Things are going badly for the Clan in this SF novel of the Merchant Princes, the immensely popular series by Charles Stross. Locked in a vicious civil war for control over the kingdom of Niejwein, their army is bottled up inside a fortress under siege in two parallel universes at once. Duke Angbard, the Clan's leader, has been laid low by a stroke: plotters are already conspiring in readiness for the deadly dance to come.Miriam, rescued from a tight spot in New Britain, finds the hopes of the young, progressive faction focused on her. But do they want her as a leader or a figurehead? She soon finds herself thrown into a desperate struggle for power. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the Clan, researchers working for the US government have achieved a technological breakthrough. At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
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February 01, 2010
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Excerpt from The Revolution Business by Charles Stross
I am not hearing this, Miriam Beckstein told herself. The temptation to giggle, to laugh it all off as a bizarre joke, was enormous. Pretend it isn't happening; yeah, right. Story of my life. She tightened her grip on the valise holding her notebook PC and its precious CD- ROMs. Except that for the past six months, the mad stuff had made a habit of punching her in the guts whenever she least expected it. "Run that by me again," she said.
"It's quite simple," said the hard- eyed young debutante with the machine pistol. "Your mother wants to use you to consolidate power." She kept her eyes focused on Miriam as she twisted the magazine free of the gun, worked a slide to eject a cartridge, and swapped another magazine into place. "The duke agrees with her. And we"--the eloquent roll of her shoulder took in their companions, a cohort of young and alarmingly heavily armed Clan world- walkers--"intend to make sure you're not just there for show."
They look like students, thought Miriam. Students outfitted by North Face for a weekend hike; accessories by Fabrique Nationale and Heckler & Koch. Of course they were nothing of the kind. Young aristocrats of the Clan nobility--born in the curious quasi- mediaeval kingdom of Gruinmarkt, and able to travel to other worlds at will--they might look like ordinary American undergrads, but the mind- set behind those fresh young faces was very different.
"Oh, really?" she managed. The idea of her mother--and the duke--plotting to put her on the throne of the Gruinmarkt was pretty preposterous, on the face of it--but then, so were so many of the other intrigues the Clan seemed to generate. Then another thought struck her: You said "we," didn't you? So Brill had an agenda of her own, over and above her loyalty to the duke--or Miriam, for that matter? Time to probe. . . .
"Was this"--she pointed at her belly, quiet anger in her voice--"part of their plan?"
"Milady" Brill--Lady Brilliana d'Ost, a mere twenty- something--furrowed her brow. "With all due respect, if you think that, you're paranoid. Do you really think the duke--or your mother--know you so poorly as to think you a suitable mother for the heir to the throne? Much less, under such durance? Henryk and your--his backer--were fools for thinking they could manipulate you that way, and now they are dead fools. The rest of us are just trying to make the best of a bad deal. And if you want to talk politics, would you mind leaving it until later? I've got a splitting headache and it's about to get worse."
Miriam winced. World- walking took it out of a member of the Clan's inner families, those with the ability: Doing it more than once in a day risked migrainelike symptoms and a blood pressure spike. There were other symptoms, too: pregnancy, she'd learned the hard way, made world- walking under your own power impossible. But they'd come here from New Britain, escaping after the abortive ambush at a provincial railway station in that world's version of California, immediately after picking her up.
One of the young men pacing the perimeter of the clearing raised a hand, twirled it in a warning circle. "One hour to go."
"Yah." Brill glanced round again. The forest clearing was peaceful, unoccupied but for Miriam, Brill, and her three young bloods, but she never stopped scanning.
"Are we in any immediate danger?" Miriam asked, shifting her balance on the fallen tree trunk.
"Probably not right now." Brill paused to continue her inspection. "The Kao's patrols don't usually sweep this far northeast. Better not linger, though. We'll be ready to move in another hour."
"The Favored of Heaven's border troops. Most of the local tribes give them a wide berth. We should, too." A warning look in her eyes gave Miriam a cold shiver; if Brill was scared of them, that was enough for her.
"What are you planning on doing once we cross over?"
