SOME GOLDEN HARBOR – snippet 78:
There was an immediate undulation in the crowd, enough that Adele could worm her way to the front with only a modicum of pushing. Her skin felt hot and prickly as though she were about to faint. She'd be all right when she started down the ramp, but the packed hold was working on her agoraphobia. It crushed her with the weight of so many people who weren't moving and couldn't move.
"Remember, we wait for Officer Mundy!" Vesey said. She had to raise her voice, because shuffling and the sound of excited breathing created a susurrus like the incoming tide.
At Vesey's nod, Quinsett gave a 90o turn to the wheel controlling the hatch mechanism. The machinery groaned for a moment; then the heated seam broke free. The ramp dropped slowly with a peevish hydraulic whine. Hot, dry air swirled in, sharp with ozone and hints of cremated organic materials.
The ramp creaked to horizontal, paused minusculely, and continued winding down. Adele stood frozen in a cocoon of her own thoughts. Ordinary spacers would start across the ramp long before it was fully down; often they'd jump the last of the distance to the ground and saunter off, gay in their liberty rigs and their hope of a good time.
Adele wasn't a spacer; she was a librarian who lived and worked in space. But she was RCN and she was a Sissie, and those were all that mattered.
The words know thyself had supposedly been written above an ancient oracle. Adele had that lesson down as well as anyone she knew. So long as she didn't have to like the person she knew she was, she was fine.
The ramp banged to the ground with a shudder that would've knocked her off her feet if she'd been on it at the time. She started down now, smiling to herself and at herself. Tovera was to her right side, half a step back.
They were dressed for the occasion in loose, dark blue clothing. The garments weren't a uniform, but in the darkness they looked a great deal like Alliance Fleet fatigues. Her RCN commo helmet was white, not dark gray like the Fleet equivalent, but that couldn't be helped. The Alliance communications unit with Arruns didn't use helmets anyway.
Tracked vehicles were rolling toward the Rainha, their rectangular headlights knifing through swirls of dust and fumes. Adele turned toward the battery's control unit, a hardened trailer a hundred yards from the supply ship's landing place near the eastern end of the island. Because of the danger of exhaust and missile backblast, the positions nearby had to have heavy overhead cover. There were bunkers on the shoreline, but the troops in them were concerned with an attack from across the channel rather than one that'd dropped straight down on the island.
Two men buzzed up on a wheeled scooter. If they wore insignia, Adele couldn't see it even with her visor's light enhancement. The man on the back called without dismounting, "Do you have the manifest?"
Adele thumbed toward the open hatch. "You'll have to talk to the captain about that," she said, trudging on nonchalantly. She didn't look back.
Powerful engines honked and hooted, moving equipment toward the Rainha. Adele walked faster. She'd seen during Daniel's reconnaissance that the Pellegrinians brought banks of floodlights on wheeled carriages up to the ship to illuminate it so that unloading could go on night and day.
To capture Port Dunbar would require great expenditures either of men or of shells, and the Chancellor couldn't provide more men. There were no permanent port facilities on Mandelfarne Island, so Arruns had to speed delivery of the necessary munitions in some other way.
The control trailer was the center of a web of leads to the array of vertical spike antennas thirty meters out from it. The edges of the narrow path to the door were taped so that those entering and leaving didn't trip over the lines. Adele thought of spiders. The corners of her mouth curled up: she and Tovera were the predators, not the technicians on watch inside.
A light stuck out above the lintel like a tiny shelf fungus, casting a fuzzy glow over the door and the ground in front of it. An optical pickup with a wide-angle lens was tacked to the panel at eye height in place of a vision block; beside it was a small grating, also an add-on, connected to the inside of the trailer by a hair-fine fiber.
The door was outward-opening; its latch plate doubled as a handle; Adele pulled it with her left hand in her pocket. The plate didn't give. She rapped on the door with her knuckles and called, "Open up! I'm Lieutenant Delacrois from the Signals Section."
"What are you doing here?" said a voice from the grating. It was so distorted Adele wasn't sure whether the speaker was a man or a woman. "We can't let anybody in without authorization from Group Captain Rousch."
"Look you bloody fool!" said Adele, glaring at the camera. "This isn't something I can shout through the door about. Field Marshal Arruns sent me. Open up!"
Adele saw her servant only from the corner of her eyes. Tovera had opened her pack. She patted the upper door hinge, then squatted and touched the lower one. She left a putty-like lump on each.
"Look, you can't come in, I don't care if you're the Chancellor himself!" the angry, sexless voice snarled. "Only authorized personnel are allowed into the antenna farm, and you're not authorized!"
"Step away, Mistress," Tovera said. "To the side."
A siren on the roof of the trailer ran up to a piercing howl, and a strobe light on a short mast nearby began to pulse alternately red and white. Adele stepped around the corner of the trailer with Tovera, wondering how thick the armor was. After a moment's hesitation, she drew the heavy pistol from its holster, leaving her personal weapon in her pocket.
Tovera thumbed a remote control. The twin blasts sounded more like colliding anvils than explosions. The trailer shook like a wet dog. The siren choked off but the strobe continued to flash with painful intensity. The helmet's active sound cancellation saved Adele's hearing, but the concussion–even with the trailer between her and the source–felt like a ton of sand shoving her.
She was around the corner with Tovera. Gray gases swirled; the helmet filters dropped over Adele's nose. The door was askew, blown loose at the hinge side but still hanging from the latch; light from inside outlined it sharply.
Tovera seized the door's back edge with her left hand and pulled hard. She was ungodly strong, but the blast must've warped the bolt; it bound. Adele saw movement and fired through the crack. The pistol lifted on the recoil of the heavy pellet, but she lowered the muzzle to present as Tovera threw her weight into the door and tore it loose.
A dying man sprawled forward, spraying blood from his mouth and the bullet hole over the top of his breastbone. Another man was on his back on the floor, scrabbling to get up; he'd probably been at the door when Tovera's plastic explosive went off, knocking him down deafened.
Adele ignored both to shoot the third man swinging a bell-mouthed weapon toward her. Her bullet punched through his right eyesocket and out the back of his skull. He triggered a blue-white blast into the trailer's ceiling.
Vaporized metal sprayed Adele, graying her visor and searing her bare skin. Her finger twitched again, blowing a hole in the control console before the slug ricocheted back from the armored wall beyond.
Tovera put a three-round burst into the face of the man on the floor. His spine arched, then bowed, and his heels drummed violently.
A snake of crackling light writhed across the pedestal of the control. A transformer in the cabinet to the right of the console exploded with a dull whump. Smoke the color of fresh asphalt poured through its cooling louvers, brightened by an occasional orange flame.
Adele turned, flipping her visor out of the way. She could see through the coating of redeposited armor plate, but not well. She supposed the visor had saved her eyesight, but now it was just in the way.
"There's manual controls on the battery itself," Adele snapped to Tovera. "We have to disable them too."
She started toward the entrance to the missile pit. Construction engineers had heaped and compacted the spoil into a berm, then topped it with a spool of razor ribbon. Though it was so close to the control trailer that several of the northeastern antennas were on the slope, the single opening was some distance around the circuit.