Into The Maelstrom – Snippet 27
The Brasilian Military constructed The Great North Road at the end of the Terran wars to link the First Tier colony worlds and provide a jump off into Terran controlled worlds. It pacified the Continuum so the ride was reasonably smooth even for such a wallowing transport.
Allenson helped build a road into the Hinterland as part of Chernokovsky’s ill-fated expedition. A chain of solar powered satellites in real space created the calmed path through the Continuum. This eased travel, extending the speed and range of frames. More roads like this could open up the Hinterlands to colonization and industrialization. Unfortunately, Brasilia had lost interest once Terra had been driven back across the Bight. Indeed, they weren’t even maintaining this route properly. The barge had already crossed a bumpy section probably caused by a malfunctioning satellite drifting out of phase. Another couple of decades and the road would fall into disrepair triggering something of a recession in the colonies.
The large trans-Bight ships were too big to use roads so there was no particular pressure from the large Brasilian merchant gens to expend taxes on its upkeep. It was only the local ‘Stream traffic that would suffer.
Boswell stood in the driver’s pulpit, steering the barge into energy eddies along the road that ran in the direction they were travelling. Dull work but a human pilot could drive the barge so much more efficiently than automatics. They passed a container truck steered by an automatic pilot that smacked the bow into every stray wave of turbulence. Allenson was so glad that he had hired Boswell for the trip. Smooth sailing was less wearing on the barge’s mechanics. More importantly it stopped Allenson from having to swallow motion sickness suppressants or throw up every hour or so.
“Everything okay, Boswell?” he asked, moving to stand beside him.
“She’s a real honey, general,” Boswell said, waving his left hand to encompass their vehicle.
“Good, good, how long to Samson’s World?”
Samson’s World had a market town serving the local community so possessed facilities to recharge the barge.
Boswell ran a finger across the control panel, flicking through pages of data.”
“Not more’n two hours, sar. But we have plenty of power remaining. We could press on to Forty-Three. There’s a station there where we could stop.”
“The world’s navigation almanac number.”
“What’s it called?”
“Don’t rightly think it’s got an official name, general. On Nortania it’s just called Icecube. Never been there so I don’t know why.”
Allenson considered. It would be useful to press on while they could but Samson’s World was a known quantity. He checked the navigation almanac on his datapad. Forty-Three was listed as a way station not a town or farming community. Oddly enough it was the latter that tipped the balance in his mind. They had already made one stop at a farming community of small villages on a world called Arcadia.
Word of his arrival spread like wildfire and by evening local time throngs of villagers in dance clothes arrived to throw flowers. They insisted on escorting him to the best, indeed the only restaurant, in the village. He was not sure whether the good people of Arcadia were ardent separatists or simply desperate for any excuse for a party.
Whatever, it was possibly the most excruciatingly embarrassing moment of his life. Certainly up there with the time a girl with whom he was currently besotted persuaded him to sing and play the ukulele in an amateur dramatic performance. Todd, his brother not his nephew, had declared his performance the funniest thing he had seen since someone tried to teach a fleek to ride a bicycle. If Icecube was simply an industrial center, he doubted anyone would have the time or inclination to acknowledge his presence let alone throw flowers.
“I thought I might get some exercise,” Todd said, edging past Allenson on his way to a pedaling bay.
“There’s really no need, sar,” Boswell said. “We have more than enough power in the cells.”
“Nonetheless, that’s my intention,” Todd said, in a tone that brooked no opposition.
“That bad,” Allenson said, sympathetically, to Todd.
“Buller’s now explaining how he brilliantly ambushed the Syracusan armor at Kesserine Pass using prunes to represent tanks. I don’t think I can take any more.”
“He’s certainly talented as a commander,” Allenson said.
“And doesn’t he know it,” Todd replied. “Do you intend to go back and avail yourself of more of his wisdom?”
Allenson looked over his shoulder. Buller was on his feet waving both arms and gesturing.
“You know, I believe I could also do with some exercise.”
Wherever you have civilization you have a bar like The Leaping Frog. It may be in an inn, a public house, a hotel or even a temple but behind the façade it is always the same: the same barman, large, taciturn, seeing and hearing nothing, the same smell of stale booze and staler breath. The original had probably been located in a stone-age cave with bad drainage. Hawthorn possessed a talent for sniffing out such places. Why he went to them and what he did there was not something he felt moved to share with his friends.
The Leaping Frog squatted in a narrow alley between two warehouses. A dirty flickering neon sign in the form of a two-legged lizard advertised its location. Steel shutters perched on pegs above grimy windows that permitted little inspection of the interior. No doubt the pegs could be withdrawn from the inside, dropping the shutters to seal off the building. The closed door was surfaced with peeling layers of plywood painted blotchy green. Hawthorn suspected it was far more substantial than it looked, probably incorporating mechanisms that could bar it against anything short of a battering ram. The Leaping Frog was not an inviting hostelry but then it probably neither wanted nor expected passing trade.
Hawthorn unceremoniously kicked the door with a toecap reinforced with crystallized silicon carbide. When nothing happened he kicked a bit harder. A hatch at head height opened and a face peered out. It was not the sort of face that would give comfort to small children or swooning maidens. Too many scars and contusions for that but the Frog was not a nursery and any maiden who swooned within its interior was unlikely to retain her maidenhood for long.
“Whaddaya want,” Pug-Ugly asked.
Hawthorn gave a name that was not his own to gain entry. How he acquired the name would require too long a digression to be discussed here but suffice it to say the acquisition involved an exchange of Brasilian Crowns and a busted kneecap. The door opened. He walked into the dimly lit interior, ignoring the door keeper’s hopefully outstretched hand. The bubble of sound in the bar died away.
He stopped in the entrance way and removed a cigarette case from an inside pocket. Selecting one of the contents, he placed it in his mouth, swapping the case for a small disposable lighter with which he ignited the fag. The pause gave him time to take in the bar’s clientele although he did not seem to take an interest. They also studied him with equal phony nonchalance.
What would they have seen? A stranger, a tall man, heavily built without much sign of fat, dressed in casual, functional but expensive well-tailored clothes that failed to tally with the scar on his head. They would have noticed that the battered cigarette case was made of a ceramic inlaid with precious minerals. Some might have wondered how such a desirable item might be transferred into their own possession.
A glance at his eyes would dissuade such ruminations. Piercing blue and as cold as church charity, they lacked any trace of gullibility or fear. These eyes would not gaze sympathetically on men with treasure maps, sick aunts or knives held out at threatening angles.
Hawthorn took a deep drag and exhaled, adding his own small contribution to the murky atmosphere formed by people smoking herbal concoctions more potent than the imported tobacco he favored. He quite deliberately swept his eyes around the room. Most of the incumbents developed a renewed interest in minding their own business. A group of men sat around a table in one corner stood out in that they ignored him, carrying on with some game that involved slamming wooden counters down in front of stacks of coins. Hawthorn ignored them in return and headed for the bar.
Background sound slowly refilled the room.
“Tonk, double,” Hawthorn said, flipping a quarter crown down onto the plasticized surface.
The barman put a glass on the counter and poured him a generous measure from an unlabeled bottle. He collected the quarter and dropped it into a pouch in his apron. He didn’t offer change or utter a word of thanks. The Leaping Frog would not rate highly for service in any tourist guide.
Hawthorn lifted the glass with his left hand. He took a gulp of the Tonk and grimaced. God knows what they cut it with. He threw the rest down his throat in one go so he didn’t have to taste the stuff.