but he'd been wrong.

    Crossing the shoreline into the relatively cool, dense air over the channel made them bob upward slightly. Daniel rebalanced his thrusters, portside aft and then the other nine. The ship wobbled, then wobbled back. It was a thoroughly unpleasant motion but he didn't dare take both hands off the attitude control to adjust both groups of controls at the same time.

    Shots rang from the hull. From the flashes on the ground, both the Bennarian defenders and the Pellegrinians were shooting at the transport. Daniel smiled wryly. Chances were that none of them had the faintest idea what the ship was. They were simply shooting because it was moving and they had guns in their hands. He didn't despair about human beings the way Adele sometimes seemed to, but occasionally people's behavior, while predictable, was difficult to feel good about.

    It took pretty good shooting to hit them, though. Sure, a starship is a big target, but they were moving fast and the sheer size was daunting.

    Daniel would've liked to hug the ground all the way from Ollarville or alternatively to have stayed in the stratosphere until he dropped onto the Pellegrinian base. The Greybudd didn't control well enough to trust making the journey on the deck, though, while if they didn't stay fairly low they'd have been in sight–and range–of the missile battery long before Adele's crew could capture it. This was an awkward compromise, but it'd worked.

    "Six, this is Three!" said Pasternak over the command channel. "We'll start losing thrusters in ten minutes, maybe less. The jets aren't meant for runs this long, over!"

    "Three, we'll be down in less than that, over," Daniel said, scanning the optical display.

    "Six, we may have less than that!" Pasternak said. "You could shave on the edge of Two and Five, they're burned so thin, out."

    The assault group was to mark its perimeter with Search and Rescue strobes. Every starship's computer was designed to caret that particular shade of blue. Daniel's display now did so, three narrow, pulsing spikes on the berm around the missile pit. Adele had captured the battery.

    Of course. The Greybudd would be a fireball spewing scrap metal and burned meat if she hadn't.

    "Ship, prepare for landing!" Daniel said. He wished he knew the Greybudd better, and he wished he had somebody trustworthy backing him up in the Battle Direction Center–

    But a freighter doesn't have a BDC, and he wasn't being asked to do anything that the Rainha's civilian captain hadn't done a score of times: bring a clumsy, wallowing pig of a ship down on a mudpile safely. Laughing and aware of the Councilor's gaping amazement–which made him laugh louder–Daniel dilated the nozzles of Thrusters Three, Four, Five and Six without changing their flow rate. Diffusing the exhaust reduced thrust, so the Greybudd began to sink perceptibly without losing her forward motion. Daniel nudged the attitude yoke half a point to starboard.

    "Ship, coming down in five, four–" Daniel said, flaring all the nozzles but boosting flow. They were very low, now, bathed first in steam and then in the smoke of tents and supplies and men.

    "–three, two–"

    Daniel hit the virtual button on his display that cycled the three cargo hatches. The hydraulics barely started to groan, but that instant of anticipation broke the seals before the impact could twist hatches and coamings together immovably. The difference between life and death….



    The Greybudd hit with a horrible crash, her outriggers furrowing the ground as she skidded forward. Daniel chopped his throttles. Thruster Eleven didn't shut down, the bitch, but a gout of mud choked it into an explosion an instant later.

    The tubular struts attaching the outriggers bent back, dropping the hull till the bow plates scraped the dirt also. The Greybudd ground to a halt. The forward starboard strut tore out of the shoulder socket; the hull sagged lower still, but the hatches were continuing to wind down.

    The transport's nose was within twenty yards of the berm around the missile pit. By shutting off his thrusters and sliding to a halt, Daniel'd avoided baking the soil where the Volunteers had to jump out. It was hell on the ship–he'd probably turned the Greybudd to scrap despite his carefully optimistic comments when he broached the plan to Corius in Port Dunbar–but it was the only way to ensure that the troops could begin disembarking immediately instead of waiting for the ground to cool.

    "Power Room, report," Daniel snapped over the command channel as he unlocked the web restraints that held him onto the console.

    "As soon as these pongoes give me a little space, I'll come out the aft inspection port, Six," Pasternak said. "That wasn't half a hard landing, out."

    Hard it was, but it hadn't been a bad one. Daniel'd executed his plan better than he'd hoped would be possible. He grinned in satisfaction as he got up.

    "You can undog the bridge hatch," he said to those around him, though he didn't care whether someone did or didn't. He'd ordered it locked to keep out Volunteers who might panic at just the wrong time during the flight.

    Daniel couldn't blame them; there'd been moments when he'd have jumped for the controls himself if he weren't already at them. On the other hand, it wasn't going to help to have a frightened sergeant grabbing him by the shoulder–to pick one of a half dozen possibilities–as he angled the jets to compensate for the cold wind blowing down the channel of the Meherrin River.

