The Road Of Danger – Snippet 85

“There was no call for that,” Hogg said, swinging out of the car with a lithe grace that belied his cramped seating for the past two hours. He held his pistol along his right leg where from a distance it was hidden by the baggy fabric of his trousers. “Maybe some day I’ll meet this dog-shooter and discuss it with him.”

“Dogs fatten on rice, and the wet doesn’t rot their paws,” Grant said, sounding as though he were talking in his sleep. He shut off the fans in the courtyard formed by a U of ruined buildings. “All over Sunbright, they’re eaten as often as chicken or pork. It took me years to get used to that.”

At least two automatic impellers had raked the farm. One shooter had simply sprayed slugs across the buildings, rarely holding below shoulder level on an adult man. The other, though, had kept his bursts at knee-height. He had brought down the front and sides of every stone building and probably killed most of those who had thrown themselves to the floor when the shooting started.

The plastic buildings fared better: small punctures at six-inch intervals dimpled the sheeting, but the plastic didn’t absorb all the energy of the hypersonic slugs and shatter to dust and gravel as stone did. It wouldn’t have made much difference to the people inside, of course.

“Get out of here!” a cracked voice screamed. “Get out! There’s nothing left to steal!”

Hogg had vanished; Daniel hadn’t seen him go. Grant whispered, “May the gods forgive me.”

A man tottered out of a shed covering three carts–their drawbars canted up so that they nested–and a winnowing machine. The equipment had been riddled, but the rubber tires on the carts were the only things which could have burned, and the slugs hadn’t ignited them.

“Get out!” the man screamed. He walked with two sticks, one of them a recent makeshift cut from a wooden pole. Age might have been enough to explain his feebleness, but blood stained the bandage around his head.

He tried to wave a cane, but it slipped from his grip. He slumped sideways. Daniel strode toward him, but a woman ran more quickly from the plastic barn nearby and caught the old man before he fell to the mud.

“Here,” Daniel said, reaching out. “I’ll–”

“Don’t touch me!” the man wheezed, though he dropped his remaining cane when he waggled it toward Daniel.

The woman was younger than he’d first thought–younger that him, in fact–and would be attractive when her swollen face recovered from bruises and crying. She said, “I have–”

She gasped and doubled up, clasping her belly. One thing at a time, thought Daniel as he lifted the old man. He carried him at a trot to the barn the woman had come from.

As he had expected, there were shakedowns of bedding in the emptied rice storage bins. Eyes stared at him around posts but vanished when he turned toward them; nearby a child began crying.

Daniel laid down the now-quiet man and turned to get the woman. She had followed him into the barn. She walked haltingly while pressing a hand to her abdomen, but she waved away his unspoken offer to help.

She seated herself on an upturned basket. “I suppose I’m bleeding again,” she said bitterly. “Well, it could be worse, couldn’t it?”

Daniel stood erect with his feet slightly apart and his hands crossed behind his back as though he were facing a superior officer. He said, “My servant and I are both countrymen. We can help with first aid.”

Then he added, “I’m Captain Daniel Leary, RCN. That is, I’m from Cinnabar.”

“If you’d come two days ago,” the woman said, “you could have helped dig graves. In the evening, I mean. If you’d showed up any sooner, you’d just have been three more to bury. I decided we had to bury them, you know. But it didn’t help with the smell. I don’t think the smell will ever go away.”

“Coming through!” Hogg called from outside. “Coming through!”

“Clear!” said Daniel. He wasn’t the sort to blaze away at sudden movements. For that matter, he didn’t have a gun at present, though he supposed he might have found one. Anyway, Hogg was being careful in a difficult situation, which wasn’t something to complain about.

“There’s thirty-odd more in another barn,” said Hogg as he entered. He’d concealed his pistol, but he carried a shotgun in the crook of his elbow. “Kids and women, mostly.”

He nodded toward the seated woman. “No others as young as her, though. And some men, but they’re shot up pretty bad.”

“They thought I was dead, I suppose,” the woman said. “Maybe they were right.”

Turning to Daniel and sitting straighter, she said, “My name is Floria Post. Emmanuel Herrero, whom you carried in, is my grandfather. Thank you.”

She gestured to the barn’s interior; several small children had appeared out of the bins. She said, “I brought the younger orphans here.”

Grant entered the barn, looking stunned. “It was Captain Kinsmill’s force,” he said. Daniel wasn’t sure who he was talking to, or if he was really talking to anyone outside his own mind. “Two of the women in the Seed Barn said they heard men call their leader ‘King’. That’s Kinsmill’s nickname.”

“A blond man with moustaches?” Floria said, using both to mime a moustache that curved into sideburns. Her voice lilted as though she were about to break into peals of laughter. “Men offered him a turn with me, but he said he didn’t want sloppy thirds. More like sixth, I think, though I lost track eventually. The King took my niece instead. She was ten.”

The lilt turned to sobbing. The woman bent over, her face in her hands. Daniel was afraid that she was going to sag onto the floor, but he thought better of putting an arm around her for support.

A pair of middle-aged women must have been standing near the doorway but out of Daniel’s sight. They entered silently. One held Floria’s shoulders; the other touched her companion’s elbow in frightened support.

“Kinsmill’s a cultured man!” Grant said. “He’s from Bryce, he was educated in the Academic Collections there!”

I wonder if he was Adele’s classmate?

Daniel thought. I’m sure she would have something to discuss with him now. Briefly.

Floria had stopped crying. She raised her eyes to Daniel and said, “Captain? What do we do now? What can we do?”

Daniel nodded twice, giving himself time to consider the question. The elements were simple enough; and if he didn’t particularly like the answer, that didn’t change reality. A ship’s captain frequently arrived at answers he didn’t like, and the captain of a warship did so more often yet.

“Go to Saal,” he said. “You’ll have to walk, but you have carts to carry invalids and enough food for the journey. I’m sorry that we won’t be able to accompany you, but we have our own duties.”

One of the older women said, “We supported the revolt. We always sold our rice through the Provisional Government. Always!”

Until Captain Kinsmill decided there would be more profit if he cut out the middleman

, Daniel thought. Which was true, in the short term.