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The Far Side of the Stars: Chapter Two

       Last updated: Monday, April 21, 2003 19:53 EDT



    Between wheezes for breath, the undertaker snarled at the troupe of actors wearing death masks of Stacey Bergen's famous ancestors in the rear yard of the chapel. Adele considered taking out her data unit to determine whether the large, elderly man--tall but definitely overweight besides--was Master Williams proper or the Son. The urge was wholly irrational so she suppressed it, but it would've taken her mind off the past and the future; and off death, at least for the moment, which is what it seemed to Adele that the past and future always came down to.

    She smiled. She knew other people viewed life differently, though she'd always suspected that they hadn't analyzed the subject as rigorously as she had.

    The undertaker had finally sorted the actors to his satisfaction. The clowns in the initial group started off down the boulevard singing, "Stacey came from the land where they understand..."

    The females wore caricatures of RCN uniforms and the males were in grotesque drag. Mind, some of the prostitutes Adele had seen plying their trade successfully outside Harbor Three were scarcely less unattractive. The RCN had high standards in many respects, but she'd come to the conclusion it was any port in a storm when it came to sexual relief after a long voyage.

    "...what it means to fornicate!" sang the clowns to the music of the flutes some of their members played.

    The actor playing Commander Bergen was next in the procession, walking ahead of the discretely motorized bier which a member of the undertaker's staff guided. Torchbearers, statuesque women in flowing garments, flanked him.

    Adele had listened without comment to the discussions Daniel and the widow held as to what age the actor was to portray his uncle. They'd finally decided on the man in his prime forty years ago when he'd just returned from the first of his long exploring voyages in the Beacon. The actor wore mottled gray fatigues with senior lieutenant's pips on his collar; and he walked with a slight limp, miming the result of a fall on a heavy-gravity planet and the spinal injuries which eventually left Stacey confined to a wheelchair.

    "Where even the dead sleep two in a bed...," sang the clowns. The masked 'ancestors' followed them out of the courtyard in pairs, moving at a stately walk while the clowns capered and mugged for the spectators lining both sides of the street to the crematorium. A funeral of this size was not only entertainment for the poor, it was news for all Xenos.

    The Bergens were an old but not particularly distinguished house; Stacey, who had retired from the RCN as a commander, was typical of his family. Today his lineage had been improved by leading military and political figures of the past. The families involved would never have lent the death masks without pressure that could only have come from Corder Leary.

    Adele'd never met Daniel's father and hoped never to meet him; that would save her the decision as to whether or not to shoot the man responsible for her parents' death. But no one had ever accused Speaker Leary of doing things halfway.

    "... and the babies masturbate!" sang the clowns.

    "Mistress Mundy?" murmured a voice in her ear; one of the undertaker's functionaries. "Come, please. The living family is next."

    Adele followed the little man through the crowd gathered inside the courtyard gate. He was polite as befit anyone dealing with people of the rank of those waiting, but he squeezed a passage for her with the authority of a much bigger fellow indeed.

    "You and Mistress Leary will follow Lt. Leary with the widow," the fellow said, depositing Adele, frowning in doubt, beside Deirdre Leary. Daniel's elder sister wore a tailored black suit of natural fabrics. The rosette on her beret was cream-and-rose, the Bergen colors.

    "Ah, Deirdre," Adele said. "Yes, of course you'd be here."

    Deirdre Leary had requested when she met Adele that they deal with one another by first names. Referring to their relationship as informal would've been stretching the word beyond its proper meaning, though. Adele respected the other woman, but she felt the two of them had as little in common as they did with the chlorine-breathing race of Charax IV. She presumed that Deirdre reciprocated her feelings.

    Adele was irritated with herself for not having expected Daniel's sister to be at the funeral. Speaker Leary's two children were, after all, the deceased's closest relatives by blood. And for that matter, Adele had almost nothing in common with Daniel either--on paper.

    The last of the actors passed through the gate. The undertaker spoke to Daniel, making shooing motions with rather less ceremony than Adele thought was due the man who was paying for this affair. Supporting the widow, a countrywoman who'd cooked and kept house for the retired commander and who had never said a word in Adele's hearing, Daniel stepped into the street.

    Adele's eyes narrowed. How much was this costing, anyway? She had a scholar's disregard for money, but Daniel's attitude was more that of a drunken spacer... which of course he was, often enough. Lt. Leary'd been a lucky commander, but even the captain's share of prize money didn't overwhelm the needs of a 23-year-old officer who demonstrated the same enthusiasm for living as he did for taking his command into the heart of the enemy's fire.

    The undertaker turned to Adele and her companion. His mouth, open to snap a brusque order, closed abruptly. He bowed low to Deirdre.

