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In The Stormy Red Sky: Chapter Seven

       Last updated: Monday, January 26, 2009 18:54 EST



Hereward on Paton

    “You can lower the ramp now, Woetjans,” Daniel called. He straightened the sleeve of his best 2nd class uniform and mused aloud, “I wonder if I ought to have worn my Whites?”

    Hogg snorted. “To meet the governor of this pisspot?” he said. “I don’t bloody think so, master.”

    One side of Daniel’s mouth twitched toward a grimace, but Senator Forbes and her aides didn’t seem offended. The pair of burly males carried a trunk large enough to hold a body; they didn’t bother to set it on the deck while they waited for the hatch to open. It would’ve been a problem to maneuver so bulky an item down the companionway of the Princess Cecile; Woetjans might’ve had to winch it out of an A Level access port.

    The entrance hold echoed as the dogs locking the hatch withdrew in a quick series of clangs. Daniel grinned as it creaked down to become the boarding ramp. He wasn’t sure he’d have been able to tell the sound from that of slugs from an automatic impeller raking the hull.

    He’d been aboard ships taking ground fire a number of times in the past; he probably would be again, unless human beings suddenly adopted a philosophy of peace. That seemed slightly less probable than Governor Das and his aides opening fire on the Milton.

    Hydraulic rams drove the ramp down with controlled determination. The opening sucked in whiffs of steam and the occasional sharp glitter of plasma, tendrils of exhaust which the atmosphere of Paton hadn’t quite reduced to a resting state.

    Hereward Harbor was an embayment that would’ve required artificial moles to be safe in a storm from the east. Presumably those were rare here. In any case, the sea’s unhindered flow flushed away the residues of starship landings more quickly than an enclosure would’ve done.

    Adele had put her little data unit on the attaché case which Tovera held out flat like a portable table. She turned her head toward Daniel and tapped her right wand twice. “The governor’s waiting for us,” she said.

    The holographic display above the unit had been a blur to Daniel; it suddenly resolved into imagery of the harborfront. Adele had switched it to omnidirectional, giving everyone around her an opportunity to see what she was seeing.

    An all-terrain truck with eight large tires waited at the land side of the quay. The crest on the driver’s door meant it was as close to a limousine as the Cinnabar Resident in the Veil was authorized. Governor Das wore his diplomatic dress uniform of scarlet frock coat with black stove-pipe trousers. His boots, waistbelt with shoulder strap, and transverse bicorne hat were all of gilt leather. He was a pudgy little fellow and looked as uncomfortable as he did silly.

    Behind him were two aides, a middle-aged woman and a youth who couldn’t be older than twenty. Both stood rigidly, but the woman kept shifting a flat datafile from her right hand to the left.

    “Mistress, the hatch is opening,” Tovera said. She wasn’t exactly showing emotion–Daniel was pretty sure the little two-legged viper didn’t feel emotion–but her tone hinted at stress. The reaction would have puzzled a stranger who didn’t know that Tovera was as paranoid as she was lethal and that her sub-machine gun was in the case which she couldn’t open while it was Adele’s table.

    Das looked over his shoulder and said something unheard to his aides. They started up the pier, marching in better time than Daniel’s class at the Academy had generally been able to manage. Was that something the foreign service taught its recruits?

    “In a moment,” Adele said sharply, but even as she spoke she shut down the data unit. Tovera unlatched the case and turned, putting herself between her mistress and whatever waited beyond the lowering hatch.

    Daniel smiled faintly. Because of his interest in natural history, he sometimes found himself thinking of human beings as though they were simply animals. They weren’t, of course, not simply; but other species weren’t simply animals either.

    While Adele was unquestionably the dominant member of her small pack, there was a good deal of give and take between her and her servant. As there was–Daniel’s grin grew broader–between him and Hogg.

    The hatch was horizontal but continued to whirr slowly downward. The crews at Bergen and Associates had done an exceptional job in straightening the Milton’s frames, warped by her collision with another ship during her final battle under Alliance colors. Part of Daniel’s duties as the vessel’s first captain after a rebuild was to assess the quality of the work which had been done on her. He’d be able to give it an enthusiastic recommendation.

    An honest recommendation, but that went without saying for those who really knew Daniel Leary. He was an RCN officer first, and he wouldn’t have hesitated to shut down his own dockyard, no matter how profitable, if it hadn’t been doing work he could be proud of.

    “Well, they keep a cleaner harbor than some,” said Hogg, eyeing the shore a hundred yards away. He stood with his hands in his pockets–probably gripping a pistol and his big folding knife–but managing to look sloppy rather than belligerent.

