SOME GOLDEN HARBOR – snippet 83:



            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!"