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The Far Side of the Stars: Chapter Three

       Last updated: Saturday, May 17, 2003 20:29 EDT



    Buelow's, only three doors down from the Stanislas Chapel, catered to warrant officers looking for a place to have a drink rather than common spacers intending to get falling-down drunk as quickly and cheaply as possible. Daniel eased himself into a booth, realizing as he did so that it was the first time since dawn that he'd taken the weight off his feet.

    The three-dimensional photographs on the walls were of landscapes rather than sexual acrobatics. Daniel couldn't identify any of the scenes, but the three-legged creature clinging to the face of a basalt cliff certainly wasn't native to Cinnabar. The dark, pitted wood of the bar came from off-planet also; Daniel noted with interest that its vascular tissue seemed to curl in helixes around the bole, rising and sinking through the slab's planed surface like sections of a dolphin's track.

    Hogg seated himself beside the cash register where he would unobtrusively take care of the charges; a woman in uniform, an engineer by her collar flashes, was drinking a boilermaker at the end of the bar.. Other than them and the tapster who walked over to the booth, Daniel and Mon had the tavern to themselves.

    Daniel glanced at the tapster and said, "So, Mon? I believe yours is whiskey and water?"

    "No, no, Leary," Mon said, shaking his head violently. "Thanks, I mean, but I've sworn off for, for the time. I'll have--"

    He looked at the solid, balding bartender and grimaced. "A shandy, I suppose," he said. "Yes, a shandy."

    "And for me as well, sir," Daniel said brightly, wondering if Mon had gone out of his mind. Aloud he continued, "Well, Mon. What d'ye need to see me about?"

    Mon set his hands firmly on the table with his palms down and the fingers spread, stared at them as he organized his thoughts, and then lifted his weary eyes to Daniel. "Look sir, it's like this," he said. "While the Sissie was rebuilding on Tanais, we got a message through the High Commissioner to the Strymon system that we were to bring her home to Harbor One for disposal. I guess you'd heard that?"

    "Yes," Daniel said, "I had."

    He didn't add that he'd heard it from Adele less than two hours ago. Strictly speaking nobody'd been required to tell him, since he'd turned over command of the Princess Cecile to his first lieutenant while she was in dock.

    The fact that he hadn't heard a whisper about the sale out of service of the corvette he'd captured and commanded in actions that thrilled all Cinnabar, let alone the RCN, had to have been conscious concealment rather than mere oversight. Anston, or more likely the captain heading the Board of Materiel, must have thought that the famous Lt. Leary could raise enough of a public outcry to reverse the Board's reasoned decision.

    And so he could've done; but he wouldn't have. The needs of the service came first with Daniel Leary, as they should do with every officer of the RCN.

    "Well, you can imagine I wasn't happy about that," Mon said, stating the facts baldly as though the situation had no emotional weight for Daniel. "But then a couple nobles from Novy Sverdlovsk arrived with a letter of introduction from the High Commissioner. Count Klimov and wife Valentina, their names were, and they wanted passage to Cinnabar."

    He shrugged. "No problem there, of course," he went on. "We weren't on a fighting cruise, and you'd drafted forty crewmen to the Strymon dispatch vessel you sailed home on. It was just a matter of the passengers providing a share of rations to the officer's mess--and I don't mind telling you, captain, that I've never had better rations anywhere in my life, on shipboard or land. They've got more money than God, the Klimovs do."

    The tapster returned with the shandies, thumping them down on the table. "Thank you, sir!" Daniel said, but the fellow turned with only a grunt and walked back behind the bar.

    Daniel eyed the muddy brown fluid in his glass, a mixture of draft beer and ginger ale or whatever else the bar kept for a mixer. The tapster looked as though he were disgusted to've served something so debased. Daniel didn't blame him.

    "Well, it turned out that the Count and his wife were coming to Cinnabar to hire a ship so they could tour the Galactic North," Mon said, raising his glass. "Rather than use a Novy Sverdlovsk crew and vessel, they wanted the best. Besides, they knew Cinnabar'd opened the shortest routes to the North. Your Uncle Stacey had."