    Daniel gave Hogg a sharp glance. He was trying to be nice. He was probably a little embarrassed to have spoken his mind in a fashion that could’ve caused his master difficulties with Senator Forbes, though that appeared to have gone unnoticed.

    The outer edge of the boarding ramp was supported on the extended outrigger, itself as big as a corvette. From there it was still necessary to reach the shore. A team of laborers was unrolling the floating extension of foam plastic which would connect the concrete pier to the landing stage on the cruiser’s shoreside–starboard in this case–outrigger.

    The usual broad street followed the curve of the harbor. Bulk cargo was stacked under tarpaulins or plastic film at several points along it, often spilling onto the pavement.

    In the middle of the seafront was a small domed temple that looked old enough to date from before the Hiatus. Molded plaster sheathed the concrete walls. Flaking patches had been filled, but they were noticeably brighter than the sun-burnished surface.



    The remaining structures were one or two stories, built from precast panels; windows ran the full height of the walls. They were painted in varying bright pastels, though, and the flowers and geometric designs stencilled on the walls gave them even more individuality.

    “Ship,” said Daniel, speaking into the microphone discretely clipped to his left epaulet. In other circumstances he might’ve worn a commo helmet, though that was technically improper with either form of dress uniform. He preferred not to take chances in the presence of Senator Forbes, however. “I’m leaving the Millie in the capable hands of Mister Robinson. He’ll announce the leave roster when the vessel’s squared away.”

    Actually, Robinson would announce the leave roster as soon as the civilian brass had gotten safely out of the way. Daniel didn’t want a party of rambunctious spacers to shove the governor into the harbor as they rushed toward bars at the other end of the pier. They wouldn’t mean any harm by it, but folks who spent their working life in the Matrix were hard to discipline. Their attitude differed from that of civilians whose daily concerns didn’t include the risk of being lost forever in a universe which wasn’t meant for human beings.

    “Six out, Millies!” Daniel concluded. He’d never commanded a ship with so large a complement before. He suspected that he’d have forty or fifty spacers in the local jail by morning… though it was possible that the Millies would completely overwhelm the local authorities. That would be even worse, but he’d deal with whatever happened.

    “Captain?” Senator Forbes said. “Master Beckford is sending an aircar for me. It’ll be able to land here aboard ship, won’t it?”

    Daniel’s face went hard. He wasn’t looking at Forbes, but he knew Adele could see his expression. There were any number of ways a civilian flying an aircar into the hold of a warship could go wrong.

    “Your pardon, Senator,” Adele said in her usual tone of clipped certainty. “I checked with Lieutenant Commander Robinson before I transmitted your message to Mount Marfa. On his recommendation, I directed the vehicle to wait for you on shore for the sake of your safety.”

    “What sort of nonsense is that?” Forbes said in amazement.

    As she spoke, there was a clang and a squeal from above. A topsail yard rotated slowly across the hatchway while riggers shouted angry recriminations at one another. They were working to clear tangles, tears, and very possibly missing spars. This was the Milton’s first landfall after a voyage on which her captain had wrung the rig out properly.

    Things did snap and fall and were dropped. Even without that, the air currents around the big ship changed as spacers opened hatches. That created a tricky environment for a pilot who wasn’t used to it.

    If Daniel had offered those reasons, Forbes might well have ordered him to keep the Milton closed up over her crew until she’d left with her friend. With the decision already made and laid to her protégé, however–

    “Mister Robinson is quite right, Senator,” Daniel said smoothly. “The Gods alone know what sort of ham-fisted foreigners Master Beckford found to fly for him on this benighted mudball.”

    He coughed into his hand and added, “Incidentally, I understand the lieutenant commander is related to you. An excellent officer, milady. The Milton is fortunate to have him.”

    Forbes looked at him, suddenly without expression. Daniel had been feeling–well, smug, if he had to be honest; smugly self-satisfied. Though he’d been sure nothing showed beneath his blandly professional smile.

    “Captain Leary,” Forbes said. Her voice sounded like a hen scratching through gravel, but she didn’t raise it. “Do not patronize me.”

    Daniel let his face go blank. Hogg shifted; Daniel didn’t glance to the side to see what his servant was doing.

    “Senator,” he said. He dipped his chin in acknowledgment.

    The ramp boomed onto the outrigger. Clamps locked it in place with a quick whang/whang.

    Forbes glanced over her entourage. The servants with the trunk met her eyes with the dull disinterest of draft animals. Platt, her male secretary, was tall, soft, and effete; an ageing queen unless Daniel misjudged him. He pretended to be looking at his feet. DeNardo, the Senator’s, well, companion, smiled back. He probably wasn’t any smarter than the two porters, but he had a sunnier disposition.