"We've got a hotel suite in San Jose. I plan to get us over there, then make contact with the duke and ask for further instructions. I imagine he'll want us back on the east coast stat--we've got a biz- jet standing by. Otherwise, we'll do what Security tells us to do. Unless you have other plans?" Brill raised a carefully shaped eyebrow. Even though she'd started the day with a brisk firefight, then a forced crossing into wilderness, she'd taken pains with her makeup.
Miriam shrugged. "I thought I did." Her hands were restless; trying to keep them still, she thrust them deep in the pockets of her overly heavy coat. "The political situation in New Britain is going to hell in a handbasket. Erasmus was on his way to meet a big wheel in the, uh, resistance." In point of fact, the biggest wheel in the underground, returning from exile after a generation--to whom he had once been a personal assistant. "It's too hot for comfort. I was only going along because I couldn't think of anything else to do; when I fetched up in London all I had was the clothes on my back."
"Well, at least you got away from the mess at the Summer Palace with your skin intact," Brill observed. "And thank what- ever gods you believe in for that."
She fell silent for a few minutes. But finally Miriam's curiosity got the better of her. "I can guess how you tracked me down," she said. "But what about Huw? And the other two? Who are they? You said something about a job I'd suggested, but I don't recall . . . and they don't look like Uncle Angbard's little helpers to me."
"They're not." Brilliana's eyes narrowed. "I just called in help and head office sent them along. Hey! Sir Huw? Have you a minute?"
Huw nodded. "Bro, cover for me," he told the tall, heavily built guy with the semiauto shotgun as he walked towards them. Huw was anything but husky: skinny and intense. "Has something come up?"
"Huw." Brill smiled, oddly cheerful. "We've got a couple of hours to kill. Why don't you tell her grace what you found?"
Her grace? But I'm not a duchess. Miriam blinked. Suddenly bits of the big picture were falling into place. Heir to the throne. "What you found, where?"
"We're calling it world four right now, but I think a better name for it would be Transition A-B," Huw said as he sat down at the far end of the fallen trunk. "It's where you go if you use the Hidden Family's knotwork as a focus in your world, uh, the United States." He grinned, twitchily. "Nobody was able to cross over in New En gland because, well, it's probably under an ice sheet--the weather there's definitely a lot colder than in any of the other time lines we know about."
Hang on, time lines--Miriam held up a hand. "What were you doing?"
"The duke tasked me with setting up a systematic exploration program," Huw explained. "So I started by taking the second known knotwork design and seeing where it'd take you if you used it in world two, in the USA, which the Hidden Family had no access to. The initial tests in Massachusetts and New York failed, so I guessed there might be a really large obstacle in the way. There's some kind of exclusion effect . . . but anyway, we found a new world."
Miriam narrowly resisted the urge to grab him and start yelling questions. "Go on."
"World four is cold, as in, about ten degrees celsius below datum for the other worlds we've found. That's ice age cold. We didn't have time to do much exploring, but what we found--there were people there, once, but we didn't see any signs of current habitation. High tech, very high tech--perfect dentistry, gantries made out of titanium, and other stuff. We're still trying to figure out the other stuff, but it's a whole different ball game. The building we found looked like it had been struck from above by some kind of directed energy weapon--"
"Some kind of--"Miriam stopped. On the opposite side of the clearing, the young blond woman who'd come with Huw was kneeling, her weapon trained on something invisible through the trees.
Brill was already moving. "Get ready to go."
"But it's too early," Miriam started.
"What's Elena spotted?" Huw rose to his feet. The big guy at the far side of the clearing--the one Huw had called "bro"--was crouching behind the blonde, his shotgun raised: A moment later she turned and scrambled towards them, staying low.
"Riders," she said quietly, addressing Brill. "At least three, maybe more. They're trying to stay quiet. Milady, we await your instructions."
"I think"--Brill's eyes hardened--"we'd better cross over. Right now. Huw, can you carry her grace?"
"I think so." Huw knelt down. "Miriam, if you could climb on my shoulders?"
Miriam swallowed. "Is this necessary? It's too early--"
Brill cut her off. "It is necessary to move as fast as possible, unless you want another shoot- out. I generally try to limit them to no more than one before lunch on any given day. Huw, get her across. We'll be along momentarily."
Miriam stood up, wrapped her arms around Huw's shoulders, and tried to haul her legs up. Huw rose into a half- crouch. She strained to clamp her knees around his waist. "Are you alright?" she asked anxiously.