    He drank, made a sour face, and set the shandy down again. He started to speak but paused to wipe his lips with the back of his left hand.

    "Touring the North?" Daniel said, pursing his lips in concentration as he stared at his glass. "You mean, visiting the Commonwealth of God? I suppose people from Novy Sverdlovsk might find it interesting, though I recall one of Stacey's old shipmates saying he'd seen pig sties he thought were prettier than Radiance, and the rest of the Commonwealth wasn't up to that standard."

    "I don't think they care much about the capital," Mon said, rolling his palms upward. "The Count says he wants to do some hunting, and his wife studies people that never got back into space after the Hiatus. The relict societies, she calls them. You know, wogs with bones through their noses who'll cut out your heart and eat it because the Great God Goo tells them to. It's her life, I guess."

    "Scholars, then," Daniel said. "I don't think the Commonwealth controls a tenth of the worlds that'd been settled in the North before the Hiatus, and 'control' is stretching it to describe the government anyway. The planets pretty much run their own business, and the Commonwealth fleet supports itself by extortion when it isn't straight piracy."

    By a combination of treaty and threat the ships of Cinnabar and her allies were exempt from the abuses, at least in cases where there might be survivors to bring back word of what had happened. But all vessels trading into the Galactic North went armed, even though guns and missiles reduced their cargo capacity.

    "Yeah, well, it's still a damned fool way to waste time and money," Mon said. "But they've got money, the Lord knows they have. And that's the rub, Leary. When they learned the Sissie'd be going on the block, they decided to buy her themselves for their tour. And they want me to captain her, at a lieutenant commander's salary!"

    "Why Mon, that's wonderful news!" Daniel said, rising in his seat to reach over the table and grasp Mon's shoulder. "And they couldn't have a better man and ship for the job! Why, good God, man, you had me thinking there was something wrong!"

    If the Klimovs could afford to crew the corvette, she was an ideal choice for a long voyage into a region which was unexplored where it wasn't actively hostile. The Princess Cecile was a fast, handy vessel. Though light for a warship in a major fleet, she was far more powerful than the pirates and Commonwealth naval units (where there was a difference) she'd meet in the North.

    Mon would have to resign his commission, but under the circumstances the Admiralty would grant him a waiver so that he could rejoin at some future date at the same rank. All he'd lose was seniority on a day-for-day basis--and his half-pay, just under a quarter of what the Klimovs were offering for his services.

    As for the Sissie--well, she wouldn't be a warship any longer, but she wouldn't be a scow running bulk supplies to asteroid miners either. Good news for the ship, good news for her acting captain--and good news for Daniel Leary, two recent weights off his back!

    "There is something wrong!" Mon said miserably. "Sir, what am I going to do for a crew? With the peace treaty signed, all the trading houses will be hiring spacers. I'll have nothing but drunks and gutter-sweepings--for a voyage to the North, and not to the major ports either."



    While Daniel thought over what Mon had just said, he sipped his shandy. Good grief! it was dreadful. He supposed he'd drunk worse... well, realistically, he knew he'd drunk worse; but he certainly hadn't been sober while he was doing it.

    "Well Mon...," he said, resisting the urge to swab his mouth and tongue with something clean or at any rate different. "I should think based on what the Klimovs offered you, they'd pay something better than going wages for seasoned spacers. In fact, I'd expect most of the Sissie's current crew would sign on with you. She was always a happy ship--and lucky in her officers, if I may say so."

    A middle-aged man came in with a younger woman, moderately attractive but respectably dressed--a second wife, perhaps, but not a whore. "Hey Bert," the man said to the barman as they headed for the end booth. "The usual for me and Mamie."

    "Coming up, Lon," the tapster said as he set a pair of glasses on the bar.

