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The Way to Glory: Chapter Twenty

       Last updated: Thursday, May 5, 2005 21:18 EDT



Big Florida Island on Yang

    Daniel crawled with the diligence of a turtle plodding up a beach to lay her eggs. The most difficult thing was to force himself to keep his eyes raised instead of crunching onward with his nose down as though there were nothing on Big Florida Island that might be dangerous. The back of the thermoplastic commo helmet gouged him between the shoulder-blades, but that was better than a shot in the same place from a wog standing unnoticed on the edge of the gully.

    The island's soil was pebbles in coarse sand. Except where bound by the roots, run-off quickly eroded it when storms swept in from the sea. The gully was bordered by fibrous-stemmed bushes with small leaves, and squat plants which spread up-slanted foliage to catch rain; their rootlets fuzzed the sides where freshets had scoured the ground away despite them. Daniel's shoulder had brushed one patch as he started upward. The touch had seared him like fiberglass, and tips broken off in his skin continued to itch.

    The courier vessel had roared while descending; now it snarled in a hover, its eight thrusters scooping out the soil and flinging the debris in all directions as molten glass. With all that happening on the other side of the Beacon of Yang, there was no longer any point in creeping around.

    "Cinnabars, up and at 'em!" Daniel called, rising as he spoke and leading Hogg for the last twenty feet to the Beacon's port outrigger.

    The partly converted freighter wasn't a large ship in absolute terms, but she was enough bigger than Cutter 614 that it was a momentary shock to see her up close. That was particularly true on land; in the water the pontoons would be almost submerged, but now they loomed as walls of rusty steel.

    There was a ladder at the wedge-shaped tip of the outrigger where it could rise straight to the top instead of following the curve of the sides. Daniel took his sub-machine gun from Hogg, slung it, and continued to lead up the ladder. He knew the interior of a starship better than his servant did.

    The rungs quivered as though the rebel vessel was alive, but Daniel knew that was an illusion caused by the Greif landing close by. The Beacon had electricity because, so long as it got water in sufficient quantities and the bottle itself remained intact, a fusion power plant was nearly as stable as a magnet. Thus far the rebels had met both requirements.

    Nobody'd tested the thrusters in the past nine months, though, so Daniel knew there was a real chance that the reaction mass lines were clogged with debris or corroded shut; the instruments wouldn't indicate that until water began to flow--or didn't. If worse came to worst, he and his crew would have to escape on the aircar that'd brought them. That'd be very dangerous, though there'd probably be less of a load going back.

    Daniel reached the top of the outrigger. Lights shone through a score of hatches that were either open or askew. The air circulating system had broken down; rather than repair it the original owners had sold the vessel to Generalissimo Ma and made delivery to Big Florida Island with a minimal crew who'd worn air suits for the whole voyage. Here on the ground, most of the hatches were open for ventilation.

    That made Daniel's plans easier, though if necessary he'd have taken his party up the boarding ramp on the other side and in the main hatch. Everything depended on the rebels being unprepared and incompetent, but Daniel was willing to count on that in much the same way as he'd have counted on dawn.

    With the sub-machine gun in his hands and Hogg beside him, Daniel trotted along the catwalk running the length of the outrigger. He glanced over his shoulder. Portus was leading Tovera onto one of the horizontal hydraulic struts that advanced and retracted the outrigger. The tube was a meter in diameter, an easy path for Portus, but it wasn't meant for pedestrian use. Adele's servant followed the rigger without hesitation, as she'd said she would.

    Daniel smiled without humor. There was a carrot for Tovera at the other end, of course: as soon as she entered the hull through the service port above the strut, she could begin killing people. Daniel wasn't going to complain. Having Tovera with them would save the lives of people he cared about much more than he did any of those at present aboard the Beacon of Yang.

    The power room was in the stern on E Deck, just above the bulk storage holds. Daniel needed to get to the bridge, forward on A Deck and sixty-five feet above the ground. The external bridge hatch had been lifted upward. Its opening was large enough to pass navigation consoles and similarly bulky electronics, but there was no direct way to get to it from the ground. Daniel and Hogg would enter from the other direction.

