Read Freehold Online

Authors: William C. Dietz

Tags: #Science Fiction/Fantasy

Freehold (18 page)

BOOK: Freehold
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“Excellent,” Stell said as much to himself as the others. They wouldn't have much time after blowing the plastic, but it
be done. “Now, is there any possibility that they've already closed those doors? I couldn't see the river on that live shot you showed me, Colonel.”

“Absolutely none, sir,” Captain Wells replied with certainty. “Like I said, we never anticipated this kind of situation, so there's no manual controls. Even the annual tests are computer controlled, and there's no way the Il Ronn can access the computer. It was shut down right after they took over.

“Good,” Stell said. “Colonel Krowsnowski, if you'd be so good as to put Captain Wells together with your best explosives people ... I assume you have some folks who are experienced in dealing with these rivers? Excellent—they can design us a can opener.”

“Yes, sir!” Krowsnowski said, happy to have a plan at last. He turned to a young Lieutenant. Moments later, Wells and the Lieutenant were on their way out to round up a man called “Boom Boom” McCall. In spite of his nickname, citizen McCall was a mining engineer, and something of a deity among explosives experts. Just then, the Com Tech called to Colonel Krowsnowski. His expression was grim. “We just had a message from the Il Ronnians, sir.”

“Well ... what was it, Sergeant?” Krowsnowski said impatiently.

The Sergeant hit a key on his console. “Here's a playback, sir.” The picture within the holo tank swam into focus. They saw a man on his knees. “It's Senator Holbrook,” Krowsnowski said, anticipating what would happen next. Holbrook's head disintegrated as a Sand Sept trooper fired from point blank range.

As his body toppled forward, a tall Il Ronnian officer with one ear missing stepped into the picture. “We are not stupid, humans. You are delaying while you try to devise a plan to free those held here. There is no hope of that. All you will accomplish are more deaths like the one you just witnessed. From now on, I will kill one hostage every four hours until you begin actual evacuation of your population. You have your orders, obey them.”

For a long time they all stood staring at the dark holo tank. The horror of what they'd just seen went beyond anything that could be put into words. Finally, Stell said quietly, “Well, time is of the essence, so let's get ready as fast as we can.” One by one, they returned to their duties.

Stell turned to Como. “Well, Zack, what's our status?”

“The special environments team is on its way, sir,” Como replied.

“You requested my gear?”

“Yes, sir, and mine.” Disapproval was clear in Como's eyes. In his opinion this wasn't the sort of mission a commanding officer should lead, and Stell knew conventional wisdom was on Como's side. But he didn't give a damn. Olivia was in there with those murdering bastards, and he was going to get her out. It was a personal thing, right or wrong. And then there was Roop. If he got a chance, he'd save the citizens of Freehold the expense of a trial. Anyway, he'd qualified for the special environments team, just as he had for the brigade's other special teams, and there were quite a few. If necessary, he could have called up anything from glider pilots to a null-gravity handball team. Stell was a believer in special teams and cross training, although he had to admit they had spent darn little time actually swimming through underground rivers. He turned to Krowsnowski.

“It would sure help if we had some info on what we're gonna be up against. How about it, Colonel ... is there an expert on these rivers who we could talk to?”

Krowsnowski bit his lip for a moment and then said, “As a matter of fact, there is. Professor Hammel is our leading hydrologist. I'll send for him.” Moments later, a Sergeant was on his way to the professor's lab in First Hole.

“Well, Ivan,” Stell said dropping into a chair. “I understand there was some excitement after I took off.”

“That kind of excitement I can live without, General,” Krowsnowski replied despondently, as he sat down opposite Stell. “The bastards managed to capture a thermium extractor and lift with it.” The Colonel proceeded to give Stell a complete report on the pirate raid, carefully sticking to the facts, and not sparing himself in any way. Once again, Stell remembered Malik standing on the tank shouting orders to the pirates. His day would come, and the sooner the better.

When Krowsnowski had finished, Stell nodded. “All things considered, Ivan, I think you did an outstanding job. Nobody could've done any better. It's too bad they got the extractor, but what the hell, it's not going to do them any good without the planet ... and I'll be damned if they'll get that!”