    “Come along,” Forbes said. “We’ll wait on shore, as Captain Leary thinks best. Lady Mundy, accompany me if you please. I’d like to have someone to talk with until Prince Willie arrives. He wasn’t known for being punctual even before he emigrated to this godforsaken place.”

    Adele turned toward her, pointedly without looking at Daniel. She slid her data unit into its pocket. “Yes, all right, Senator,” she said.

    She and Forbes walked down the ramp, step and step. Tovera followed a little behind and to the left of the others; her right hand was inside the attaché case.

    Daniel followed Forbes’ back with his eyes. “I misjudged that one, Hogg,” he said quietly.

    Hogg brought his right hand out of his pocket. He snicked opened the blade of his knife, then clicked it closed again.

    “You got away with it by dumb luck this time, young master,” he said. “But don’t make a habit of it if you plan to get older.”



    The harbormen were sauntering back toward the pier now that they’d unrolled the floating bridge till it reached the outrigger. Woetjans and a team of spacers were lashing the free end to the landing stage; Adele noted that the connection was very loose.

    The bosun glanced up at the sound of feet on the boarding ramp. She must’ve noticed Adele’s… frown was too strong a word, but frown.

    “The sea’s calm enough now, ma’am,” Woetjans said, “but if we lock the bridge in tight, she’ll go under water every time the Millie twitches. Don’t want you to get your footsies wet, right?”

    Woetjans stepped aside and made a flourish with her right arm. “Clear for use, now,” she said. In a different tone she added, “Get out of the bloody way, Hebart!” and aimed a kick at the backside of the spacer who was crowding the path.

    Adele walked quickly down the outrigger’s ladderway–as she’d learned to call stairs on a ship–and across the landing stage. It seemed solid, anchored by the Milton’s huge mass. Only when she stepped onto the foam bridge did she have the queasy sensation of floating. It was six feet wide, with a non-skid surface and a rope railing on flimsy poles to either side.

    Adele slacked her quick strides when she was well inshore from the landing stage. Senator Forbes caught up with her. The distance kept the conversation they were about to have private.

    “Do you always let commoners talk to you like that?” the older woman said. Her voice would never be pleasant, but this time she was pointedly not making an effort that it should be.

    Adele smiled. “Woetjans is my superior officer, Senator,” she said. “I’m not political, of course, but a senator’s daughter learns to appreciate the value of hierarchies.”

    Forbes flushed. She glared at Adele, who met the anger with an icy lack of emotion. They continued to walk side by side.

    “I’m not mocking you, Senator,” Adele said on the third stride. “And I’m certainly not joking. I hold a number of roles in life, as most people do. To Chief Woetjans, I’m ‘ma’am’ as a mark of respect granted to me and not due to my position as the Milton’s signals officer.”

    The senator’s expression faded to neutral. “Ah!” she muttered. She cleared her throat. “Yes, all right, I see. Sorry, Mundy.”

    She probably thinks that Mistress Sand placed me in the RCN, Adele realized. Not even leaders of the Senate cared to delve too deeply into Mistress Sand’s business.

    “You know Leary well,” said Forbes as they walked on. “He’s got quite a reputation, in the Navy and to anybody who follows the ordinary news.”

    “Yes,” said Adele. “To both statements.”

    She said as little as she politely could until she learned where the senator was going with her observations. Daniel and the RCN were so much of Adele’s life–were virtually the whole of her life–that she had to remind herself every time the subjects came up that other people didn’t have the same view of the cosmos.

    She smiled wryly–at herself. They were wrong, of course, but she’d understood even before the Proscriptions that other people didn’t have to be right to have power over her.

    “Does he fancy a political career, do you think?” Forbes said.

    Adele clutched her personal data unit, still snug against her thigh. The question had been a shock. Just as well I took the question as an informational absurdity rather than a threat.

    Smiling rather wider than before, Adele said, “He does not. I don’t know a person who would be less interested in a political career. Except for myself, perhaps.”

    “He could parlay his naval exploits into serious votes, you know,” Forbes said earnestly. “Or perhaps you don’t know, Mundy, you’ve lived off-planet for a long time now. Take it from me, your Captain Leary could be the darling of the mob if he played his cards right.”

    “He’s not an especially good card player, his man tells me,” Adele said coolly. “Too enthusiastic, apparently.”

    She coughed, giving herself another moment to organize… not her thoughts, but how she could present those thoughts in a fashion that a politician would understand. “Captain Leary sees himself as an RCN officer before everything else.”

    That might not be true: Daniel probably considered himself as a spacer first and an RCN officer only as a subset of his greater role. If that meant Adele was lying to a politician, it was merely a pleasant reversal of roles.

