The Road Of Danger – Snippet 75

The wing-like sides of the fish’s flattened body folded upward to envelope the insectoid. The skin covering them was dark, in contrast to the white streak along the midback. Even knowing by now that the wings were there, Daniel had seen only hints of the real outline of the fish below the surface of the ditch water.

“–and he will be as poor as I,” Hogg sang.

He picked up the impeller by the grip and fore-end. With the same lilt in his voice, he added, “I think this truck’s stopping here, young master, and I shouldn’t wonder if it’s come for us. Not before time, I say.”

Daniel stood and turned. The fish flushed the white stripe to merge with the rest of its skin coloration and wriggled to vanish on the bottom of the ditch. The spiked edges of its wings were already shredding its prey against the gristly back; shortly it would extend its toothless mouth upward and suck in the bits.

The truck was a four-axle military vehicle. Originally it had had rubber tires, but they had worn off and it was running on the spun-wire wheels themselves. Off-road it probably made little difference, but here on pavement the undamped thrum of the wheels would be maddening.

“I suspect you’re right, Hogg,” Daniel said. “It’s time to see if we’re the fish or the unfortunate mother.”

He turned a friendly smile toward the six soldiers climbing from the vehicle. Automatic impellers in a twin mount took up most of the most of the truck bed, so the troops in gray uniforms had been squeezed to the margins.

Hogg grunted. “I’m nobody’s bloody mother,” he said.

The passenger in the cab of the truck wore a tailored uniform with only the fabric color in common with the loose fatigues of his underlings. Besides that, his tunic and trousers had silver piping along the seams and there was silver braid on the saucer hat he donned as he watched Daniel approaching.

“You’re the courier with the dispatches I’ll take to Freedom?” the officer said. He was small and looked remarkably neat, even for having ridden in the cab rather than the truck’s open bed.

“I’m Kirby Pensett,” Daniel said pleasantly. “And I have material for Freedom, yes. May I ask who you are, sir?”

“My name is none of your affair, sir,” the little man snapped. “Now, get the dispatches for me and you can go about your business.”

The building’s door opened and Riely stepped out. He wasn’t armed, but the assistant with him carried an electromotive shotgun. From its gray enamel finish, it was a military weapon rather than a sporting gun like the ones Daniel had hunted with on Bantry.

“Hello, Kidlinger,” Riely said. “Do you have an outgoing load already? I hadn’t expected you for twenty days at least.”

“I’m here for the dispatches,” the officer said stiffly, irritated that the agent’s greeting had made him look a prat even to himself; Daniel hadn’t been in any doubt about the matter to begin with. “I’m to take them to Freedom.”

“I haven’t received orders about that,” Riely said, his expression becoming wary. “My understanding… but look, let’s all come inside where we can sit down and have a drink.”

“I don’t have time or need for a drink,” Kidlinger said, “and I don’t give a fart for your understanding. Get me the dispatches and do it now. In the field, we don’t have time to bugger around with your civilian red tape!”

He patted the flap of his full-coverage pistol holster significantly.

My goodness, he

is a little man, Daniel thought. In a conciliatory tone he said, “I’m afraid, Colonel Kidlinger–is it colonel? I’m afraid that my directions were to hand the case over to Freedom personally.”

He was careful not to touch the cargo pocket where the case had remained ever since he boarded the Savoy. Kidlinger appeared to think the documents were inside Riely’s fortified dwelling, and at this point any indirection was a good thing.

Though Daniel continued to smile, he was thinking tactically now. Neither he nor Riely were armed. Riely’s man was, but the fellow obviously didn’t expect trouble, and the three assistants still inside the building couldn’t get out in time to affect the business.

On the other side–six soldiers with carbines, and the driver, who might have a weapon also, still in the vehicle. Plus Kidlinger’s pistol, but the officer was very far down on Daniel’s list of priorities. The troops had left their truck’s twin-mount unmanned, but the automatic impeller in the guard tower couldn’t depress enough to bear on anything useful either.

“I didn’t bloody ask your opinion, did I, yokel?” Kidlinger shouted at Daniel. He fumbled with his holster flap. “You’re on Sunbright now, and the representative of Free Sunbright gives the orders. That’s me!”

If I act now, we can take them

, Daniel thought. Hogg’s long-barreled impeller wasn’t the best choice for such close quarters, but he would make do. If we don’t have surprise, though

“Sir,” Daniel said, raising his hands to shoulder level, palms out. “I assure you that–”

A light aircar swung around the other side of Riely’s store. It must have approached at low level–ground level–over the hilly wasteland to the north of the town. Hogg snarled a curse and presented his impeller with a speed that would have terrified Kidlinger if he understood what it implied for his own survival had the present discussion turned into a firefight.

Two soldiers clambered back onto the truck and sat at the twin mount. The others lifted their carbines hesitantly, looking from their officer toward Hogg, then back to the aircar which had settled to a halt.

“Put your gun up, Hogg,” Daniel said crisply. “It isn’t needed here.”

The driver–the car’s sole occupant–stood up. He wore a filter scarf which covered his lower face.

“Sir?” said Riely.

The driver pulled the scarf down. He was scarcely older than Daniel; certainly he was under thirty.

“Hello, Riely,” he said and he jumped out of his vehicle and walked toward the group. “And you too, Kidlinger, though I didn’t expect to see you this far out of your area of responsibility.”

“Sir, I thought….” the officer said. He stammered to a halt.

Daniel stepped forward, extending his hand. “I’m Kirby Pensett,” he said. “The Chief on Madison gave me dispatches for Freedom.”

“Well met, then, Pensett,” said the newcomer, shaking his hand. “I’m known as Freedom. You and I have matters to discuss.”