WHEN THE TIDE RISES – snippet 51:



CHAPTER 18: Fort Douaumont, Conyers


            When the Skye Defender had lifted thirty feet or so above the courtyard, the echoes hammering from the fort's inner walls no longer multiplied the thruster roar. Though the noise was only just short of deafening, Hogg put his mouth close to Daniel's ear and said, "I'm surprised you let the wog take it up himself, master. I thought you'd want to do that."

            "Oh, Captain Salmon's quite competent," Daniel said, turning his head sideways to follow the freighter through the bay window of the penthouse office. "Anyway, there's no great trick to liftoff, even from hard ground. So long as you're continually adding power instead of reducing it, a few coughs and stumbles from the thrusters aren't going to do real harm."

            Salmon'd been trying to rise vertically, but there was enough wind to drift the transport west as soon as she'd risen out of the shelter of Fort Douaumont. That was all right: she was high enough that her plasma exhaust wasn't a danger to those on the ground.

            "Besides, I have other business to tend to," Daniel muttered, embarrassed at his sudden desire to snatch the controls out of Salmon's hands. He wanted to be in control of everything himself, which wasn't proper. Most people did a perfectly adequate job of whatever they were doing, and a few–Borries for example–were exceptionally good.

            The Skye Defender began to settle into Grand Harbor where she belonged. Troops came out of Douaumont's bunkers where they'd sheltered during liftoff and crossed the courtyard, going about their business. Daniel turned away from the window just as Ashburn rapped on the jamb of the open door.

            "We got everybody down in the second floor conference room, sir," Ashburn said. She'd been acting as chief of the ground detachment in place of Woetjans. "You want me to bring'em up here? It's gonna be tight, but I guess that's their lookout."

            "No, I'll come down," Daniel said. He looked around the room to see if he was leaving anything behind.

            And who'd replace Woetjans as the Ladouceur's bosun? Riley, he supposed, though he suspected Woetjans herself would say Harrison. Daniel was almost of a mind to give the job against his better judgment to Harrison–who'd twice been broken back to ordinary spacer for being drunk on duty–in deference to the opinion of a comrade who was comatose and might not recover.

             Hogg offered the sub-machine gun, keeping the heavy impeller for himself; Daniel brushed the suggestion aside more harshly than it deserved. Hogg functioned quite well in civilized society by acting like a dimwitted rube, but he wasn't really a part of that milieu. Daniel could get along in a state of nature better than most could, but he wasn't comfortable in it. He treated even battle as a civilized contest.

            He preceded Hogg down the stairs; Ashburn had gone on ahead. Governor Platt had an elevator behind a curving door in a corner of his bedroom. It was keyed by his retinal pattern, but that would've been child's play for Adele to modify. Daniel hadn't asked her to do so; stairs weren't a hardship for him, and the less he had to do with a pig like Platt, the more comfortable he was.

            His boots whisked on the treads. Ashburn opened the door and a babble of voices echoed in the polished stone corridor beyond. "Clear the bloody way, will you?" Ashburn snarled. "Make way for Six!"

            Hogg belonged in the natural world, his master belonged in a civilized one. And Lady Adele Mundy? Adele was Adele, no more part of any world than a pearl was part of the oyster which formed it. She was a pearl beyond price, no doubt about that… but it must be a very lonely place to be. As her friend, Daniel wished he had a better existence to offer her.

            The conference room had seats for 25 but at least a dozen additional people were standing. Colonel Chatterjee sat at the foot of the long table opposite the empty chair left for Daniel. He started to rise at Ashburn' announcement, but Daniel waved him down and strode quickly through the milling standees.

            Adele and Cazelet were on chairs in the corner nearest the door; her servant stood in front of them with her miniature sub-machine gun in her hand instead of being discreetly concealed in her attaché case. When a stranger–one of Chatterjee's aides–backed too close, Tovera pinched his earlobe between her thumb and forefinger and pulled his head around so that the muzzle of the little gun was within an inch of the fellow's right eye.

            He squealed; Tovera let him jerk away. Daniel didn't exactly approve, but the Bagarian had been discourteous to a lightly built woman. And he had to smile at the sheer professionalism of Tovera's response: an amateur would've prodded with the gun and might've lost it if the fellow were well trained and very fast.

            Though it was unlikely that anybody in this room was fast enough to disarm Tovera.

