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What Distant Deeps: Chapter Nine
Last updated: Friday, July 2, 2010 20:58 EDT
Raphael Harbor on Stahl’s World
“Irene has three guards with her,” Tovera said, watching a feed from the Sissie’s external camera. “My goodness, they have mob guns.”
She giggled, then added, “It always seemed to me to be simpler to learn to shoot accurately; but then, I’m not from Palmyra.”
Both valves of the forward airlock were fixed open while the corvette was in harbor. Lieutenant Cory, wearing utilities, entered the rotunda from the hull and stepped onto the bridge.
Glancing over his shoulder to see that he hadn’t been followed, he said, “Captain Leary and four civilians are coming up the ramp. They’ve got guards with them.”
“The Captain is bringing the Autocrator Irene of Palmyra with her admiral, and the captain of Z 46 with the sister of the Founder of Zenobia,” Adele said. She hadn’t been formally told who the guests would be — Daniel had just reported that he would be arriving in half an hour with four visitors — but Adele had of course been watching the proceedings aboard the Piri Reis. That was her job, after all.
“The Palmyrenes who came on ahead know what they’re doing,” Cory said uncomfortably. “Woetjans is watching them run up and down the rigging, and I checked with Pasternak too. He says the ones in the Power Room are sticking their noses everywhere. There were even a couple crawling up the throats of the thrusters.”
“Is there enough room to do that?” Adele said, looking up from her display.
“Some of them don’t look older than twelve,” Cory said with a shrug. “Maybe they’re just small.”
He grimaced. “Mistress, do you know what they’re doing?” he said.
“Captain Leary reported that he would be bringing a party to view the Princess Cecile,” Adele said carefully. “He then added that a number of Palmyrene spacers would be preceding them, and that they were to given full facilities to see whatever they wished.”
She pursed her lips and, because it was Cory, added, “I don’t know what their purpose is either. It may simply be that Captain Leary has a reputation as a skilled spacer, and the Palmyrenes are curious because fancy themselves in that area as well.”
“They’re coming up the forward companionway,” Tovera said. The echo of footsteps was warning enough.
Vesey was in the Battle Direction Center and most of the crew was on liberty — the Sissie was moored in an RCN base, after all. Pasternak and Woetjans had rushed back to take charge of their anchor watches. Both senior warrant officers were in their liberty suits and the bosun was staggeringly drunk as well, but she wasn’t too drunk to carry out her duties if they didn’t involve fancy footwork.
Daniel came up in the lead. Hogg was immediately behind him, wearing a scowl. The servant hadn’t been allowed to join Daniel at the gala, which he had accepted; but he had become thoroughly irritated when he learned that the young master had then gone into the midst of a gang of armed wogs without him.
Hogg would have been carrying a sub-machine gun openly if Adele hadn’t told him to return it to the armory before he met Daniel at the entrance to the Naval Basin. He hadn’t needed the shoulder weapon for any practical reason, but it would have shown how displeased he was to be excluded from possible danger.
“He had no business going off and leaving me like that!” Hogg had muttered. “Anything could’ve happened!”
Adele smiled faintly. Based on past experience, nobody in Daniel’s company had to worry about being kept out of danger. There would be plenty to go around — perhaps not on a mission to Zenobia, but soon enough.
Posy Belisande and her escort, von Gleuck of the Z 46, were next up the companionway. Adele had checked the Alliance captain’s record as a matter of course. He not only commanded the naval detachment on Zenobia, but the imagery from the gala made it immediately obvious that he was more than a casual factor in the life of Adele’s target.
Von Gleuck’s record was very good. He would almost certainly have been promoted above command of a destroyer if he hadn’t been quite so well born.
Adlersbild was one of the six worlds which had formed the Alliance eighty years ago. While it wasn’t nearly as big as Pleasaunce or Blythe, it had some of the finest shipyards in the Alliance and had given the Fleet some of its most famous commanders. The status of the son, even the second son, of the ruling Count was high enough to be a potential threat to Guarantor Porra. Command of a destroyer on a distant station was safer for both of them.
