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The Far Side of the Stars: Chapter Five

       Last updated: Tuesday, June 24, 2003 02:02 EDT



    The tram ran only to the gate of Harbor One. Three drunks sprawled against the side of the kiosk. One of them straightened as Daniel dismounted and called, "Begging your pardon, lieutenant, but could you spare an old spacer the price of a drink? I was gunner's mate aboard the Burke oncet, till I lost me arm at Xerxes Two."

    Only one strip light in the kiosk's interior still worked; the speaker was in shadow, his voice so rusty that Daniel was scarcely willing to swear he was male. He was missing his left arm, true enough, though that could've been the result of a drunken accident as probably as an incident of Admiral Cawdrey's great victory over the Alliance a generation ago.

    "Yes, of course, my man," Daniel said, fumbling in his purse for a one-florin coin. He found a five instead--and tossed it to the fellow. "Can you perhaps tell me where the Princess Cecile is berthed? She arrived from--"

    "Slip Seventeen, that's the third on the right as you go in the gate," said another of the drunks. His voice was muffled because he'd pulled his woven cap down over his face. "Arrived oh-eight-one-seven hours this morning from the Strymon system, scheduled for immediate disposal."

    "Ah?" said Daniel. "Indeed, thank you sir."

    He reached for another coin. The first drunk raised the five-florin piece in his only hand and said, "Bless you, lieutenant, but this is as much as we can drink in a night. Any more'd only be stolen, and our throats slit besides like enough. God speed your course, sir."

    The guard at the gate was chatting with several civilians; he merely threw a casual salute to the lieutenant's badge on the saucer hat Daniel wore tonight with his 2nd Class uniform. Daniel walked into the enclosure.

    Harbor One was historic in the sense that it had launched the ships by which Cinnabar returned to the stars after the thousand-year Hiatus which ended Mankind's first ventures into the wider universe. For several centuries the harbor had remained the main starport of the expanding Republic, but it'd continued to be used after it lost importance. By now the site was a nautical jumble shop from which every piece of its evocative past had been razed to make room for something newer--or simply something else. Uncle Stacey had remembered when a rank of pre-Hiatus brick barracks stood on the eastern edge of the compound, but woven-wire cages of salvaged High Drive motors were there now.

    Ships, generally several to a slip, filled the basin. For the most part they were berthed too close together for one to lift off without damaging others; they'd have to be towed into the center of the pool for that. Many of them weren't in condition to lift, of course. The vessels in Harbor One sometimes had a past, but there was no future for them, at least in the RCN.

    The Princess Cecile stood out like a jewel on a mudbank. Other ships made do with a single area light at bow or stern, but the corvette's auxiliary power unit was still live. Not only were her running lights on, open ports flooded the slip with illumination from her cabins. The harbor water winked, and the indirect glow cast a memory of romance over the scarred concrete quay.

    Music sounded from a bow compartment--"Ize the bye that builds the boat and Ize the bye that sails her...." It was a song from the East Capes, the region where the Leary estates lay. A trio of male voices were singing to the accompaniment of a flute.

    Daniel hadn't expected more than a minimal anchor watch--and those spacers very likely drunk, as their fellows were drunk in the taverns nearest the harbor, spending the advances crimps had provided at steep discounts against the pay parade in the morning. Instead at least a dozen crewmen in their glittering, beribboned shore-going uniforms sat or stood in the entrance hold, talking quietly.

    A catwalk from the quay to the main hatch. Daniel walked toward it. Woetjans--the big bosun was unmistakable; her leave cap sported a ribbon for every port she'd called in during thirty years in the RCN--saw him approaching and straightened. She keyed the rubidium-plated control stub hanging from her neck on a chain, her badge of office, and the corvette's public address system piped CAPTAIN COMING ABOARD. The singing forward stopped and everyone in the entrance hatch came to attention.

    Daniel felt a shiver of delight at the bosun's call. He didn't expect he'd ever lose that feeling, even if they were carrying him on a litter to die aboard the ship he commanded.

