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What Distant Deeps: Chapter Fifteen
Last updated: Friday, August 13, 2010 02:25 EDT
Calvary on Zenobia
Hogg had procured the vehicle, so Daniel let him drive the squad of Sissies through the dark streets of the city. He wasn’t a very good driver, but none of them were; and it had been the right choice to make for other reasons. Hogg was whistling Lilliburlero, cheerful and completely himself for the first time since he’d injured his hand.
“Hey Hogg, what is this thing?” Barnes called from the back. “A hay cart?”
The vehicle had an electric motor and balloon tires — of four different sizes, granted, but nonetheless reasonably quiet on the brick streets — so it was possible to talk inside without bellowing. Even the thrum of the drive belt, slanting from the cab down through the floor of the back — there was no partition — wouldn’t have been noticeable if its rumbling surface hadn’t been unshielded for most of its length. Spacers were used to things that could snap off a finger or a whole leg, but the experienced ones didn’t let themselves forget about such dangers.
“The fellow has a general hauling business,” Hogg said. “I put him onto a good thing, and he’s letting us use the truck for as long as we need. Nice one, isn’t it?”
Daniel’s helmet projected a route in front of the driver. As Hogg spoke, the hologram indicated a corner coming. He turned more quickly than the street did, but the curb on that side was low. Both the pole and the side of the vehicle had brushed things in the past.
Woetjans muttered, “Bloody hell!” as she rocked in the back. That was mainly because she didn’t like surface transportation, however. Her hands were tight on opposite ends of her truncheon. Even she couldn’t make the high-pressure tubing bend, though.
This was a good vehicle, though, especially for the purpose. The back had high sides; they’d rigged a tarp over the top so that people looking down from third-floor roofs couldn’t see what was going on, but even that wouldn’t have mattered.
Daniel hadn’t asked — and wouldn’t askfor details on the “good thing” Hogg had mentioned. It looked to him as though the new battery clamped beside the motor had been RCN issue, though he was pretty sure it hadn’t come from stores that Captain Daniel Leary had signed for. Even if the situation was what he suspected it was, the RCN was getting value from its supply budget.
“Daniel,” said Adele through the commo helmet. “It’s going to take us –”
“Us” meant Cory and Cazelet under her direction, he supposed. Daniel didn’t object to or even ask about the tasks Adele gave his officers. The business was a stark violation of RCN regs, but it worked extremely well.
“– days or weeks even to get through the material on Gibbs’ personal database, but he seems to have preserved every contact he had with the plotters. He recorded all his conversations with his Palmyrene handler, both personal and by phone. I can’t imagine what he was thinking of!”
She paused, then added, “Of course, the archivist in me is very pleased. We might not even need Gibbs in person.”
“Oh, we need him,” Daniel said, feeling his smile harden. He wasn’t a cruel man; he wasn’t even hard, by the standards of people like Hogg and — there was no point in denying the bald truth — Adele. Nonetheless, he was a Leary and an officer of the RCN: those who attacked him and his would pay.
He cleared his throat and said, “Adele, is the password ‘Shirley’ still correct, over?”
“Yes,” said Adele. “It’s his mother’s name, according to his file in Navy House.” Without changing tone she added, “You’re approaching Gibbs’ residence. I’m shutting off his exterior surveillance system now. Actually, I’ve switched off the entire system. Ah, over.”
Hogg switched off the power, turning the electric motor into a brake: the only brake the vehicle had so far as Daniel could see, except for the spade outside the cab on the driver’s side. That could be pivoted to dig into the street on either an up or down slope, though it seemed of limited utility on bricks unless the driver carefully wedged it into a crack.
“We’re here, young master,” Hogg said. He started to get out. The street was so narrow that there was barely room to walk around the vehicle to either side. The narrow-fronted row houses were of two stories. They had stone foundation courses and were brick above that.
“Stay with the car,” said Daniel, “or I’ll make Barnes the driver. Your choice.”
Hogg grimaced. “I’ll drive the bloody thing,” he muttered. “Go on, have your fun.”
