What Distant Deeps — Snippet 51

CHAPTER 17: The Farm, Southeast of Calvary

Tovera was slowing the aircar gradually in response to the commands from the ground, but her attempts to reduce altitude led to a series of bumps. Daniel felt as though he was riding a bicycle down a staircase.

Gibbs glared across the cabin and said, “Blazes, Leary! You should have let me drive!”

Daniel smiled mildly. “Oh, this isn’t so bad, Gibbs,” he said. “We’ve gotten here, after all.”

If I’m ever tempted to take advice from a traitor, he thought, it won’t be advice to put my life and my associates’ lives in his hands. Daniel guessed that Gibbs was too great a coward to sacrifice himself while plunging his enemies into the ground, but there would be no benefit in taking that chance.

“All right, you can land,” the controller from the Farm growled. “But keep right in the square between the barns or you’ll wish you had, over.”

“Roger,” Tovera said, using a throat microphone linked to the aircar’s communications system. “I see the landing zone. I’m coming in now, over.”

“The two apparent haystacks covered with black film at either end of the main house . . . ,” said Adele. The Resident’s limousine was so quiet that the passengers could talk comfortably without the need of intercom or shouting. “Are automatic impellers which are tracking us. The control station is in the cupola of the house.”

Gibbs kneaded his fingers together and began to mutter under his breath. Adele looked at him and said, “Don’t worry, Gibbs: the guns can’t fire now, though I haven’t otherwise interfered with their operation. And they were doubtless aimed at you every time you visited here in the past. You did visit, didn’t you?”

Gibbs nodded miserably, but he didn’t look up. His hands continued to writhe.

Daniel looked through the windows with a cold expression. He was acting now, but the part — a disdainful RCN officer — wasn’t much of a stretch.

The car slid over what looked like a rambling house with attached sheds on both wings, then down into a square formed by three high barns and the back of the house. Tovera landed, not hard but with too much throttle. The drive fans made the car hop its own length forward. Gibbs cursed.

Tovera shut the fans off at the crest of the jump. This time the car did slam, but not as badly as it might’ve done.

The dust Daniel had expected didn’t bloom up around them. Though the square looked like bare dirt, the surface had been plasticized into a hard mat.

Daniel released his shock harness; Adele was sliding her data unit away. Sun and Tovera flung their doors open and stepped out. The gunner kept his left arm inside the cab, on the receiver of the impeller that he’d stuck upright between the separate front seats.

A heavyset man in gray clothing and a floppy hat stalked to the aircar from the veranda of the house. The two men flanking him were also dressed as laborers, though with bandanas rather than straw hats; they carried mob guns openly.

“Gibbs,” the leader said, bending to speak through the window, “what are you playing at?”

He switched his glare across the cabin to Daniel; his ginger moustache fluttered. “And you, buddy!” he said. “Who the bloody hell are you?”

Daniel got out of the car. Over the roof of the vehicle he said, “You’d be Colonel Nasrullah, I take it? As for what Gibbs is doing, he’s obeying the orders of his superior officer — me. And I’m Captain Daniel Leary, Admiral Mainwaring’s aide and commander of the troop convoy’s RCN escort. If there is a troop convoy. That’s what Admiral Mainwaring sent me and my staff to determine, don’t you know? Whether or not he allows the convoy to proceed.”

“What?” said Nasrullah. He stepped back as though Daniel had spat in his face. “What do you mean, ‘if it proceeds?’ The convoy is proceeding!”

“Only if you convince me,” Daniel said. Adele had slid across the cabin and gotten out on his side, but Gibbs remained in the car. “And I must say, all these threats and nonsense –”

He gestured to the guards. One of them simply blinked stupidly, but the other quickly lifted the flaring muzzle of his weapon skyward.

“– don’t impress me very positively. And impellers tracking us as we came in! That’s exactly the sort of thing the captains are worried about — and why they’re refusing to land.”

“What?” said Nasrullah. “By Moses’ balls, man, we’ve got to take precautions, don’t we? Did you think we were going to let you just waltz in here as though we were running a tavern?”

He broke off and waved his left arm at the limousine. “And where’s this car from?” he demanded. “How were we supposed to recognize it when we’ve never seen it before?”

Daniel opened his mouth to reply, but the Palmyrene officer had just been taking a breath. “And what do you mean ‘the captains are worried?’ he said. “What captains, and who cares if they’re worried?”

“Let’s get inside,” Daniel said curtly, gesturing toward the house. “It’s unlikely that anybody will notice, but there’s no reason to risk that a ship landing in Calvary Harbor will pick up imagery of RCN officers in uniform visiting what’s supposed to be a civilian agricultural establishment.”

“That’s impossible!” said Nasrullah. “Is this a joke?”

“If I thought it was worthwhile arguing with people from the Qaboosh Region,” Adele said in a thin, disdainful tone, “I would demonstrate that it’s quite possible. Perhaps not for a barbarian, of course.”

“What?” Nasrullah said.

“Come along, Colonel,” Daniel said, cupping his hand behind the Palmyrene’s elbow in friendly fashion and starting toward the house. The guards followed, continuing to look puzzled. “We’ll talk better inside.”

For a moment Daniel had wondered if Adele had overplayed her part. Still, Nasrullah had to respect and fear them if this bluff was to work. By behaving as a Cinnabar aristocrat with enormous technical skills — which she was in fact — Adele would achieve that.

If Nasrullah didn’t shoot them out of hand. Well, try to: the Colonel himself certainly wouldn’t survive the first exchange of shots.

Half a dozen people, all men, waited within the building; their expressions ranged from cautious to worried. None appeared to be guards, but Daniel suspected they all — like Nasrullah himself — were military personnel.

The central hall was open but unadorned, a place to gather but not to impress or entertain; the ceiling was normal height instead of encroaching into the second story. Sliding partitions closed off the wing to the left, but the right-hand side was open. Within was what seemed to be a command center, though the electronics appeared to have been pieced together from salvage.