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Though Hell Should Bar the Way: Chapter Fifteen

       Last updated: Saturday, March 3, 2018 07:17 EST



    The cabin of the limousine which the Saguntines provided for the officials had room for six; I waited while they entered. Maeve Grimaud sat primly with her back to the driver, facing the three men from the Foreign Ministry. The vehicle was old — probably of off-planet manufacture — but it had been lovingly maintained (or possibly restored).

    The locals had provided an armored personnel carrier for me and the escort. It moved on wheels like the limousine, but it was much newer and was locally built. Sun chatted with the vehicle commander in the cupola about the APC’s automatic impeller.

    I watched the limousine following us through the armored glass (I’d opened the steel shutter) in the rear gate. I didn’t know what I could do if something had happened to the limousine, but I guess I had to worry about something.

    The APC had ports in the sides through which I got glimpses of Jacquerie, sepia toned by the thick glass. It looked pretty ordinary. Along our route it had been mostly one- and two-story structures with businesses on the ground floor and apartments on the higher level. There’d been a handful which were tall enough that I couldn’t see the tops through the windows, but I was pretty sure four stories was as high as anything got here.

    We drove past a stone-faced building set back behind a plaza; our APC slowed to a halt. There were full-height pilasters set into the facade, and a pair of ornamental-looking guards at the entrances. Civilians on the plaza lounged in the shade of trees in big pots.

    I fumbled to open the gate, but Sun reached past me and dropped the ramp with a clang of steel on stone. We trotted out and were standing beside the limo before the Saguntine staff — a driver and his assistant — got the passenger doors open.

    Sun grinned at me and said, “That was a combat release. The hydraulics would’ve taken forever, and I didn’t think you wanted to wait.”

    “Too bloody right,” I muttered as Director Jimenez got out gracefully. He had experience doing that sort of thing.

    The driver’s assistant whispered to me, “I’ll guide you if you like, sir.”

    I nodded, because I certainly would like. With Sun beside me and the four ministry people strung out behind us, we walked to the entrance. The rest of my spacers brought up the rear.

    Maeve was in a black suit whose flowing trouser legs could have been a skirt to look at. The tailored jacket she wore over the dark-gray tunic was completely demure — but a prostitute on the strip outside Harbor Three couldn’t have looked more alluring.

    “Wait here one moment, please,” my guide said. He spoke to a civilian just inside the entrance. The guards’ weapons were chromed. That didn’t mean they wouldn’t work, but neither of the men in green and gold uniforms struck me as the sort I wanted behind me if things got rough. I guess Sun thought the same, because he muttered in my ear, “Pretty little fellers, aren’t they?”

    “What’s going on?” Jimenez demanded in a peevish voice.

    Our guide returned and said — to me and the Director both, “It’ll be just a moment, and — ”

    From inside but clearly audible boomed the loudest unamplified voice I’d ever heard, “Your grace, allow me to introduce Director Oleg Jimenez of the Republic of Cinnabar, and the members of his honorable delegation!”

    Sun and I moved fast to lead Jimenez inside. Beyond the anteroom was a large hall in which about forty people stood in small clumps. At the front were two desks, one facing the entrance and the other at right angles where two female clerks worked.

    Councillor Perez — I recognized him from his picture — stood up behind the desk facing us. He was wearing a business suit.

    “Greetings, Director Jimenez,” Perez said. “You are welcome on your own behalf and in the name of the great republic you represent. Please come forward.”

    The Director and his two male associates walked through the assembly; in the big room it was too sparse to be called a crowd. I gestured to my spacers to stop. Until I was told otherwise, we were going to wait at the back of the hall and remain unobtrusive.

    Jimenez and Perez spoke when they met beside the desk. After a moment, Perez turned to the general audience and said, “My friends? Director Jimenez and his companions are going to join me briefly in my private office. I’ll return shortly.”

    “What’s that about?” Sun whispered to me as Perez let the delegates through a door in the wall behind his desk.

    I started to shrug, then really thought about the question. “More bloody nonsense,” I whispered back. “But they’re dressing it up to look like something. I don’t know how much trade there even could be between us and Saguntum, but Cinnabar is big and Perez wants to be polite.”

    When the door to the private office closed, there was motion and a louder buzz of conversation in the hall. A table with glasses and pitchers stood in a corner. The pitchers probably held water, but Sun and the other spacers drifted hopefully in that direction anyway.