"Just a second," he gasped. "Alright. Three. Two." Something flickered in the palm of his hand, just in the corner of her vision: a fiery knot that tried to turn her eyes and her stomach inside out. "One."
The world around them flickered and Huw collapsed under her, dry- retching. Miriam fell sideways, landing heavily on one hip.
They were in scrubland, and alone. Someone's untended back lot, by the look of it: a few stunted trees straggling across a nearby hillside like hairs across a balding man's pate, a fence meandering drunkenly to one side. A windowless barn that had clearly seen better days slumped nearby.
Miriam rose to her feet and dusted herself off. Her traveling clothes, unremarkable in New Britain, would look distinctly odd to American eyes: a dark woolen coat of unusual cut over the mutant offspring of a shalwar kameez. Along with her temporarily blond, permed hair it was a disguise that had outlived its usefulness. "Where are you parked?" she asked Huw as his retching subsided.
"Front of. Barn." He staggered to a crouch. "Need. Pain-killers. . . ."
Something moved in the corner of her sight. Miriam's head whipped round as she thrust a hand in her coat pocket, reaching for the small pistol Erasmus had given her before she recognized Elena. A few seconds later Huw's brother Hulius popped into view, followed almost immediately by Brilliana. "Come on, people!" Brill sounded more annoyed than nauseous. "Cover! Check!"
"Check," Huw echoed hollowly. "I think we're still alone."
"Check!" trilled Elena. "Did they see you, Yul? Ooh, you don't look so good!"
"Guuuh . . . Check. I don't think so. Going. Be sick."
Brill clapped her hands. "Let's get going, people." She was almost tapping her feet with impatience. "We've got a safe house to go to. You can throw up all you like once we report in, but first we've got a job to do." She nodded at Miriam. "After you, milady."
In a soot- stained industrial city nestling in the Appalachians, beneath a sky stained amber by the fires of half a million coal-burning stoves, there was a noble house defended by the illusion of poverty.
The Lee family and their clients did not like to draw attention to themselves. The long habit of secrecy was deeply ingrained in their insular souls; they'd lived alone among enemies for almost ten generations, abandoned by the eastern Clan that had once--so they had thought until recently, so some still thought--cast them out and betrayed them. Here in the industrial heartland of Iron-gate there was little love for rich foreigners, much less wealthy Chinese merchants, at the best of times. And the times were anything but good: With the empire locked in a bewildering and expensive overseas war (to say nothing of multiple consecutive crop failures and a bare treasury, deflation, and high unemployment) the city was as inflammable as a powder keg.
Consequently, the Lees did not flaunt their wealth and power openly. Nor did their home resemble a palatial mansion. Rather, it resembled a tenement block fronted by the dusty window displays of failing shops (for only the pawnbroker's business remained good). Between two such shops there stood a blank- faced door, a row of bellpulls discreetly off to one side. It might have been a stairwell leading to the cramped flats of shop keepers and factory foremen. But the reality was very different.
"Be seated, nephew," said the old man with the long, wispy beard. "And tell me what brings you here?"
James Lee bowed his head, concealing his unease for a few more moments. As was right, he went to his knees and then sat cross- legged before the low platform on which his great uncle, the eldest of days--and his companions, the eldest's younger sibling, Great- Uncle Huan, and his first wife--perched.
"The Clan has gone too far," he began, then paused.
"Tea for my favorite nephew," the eldest commented, and one of the servants who had been standing behind James bowed and slipped out through a side door. "You may continue."
James took a deep breath. "They resumed their scheme to capture the royal house. My understanding is that the chosen bride, the long- lost daughter of the western alliance, was not an enthusiastic participant: The architect of the marriage, her grandmother, allied with the conservative faction at court to coerce her."
He paused for a moment as the servant, returning, placed a tray bearing a steaming cup before him. "I considered the merits of direct action, but concluded the cost would outweigh any benefit. It would be interpreted as base treachery, and I did not feel able to take such measures without your approval."
"Just so." His great- uncle nodded. "What happened next?"
