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The Way to Glory: Chapter Five

       Last updated: Saturday, February 12, 2005 16:51 EST



Xenos on Cinnabar

    The ground floor of Chatsworth Minor was given over to servants' quarters and the service infrastructure of the house. Adele lived on the third story, but with the door open she could hear Daniel coming up the broad staircase past her to get to his quarters on the floor below.

    Adele stepped to the door of her study, casting her shadow in the fan of light across the gorgeously textured beewood boards of the landing. She felt her heart-rate rising. Though she was sure her face remained calm, her stomach was threatening to revolt in an embarrassing fashion.

    "Good evening, Adele!" Daniel caroled as he looked up. He waved a bottle as long and slender as an Indian club of blue glass at her. "Good morning, in fact, and I do hope you've been celebrating too?"

    Daniel was walking under his own power, though Hogg had backed up the stairs ahead of him and a pair of footmen were following to catch him if he tumbled backward. She'd never seen Daniel drunk when he was on shipboard or otherwise on duty, but neither was Adele sure she'd ever seen him cold sober when he thought the circumstances permitted a drink.

    "I'm afraid I haven't been," Adele said austerely. "Daniel, please come up and listen to me for a moment."

    There wasn't a good way to do this, so she'd do it in the fashion that best suited her and suited Daniel's temperament as well: by spitting out the bare facts without delay or adornment. To the degree that it's ever suitable to give or get crushingly bad news.

    "Yes, of course," Daniel said quietly. He handed the bottle to his servant, saying, "Hogg, hold this for me, if you will."

    Then, back straight and face composed, Daniel walked up the stairs and into the study at a measured thirty-inch pace. His left hand swung the door closed with a muffled thump.

    In preparation for the discussion, Adele had cleared away the books and papers which normally covered the chair across from hers and the table of polished fluorspar. Without the pointless formality of waiting for an invitation, Daniel seated himself. "Proceed," he said.

    "You're to be reassigned as First Lieutenant of the tender Hermes, under Commander Slidell," Adele said. "This is an attempt to damp down the protests, the riots, over Slidell's acquittal."

    "Well I'll be damned," Daniel said. His face was completely blank. Adele had seen the same expression on a man eviscerated by a cable that'd snapped under tension. Then he repeated, "I'll be damned."

    "Would you like a drink?" Adele said quietly. Ordinarily she didn't keep liquor in the study—she had no use for it here—but she'd laid in a stock for this discussion. If Daniel took a notion for something beyond the half dozen choices immediately at hand, Tovera was waiting in the butler's pantry to bring up anything he suggested.

    "What?" said Daniel, looking startled. He smiled wanly. "Ah. No thank you, Adele," he said. "I've had more than enough already tonight, I'd say."

    He tensed to stand, then relaxed and smiled again. "The bottle I came home with," he said. "You saw it? Tears of Love, it's called. They make it on Lyrex."

    He shook his head, smiling more broadly at the memory. "Make it from what, I wouldn't guess," he went on. "Public urinals, perhaps. But the bottle's quite lovely, don't you think?"

    "Yes, I thought so too," said Adele, restraining the urge to bring out her data unit. She could learn in a heartbeat what the base of Tears of Love might be—and far more important, she'd escape from this room and this conversation.

    The conversation was necessary. She kept her hands on the table.

    Daniel pressed his fingertips together. Adele thought he might be restraining himself from rising to punch the door behind him.

    "I see the logic of the plan," he said, forcing a smile. "I wouldn't have thought of it myself, but it's quite clever."

    Even the false smile vanished. "I wouldn't have thought of it," Daniel repeated, "but my father very well might have. I wonder if he did?"

    "The crews of the Sissie and Slidell's previous command, the Bainbridge, are being combined," Adele said; adding useful information instead of simply changing the subject. Though she was changing the subject also.

    "That's not a bad plan either, to tell the truth," Daniel said in a tone of professional appraisal. "Normally a sloop would be under a junior lieutenant, but the Bainbridge was a training vessel; thus a commander in charge. Mixing the trainees with a crack crew like my Sissies on a larger ship is an ideal way to polish them."

    He chuckled. "To knock the edges off, at any rate, and maybe a head or two with them," he added. "Well, better lose a few in training than all of them in battle, you know."

    Daniel's face hardened again. "I recall hearing Lieutenant Ganse was Slidell's First Lieutenant," he said. "I know Ganse's senior to me. He's quite senior, in fact."

    "I understand that you will be the senior lieutenant in the Hermes' crew," Adele said with an austere lack of affect. "I can't swear to that, of course."

    Daniel smiled faintly. "No," he said, "and you can't swear that the sun will rise tomorrow morning. Your understanding is good enough for me, though."

    His smile suddenly became broad and warm. "Thank you, Adele," he said. "I understand now what Admiral Anston was trying to tell me this morning. He didn't dare use the real words, so I filled in the gaps with my own fantasies. I'm glad to have heard this from a friend instead of learning it at the Navy Office tomorrow."

    He chuckled. "This morning, that is."

