The Road Of Danger – Snippet 66


CHAPTER 18: Kotzebue on Sunbright


          “All right, open the hatch!” Daniel called toward the entry hold. The Savoy had no method of internal communication beyond the unaided human voice, so he had to shout if he didn’t want to walk into the hold himself. That would have meant leaving the console, which was the only way he could view their surroundings until the hatch was down.


          Instead of the carillon of hydraulic pumps withdrawing the dogs securing the Sissie‘s main hatch, the yawl provided a squeal, a metal-to-metal screech, and finally a clunk. A moment later steam, ozone, and the stench of burned organic matter puffed from the hold into the crew capsule.


          They’d landed in a former rice paddy. It was obvious that manure had been used to fertilize the crop.


          “Well, that’s bloody pathetic,” Hogg said. He stood to the left of the console, holding a carbine for himself and the other for Daniel if the occasion warranted. He could have been referring to any one of several things and been correct.


          The yawl’s exterior sensor was a low-resolution optical lens. It was supposed to rotate fully but instead stuck within ten degrees of ninety. Daniel hoped that was the most important wedge to see, since it showed anybody approaching the hatch. He couldn’t help wondering, though, if there was a bloody great plasma cannon aimed at their port side.


          A small flatbed with seven floatation tires and a much smaller road tire was angling toward the yawl’s hatch. Two men rode in the open cab and two more–holding carbines–in the back. The paddy’s thin mud formed an undulating wake, but the tires weren’t sinking to the wheel disks.


          “That’s Riely,” said Lindstrom, who had been leaning over Daniel’s right shoulder to view the display. She straightened. “It’s all right, then.”


          Hogg snorted, but that was probably true. Lindstrom was already walking toward the hatch. Daniel rose and said, “If you’re leaving the cabin, we’ll need somebody on the console.”


          “There’s no need,” said Lindstrom. “We’ll still be aboard.”


          Daniel had landed close enough to a dike that one could enter or leave the Savoy without necessarily sinking to the knees in muck, but it was a quarter mile to a cross-dike which led to the town straggling along the unflooded slope. The four crewmen were watching out the main hatch, waiting for a ride in the truck.


          Each man clutched a purse of Alliance thalers, payment for the outward run. Spacers preferred coins to credit chips in the dives that serviced them. They could still be cheated when they were given change, but it wasn’t quite as easy. There was a Sunbright currency, but apparently nobody used it.


          “Hargate, watch the display for now,” Daniel said as though the owner hadn’t spoken. “The lens is higher than we’re going to be, so if somebody comes toward us and you’re not sure they’re friendly, give a shout so we’re ready to discuss it with them, all right?”


          “Hey, I’m looking forward to a proper drink, you know,” the spacer complained, but he went into the crew capsule as directed anyway. He glanced at Lindstrom, but she pretended not to see him.


          “If there’s a proper drink to be had up there,” Hogg said to Daniel, nodding to the lights of the town, “then I’m a choirboy. But there’s some sort of popskull, and I figure he’s no fussier than I am.”


          “Are you expecting trouble, Pensett?” Lindstrom said as the truck slowed to turn parallel to the dike across which the ship waited. The paddies were scarred by perhaps a hundred previous landings. They were no longer in production, as best Daniel had been able to tell from orbit with the yawl’s sensors, but continued irrigation made them a safe if messy place for blockade runners to land.


          Three craft similar to the Savoy were already on the ground. A hopper car of pink rice waited beside a cutter two fields out, where half a dozen stevedores manhandled the inbound cargo onto trailers. The tractor pulling them mounted an automatic impeller on a ring on the roof.


          Daniel let his wrist brush the document case in his cargo pocket to reassure himself. “No,” he said truthfully.


          He was pretty sure the Savoy had outrun anybody who might have sent a message to Sunbright about what he was carrying. “Still,” he said, “the situation here is fluid–and if that turns out to mean there’s a gullywasher on the way, I’d rather know it sooner rather than later.”


          Riely’s truck pulled up with a final slosh of mud. A slender, bent-looking man wearing knee boots stepped from the driver’s seat onto the dike. He was probably in his early thirties, but his slouch made him look decades older in the poor illumination from the yawl’s hold.


          “Master?” Hogg said quietly, pressing the butt of the extra carbine into Daniel’s thigh to remind him of it. Instead of speaking, Daniel waved off his servant with his open left palm.


          Riely hopped onto the yawl’s ramp; his companion, a dull-looking, heavy-set, man, followed with a thump. The guards remained on the vehicle.


          “I got the manifest you radioed down from orbit, Lindstrom,” Riely said without enthusiasm. “If it checks out, I’ll be able to fill your hold with the rice and there’ll still be some on account. If, mind you.”


          “The lasers are there,” Kiki said. “When can you start loading? Because I don’t want to spend any longer here than I need to.”


          “Neither do I,” the agent said, shaking his head in dismay. “I don’t know how much longer I can stand this. It’s worse–“


          Gunfire crackled from the town: a short burst, probably a sub-machine gun. Daniel’s head turned, but there was nothing to see in the darkness; Hogg started to present the carbine in his right hand, but he lowered it again before he’d gotten the stock to his shoulder.