    The courier vessel had shut down, so its thrusters no longer backlighted the Beacon with an actinic glare. The visors of RCN commo helmets had darkened to block the dangerous UV. None of the rebels Daniel'd seen when he met the Generalissimo had similar protection, so there was a good chance that anybody who'd been sober enough to awaken was at least temporarily blinded by the exhaust.

    Daniel slung the sub-machine gun and started up the angled strut. It was butted into a great socket on B Deck which, according to the plans Adele had provided, ran transversely through the hull to the starboard socket. A tensioned cable paralleled the strut so that the crew could inspect and repair the hydraulics while the vessel was in vacuum. With the line for a handhold, Daniel and his servant trotted up the tube as if it were a steep hillside.

    People were shouting in the night. Daniel couldn't understand the words, but he suspected there was probably nothing to understand so that didn't matter. Rebels were trying to get the attention of the Greif's crew, but those aboard would keep their vessel closed up for several more minutes against the heat and residual plasma of the landing. The ground directly beneath the thruster nozzles would be molten glass.

    A ladder circled the hull just aft of the socket. Daniel paused to eye the gap, then half-jumped and half-stepped out, catching rungs with his right boot and both hands simultaneously. He scrambled upward quickly, feeling a double clang as Hogg grabbed the ladder below him. It sounded loud, but reason told Daniel that it was very unlikely those aboard the Beacon could tell the difference between the noise they'd made boarding and the pops and pings of the courier vessel cooling nearby.

    He reached the walkway running the length of the dorsal spine and started forward, glancing over his shoulder to make sure that Hogg was following. Hogg was, of course.

    Daniel's right foot stepped onto what should've been a section of plating dimpled with non-skid rosettes. It was empty air instead.

    "Bloody Hell!" he shouted, turning a stride into a leap off his left leg and grabbing a hawser on the dorsal antenna folded overhead. Working in a starship's rigging makes a man subconsciously aware of all nearby lines, just in case--as now.

    He dangled for a moment, taking a good look at the footing as he ought to have done before. "Hogg," he said, "there's a section of catwalk missing. If you're using light amplification, you may not see it."

    Daniel twisted back, then threw himself forward to the other side of the gap. Under his breath he muttered, "Since I obviously didn't see it."

    There was plenty of starlight for the helmet visors to amplify into clear images, but it placed those images without relative distances. The catwalk showed almost the same as the hull plates that curved outward six inches below. Daniel knew he should've been more careful, but a careful man wouldn't have been here in the first place.

    Daniel expected Hogg to use the hawser to swing hand-over-hand across the two-meter gap; instead the servant simply waited for Daniel to get clear, then hopped over. That way he continued to cradle his impeller, ready to shoot.

    Hogg carried a coil of quarter-inch line, too thin to climb for any distance without gloves but easy to carry and sufficient for swinging down through the bridge hatch. He tied it off to a strut supporting the catwalk and handed the rest of the coil to Daniel. They could hear voices from below.

    "How we going to handle this, master?" Hogg said quietly. If he was worried about anything, that fact didn't show in his voice.

    Daniel handed Hogg the sub-machine gun and slid the baton around so that it was in front of his chest with only the bottom three inches under his belt. "I'll go in," he said. "You follow me with that--"

    He nodded to the sub-machine gun.

    "--but only shoot if you have to."

    "Figured you'd do it that way," Hogg said morosely. He slung the impeller behind him. "I never could get you to understand that a soft heart generally amounts to the same thing as a soft head."

    "Regardless, we'll do it my way," Daniel said, shrugging. "Anyway, remember that we need at least one working console in order to get out of here. A bullet in the wrong place and we're walking back to the aircar."

    "These won't penetrate to the other side of a body," Hogg said, thumbing the raised pin on the receiver that indicated the weapon was charged. "And I don't figure to miss."

    "Ship," said Daniel, keying his helmet. "Team One is in position. Team Two, report. Over."

    "Team One, this is Two," said Portus. His voice was unexpectedly breathy. "We're in position. We had a bit of trouble, but there's no alarm. Over."