Adele exchanged a glance with Daniel, then turned and watched the rest of the activities on her holographic display with her back turned to the hatch. She had set the screen to focus, as generally, for her eyes only. Anyone else looking at the display would see a shifting pattern of pastels; attractive enough, she supposed, but not informative.
Adele was in utilities again, making herself virtually invisible to a civilian visiting the corvette. If the Autocrator and Admiral Polowitz hadn’t been present, she would have arranged an introduction to Posy Belisande. Since they were, Adele wasn’t going to call attention to herself.
“Sir!” said Cory, but Daniel’s quick smile and finger-twitch toward the companionway warned him to wait. Two Palmyrene guards appeared behind the flaring muzzles of their weapons. They looked to be proper cutthroats, scowling through mustaches which merged with their sideburns.
Adele watched their images with a smile that would have been frightening to anyone who understood it. She would fire twice into each right eye; the last round would be off before either of the victims reacted. There was always a chance that a dead man’s convulsion would cause his trigger finger to close, but even a barbarian should know better that to leave his safety off as he climbed slick steel stairs.
And if not? Well, death would come one day or another. Today would suit Adele, though she would regret it if Cory were caught in the crossfire.
Autocrator Irene was a handsome woman, though it was unlikely that the pile of blond hair held in place by the tiara was her own. It galled Adele that she couldn’t be sure how old the Autocrator was.
Fifteen standard years earlier she had married Odin, then heir apparent. The records in Xenos — and probably on Palmyra — didn’t allow Adele to trace Irene back before that point. The Autocrator appeared now to be forty, but she might be younger by ten years.
Adele’s lips twisted into another almost-smile. So far as she was concerned, bad recordkeeping was a clear sign of barbarity.
“This is my Second Lieutenant, honored guests,” Daniel said with a courtly gesture toward Cory. He didn’t bother to introduce them to a warrant officer, of course. “Would you care to see the bridge?”
Irene stepped through the hatchway without replying. Two of her guards — another had followed the group up the companionway — pushed in behind her. Tovera had moved to a jumpseat against the starboard bulkhead, her face as smooth as an egg and her hand resting on something within her half-open attaché case.
“It’s small,” said Irene, “but the whole ship is small, of course. What do you think, Polowitz?”
The Admiral had been whispering with two of the Palmyrene spacers who’d come aboard earlier to inspect. He entered the bridge and came to attention.
“Your Excellency,” he said. “It is very suitable. The converters are all running properly, and my men have inspected the logs. There have been no converter failures in the past six months!”
“The Princess Cecile is Kostroman built,” Daniel said. Only someone who knew him well would have recognized the hint of caution in his voice. “We’ve replaced three of her original converters with units of Cinnabar manufacture, from Glanz and Son and from Webbern Brothers, during her service with the RCN and in private ownership, but she came from the builders’ yard a very solid craft.”
“The rig is well too, your Excellency,” Polowitz said. “Very little of it is original, but the replacement spars are of good quality and have been fitted with skill.”
He turned to Daniel with a tiny nod of recognition. The Autocrator clearly intended everyone to focus on her when she was present, but Admiral Polowitz was enough of a spacer to offer respect to an equal when he met one.
“Do you think to run up the price on me, Captain?” said the Autocrator. “I am no tradesman to haggle! I am the Autocrator Irene. You own this ship yourself, that is so?”
“That’s correct, your Excellency,” Daniel said. He slid his feet slightly apart and stood with his hands crossed behind his back in a formal At Ease posture. “I bought the Sissie when she was sold as surplus to the needs of the service. She’s under charter to the Bureau of External Affairs, but she is no longer an RCN vessel.”
Von Gleuck shifted slightly, putting himself between Posy and the nearest guard. He continued to smile, but his features could have been painted on a porcelain doll. Posy moved backward, stepping off the bridge.