    "Stand easy!" he said as his boots thumped the narrow, quivering catwalk. He walked as straight as a rigger, never looking down. The RCN trained its midshipmen to do every job the common crewmen did. Officers who couldn't walk the yards while the sails billowed to the thrust of Casimir radiation, or replace a scale-clogged thruster feed while a vessel was under weigh, didn't deserve to command spacers who could.

    He smiled at the group as he stepped onto the Princess Cecile's nickel-steel C Deck. The armored companionway up to B and A Decks was to the right, forward; the down tube to the Power Room and bulk storage was on the left. Even floating in harbor the ship felt shiveringly alive. There was nothing quite like being aboard a starship; and for a spacer like Daniel Leary, there was nothing better.

    "I'm not the captain, you know, men," Daniel said. "I thought I'd come aboard the old girl once more as a private citizen."

    "Right," said Woetjans. "You're not captain and I'm not a rigger. In your ear!"

    Sun, the gunner's mate--acting gunner on a corvette, which didn't rate a senior warrant in that slot--held out a squat, long-necked bottle; in place of a label, a medallion was cast into the dark ruby glass. "Here you go, sir," he said. "Ah...? It's all right. Barnes and Dasi have the duty and they're sober."

    "It'd be all right regardless, Sun," Daniel said. "Tonight."

    They were all sober or the next thing to it, though some had probably put down more liquor than a landsman who intended to walk away would've done. Vesey, one of the pair of midshipmen from the Strymon cruise, was among them; initially Daniel'd missed her slight form between Barnes and Dasi, who'd returned to Cinnabar with Daniel aboard a requisitioned Stryomonian cutter. Those riggers--and several other crewmen in the immediate group--had come to the Princess Cecile tonight for the same reason Daniel had: to say goodbye.



    Daniel swigged from the bottle. It was excellent brandy, though he couldn't identify it closer than that. He offered it to Sun, but the gunner's mate said, "I've had mine, sir," and gestured toward the four machinists who'd appeared down the forward corridor. One had stuck a short flute into a pocket of her coveralls. Daniel gave her the brandy instead.

    "Midshipman Dorst will be back shortly, sir," Vesey said. She was trim and blond, scarcely half the size of her male shipmate; and lover, though Daniel didn't carry his duty of standing in loco parentis to his midshipmen to the extent of involving himself in that sort of private business. "He went to see his mother as soon as we docked, is all."

    Vesey had showed herself an able astrogator, not just by computation but with at least a touch of the feel for the Matrix that had made Stacey Bergen and to a considerable degree his nephew Daniel legends in the RCN. Dorst wasn't either as smart or as clever as Vesey, but he was as solid as bedrock; that too was a virtue the RCN prized in her officers.

    "So, Woetjans...," Daniel said, trying not to be completely obvious. "Lt. Mon said you had your share of trouble on the voyage back from Strymon?"

    The bosun made a sour face. "I've had worse, I guess, sir," she muttered, refusing to meet Daniel's eyes.

    "Well, if you have," said Sun forcefully, "then you've been harder places than I have, thank the Almighty." He turned to Daniel and went on, "Sir, you wrung the Hell out of us when you ran us to Sexburga in 19 days straight in the Matrix, I swear you did, and we had less trouble with the ship than I'd expect in dockyard. Mon brought us back and, well, I'm bloody glad to have solid ground under my feet. Bloody glad."

    "Amen to that," muttered Chief Engineer Pasternak who'd just come up from the Power Room. A third of the Sissie's crew must be aboard her tonight, a remarkable percentage for a ship returned to her home port for the first time after a long cruise. The entrance hold was becoming crowded, but there was no larger compartment aboard the corvette until the stores were off-loaded.

    "Tush!" said Daniel. "I don't regret pushing her the way I did, but you all know as well as I do that half the trouble you had on the return voyage was because of the strain I laid on her outbound."