    Daniel stepped onto the top of the raised hatch, the coiled line in his hands. ... a bit of trouble.... Somebody'd been sleeping in the compartment which Portus and Tovera entered or had challenged the pair when they passed down a corridor on the way to the power room. Somebody was dead, maybe a lot of people were dead, but Daniel's plan and Daniel's crew were intact.

    So be it. He grimaced, but he knew where his duty lay.

    Daniel gripped the coil firmly. "Team Two, execute," he said. He jumped outward, letting gravity and the line on the fulcrum of the hatch coaming swing him into the bridge. He'd dropped the line and had the cudgel out in his right hand before his feet hit the deck.

    Only three of the ten illumination panels in the compartment's ceiling still worked, but they were a brilliant improvement on starlight. There were six people present--no, seven, the last bending over to pull on his trousers behind the command console.

    Daniel swiped the nearest man across the temple; the tubing made a sound like wood striking wood. Half-recovering the cudgel, he belted the fellow turning to gape, flinging him back spraying blood from a pressure cut in the middle of his forehead.

    All of the men were armed, but they weren't thinking first about their weapons. Daniel kicked a screaming woman into the path of the bulky fellow running for the corridor, then stepped forward and knocked the fallen man's face back into the decking as he tried to get up.

    The man on the other side of the console had let his pants go to snatch up a wide-mouthed mob gun; its spreading aerofoils could clear a room. Daniel had him, had him sure before the muzzle came up, but the woman he'd kicked lunged for him with a stiletto. He broke her nose with a straight thrust as though the tubing were a rapier.

    The man coughed blood and dropped the mob gun, pitching forward onto his face. Daniel hadn't heard Hogg shoot, but the air of the compartment stank of ozone and vaporized aluminum driving bands. Hogg's burst had punched four holes in the rebel's bare chest, all of them into the mass of blood vessels rising from the heart. Daniel didn't like killing, but anybody who carried a mob gun knew what the rules were.

    That left a woman making bubbling screams with both hands over her face and two more unharmed for the moment. One was curled up in a ball under the seat of a non-functioning console that'd been cannibalized. The third woman was digging for what was probably a weapon in a pile of clothing.

    That one backed against a bulkhead and raised her hands when she saw Daniel turn toward her. After a moment's consideration, she put on a broad professional smile and tugged her blouse down to bare her breasts. Daniel wasn't even slightly tempted, but he did admire the lady's spirit.



    "Crew, everybody aboard ASAP!" Daniel said as he sat down at the command console. He was using the command-only channel, so he didn't bother with identifiers. "Break. Hogg, close the hatch."

    Instead of obeying, Hogg stepped to the side of the console with the sub-machine gun raised to his shoulder. He kept both eyes open while looking through his sights, so from that position he could watch the corridor while keeping the women within his peripheral vision.

    One of the men was moaning, but none of them were going anywhere. Daniel'd struck with his full strength, so the rebels almost certainly had fractured skulls or worse.

    More Cinnabars were swinging in through the hatch. The third or fourth stumbled, jerking Daniel's attention away from the display that was forming much slower than he'd have liked. Adele was there, wriggling out of Woetjans' grip; the bosun had snatched her off the line so that Barnes could follow.

    Dasi knelt with a roll of cargo tape, trussing the living rebels with the quick brutality of a butcher jointing carcasses. He'd started with the women.

    Hogg fired a short burst down the corridor. Daniel heard the pellets whop into a target rather than the sharp crack they'd have made against steel; nobody screamed, which meant the target couldn't scream. That was why he'd brought Hogg with him, after all....

    He could hear other shots, now. A projectile whanged against the outer hull and howled off into the night, a very different sound from the echoing brap/brap/brap of one hitting the interior of the vessel.

    "Sir, I'm here!" Sun shouted. Hogg and Woetjans were leading a squad down the corridor but other spacers continued to enter through the hatch. "Where's the gunnery controls?"

    "They must be in the turret!" Daniel said as his fingers hammered commands into the keyboard. "If you can get the guns working, take out the Alliance courier first and then work over the headquarters building!"

    Images on the display coalesced enough that Daniel could find the propulsion icon and bring up the plasma thrusters. He switched on the pumps and felt a wash of relief as the Beacon begin to vibrate to their deep, familiar rhythm. He wouldn't have trusted the display, but now he knew in his bones that reaction mass was cycling through the system.