    Adele started forward, matching her pace to Daniel and the widow. It struck her for the first time that the bill--or at least the whole bill, knowing both that Daniel was stiff-necked and that he had very little conception of what things really cost--might not be going to the nephew after all. She looked at Deirdre but said nothing; there was really nothing to say, after all.

    The crowd in the street had a carnival atmosphere quite beyond the traditional life-affirming bawdy of the clowns in the lead. Adele heard spectators identifying members of the procession, herself included, to their children and companions. She couldn't imagine how they were able to do that until she heard a hawker in the near distance call, "Get your programs! Every famous personage, living or departed, listed here with their biographies!"

    Deirdre glanced over with a dry smile. "Surprised?" she asked.

    "Gratified, rather," Adele said. "I don't think there's anything that could have made Daniel happier. Since he got his first command, at any rate. You arranged it, I presume?"

    "I was acting on instructions," said Deirdre. "My principal will be pleased that you think matters are going well."

    Deirdre's principal would be her father--and Daniel's.

    The three-block avenue from the Stanislas Chapel to the crematorium was through public land which had been a floodplain before the Market River was first channelized, then covered. On a normal day there'd have been people doing outdoor gymnastics and running on the tracks around both halves of the property. A maze of kiosks on the north side catered to shoppers of all varieties. The booths were dismantled every dusk, leaving commercial activities to prostitutes of both sexes. Since Harbor Three lay just the other side of the perimeter fence, trade in the hours of darkness was also brisk.

    This morning everybody in sight had come to watch the funeral procession. She smiled wryly. Turning to Deirdre she said, talking over the crowd noise, "Commander Bergen actually deserves this pomp for having opened so many trade routes for the Republic... but his actions aren't the reason this is happening, are they?"

    Deirdre shrugged. She was dark-haired and reasonably attractive in business clothing. If she'd put the effort into her looks that most women seemed to, she could look stunning. Adele doubted that Daniel's sister felt any need to bother. Money and power would bring her any men she wanted, and the likelihood was that Deirdre shared with her brother a complete disinterest in what the partner of a night chose to do the next morning.

    Adele couldn't object. She herself wasn't interested in a partner at all.

    "It depends what you mean by 'his actions'," Deirdre said, meeting Adele's eyes with a level gaze. "The fact that he was a good friend and teacher to Corder Leary's son certainly has something to do with it."

    "Yes, I see," Adele said, nodding crisply.

    "But since we're on the subject of business...," Deirdre said. "Do you know what my brother intends to do as heir to Commander Bergen's share of the shipyard? The Republic's present state of peace with her neighbors will limit the opportunities open to a young naval officer, I should think?"

    Adele faced front, her expression cold. Her first reaction was shocked amazement; then the humor of it struck her and she chuckled aloud. They had been talking business, as Deirdre viewed the world, after all.

    Everything could be refined down to business if you looked at it the right way. The cost of the most elaborate funeral in a decade was on one side of the ledger; Adele didn't know, couldn't guess, what Deirdre put in the other pan of the balance, but she knew there had to be something.

    "I haven't discussed the future with Daniel," she said, wondering if the other woman would find her smile insulting. It wasn't meant to be; not entirely, at least. "He's been quite busy with funeral preparations, of course. Based on what he's said to me in the past, I don't imagine that he's interested in becoming a Cinnabar businessman, however."

    In all truth, Adele couldn't imagine her friend as anything except an RCN officer. Perhaps she was unduly influenced by the fact she'd only known Daniel for a year in which naval duties had absorbed him... but the uniform fit him perfectly. If anyone could be said to belong to the Republic of Cinnabar Navy in war or peace, it was Lt. Daniel Leary.

    Her smile quirked wryly. Perhaps the same was true of Adele Mundy, who'd found a family which respected her talents and which was willing to use her just as hard as it used her friend Daniel.

    "A shipyard can't simply be left to the workmen to run," Deirdre said. Her voice was thinner than it had been a moment before. Nobody likes to have her nose rubbed in the fact that someone else sees no value in what she holds dear; for all that Deirdre must have known before she raised the subject that Adele had no more interest in business than Daniel did. "Unless there's a suitable manager in place very shortly, the silent partner will demand that Bergen and Associates be sold up. I can understand my brother having other priorities--"

    She probably couldn't understand, any more than Daniel could have understood Deirdre's preoccupation with wealth and political power; but it was the polite thing to say.

    "--but he's trustee for Uncle Stacey's widow during her life. That will surely affect his decision?"

    The crematorium was a low, cast-concrete building, modeled on a pre-Hiatus temple; there were Corinthian pilasters across the front. The actor dressed as the deceased took his place to one side of the square bronze door flanked by the torch bearers, while the attendant locked the bier against the opening.

    The coffin was closed; the last six months had ravaged Stacey beyond what his nephew was willing to display to the world. A touch of a button would roll it through the door into the gas flames.