    “He’s certainly capable of political maneuvering in the course of his RCN duties,” she continued. “I’ve watched him do so a number of times, most recently in the Bagarian Cluster. But–”

    “Don’t forget who you’re talking to, Mundy,” Forbes said, though it was with bluff good-humor rather than a threatening snarl. “I saw Mistress Sand’s hand in that business.”

    “With respect, Senator,” Adele said, feeling the edge in her tone. “Don’t underestimate Captain Leary. He is his father’s son. But you can take my word for it that they share no interests–”

    Save for liking the favors of young women; but this wasn’t the time for Adele to be as precise as her instinct urged.

    “–whatever. Or I wouldn’t be here.”

    Forbes laughed. She sounded like glass breaking, but Adele was reasonably sure she was really amused.

    They’d led the procession all the way from the cruiser. As they neared the concrete pier, Tovera slipped between without brushing either one of them. “What?” said Forbes, too shocked to be angry.

    “She’ll wait for us, Senator,” Adele said. She wondered if her voice showed the humor she felt. “There’s some things she needs to take care of.”

    She watched her servant mount the metal stairs. Though they slanted out toward the bottom only by the width of each tread, Tovera didn’t use her hands. On top of the pier she moved Governor Das and his aides back with a few words and an imperious jerk of her head.

    Adele followed. At this stage of the tide, the pier was eight steps above the water level. The bottom two treads were slimy, but at least the stringers at shoulder height were dry to Adele’s hands; they left black corrosion on her palms, though. Behind, Forbes muttered, “This is abominable!”

    Adele stepped aside on the concrete. She took out her handkerchief and wiped her hands.

    “Ah, Senator…?” said Governor Das hopefully to Adele. His uniform had a high collar, and his throat above it was squeezed to almost the same scarlet hue.

    “She’s coming, your Excellency,” Adele said, nodding toward the ladder. She refolded the handkerchief to bring clean surfaces outward.

    Forbes reached the concrete. “Senator Forbes,” Das said, his voice a half octave above where it had been a moment before. “Allow me to welcome you to–”

    “I do not know you, sir,” Forbes said, wiping her hands on Adele’s handkerchief. She dropped it disdainfully into the water. “Come along, Mundy. I think I hear an aircar.”

    Adele fell into step. The business left an unpleasant taste in her mouth, but she hadn’t liked Forbes to begin with. Das had behaved like a social-climbing toady, and by so doing he’d let himself in for a snub in front of his subordinates. That was simple cause and effect, and the victim was the cause of his own discomfiture.

    She smiled wryly. It still left a bad taste in her mouth.

    Forbes looked at her. “If Captain Leary did decide on a political career,” she said quietly, “an alliance with an experienced politician could save him from the sort of mistakes that even a clever young man could make in ignorance.”

    “Senator,” said Adele, “I’ll deliver your message discreetly. But information is my business.”

    She smiled coldly. “I started to say, ‘my life.’ That would have been accurate also. I’ve told you that Captain Leary will not, in my best personal and professional analysis, ever consider a political career.”

    Forbes made a moue, screwing her face into even more unattractive lines. “You have a reputation for being as blunt as you’re clever, Mundy,” she said. “It’s a wonder you’ve lived as long as you have.”

    “I’m also a good shot,” Adele said. If Forbes had learned the rest, she knew that already; but stating it–bluntly–made a useful point. “That has helped on occasion.”

    She glanced over her shoulder. Daniel and five other officers had followed the Senator’s party to the pier at a polite distance. The junior officers were now returning to the Milton–their presence had been merely for honor’s sake–while Daniel and Hogg were accompanying the local officials back to the car.



    Adele gave a mental shrug. She could only hope that Beckford’s aircar arrived before Das and Forbes found themselves at the end of the pier together. The governor could avoid awkwardness by dawdling, of course, which he should be able to figure out on his own. His record in Client Affairs–she’d looked Das up, of course–was good if unspectacular.

    She and Forbes had reached the broad esplanade which ran in both directions around the harbor. Tractors hauled cargo wagons, many of them wooden-framed, to and from lighters. Some of the piers had derricks, but much of the work was being done by human beings. Some stevedores were women, but the gangs themselves were segregated by gender.

    Forbes looked at the buildings across the esplanade. It was early in the day, but the taverns were busy. Several of the spacers staggering through the swinging doors were so drunk that they must have spent the whole night inside.

    “What a bloody dump,” she said bitterly.

    “Oh, Paton isn’t really so bad, Senator,” said Adele, following the other’s eyes with her own. “You mustn’t judge a planet by its harborfront. Even Cinnabar, I’m afraid.”

