SOME GOLDEN HARBOR – snippet 75:



CHAPTER 20: Ollarville on Dunbar's World


            "All right, Colonel," said Councilor Corius. "Begin loading now."


            Colonel Quinn wore a fist-sized communicator clipped to his bandolier. He pulled it to his mouth on a coiled lanyard and said, "Red One, this is Rainbow. Execute Evolution Brick, over."


            Daniel wondered if he'd get a better idea of how the loading was proceeding if he were on the Greybudd's bridge instead of standing with Corius and Quinn in the cage of Port Eastern's only gantry. He'd have plenty of opportunity to try other locations, he supposed, since they were drilling only one of the four battalions at a time.


            Officers below on the dock trilled whistles. Five hundred of Corius' Volunteers burst out of the warehouse where they were billeted and double-timed down the dock toward the transport. They carried only their personal weapons and small packs with ammunition and a day's rations.


            The Greybudd's three boarding ramps were lowered, but the soldiers–the 2nd Battalion–were supposed to use only the one at the bow. The man on the left of the first rank started toward the stern ramp instead, taking twenty-odd of the nearby troops with him.


            An officer ran up screaming–the tone was audible in the gantry though the words weren't–and batted at him with a swagger stick. The misdirected men turned and rejoined the head of the main body just as they started up the correct ramp.


            Hogg, leaning through a side window of the cage to get a good view, shook his head. Fallert was sitting on top of the cage; a burst of his clucking laughter rattled from there.


            "Red One, don't let them bunch on the gangplank!" Quinn snarled into his communicator. "Bloody hell, Bancks, we don't want to drown them here in the harbor!"


            He glanced sidelong, obviously worried about how Commander Leary was going to react to the confusion. Daniel leaned forward slightly. He kept his eyes on the loading and clasped his hands behind his back.


            "They're accomplishing the business in quite good time, Colonel," he said cheerfully. "Lots of enthusiasm! It's not as though they've been selected for their skill in drill and ceremony, after all. And that's basically what this is."


            "Thanks, Leary," Quinn said gruffly. "The opinion of a man like you counts."


            Daniel's opinion was that the drill was less of a ratfuck than it might've been, but saying something so qualified wouldn't make the boarding process go more smoothly nor improve his working relationship with the Colonel. Besides, Daniel preferred to give people the benefit of the doubt. Often that caused them to do better in the future, though he didn't suppose that really had much to do with why he behaved the way he did.


            Daniel grinned. Adele's tart criticisms no doubt improved the performance of both victims and also people who didn't want to be similarly skewered. But that was Adele, not Adele's considered plan to make the universe more efficient.


            "These aren't our best troops, you know," Corius said. He'd managed to smooth the frown off his forehead but his lips still pursed as he watched the loading process. "We've got our shock troops in the 1st Battalion, but they'll load last to be first out for the assault."


            "Right," said Daniel in a tone of approval. The benefit of the doubt, after all. "A very sensible plan. Our safety and that of my friends on the Rainha depend on a quick victory by the Volunteers."


            Corius' mercenaries were an assortment of men who'd lost their farms or their businesses, people wanted for crimes in one or more jurisdictions, and a leavening of veterans. Few if any were first class soldiers–but neither were the Pellegrinians they'd be facing. An army like that of Chancellor Arruns got all of its experience in internal security activities: dragging dissidents out of their houses in the middle of the night and breaking heads if anybody dared demonstrate against the ruler.


            The Volunteers would have surprise and numbers both on their side when Daniel landed them on Mandelfarne Island. He hoped that would be enough; the difference between victory and defeat was less a matter of what advantages you started with than how you used what you had.


            Colonel Quinn made quite a decent training officer for the motley raw material Corius had hired. Quinn wasn't, however, the man Daniel would've picked to lead the Volunteers across an enemy base in a rush.


            The smile never far from Daniel's lips spread again. Corius noticed it and said, "Yes, Commander? You have a criticism to offer, that you smile about?"