    I stayed where I was, but the fact that other people were moving allowed me to see faces where there’d been only the backs of heads before. I saw several people whom Mundy’s dossiers described as business leaders, and against the back wall, on the side opposite the door to the private office, was Colonel Foliot in civilian clothes. He was talking to a younger man in uniform. The uniform wasn’t quite battledress, but neither was it a comic opera outfit like those of the guards at the entrance.

    I felt motion in the corner of my eye. I glanced left. Representative McKinnon, the head of the Karst Observation Mission, was smiling at my side. I didn’t like the smile; nor the pudgy man with thinning, sandy hair if it came to that.

    “So…” McKinnon said. He was holding a glass, about half-full of water. “What are you really here for, then?”

    “Sir?” I said. “Oh, we’re spacers from the Sunray. We’re escorting those diplomats who just went in with the boss here. I guess we’ll escort ’em back to the ship when they’re done talking.”

    “Yes, but what is the Sunray really doing on Saguntum?” McKinnon said. “You surely don’t think I’m fool enough to believe your story about a trade delegation!”

    It wasn’t hard for me to act like an ignorant spacer. I wasn’t quite ignorant enough not to know McKinnon was trying to pump me, but it was simpler to pretend to be.

    I said, “Sir, I don’t know you well enough to think anything about you.” I offered my right hand to shake and added, “I’m Roy Olfetrie, third officer on the Sunray. And you?”

    McKinnon made a noise in his throat and turned on his heel. I’d thought for an instant that he was going to slap my hand away. If he’d done that, I was going to give him my left in the pit of his stomach.

    That might’ve caused trouble when Director Jimenez learned about it, which didn’t concern me; or when I reported it to Captain Leary, whose opinion did matter. But I’d asked Officer Mundy how I was supposed to behave, and she’d said clearly that I was supposed to be myself. If you hit me, you’d better expect to be hit back.

    Besides, I didn’t think an RCN officer was required to let himself be assaulted by foreigners. If I was wrong about that, it was a good thing that I’d dropped out of the Academy.

    Maeve had remained in the rear of the hall when her colleagues went into conference with Councillor Perez. She’d been watching with a smile. Now she came over and said, “You don’t seem to have hit it off with the gentleman from Karst, Master Olfetrie.”

    “He wanted me to talk about things I don’t know about,” I said, my eyes on McKinnon’s back. “And were none of his business anyway.”

    Maeve chuckled. “Well, I wouldn’t bet about it being none of his business,” she said. “He’s Karst’s chief spy on Saguntum. But it’s certainly not your business to answer him.”

    She cocked her head. She said, “You know, Roy…it’s still all right to call you Roy, isn’t it?”

    I remembered the way we’d last parted. “Sure,” I said. “And me to call you Maeve, I hope.”

    “Of course,” she said warmly. “I was wondering if you had plans for after this levee?” she added, gesturing around the room with her left hand.

    “Well, I’m still on duty after I get my people back to the ship…” I said.

    “Can you get off?” Maeve said. “I’d like to have dinner with a pleasant companion for a change.”

    “Well, I probably can,” I said. “I don’t know anything about restaurants in Jacquerie, though.”

    Maeve laughed again. “No matter,” she said. “I have quite a number of contacts here. I think the best choice would be to eat in my hotel and then decide what to do afterward.”

    I started to ask what she meant by “my hotel” but the door to the private office opened. Councillor Perez came out and spoke to one of the clerks at the other desk while the three Cinnabar delegates filed past him and returned to where I waited. I’d formed up my five spacers.



    “Han will be going back to the ship with you, Olfetrie,” Jimenez said. “He’ll arrange the transport of the delegation’s baggage here. The delegation is moving to the palace for the duration of our stay.”

    “Ah,” I said. “Sir, what shall I tell Captain Leary?”

    “Tell him?” said the Director. “I don’t see that you need to tell him anything. His orders are to transport me and to provide any assistance I require. I assure you that when I require something, I’ll let Leary know.”

    “Thank you, sir,” I said, bowing. “Were you told what vehicle we were to return in?”

    “That’s really none of my concern, Lieutenant,” Jimenez said and led Master Banta to the pair of clerks in the front of the room. Not a man I warmed to.

    I looked at Master Han, who had no expression at all. “Sir,” I said, “let’s go outside and I’ll see if I can raise a vehicle.”

    Han bowed to me. “I will be glad to travel with you, Lieutenant,” he said.

    I was struck that Han had been given the job of getting the baggage together, rather than Maeve. It seemed more like a secretary’s job, but she was seeming less and less like a secretary.

    With Han and my spacers in tow, I went back onto the plaza. Our guide waited there. The limo had vanished, but the armored vehicle remained.