    “You have the advantage of experience, I suppose, Mundy,” Forbes said. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to learn to accept this sort of–”

    She gestured toward the buildings. They were roofed with corrugated metal or plastic sheeting, and the bright paint had flaked in many places to show underlayers that from a distance had looked like designs.

    “–environment unless I can somehow find a way to get back into the fight in Xenos. My whole life to date has been spent in civilized surroundings.”

    An aircar was approaching from the north at 500 feet. As Adele glanced up, it dropped into a spiral centered on the senator and her entourage. It was a large, enclosed vehicle, painted light blue with swirls of pink blurring into magenta.

    “I’ve learned I’m not very good at predicting the future,” Adele said in a neutral voice as she watched the car landing. One of the things “civilization” meant to her, of course, was her sister’s head nailed to Speaker’s Rock; but there was no need to remind Forbes of that. “The best things that have happened to me have been wholly unexpected.”

    “Life has made me less optimistic than you, Mundy,” the senator said. “You may be right, of course.”

    The aircar fluffed to a halt on the esplanade twenty feet away. The driver had landed downwind so that he didn’t blow grit on the waiting passengers. If he’d been hired locally, the standard of drivers on Paton was extremely high.

    Servants hopped from the vehicle’s open rear compartment and opened the double doors in the middle. They wore full livery, not collar flashes, in the same blue and pink color scheme as the car.

    Beckford waddled out. He was at least fifty pounds heavier than he looked in the last images taken of him before he left Cinnabar, and he hadn’t been slim then. He made kissing gestures with both hands and cried, “Bessie, dearest!”

    His costume had feathers for a theme; Adele wondered if Beckford had designed it himself. There was a range of competence in any specialty, of course, but she would’ve expected any professional designer to have some taste.

    “Hello, Willie,” the senator said. She didn’t step closer, but she gave Beckford a tiny bow in greeting. “It’s my great good luck to find you here in this–”

    She lifted her hands, palms up, and gave him a false smile.

    “–corner of the universe, shall we say?”

    Adele stood quietly with only her eyes moving, but Beckford’s attention fell on her nonetheless. “I say, Bessie,” he said. “Couldn’t they find an officer to escort you? You really are slumming, aren’t you?”

    Adele realized she’d been waiting for that; waiting for some excuse, anyway. She’d known it would happen ever since she watched Forbes snub Governor Das.

    Her mind was as cold as steel in the Matrix. She smiled.

    “Willie,” Forbes said urgently, her eyes flicking between Beckford and Adele. “You should know–”

    “You are mistaken, Beckford,” Adele said. There was a rasp she didn’t expect beneath her drawl. Her left hand hung down at her side. “My father, who was Mundy of Chatsworth before me, didn’t shun you because your people are in trade. He was quite willing to entertain tradesmen and even manual laborers when the needs of the party required it, but as a gentleman he had to maintain some standards.”

    She paused and smiled a little wider. “He shunned you,” she said, “because you personally are a maggot.”

    “Willie…,” said Senator Forbes. She took Beckford by the right hand and half-guided, half-forced, him to turn toward the car again. “I was going to introduce you to Lady Mundy, but I don’t think this is the time. Come, be a dear and get me to a hot bath and dinner at once, won’t you?”

    She shoved Beckford into the shadowed interior of the vehicle and followed him. “But your ladyship, what are we to do?” bleated Platt, stepping forward.

    “Stay here until the car comes back for you!” Forbes shouted. “For Hell’s bloody sake, stay here till you rot, you fool! Driver, get us out of here!”

    The footmen closed the doors with mechanical precision, then leaped like acrobats for the rear compartment. Before they were fully in, the aircar lifted as smoothly as it’d settled to the pavement.

    Tovera chuckled. “I didn’t have anything heavy enough to get the driver,” she said. “The windows were armored. But I don’t suppose he was much of a threat anyway, do you?”

    “None of them were threats,” Adele said. She was trembling in response to the adrenalin she hadn’t burned off in an orgy of killing. “There wasn’t going to be any trouble.”

    “Officer Mundy?” Daniel called.

    Adele turned, clenching and unclenching her left hand to work the tension out of it. Daniel, with Hogg and the three Paton officials, stood beside the official ground car. “S-sir?” she said.

    “Would you care to join us at the Governor’s Palace for a discussion of recent events in the Veil?” Daniel said. “Since you appear to be free, that is.”

    He’ll learn more without me, Adele realized. Her presence would disturb the locals, either because they didn’t know why a signals officer was at the meeting, or because they did know. Daniel was inviting her as a way of getting her out of what must have looked like a dangerous situation.

    “No thank you, sir,” she said aloud. “I’ll return to by duties on board, if I may.”