    "Six, this is Victor One," said Vesey, her weak signal boosted into crackly audibility by the Greybudd's antennas and amplifiers. "We've secured the objective. All personnel are inside the berm, over."

    Daniel undogged the exterior hatch–he had to hammer the left dog with the heel of his hand to start it–and began spinning the hand-crank to wind it up. Except for cargo and Power Room, the transport's hatches were manually worked. Fallert had opened the internal hatch so the babble of thousands of troops flooded the compartment.

    "Roger, Victor One," Daniel said. His commo helmet was sending by the same route. He could only hope Vesey understood him through the static and distortion. "Hogg and I will be joining you ASAP. Are you in contact with Baker, over?"

    Baker was the Princess Cecile, inbound under Blantyre with the remainder of the Sissies aboard. Daniel'd ordered her to make an ordinary liftoff to orbit, then drop onto Mandelfarne Island. He had a healthy appreciation of his own skill, but the low-level flight across the continent had been a strain. It wasn't something he was going to ask a midshipman to undertake.

    Not just babble reached the bridge from the body of the ship. Judging by the stench, half the Volunteers must've puked their guts up during the flight and landing. On the other hand, the Pellegrinians here in what was supposed to be a rear area couldn't be in good shape either, watching a starship full of attackers land in their midst.

    "Roger, Six," said Vesey. "Baker One says five minutes, I repeat, five minutes. She'll home on our beacons, over."

    A slug whanged off the Greybudd's hull, rather too close to the hatch Daniel had just locked open. It seemed that the Pellegrinians weren't all cowering in their dugouts.

    "Six out," he said as Hogg threw a coiled line through the opening; the other end was tied around the base of the command console. Daniel drew on gauntlets from a rigging suit. Anything further he needed from Vesey could wait till they were face to face.

    Hogg handed Daniel one of the impellers he'd brought; he'd already snubbed the sling of the other around his chest. "I'll lead," Hogg said. He grabbed the line–he was wearing the mesh gloves he used with his weighted fishline–and swung himself through the hatch.

    Daniel took time to sling the impeller securely, then followed his servant into the night. It might be ten or fifteen minutes before enough Volunteers had disembarked for the bridge personnel to leave via the normal hatches, and he didn't have that much time.

    Quite a lot of shooting was going on, though that didn't necessarily mean there was much fighting. Indeed, Daniel had noticed as he climbed out the hatch that the most enthusisastic firing came from the west end of the island. The Volunteers certainly hadn't gotten that far, and it was unlikely that the Bennarians had chosen this precise instant to launch a cross-channel raid.

    Daniel started down, guiding the quarter-inch line with his boots but controlling his speed by the gauntlets. Slugs hit the hull and ricocheted, sometimes thrumming close enough to make his lips purse. There was a risk of being hit by a stray shot, but there was a risk to getting out of bed in the morning. You couldn't worry about such things.

    When Daniel heard the drive fans approaching, he was still twenty feet in the air. He twisted to look over his shoulder. A Pellegrinian APC was driving in from the east, a black bulk silhouetted by lights and gunshots on the ground.

    "Clear below!" Daniel shouted because he didn't have time to check where Hogg was. He kicked the hull to get clear and let go of the line. He was still falling when the vehicle's cannon ripped a bolt at the transport, biting the lip of the lighted hatch directly above.

    Daniel hit the ground, taking the shock on his flexed knees. He'd stripped the gauntlet from his right hand as he dropped; now he released his impeller's sling because that was quicker than spreading the loop. Hogg was firing, his slugs red and purple and pastel green as they bounced from the APC's armor.

    Not all bounced. Spurred by Hogg's example, scores–perhaps a hundred–of the Volunteers opened up as well.



    The weight of armor a vehicle could carry and fly was limited. When some 200 yards away the APC turned, presenting its left side to the rain of heavy-metal slugs. They'd occasionally penetrated the much thicker bow plating; now pieces flew off. The vehicle staggered, rolled to port, and drove into the ground, barely missing the Greybudd's stern on the way.

    "Pasternak, are you all right?" Daniel said, sloughing proper protocol in the shock of the moment.

    "Aye, by the skin of my teeth!" the engineer replied. "Bugger, though! If I never come so close to dying again, it'll be too soon!"

    His voice was clearer but also weaker than before. The APC's bolt must've knocked the transport's commo system out of action. Had Corius gotten off the bridge before the jet of plasma gutted it?

    "Head for the missile battery," Daniel ordered. "Can you make it by yourself, over?"

