WHEN THE TIDE RISES – snippet 42: 


            It seemed to Adele that the roar and vibration of landing were concentrated in the aft companionway. The tube around the helical stairs wasn't armored the way it would've been on a warship, but it was nonetheless heavy-gauge steel. The cylinder, the treads, and the square-section stringers rang at different frequencies. Occasionally they struck a harmonic which made her teeth hum.

            The G Deck rotunda was dim. When she followed Tovera through the Power Room's heavy hatch–open now; she wondered if it should have been–she found the long compartment was hot, muggy and darker yet because of the fog swirling around the catwalks and machinery.

            She paused for a moment. Rene muttered something from close behind; he must've nearly walked into her when she stopped abruptly.

            The hiss of escaping steam was a pervasive background. Adele supposed it was coolant from the fusion bottle or its auxiliaries, though she restrained the urge to pull out her data unit and check.

            She smiled slightly. Or she could ask Pasternak, watching from his upper-level office in a blister cantilevered from the forward bulkhead; he waved when he saw her look up. Instead of being glazed, the windows were guarded by heavy mesh.

            That's not what I'm here for, thought Adele, nodding in reply as she walked on. Why was she here? Well, she could give an answer to that for the short term: to penetrate Fort Douaumont and disable its heavy armament, enabling a combination of Cinnabar and Bagarian forces to capture the bastion. In the more general sense, as she'd told Rene on the voyage out, she was the wrong person to ask.

            She wondered if the steam was radioactive, then smiled. It would have to blaze like the blue heart of a sun before it was likely to reduce her present life expectancy.

            Three spacers in rigging suits waited beside a battered nickel steel container; their helmets were slung. The box was about six feet by four; it was 30 inches high, but it'd been mounted on a missile trolley that lifted it a foot off the ground. The lid was open.

            Adele stepped close to the bosun and said in a loud voice so she could be heard, "Woetjans, I told you two spacers only, you and one other. We can't afford to let this look like an attack."

            "Yes ma'am," Woetjans agreed. "But I'm bringing Barnes and Dasi both."

            The riggers must have heard their names; maybe they'd learned to read lips while working on the hull? They nodded, smiling like a pair of clowns.

            "This waste can's going to be a pig to maneuver even if the ground's hard," Woetjans said, banging the container with her gauntlet. It was intended for wiping rags and other solid trash, but the strong smell of lubricant suggested that oil had been dumped into it at some point. "And besides, mistress…."

            The bosun grimaced with embarrassment, an unfamiliar expression and one that made her craggy face look even more grotesque than it usually did.

            "Well, it's like this. Six'd never forgive me if something happened to you, and he'd be right. I see where you're coming from, but I'm still taking Barnes and Dasi both to back me. That's how it is."

            "Thank you for your honesty, Woetjans," Adele said. She wouldn't know who was present as soon as the lid closed over her, so the bosun could have offered a fait accompli. It wasn't as though Adele could prevent the riggers from doing anything they pleased, even now that they'd explained their intention. Short of shooting them, she had no means of compulsion.

            Adele stepped onto the trolley and gripped the sides of the box to swing herself in. It already held two sub-machine guns, a stocked impeller, and packets of plastic explosive in slick green wrappers.

            "Here you go, ma'am," Dasi said. He took Adele's waist in his gauntlets and lifted her; when she kicked her legs out, the rigger lowered her into the container. His grip was as firm as a vise but he didn't squeeze enough to cause discomfort. His size and strength belied that degree of delicacy.

            Tovera swung herself in and looked coldly at Rene. "It's going to be tight with him too," she said. "He's scarcely necessary."

            Instead of snarling a reply, Rene used the length of his legs to step into the container. Nothing in his expression suggested that he'd heard. He had a sub-machine gun, but the sling bound it so tightly across his chest that he'd have to detach it from one of the swivels to use it.

            He wore one-piece coveralls of dark gray-green fabric. It struck Adele for the first time that the garment might have been a uniform of some kind: the color was similar to that of Alliance infantry utilities.

            She squatted in the box. Her head was above the rim, so she lay down on her side, ignoring the slick filth which coated the bottom. She still had Tedesco's jerkin on, but she'd changed into a pair of RCN fatigue trousers. The cargo pockets of the motorman's slops had tie fasteners; Adele wanted the familiar ease of press-seals over her personal data unit.

            Tovera and Rene curled up beside her. The boy's boots bumped her neck; he tried to draw his legs up more tightly, but that wouldn't–couldn't–last through the landing and what would come after.

            "Just relax, Rene," she said sharply. "This is going to be uncomfortable no matter what we do, but there's no reason to contort ourselves into worse shape."

            "Mistress?" said Woetjans, looking down in concern. "It's going to be a couple minutes before we land, but I can't rig the hoist without the lid's on. I mean, not if we're going to put the lid on ever, if you see what I mean. Is it all right I put the lid on?"

            "Yes, of course," Adele snapped. "For heaven's sake, Woetjans, we're not crystal figurines! Do what's necessary!"

            The lid clanged over them. The sudden darkness made her cramped posture worse. A hoist squealed; loops of chain clanked and rattled against the sides of the box.

            Adele felt Rene shifting. He's trying to keep the sub-machine gun from jabbing him now that he's lying on his side, she thought. Instead a light winked on, only a tiny penlight but enough to show the whole glistening interior. She relaxed and found herself smiling.

            The ship's vibration changed note. "We'll be on the ground in thirty-five seconds," Rene said unexpectedly. "Judging from Captain Leary's previous landings. He's as regular as an automated system, but he does it by being very smooth instead of by switching the thrusters on and off quickly the way the computer does."

            The roar redoubled. Adele tried to brace herself against the container, but the ship crashed down in a chorus of deafening clangs and the shriek of meter-thick struts compressing. The box lurched to the right, then banged back to the left when the other outrigger touched. The lift chains jangled against the sides.

            The box jerked again and swung freely. Adele heard a deep ringing sound, followed by the squeal of hinges: that would be the access port pivoting out from the hull. The container with her and her companions crawled sideways, swinging back and forth on the short loop from the hoist.

            Adele wanted to take out her data unit. How long is the crane? If I knew that, I could determine the number of  seconds at the present rate it'll take us to reach the end and

            They banged to the end of the run-out. Almost at once the hoist began to clank downward. Adele found herself anticipating the trolley ringing against the bottom long before it actually happened. She'd forgotten that the transport was on solid ground instead of floating on the yielding surface of a slip.

            They hit concrete in a lesser edition of the landing itself, the wheels on one side clanging momentarily before those on the other. The chain loops fell away in cheerful dissonance, though the trolley bumped over them as the suited riggers began to shove the container forward.

            Even in the enclosed box, the air  became noticeably hotter and laced with ions of several distinct tangs. Adele's nose quivered and Tovera began to sneeze violently. She muffled each one, but Adele knew her servant well enough to imagine her boiling fury at being unable to control her body.

            Adele stroked the pocket holding her personal data unit; she'd need it soon.

            She was already gripping her little pistol. She might need that even sooner.