“Come on, Sissies,” Daniel said quietly. The cab didn’t have doors, and the squad in the back had already thrown down the wooden tailgate. “No sound till I tell you!”
Gibbs lived without servants, though until he began his dealings with the Palmyrenes there’d been a cook/housekeeper on the premises. He’d dispensed with her then, apparently from security concerns. His electronic files were more damning than if he’d published his plans on billboards across from the Founder’s Palace, but presumably he hadn’t expected to run into Officer Adele Mundy.
Daniel rapped on the door with the knuckles of his left hand. Anyone watching from neighboring houses — and there must be some; vehicles weren’t common in this district — would notice his commo helmet; that was unusual but not specifically identifiable. The six Sissies with him wore the loose, nondescript clothing that they worked in — just like every other spacer and most common laborers besides.
“Gibbs!” he growled. “Open up! Shirley! Shirley! It’s going to go tits-up if we don’t move fast!”
“What’s happened?” Gibbs cried through the door in a muted squeak. Metal rattled, a key or a drawbolt. “I saw the bloody corvette come back!”
The door started to swing in. Daniel shoved it hard with his left hand. It banged against a chain bolt. “Woetjans!” he shouted.
The bosun kicked the door where the bolt was anchored, ripping it out of the wood. The panel slammed Gibbs back into the room and knocked the pistol from his hand. Slithering on his back, he reached for the gun.
Daniel stamped on Gibbs’ diaphragm, doubling him up like a salted slug. He began to vomit.
Woetjans burst in with the rest of the team behind her. “Don’t hit him!” Daniel shouted. “Where’s the bag?”
Dasi pulled the tarpaulin sack from under his belt. He slipped it over the head of the prisoner; his partner Barnes pulled the drawstrings.
“If I’d wanted him dead, I’d have shot him!” Daniel grumbled. He stuck his index finger under edge of the sack and jerked it looser. “We don’t want him to suffocate, right?”
“All right, load him in the van,” Woetjans said. Four spacers grabbed handfuls of Gibbs and carried him into the street. Any of those present could have handled the prisoner unaided, including –
Daniel grinned with satisfaction.
– Captain Daniel Leary himself.
Light through the open doorway spilled onto the bricks. Daniel pulled the door to, then climbed into the cab beside Hogg. No point in encouraging the neighbors to come look.
“Back to the Sissie after a good night’s work, Hogg,” he said.
“The night’s still young, I say,” said Hogg as the van accelerated slowly forward. There wasn’t room in the street to turn around. “I’m kinda looking forward to hearing what Master Assistant Commissioner has to say.”
He glanced over his shoulder, then added, “And encouraging him, if he has trouble finding his tongue.”
Hogg’s right hand was in a lightweight cast from which the fingers projected. He tapped it against the steering wheel in a jaunty rhythm.
Adele gave the prisoner her usual dispassionate appraisal. Viewing a subject the way a butcher looks at a hog had more of a softening effect on some people than growled threats did.
She behaved as she did because it was natural to her, not for some “practical” reason. Though in truth, she couldn’t imagine anything more practical than behaving the way she felt like.
“You’re making a mistake!” said Gibbs. Even with the hood off he couldn’t manage much bluster. Then he said, “What are you going to do with me?”
His wrists and ankles were strapped to a chair in the Captain’s Suite — her home and Daniel’s again now that the Browns had been delivered — with cargo tape. The chair in turn was bolted to the deck, like all furniture on a starship.
“We’re not going to torture you, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Adele said, her face probably showing the disgust she felt at the subject. “I have a few questions for you, and my colleagues –”
She glanced over her shoulder to indicate Daniel and the two servants on jumpseats against the wall behind her.
“– may have additional ones. Then we may request your help. If you’re completely helpful, we’ll turn you over to the authorities on Stahl’s World.”
“If I’m helpful?” Gibbs snarled. “They’d hang me and you know it!”