    Daniel rose to his feet and turned. Adele brought out her data unit. As her friend's hand touched the door knob she said, "Daniel?"

    He looked back over his shoulder. "Eh?" he said.

    "Tears of Love is distilled from the pulp of the Terran sago palm, as grown in the soil of Lyrex," she said.

    Daniel looked blank for a moment, then doubled over with laughter. When he had the outburst more or less under control he straightened and said, "Is it indeed? Well, Adele, I know where we could find an almost-full bottle. I propose that we finish it together and then get some sleep before sunrise. What do you think of that?"

    "I think it's an excellent idea," Adele said, smiling coldly at him. "Since my data unit doesn't contain information about distilled latrine wastes, I'll apparently have to conduct a personal investigation."

    Bellowing again with laughter, Daniel opened the door to retrieve the liquor from Hogg, who waited outside.



    As Daniel sat in the General Waiting Room, he wondered how many hopeful officers had polished the bench with the seat of their trousers in the decades before him. Pennyroyal was to his right, with Ames, Vondrian, and Herondas—like Pennyroyal, a former Academy classmate—ranged further inward along the hard wood.

    More than decades, in fact. The bench was made of steelgray which grew only on the east coast, not far from Bantry. It must've been a century since there were steelgrays large enough to provide single planks so wide.

    The data printer beside the gatekeeper beeped and purred out a tape. She—a female clerk had the duty this morning—tore it off, frowned as she read it, and called in a cracked voice, "Two-nine-one!"

    The eyes of every uniformed soul on the other side of the bar jerked down to the ivroid chit in his or her hands, even though all of them had instantly memorized the number they'd drawn this morning. Daniel smiled faintly. His was ninety-nine . . . though occasionally he held it upside down with his thumb across the bar beneath the numbers, pretending it was sixty-six. He had a vague feeling that six was his lucky number.

    He already knew his luck had run out when Adele spoke to him last night. Still, he could kid himself.

    A very stiff, military-looking captain wearing Whites walked down the aisle, holding her chit between thumb and forefinger. Her left foot dragged slightly, though whether that was the result of injury or simply circulation cut off by the wait on the hard bench was a matter for conjecture.

    The other suppliants relaxed with a collective sigh.

    Daniel wore a new set of Grays; his second-best saucer hat was on his lap. He'd embarrassed himself the day before with his sloppiness.

    Spit and polish weren't the hallmarks of a fighting navy, but Daniel's previous disarray had been of a sort to bring the RCN into disrepute. Officially he'd escaped censure, but spacers were too close to the unfathomably powerful not to be superstitious. In Daniel's secret heart was a needle of fear that his slovenly appearance had something to do with the disaster overtaking him.

    Because the appointment Adele had warned him to expect was a disaster beyond any question. Bloody Hell, to serve under an officer who was a butcher or a paranoid madman! Or both, of course.

    "Four-four!" called the gatekeeper. "Forty-four."

    A newly minted lieutenant, also in Whites and with full braid and epaulettes, leaped to his feet and trotted toward the clerical enclosure. He looked no more than fifteen years old, though he was probably the regulation minimum of eighteen. Regardless, he was somebody's nephew, headed for a plum appointment on the staff of a high officer.

    Interest was a fact of life in the RCN, and it should be a fact so far as Daniel was concerned. He wasn't one to change a system that worked very well, thank you—as the series of RCN victories from time immemorial proved. Nonetheless Daniel sometimes wondered how his career would've been different if he weren't estranged from his politically powerful father.

    He smiled broadly at his foolishness. If he hadn't had the fight with his father, he wouldn't be in the RCN at all. . . .

    Ceiling ducts sighed as they blew air into the large hall through louvered vents. Daniel cocked his eyes upward, trying to isolate the additional sound he'd noticed.

    Pennyroyal saw his interest. In a concerned whisper she asked, "What is it? Do you hear that squeal-click up there? Do you think one of the bloody fans is going to fall on us?"

    "I hear it, yes," Daniel whispered back with a grin, proud that he could identify the sound. "But it's not the fan, Penny: it's a solitaire from Playa Grande. They're mammaloids but tiny, small enough to fit on your thumbnail."

    Pennyroyal stared at him, obviously wondering if he was joking. "What's it doing in the air system, then?" she demanded.

    "Judging from the call, at the moment it's looking for a girlfriend," Daniel said. "Twice a Playa Grande year, that's about nine standard months, they're not solitary. Apart from that, they eat mostly spiders."

    Which also weren't native to Cinnabar. Or Playa Grande, for that matter. If he were ever forced into retirement, he'd write a monograph on the fauna of the Navy Office, he swore he would!

    "Ninety-nine!" rasped the gatekeeper.

    For an instant, Daniel's mind went blank; then he jumped to his feet as though he'd been goosed with hot iron. He strode down the aisle, followed by Pennyroyal's whisper, "You lucky bastard, Leary!"