    "Luck!" Mon said bitterly into his empty glass. "That's the problem. On the voyage home we had a dozen breakdowns. Mostly the damned High Drive--Pasternak finally figured out that the gauges they'd replaced in Tanais were off, so we were feeding 8% more antimatter to the motors than he thought. We had half the motors go out, eaten through by the excess. Plus two of the masts carried away in the Matrix. We didn't lose a rigger, but we would've if Woetjans hadn't grabbed him without a safety line and then caught a shroud with her free hand."

    Woetjans, the bosun, and Pasternak, the engineer--Chief of Rig and Chief of Ship respectively--were both officers who did credit to the RCN. Woetjans in particular, a big raw-boned woman, was worth a squad of almost anybody else when she entered a brawl with a length of high-pressure tubing.

    "Well, that's the sort of thing that happens with a major rebuild," Daniel said reasonably. "That's what shakedown cruises are for, after all. Are the Klimovs upset?"

    "Them?" Mon said scornfully. "Good God, Leary, they're used to Sverdlovsk ships. They'd be happy enough if the hull didn't split open and all the antennas fall off!"

    He shook his head, miserable again. "No, no, it's the crew," he said. "They think I'm a hard-luck officer. I heard Barnes say that opening his suit in a vacuum'd be quicker than going to the back of beyond with the Sissie now, and the other riggers on his watch agreed. And word'll get around the docks, of course. Hell and damnation, it already has!"

    "Ah," said Daniel, understanding completely but unable to think of a useful remark to make. "Ah."

    It was quite unfair, of course, but spacers were a superstitious lot. There were ships--well-found according to any assayer--which had reputations as killers; and there were captains who, whatever their technical qualifications, were known as Jonahs. No spacer shipped with either, not if there was a choice; and now, with the merchant fleets hiring, all spacers who could stand more or less upright had a choice.

    "God damn all spacers to Hell!" Mon said. "God damn life to Hell!"

    He turned on his bench and said, "I'll take a whiskey and water. A double, dammit, and keep the bottle out!"

    He looked at Daniel and said in a despairing voice, "I know, I don't need my wife to tell me that I put down maybe more than's good for me. But liquor never affected me on duty, you know that sir?"

    "I never had a complaint about you, Mon," Daniel said still-faced. He could use a drink himself, but it didn't seem that ordering one was going to make the situation better.

    "I thought with everything going wrong, you know...," Mon said, squeezing his face with his spread hands. "That, you know, if I went on the wagon, that the trouble would let up. That God'd take his thumb off me, you know what I mean?"

    "Yes, I know," said Daniel. Spacers are superstitious by nature; they're too close to random death on every working day to be otherwise. That was no less true of acting captains than it was of the riggers under their command.

    "And the next watch the Port One antenna carried away and took the spars and sails from Two and Three besides," Mon concluded bitterly.

    The tapster came with his drink, setting it down on the table and watching Mon sidelong as he walked back behind the bar. Hogg was watching also. Daniel wasn't concerned, but Mon was obviously closer to the edge than Daniel would've wanted on the bridge during action.

    "Daniel," Mon said, holding the drink in both hands but not raising it. "Sir. The men will listen to you, you know they will. Will you come to the mustering-out parade tomorrow and talk to them? Sir, I've got five brats now, my wife delivered while I was on Tanais. I can't make it on half-pay, I can't, and if I have to take a crew of fag-ends to the Galactic North, well--"

    He smiled with a wry sort of humor. "Well, then, I'd say Barnes'd be right. I'd do better to open my suit in a vacuum."

    "I... will consider our options tonight, Mon," Daniel said, rising deliberately so that it wouldn't look as though he were fleeing his old shipmate; which is what he was doing, near enough. "And I'll be at the mustering-out parade, I promise you. That's ten hundred hours?"

    "Aye, ten hundred," Mon said, rising also with a radiant smile and gripping Daniel's hand. "Thank God. Thank you, sir. If I can just keep a stiffening of trained men we'll be all right, I swear we will!"