    The clowns had split to either side of the crematorium and waited behind it, still wearing their costumes but talking among themselves in low voices. Their parts were played, but their dressing rooms were trailers behind the chapel, inaccessible until the crowd dispersed.

    The troupe of ancestors seated themselves on the triple semicircle of folding chairs, each with a pole holding a card with the name of the character the actor represented. An usher guided Daniel and the widowed Mistress Bergen to their place on the left behind the actors; another usher gestured Adele to Deirdre to the right.

    Adele looked across the lines of age-blackened death masks to Daniel Leary, who beamed with pride and the joy of life. Beside and behind her, ushers were arraying the other mourners--admirals and cabinet ministers and merchant princes.

    She looked at her companion. "Deirdre," she said, "your brother will fulfill his duties to the widow in the fashion that seems best to him. I can't guess what that will be; I'm not Daniel. But--"

    She felt herself stiffen to even greater rigidity than usual, and her voice honed itself to a sharp edge.

    "--I would be very surprised if it crossed his mind that he should take up the partnership that his father used to degrade Uncle Stacey. And if Daniel did consider that, I would be merely one of his many friends to tell him that the notion was absurd. Am I sufficiently clear?"

    Music, an instrumental version of a martial hymn, boomed from speakers beneath the front corners of the crematorium. The coffin began to rumble forward.

    "Perfectly clear," Deirdre said. "I'll report your thoughts to my principal."

    The bronze door sprang upward and shut behind the coffin; an instant later, Adele felt the throb of the concealed gas flames. Deirdre leaned closer to continue in Adele's ear, "For what it's worth... Speaker Leary doesn't respect very many people. I believe that he'll be more pleased than not that his son is one of those few."




    Attendants had opened side gates so that spectators could disperse through the park as well as going up the avenue to the chapel the way they'd come. Daniel took off his saucer hat and mopped his face and brow with a handkerchief. He could barely see for sweat and the emotions that'd been surging through him during the morning.

    "It went well, Uncle Stacey," he muttered under his breath. By God it had! All Cinnabar had turned out to cheer the Republic's greatest explorer off on his final voyage.

    Maryam Bergen had left on the arm of Bergen and Associates' shop foreman, an old shipmate of her husband's and, not coincidentally, her brother. A mere workman couldn't be part of the official mourning, of course, but the foreman and most of the other yard employees had been given places just outside the fence where they had an unrivaled view.

    "Here you go, master," Hogg muttered, offering Daniel a silver half-pint flask. He'd already unscrewed the jigger measure that covered the stopper. He eyed the dispersing crowd, wearing an expression of the same satisfaction that Daniel felt.

    "What is it?" Daniel said as he plucked out the cork.

    "It's wet and you need it," Hogg said. "Just drink."

    Not precisely what a gentleman's gentleman would have said, but Daniel was a country gentleman which was a very different thing from the citified version. He took a swig of what might have been cherry brandy and certainly was strong enough to fuel an engine.

    The actors playing Stacey's ancestors had joined the clowns behind the crematorium. They'd handed the deathmasks to footmen from the families which'd provided them and were removing their costumes; attendants folded the chairs on which they'd been sitting.

    The man who'd impersonated Stacey was talking to the undertaker. He was the contractor as well as the principal performer, for the undertaker handed him a purse. He weighed it in his hand and bowed.

    Adele stood alone just beyond the ranks of chairs. When she caught Daniel's eye she nodded, turned, and walked away. Tovera, who must've been watching from the other side of the fence during the ceremony, trailed her mistress closely.

    Daniel smiled in appreciation. Adele wouldn't intrude, but she hadn't wanted to leave without saying goodbye.

    "Lt. Leary?" said a voice at his elbow. Daniel turned abruptly and found the principal actor beside him. "My name is Shackleford, Enzio Shackleford. I trust our performance was to your taste?"

    It was disconcerting to see the fellow still in uniform but without the mask and wig, for his wild white hair was utterly unlike anything a spacer would wear. In a cramped, weightless vessel, such strands would've drifted in all directions.

    Daniel swallowed the swig of brandy that'd been in his mouth when the man startled him. Part of it went down the wrong pipe; he sprayed it onto the sleeve of his Dress Whites that he got over his mouth and nose in time.

    Hogg muttered and snatched the kerchief from Daniel's cuff to mop at the liquor. It would've made better sense to sneeze on the actor's utility uniform....

    Shackleford pretended his attention was fastened on matters of supernal interest on the horizon. "A most gratifying house, if I may say so, Lieutenant. A turn-out that would've done honor to the most respected admiral or statesman. I was pleased to be in charge of the performance."

    "Your pardon, Master Shackleford," Daniel managed through spasms; the strong brandy burned like spattering thermite on the soft inner tissues of his nose. "Yes, yes, you did splendidly."