    “Carry on, then, Mundy,” Daniel said, but she was already walking back down the pier. Of course she’d carry on; that’s what she did.

    And she’d keep on doing it until the day she died.



    “I hope you won’t mind if I loosen a few buttons, your Excellency,” Daniel said. He grinned across the compartment at Das and his aides, perched on the edge of their rear-facing seat. “Even these Grays are bad enough. I really should’ve gotten out my Dress Whites to accompany Senator Forbes, but I find them the most uncomfortable things I’ve worn since I was put in the stocks on Manzanita in the course of a midshipmen’s cruise.”

    Das’s official vehicle used the chassis of an armored personnel carrier. It was quite roomy, given that the present occupants weren’t a squad of troops in battle dress–and the furnishings were reasonably comfortable. The suspension was tuned for an additional five tons of armor, however. Jolts over potholes didn’t harm the vehicle in the least, but the passengers bounced like peas in a maraca.

    Das gave a sigh and unhooked his collar–as Daniel had intended he should. In fact his Whites wouldn’t have been bad at all; he’d lost a few pounds on space duty, as he usually did. The governor was as miserable in his dress uniform as any middle-aged man would be squeezing into a closely tailored garment that he wore only rarely. Putting the poor fellow at ease was a kindness and was likely to lead to a better conversational atmosphere.

    “It’s part of the job,” Das murmured with a self-conscious smile, “but not a part that I take naturally to.”

    His face dropped into bleak misery. “I needn’t have bothered today, should I?”

    Daniel looked out the vehicle’s big side windows. The larger flying species on Paton had scaly bodies and used their hind limbs to flap wings stretched by rigid tails. A pair were curveting through a cloud of chitinous glitters drawn by a spill on the sidewalk.

    “I’m afraid Senator Forbes suffered a very embarrassing political defeat recently,” Daniel said, keeping his head turned to imply that his whole attention was on the wildlife. “You wouldn’t go far wrong to suggest that she’s in mourning for her senatorial hopes.”

    “I told you!” said Das’s female aide. “It had to be something like that, Governor.”

    Well, no, it didn’t, Daniel thought. And indeed, it probably wasn’t anything to do with Forbes’ behavior. But a polite fiction, like a loose collar, made for a more comfortable ride.

    “Well, of course the ambassador was merely stretching her legs on Paton, I realized that,” Das said. “There’s nothing here of real importance to the Republic, or–”

    His smile wasn’t bitter, though perhaps it was a little sad.

    “–I wouldn’t be here myself, Captain Leary. Still, I like to think that although this is a small corner of Cinnabar’s influence, we keep it well swept.”

    “You do indeed, sir!” said the young male aide. He had acne scars, and his uniform–beige with scarlet piping, apparently the diplomatic equivalent of Dress Grays–had been taken in and lengthened considerably after being cut for a shorter, fatter man. “It’s an honor to be assigned to your tutelage.”

    Either that was blatant flattery, or the boy must have trouble in the morning deciding which foot to put each shoe on. Given that he’d been sent to Paton, Daniel suspected his Ministry instructors were of the latter opinion.

    The vehicle–was it technically a limousine since that was the function it fulfilled?–pulled up in front of a long, low building similar to many of those it had passed on the way from the harbor. The walls were structural plastic, originally white but muted to a pleasant cream color by decades of sun and dust. The surface could be burnished to its original brightness, but that would just make it blindingly unpleasant in full sunshine.

    The guard seated in front of the building had jumped up as the vehicle approached. He stood at attention with his weapon–an impeller carbine and not, Daniel thought, of Cinnabar manufacture–butted alongside his right foot.

    “You run a tight ship here, Governor,” Daniel said, surprised and amused.

    Das coughed. “Well,” he said, “not always. Charcot, you can relax. Senator Forbes is off on her own business, and Captain Leary here takes a reasonable attitude toward appearances.”

    The guard grinned and lost his stiff brace, but he didn’t sit down again while Das was present. “Glad to hear it, sir,” he said.

    “Come in and have a drink while we talk, Leary,” the governor said. “And Amos can find something for your man–”

    He nodded toward Hogg.

    “–if you don’t object?”

    “The young master doesn’t object,” Hogg said firmly. “Let’s go, boy. And if you know where a pack of cards can be found, maybe we can try a few friendly hands of poker.”

    As Hogg and the youth disappeared through the front door, Daniel took a better look at the building. To the right, a number of women–several with children in their arms or clinging to their skirts–were talking with people inside. One was even holding hands. It was a moment before Daniel realized that the windows were barred.