    Daniel nodded without amplifying his earlier statement. He needed to be at the pay parade to thank the crew which had followed him to Hell, not once but several times; and who'd brought the Princess Cecile and her commander back as well. But as for what he was going to say to them--

    He owed Mon the respect due a loyal and competent officer; but he owed a great deal to every soul who'd served on the Sissie with him. He wasn't going to tell them to throw their lives away; and despite what he'd said to soothe Mon, the corvette's troubles on the voyage home would convince anybody that he was a hard-luck officer. He wasn't a man Daniel would willingly follow to the North, nor one to whom Daniel would pledge his honor to encourage others to follow.

    There was a buzzing. Hogg, preparing to leave, reached into his breast pocket for the phone he carried while in Xenos. He listened for a moment, then said to Daniel, "We need to get back to the house, master. Now."

    They headed for the door together, the servant leading his master by virtue of starting a double step ahead. As they burst back into the sunlight, Hogg added in a low voice, "That was the major domo, sir. Mistress Mundy had some trouble. Bad trouble."




    The tramcar on which Adele and her entourage returned also carried fourteen home-bound office workers, filling it to the legal limit. Adele's footmen--well, the footmen accompanying her and Tovera; the Merchants and Shippers Treasury paid their salaries, though they wore Mundy livery--would've barred the strangers if it had been left to them, but Adele's parents had prided themselves on their concern for the lower orders. Adele, who'd spent most of her life in those lower orders and knew a great deal more about them than her parents had, nonetheless restrained her servants in their memory.

    On the other hand, she hadn't felt she needed to allow the car to be loaded above the legal limit. At this time of day there'd normally have been forty people per tram; as passenger number twenty boarded at the Pentacrest Circle, Adele's footmen blocked the door and used their ivory batons on the knuckles of anybody trying to pry it open before the car started. Adele preferred to think of that as self-help in enforcing the law rather than a noble trampling on the rights of the people.

    She smiled. Though she could live with the other characterization. She'd been trampled on often enough herself.

    The car pulled into the siding at the head of her court, rocking slightly on the single overhead rail. No one waited to board on the eastbound platform; the office workers poised expectantly to spread out farther when Adele's party disembarked. They knew how lucky they'd been to have so much room as they rode to their high-rise apartments in the eastern suburbs of Xenos.

    As Adele followed her footmen onto the platform, a tram pulled into the westbound siding behind her. She sensed Tovera turning her head, holding her flat attaché case with both hands. A young naval officer in his 2nd Class uniform got off, a stranger to her. Probably someone coming to see Daniel, a friend or perhaps a messenger from the Navy Office.

    The seven houses on the court were as quiet as usual on a summer evening. Half a dozen men wearing varied livery squatted on the doorstep of the end house on the left side, next to Chatsworth Minor. They rose, pocketing the dice and the money, when they saw Adele arriving home.

    One of the group was her doorman; he walked quickly back to his post without looking sideways to acknowledge her presence. Unexpectedly two other men followed him.

    "Mistress Mundy?" called the RCN officer behind her. She turned, then halted to let him join them. The footmen were unconcerned, but Tovera's right hand was inside the attaché case she held in the crook of the other arm.

    "Yes?" Adele said; not hostile but certainly not welcoming either. She didn't like being accosted by strangers, especially strangers who knew her name. This lieutenant--she could see the rank tabs on his soft gray collar now--was clean-cut and obviously a gentleman before the Republic granted him a commission, but he was still a stranger.

    "Your friend Captain Carnolets hopes you'll be able to dine with him tonight at his house in Portsmouth," the lieutenant said, stopping a polite six feet back. That put him just beyond arm's length of Tovera, toward whom he glanced appraisingly. "He apologizes for the short notice, but he says he's really quite anxious to renew your acquaintance."