Acting on a hunch, Adele fed imagery from the pickup over the hatch to a quadrant of her and scrolled back thirty seconds. She saw, as she expected, the Alliance officer’s hand behind his back, motioning Posy away.
Somebody else understands the direction this might be going. The corner of Adele’s lips moved slightly upward. She and Tovera had matters in hand, but von Gleuck wasn’t taking that for granted.
“So,” said the Autocrator. “I have a use for a ship like this, though it is small. I will buy it.”
She and Polowitz appeared to be unaware of the sudden tension, but the last Palmyrene onto the bridge had picked up on it. He backed away from von Gleuck but collided with the Missileer’s console; von Gleuck, with his affable porcelain smile, eased closer again so that the guard couldn’t lift his clumsy weapon without sticking it into the belly of a high foreign official.
Palmyra might be barbarous, but the guard clearly understood what that would mean on an RCN vessel in the middle of an RCN base. He looked sick. His experience told him that he would be the first to die — if.
“That’s very flattering, your Excellency,” said Daniel in a falsely jovial tone, “but the Sissie isn’t for sale. We’ll be lifting off very shortly for Zenobia –”
“Polowitz here says she is worth a half milliard of sequins,” the Autocrator said as though Daniel had not been speaking. “That’s some eight hundred thousand of your Cinnabar florins. Very well, I will pay you a million florins and a half. You wish it in coin? I will have my bankers on Stahl’s World deliver it in the hour.”
Cory stepped past von Gleuck and slipped out the hatchway. Adele felt an instant’s amazement, then realized he had climbed onto the hull to warn Woetjans. A cue on her display indicated that he was also alerting Pasternak on a two-way link, though the Palmyrenes in the Power Room were too far away to be a factor in whatever happened on the bridge.
“I don’t wish to sell, your Excellency,” Daniel said, drawing himself up straight. “I –”
“Did you not understand what I said about haggling?” said the Autocrator, her voice rising. The two duller guards heard her tone but looked bewildered. Polowitz had a worried expression, but from the way he eyed his mistress, his concern was for her anger rather than what it might lead to. “Very well, name your price!”
“I have informed you, your Excellency . . . ,” said Daniel. Irene opened her mouth again; he raised the volume of his voice sufficient to overwhelm anything she might have said. “That this vessel is the property of a Cinnabar gentleman who does not wish to sell her. The discussion is closed.”
“The discussion is closed!”
“Leary,” said von Gleuck in the momentary silence, “Lady Belisande has an engagement elsewhere and must leave. Besides, I believe we have reached what a gentleman of Adlersbild would consider the limits of good breeding on a first visit. I hope to see you again in the future.”
“Quite right, von Gleuck,” said Daniel, suddenly affable again. “It’s been a pleasure to meet another professional.”
The Alliance officer continued to smile as he backed to the companionway. Only when Posy was within the armored tube did he face around to follow her.
His interjection had broken the mood on the bridge. “Money will always find a way, Leary,” said the Autocrator. She sounded distant rather than furious, though Adele didn’t doubt the fury was still there. “Some men cannot be bought, perhaps; but a result can always be bought.”
She strode to the companionway, surprising all her entourage except the guard who had brought up the rear before. He reached the hatch before his mistress and preceded her down the stairs.
“I think,” said Daniel in the sudden quiet, “that we’ll lift tonight.”
“I’m calling Commissioner Brown now,” said Adele as her wands moved. “He should be at the Governor’s Residence, but he hasn’t had time to transfer his luggage yet.”
Woetjans came in from the hull and stopped in the bridge hatchway. “Cory’s out looking over things while the wogs scoot down the stays,” he said. “I’ll go roust our people home. You keep Pasternak here to pick ‘em up as they come in, right? Because some’ll be drunk enough to wander on off again.”
“Roger, bosun,” Daniel said. “My goodness, I hope I didn’t harm relations in the region unduly by that.”
