The Road Of Danger – Snippet 84

“So a lot of the little shipowners would have been willing to haul arms to us even if there hadn’t been so much money in it,” Grant said. Then, bitterly, “But there is money, lots of money. Until everybody’s dead!”

The car fishtailed as it rose onto the dike, but the rebel leader kept it under control. They could travel faster on compacted earth than they had in the paddies where Grant kept their speed down to avoid spraying themselves with the liquid muck. The surface was narrow, even for so small a car, but they sped along it without difficulty even where a spiky native tree grew from the side and required a twitch of the yoke to avoid.

Hogg leaned sideways so that his head was between those of the others. “I could spell you on the driving, y’know,” he said.

Not for the first time, of course; and perhaps not for the twenty-first thus far on the ride. Hogg’s enthusiasm for driving wouldn’t have been as much of a problem if he hadn’t also been a really terrible driver.

Daniel didn’t reply. Grant said, “We’ll be coming to a farm shortly. I think we should overnight there. We have another hundred kilometers ahead of us, but it’s nearly dusk now and it’s unwise to try to enter Saal after dark.”

They bumped up onto the right-of-way for the Grain Web. It was a magnetic levitation system; the current-carrying rails had been buried in a smooth pavement of stabilized earth. Even after four years of disuse and damage, it seemed a real thoroughfare.

“There’s a curfew?” Daniel said, glad for a change of subject.

He deliberately hadn’t questioned Grant about how he was going to enter the fortified capital. The fellow was an excellent driver, but he had a tendency to look toward the person he was speaking to and wave his hand. That had already led to some near misses as a result of this broken terrain and the fact that the overloaded vehicle didn’t handle the way he expected it to.

“There’s no regulation,” Grant said. “My identification would be checked, the same as any other time. My concern is that it would be checked in the morning, when they sent out a patrol to investigate the wreckage. The troops in the bunkers at night don’t like to see vehicles driving toward them.”

He slowed. “We should see a track leading to the left soon,” he said, scanning the brush on that side. Interspersed with spiky bushes were hollows which were covered with flat circles of leaves. Vivid yellow spikes shot up to knee height from the middle of each green splotch.

“How is it you gallivant all over this bloody mudhole however you please?” Hogg said, sounding accusatory. Not only was he wedged into the back of the car, he really had wanted to drive–almost as much as Daniel didn’t want him to drive.

“I’m responsible for Saal’s water supply,” Grant said, twisting to look back at Hogg. “I make inspections every–”

“Is that the road?” Daniel said, stretching his arm past the driver to indicate the wallow of mud angling into the hills to the left.

“The devil!” Grant said, turning sharply and lifting the outer edge–Daniel’s side–of the car as though they were on a banked track. Even so they skidded through brush that slapped the car’s body and occasionally twanged from the fans before the vehicle looped back to the mud path.

“They’ve been using heavy trucks,” Grant added in a doubtful voice. He was looking over the side of the car at the crushed vegetation.

“I think that tracked vehicles have come this way,” Daniel said, looking out his own side. “See the way the heavier stems are chewed, not just broken?”

He hadn’t brought a weapon himself, a decision for which he now felt a vagrant regret. Still, if this was what he thought it was, a pistol–or even a stocked impeller–wouldn’t make a great deal of difference.

“Tractors, I suppose,” Grant said. He spoke more loudly than he needed to. “They must have gotten heavy tractors instead of using the ground-effect transport.”

“There’s smoke, young master,” said Hogg, his lips close to Daniel’s ear but his hoarse voice loud enough that Grant must have heard him. The smell was obvious regardless; not just the sharp, sneezing tickle of wood smoke but also the rasp of electrical insulation and the sludgy black stench of paint and rubber.

“Grant, perhaps you should wait here while Hogg and I–” Daniel said, but the driver had thumbed forward the verniers on the yoke. One switch controlled the fan speed, the other the blade angle.

Grant was holding the car low, but they quickly accelerated to a speed faster than even Hogg would have been willing to drive a track punctuated with stumps and branches standing upright from toppled boles. Daniel gripped the side of the open car with one hand and the edge of his seat with the other, smiling pleasantly.

“There’s a watchtower,” Grant shouted. He had to compete with the throaty howl of the fans, of course. “Herrero’s Farm is very well defended!.”

Then, “Where’s the watchtower? We should be–”

They came over the ridge at speed. Grant tilted his yoke to raise the bow, using the car’s underside to brake their rush. They mushed down onto the track instead of slamming. The maneuver must have been instinctive, because his eyes and surely his mind were on the ruin ahead.

The watchtower of coarse red limestone was still there, the base at least, but the upper portion had been shot away. Daniel couldn’t be sure how much was missing but he guessed about ten feet, judging from the gravel which slugs from automatic impellers had sprayed around and beyond the remnant.

There had probably been a watchman, given the enthusiasm with which Sunbright’s skin-winged “birds” fluttered over and dug into the gravel. They were tracking the scent. The stone had been crushed too thoroughly to make a good cairn.

“You really need sensors that give you warning at a greater distance,” Daniel said as the car slowed to a walk. “If they knew where the tower was, and I suppose they did, then they were shooting as soon as they came in sight of it. No matter how good the watchman’s reflexes were, he didn’t have a chance.”

“I’d have had a chance,” said Hogg in a voice like rocks in a tumbler. He was looking at the farmstead itself and imagining Bantry in the place of these smoldering buildings. “I’d have had a bloody chance!”

“Easy, friend,” Daniel said, reaching back to put a hand on his servant’s shoulder. “We’ll take care of what we can.”

The older buildings were stone; the rest were of structural plastic. The latter seemed to have been placed on tracts between the stone ones or around the farmstead’s original perimeter. The square, peak-roofed house in the center and the barn attached to it must have been ancient.

A dozen plump black-and-tan dogs had been penned behind orange plastic fencing to the west of the main house. About a dozen; Daniel couldn’t be sure, since the burst from an automatic impeller had shredded them thoroughly.