    The machinist who'd just emptied the brandy bottle snorted. Perhaps the liquor had gotten up his nose.

    "Mon said you had passengers, too," Daniel went on. "What were they like?"

    The spacers looked at one another. After a moment Vesey said, "Well, the Klimovs aren't bad, sir. For foreigners, you know. Quite open-handed folk, the both of them."

    "Sober, they're all right," said Woetjans, her eyes on Daniel. "When the Count's got a drop or two in him, which is most times, he's apt to forget he's not back on Novy Sverdlovsk with his house slaves. He threw a bottle at the spacer doing for him--and got decked for it."

    "That was me, sir," said Timmons, a short, good-humored technician whom Daniel had never known to show any more temperament than the paint on the bulkhead did. He looked at his feet in embarrassment. "Sorry, sir."

    "Sorry for bloody what?" demanded Woetjans. "The day some wog gets away with hitting a Cinnabar spacer is the day I defect to the Alliance. But--"

    Her eyes hardened on Daniel again.

    "--if Klimov had been captain instead of a passenger, then hitting him would've been mutiny and an open hatch for the fellow who did it. That's so, isn't it, sir?"

    "I've known RCN officers who did as much, Woetjans!" Daniel said sharply. "So have you, I dare say."

    "Aye, and worse," Sun said with a chuckle. "Cap'n Reecee fired a shot at the sailing master when we came out of the Matrix four light-days from where her reckoning had put us. He wasn't any better a shot than she was an astrogator, mind."

    "Reecee was an RCN officer, Sun," Woetjans said. "Not a wog!"

    "Amen to that," Pasternak said, offering around a retort of clear fluid; industrial alcohol from the hydraulic system, very likely. That was the standard Power Room drink.

    "I haven't met Klimov...," Daniel said. Vesey drank and handed the retort to him. "If he likes the Sissie well enough to buy her, as Mon says he does, then he and I share one taste, at least."

    He drank, a careful sip followed by a deeper draft when he was sure the fluid had been cut with water. Drunk straight, industrial alcohol dried the mouth and throat as badly as swallowing live coals, but the mechanics and engineers didn't always bother to dilute it.

    "And Mon says Klimov plans to pay top wages as well," Daniel said, keeping his eyes on Woetjans as he passed the retort to the machinist at his side. They all knew what he was talking about, that Mon was a shipmate and an officer he respected....

    "Well, he won't be paying them to me," Sun said bluntly. "I've got a machinist's rating, besides which there's plenty merchant skippers sailing routes where they'd feel better to have Lt. Leary's gunner aboard."

    "Wages're fine, sir," Woetjans said, apologetic but clearly coming from the same place as Sun. "The thing is, though--"

    She gestured with her left hand.

    "--there's never been a spacer yet who lifted ship with anything still in her pocket. Some leave most of their pay with their families, sure--"

    Woetjans might mean the plural literally. It wasn't just a music-hall joke that spacers kept separate households at each planetfall of a regular route.

    "--and some of us spend it in bars; but we all spend it. Another florin a week doesn't mean very much, especially if we don't come back."

    Well, that was blunt enough; even without Pasternak repeating, "Amen to that!"

    "Sir?" said Dasi. He and his mate Barnes were big men and utterly dependable. They weren't the quickest minds in the RCN, but they were experienced enough that either would make a good bosun's mate the next time Daniel had an opening to fill.

    "Aye?" said Daniel. He'd heard the tram stop outside the gate. He didn't turn his head, but from the way Vesey brightened as she looked past him, the fellow trotting toward the Princess Cecile was Midshipman Dorst.

    "What should we do, sir?" Dasi said, his face screwed up with concern. Timmons offered him a bottle; he was too perturbed to notice it. "Should we sign on with this wog and Mr. Mon? Do you want us to?"

    Daniel sighed, waving away the return of Mr. Pasternak's retort. "Dasi," he said. He let his eyes trail across the faces crowding the entrance hold; all of them familiar, all of them troubled. "All of you. When we served together aboard the Princess Cecile, I never doubted that you'd obey whatever order I gave."