James chose his next words very carefully, aware of the tension in the room: There was no whispering in corners, and none of the usual cross- play between the ancients that was normal when the eldest held court. "The baroness and her coconspirators made a fundamental error of judgment when they arranged the betrothal of the heir Miriam to the youngest son of the King. They failed to see how this would be received by his elder brother. Prince Egon is not of the blood and therefore they ignored him; Creon, though damaged, was thought by them to be an occulted carrier"--one who carried the recessive gene for the world- walking ability, but was not able himself to world- walk--"and so they planned to breed from him a king who would be one of their own. Egon took as dim a view of this marriage as you would expect, and the result was bound to be messy. Although I did not realize how drastically he would react at the time."
He reached out and picked up the cup of tea, then took a sip before continuing.
"I intervened at the betrothal by presenting the eastern heir--Helge, as they call her, Miriam, in her own tongue--with a locket containing our house sigil. She had made it clear that she felt no filial piety, and wished to escape. I therefore concluded that there was no reason to kill her if it was her heart's desire to do what we wanted: I merely gave her the means. I confess that I did not anticipate Egon's attempt to massacre everybody at the ceremony--but by now either she's dead or in exile, so our goal is achieved without her blood on our hands."
"About the massacre." Great- Uncle Huan leaned forward. "You were present, were you not?"
"How did you escape?"
Another sip of tea: "The situation was confused. When Egon's men detonated a petard beneath the palace and then attacked, the royal life guards fought back. While this was going on, those of the Clan's leaders who were present made themselves scarce. They left their dead behind. I hid under a table until I could get out, using my spare sigil." With one hand, James reached into the sleeve of his robe. Now or never. He pulled out a small gilded locket on a fine chain. "Before I left, I removed this from the body of a dead baron. It's the authentic sigil of the eastern Clan. I have tested it myself." He laid it on the dais before the eldest. "I brought it here directly."
He sat back to wait, straining to reveal no sign of his inner tension. It's like trying not to think of invisible elephants, Helge's mother Patricia had told him with a twinkle in her eyes. All you have to do is learn to ignore the elephant in the room. Which was perfectly true, but when the elephant in question was the huge lie you'd just told the patriarch of your family, that was easier said than done. The background was true enough, if one chose to overlook some judicious omissions. But his escape--that was another matter. Yes, he'd hidden under a table, shivering and concussed. But it had been one of the eastern Clan's soldiers who'd carried him across to that strange doppelganger city of New York, and it had been a very much alive Lady Olga Thorold who had gifted him with the locket, in return for certain undertakings. Because, when you got down to it, sometimes treachery was a two-way street.
The elders stared at the locket greedily but with trepidation, as if it might bite. "This is definitely the sigil of the eastern Clan?" the eldest asked, in a tone of almost superstitious disbelief. "Have you compared it to our own?"
James stifled a gasp of relief. "Not directly, uncle," he admitted. "It allowed me to travel, and its bite is the same--I think it subtly different, but I thought it best to leave the comparison to someone who knows nothing of our ways."
The eldest nodded thoughtfully, then looked up. "Leave us," he said, encompassing everyone in the room but his brother, his brother's wife, and James. There was a mass exodus towards the doors at the back of the day room as various servants and no few guards bowed themselves out, but presently the shuffling and whispering died down. Finally, his great- uncle spoke again. "Do they know you live, nephew?"
The implied claim in his familial loyalty nearly made James overlook the implicit threat in the question. "I don't believe so, uncle, but I may be mistaken," he said politely. "I stand ready to return to them if you so order it." He might have said more, but instead bit his lower lip, waiting. He'd spent more than six months living among the eastern families as a hostage: His disappearance might be taken as a sign of treachery. Might. Except the events of that fateful night a week ago would make a perfect excuse for absence--one that would be accepted, unquestioned, if Olga was in a position to hold her patron to his side of their bargain. On the other hand, if he returned to the Clan too soon he'd be unable to make good his side of their pact. It was, all in all, a delicate situation.
"You broke their parole." Great- Uncle Huan's eyes narrowed accusingly.
"He had good reason," Number One Wife remonstrated.
"Humph." Huan slouched sideways on his cushion. "Still looks bad."
"Appearances are everything," the eldest agreed. "Nephew, we will think on this. I believe, however, it would be for the best if you wrote a letter to the eastern Clan's elders, perhaps to the white duke himself, explaining your absence. Apologize, remind him of the circumstances that caused you to flee, and ask whether their security will be able to guarantee your safety upon your return." He smiled, evidently amused. "Shame them for forcing you into an act of cowardice."