Adele shrugged. “Perhaps,” she said, “but I don’t believe that’s certain. The Republic is at peace, and in any case you were intriguing with an allied power rather than with agents of the Alliance.”
“I didn’t intrigue with anybody!” Gibbs said, trying to regain ground he’d already surrendered in his fear. “I don’t know who you’ve been talking to, but I’ve been doing my job as well as anybody can in this bloody backwater. That’s all!”
“Here’s a list of amounts paid to you by your Palmyrene handler,” Adele said, ignoring the outburst as she projected a hologram of the records where Gibbs could read them. Though she used her personal data unit as a controller, the imaging system of the suite’s console provided a crystalline display at any level of resolution she wanted. “He uses the name Bimbeck with you and claims to be a Zenobian merchant, but he’s actually named Erzolan and has the rank of Squadron Leader in the Horde.”
“How . . . ?” said Gibbs. “H-how did you . . . ?”
His face had become sallow. His limbs tensed against their bonds, but it seemed to Adele that it was a subconscious reaction to blind panic. Gibbs was smart enough to realize that he couldn’t break tape that was meant to immobilize cargo through violent landings.
“There were flaws in your system,” Adele said. “Obviously. But even if there hadn’t been, I assure you that your Palmyrene friends fall a great deal short of civilized standards of security. Whatever possessed you to trust barbarians like them?”
“Oh, gods,” Gibbs muttered. He closed his eyes and probably would have cradled his head in his hands if he could. “Oh, gods.”
In fact the security of the computer in Gibbs’ home was of a very high order. The only reason Adele had been able to get into it quickly was that the assistant commissioner had three months ago accessed it from Cinnabar House and hadn’t reset the encryption afterwards.
But everything she said about the Palmyrenes was completely true. Their data wasn’t as complete or well organized as Gibbs’, but it would have been quite sufficient by itself to hang him.
“You know, Gibbs,” Daniel said judiciously, “you weren’t really in such a bad place even if your plot had been uncovered. Oh, the Zenobians would’ve been upset, but we’d have gotten you off-planet to try you ourselves.”
He chuckled. “Fancy letting a passel of wogs try a Cinnabar citizen — and an RCN officer besides!” he said, sounding exactly like the sort of hearty, prejudiced officer that so many of his colleagues were in fact. “And sure, the charge would be treason — but treasonously trying to take a world away from the Alliance isn’t the sort of business an RCN court martial gets too worked up about, not so? Certainly not to the point of hanging anybody.”
“But then you decided to murder two RCN officers,” said Adele. Gibbs’ head jerked toward her again. “Not to put too fine a point on it — us. That’s a different matter.”
“That was quite a clever piece of work, you know,” Daniel said, nodding in appreciation. “Keying the shorting strips to the test frequency of the portable landing controller that you added to the files before you turned them over to Brown. You know, it seems to me you might have gone high in the RCN if you’d put your cleverness to better use.”
“Gone high?” Gibbs said bitterly. “Don’t make me laugh! I was going nowhere. I was going to rot here on Zenobia for the rest of my life — unless they found a worse posting for me.”
“And it wasn’t clever to try to kill us by a method that pointed straight to you when it failed,” Adele added. She wasn’t acting: Gibbs was getting a clear view of the reality of the way her mind worked.
She coughed primly. “Just as you needn’t worry about torture,” she said, “you needn’t worry about a court martial. If you refuse to cooperate, we’ll simply release you.”
“From a thousand feet over the Green Ocean,” Daniel said. “Fair is fair: that’s what you tried to do to us.”
“What is it that you want from me?” Gibbs said in a monotone. His eyes were closed. He opened them and added with more animation, “Can you let me loose, please? My legs at least, so I can move them?”
“You’ll remain as you are until you’ve satisfied us,” Adele said. The corner of her mouth quirked. “Or fail to do so, of course. Tell us precisely what the Palmyrenes are doing, if you will.”
Gibbs looked at her in amazement. Did he think she was mocking him by being courteous? She had been raised to be courteous. She regarded the practice to be basic to civilization.