    He stiffened into a formal Parade Rest, the posture he'd have taken if he were addressing them from a reviewing stand. He continued, "I have neither the right nor the will to give you orders now. You and I both have decisions to make, but we make them as individuals because we're no longer captain and crew."

    "Too bad about Mon," said Woetjans, shaking her head in summation. "But I guess he'll find a berth somewhere."

    Daniel cleared his throat. "I'll be getting back to my quarters," he said. "I...."

    His throat clogged and his eyes began to sting. That damned hydraulic fluid!

    "I'll be at the paying off ceremony tomorrow," he said, forcing the words out in a rush. "Fellow spacers, there was never a ship luckier in her crew than the Princess Cecile!"

    Daniel turned and strode back toward the tram stop, almost colliding with Mr. Dorst whom his blurring vision missed. The cheers of the Sissie's crew followed him all the way to the gate.



    Adele heard the front door close and the murmur of voices. She opened her study and stepped into the hallway just as Daniel started up the stairs.

    "Please join me, Daniel," she said; which was foolish since obviously he was coming to her quarters on the second floor already. She'd asked the doorman to send him up as soon as he arrived, no matter what time it was. "Some matters have arisen that I'd like your advice on."

    "You're all right, Adele?" Daniel said. He'd taken off his billed hat when he entered the house; his face, lighted from above the stairwell, had the hard, controlled expression that she'd seen on the bridge of the Princess Cecile in action but very rarely otherwise. "I'm sorry not to have been here when you, ah, returned."

    "Oh, there's nothing wrong," Adele said, frowning in puzzlement. "I just had some questions about my plans that I--oh. Oh, I see what you mean."

    She ushered him into her study, realizing as she did so that it was messy by ordinary standards. Books and paper were stacked on most of the flat surfaces; she was researching the Commonwealth of God, and some documents were available only as hardcopy. She'd cleared a second chair in expectation of Daniel's arrival, though.

    "The business when I came home?" she said. She shrugged. "The doorman'll be off work for several days, I believe. Apart from that, everything is, well, normal. I'd expected questioning by the authorities, but apparently it's all been swept under the rug."

    Adele had reloaded the pistol as soon as she got home. It was in her pocket now, not against real need but for the security its slight weight afforded her subconscious. The little weapon had become an addictive drug. It was the thing that best kept the nightmares at bay, though it was the cause of those leering nightmares as well.

    "Yes," said Daniel. "Hogg and I arrived during the clean-up. The people involved appeared to be able."

    Adele closed the door and motioned to the upholstered seat across the leather-topped desk from her own straight chair. A wine bottle and two glasses waited on the tray a servant had brought earlier in the evening.

    "Hogg isn't here, by the way," she said. "He left a message for Tovera, and they're still out."

    Daniel grimaced as he sat down; he looked suddenly tired. "Adele?" he said. He lifted his head and met her eyes with a determined expression. "I gave Hogg free rein on dealing with what happened here this afternoon. Whatever comes of it is on my head; I want you to be very clear on that."

    Adele smiled faintly. "Have some wine," she said, uncorking the bottle. "It's from what used to be Chatsworth Major. The new owners renamed the estate Skyland, but the grapes are the same."

    She poured, one glass and then the other. The wine was a dark honey color; not a famous vintage, but a comfortable one and a familiar taste that brought her childhood and its security a little closer.

    "As for anything that happens to the Rolfes, Daniel...," she went on. "I'd say that's on the head of the person who sent thugs to knock our doorman around. But for what it's worth, I told Tovera not to kill anyone. She's quite trustworthy that way."

    She quirked a grin at Daniel as she handed him his wine. "Emotion doesn't get in the way with her, you see," she said. "She doesn't lose control."

    Daniel drank and nodded approvingly before lowering the glass again. "You said you had questions?" he said, raising an eyebrow.

