WHEN THE TIDE RISES — snippet 27

 

WHEN THE TIDE RISES – snippet 27:

 

 

            The ground was a rusty slate, hard enough that thin plates cracked off under Daniel's weight. There was no sign of water or vegetation. Scores of starships had lashed the stone with their plasma thrusters; piles of trash marked the landscape and blew across it. Some pieces of printed cardboard had been here long enough to bleach white.

            Though the Babanguida was big to be trading out here in the boondocks, it was rigged with only sixteen antennas. It needed only a small crew, but it'd wallow through the Matrix. On a given voyage it'd take half again as long as ships which were better able to shift between bubble universes and take advantage of varying energy gradients.

            As Daniel approached the boarding ramp at the head of his band, a spacer carrying a double armload of women's dresses stumbled down it singing, "Come you lads of great Pelosi, lift the old song once a–"

            Daniel caught the looter by the elbow. "Hold on, my good man," he said, trying to sound cheery but firm. "Carry that back to the hold, if you will. It's the property of the Republic, not ours as individuals."

            "Who the bloody hell are you to give me orders, shithead?" the man said. He'd been drinking something with a mint flavor and enough alcohol content that his breath would've burned.

            "Wrong answer, wog," Hogg said as he reversed his impeller. He butt-stroked the looter in the belly. The fellow collapsed on his face, vomiting yellow bile and chunks of undigested meat. The dresses were of some metal-smooth cloth; they spilled across the ground with a sheen as iridescent as an oil slick.

            "Now he can't carry the loot back, Hogg," Daniel pointed out mildly.

            "Oh, the bugger was too drunk to be any use to us," Hogg said as he continued up the ramp. "Anyway, we can worry about it later."

            In the entry hold were three more spacers–all male; on the fringes of civilization women generally weren't considered sturdy enough for the work. One had an armload of entertainment modules, while his companions had piled a score of similar units on a tarpaulin which they were dragging toward the hatch.

            "Hold it!" Barnes said, stepping in front of them. "Turn around and take the crap back, boys. You been naughty."

            "Hey, who says?" demanded the Bagarian at the leading edge of the tarp.

            Dasi grabbed the fellow by the throat left-handed and lifted him off the deck. "Mister Leary says," he said. "Me and my friend say so too."

            He tapped the muzzle of his impeller against the looter's mouth. Blood splattered from a cut lip.

            The lone Bagarian dropped the modules he was carrying. Daniel pointed to him and said, "Where's the ship's crew?"

            "They, they're in the forward hold, s-sir," the Bagarian said. "It was generator sets in there, too big to carry, so we locked the crew out of the way."

            Then he said, "Who in bloody hell are you?" That wasn't a protest but rather a bleat of amazement.

            "All right, take me to the forward hold," Daniel said, ignoring the question. He looked over his shoulder. "Four of you–Asnip, Ward, Bolden and Suplinski–come with me. Barnes, police up the rest of the looters. Tape who you have to but try not to shoot them."

            "Move!" Hogg said to the Bagarian. He poked a finger into the fellow's ribs to make sure he was listening.

            Daniel could–any of the spacers with him could–find a freighter's holds in his sleep, but the Babanguida was big enough that she might well have them split along her axis as well as transversely. A guide saved searching for the correct hold. Besides, it didn't hurt when they met Bagarians on the way that one of their shipmates was leading the armed strangers.

            The guide took them to a locked accessway; half a dozen looters lay taped like chickens along their route. The hatch was stenciled F3, a complex enough designation to make Daniel pleased that he'd played safe.

            Hogg pushed hard on the latch plate. It didn't move. He backed away and presented his impeller, saying, "Want me to shoot it open, master?"

            "No, I don't think that'll be necessary," said Daniel, twisting the plate ninety degrees and then pushing it. The dogs withdrew, ringing like an ill-tuned bell chorus. In the set position the hatch could've been locked from the bridge so that personnel in the corridor couldn't break in. Daniel had very much–and correctly–doubted that the looters had been that organized.

            He'd expected the imprisoned crew to burst into the corridor when the hatch opened, but instead there was silence relieved only by the sound of somebody whimpering in the hold's chill darkness. What in heaven's name was going on?