Adele smiled at the man, in her way. She was perfectly willing to shoot him, of course. She had shot people who simply happened to be standing in the way when she needed to move fast. They had been enemies by political definition, of course, but they were complete strangers to her personally.
But she wouldn’t have mocked those people, living or dead. Nor would she mock Gibbs.
Her train of thought may have shown on her face. The prisoner seemed to swallow something sour.
“I bought land for them three hundred miles south of the city in Commissioner Brassey’s name,” Gibbs said. “It’s just called the Farm. I pretended that I was just a flunky and that Brassey was milking the secret account to create a retirement estate for himself. Of course there wouldn’t be any recourse. The Alliance wouldn’t extradite him to Xenos for trial, you see.”
“Go on,” Adele said. There were many references to “the Farm” in the information she had gathered, but she hadn’t had enough time to process them. Besides, she hadn’t had a context. Without a context, it was very possible to mistake a grocery list for an attack plan — or vice versa.
“The smart part was me — pretending to be Brassey, I mean — developing the land illegally,” Gibbs said. “So the secrecy and the bribes to customs officials — and to the Alliance Resident — everybody understood. The Commissioner was bringing in advanced farming equipment that he’d bought with embezzled money, so of course he’d want to keep it quiet!”
Gibbs leaned toward his listeners, obviously proud of how clever his plan was. Adele wondered if he might not have approached the Palmyrenes rather than the other way around. Carefully sifting the documentation would answer the question, though the genesis of the plot didn’t matter at this point.
What mattered was that if the plan went forward, it almost certainly meant a renewal of open warfare between Cinnabar and the Alliance. Palmyrene files were just as porous as she had said they were, so when Alliance agents began looking, they would immediately learn that the Cinnabar Commissioner had been instrumental in what had happened.
“What were you bringing in from off-planet?” she said aloud. Her references were to “shipments” without detail on what they included. “Troops?”
“No, no!” said Gibbs in irritated contempt. “There has to be preparation, don’t you see? They had to build a base first. There was a missile battery and plasma cannon on mobile mounts in the first shipload, along with cadre to manage the whole business. Since then they’ve been building barracks. Do you see?”
Adele considered for a moment, then gave an honest answer instead of temporizing. “No,” she said, “I don’t. Why are the Palmyrenes building barracks?”
Gibbs was looking for a chance to brag. Letting him do so was the best way to get information out of him, though every aspect of the man’s personality seemed designed to make her want to slap him. This was a matter of searching for jewels in sewage.
“The troops will be packed in for the passage here,” Gibbs said. “The best transport you can find in the Qaboosh is only cattle boats, and not even very big cattle boats. So if they don’t have some time to settle in and recover before they go into action, they’ll be sod all use in a fight. The Farm gives them that, and their heavy weapons have been brought in bit by bit and set up there ahead of time.”
“How many troops?” Adele asked calmly. The intercepted data didn’t give strength figures — didn’t even refer to the contents except as implied by the word “shipments.”
She kept her delivery calm, almost disinterested. If she sounded excited, she would subconsciously tell the prisoner that his information was important. That wouldn’t make any long-term difference, but it might delay the process somewhat.
Besides, Adele preferred keeping emotion at bay. For most of her life the only emotion which she felt regularly was anger; and while her mental state had improved since she met Daniel and became a member of the RCN, the red blur was never very far beneath the surface of her mind even now.
“There’re barracks for a thousand,” said Gibbs. “They look like barns and chicken sheds, you see. But they have to bring in more than they’d planned because the Founder is so set against them and he’s popular. They’d hoped to bring him around, you see, but Hergo hates all Palmyrenes and he hates Autocrator Irene like poison. Now they’re going to shoot him along with the Resident first thing, then make another of the Councillors the new Founder.”
“How does the Autocrator expect to land a thousand or more troops in front of the Fleet contingent?” Daniel said in a measured voice. “Have they bribed Lieutenant Commander von Gleuck?”