    "Aye, I see a pickup light," Pasternak said. "I'm on my way."

    There was a pause, then, "Bugger that was close, out."

    Daniel switched on the miniature strobe at the crown of his helmet and strode forward in a pulsing blue halo. Well, it'd have been blue if he weren't using his visor's monochrome light amplification. An irrational part of his mind told him that he was making himself a target for every Pellegrinian on the island, but realistically the risk of being shot by a mistaken Sissie was higher by an order of magnitude.

    Hogg followed, half-turned so that he kept Daniel in the corner of his right eye while concentrating his attention on what might be happening behind them. Hogg wasn't using goggles or a commo helmet, but he'd had fifty-odd years experience poaching in pitch black forests. Technology had nothing to add to his instincts in a business like this.

    "Sir, is that you?" Vesey shouted from the gate fifty feet ahead. Daniel could see the lumps of four prone figures on the berm, nestled under the razor ribbon with impellers aimed.

    "This is Six!" Daniel replied. "Hogg and I are coming in. We're coming in!"

    "Let's go," he muttered to his servant, breaking into a trot. Then, raising his voice again–had Vesey's helmet intercom gone out? And where was Adele?–he added, "And watch out for Pasternak! He's coming from the stern so he's got a little farther."

    Daniel heard Sissies begin dragging open the gate. His footing was tricky–light amplification doesn't give you relative distance–but he made the gap without a serious stumble and dodged to the side where the berm blurred his outline.

    "Very good to see you, sir," said Vesey, emotion trembling under the careful formality of her words. Standing this close, Daniel felt heat radiating from the barrel of her sub-machine gun. "We haven't had a bad time yet, not as these things go, but it wouldn't have taken Arruns much longer to get things sorted out. And then to sort us out."

    "This is Three coming," Sun announced over the intercom. "Let him by, everybody."

    A moment later Daniel heard Pasternak pounding toward the gate, his boots and his wheezing both. He should've called ahead but he was an engineer who'd never been involved in ground fighting. And Daniel was sure that APC had come bloody close.

    "What's the butcher's bill, Vesey?" Daniel asked bluntly. He looked upward; when slugs snapped through his field of vision, the visor overloaded and blacked out their glowing tracks. The Princess Cecile's exhaust ought to be visible very shortly, but for now it was still lost in the star field.

    "Hoskins and Bladel're dead," she said. Her voice was quiet, but there was a tremor beneath it. "We brought the bodies in. Three more bad but they're stabilized. Dorsey lost her foot; lost it, I mean, an impeller took it off and we couldn't find it afterwards."

    "Vesey, where's Officer Mundy?" Daniel said, his mind watching himself and his lieutenant through thick glass. The Sissie was dropping toward them now, coming out of the west in a rapidly swelling flare. The deep bass pulse of her exhaust was building to thunder.

    Vesey licked her lips. "Sir, she's resting," she said. "Her servant's looking after her. She's medicated now but she was walking."

    "I see," said Daniel. "Not surprising, I suppose. That she'd have been hit."

    He switched his visor to normal viewing. The Sissie's blazing plasma would've flooded the whole field of view otherwise, even with his head turned away from it. Blantyre had been coming in a little too fast, so now she had to use full thrust for braking.

    "She cleaned out this enclosure," Hogg said, wonder in his voice. He'd gone off and now returned; having talked to Adele's servant, apparently. "She did it. Tovera said she just walked in and shot them all."

    "How could…?" Vesey said, looking from Hogg to Daniel, then to the inside of the berm where Tovera's slight figure squatted beside an equally slight form lying on the ground.

    "I never seen Tovera mad before," Hogg said in the same odd tone. "I didn't think her mind worked that way, getting angry or sad or, you know. She blames herself, but she says the mistress just walked straight in and killed them all."

    The Princess Cecile landed between the Greybudd and the missile battery, her thrusters blasting gobbets of fused clay in all directions for the instant before Blantyre shut them down. The island's soil was largely silt from the sea bottom. Organic compounds in it burned, smelling like a fire in an abattoir.

    The Volunteers had been warned to keep the area clear for the corvette. If any of them forgot or became confused, well–Sissies had died tonight. Daniel had no sympathy to waste on others, not now.

    "Yes, Adele tends to be direct in her approach," Daniel said, so softly that even those nearest probably couldn't hear him over the sound of battle and the pings from the Sissie's hull and thrusters cooling. "Well, in three minutes we should be able to get her aboard and into the Medicomp. And then–"

    He didn't get angry in a battle, but he heard the anger in his voice now.

    "Then we'll see if Sun and our plasma cannon can't convince the wogs here on Mandelfarne Island that it's time to surrender!"

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