James bowed his head. "I'll do that." He paused. "Do you expect me to return?"
"Only if they can guarantee your safety." Eldest's smile widened. He picked up the locket. "You've done excellent work already, my nephew. I wish we'd been able to persuade them to provide bed, board, and bodyguards for our spies back in my father's day. It would have made things so much more entertaining. . . ."
The sun had long since set behind the battlements of the Hjalmar Palace, and the besieging forces had settled down to intermittent sniping, seemingly intent on making the defenders keep their heads down. Which might be good news or bad news, Lady Olga thought, depending on whether they were doing so to conserve ammunition for an attack, or simply planning on keeping the Clan security force bottled up indefinitely. The former seemed likely: The usurper had demonstrated a dismaying talent for keeping the Clan on the back foot.
Not that a prolonged siege was in any way preferable. The usurper's army had taken the castle by stealth, planted explosives, and nearly succeeded in mousetrapping the Clan's inevitable counterattack. Only the extreme paranoia of Clan security's leadership (who had prepared a secret way in, against the possibility of treachery) and the professionalism of their assault team (who had found and defused the explosive charges) had stopped them massacring the counterattack. But the situation was far from resolved. Egon's men had an unpleasant additional surprise for the Clan forces, in the shape of a handful of machine guns--presumably looted from some Clan arms dump earlier in the war--dug in on top of the castle's gate house. The enemy were still clinging on to the gatehouse--largely because Clan security didn't have enough spare troops to mount a frontal attack on what was effectively a small castle in its own right--and so they were forced to keep their heads down and stay away from the front windows of the inner keep.
What the enemy weren't to know was that the Clan's main mobile strength was bottled up in the castle: The doppelganger site in the United States was knee- deep in Special Forces troops, for the secret cross- agency task force set up to track down the Clan had spotted their hastily prepared operation and brought the hammer down hard.
And that was the good news.
Olga turned and paced back across the width of the stone-flagged hall, past the map- strewn table and the improvised command and control station where hollow- eyed radio technicians tried to pull useful information together from the walkie-talkie equipped guards on the outer hard- points, to the cluster of men standing around the foot of the table. "Earl Hjorth. Earl Wu. Lieutenant Anders." She nodded and smiled agreeably, trying to maintain a facade of confidence. Angbard's valkyrie, they called her behind her back; a nickname freighted with significance, and one she'd have to work doubly hard to live up to when they learned the truth. "What word from Riordan?" she asked.
"Nothing in the past ten minutes." Carl, Earl of Wu by Hjorth, and captain of the Clan's security ser vice, rubbed his mustache. A blunt, bulky fellow, his usually ruddy features showed signs of sagging under the burden of responsibility that had landed on his shoulders. "Riordan tells me the plane's not equipped for night flying and they're running short of fuel--we're at the extremity of its flight radius, and they didn't have much stockpiled. It's not a real airborne detachment: We wouldn't have it at all except that Rudi pursued his hobby despite official discouragement. . . . Well, that's a question for another time. Right now, we're not getting anything in or out to night. I've got guards with infrared sights on all four bastions and the gate house, with continuous radio coverage and M249 sections to cover the approaches, but the enemy have got the sally ports pinned down, and they brought down the riverside culvert so we can't sneak anyone out that way. All the early warning we've got is what we can see from the walls."
"That's going to do us a lot of good if the pretender shows up with an army in the middle of the night," Oliver, Earl Hjorth, said sharply.
"I don't think that's very likely," pointed out Sir Helmut Anders, a portly figure in the camouflage surcoat he wore over his body armor. "He can't be closer than Wergatsfurt and it'll take him a day to move a large force from there to here. Small forces we can deal with, yes? The real threat will arrive on the morrow. So it seems to me that we need to locate the usurper's main force, and then trap him between Riordan's mobile force and this stronghold." It all sounded so reasonable, until she reminded herself that Riordan's mobility owed itself to his ability to move his troops across to the other world, and that the United States was not hospitable territory for Clan security detachments right now. And the other complications . . .
