1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 11

Miro shook his head. “Not any more. As of last week, the suspected total of cardinals that are missing — and probably dead — rose to sixteen. Borja was evidently quite thorough.” He looked to the hooded figure, who nodded once.

Juliet Sutherland, the Crew’s other female member and a woman of many roles, breathed in sharply: “Bloody hell.” She wasn’t a Catholic — exactly. But she wasn’t anything else, either — exactly. Or so it seemed. Miro couldn’t figure her out any more than he could the rest of the Crew — and he had given up trying to do so. Accepting the group’s dynamics and identities was a whole lot easier than trying to understand them.

“Yes: Borja has eliminated the great majority of Urban’s most reliable and trusted allies in the Consistory. That’s why Ambassador Nichols added Ginetti to our extraction list, and had him rendezvous with Tom Simpson’s group in Chiavenna. If the cardinal had actually reached Italy, it is unlikely he would have survived a week. Possibly not even a single day. So, at the pope’s behest, a confidential courier intercepted the Ginetti during his journey westward along the Valtelline and redirected him to the rendezvous in Chiavenna.”

“Which now sounds completely fubarred.” Harry finished. “Ten to one the courier wasn’t so confidential after all and they put a tail on the padre.”

Miro nodded. “That’s the most likely scenario. And if Simpson’s group survived being discovered, they will be making best speed for the default extraction site, just a few miles west of the Maloja Pass.”

Harry grabbed a taut catenary cable and hopped into the dirigible’s gondola. “Then what are we waiting for? Let’s ride!” He held out a hand for his ponderous backpack.

Miro shook his head. “Light pack only.”

“What? Wait a minute, you said –”

“Harry. We thought retrieving Tom Simpson’s group would be a leisurely pick up. Franchetti, me, two of your Crew as security, and the rest of you to stay here. But now we — well, you — could have a real fight on your hands. That means the whole Crew is going to have to deploy for the rescue. It also means that there won’t be enough room for us on the return. And any of us who wait for a day or more in the Val Bregaglia probably won’t evade the Spanish long enough to be around for a second pick up. So whoever doesn’t get extracted by the blimp will need to immediately press on to reach Ambassador Nichols and her staff in Padua.”

“So we’re going to Italy on foot.”

“I’m afraid so.”

Harry shrugged. “Well, that means forty-pound packs, max. Combat load only. And it means leaving a lot of our support equipment back here.”

“Yes. But it will follow us down. Eventually.”

Harry looked up. “Eventually may not be good enough, given the fuse burning on this mission. Frank Stone’s wife Giovanna is now — what? Five months pregnant, almost? I can work a lot of miracles, but jail-breaking a mondo-pregnant lady ain’t one of them. So we don’t have a lot of time to wait around. So gear that gets to us ‘eventually’ is gear we’re never going to see again. A capeesh?”

“Yes, I understand,” said Miro, who very nearly did not: the deformed Sicilian dialect that Harry had heard in American gangster movies was barely recognizable as Italian. “But whether or not the gear gets back to us in time, the dirigible must take Ginetti to a safe haven immediately. That means the balloon’s next flight after Chur must be to Grantville. So we won’t have access to the dirigible — or the equipment — for at least two weeks. Possibly more.”

“Well, that’s just great.” Harry hopped out of the gondola, seized his backpack, started pulling out non-essential items and making a semi-neat pile. “So we go in all teeth and no tail.”

“As usual,” commented George Sutherland, Juliet’s immense husband. “Do we at least know whether the security unit already in the valley has secured the extraction site yet?”

Miro shrugged. “So far, we haven’t been able to raise Colonel North. Nor has the ambassadorra’s radioman. Of course, they may be on the move and unable to send or receive.”

“So we don’t know where anyone else is?” Harry spat. “That’s great; just great. This operation hasn’t started, and already we’re scattered and screwed.”

“As usual,” added George once again.