    She won't say that when she hears what the assignment is, Daniel thought. Then he remembered the berth Pennyroyal expected, junior lieutenant on a battleship. That was a job with nothing to recommend it beyond the fact it was a job, providing full pay and perhaps some day a transfer to something better. Whereas the Gold Dust Squadron didn't offer much in the way of glory, but there was a very good chance of making a fortune by recapturing freighters from the pirates. Many an officer would trade his hopes of promotion for the benefit a posting to Nikitin brought to his bank account.

    That was the trade Daniel had made. More accurately, the trade those in charge had made for him. So be it.

    Daniel handed his chit to the gatekeeper without speaking; his mind was a thousand light-years away. The clerk said something, but Daniel heard the words only as a mumble. He glanced down at her.

    "Don't look at me that way!" the gatekeeper said in a rising tone. She fumbled to lift the latch on the bar, letting it slip back with a clack the first time. "Desk One, the Chief Clerk. I don't have anything to do with it."

    Daniel nodded and walked into the enclosure. He'd entered the enclosure before—a half dozen times all told, he supposed—but though the experience wasn't entirely unfamiliar, he still felt as though he were playing a part in a religious ceremony.

    The chief clerk, a man of indeterminate age, sat at a desk on a dais knee-high above the remainder of the enclosure. Daniel didn't ever recall seeing a suppliant officer directed to him.

    Beside the clerk's desk stood a thin, completely sexless figure in black with white appointments. He—she, it—looked familiar, but it nonetheless took Daniel a long moment to recognize the person as Klemsch, the Secretary to the Navy Board.

    In theory Klemsch had a menial position. In practice, as the person who granted and more often refused access to the Board, he—Daniel thought Klemsch was male—had more real power than most Senators.

    There were no steps up from this side of the dais, a symbol if not a barrier. Nor did the desk have a name plate like those of junior clerks. Daniel lifted his foot as he'd have done to mount a companionway two steps at a time. He restrained his instinct to salute, since even the chief clerk was a civilian, and said, "I'm Lieutenant Daniel Leary. I was directed here."

    "That is correct, Mister Leary," the clerk said, handing Daniel a sheet of thick paper. There was a ribbon to tie it shut after it'd been rolled. "I must request that you review the document now and state whether you accept or reject it."

    Daniel stiffened with the document in his hand. Did they think he'd refuse a lawful order? Aloud he said, "As you wish."

    The orders were simple and in standard form, save that the details had been filled in by hand instead of being printed complete from a computer the way those of a junior lieutenant normally would be:



Lieutenant Daniel Oliver Leary, Unassigned

    Lieutenant: So soon as you are able you will proceed to the RCS Hermes, to which you are assigned, and take up the post of First Lieutenant. You will carry out the duties of this position as set forth in RCN regulations and such further duties as may be properly delegated to you by the officer commanding.

    Very respectfully
    T. Klemsch
    Secretary, at the direction of the Navy Board



    Daniel smiled ruefully. Right up to this moment a part of him had hoped that Adele's warning wouldn't actually come true. He'd never have let the hope reach even the surface of his conscious mind, but it'd been there . . . and its failure gnawed at the sinews holding his body erect.

    "Very well, then," Daniel said, rolling the document so that he didn't have to carry it open in his hand. He'd give it to Hogg, waiting for him on the steps of the Navy Office which he as an officer's servant wasn't permitted to enter. "May I ask if the warrant officers assigned to the Hermes have received their orders yet?"

    The clerk touched a keyboard built into the surface of his desk. It was otherwise blank save for a rack of pigeonholes at one end, each filled with a rolled document.

    The rainbow blur of a holographic display bloomed before him, then vanished. "I believe they have, yes," he said in a tone of no more emotion than sand whispering through an hourglass.

    Daniel nodded. "Then I'll proceed to Harbor Three as directed," he said.

    "One moment, Mister Leary," the clerk said. He handed a tight scroll tied with blue ribbon. "You're to deliver this to Captain Slidell when you report to the Hermes."

    "Deliver?" Daniel repeated in amazement. "What do you mean 'deliver'?"

    He took the document by reflex but almost dropped it. On the outside of the scroll somebody'd written To: Officer Commanding RCS Hermes in a flowing copperplate hand. Then, below it: To be read aloud immediately upon receipt.

    "I mean deliver, Lieutenant," the clerk said waspishly. "I know of only one definition for the word. And if you're wondering what the document is or why it's being transferred in this unusual—indeed, unique in my experience—fashion, then I have to say that I cannot even guess at an answer."

    He glared like a basilisk at Klemsch. That worthy dipped his head in a minuscule nod. He said nothing and his expression, a thin smile, hadn't changed since Daniel first noticed him standing beside the chief clerk's desk.

    "Very well," said Daniel. "Good day, gentlemen."

    He turned on his heel and marched out of the enclosure. Pennyroyal and the other lieutenants who'd been sharing the bench with Daniel tried to catch his eye, but he continued down the aisle toward the exit from the building.

    The Hermes was scheduled to lift in three days or as much longer as required to get a full crew aboard. Daniel wasn't looking forward to serving under Commander Slidell—

    But he'd tell the world he'd be glad to get off Cinnabar and escape this cycle of events he neither understood nor wanted to understand!

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