    Next Daniel called up the Beacon's emergency schematics. He'd looked for a damage control display, but there wasn't one--of course, he realized, because this wasn't a warship. Any vessel was liable to a hard landing or a botched orbital docking maneuver, so there was a plan of the internal subdivisions and a way to close them from the bridge as he'd so confidently assured his crew before they set off.

    Daniel hammered the keyboard with the sequence of commands that'd dog Holds One and Two. The icons would switch from red to green while the sound of metal butting into metal rang through the ship. He shrank the emergency display down to a sidebar and prepared to light the five thrusters.

    The icons stayed red. He'd have been willing to believe that was a sensor error, but he couldn't have missed the quiver of the dogs seating even five decks below. The holds were still open.

    "Members of the Light of Free Yang!" the public address speaker in the ceiling crackled. "You are in the hands of the Republic of Cinnabar Navy. Throw down your arms. Leave the vessel unarmed or wait for RCN personnel to take your surrender. Those who surrender will be freed shortly, but those who resist will be classed as pirates and hanged. Throw down your arms!"

    Daniel jerked his head around. Adele was seated at the cannibalized console with the little personal data unit on her lap. She'd apparently coupled it to what remained of the console and was using its hardwired linkages to access the command unit without displacing Daniel.

    The Beacon's systems didn't work worth a damn. Her new RCN crew made up for that, though.

    A ringing clang started Daniel. We've been hit!

    But they hadn't: the personnel hatch of Hold One had dogged shut at last. The guards in Hold Two could still get out, but there was more than one way to skin a cat.

    Grinning broadly, Daniel fed in the commands that lowered the starboard exterior hatch of Hold Two into a full-length ramp. The vessel rocked as corroded seals broke free, then trembled as gears began to pull the hatch down.

    The Beacon's external video worked considerably better than most of her electronics, but Daniel had left the image as a thumbnail on his display. Now he expanded it.

    As he'd expected, guards were crawling out of the hold before it was more than half open. They dropped to the ground, then scrambled off in the direction of the headquarters building. A few were armed, but most had left their guns in the hold or lost them when they fell out of the ship. They were welcome to go.

    To Daniel's amazement, the Generalissimo was one of those fleeing: there was no mistaking his 400-pound body. He must've escaped before Hold One closed. Mondindragiana didn't seem to be with him. God only knew how they'd have found her again if she'd gotten out.

    The Beacon of Yang rocked with a controlled thermonuclear blast: Sun had fired one its 10-cm plasma cannon. His bolt hit the Alliance courier forward, in line with where the bridge was on most commercial vessels and almost all warships. Even with an atmosphere to dissipate the stream of charged particles, the short-range impact dished in the hull plating and punched a glowing cavity in the center.

    Steel flashed outward as a vivid red fireball, scattering molten droplets from the edges. The Greif rang like a thousand-tonne anvil struck by a hammer of ions driven at light speed. The piercing sound made Daniel's bones quiver aboard the Beacon of Yang; what it must've been like to those on the ground where the shock waves echoed between the two starships was beyond his imagination.

    Rebels fell flat. Some tried to cover their ears but others had been knocked unconscious. Lines of dust lifted from the gritty soil, collided with one another, and hung dancing in the air.

    Daniel lit the thrusters. The three remaining of the six originally mounted in the bow came to life instantly.

    Daniel flared the nozzles to dissipate the energy until he was ready to move. They threw loose rainbow banners, searing the soil but unable to scoop it out. Light flickered through the open hatch. Daniel felt his skin prickle at the touch of particles that drifted up to him, and his helmet filters slapped down to protect his lungs from the ozone.

    Starboard Six in the stern was firing; Port Six was not. Daniel opened the starboard feed wide, acting with cold decision as his mind processed an unacceptable situation and provided a response that would've caused his immediate court martial if he'd ever done it in front of a senior officer.

    Reaction mass to the working stern thruster increased from the 20% idling flow to its maximum, some 79%. The pump was shot and the feed line was clogged, but it ought to be enough.