    I don't know any Captain Carnolets, Adele thought. And of course she didn't; but she knew Mistress Sand, who controlled the Republic's foreign intelligence operations with the same unobtrusive efficiency as Admiral Anston displayed within the RCN.

    If Adele had needed confirmation, the way the messenger reacted to Tovera provided it. He wasn't afraid of her, exactly; but he was as careful as he'd have been to keep outside the reach of a chained watchdog--and he'd recognized instantly that the colorless 'secretary' was a watchdog.

    "Yes, all right," Adele said. "But I'll change clothes first."

    She turned and motioned the footmen on. Having servants was a constant irritation, complicating even a business as simple as walking down the street. On the other hand, the fact that she'd made the journey home in reasonable comfort instead of being squeezed into less space than steerage on an immigrant ship was an undeniable benefit....

    "My name's Wilsing, by the way," said the lieutenant as he fell into step with her. "There's no need to change for the captain, mistress. He was most particular about his wish to see you as soon as possible."

    "Which will be as soon as I've changed into civilian clothes, Lt. Wilsing," Adele said, letting her tone suggest the irritation that she felt. The only association her dress uniform had for her was the funeral of a man she'd respected and whom her friend Daniel had loved.

    It wasn't Mistress Sand's fault that this funeral had reminded Adele that her own parents and sister had been buried without ceremony in a mass grave--all but their heads, of course, which had probably been thrown in the river after birds pecked them clean on the Speaker's Rock. It was true nonetheless. Adele felt the meeting would go better if she got out of her Whites.

    When Adele was within twenty feet of Chatsworth Minor's recessed entrance, the doorman turned and said something to the men who'd followed him. They were burly fellows; though they were dressed as footmen, their livery didn't fit well.

    One pulled a blackjack from inside his jacket and clubbed the doorman over the head; the doorman staggered into the pilaster, then fell forward on his face. The thug's companion drew a pistol and pointed it in the air.

    Adele glanced behind her. Eight men, mostly holding lengths of pipe and similar bludgeons, had entered the court and were walking toward her purposefully. One of them had a pistol. They must've been in concealment in the pavement-level light wells of one of the houses across the boulevard....

    Lt. Wilsing pulled a flat phone out of his breast pocket. "Don't!" Adele said under her breath.

    The gunman at the front of Chatsworth Minor aimed his pistol at Wilsing. "Drop it, buddy!" he snarled. "I won't warn you again!"

    "Drop it!" Adele repeated. She edged behind one of the footmen so that her left hand could reach into the side-pocket of her tunic without the gunman seeing her.

    Wilsing let his little phone clack to the ground. His face had no expression.

    "Now the rest of you step away and you won't be hurt!" the gunman said. "We're just going to teach your mistress not to steal houses from her betters!"

    "I have the ones behind," Tovera murmured.

    "You men!" Adele said to the terrified footmen. They were trying to look back at her and to watch the gunman also. "Get out of the way at once. This isn't your affair."

    "But mistress--" said the senior man, a fellow who could--and probably did--pass as a gentleman when he was off-duty and looking for recreation among the female servants from other districts.

    "Get out of the way or I'll take a switch to you, my man!" Adele shouted. She sounded on the verge of panic; the part of her mind that dealt with ordinary things like servants had been disconnected from her higher faculties. Her intellect was focused on the developing situation.

    The footmen scrambled off to the left. One started to go right, then sprinted to follow the others when he realized he was about to be left alone.

    The eight thugs from the head of the court must be very close now. The gunman in front laughed and sauntered forward, accompanied by the man with the blackjack.

    Adele shot the gunman in the left cheekbone with her pocket pistol. The light was from the west; she hadn't allowed enough for the low sun. She shot him a second time through the temple as he spun away with a cry, then put a third pellet into the back of his skull while he was still falling. She heard Tovera's sub-machine gun firing quick, short bursts like the crackling of an extended lightning bolt.

    The Mundys were a pugnacious house, quite apart from their political endeavors. Her parents had believed that the best protection they and their offspring had was to be deadly marksmen--not to win duels, but to make it clear to any outraged enemy that challenging a Mundy was tantamount to suicide.