"How is his grace?" Helmut asked, in a misplaced attempt to divert Earl Hjorth. Olga tensed, hunting for an excuse, but then Oliver nodded emphatically.
"Yes, damn it, how is he?" They were staring at her, expecting an answer.
"He's hanging on." Olga glanced away from the table as she extemporized. "Ivar and Morgaine are tending to him in the baron's bedroom. If we weren't mewed up in here I'd have him in a hospital as soon as look at him--the apoplexy has taken his left side and left him sleepy." Which was a major understatement, but they didn't need to hear the unvarnished truth right now. Duke Angbard, the foundation stone on which Clan Security was built--the one professionally organized institution to which all five member families deferred--had managed to gargle a few words after his collapse, following the disastrous forced world- walk out of their assembly area near Concord. He was enfeebled and incoherent, and it was well past the magic first hour in which advanced medical care might reap rewards. He wasn't exactly dead, but the likelihood of him ever making a recovery was very poor--especially if they couldn't get him to a stroke center. But the last thing they needed right now was to be leaderless, so . . . "He gave me instructions to resolve this situation, but it's going to take a little while to set up." She shrugged. "I don't suppose we could fly him out tomorrow morning?"
It was a faint hope, and Carl's shaken head told her all she needed to know. "The ultralight's not equipped to carry a passenger who's incapacitated. If we had a real airplane, maybe things would be different. I already asked. When this is over--"
She could finish the thought herself: When this is over, we will have ultralight helicopters and jeeps with mortars and two-way radio systems in every stronghold. Even if it takes us a decade to carry them across. And, of course, a chicken in every world-walker's pot. But for now--
"What are we going to do?" asked Earl Hjorth. To his credit, there was no quaver in his voice. "What are these special orders of yours?"
"Sir Anders mentioned trapping the usurper's army, didn't he? We have certain weapons that aren't public knowledge. I'd rather not disclose the precise details, my lord, until we're ready to deploy them, but if we can locate the usurper I am certain they will make the job of ending his rampage easier. But for that, we need to know where the pretender is. And we need to get out of this mousetrap." She smiled happily. "None of which should be particularly hard."
"But we're doppelgangered--"
"Not in New Britain." She tried not to laugh at his expression. "And that's where we're all going, just as soon as the mail arrives."
It was late in the day: The sun had already set, and the evening rush of homebound commuters was well under way. Business was beginning to slacken off, which was fine by Jason. The sooner they all went home, the sooner the boss would shut up shop and he could go home. But for now . . .
The store was mostly empty: a couple of tired guys with handbaskets down by the discount stationery, a harried suburban mom riding herd on two preteens round the aisle of laptops; nothing much to do. Jason waited by the cash register, trying to look attentive. It'd be just like Bill to hang out in back and watch him on the CCTV, then jump on anything he did wrong. That was the trouble with this job--with a busybody like Bill minding the floor, you just couldn't fart without him noticing. One of the fluorescents overhead was flickering, its strobing glow reflecting off the glass cabinets. He shifted from foot to foot--sore as usual, after a day of pacing the aisles.
The doors opened. A few seconds later Jason glanced up, registered the two weirdly dressed men. "Can I help you?" he mumbled, taken aback.
"Yes." The younger of the two grinned. "We've got a shopping list. And we're in a real hurry." He held up a sheet of paper in one gloved hand.
That's armor, isn't it? Jason blinked. The glove was made out of ringlets of metal, knitted together as if by machine--dull gray metal, hundreds of ringlets. Both men were wearing chain mail suits under loose tunics. The tunics were speckled with camouflage dye, like army fatigues. The older man had a full beard and a livid scar drew an emphatic frown- line across his brow. "Uh, I can't leave the register, sir--"
The old guy--middle- aged, by the gray hairs speckling his beard--shook his head. "Call your manager, son. We do not have much time." His voice was heavily accented.
"Uh, I can't--"
"What seems to be the problem?"
Jason gritted his teeth as Bill materialized somewhere behind him. "These folks need a personal shopper."
"Well, you'd better look after them." He could practically hear Bill's shit- eating grin. "I'll mind the register for you."
"Let me see that list."
The young guy handed it over. Jason squinted. "A Hewlett-Packard 4550N? I don't know if we've got one of those in stock--"
"Please check." The young guy shrugged. "If you've got one, we want it right now. And the other items. If you do not have that precise model, we'll discuss alternatives. What ever you've got."