    “Sir?” I said. “Can the APC run us back to the ship? And we’ve got one of the delegation too, but there’s room for him in the box if it isn’t a problem with you.”

    “No problem, sir,” said the guide. I’d thought of him as the assistant driver, but he seemed to be the senior man in the limo, my counterpart of head of the Saguntine escort.

    “Roy, I wonder if I could come back to the port with you?” Maeve said, smiling toward the local as she spoke to me. “The restaurant is in walking distance, so we can leave from there when you’ve gotten approval from your captain.”

    The guide met my eyes. “Of course,” he said. Then he winked.

    I hadn’t noticed the noise on the way to the palace. I did on the ride back — the engine was loud, the hard tires drummed the pavement, and the armored body rang at a thousand points of contact with its own elements. I was glad of that, because it was an excuse not to talk with Maeve in front of the spacers I commanded.

    I wasn’t sure what she might say. And I was even less sure of what I wanted her to say.



    Captain Leary was absent. Lieutenant Enery checked the log and said, “Once your escort duties are finished, you’re all off-duty till 0600. Isn’t that what Captain Leary told you?”

    “Yes, ma’am,” I said and went down to the crew’s quarters to relay the news. The enlisted spacers were already heading out; they’d been told the same thing I had, and they believed it. Well, why shouldn’t they?

    I changed into a different suit — brown with russet patches — and met Maeve on the bridge. She’d changed also, into a tan suit that matched mine rather nicely. I wondered if that was chance — it just about had to be chance, because I’d made my choice when I returned to my cabin — but I didn’t say anything.

    As we started across the boarding bridge — even the extension was wide enough for two abreast, if they were careful — Maeve said, “How many different suits did you bring, Roy?”

    “It was bring them or let them be sold out of pawn,” I said, knowing I sounded defensive. Then, because I hadn’t answered the question, I said, “There’s six of them, I guess. They were comfortable, so why not?”

    “No reason whatever,” Maeve said. I may have been inventing the laughter I thought I heard under the words. She made me uncomfortable, and I was pretty sure that she was doing that deliberately. I thought of Rachel, my fiancée until the bottom dropped out of my prospects. I wondered what Rachel was doing now, and I hated myself for caring.

    “Here’s the place,” Maeve said as we crossed the second street up from the harbor. The building ahead of us was four stories. The bar on the corner was The Fountain with a neon sign on which a blue fountain mounted to the top of a green frame before sinking back to the base. In the middle of the block was a separate entrance with a doorman. The bronze letters above that door were externally lighted and read, The Saint James.

    “The restaurant is through here,” Maeve said, angling toward the bar. “Though we could reach it through the hotel also.” She glanced up at me and said, “But I thought we’d eat first?”

    “Yes,” I said, determinedly not meeting her eyes.

    We entered; it seemed a decent place with half a dozen customers at present. The barman caught our eyes but Maeve waved cheerfully to him and started up the staircase in the back. She certainly did have contacts in Jacquerie.

    “Two, please, Jean,” she said to the greeter. “A quiet booth, if we could.”

    “It’s a quiet night, Mistress Grimaud,” the greeter said. “But we’d find something for you regardless. Come with me, please.”

    The greeter bowed Maeve into a banquette seat. “Have you been here many times?” I asked as I slid into the other side.

    “Well, no, I’ve never been on Saguntum before this mission,” Maeve said. “But when I learned I’d be living in this hotel, I made a point of introducing myself to the staff I’d be dealing with.”

    And feeing them very heavily ahead of time, I realized, though I didn’t say that aloud. I didn’t care about that — it was Foreign Ministry money; if they were wasting it, that was their business.

    But it did make me wonder what Maeve expected to get for her money. She didn’t strike me like the sort who would be that concerned about a good table in a restaurant.

    “The chicken here is supposed to be very good,” Maeve volunteered when the waiter arrived to take our order; but she let me make my choice first and then got the same thing, a house specialty.

    Maeve asked for the wine list. Though I said I wasn’t much of a drinker, she ordered a bottle rather than individual glasses.

    As we waited for our entrees, Maeve smiled in the dim light and said, “You know, you’re really quite a handsome young fellow, Roy. I hope you don’t mind my saying that.”

    “I don’t mind,” I said, sipping my wine. I’d let her fill the goblet. “I think you’re wrong, though.”

    Maeve laughed. In the same voice as before, as though she weren’t changing the subject, she said, “What do you think of the Navy and politics, Roy?”

    I didn’t choke on the wine, but I put the goblet down before I said, “Ma’am, I’m glad the RCN isn’t in politics.”