    The thug who'd knocked out the Chatsworth doorman dropped his blackjack and fell to his knees screaming. The servants who'd been dicing at the next house had frozen when the first man pulled his gun; now they collided with one another in their haste to open the door and run inside.

    Mother would be proud of me, Adele thought as she turned. Those hours in the basement target range hadn't been wasted. It's good to learn skills at leisure so that they're available when circumstances force a career change....

    The eight men who'd been behind Adele's entourage were all on the pavement now. Several were thrashing violently, but those were their death throes. At least one had started to run.

    The barrel shroud of Tovera's weapon was white hot. Like Adele's pistol, the sub-machine gun accelerated projectiles down its bore with electromagnetic pulses. The pellets' aluminum driving bands vaporized in the flux, so sustained shooting created a good deal of waste heat. The muzzle of Adele's own pistol shimmered and would char the cloth if she dropped it back into her pocket.

    Tovera turned and shot the thug who was praying on his knees. He sprang backward, a tetanic convulsion rather than the impact of the light pellets directly. Three holes at the base of his throat spouted blood.

    Adele grimaced. "Sorry, mistress," Tovera said as she slid a fresh magazine into her weapon's loading tube. "But we didn't need a prisoner. We already know who was behind it."

    Adele had a sudden vision of Marina Rolfe herself kicking on the pavement, spraying blood. Of course knowing Tovera, it might not be anything that quick for the lady who believed the Casaubon family money insulated her from retribution when her thugs crippled the rival who'd ousted her from the status she thought she'd purchased.

    "Don't kill her!" Adele shouted. "Don't kill her, Tovera, or I'll hunt you down myself. On my honor as a Mundy!"

    Tovera dipped her head in acquiescence. "I understand, mistress," she said.

    A stain was spreading across the trousers of the gunman Adele had killed; his bowels had spasmed when he died. She went down on one knee, still holding the pistol in her left hand. It'd cooled enough that she could put it back in her pocket now, but she was too dizzy to do anything so complex at the moment.

    Tovera fitted her sub-machine gun back into the attaché case she'd dropped when she began shooting. Wilsing had picked up his phone and was speaking into it in urgent tones. He didn't seem affected by what he'd just watched, until you noticed that as he spoke his eyes flicked across building fronts. They always stayed on the second story or above. He wasn't taking any chance of seeing the carnage surrounding him.

    Wilsing hadn't done anything but stand where he was; none of these deaths were on his conscience. But only a sociopath like Tovera could watch such slaughter and not be affected by it.

    The senior footman said, "Mistress, what should we do?" Adele tried to speak but the words caught in her throat. He grabbed her shoulder and shook her. "Mistress, what do we do?"

    Adele rose to her feet, putting the pistol away. She hadn't reloaded, but it had a 20-round magazine. I don't think I'll need to kill more than seventeen additional people tonight, she thought. Of course it took me three shots to put the first one down....



    Aloud she said, "Get into the house and call the Militia. I'm sure somebody else has done so already, but make sure there's been a call from Chatsworth."

    "Mistress Mundy?" Wilsing said as he lowered the phone. "We need to get to, to Captain Carnolets as soon as possible. Quickly, now!"

    "We can't leave--" Adele began.

    The young lieutenant waved his hand at the sprawled bodies. "This has all been taken care of!" he said angrily. "Come! It's really most important!"

    "We'd best do as he says, mistress," Tovera said with a smile as cold as a cobra's. "Mistress Sand isn't a person who likes to be kept waiting."

    Adele nodded curtly. "All right," she said. "I don't suppose I need to change after all."

    Wilsing pulled out an oddly-shaped key as he led the way back to the tram stop. Adele avoided all the outstretched limbs, but despite her care her right half-boot came down on a trickle of blood. The sole was tacky, at least in her mind, with every step she took thereafter.

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