"Okay, let me have a look."
Jason scanned the list. A laptop, a heavy laser printer, a scanner, software--all big- ticket items. Some cheaper stuff: a badge laminator, paper, spare toner cartridges, a paper cutter. And some stuff that didn't make sense: an uninterruptible power supply and a gas- fueled generator? He didn't bother to glance at his watch, he already knew the time: three minutes to closing. Shit. I'll be here all evening. But the stuff on this list was worth close to ten big ones; the commission on it was close to a day's wages. Plus, Bill would have his guts if he let these fish go. Jesus. "I'll get the big stuff out of the stockroom if we've got it, sir. Do you want to pick up the software? It's over on that aisle--"
"Hurry up, we don't have all night." That was Bill, grinning humorlessly at him from behind the register.
Jason shoved through the doors into the stockroom, grabbed a cart, and went hunting. Yet another fucked- up job to add to his list of eccentrics and weirdos who passed through the shop on a daily basis: Did you hear the one about the two guys in chain mail and camo who came in to buy a DTP system at three minutes to closing? They did have the printer in stock, and just his luck, the fucking thing weighed more than a hundred pounds. No scanner, so he picked the next model up. Laptop, check.
It took him just five minutes to rush round the stockroom and grab the big ticket stuff on the list. Finally, impatient to get them the hell out of the shop and cash up and go home, Jason shoved the trolley back out onto the floor. Bill slouched behind the cash register, evidently chatting with the older customer. As he followed the cart out, Bill glared at him. "I wanna take this sale," he said.
"No you don't." Bill laid one hand on the trolley as the younger guy appeared round the end of an aisle, carrying a full basket. "You want to go home, kid, that's the only reason you were so fast. Go on, shove off."
"But I--"Now he got it: Bill would log himself in and process the sale and claim the commission, while Jason did all the heavy lifting.
"Think I'm stupid? Think I don't see you watching the clock? Shove off, Jason." Bill leaned towards him, menacing. "Unless you want me to notice your timekeeping."
The younger of the two customers glanced at Bill. "What is your problem?" he asked, placing his basket on the counter.
"We get a commission on each sale," mumbled Jason. "He's my supervisor."
"I see." The older customer looked at Jason, then at the trolley, then back at Jason. "Well, thank you for your fast work." He held out his hand, a couple of notes rolled between his fingers; Jason took them. He turned back to Bill. "Put the purchases on this card. We will need help loading them."
Jason nodded and headed for the back room to grab his coat. Fucking Bill, he thought disgustedly, then glanced at the banknotes before he slid them into his pocket.
There were five of them, and they were all fifties.
"I am sorry, but that's impossible, sir."
Rudi paused to buy himself time to find the words he needed. Standing up in front of the CO to brief him on a tool they'd never used before was hard work: How to explain? "The Saber 16 is an ultralight. It has to be--that's the only way I could carry it over here on my own. The wing weighs about a hundred pounds, and the trike weighs close to two hundred and fifty; maximum takeoff weight is nine hundred pounds, including fifty gallons of fuel and a pi lot. You--I, whoever's flying the thing--steer it with your body. It's a sport trike, not a general aviation vehicle."
Earl Riordan raised an eyebrow. "I thought you could carry a passenger, or cargo?"
The question, paradoxically, made it easier to keep going. "It's true I can lift a passenger or maybe a hundred pounds of cargo, sir, but dropping stuff--anything I drop means taking a hand off the controls and changing the center of gravity, and that's just asking for trouble. I can dump a well- packaged box of paper off the passenger seat and hit a courtyard, sure, but a two-hundred-pound bomb? That's a different matter. Even if I could figure out a way to rig it so I could drop it without tearing the wing off or stalling, I'd have to be high enough up that the shrapnel doesn't reach me, and fast enough to clear the blast radius, and the Saber's got a top speed of only fifty-five, so I'd have to drop it from high up, so I'd need some kind of bombsight--and they don't sell them down at Wal-Mart. Sorry. I can drop grenades or flares, and given a tool shop and some help we might even be able to bolt an M249 to the trike, but that's all. In terms of military aviation we're somewhere round about 1913, unless you've got something squirreled away somewhere that I don't know about."