Krowsnowski laughed and looked relieved at the same time. He'd felt much the same way, but in spite of his respect for Stell, he'd been unsure of how his commanding officer might respond. Some COs would have blamed him for the whole thing.

The sergeant who'd gone for Professor Hammel stepped back into the tent and cleared his throat. “Professor Hammel was already here sir.”

“Show him in, Sergeant,” Krowsnowski replied.

The Sergeant stepped aside, and a vigorous-looking man, with a shock of red hair and a beard to match, stepped through the door. He was lean and sunburned to a brick-red color. Energetic green eyes darted this way and that, quickly taking inventory of the tent and those in it. “Hello, Ivan,” he said cheerfully. “Why has a humble academic been summoned to the tent of the mighty?”

“Humble my ass,” Krowsnowski responded with a grin. “General Stell, this egotistical bastard is Professor Irving Hammel, our leading hydrologist. As you can see, he's not much to look at.”

“It's a pleasure, Professor,” Stell said, shaking Hammel's hand. “Please call me Mark.”

“Mark it is,” Hammel replied, perching on an ammo case. “And my friends just call me Irv. What's up? For some strange reason, I sense you're after more than my good company.”

“You're aware of the situation in the Senate chambers?” Krowsnowski asked.

The professor nodded soberly. “Yes, I am. Damn near got caught in there myself. Right after the emergency session, I was supposed to testify in favor of a larger appropriation for hydrology research. I was just pulling in when all hell broke loose.”

“Well, with your help, Irv, I think we can give the Senators a lesson in hydrology they won't soon forget,” Stell grinned. He went on to explain their plan to enter the river, allow the current to carry them to the armored window, blow a hole in it, enter, and take the Il Ronnians by surprise. “Obviously, we can't meet their demands,” he concluded, “and this plan seems like a way to free the Senators with a minimum of bloodshed. But, can it be done?”

Hammel frowned as he considered Stell's plan. Finally, he smiled and said, “Yes, I think it can be done ... if you've got some certifiable lunatics to do it.”

“We've got plenty of those,” Krowsnowski replied wryly. “No offense, General.”

“And none taken, Colonel,” Stell answered. “Okay, Irv—tell me what we're up against.”

Hammel stepped over to Krowsnowski's computer terminal and asked, “May I?”

“Of course,” Krowsnowski replied.

For a moment only the tapping of keys broke the silence. Then a schematic filled the screen. “The first thing to realize, General, is that we have very little firsthand knowledge of what those rivers are like once they go underground. Our best source of information has been unmanned submersible drones, which we attempt to send from one place to another. I say ‘attempt,’ because only about three percent actually make it. Then we have what knowledge we've gleaned through a limited diving program. I might add that we've never attempted anything as ambitious as your plan. So what you're looking at here is a computer-assisted guess, based on drone reconnaissance, and information provided by the divers who helped build the very window you plan to destroy.” He looked from one to another, his brow furrowed with concern. “They, I might add, entered and exited the chambers by means of a temporary lock, and were secured at all times by lifelines. A far cry from the free dive you propose.” He shrugged. “Still, I said it was possible ... and I meant it.”

Hammel turned back to the screen. “Fortunately, we do have some information on this river. It's received more attention than most by virtue of flowing through the capital. Now this is our best guess at what the river currents look like, in cross section.” He used an electronic arrow to trace the river's course. “You'll notice this section, right
.” The arrow paused, and Stell saw that the river suddenly reversed its downward plunge and went sharply up. “This will probably be the most dangerous point in the journey. At this point the river is forced to dive down to get under this rock formation,
” Hammel said, pointing to a dark mass that hung over the point where the river reversed its direction. “At the bottom of this U-shaped turn, the current suddenly becomes much faster; it then passes through this narrow opening in the rock, which is only a few yards across. As you would expect, there's a tremendous current at this point due to the narrowing flow of water. It would be easy to become trapped—pinned, for example, to a rock face by the strength of the current and unable to move, or bashed into the rock walls.” Hammel looked from Stell to Krowsnowski and then back again. “But that's not all,” he continued. “Once you pass safely through the rock aperture, you'll have only moments to slow down and, somehow, stop. Otherwise, you'll be swept past the chambers and down-river.” Here, the professor paused soberly. “If that happens, and you're not caught on some obstruction, you will eventually be ejected into the small ocean near our south pole. Since the journey would take weeks, you would, of course, be dead.” Hammel smiled. “Naturally, this is all conjecture, since no one has ever done anything similar and lived to tell about it.”