            "Ladies…," Daniel said, nodding to the heavy-set woman seated to his right. She was Lee Brandt–Ma Brandt. Her past year of imprisonment in a bunker under Sector Four had left her hard as the stone walls of her cell.

            "And gentlemen," nodding this time to Colonel Chatterjee. "As the highest ranking official of the Independent Republic of Bagaria who's now present on Conyers, I've gathered you to discuss the settlement I propose."

            "Who are you to be discussing anything?" Brandt said. "And what's the Independent Republic of Bagaria when it's at home?"

            "I'm Admiral Daniel Leary, mistress," Daniel said mildly. "And since we're doing introductions–Colonel Chatterjee, Mistress Brandt was Chairman of the United Grange of Conyers until her arrest for sedition. She led the opposition to Governor Platt's autocracy. Mistress, Colonel Chatterjee commands the troops which captured the fort here to free you and your fellow prisoners. He's an officer of the worlds which've rebelled successfully against Alliance misrule in the Bagarian Cluster."

            "I'm an officer of Skye," Chatterjee said. His words were a trifle too forceful for the pleasant tone. "Which is a member of the Bagarian Republic, yes."

            "There are delegations from all over the planet on the way here, Mistress Brandt," Daniel said, settling back in his seat to look less threatening than he would if he weren't careful. "Some of them are here now–"

            He gestured to a pair of men whose clothing had been cut out of canvas. They leaned forward to look past the people between them and Brandt.

            "Hi, Ma," one of them said, waving his hand side to side. "This is Bob Casey. I think he's after your time–"

            "Ma'am, I'm honored," the second man said. They were both in their mid thirties, as much alike as one sand perch to another.

            "–but he's got a battalion of two hundred militia in the Northanger District."

            "Right, only no guns," Casey said. "Until just now, right, Leary?"

            Daniel nodded pleasantly. He was structuring this discussion carefully, the way he'd conduct a battle. He'd get to the guns in good time.

            "Fort Douaumont is the key to Conyers," Daniel said. "If the Alliance recaptures it, your Grangers won't be able to take it back, mistress. And–"

            "We won't let them recapture it!" Brandt said. "No fear on that score. Now that we've got it, we'll keep it!"

            "With respect, mistress," Chatterjee said. "My troops have the fort, not yours."

            "Look here, Colonel!" Brandt said. "If you've got the notion your lot's going to waltz in here and take over where Platt left off, I'm telling you you're wrong! We–"

            "Silence, if you please!" Daniel said.

            "–can run our own–" Brandt said at a rising volume.

            The aide seated to Chatterjee's left started to get up, his face already crimson. Ashburn put her hand on the fellow's shoulder and slammed him back in his seat.

            "–government and collect our own–"

            Daniel was poised to grip Ma Brandt and turn her forcibly to face him, but that had a danger of leading to real problems. Still–

            Hogg gestured upward. Tovera nodded, grinned like a serpent, and fired a single round into the ceiling over Brandt's head. The ceramic pellet punched through the molded plaster and pulverized itself against the concrete underlayer.

            "What?" Brandt shouted, looking up just in time for a mist of finely divided paint, plaster, glass, and concrete to cover her eyes and open mouth. She lurched forward, trying to sneeze and cough at the same time.

            "Thank you," Daniel said calmly. "I believe that if we all remain courteous, we can arrive at generally acceptable solution."

            He smiled. He wondered if Hogg and Tovera had planned this ahead of time or if they were just so much in tune with one another's mindset that a crooked finger was all the communication they needed.

            Hogg's stocked impeller was a very powerful weapon. Its discharge inside a room would've sounded like a bomb going off, and the osmium projectiles it fired would've ricocheted lethally instead of disintegrating.

            Nobody tried to speak, though several people were sneezing. Daniel tightened his diaphragm to smother a sneeze of his own.

            "The fort depends for its safety in the first place on its missile batteries," Daniel said. "Unless they're operational, the Alliance can reduce the position as easily as my cruiser destroyed the sector which refused to surrender to Colonel Chatterjee's forces. Mistress Brandt–"

            He nodded to the Grange leader again. She held a hand over her mouth, but that seemed to be a precautionary measure.

            "–your personnel don't have the skills to operate the missile system."