    “The jail’s in that wing,” said the female aide. “Mostly drunken knifings. Some theft, but that’s mostly drunken too. There isn’t much scope for master criminals on Paton, I’m afraid.”

    Daniel followed the governor through the swinging door and into a rectangular hall. It was dim after the street, because the only illumination came from clerestory windows shaded by the eaves. The air was noticeably cooler than that outside.

    Half a dozen men lounged on wooden benches, apparently taking advantage of the temperature. Two were playing checkers on a board set between them. No one spoke, though several looked up when the door opened.

    “We fine prisoners or sentence them to a term of labor if they can’t pay the fine,” Das said, leading the way down the hallway to the left. “Which they generally can’t. Cone Transport buys the labor contracts, which is handy for everyone concerned.”

    He opened the door at the end of the hallway and waved Daniel through. A massive desk faced out from the back wall, and a modern console purred across from it. The aide moved to the console, while Das stepped behind the desk and opened a drawer.

    “Have a chair, Leary,” Das said. “Or–” he patted the conformal seat of off-planet manufacture beside him “–would you like this one?”

    “This suits me well,” said Daniel, easing himself onto one of the pair of massive wooden chairs in front of the desk. The seat itself was of braided leather and unexpectedly comfortable, but that didn’t really matter for the brief period he expected to occupy it. “Ah–you mentioned Cone Transport. How much interaction do you have with Master Beckford, if you don’t mind my asking?”

    “I don’t mind a bit,” said Das, pouring an inch into each of the three glasses he’d taken from the drawer along with the bottle. Daniel’s eyes were adapting to the light; he thought the liquor seemed to be cherry-colored rather than simply a dark brown. “No interaction at all, is the answer.”

    “We’re aware that Beckford owns Cone Transport,” the aide said, taking a glass and sliding a second across the table to Daniel. “But he has nothing to do with running the company or any of his companies, as best we can see. He lives on Paton by choice, not because Cone Transport is a major industry here.”

    “Take water to taste, Leary,” Das said, rotating the water pitcher so that the handle was toward Daniel. “It’s porphyrion, something of a specialty of the Veil, you know. I like to cut it by half myself, but I know you spacers have heads that an old landsman like me can’t imagine.”

    Daniel sipped, wondering what porphyrion might be when it was at home. Adele would have her data unit out if she were here. In fact, she’d probably have started checking the instant the bottle of ruddy fluid came out of the drawer instead of waiting for Das to use the word.

    “It’s beet liqueur,” said the aide helpfully. “Some claim that the best is distilled on Karst, but we’ve grown to like the flavor of the Paton product better.”

    If there was a flavor–and the color indicated porphyrion wasn’t simply industrial alcohol–Daniel missed it, but he’d drunk his share of Power Room slash during his years in the RCN and this wasn’t any worse. “Thank you, sir,” he said. “Straight up is fine with me. Ah–what sort of labor does Cone Transport need?”

    “Lift and carry, mostly,” Das said, leaning back in his chair. “They’ve got huge farms, maize and turnips for greens mostly. It’s heavily mechanized, but you still need human beings. Cone brings in contract labor in its own ships when they take out the crops. They’re always glad of a little extra that doesn’t require transport costs, though–and that’s where the prisoners come in handy.”



    Daniel finished his drink, pursing his lips for a moment of silent thought. Das tapped the bottle and said, “Another?”

    “In a moment, sir,” Daniel said. He tilted a few fingers of water into his glass and drank it down to clear his mouth. Shoving the empty toward the governor, he said, “Basic subsistence crops like that usually aren’t economic to transport long distances. Do you have any idea where they’re going?”

    “No sir,” said the aide. Her tone was subdued.

    “Leary…,” said the governor as he finished pouring. He set the bottle on the desk with more of a thump than he probably intended to. “We carry out our duties here. We make sure that prisoners are released when their sentences are up, and we check the conditions for contract laborers generally on Cone Transport’s farms.”

    “They’re not leisure spas,” said the aide. “But there’s food and medical facilities. And the housing’s better than what non-contract laborers who live in Hereward have, most of them.”

    “Master William Beckford doesn’t make trouble on Paton,” Das said forcefully. “People enter and leave his estate at Mount Marfa only in his own vehicles, that’s true, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Anybody’s got the right to shut his door to other people, and if Beckford’s got a bigger house than most, then he’s still got the same rights.”

    “Captain,” said the aide, “we don’t borrow trouble. If Beckford came here because there’s more space between him and his neighbors than there was on Cinnabar–well, there is more space. And he’s doing nothing wrong!”

    “I won’t swear to that,” said the governor with a half smile. He swirled the watered liqueur in his glass, then took another sip. “I won’t swear that about my seventy-nine-year-old mother on Xanthippe. But I will say there’s not even rumors, not beyond the sort who claims the pawnbroker down the street is an Alliance spy.”