“From the tone of the Autocrator’s remarks,” said Adele as she checked for Commissioner Brown’s location through the Residence security cameras, “I don’t imagine you can have done anything worse than advancing the arrival of trouble with Palmyra by a little. A very little.”
There was a gust of wind; rain spattered down again. Daniel turned his head away, but he didn’t duck into the guardhouse because he saw the lights of a ground car coming down the approach road to the Naval Basin.
“Six, the hire car with the Browns has entered the naval reservation,” Cory reported, confirming Daniel’s expectation. Presumably Adele had something more important on her plate and had delegated tracking the Commissioner to Cory. “Bridge out.”
“Roger,” said Daniel. He gave a big smile to the pair of guards — ratings from the base establishment — and said, “These are the ones I’ve been waiting for. Thanks for your hospitality.”
“Thank you, sir,” said the senior man. “Not often we get to listen to somebody like you.”
“You’re welcome here any time you want to spend a chunk of your life getting rained on for no bloody reason,” said his junior. “Say, sure you don’t need a ventilation system tech on your corvette, sir?”
“I’m going to be in enough trouble with the regional command,” said Daniel, truthfully without explaining why it was true, “without poaching their personnel. But I appreciate the thought.”
The vehicle stopped. The four wheels had rubber tires, but the two on the front weren’t the same width; the cabin in the back was built of wood and mounted on a chassis designed for something else. The driver, wearing a slicker, got out and started to open the passenger cabin.
“Carry them to Slip 4, my good man,” Daniel said, striding over to him. “I’ll ride along so it’ll be all right.”
“What’s happening?” said Clothilde Brown. “Surely we don’t have to get out here in the rain, Pavel!”
“I’m not supposed to enter the reservation . . . ,” the driver said uncertainly.
“It’ll be all right,” Daniel said, slipping him a coin. “And I’ll have one of my spacers ride back with you so that you won’t have any trouble on the way back.”
While the driver was surreptitiously checking the denomination of the coin — it was a full florin; more than a day’s wage here on Stahl’s World — Daniel got into the cabin beside the Commissioner. Bench seats front and back faced one another; there were two small suitcases on the central rack.
“We’ll be driving up to the ship,” he said to the Browns. “I’ll get some of my people to carry your bags in, so you just run up the ramp and get out of the rain.”
“Here, I’ll ride along,” said the younger gate guard unexpectedly, shielding his sub-machine gun under his field coat. “No sense one of your folks get drowned walking back when we’ve got to be out in it anyway.”
The guard hopped in beside the driver; the car shuddered off. The cabin was completely separate from the cab, which with the rattling provided privacy for anything Daniel had to say.
“We were treated abominably!” said Clothilde. The little girl flounced up suddenly to a sitting posture; she had been lying half across her mother’s lap. “There was nobody to receive us at the Residence! We would have been treated better if we were tradesmen!”
In a matter of speaking, Daniel had no duty to the Browns except to deliver them safely to Zenobia. Out of courtesy, and perhaps because he felt sorry for the poor Commissioner, he had chosen to make their lives a little easier by saving them the walk to the gate. Cory said they had walked out this afternoon when they realized they would have to depend on a hired car because the civil establishment wasn’t going to send a vehicle.
“The regional assembly has disrupted everything here, I’m afraid,” Daniel said. “Ah — I was wondering if you would mind if we were to lift for Zenobia immediately?”
“I want to go home!” the little girl said, but she said it in the tone of a child making a point of her displeasure, not one who thinks there’s any chance that she’ll get her way. “I don’t know why we had to come here anyway!”
“I’m not accredited to Stahl’s World,” said the Commissioner quietly. “I had hoped that I might get a little local knowledge here before going on to my station, but that probably wouldn’t be the case however long I remained here. I would just as soon go on.”
“They were insulting,” his wife said with venom. “They didn’t care anything about us, anything. We could just as well have died in space so far as anyone at the Residence was concerned.”
