War World X Takeover(7)
Author:John F. Carr

    “Hermaphrodite. Sails, and… Ever hear of a steam-turbine?”

    “Wait—waitaminute! Turbines need high-grade steel; we can’t make that—”

    “Depends on how fast you spin it. Benny has a design he’d like to show you, and he says we can make it out of brass or even crude iron. I do believe we could get that from the miners down river.”

    “Uh, okay. They’re always hot for our crops…Hmm, what will we use for boat-hulls?”

    “Steelwood is a real bitch to cut, but that’s material for another industry.”

    “Even so, wooden hulls…. We couldn’t make very big boats that way. What kind of design is Benny thinking about?”

    “Ever hear of an arrowhead-trimaran?”

    DeCastro was beyond impatience and well into desperation. Captain Makhno had taken the Black Bitch and gone east up the river and hadn’t returned for over a full T-week. The Golden Parrot was out of almost everything, while Harp’s Sergeant was doing excellent business. The Fleet troops were groundside, drinking up a storm and spending money, and all DeCastro saw of it came from the women. His bar had become nothing but a whorehouse, and putting all of one’s eggs in one basket was bad business. He had to get out of here—and soon.

    Subsequently, he was overjoyed to hear from his lookouts that the Black Bitch was pulling up at the dock. He almost pulled himself to his feet to run down to the dock himself, but remembered his position in time and sent one of the girls instead.

    The waiting was almost intolerable, but eventually Ludmilla returned with the captain in tow. Unexpectedly, that elusive CoDo agent Van Damm was with him. DeCastro invited them into his office, and even shooed out his last bodyguard.

    “Well, Capitan,” he almost panted. “I am most delighted to see you. Have you come to take me up on my offer of last turn?”

    “Happy to,” Makhno smiled. “I’m about due to head down to Hell’s-A-Comin’ anyway. I’ll be piloting the Celia. I’m taking only the light barge, and it’ll be slow running, but if you still want to go—”

    “Definitely! But why not the Black Bitch?” He had heard rumors that Vann Damm had bought the Celia from Grubby Marsden for cash on the barrel head. He knew that Vann and Makhno were as thick as thieves and suspected they were setting up a riverboat monopoly. Hell, that’s what I’d do if I was in their shoes.

    Makhno shook his head. “I’d have to fill the barge with fuel instead of your stuff and the rest of the cargo. Some of the woodcutter stations used to distill some alch for me, but too many of them have gone out of business or been hit by river pirates. With a steamboat, worse comes to worse, you can chop your own wood for the firebox.”

    DeCastro nodded. “Okay. I know we’ve lost a lot of steamboats lately. I thought Kenny-Co might be behind it.”

    Makhno laughed. “They don’t need to bother. Those boats have barely made enough money to keep the chop-box full. Most of their fees are in barter. Not enough cash for anything but bare maintenance, and certainly no one can afford to scratch-build one anymore.”

    That explains a lot, he thought. If things work out in Kenny-Camp, maybe I’ll bankroll my own fleet.

    “Now, I’d like you to show me and my friend here that interesting little garden of yours.”

    “Gladly.” DeCastro demonstrated how to open the hidden door, and led them down into the hydroponic garden beyond. “As you can see,” he said with an eloquent gesture, “The poppy-heads are ready for bleeding. Do you wish to observe the technique?” If nothing else, it might give CoDo another excuse….

    “Oh, by all means.”

    DeCastro picked up a fine-bladed craft knife and shot glass from the nearest table, and proceeded to the planting-bed. “One simply makes a few vertical cuts—like so—and catches the sap as it runs out. One must be careful not to dig too deeply, or the seeds will be injured.”

    The three men watched as the milky juice dripped out of the cut seed-pod and into the glass. Van Damm looked up at the overhead light. “The growing-lamps must be hard to come by,” he noted.

    “That is why one must always depend on interstellar trade,” DeCastro replied, sweating under the glow lamps. “The lights are especially important. These are tropical plants from Earth, and cannot thrive in dim light, or cold.”

    Van Damm murmured something that sounded like “Frennel lenz?

    DeCastro ignored him. “As promised, Capitan—opium. The only source of morphine on the planet, I believe. All yours, as well as the rest of my establishment, in exchange for taking me, my supplies and my compadres to Kenny-Camp. How soon can we depart?”

    Makhno and Van Damm exchanged brief looks. “Sign the deed in front of everybody in the bar,” Makhno said, “And we can leave right after. How long will it take you to pack?”

    “An hour!” DeCastro enthused. “No more than an hour! Come, let’s go out to the front room and finish the formalities.” With that, he led them back into his office.

    “I’ll help,” Van Damm spoke up. “Meanwhile, I’ll get a friend to mind the store while we go down river.” He padded out the door and away, looking unhurried but moving deceptively fast.

    “‘We?’” DeCastro worried as he pulled out the paper and a pen. “He means to come with us? Why?”

    “Maybe to guard our backs while we sleep.” Makhno shrugged. “Maybe to help make sure that nobody tries to steal the boat. Or maybe he wants to make some deals in Kenny Camp One or Hell’s-A-Comin’. Who knows?”

    “You understand, I shall be bringing my, ah, employees too?”

    “I knew that,” Makhno smiled, not prettily.

    “Aha.” DeCastro guessed that he understood Makhno’s precautions now. “Come, let us go sign the papers in front of everybody.”

    Brodski paced slowly up to the gate of the Harmony enclave, noting with approval that the log walls had been raised to an effective height. Wilgar self-importantly rang the bell and pulled himself up a little taller. The tiny barred window in the gate opened, and a suspicious eye showed in the space.

    “Brother Wilgar and Cousin Brodski, come to see the Choirmaster,” the boy announced.

    The window slammed shut. A moment later the gate creaked open.

    “You might want to put a small wheel under the leading edge of that gate,” Brodski noted. “Keep the gate from dragging on the ground and pulling on the hinges. It’ll move a lot easier and last a lot longer.”

    The brown-robed gatekeeper gave him an owlish look and said nothing, but closed the gate behind them. Wilgar led the way to the main house, then into the famed library.

    Charles Castell, sitting behind the desk, looked older and wearier than the last time Brodski had seen him, which wasn’t that many turns ago. He barely raised his eyes as Brodski paced to the front of his desk and took one of the facing chairs without waiting to be told. “Friend Brodski,” he asked, “Have you returned to teach Harmonious Defense to more of our brethren?”

    “In more ways than you expected,” Brodski replied. “Besides Aikido and Tai Chi, I’d like to teach you something of strategy, too.”

    Castell only raised a suspicious eyebrow.

    Nothing for it but to plow ahead. “Are you aware,” said Brodski, “That the CoDo government is plotting to take Haven away from you?”

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