“That one!” Gibbs said in disgust. “I met him when he arrived, thinking — you know, two navy men? But he was so full of his bloody honor that he threatened to whip me if he caught me anywhere near his quarters or the Palace either one. I warned Bimbeck that the stiff-necked bastard would shoot anybody who tried to put him into some easy money.”
“There’s some of them like that,” Daniel said in a tone of commiseration.
Adele looked at him sharply. Daniel himself was very much like that. Aloud she said, “How are they getting around the Fleet, then, Master Gibbs?”
“Because it’s none of the Fleet’s bloody business, that’s how!” Gibbs crowed. “Customs and Excise are under the Resident, and Tilton let von Gleuck know that if he started making spot checks of ships in orbit, any knocking shop or bar that served Fleet spacers was going to be shut down. Lieutenant Commander Tightass doesn’t like the Resident one bit, but he doesn’t get in his way.”
“No,” said Daniel with a bright smile. “I wouldn’t expect those two would get on well.”
“Look,” said Gibbs, “it’s a mercy taking the planet away from the Alliance anyway, right? Not just because it’s the Alliance and that’s always a good thing for us Cinnabar citizens –”
Adele didn’t allow herself to smile. The way the expression would have looked on her face would silence Gibbs faster than a blow.
“– but because all the wogs here hate the Resident so bad. If it wasn’t Hergo keeping the lid on, a mob would’ve lynched Tilton long since. I know some of the Councillors are with the Autocrator on this one, and once she lands here to take possession, they’ll all come over!”
Until a squadron arrives from Pleasaunce, thought Adele, and along with battleships brings a detachment from the Fifth Bureau.
Aloud she said, “When will this coup take place, Master Gibbs?”
“It’s –” Gibbs said, then unexpectedly caught himself. “Ah, I don’t know for sure, you see. But, ah . . . I think it’s going to be pretty soon. Not from anything they said to me, exactly, but just the way they were talking to each other, you know? Bimbeck and the CO from the Farm, Mehdi Nasrullah.”
“Days?” said Adele. “Weeks? What?”
“I’d guess days,” Gibbs said. He licked his dry lips. “I thought I could, you know, wait. But I’d heard about you, Leary –”
He looked at Daniel; his face worked in misery. Daniel gave him a gentle smile.
“Anyway,” said Gibbs, “I couldn’t trust you wouldn’t try to put a spoke in the operation. And then the Autocrator would blame me, sure as shit stinks. They impale people, the Palmyrenes do, and it take a long time to die.”
“I see,” Daniel said. “Tell me, Gibbs — you know the ground here pretty well after so many years, I’d judge? Since your little prank destroyed the Commission’s vehicle, what other trustworthy aircars are there on Zenobia?”
“Well, the Founder’s got one,” Gibbs said, frowning. “It’s old but von Gleuck had some of his mechanics work it over. He and Lady Belisande, she’s the pretty one, they’ve gone jaunting about.”
“But that car is marked, is it not?” said Daniel.
“Oh, Hell, yes,” said Gibbs. “Great big Zenobian Cross on the bonnet, and a Belisande coat of arms on both sides.”
“So,” said Daniel dismissively. Adele didn’t know where the discussion was going; but knowing Daniel, it was certainly going somewhere. “What unmarked vehicles are there?”
“Not a bloody one,” Gibbs said. “Not if you don’t want to walk back. Some of the Councillors own a car for show, but they only run them in ground effect. There aren’t any mechanics you could trust here. Even a new car would go to crap in a year with no maintenance.”
“There’s one car,” Adele said.
Gibbs looked at her. “You don’t think the Resident’s going to lend you his?” he sneered.
“Yes!” said Daniel. “Thank you, Adele! Yes, that unmarked black limousine is perfect!”
“You want me to steal a car, young master?” Hogg said. The smile he gave the compartment was beatific, in its way.
“No,” said Daniel. “That would be an act of war, which is just what we’re trying to prevent. But I’m going to speak to a friend and see what he might be able to arrange.”
His sudden smile was just as broad as his servant’s.
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