    "I like to think that the Enzio Shackleford Company gives value far above our small additional increment of cost compared to just any self-styled thespians," Shackleford said with an airy gesture of his hand to indicate they both were true aristocrats. "Allow me to provide you with my card, sir."

    He did so with a flourish that suggested he performed card tricks when nothing more lucrative offered itself.

    "You may have occasion at any moment to require similar services," Shackleford continued. "How well it has been said, 'We know not the day and hour of our passing.' In your moment of grief, sir, do not fail to call on the first name in posthumous impersonations--the Enzio Shackleford Company!"

    Daniel frowned, trying to imagine who else might die for whom he'd be responsible. Adele, perhaps? Though she was at no obvious risk unless catastrophe struck the Princess Cecile, in which case the vessel's commander was unlikely to be in a position to arrange the funeral.

    Thought of the Princess Cecile lowered a gray curtain over Daniel's mind; he took a long, deliberate drink from the flask, drawing its contents far down. He'd been tense throughout the day, afraid that some mistake would turn the proceedings into a farce. He'd felt no sadness, though; this had been a celebration of Stacey's life and--as it turned out--a triumph. The flesh, frail even in life, was now ash; but the name of Commander Stacey Bergen was on the lips of everyone in Xenos.

    Uncle Stacey's glorious send-off was past, and now present reality was intruding on the euphoria of the afternoon. Daniel had Admiral Anston's word that the Admiralty would find him a command; that counted for more than a signed and sealed commission from anybody else. The thought of the Sissie being gutted and turned into an intra-system tramp, though--that was troubling.

    Gutted--or simply bought by a breaker's yard for her masts, electronics and drives. Though the boom in trade that came with peace should give all spaceworthy hulls enough value to spare the Sissie that final indignity for a few years further.

    Daniel took another drink. When he lowered the flask empty, he saw Lt. Mon coming toward him against the grain of the departing crowd.

    In general terms he was glad to see Mon, who'd been as satisfactory a first lieutenant as Daniel could imagine serving under him: competent, careful, and brave--though that went almost without saying in an RCN officer. No few of those who wore the uniform were pig stupid, but cowards were as rare as saints. Besides those professional virtues, Mon was loyal to Daniel beyond what could be expected of a human being.

    On the other hand, if Mon was coming to moan about having to feed his large family on half-pay when the Sissie went out of commission, well--Daniel would sympathize, but at another time. For now his grief was for the corvette herself.

    "Sir!" Mon said, clasping Daniel's hand. "Thank God you're on Cinnabar. I had nightmares of you being off on an embassy to Kostroma or the Devil only knew where!"

    Mon's dress uniform fit poorly--he'd lost weight since he last wore it, which might have five or more years in the past--and he hadn't taken time to update his medal ribbons. Daniel let a smile of satisfaction touch his lips: the citations Mon had won in the brief time he'd served under Lt. Leary would have made the cabbage patch on his tunic much more impressive.

    Quite apart from the fit of his uniform, Mon looked dreadful. At the end of the brutal run to Sexburga, 17 days in the Matrix without a break, everybody aboard the Princess Cecile looked like they'd been dragged through a drainpipe... and even then, Mon had been in better shape than Daniel saw him now.

    "I'm here, right enough," Daniel said with a note of deliberate caution, "but as you can imagine, Mon, I have a good deal on my plate right at the moment. Perhaps later...?"

    "Sir," Mon said. His face screwed up in despair and frustration. "Daniel, for God's sake. I need help and I don't know where else to turn!"

    "Ah," said Daniel, nodding in understanding. "Well, I hope I always have a few florins for an old shipmate."

    He reached for the wallet that'd be attached to the equipment belt of the 2nd Class uniform he usually wore on the ground. His Whites used a cummerbund rather than a belt and had no provision for carrying money or anything else of practical value.

    "Hogg?" he said, trying to hide his irritation in forgetting the situation. "Do you have ten--that is, twenty florins you can let me have until I'm back in my rooms?"

    "Sir, it's not money...," Mon said. He straightened and looked around, suddenly a man again and an RCN officer. "Look, can we go somewhere and talk? This is...."

    He shrugged; Daniel nodded agreement. Standing in the open among attendants sweeping up the debris of a funeral simply wasn't the way to discuss anything except the weather.

    "Right," Daniel said. "The last time I looked there were bars just down the street. We'll find a booth and see how I can help you."

    He gave Mon his arm and they started up the avenue, by now almost empty of mourners. Though there was no lack of bars this close to Harbor Three, they weren't the sort of places that an officer usually entered wearing his dress uniform.

    Still, if Daniel kept his intake to only a few drinks--or anyway, a moderate amount--then he shouldn't have to replace his Whites because they were dirty; or they were bloody; or they'd been torn completely off his back in a brawl that'd started the Lord knew how. And if he did have to replace his uniform, well, an officer of the RCN was always ready to make sacrifices for his fellows.

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