            "Come on out!" Daniel called; his words echoed. The hold was two decks high. The hull-side cargo hatch was on the level below, and a slatted staircase led down from this portal. "This is Commander Daniel Leary of the RCN–"

            He figured that was a better claim to make under the circumstances than "Admiral Leary of the Bagarian Republic."

            –and I need to talk to your captain." If he'd been thinking ahead, he'd have asked Adele for the commanding officer's name. It was the sort of thing she learned automatically, rather like breathing.

            Nothing happened, except that the whimpering became open sobs.

            "Bloody hell!" Daniel said. "I want your captain now. Don't make me come in after you!"

            "I'm coming out," somebody called from behind one of the fusion bottles. They were electric generators, the sort of thing an outlying farm would need–or, on a fringe world like Pelosi, a rich man's home even if it were in the center of Morning City. "Don't shoot, please! I've done you no harm. Please!"

            "Great heavens, man!" Daniel blurted. "We're not going to harm you. I told you, I'm an RCN officer. You're a legitimate prisoner, but I see no reason for you and your crew to be locked up so long as we can come to an agreement. Come on up here!"

            He thought for a moment, then added as the first figure started shuffling up the stairs, "All of you come out. Why in heaven did you think you were going to be shot?"

            The captain wore a blue uniform jacket which, like the Babanguida, was cheaply made and rather the worse for wear. The pin clipped over his right breast pocket read Robinson or Robertson; the gilt had rubbed off the right side.

            "I'm Ian Robertson," he muttered without meeting the eyes of anyone in Daniel's party. Then, "If you're RCN, why're you with pirates?"

            "Buck up, Robertson," Daniel said, trying to sound jolly. The merchant captain had the right of his claim, but with luck he could be cajoled to forget the past. "I know how it seems, but a little indiscipline is easily put right. You're a legitimate prize of war. Now, we'll repatriate your crew at the earliest opportunity, but I'm sure that some of your people would rather sign on with me rather than spend weeks or even years in a prison compound."

            He looked down at the figures gathered at the base of the stairs. He could see only a dozen, which meant some were still in hiding.

            "How does it strike you?" he called to the spectators. "Who of you'd like liberal pay and the best spacers in the human galaxy for your fellows?"

            "What d'ye mean about pay?" called one of the figures below. The voice was cautious, but the concern this time was over money instead of drunken Bagarian pirates planning to cut the throats of their captives.

            This was the result Daniel'd hoped for: even the Alliance citizens in the crew were likely to be from conquered planets with no affection for Guarantor Porra. Treated well, they'd be as happy to join the Ladouceur's complement as they would to continue aboard an Alliance-registered tub like the Babanguida.

            He leaned over the railing. "Come on up and we'll discuss it like spacers," he said cheerfully. "Regular pay is eighteen ostrads a month, but you'll also take a share in the prize money. You can talk to any of the Sissies who came with me from Cinnabar about what prize money's meant in the past, and you can look at today for proof that it'll keep on in the future. While you've been slaving on this ship, my crews are going to be splitting her value in prize cash!"

            He was shading the truth and he knew it, but until these folk signed on, their welfare didn't touch the honor of a Leary of Bantry. It wasn't such a bad offer regardless. Daniel was sure–well, he was hopeful–that he could convince the Navy Minister to raise pay when the squadron returned after this triumph; if he couldn't, he'd enlist the new personnel into the RCN under his authority as commander of the Princess Cecile.

            Spacers began to shuffle up the stairs; additional figures drifted out from behind the dense lumps of fusion bottles. He'd move them all to the Ladouceur, adding those who enlisted to the cruiser's crew and confining the remainder away from temptation to take back control of their own ship. Prize crews for the two Alliance freighters required a tricky balance between Sissies and Bagarians or he'd simply be transferring the looting from Dodd's Throne to the Matrix, but with Woetjans' help it could be worked out.

            The smile Daniel gave the Alliance captain was harder than his usual expression. "Now, sir, if you and your officers will come up to the bridge with me, we'll settle details while I get back in communication with my squadron."

            "I don't understand this," Captain Robertson muttered. Now that he wasn't terrified, he was willing to complain. "We're just trading with you. If you capture us like this, there won't be any trade!"

            "Exactly, my good man," Daniel said. "People in the Bagarian Cluster don't seem to have quite grasped what war means. They're about to learn."

 

About Eric Flint

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