Daniel looked at her set, angry face in the lights of the slips as they passed. Brown would have been dealing with junior clerks or less; anyone of greater importance would have been involved with the regional assembly. Zenobia, as an Alliance possession, wasn’t even part of the Regional chain of command.
Sure, it was a pity that the clerks hadn’t been more welcoming to strangers who weren’t properly part of their job, but most people found only themselves of importance. Clothilde Brown certainly fell into that category, but this time the locals had trumped her with their disinterest.
Daniel realized he was grinning. To take the sting out of his expression, he said, “We’ll get you to Zenobia promptly, Mistress Brown. In three days, I judge. I know that life this far out from Cinnabar takes some getting used to, but once one learns the tricks it can become very pleasant.”
The vehicle drew up alongside Slip 4. Even before Daniel could figure out how to open his door — the latch was a half-circle of wood which rotated into a cut in the jamb — four spacers double-timed down the Sissie’s ramp holding a tarp overhead. A sheet of rain blew in from the side, but the idea of shelter appeared to raise Clothilde’s morale.
More spacers appeared, grabbing the bags that Daniel handed out. Daniel sent them and the Browns up the ramp, then covered himself with the poncho Hogg had brought. He waved thanks to the gate guard as the car turned and headed back.
“You could’ve sent Cory,” Hogg said as they reached the boarding hold. The Browns were headed toward the stern companionway; Hester’s voice floated back querulously. “You could’ve sent an engine wiper. If you needed to send anybody.”
A truck pulled up, loaded with spacers from the dives along the harbor front. Daniel dropped his visor a moment to check the running count projected on its upper right corner. Thirteen personnel hadn’t reported, but only two weren’t listed as accounted for. The Princess Cecile would be ready to lift inside an hour.
“It was less trouble all round if I met them at the gate,” Daniel said, trotting up the companionway behind his servant. “I told the guards a few stories and they let me bend the rules a little. They wouldn’t have done that for a wiper. Maybe a warrant officer, but the chiefs were better put to getting the ship to rights for a quick liftoff.”
Adele looked up from her console as Daniel entered the bridge. “Captain,” she said with polite neutrality.
Daniel smiled with genuine pleasure at seeing her. “Will we step on the toes of any other ships if we lift shortly, Signals?” he asked.
“No one else is scheduled to lift from either basin tonight,” Adele said, switching to a two-way link as she checked her display. “Nor are any other vessels in condition to lift, as best I can tell. The freighter Costigan was testing thrusters earlier this afternoon, but the captain isn’t aboard at present.”
“Good,” said Daniel as he settled onto the command console. “I’ll get clearance from Raphael Control, but because we’re on the civil registry now, we don’t need naval authorization even though we’re on the naval side of the harbor.”
“Why don’t you want to get naval clearance, Daniel?” Adele asked. “Is there some reason it wouldn’t be granted?”
Daniel was checking the Power Room statistics. The converters and pumps were in the green, as they had been on landing only a few hours earlier. He would normally have taken aboard fresh fruits and vegetables, but the short run to Zenobia made that unnecessary. The additional cable was already aboard.
“I don’t want to discuss the matter with Admiral Mainwaring,” Daniel said. “I’m not under his command, but he would have questions . . . and I think it better not to have my opinion of Autocrator Irene on record in the regional HQ. Half the personnel are locals, and I would be amazed if half of them weren’t reporting to Palmyra.”
“Six, this is Three,” Lieutenant Vesey reported on the command push. “All our personnel are aboard, though there are forty-odd who had best remain in their bunks unless there’s an emergency, over.”
“Roger, Three,” said Daniel. “Prepare the ship for liftoff. Six out.”
“The Autocrator is very clear about her place in the universe,” said Adele with no more expression than usual. “It remains to be seen whether the universe shares her opinion.”
Daniel was grinning as Vesey sent the attention signal through the PA system. With luck, they would have returned to Cinnabar before that question became important. But if not, well — civil registry or not, the Sissie was a fighting unit and had proved herself so many times in the past.
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