WHEN THE TIDE RISES – snippet 43:



CHAPTER 17: Fort Douaumont, Conyers


            The trolley roared on the short apron of concrete. When the six-inch steel wheels got onto the unsurfaced soil, the noise wasn't as bad but the box rocked as first one side, then the other, slipped into low spots.

            I'll apologize to Woetjans after it's over, Adele thought. It did require three people to roll the container beyond the area so hot from the Skye Defender's landing that no one could walk across it without the protection of a rigging suit. Besides the person pushing from behind–a hard job, but within the strength of each of this trio of spacers–there had to be people to both left and right to prevent the heavy container from toppling over.

            Had Woetjans known that? Perhaps; the bosun had more experience with moving heavy objects than all members of the Mundy family from time immemorial. In any case, Woetjans'd been right and Adele was wrong.

            The trolley bumped onto concrete again, then stopped. Rene lifted the lid a hand's breadth with one arm; the air that curled in through the gap was hot but not searing. Adele straightened, but Tovera had already flung the lid clear and vaulted out.

            The riggers had halted at the base of the rampart. Woetjans had already taken off her helmet; Barnes and Harned were following her lead.

            Behind, the Skye Defender was a huge presence which shut off sight of the headquarters building. The courtyard throbbed with heat from the landing, but it was no worse than midday in a desert. They'd only be out in it for a short time.

            A three-step base rose to a platform which ran the length of the rampart to the left, but Adele and her companions were beside a bunker built out squarely from the back-slope. There were no openings on the inner face, but stairs protected by a blast shield ran along the side to a steel door on an upper level.

            Tovera, holding a sub-machine gun in her right hand and a satchel of plastic explosive in her left, climbed to the door, taking the steps two at a time. Rene was right behind her.

            "Get away from here, you puppy!" Tovera said as she peeled the backing off a 20-ounce block of plastic explosive. "Or you'll be blown to mush."

            She molded a comfortable handful of the doughy white explosive over the upper hinge. Giggling, she added, "But if you want to stay, I shouldn't get in your way, should I?"

            "Let's try this first, old girl," Rene said. The armored door had a bar latch that pivoted on one end. From the handle's length and sturdiness, it was meant to withdraw two or more heavy bolts when the door was unlocked.

            It was unlocked now. The bolts squealed, though Rene had to shift to put his full weight on the bar before he racked them clear.

            Tovera stepped back on the landing, her face expressionless. She looked at the portion of the explosive still in her hand and threw it onto the concrete.

            "I'll go first," Adele said, trotting up the steps. Working in the stacks of a major library was good training for a starship's companionways–or for this.

            "No, mistress," Tovera said. She gripped the sub-machine gun in both hands.

            "Yes, Tovera," Adele said. "Remember your place!"

            Rene had started the door groaning open, but Woetjans speeded the process by reaching past Adele to grab the edge of the panel. The bosun tugged. She'd slung a sub-machine gun, but she couldn't have used it without removing her gauntlets. Apparently she'd decided her armored hands were to be her weapon of choice for this business.

            Adele took her left hand out of her pocket and slipped through the portal. The interior was pleasantly cool after the ion-baked courtyard, though it'd probably seem dank if she had to spend long in it. Beyond was a corridor whose walls, floor and ceiling were concrete, splotched frequently with rust leaching from the reinforcing rods.

            Adele turned right and strode toward Command Center Barbonnet, the post controlling this facet of the rampart. Her fingers itched to take out her data unit, but she had no need of it. She'd memorized not only the floor plan of this sector but also that of the one to the immediate south; until they'd reached Conyers orbit, Daniel hadn't been certain about where he'd land within Fort Douaumont.

            Adele's entourage strode or stomped along behind her. Tovera and Rene were side by side. Adele risked a quick glance over her shoulder. The pair were glaring at one another, though they jerked their eyes ahead again when they realized she was watching them.

            Woetjans was a step ahead of Barnes and Dasi. They'd taken their gauntlets off so that they could use their weapons, though the guns looked like toys in the hands of big men wearing rigging suits. Despite the weight and sweaty bulk of their gear, they matched Adele's quick pace.

            To the left were short staircases up to a gallery. From it opened embrasures in the outer face, intended for automatic impellers or small plasma cannon. From the records she had available Adele hadn't been able to tell how many weapons were mounted. It wouldn't matter if things went as they should, but–

            A weedy young man stepped into the corridor. He saw the group of strangers and started to duck back up the stairs from which he'd come.

            "Hold it right there, soldier!" Adele called in her most sneeringly upper-class Blythe accent. "Don't you bother to salute here on Conyers?"

            It'd be better if she weren't wearing ill-sorted, oil-soaked utilities, but you use what you have. Tone and audacity would get her some way; she hoped they would get her far enough.

            The man–soldier? Civilian technician?–stopped, then slowly returned to the corridor. He started to salute, then fully absorbed the motley group of strangers and lowered his arm. "Mistress?" he said doubtfully.

            "I'm Colonel Adele Mundy of the Fifth Bureau," Adele said sharply. I say most things sharply, I suppose. "I'm here to investigate corruption in the government of the Bagarian Cluster. I expect answers and I expect them now."

            She paused. The local's mouth dropped at the mention of the 5th Bureau, Guarantor Porra's personal enforcement organization. His face went pale and he began to pant.

            "Who's the officer in charge of Command Center Barbonnet?" Adele snapped. She'd be perfectly happy if the fellow hyperventilated and fainted, but there was also the risk that he'd run off in a screaming panic. It'd be easy to shoot him down–as Tovera, who'd been a member of the Fifth Bureau, would certainly do–but the sub-machine gun's chatter risked giving the alarm also.

            "What?" the fellow said. "Who?"

            He swallowed. "Sir!" he chirped. "That's Captain Cleggs, but I don't think he'll be there so it'll be Chief Belmont. Sir!"

            "All right, come along with us," Adele said with a nod. "Corporal Barnes, take the fellow in charge but don't hurt him unless he tries to warn the traitors."

            She strode down the corridor. The command post was on the other side of a pair of right-angle turns, intended as blast traps in case the fortifications were penetrated. A glance to the side showed her the local–whatever was his name?–following obediently, behind Woetjans and just ahead of Barnes and Dasi.