    “That’s not true, you know,” Maeve said calmly. “Even the way you mean it. There isn’t a Navy Party, but you know that Minister Forbes wouldn’t have come out of the political wilderness if she hadn’t joined with Captain Leary.”

    “Ma’am, I don’t know that,” I said. “I don’t say you’re wrong, because I don’t know anything about it. I don’t care about it. It’s none of my business.”

    I was trying to keep my voice calm. It was true as true that I didn’t care, and I really didn’t want to talk about it.

    “Well, I can’t speak to the rest of what you say…” Maeve said over the rim of her wine glass. “But it certainly is your business. It was because Elisabeth Forbes became Minister of Defense and needed to make her mark quickly that your father was driven to ruin and suicide.”

    “Dad shot himself because he got unmasked as a crook,” I said. My mouth was dry, even after I took a gulp of wine. “Mistress Forbes may have had private reasons for doing that, I don’t know. But it was her bloody job to do regardless!”

    Maeve looked at me steadily. She smiled again and said, “You’re a very sensible young man. And you’re really quite smart, aren’t you.”

    “That’s not what my professors at the Academy would tell you,” I said, more embarrassed than I’d been when she called me handsome.

    The food arrived then, which I was glad of. Maeve took my lapse in attention to refill my glass. There was also a fresh bottle on the serving table beside her, without me hearing her order it.

    The special turned out to be thin slices of chicken breast cooked between equally thin slices of bacon like a layer cake. There were vegetables with it, and a spicy sauce.

    Mom would’ve been able to tell what went into the sauce just by sniffing, like enough. She could’ve discussed the wine, too. When we’d come into money, she’d gone whole hog into what to eat, drink, and wear. She said Dad had low tastes, which was true enough. Junior had no taste at all, though Mom would never have said anything that could be taken as a criticism of Dean Junior. Dad used to say that Mom thought the sun shone out of Junior’s backside.



    Mom and Dad didn’t talk about me. There wasn’t anything really to talk about. I did my schoolwork and played sports without making waves. I wasn’t bad or even mediocre, but I wasn’t right at the top either. There just wasn’t much to say.

    Maeve started asking me about working in the Matrix, then. I guess I babbled to her because it was all new to me too. I hadn’t gotten far enough in the Academy to have real experience on the hull after insertion. Astrogation was more important to a career as an officer than being able to scramble up antennas to free a joint or unkink a cable, but I’d done astrogation. Not a lot and not enough to stand out at it, but enough to see the principles and be able to apply them.

    I guess I was beginning to see why it had such an appeal to Captain Leary, too. Heaven knows, Barnes and the other riggers I was training with never talked about that part of what I was seeing, but the realization that I was in midst of all there was, of All, seeped deeper into my marrow with every watch I spent on the hull.

    I was seeing the Matrix as a series of pathways instead of just being blurs of light which suggested energy gradients. I’d never be as good an astrogator as Captain Leary, but I was certainly becoming better than I had been.

    “I’m getting to be a better astrogator than the Academy would ever have made me!” I said to Maeve.

    I heard the words when they came out of my mouth. For a moment I was shocked, but what I’d said was the truth and nothing to be ashamed of. Even so I raised my goblet. To my surprise, it was empty. I remembered Maeve refilling it several times as I talked, and I was pretty sure that the server had brought more than one additional bottle during the evening.

    “Oh!” I said.

    “We could have more,” Maeve said. “It’s good wine. But I think I’d rather go up to my room.”

    I got up — lurched, rather; it was a banquette, so I didn’t knock my chair over.

    I was pleased to be able to step to Maeve’s seat and offer my arm. Apparently my experience in the rigging had given me the ability to walk upright even when I was drunk.

    I was certainly drunk.

    Maeve laid her fingers on my forearm and rose to her feet with the liquid grace of a fountain. I was pretty sure she’d have grabbed and supported me if she’d needed to, but I was perfectly steady.

    We walked through the restaurant. I heard Maeve call, “On the room, Jean,” but I was concentrating on walking toward the doorway. Everything outside that rectangle was a gray blur.

    An elevator opened beside me. Maeve directed me in. I didn’t recall an elevator before. We’d come up to the restaurant by stairs.

    The door opened again. We walked into a hallway. I must have been sobering, because I could see in color again. Everything was still fuzzy, though.

    We entered Maeve’s room. I heard the door close; I turned her toward me and kissed her. She responded with an enthusiasm that startled me. I cupped her breasts within the garment. The fabric must have been even thinner than it seemed to look at. It had been a very long time since I’d last been with Rachel.