* * *


Thomas North squinted, trying to get a better look at the roofs of Soglio about three miles ahead to the west, and further down the slope of the Val Bregaglia. “What is it, Hastings?”

“Sir, some of the men are asking to stop and fill their water skins.”

“They’ve drained them? Already? They filled up only a few miles back in Vicosoprano.”

“Yes, sir, but it’s a hard march.”

“My, my. Then perhaps all of them should have, as children, simply accepted the life of leisure and independent wealth that was no doubt their birthright. Ah, but the siren song of the mercenary life was evidently too strong for them to resist.” North did not smile while he made this response. “Besides,” he added grudgingly, “if they put any more water in their bellies this quickly, we’ll lose some of them to cramping. And while I would be delighted to indulge their masochistic impulses, I suspect that we will all be needed at the extraction site. And as quickly as possible.”

From the corner of his eyes, North saw Lieutenant Hastings shift from one foot to the other. “Sir, it’s not as if we actually heard the extraction code given. We just got a few garbled signals. That’s all.”

“Yes, Hastings — that’s all. But that’s why I possess the lofty role and rank of colonel and you are but a lowly lieutenant. Who has been evidently been promoted above the threshold of his ability, I might add.”

“Your confidence in me is always inspiring, sir.”

“Ah, and now irony, too? I’ll make an officer of you yet, Hastings. Tell me, Lieutenant: what information can we be certain of, despite the ‘garbled signals’ of which our radio operator could make no sense?”

“I beg your pardon?”

North folded the spyglass, handed it to his batman, faced Hastings. “Lieutenant, for the last three weeks, we have been winding our way through Grisons and the Graubünden, not quite showing the USE flag in the region, but making no secret of the fact that they are our exclusive employers. And in all that time, how much radio traffic have we received? Or heard?”

“Three messages to us, sir. Maybe four or five others. Mostly from Ambassador Nichols’ dislocated Embassy in Padua.”

“Yes: at least, we think that was the source, since those messages were almost as badly garbled as this last bunch. So given the general scarcity of radio traffic, what do you make of today’s flurry of activity?”

“That something important is happening, sir.”

North sighed. “Hastings, your hypothesis is almost as inspired as the conjecture that maybe — just maybe — night follows day. Well, you’re not to be blamed, of course: you are only a lieutenant, after all. Whereas I am a colonel — a near-divinity. And here is what I divine from the clicks, hissings, and scratchings that have afflicted our radio-set today. First the group we are to extract is on the air with something that sounded like a routine update: it had that tempo. But rather concluding with back and forth housekeeping to fix a time, frequency, and cipher for their next sitrep, the comchatter ended quickly. With, I think, a time being set.”

“For rendezvous?”

North felt the weight of command heavy upon his shoulders. “No, Hastings. There would have been a triple confirmation of extraction. The pattern and rhythm of the exchange was all wrong for that.” Hastings blinked, said nothing. North pressed on. “Logically, they were establishing a near-future call-back time. Probably because the group in Chiavenna was about to make contact with its newest member, a rather important ‘friar’. Then a long wait. Then a brief exchange — and then nothing. There were repeated, unanswered comm-checks from Padua — or so it seemed. Then more coded comm traffic — between Padua and the airborne extraction team at Chur, I’m guessing. Lots of it. So, Hastings, what do you make of it all?”

“That there’s trouble with the group in Chiavenna? That something went wrong when they went to the scheduled meet with this Friar Ginetti? And that they are moving to the rendezvous and unable to communicate anything further?”

“Bravo! There’s hope for you yet, Lieutenant.” North frowned sadly. “Well, actually, there isn’t any hope for you, but I can’t stand to see you sulk, so I lied. Now, have the squad leaders employ the necessary invective and make the suitable threats so that we can pick up our pace. And I’ll let the men stop to piss, but not to drink any more. They’d give away our approach with all that water sloshing in their guts.”