            "We could learn," Brandt said, glancing toward Chatterjee with a wary look. She didn't raise her voice, and she only partially lowered her hand.

            "Mistress," Daniel said before Chatterjee stepped in. "I've very frequently led forces into battle. If I were a man who lied about his own resources, I'd have been killed long since. Your farmers, properly armed and led, may well become the best infantry in the Bagarian Cluster, but they won't learn to operate shipkilling missiles in your lifetime or mine."

            Brandt muttered something inaudible. Daniel turned to Chatterjee, who wasn't perfectly successful in controlling his pleased smile, and continued, "Which brings me to the next problem. Colonel, your battalion can't prevent the Alliance from landing out of the fort's range and bringing anti-ship missiles close enough to blockade you. To be safe from being starved out, you need to control the planet, not just Fort Douaumont."

            He paused. "Go on," Chatterjee said, wary also but smart enough to wait to hear the complete proposal.

            "Because Conyers was a Cluster Headquarters," Daniel said, "the bunkers beneath us here contained more than just Mistress Brandt and other prisoners. There are over ten thousand–"

            "Over twelve thousand, if the inventory records are correct, Admiral," Adele interjected.

            "Over twelve thousand, that is," Daniel said with a spreading smile, "stand of arms. That's small arms, no automatic impellers even, but sufficient to make Conyers a deathtrap for any force landing on the planet without the good will of the local populace. My people–"

            "My people" was precisely true, Sissies whom Daniel was certain he could trust completely.

            "–are distributing those arms to members of the United Grange of Conyers even as we speak."

            Chatterjee started to jump up, then started to speak. He restrained himself both times, but the smile he gave Daniel was at best wry.

            "With the military aspects of planetary defense settled," Daniel went on, "I've fulfilled my obligations with one exception–making arrangements for command of the defenses. I'm appointing Colonel Chatterjee as Military Governor of–"

            "Now just–" Brandt said.

            Hogg pointed his left arm, index finger extended, toward her face. He held the heavy impeller like a pistol, its butt resting on his right hip.

            "If you'll please wait, mistress," Daniel said crisply in the renewed silence. "Military Governor, as I said, to coordinate with the civilian government through the mechanism of a Council of Twelve chosen by the citizens of Conyers."

            He nodded toward the local men down the table from Brandt.

            "Masters LaPlant and Casey inform me that this corresponds to the subdivisions of the United Grange."

            "That's right, Leary," Bill LaPlant said. "And let me tell you, if Platt and his pansies think they can take things over now we've got guns, we'll teach him different!"

            "I don't believe Governor Platt will be in a place where what he thinks affects anybody else, Master LaPlant," Daniel said. "But I agree with your larger point: so long as the Skye troops and the United Grange cooperate, there's no chance at all of Guarantor Porra reconquering Conyers."

            Dasi and Barnes stood against the wall on either side of Adele; they grinned at one another over her head. There was no need to make a point of it, but either man could've convinced the Granger that who you screw has nothing to do with how well you fight.

            "Right," said Daniel, rising from his chair. "My spacers and I will leave you here to work out the details for the government of Conyers. I very much hope you all understand that this requires consensus among the parties, but–"

            He smiled around the room. From the tightness he felt in his facial muscles, he suspected his expression was merely a broader version of Tovera's before she shot into the ceiling.

            "–when all's said and done, I'm an RCN officer. My responsibilities don't include the governance of planets which aren't enrolled in the Friends of Cinnabar. Good luck to you all, ladies and gentlemen."

            As Daniel spoke, he strode toward the door on the other side of the room. Hogg, his impeller slanted across his body, made sure the path was open. As they stepped through the door, Adele leaned close and murmured, "How long do you think this will last?"

            Daniel shrugged. "I give it a good chance," he said as they walked toward the stairs. His next order of business was to go aboard the Ladouceur and see to matters there again. That meant a hike, but at least they wouldn't need an escort.

            "Ma Brandt herself may be a problem, but I think the people who've been running the Grange since her imprisonment are reasonable. As is Chatterjee."

            He grinned. "And anyway, speaking as Commander Daniel Leary, RCN," he concluded, "I think it'll last long enough to take the pressure off Admiral James. The rest isn't really any of my business, right?"

            Daniel laughed. Shortly he'd be back in command of a warship, where he belonged. What could be better than that?