    Maeve kissed me again but broke away. “Now let me talk for just a moment, Roy,” she said, “because I want this as much as you do. Now, just sit down.”

    She patted to the bed. I sat beside her and tried to embrace her again. She squirmed away and kept hold of both my hands.

    “You joined the Navy to protect Cinnabar,” Maeve said, her eyes holding mine. “Protect the Republic against all her enemies.”

    “All right,” I said. I didn’t know why she was talking about that. I wasn’t sure what she’d just said was true. I’d entered the Academy basically as a matter of inertia: I didn’t want to think about my future, so when Junior joined the RCN, I decided I would too.

    “There are people who use Cinnabar as a tool to make themselves important,” Maeve said. “The worst of these is Bernis Sand, who has a private apparatus outside the Foreign Ministry. She has the ear of very important politicians and we’re sure she’s getting money from the Republic even when she’s working against its best interests.”

    I shook my head to clear it. Maeve put my hands back in my lap and let them go.

    “What Sand is doing now,” Maeve said, “is trying to stir up war between Cinnabar and Karst. Which will be a disaster.”

    “Karst isn’t such a big deal,” I said. My voice sounded like a growl even in my own ears.

    “No,” Maeve said. “But that will breach the treaty, and we’ll be back at war with the Alliance.”

    I was staring at her bosom. She covered my right hand with her left and raised it to her breast. She giggled. I was so startled that by the time I reacted by shifting forward, Maeve had risen to her feet and walked around my outstretched legs to sit on my other side.

    “Now just listen for another moment,” she said. “I know you respect Captain Leary, and perhaps you respect Lady Mundy too. You should. But they’re acting as tools of Bernis Sand, and they’ll destroy the Republic unless they’re stopped. Our economy and our society will break under the strain of resumed all-out war with the Alliance.”

    Maeve leaned forward and kissed me again as hard as she had when we first came through the door. She said, “You’ll help me save Cinnabar, won’t you Roy? You’re a patriot, not one of Captain Leary’s retainers!”

    She lifted my hands to her breasts again.

    I pulled away and stood. I couldn’t claim to be sober, but my mind was as cold as the hull in space.

    “I’ll be leaving now,” I said. “We’ll work out what I owe you for dinner, but not just now.”

    I walked to the door like I was a puppet on a string, opened it, and went out into the hall. I half expected Maeve to come out of the room after me, but the door remained as I’d shut it.

    Instead of riding the elevator, I took the stairs at the other end of the hall. I think it sobered me up some; my legs worked, and my brain was starting to work again.

    And the anger helped a lot too. They — Maeve and whoever she worked for — were treating me like I was dishonest. They hadn’t offered me money, they’d offered me Maeve’s body. I wondered if Dad had used whores to bribe people too.

    The door at the ground floor opened into the street. I was about to cross, heading back for the Sunray and wondering what I was going to say about what’d just happened. Probably nothing, but I wasn’t in any shape to decide tonight.

    The Fountain bubbled to the top again. I turned and went into the bar. I was sober again and I didn’t want to be.

    “A double of your house whiskey,” I said. I thought for a moment. “You do have whiskey on Saguntum, don’t you?”

    “We’ve got whiskey,” the bartender said. He turned up a glass and began to fill it from a bottle fitted with a pour spout.

    I wondered how much money I had with me. Enough to tie one on properly, I was sure. I’d probably have to borrow against my salary to cover tonight’s dinner, but I was damned if I was going to feel that I’d taken any money from Maeve and the people behind her.

    A man came in from the street and took a place at the bar to my left. “Say,” he said. “You’re Tommy Reisberg from Xenos, aren’t you? Have a drink on me, Tommy.”

    “I’ve never met Tommy Reisberg,” I said, “but I am from Xenos and I’ll cheerfully take your drink. If you’ll have one on me next.”

    Another man got up from the table and moved to my other side. “Say, I thought you were Tommy too,” he said. “What you doing in Jacquerie, Tommy?”

    The barman put my drink before me as I turned to look at the new man. I’d never seen him before. I’d never seen either of them before.

    “I’m still not anybody named Reisberg,” I said.

    The man on my right had brought his drink with him from the table. “Well, we’ll straighten things out over a few more of these,” he said. He polished off the clear liquid and set his glass down.

    I drank also. The local whiskey seemed to be a rye, but there was an odd undertaste to it.

    My knees gave way. The man on my right caught me as I fell into him.

    A coin rang on the counter. I heard the other man say, “Tommy never did have a good head. I think this’ll take care of everything. We’ll take Tommy home.”

    About that time the gray fog filling my head dimmed to black.

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