    "Ship, hang on!"

    A roaring plume lifted like a geyser about the Beacon's stern. The ship shook even though the nozzle was wide open. When the flow had stabilized, Daniel irised the nozzle aperture to the tightest setting, providing full thrust.

    The stern rocked on asymmetric thrust that raised the tip of the starboard outrigger off the ground though it couldn't lift the whole vessel. Daniel flared the nozzle again. When the power dropped, so did the Beacon's stern--with a bone-jarring, mind-numbing crunch into the hard ground.

    The shock bent the aft outrigger struts and strained every frame from the midpoint sternward. Daniel'd been waiting for it, but he bounced against his seat restraints. It threw everybody else aboard off their feet.

    And it jarred loose whatever was blocking Port Six. The thruster lit and after a moment settled into the same rasping vibration as the other four working units.

    The courier vessel's turrets had been withdrawn into the hull for landing. Now the upper one began to rise, controlled from the Battle Direction Center aft or perhaps at the turret as the Beacon's was. It mounted standard Alliance 10-cm weapons; they'd rip the converted freighter's thin plating like flames flashing through muslin.

    The Beacon's turret was on the dorsal centerline, directly over the main A Deck corridor. The turret hatch was open and the short access ladder hung down. The twin plasma cannon were supposed to fire alternately at a combined rate of two hundred rounds per minute as long as the gunner kept his foot on the firing pedal.

    Daniel heard Sun screaming curses within the turret; suddenly the gun fired twice. After the second round, something cracked and flooded the open turret hatch with the blue-white sparkle of a short circuit.

    Sun dropped to the deck, still cursing and now trying to beat out the flames on his trousers. Miquelon kicked his feet out from under him and covered him with a quilt from the bedding that'd lain piled on the bridge. She had to fight to keep the panicked gunner from throwing her off before she'd smothered the flames.

    The second pair of bolts hit the Greif's turret and the hull immediately below it. Deuterium pellets in the Alliance loading tubes, ready to be compressed by laser arrays, detonated instead at the touch of the Beacon's plasma. A scallop of hull around the turret vaporized.

    Daniel raised his mass flow to 60% for the bow thrusters, 75% for the stern pair. He knew they wouldn't stand 75% long, but he had to break the grip of gravity. He shrank the nozzles. Rocks and gobbets of glass fused from sand splattered the underside of the hull moments before the ship started to rise.

    But she did rise, only a few inches but that was enough. He angled his thrust minusculely and the Beacon of Yang slid forward. He didn't have to turn her because the imbalance forward made her drift starboard toward the single bow thruster. The stern dragged, adding the shriek of metal scraping rock to the snarl of the plasma jets.

    That was all right. Even if they ripped the bottoms off both pontoons, they'd be able to skate over the strait on thrust alone.

    A rattle of slugs pelted the Beacon's stern quarter and howled away in the night. An automatic impeller was shooting at them from the top of the Generalissimo's headquarters. On the video display the osmium projectiles scored the night in neon streaks as they ricocheted. The light quivered through the bridge hatch as well.

    "Ship, this is Six," Daniel said, hearing his voice echo through the public address system. There were scores, maybe hundreds of rebels still aboard, but the Beacon of Yang was an RCN warship nonetheless. "We'll transfer immediately to Cutter 614, then lift for Heavenly Peace where we'll wrap up a few details. After that, fellow spacers, we head back to Nikitin by the quickest route your captain can plot. Six out!"

    He heard the cheers, spreading faintly against the roar and shriek of the vessel's passage. They reached the strait, shrouding themselves in a blanket of steam and broiled sea life.

    Snarling thunder astern twisted the hull, then subsided. Daniel balanced the controls with one hand while checking the emergency schematics with the other. Nothing had changed for the worse. If the rebels'd hit the Beacon with a heavy weapon, they'd failed to do serious damage.

    On the external video a score of bright sparks snapped into the rebel headquarters. The building swelled outward in a red flash, then collapsed on itself.

    "Six, this is Sun!" Daniel's commo helmet chirped. Adele must've passed the message after blocking all those before it. "The rockets work! The rockets work!"

