SOME GOLDEN HARBOR — snippet 56

 

SOME GOLDEN HARBOR – snippet 56:

 

 

            Adele looked without enthusiasm at the landscape a thousand feet below. She didn't object to rolling plains and thickets of darker green shrubs at the bottom of the valleys, but neither did the scenery–any kind of scenery–particularly impress her.

 

            She smiled ruefully at herself. She'd be more interested in this if it were imagery rather than what she was seeing through an aircar's window. But to really engage her, the landscape would have to be something that somebody else had asked her to research. Perhaps she could trick herself by telling Daniel to demand she gather information on the terrain….

 

            "Ah…?" said Colonel Quinn, Adele's seatmate on the car's third crossbench. "You'd be from the Cinnabar family, Officer Mundy? I mean, I heard the Councilor call you Lady, so that's how I took the name."

 

            The aircar was built slimly for speed, seating its occupants on four two-person benches in the enclosed cabin. Hogg rode in the front with the driver, a Volunteer with the rank of sergeant if Adele was reading his collar tabs correctly. Tovera and Fallert were on the rearmost bench, and since Corius had asked Daniel to sit with him, Adele was perforce left with Quinn.

 

            It was theoretically possible to talk between benches. Even in a luxury vehicle like this one, though, wind rush and the fan intakes acted as effective sound dampers unless you really worked to speak over them. Adele saw no need for that, nor for talk in general; she had work she could be doing on her personal data unit. Quinn apparently had a different opinion on the latter point, however, so–

 

            "Yes, I'm Mundy of Chatsworth," Adele said. "I'm here as Signals Officer Mundy, however, assigned as Commander Leary's aide on this mission. My family has nothing to do with it."

 

            My family has very little to do with anything since the Proscriptions, Adele thought. Her closest living relative was a second cousin named Rolfe, a harmless enough man who'd had the misfortune of marrying a bitch from a nouveau riche family.

 

            "I'm a Cinnabar man myself, Xenos in fact," Quinn said, apparently thinking that it wasn't obvious in his accent. "Not like you, of course. I, ah… well, I'm Colonel of Volunteers for the Councilor here–"

 

            He nodded to Corius on the bench in front of them, talking with animation to Daniel.

 

            "–and Headman Ferguson called me Supreme Marshal when I was with him, but the truth is I put in my twenty years with the Land Forces of the Republic and got out as Sergeant Major. I figured I'd go off to the back of beyond and make easy money with the wogs."

 

            He grimaced. "I made money," he said, "but none of it stuck to my fingers any better than it did back in the LFR. And as for easy, I'll tell the world!"

 

            Quinn tapped his nose, then patted his ears. "These're false, you know," he said. "Ferguson had'em cut off and put me on a transport to Pellegrino, bleeding like a pig and with no more than the clothes I was wearing. Fortunately, I did have a bit owing to me on Pellegrino from a business transaction. I was able to get patched up, more 'r less, and even managed to fall on my feet with the Councilor there."

 

            The region they'd been overflying for the past hour wasn't as populous as that nearer the coast, but small-holdings frequently showed up as regular lines against the smudged yellow-green of the natural landscape. Often a farmer–and sometimes the whole family down to babes in arms–stood in the fields to watch the aircar, shading their eyes with their hands.

 

            Quinn shook his head. "Never work for wogs," he added. Pursing his lips in sudden concern he muttered in a still lower voice, "Of course, there's wogs and wogs, you know."

 

            "I'll take your word for it," Adele said austerely. Corius seemed to be completely engrossed in his own conversation, so presumably Quinn hadn't compromised himself by speaking too freely–this time. "Why did Headman Ferguson expel you, if I may ask?"

 

            "You know," said Quinn, nodded his head with enthusiasm, "I've often asked that very question myself. 'What did I do?' I ask myself, and what do I answer?"

 

            He seemed to expect a response. Adele raised an eyebrow in interrogation; she wasn't willing to be drawn into a question and answer session like the straight man in some silly minstrel show, but she'd make a modest effort to accommodate Quinn's conversational style.

 

            "Fuck all if I know!" Quinn said. "No reason in the world as I could see. The bastard just got up in the morning and said, 'Let's send old Quinn for the chop,' as best I could tell. No reason at all."