    Daniel laughed, drank, and pushed his glass over for another refill. “I understand,” he said. “My family’s estate is on the West Coast. We don’t take to officials from Xenos telling us how to do things, so long as there’s no complaints… which seems the case here with Beckford. And anyway, it’s no business of an RCN captain, is it?”

    “I know there’s a belief that all protectorate officials are corrupt, Leary,” the aide said. “That isn’t true, here in the Veil at least.”

    “There’s remarkably little reason for turnip farmers to need to bribe anyone,” Das said, lowering his re-emptied glass. His cheeks and forehead had a rosy glow. He sounded more rueful than bitter, though there might’ve been some of both. “Cone Transport may have other interests, but not here on Paton.”

    “Those troops?” said the aide. She kept raising the glass to her lips, but the level didn’t seem to change when she set it down again. “Not that I think there’s anything wrong, but…?”

    “There’s something wrong, all right, but it’s not the Cone factor’s fault,” Das said. He turned to Daniel. “There’s a regiment of troops billeted here in a Cone warehouse and Factor Amberly’s tearing his hair out. There’s something wrong with the navigation system of the ship they’re to leave on and nobody seems to be able to fix it. Amberly was here just the other day, asking if we could help.”

    The aide smiled at her glass. “The staff of the Veil Protectorate doesn’t run to astrogators, I’m afraid,” she said. “But, ah… Captain?”

    She raised her eyes. Das was looking at Daniel hopefully also.

    “Well, I suppose I could take a look at the problem,” he said, keeping his face neutral while he thought. He didn’t want to call attention to the Spezza and her secret mission, but under the circumstances it was going to cause more speculation if an RCN captain refused to help a unit of the Republic’s troops which was having difficulties. “The senator said she planned to spend forty-eight hours on the ground before she’d be ready to leave for Karst.”

    He cleared his throat. He could imagine getting a taste for porphyrion, which he never would’ve said about alcohol bled from the Power Room hydraulics.

    “Speaking of Karst,” he said, “how do you–closer to the problem, that is–feel about Headman Hieronymos?”

    The aide made a choking sound. She turned her head and gulped down half her drink. She wasn’t faking it this time.

    Das grimaced but met Daniel’s eyes. “I think it’s well beyond anything the Protectorate Service can fix,” he said flatly. “Sending a senatorial envoy in a cruiser was a good idea. Sending a fleet of battleships would be an even better one.”

    He took a deep breath and went on, “And yes, I know Jeff–my deputy, Jeff Merrick–screwed up. I know it and Anya here knows it and believe me, Jeff knows it.”

    “He’s a good man,” said the aide, who now had a first name. She’d finished the porphyrion; the empty glass was trembling between her hands. “He’s a wonderful man, smart and completely trustworthy, wonderful. But what does he know about spies? What do any of us know about spies?”

    “Here, Anya,” Das said. “Give me your glass.”

    As he poured, he continued, “It’s really that simple, Captain. Jeff handles the customs duties for the whole region. There are never any problems–I couldn’t ask for a better man. Foreign intelligence is part of the deputy’s duties, but there wasn’t any foreign intelligence, this is the Veil. By the Gods, I’m the regional medical officer! Am I at fault if a plague breaks out on Paton?”

    He shrugged. Daniel suspected he’d have turned his palms up if that wouldn’t have required him to put down his glass. “I sent Jeff off to Thorndyke to review the customs receipts there until I recalled him,” he said. “The ministry could sack him but they won’t, because bloody foreign intelligence isn’t their priority either. The Gods only know what Senator Forbes might do if Jeff stayed where she could find him, though. So I got him out of the way.”

    Daniel weighed the options, then grinned. After all, hanging a competent financial officer wasn’t going to make the situation on Karst any more to the Republic’s benefit.

    “Well, what do you think, Captain Leary?” said the aide in a trembling voice.

    “My dear lady,” said Daniel, “I think that your beet liqueur has quite grown on me. Governor, I’ll have another glassful, if you please, while Anya copies all your files on the Hegemony to the Milton, Attention Signals Officer.”

    Turning again to the aide, he said, “Your console can do that, can’t it?”

    “Why…,” she said, looking toward Das; he nodded firmly. “Yes, of course I can. I, I’ll get to it at once.”

    As the governor refilled the glasses, Daniel said, “As you say, foreign intelligence isn’t the business of the Client Affairs or the RCN either one, I’ll add. I’m sure that the persons whose job it really is are hard at work right now.”

    He grinned. He knew that one of them certainly was.

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