    A mushroom of dust rose from where the headquarters had been. It stood as a marker when the rest of Big Florida Island slipped below the horizon.



    Adele could generally work through whatever was going on around her, and her helmet's noise cancellation system prevented the deafening racket of the Beacon of Yang's progress from being a problem. The vibration, though--the high frequency buzz of five unsynchronized plasma thrusters, punctuated randomly when one or both outriggers scraped the surface--was a different matter. That kept jouncing the data unit off her lap. Every time she had to grab it, she lost the display on which she'd been working.

    The roar of the thrusters increased. Adele's body shifted sideways as the starship decelerated; steam curled through the open hatch. They were settling into the exhaust which they'd outrun while they were proceeding at a steady rate from Big Florida Island.

    "Ship, this is Six!" Daniel's voice ordered. He was sitting at the command console, close enough to touch, but reflexively Adele glanced instead at the image she kept at the top of her screen. "Ferguson and Sun, get to the cutter and bring up your systems. Woetjans, make sure the corridors on every deck are open to the outside. Don't trust the powered system or the schematics, I want each one of those doors open if you have to blow it clear! Six out."

    The Beacon quivered, then burped air loudly. The ship rocked deeper than a moment before, then shook with a sizzling crash.

    "Bloody hell, the thrusters are starting to go under already!" Daniel said, this time speaking normally instead of using the intercom. "Bloody hell, but we can't leave the poor wogs to drown just because they're too bloody ignorant to get out before this sorry excuse for a ship sinks or turns turtle. Adele, can you make it to the cutter on your own?"

    "What?" said Adele, lost for a moment. She'd heard her friend speaking, but she'd been too busy with the data she'd snatched from the Greif to process his words. "To the cutter? Yes, I suppose so--down to the entrance gallery and across the ramp, you mean? Or do I need to go--"

    She nodded toward the hatch by which she'd entered the bridge. The line still dangled there, but she doubted she could pull herself onto the dorsal spine. Even if she did, she'd probably need as much help climbing down the outrigger strut as she had coming up.

    "The ramp will be fine," Daniel said, a small smile quirking the corner of his mouth. He turned and started out of the bridge; Hogg waited in the corridor. "I'll check the corridors and join you in the cutter as soon as I can."

    "Daniel?" Adele said, speaking loudly in her need to stop him before she could ask her question. "Do I have to leave immediately? I have some work."

    Daniel's face went professionally blank. "You can take five minutes," he said. "No more, it's not safe. Tovera--"

    Adele followed his shifting eyes. Tovera stood just behind the partial console. The three of them were alone on the bridge. The captured rebels were gone, though the corpse was still sprawled against the forward bulkhead. The prisoners had been trussed like poultry going to market, so somebody'd either cut them loose or carried them away without Adele noticing.

    "--make sure she leaves in five, all right? I don't want something to happen."

    "I'd rather die," said Tovera; and smiled. Daniel grimaced at the joke--because to Tovera, it was a joke--and left the bridge. He was talking over the intercom.

    Adele went back to her data. She'd gotten into the Greif's computer easily during the several minutes the Alliance courier vessel lay alongside the Beacon of Yang. Though the dispatches were in a separate electronic compartment from the ship's own working files, they were nonetheless housed in the main astrogation computer. Adele had penetrated that compartment--Alliance Fleet Command used twelve formats for the purpose; she had the keys to all of them on her data unit--and downloaded the files.

    But that was as far as she'd gotten, because, she hadn't been able to break the encryption. The software and devices coupled to Adele's console on the Hermes would make short work of the problem, but the tender was weeks distant.

    She was sure that she could obtain by finesse what she couldn't at this moment get through brute force, if she could only view the problem from just the right slant. If she concentrated, she could--

    "Ma'am?" a voice said. Then, louder, "Mistress Mundy, please?"

    Adele jerked her head around, the sequence of numbers in her mind raining down like glass from a shattered mirror. Dasi was peering at her with a worried expression. He held an impeller at the balance; it'd been fired recently because the barrel, a tube of synthetic diamond wrapped with coils of fine wire, was still hot enough to distort the air above it.