 

            "Though you mentioned you were doing business…?" Adele said, not really stressing the point but nonetheless raising it. The Colonel had chosen to have a conversation; he couldn't legitimately complain if Adele listened to what he'd said and asked questions on the basis of it.

 

            "Ah, well, that," said Quinn, fluttering his hand dismissively. "That was nothing, no more than was expected. Why, the wogs wouldn't trust a man who didn't have some fiddle, don't you see? They wouldn't think he was natural. No, that wasn't why–and in all truth, I don't believe there was a why, milady. Just the Headman getting up in the wrong side of the bed, that's all it was, I truly believe."

 

            "Perhaps so," Adele said, wondering if she had a right to dislike the now-colonel as thoroughly as she found herself doing. "I dare say you were lucky not to have been treated worse, in that case."

 

            Quinn's attitude toward foreigners was narrow, prejudiced, and factually wrong–as Adele knew by her studies and through personal observation. On the other hand, the colonel hadn't voiced any slur that Hogg or any of the Sissie's spacers might not've spoken as easily. Adele accepted it from them, making allowance for the uneducated culture in which they'd been raised; she filtered their words through a rosy cloud of trust and friendship.

 

            Still, there was this difference: Hogg scorned foreigners without exception, but he served a Leary of Bantry. Quinn treated foreigners as sheep to be sheared in order to provide a comfortable nest for himself. Sneering at people you prefer to avoid was very different from sneering at your benefactors behind their backs.

 

            A road–a broad dirt trackway–curled over the contours of the hills on the northern horizon. Farms were strung along the crude artery like tourmalines on a necklace, but Adele had seen very little traffic in all the time the aircar sped west parallel to it. Now a plume of dust much higher and broader than any she'd seem before waved from the road like a brick-red flag.

 

            Quinn saw that she was looking through the window behind him. He turned and unfolded a flat plate into a pair of electronic binoculars which he focused on the plume.

 

            That reminded Adele of the RCN-issue goggles strapped over her forehead; she hadn't worn them long enough for their use to become second nature to her, the way winkling out secrets with her personal data unit was. Still, now that she'd remembered, she settled the goggles over her eyes, locked their stabilizer, and raised the magnification by steps to x64.

 

            A huge tractor with caterpillar treads and a coal-fired steam engine pulled a train of six boxcars on puffy all-terrain tires. A bin in the back of the tractor held coal; there was a conveyor to load the firebox, but a human stoker watched the process with a shovel in his hand. The tanks swelling the sides of the vehicle carried water to replace steam losses.

 

            "Army recruits," Quinn said. "Going off to Port Dunbar to learn about war. They don't give 'em any training, you know. They've got bugger all in the way of a cadre who could train 'em."

 

            He made a disgusted sound in his throat; Adele feared for a moment that he was hawking to spit. Instead he went on, "They'll get their belly full soon enough, I'll tell you. Too soon for most of 'em. Fucking wogs."

 

            The doors of the boxcars were slid fully open; men sat in the doorways, their bare legs out in the breeze. They looked like farmers being hauled to a harvest.

 

            A few days ago they'd been farmers; the guns stacked in the cars' interiors didn't really make them soldiers. And even without Quinn's disgusted comment, Adele had no doubt that they would indeed be harvested in the near future when they were sent against Arruns' trained troops. They'd take a few of the Pellegrinians with them, though, and there were more farmers being born every day in the interior of Dunbar's World.

 

            Adele understood the mathematics of the equation quite clearly. That didn't make her like it any better, but it wasn't necessary that she like it.

 

            "You see the women?" Quinn said.

 

            "Yes, of course," said Adele. They rode on top of the boxcars; there were even a few children with them, infants too young to be left behind.

 

            "They're the commissariat," Quinn explained. "When the train stops to take on water, they'll get out and fix meals for their men. Ash cakes and whatever vegetables they can buy in the farms along the way, I'd guess. None of that lot'll run to the price of a chicken."

 

            "I see," said Adele. She lifted the goggles up onto her forehead again. The train and its broad flag of dust had fallen far behind the speeding aircar; and besides, there was really nothing more to see.

 

            The quicker this war could be ended, the better it would be, and Commander Daniel Leary was on Dunbar's World to end the war. Adele smiled faintly. She'd do her duty–and Daniel would certainly do his duty–regardless.

 

            But it was nice to feel that your mission might actually do some real good.

 

 

 

 

About Eric Flint

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