Earl Riordan stared at him for a few seconds, then shook his head. "No such luck," he grunted. "Damn their eyes." The CO wasn't swearing about him, for which Rudi was grateful.
"So what are you good for?" demanded Vincenze, loudly.
Rudi shrugged. The cornet had maybe had a drop too much rum in his coffee. Not terribly clever when you'd been summoned into the CO's office for a quiet chat, but then again nobody ever accused Vince of being long on brains: That wasn't much of an asset in a cavalryman.
"Fair- weather observation. Dropping small packets, accurate to within a hundred feet or so. If you can find me somewhere to land that isn't under the usurper's guns I can carry a single passenger in and out, or up to a hundred and fifty pounds of luggage."
"A single passenger." Hmm. The earl looked distracted. "Hold that thought. Out of curiosity, is it possible to parachute from the passenger seat?"
"Maybe, but it'd be very dangerous." Rudi didn't need to search for words anymore: they were coming naturally. "It's a pusher prop so you couldn't use a static line. It'd have to be free fall, which would mean close to maximum altitude--I can only reach five thousand feet with a passenger--and if their primary chute didn't open they wouldn't have time to try a secondary, and I'd have fun keeping control, too."
"So scratch that idea." Riordan raised his mug and took a mouthful of coffee. "Okay. Suppose you need to land somewhere, pick up a passenger, and fly out. What do you need?"
"A runway." Rudi glanced into his own coffee mug: It was still empty, dammit. "With a passenger, depends on the weather, but a minimum thousand feet to be safe. I can probably get airborne in significantly less than that, but if anything goes wrong you need the extra room to slow down again. Ideally it needs to be clear- cut for the same again, past the end of the runway--most engine problems show up once you're just airborne."
"A thousand feet?" Vincenze looked surprised. "But you took off from the courtyard!"
"That was me, without a passenger," Rudi pointed out. "At two- thirds maximum takeoff weight you get in the air faster and you can stop a lot faster, too, if something goes wrong. If you want to take off with less than five hundred feet of runway, you really need an ultralight helicopter or preferably a gyrocopter--ultralight choppers are dangerous. Oh, and a pi lot who knows how to fly them. It was on my to-do list."
"Noted." Riordan jotted a note on his pad. "Assume bad people with guns are shooting at you when you take off. How vulnerable would you be?"
Rudi shivered. He'd been shot at before, in his previous flight. "Very. The Saber- 16 can only climb at about six hundred feet per minute. Takeoff is about thirty miles per hour. Handguns or musketry I could risk, but if they've got rifles? Or M60s? I'm toast. I'd be in range for minutes."
"So we won't ask you to do that, then," Riordan muttered to himself. Louder: "Right. So, if we asked you to deliver a cargo weighing about a hundred and fifty pounds into the Hjalmar Palace you could land in the courtyard--as long as we've got the usurper's men out of that gatehouse--you could probably fly out of it on your own, but if you had a problem on takeoff you'd hit the wall, and again, the usurper's men would have you in rifle range for a minute or two. You can't fly at night, and you can't fly low enough to drop anything useful on the enemy without them riddling you with bullets. Am I missing anything? Is that a fair summary of your limitations?"
Rudi blinked. "Yes, sir, I think so. Uh, that and, we need more gas. Sorry." He shrugged. "I think we've got about five gallons left. Avgas, not regular."
"Damn." Riordan glanced round. "Steward? More coffee." He turned back to the table. "Have Joachim and Stefan reported in yet?"
Vincenze looked thoughtful. "Not unless they've come in since we started in here."
"Go and chase them up, then."
Dismissed, Vincenze rose. He nodded at Rudi. "Good luck, cuz."
Startled, Rudi watched him leave.
"The cornet has no need to know what I'm about to tell you," Riordan said quietly. He paused while the steward placed fresh mugs of coffee in front of them. "That will be all."
"Sir." The steward bowed then left the room.
Rudi waited until the door was shut. "Sir, you obviously have something in mind?"
"Yes." Riordan fell silent. Then: "I sent Joachim and Stefan out to buy some office equipment. Most of a print shop, in fact--a laptop, graphics software, a printer, a scanner, and equipment for making badges."