    Dasi's big left hand held the wrist of Maria Mondindragiana. If Adele hadn't been seeing the woman only inches distant, she'd have thought there was something wrong with the image.

    The rebels aboard the Beacon had been disheveled or worse--wakened from drunken sleep and then sent scattering by the fear of death. Mondindragiana by contrast wore a dress of natural fabric and a gleaming fur stole. Her jewelry was massive and brilliant, and she'd applied makeup with more taste than Adele would've given her credit for. She looked like a queen, not a refugee.

    "Mister Leary said bring the whore to 'im," Dasi said, "but he's gone off, and--"

    "I am not a whore, you Cinnabar nancy!" Mondindragiana shrieked.

    Dasi's face flushed. His right arm went back, lifting the impeller and positioning the butt to smash the woman's face through the back of her skull. Dasi was a man by almost any standard you cared to apply, and perhaps for that very reason there were subjects on which he was sensitive.

    "Dasi!" Adele shouted, jumping to her feet. Tovera had her sub-machine gun out, but that wouldn't necessarily keep the big rigger from acting. By putting herself between the gun and its target, Adele made Dasi jerk away.

    Dasi's eyes cleared; he lowered the impeller and flung the woman's arm away from him. "Look," he said in a husky voice, "you take care of the bitch for Mister Leary, all right, ma'am?"

    "Yes, all right," Adele said calmly. Dasi had already turned to stride from the bridge. He probably didn't hear.

    Mondindragiana straightened her garments. "Men!" she muttered, then looked shrewdly at Adele. "So," she went on. "You are who? You are the wife of Captain Leary, is that so?"

    "It is not," Adele said as she placed her data unit in its pocket and looked around the compartment to see if there was anything else she should be taking. There was obviously no point in continuing to struggle with the encryption. "I'm the signals officer of Cutter 614 which Captain Leary commands."

    "Just so there's no confusion...," Tovera said. It was always a shock when Tovera spoke in company. "My mistress is also Mundy of Chatsworth. I'm the servant who kills people for her."

    Tovera giggled as she replaced the sub-machine gun in its holster.

    "When she doesn't want to bother killing them herself, that is," she added. "I wouldn't want you to be surprised at what happens to you if you decide a whore from Waystation can insult a Cinnabar noble."

    Adele looked at her servant. How very odd: Tovera is reacting to the insult to Dasi in just the way another Sissie might do. Tovera's behaving like a member of the crew, of the family, of spacers serving under Captain Leary.

    Tovera was a sociopath, of course, but an intelligent one. She adapted by mimicking the behavior of successful members of the society to which she'd associated herself. At the moment, she appeared to be mimicking Adele Mundy. Given their mutual proclivities, that wasn't a bad choice.

    "Yes, that's substantially correct," said Adele, straightening to really observe Mondindragiana for the first time. "I hope you'll keep it in mind, because there's been quite enough killing today already."

    She glanced at Tovera. The servant kept a straight face, but Adele gave her a tiny grin. "Enough for some of us, anyway," she added. "We'll return to Heavenly Peace and deliver you to President Shin. A cutter's crowded at the best of times, and I presume we'll skim the surface to avoid attack by the missiles on Big Florida Island; that'll mean a rough ride. Keep quiet and as much out of the way as possible, and you'll shortly be back where you belong."

    "But I don't belong there," Mondindragiana said.

    The Beacon of Yang gurgled loudly. The deck had been slanting slightly to starboard. That side lifted noticeably, then sloshed down to a slope of fifteen degrees as another compartment flooded. Tovera raised an eyebrow and glanced toward the corridor.

    Adele grimaced. Why does everything become more complicated than it ought to be?

    "Yes, well, I'm sure you can work that out with the President after he's released his Cinnabar prisoners," Adele said. "Tovera, if you'll lead the way, we'll get out of here more quickly than if I do."

    She smiled wryly. "And since it seems that Daniel wasn't exaggerating the danger of sinking," she added, "that would be just as well."

    "Signals Officer Mundy," Mondindragiana said in a calm, steely voice. She hadn't followed Tovera and Adele toward the hatchway. "I can't claim to have been born to one of the great families of the Republic, but Procurator Vorga granted my citizenship application twelve years ago for reasons that seemed good to him. If you like, you can shoot me for telling the truth, but I am a Cinnabar citizen."