Just then, Sergeant Major Como ducked his head into the tent and said, “The diving gear's here, sir ... would anyone care to take a dip?”

Chapter Fourteen

They stood in a row along the river, twenty of the very best the brigade had to offer, looking more like sea monsters than men. Each wore a Liquid Environment Suit, commonly referred to as an LES. The suits were designed to function in any liquid environment, but were most effective in good old H
O. They were armored, self-propelled, largely self-repairing, boasted built-in weaponry, and were capable of providing the wearer with air, food, water, and limited first aid for up to three days. In addition, each volunteer wore personal weapons and carried a pack filled with specialized equipment. Looking down into the river's mighty current, Stell wondered if all their equipment would be enough. Well, he'd soon know. He chinned his mic and said, “Well, like Bull used to say, last one in's a Tobarian Zerk Monkey!”

With that, Stell jumped in. As he sank into the cool, green water, the river's current grabbed him and pulled him along feet first. He chinned a switch, and a pistol-grip-shaped control handle flipped down from under each forearm to fill his hands. By twisting, pulling, or pushing them, he could control his speed and direction. He pushed them forward, sending jets of water out of nozzles located on the inside of each leg near his heels. He felt the suit slow until it was barely moving with the current. “Form up on your team leader,” he ordered. One by one, those not already traveling feet first flipped end for end, braked, and formed a long, single line.

“All right,” he said, “report. This is our only chance to solve any problems.”

“I want my Mommy,” someone said.

Another voice answered, “Hell, you don't even know who she was.”

Stell grinned to himself as Sergeant Major Como's voice cut in. “In a few minutes you clowns can share your humor with some Il Ronnian Sand Sept troopers. Since they're about as smart as you are, I'm sure they'll be amused. Until then, cut the chatter. Sorry, sir. Team A all present and operational.”

“Team B all present and operational, sir,” Corporal Stickley added calmly.

“Okay, people,” Stell said, “remember our briefing. We go as slow as possible into Devil's Dip.” Devil's Dip was the name they'd given to the U-shaped curve, where the river suddenly ended its downward plunge and angled sharply upward. “It's going to be tight and fast when you hit ... so pay attention. Those currents are going to turn us every which way but loose. Your armor will take lots of punishment but there are limits. And remember, we won't have much time after Devil's Dip. Team A comes out first, sets the net, and stands by to assist Team B. As you come out, Team B, make damn sure that we've succeeded. If not, set the back-up net, place the explosives like Boom Boom McCall showed you, and take it from there. We'll send you a card from the other end of the river.”

That got a nervous chuckle, since everyone knew that if they missed the net it was all over. “Any questions?” No one replied, so Stell said, “All right then ... good luck.” They were moving faster now as the channel grew smaller, and the current became stronger, carrying the puny humans with it. To the river they were bits of meaningless debris, like the uncountable billions that had gone before. Their desires and wishes were nothing against the power of the river's mighty flow. Gradually, the walls were moving in and the river bottom was edging down. Stell cranked his propulsion system wide open against the current, but the river was winning. He moved faster and faster. Now he could see jagged rocks on either side through the misty green water. Then, little by little, the water began changing from green to brown, as the current stirred up more and more sediment. It whirled around his mask, a trillion tiny pieces reflecting the powerful cone of light from his helmet. A distant part of his mind wondered which of the little pieces were thermium. This whole mess was their fault. Then he laughed out loud, only realizing afterward that his mic was wide open. He chinned it off, knowing the others must think he was crazy. Just another tale for the barracks. General Stell laughs at danger! Only, General Stell's gut felt like he'd had a couple of lead diving weights for lunch. “Most natural thing in the world son,” Bull Strom had said once. “Healthy, too. Show me a man who's not afraid going into battle, and I'll be lookin’ at a fool. Hell, son, a man could get his ass shot off out there!”

BOOK: Freehold
4.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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