            "What?" said Daniel, surprised by the sharpness of the Councilor's tone. "No, though I suggest that if you place officers at the base of the entry ramps, they can reduce the amount of bunching on the ramp itself. Officers with white batons, perhaps."


            He cleared his throat. "I was smiling," he lied, "to think of how surprised the Pellegrinians are going to be to have your men land in their rear that way. If you keep your men moving, Quinn, you'll sweep through the base without anything like a battle. Though you'll need to keep moving, of course."


            What Daniel'd really been thinking was that he himself was the best person available to lead the assault–and he wasn't available, even if Corius asked him. He knew his duty as a Leary and an RCN officer, but even if the Volunteers managed to hit the ground running, they were ill-trained and as dangerous to their friends as they were to the enemy. Daniel was willing to risk his life in a good cause, but being shot in the back by a farmer who shuts his eyes when he jerks the trigger wasn't the way he'd choose to go.


            Corius and his military commander nodded sagely in agreement. Perhaps the comment would even help Quinn execute the plan in the only survivable fashion.


            "Right, they've got a lot of spirit," Quinn said with false enthusiasm. Well, maybe not false: say rather exaggerated enthusiasm. "And remember, they're not our best battalion by a long shot."


            The troops were milling their way aboard the transport. It was a moderately difficult job, as the holds of an ordinary freighter had been fitted with temporary decking so the ship could carry the maximum number of human beings. Access from deck to deck was by vertical ladders. Climbing them was an awkward task for men carrying packs and slung weapons. Until the first to board had cleared the entry hold, the later ranks could only wait on the ramp and quay.


            "And of course while we want to load promptly," Corius said, "the only thing that matters is that we reach Mandelfarne before Arruns' spies warn him that we've put the whole force on a single ship. That'll take hours, don't you think?"


            "I think it'll be at least hours before the Pellegrinians understand the significance of what's happening," Daniel said; limited agreement, but agreement. "It's very important that we arrive as soon as possible after the Rainha touches down with our friends aboard, though. I want to make it clear–"


            He heard the change in his voice. So did Corius and Quinn, turning from the mob scene below to meet Daniel's gaze with sudden wariness.


            "–that we will lift off before the full complement of troops has boarded if I deem that necessary."


            "Now, see here, Leary–" Corius began, his face a sudden cloud.


            "Councilor!" said Daniel.


            Fallert dropped like a scaly gray cat from the roof to the pierced-steel platform at the back of the cage. Hogg was already facing him, twirling a short length of his fishline across the doorway as if by chance.


            "If we wait too long," Daniel continued, "the Pellegrinians will recapture the missile battery before we arrive. In that event, we'll all die when they destroy the ship as we approach. I don't mind taking risks–"


            In all truth, he rather liked it. Otherwise he'd be in another line of work, or at any rate wouldn't have had so distinguished a career.


            "–but I'm not going to commit suicide and throw away another two thousand lives besides. Yours among them, I should point out."


            He smiled broadly, taking away the sting he knew was in his tone.


            "Ah!" said Corius. He forced a smile which quickly softened into reality. "Yes, I see that. I perhaps hadn't considered all the risks when I agreed to the plan. If you think it's too dangerous…?"


            "It's not," said Daniel. "It's perfectly workable. I just want everyone to realize that I'll do whatever is necessary to make it work, even if other parties haven't fully executed their own duties. Right, Colonel?"


            "My men'll be aboard," Quinn said stiffly. "Never fear that. Look, they're loaded already."


            That wasn't quite true–the last thirty or forty troops were still on the entry ramp, waiting for those ahead of them to move. On the day of the real operation, the 1st Battalion still would be waiting to load behind the other three so that they'd be first off the transport when it landed on Mandelfarne Island. The 1st Battalion might not deserve to be called shock troops, but they were at any rate the best men in the Volunteers.