    Tovera turned and raised an eyebrow again. She touched her weapon.

    The woman really does look like a queen, Adele thought. For all that she was born in a slum on a gutter planet and crawled up from there on her back.

    Ignoring further rumbling from the bowels of the ship, Adele said, "Mistress, we believed that Generalissimo Ma was holding you against your will. If this isn't the case, you have my sincere apologies and I'm sure those of Captain Leary. We'll leave you--"

    "Faugh, Ma is a pig," Mondindragiana said, flicking her beringed left hand to dismiss the thought. "He's a pig and he and his men live like pigs. He didn't care about me as a woman--what would that one do with a woman, eh? Just a trophy, a thing he'd taken from Shin."

    "Well, then," Adele said, "we've freed you and--"

    "I'm not free if you give me back to Shin," the woman said harshly. "Yes, I know, I came to him of my own choice, but he wouldn't let me leave. And he's worse than Ma. Shin can't use a woman in the normal ways either, so he does other things. Shall I show you the scars?"

    She pinched a fold of her long skirt and began to draw it up.

    "No!" said Adele, her nostrils flaring. In a more settled tone she went on, "No, that won't be necessary, mistress."

    Two more thruster nozzles dipped into the cove, one and then the other. They shattered with piercing cracks. The Beacon of Yang lurched further to starboard.

    "Mistress?" said Tovera. "It's your decision, of course, but...?"

    "Yes, of course," Adele said. "Come along, Mistress Mondindragiana, we'll discuss this on the way. You see the problem is--"

    They followed Tovera into an armored stairwell, a companionway. None of the lights that should've illuminated it were working, but Woetjans' crew had locked open the doors onto every deck. The corridors beyond were bright enough that Adele didn't even switch her visor to light enhancing mode.

    "The problem is," she continued, raising her voice to be heard over their echoing steps, "that President Shin has demanded your return in exchange for his release of two hundred other Cinnabar citizens. I can't speak to your relative value to the Republic compared with that of the other citizens, but Captain Leary was sent to procure their release. I don't wish him to be put in a position of explaining his failure to an admiral who isn't best pleased with him already."

    "Out this way, mistress," Tovera said, standing in a hatchway and looking down the corridor beyond. She held her sub-machine gun ready.

    "I have seen this Daniel Leary," Mondindragiana said calmly. "He's a man, that one. He won't leave me to that impotent scum Shin after I explain."

    You've certainly sized Daniel up accurately, Adele thought. Aloud she said, "Mistress, if you don't return to President Shin when we arrive in Heavenly Peace, it's very possible that he'll order an attack which will destroy our cutter."

    "Captain Leary won't be afraid," Mondindragiana said stolidly.

    Three Cinnabar spacers were in the corridor, chivvying rebels--former rebels?--toward the opening brilliant with floodlights from outside. The last man, Merlati, waved toward Adele and called, "Better move it, sir! She'll go over before long or I'm a priest!"

    "I dare say the captain would do much as you suggest," Adele agreed, "but I'd like to spare him the risk. Mistress, if you will go back to the Shin with apparent willingness, I'll attempt to get you out again before Cutter 614 lifts from Yang. I don't know how yet; I'll need to discuss the business with others--"

    Particularly with Hogg. Hogg by now would've learned the ways in and out of the Presidential Palace. Doubtless he had plans for turning the knowledge to a profit.

    "--but I'll try. And I'll succeed or die trying."

    They'd reached the entrance gallery. The cutter's lights were trained on the opening and ramp. They were so bright that Adele slitted her eyes and considered darkening her visor.

    "So," Mondindragiana said. "There are possibilities on Nikitin, yes."

    She looked at Adele. "You swear that on your honor as a Mundy?" she said.

    "Yes, mistress," said Adele. "I do."

    Mondindragiana shrugged. "Then I accept," she said. "Who could doubt the word of a Mundy of Chatsworth?"

    Adele didn't like the woman; she couldn't imagine circumstances in which she would like the woman.

    But she certainly respected Maria Mondindragiana's intelligence.

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