    "Mon will have told you that aristocrats from Novy Sverdlovsk are buying the Princess Cecile for a voyage to the Galactic North," Adele said, continuing to smile faintly. One of the few personality traits she and Daniel shared was a dislike for circumlocution. "An acquaintance, probably the person who had our court cleaned after the incident this afternoon, wants me to accompany them in order to get an impression of Alliance activity on Radiance and its satellite."

    She didn't go into detail or use Mistress Sand's name, knowing that the whole business would make Daniel uncomfortable. He was by no means a blunt, unsophisticated naval officer--he was Speaker Leary's son, for God's sake!--but in Daniel's ideal world actions would be open and transparent. He believed that if he did his own job openly and very well, he could leave other aspects to those who found them more congenial. Leave them to people like his friend Adele, it might be....

    "I see," said Daniel. He seemed calm, but he tossed down the wine instead of remembering to sip it. She reached for the bottle, but he waved her away brusquely with his free hand as he frowned in concentration.

    He did see, of course. Adele had never met anyone who more quickly integrated disparate data than did her friend Daniel. It had gained him a deserved reputation as a combat commander, and probably equal envy from acquaintances marveling at Leary's success with women.

    "Lt. Mon's as good a technical officer as you'll find," Daniel said, his eyes on the corner of a bookshelf. It was vanishingly improbable that the works filed there--pre-Hiatus fiction, a collection which Adele had chosen to recreate though she didn't share her mother's taste--was of any interest to him. "Nothing else appearing, I'd wish you Godspeed."

    He looked up, his face again uncommonly hard. "However the Sissie's crew have decided that he's an unlucky captain," Daniel continued. "They may well be right. Mon won't be able to hire a trustworthy crew, I'm afraid, and the risks on a voyage to Radiance will be very great. Unacceptably great, I would say, unless your need were also very great."

    He raised an eyebrow.

    Adele nodded, turning the stem of her wineglass between thumb and forefinger. "That's my judgment as well," she said dispassionately. "My acquaintance made clear her opinion that the matter is of weight comparable to the risk."

    "With all respect to your acquaintance," Daniel said, his voice very much that of his father's son, "I doubt she has a proper grasp of the danger involved under these precise circumstances. Uncle Stacey opened most of the present routes to Radiance. Lt. Mon for all his undoubted virtues is neither Stacey Bergen nor a man who's ever made the run to the North himself."

    Adele sipped her wine, letting the remembered flavors recall for her a simpler, sunnier childhood. "I'm inclined to agree with you, Daniel," she said, "but I'm sure beyond question that some colleague of mine will be aboard the Princess Cecile on this voyage. I have no idea who it would be, but I'm confident that there's no one more familiar with the Sissie and her capabilities than I am. And I'm afraid--"

    She smiled wryly across the table.

    "--that the Mundy family's involvement in the Three Circles Conspiracy leaves me under more of an obligation to the Republic than an ordinary citizen would be."

    Daniel rose to his feet. "I'll give the matter some thought," he said. He sounded suddenly nonchalant. "There may be a way out."

    He smiled broadly at her. "For now," he said, "I'm going to bed. I need to be at the mustering-out ceremony for the Sissie's crew in the morning. You'll be joining me, I hope?"

    "Yes, of course," Adele said as she stood to show him to the door. She, like Daniel himself, had been on half-pay since they'd returned to Cinnabar six weeks earlier; they had no official connection with the Princess Cecile. If he wanted her present, that was a good enough reason to be there, however.

    "Good," he said, skirting a stack of books on the floor. Each was marked with the name of the person who'd loaned it because Mundy of Chatsworth was collecting information on the Galactic North. Adele's family connections had become useful again.

    "There's usually an answer if folk of good will get together to find one," Daniel said, grinning as he stepped through the door she'd opened for him.

    Despite what Adele could only think of as the puerile silliness of the comment, she found herself grinning back. The Daniel Learys of this world somehow made childhood homilies not only seem true but, based on her own experience, come true.

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