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The Way to Glory: Chapter Ten

       Last updated: Monday, March 7, 2005 23:33 EST



Sinmary Port on Nikitin

    "Stop here, Hogg," Daniel said when he realized that otherwise they'd drive straight through the swamp to the group overseeing salvage operations on the Cornelwood. The utility vehicle from the Hermes had six broad wheels. It'd likely get to the other side, but that'd mean chewing up the narrow pedestrian way and drenching the officers with muddy water.

    One of those present was Captain Molliman, the Port Commander. At the very best irritating him wouldn't speed the supply of food and spares to the Hermes... which in turn wouldn't improve Captain Slidell's opinion of his First Lieutenant.

    Hogg pulled around in a tight circle so that the vehicle's blunt cab faced the road back to the Hermes' slip. "All around the barn to get here, and we could see the sucker before we started," he grumbled to Daniel beside him. "Why'd they design the port like this?"

    "Well, they didn't, Hogg," Daniel said mildly. From the air all the islands dotting Nikitin's equatorial ocean--not just Sinmary--looked like games of dominoes. Straight lines branched at 90o and sometimes formed tee intersections with one another, creating messy sprawls in the shallow seas. "This is how the algae grows, and the site planners simply used what they found."

    He glanced over the dozens of other vehicles already at the site. Most were cargo-carrying hovercraft, pulled up on the quays framing the slip, but there were a number of aircars also.

    A pair of barges were anchored beside the listing Cornelwood to receive heavy stores through its hatches. The cruiser's 13,000-ton bulk dwarfed the low-lying surface craft.

    "Besides, it looks as though the locals use water transport," Daniel added. "Be thankful the Hermes had a truck and we didn't have to walk."

    "Aye, the pig," Hogg agreed, if it was really agreement.

    Woetjans and the squad of riggers in the bed of the truck were out before Hogg had shut down the multi-fuel turbine. "Now keep civil, you lot," she thundered. "You're Mister Leary's Sissies and so the best in the RCN, but this is somebody else's turf. We're to help as we're asked to, not to take the job over ourself."

    Daniel sighed. The bosun had just given good advice to her crew, senior people who'd worked on Morzanga. It was a pity she'd bellowed it in a voice that everyone in the slip must've heard.

    "I'll lead, if you please, Woetjans," Daniel said, stepping to the truck's running board. He hesitated before dropping the remaining thirty inches to the ground.

    He could've jumped to the ground, of course, but from the look of the soil he'd probably have sunk in to his ankles. Chances were he'd get muddy enough in the course of things--quite a number of people were working in the water, and Daniel wasn't one to stay comfortable while his subordinates did dirty, dangerous jobs. Still, it was better to introduce yourself to senior officers in a clean uniform.

    Sinmary looked extremely flat from orbit... and so it was, no more than a twenty-foot drop from the spine of the jagged island to the shore of the almost-tideless sea. Because of the vegetation, though, sight distances were short except over water. The trees had trunks like inverted bells to catch rainwater, circled by diadems of foliage. They covered the equatorial islands. On Sinmary there'd been no effort to clear them except to build base facilities and the residences of the planters.

    According to the Sailing Directions, Nikitin did a considerable business in fresh fruits and vegetables grown for nearby stars which in turn produced anti-aging drugs. Hundreds of nearby islands were under cultivation, but most of the wealthy landlords had a colony on the North Coast of Sinmary and commuted by aircar instead of living in scattered isolation on their estates.

    The island-forming algae itself provided the ground cover. It trapped rain like the trees, in its case by creating rectangles whose edges threw up membranous sheets on calcite stiffeners. The organic portion decayed nightly to slush and was replaced the next morning. Where the island's surface wasn't tree roots or artificial, it was generally a bog.

    Daniel started toward the officers. Beryllium monocrystal woven into a coarse mesh formed a walkway with a natural non-skid surface. The same material was used for catwalks connecting starships to quays beyond reach of their boarding ramps, but here it was supported on pilings rather than pontoons. Though immensely strong, the yard-wide ribbon bobbed and swayed under Daniel's weight as if it'd been floating.

    Lt. Farschenning looked over his shoulder as Daniel approached. He called cheerfully, "Here's Leary now, Captain. And it looks like Slidell was able to spare some of his riggers after all."

    Daniel managed not to grin. He'd been on the bridge when the two messages came in, so he knew exactly what'd happened. When Slidell opened the message from the Port Commander's office, he'd snapped, "No, of course I can't spare riggers if I'm to make the Hermes ready without any help from the dockyard staff! And if Molliman thinks he can order me, I'll remind him that I'm not in his chain of command."

    The second message was from Admiral Milne. Slidell stared at it expressionlessly, then said, "Mister Leary, direct the bosun to pick a squad of riggers who were with her on Morzanga and accompany you to the salvage site. Dismissed!"

    The officers were standing on the concrete top of the quay. Through cracks in it rose ankle-high membranes of shimmering algae, some of them recently trampled down. Earth, compressed with a plasticizer, made a better surface for any purpose that didn't involve high heat because it was more resilient. The construction engineers hadn't used it on Nikitin because lime for concrete was readily available, while the closest thing to dirt was the gooey organic sludge from decayed algae.

    Daniel halted a pace from Captain Molliman and saluted, saying, "Sir! Lieutenant Leary and twelve riggers reporting as ordered."

    "Yes, yes, Leary, and we're glad to have you," said Molliman. He looked at the enlisted personnel, squinting to read the bosun's name tape. "Glad to have you too, Woetjans," he went on. "Report to Senior Chief Takami on Barge 73--if he isn't in the Corny, I mean. We're lightening ship at the moment, mostly lift and carry."

    "Aye aye, sir!" Woetjans said. "We'll take one of the little skimmers if we may?"

    "What?" said Molliman. He waved the Sissies toward the surface-effect vehicles pulled up at a slant nearby. "Oh, right, you're on foot."

    He returned his attention to Daniel. Molliman was an overweight man of fifty with a limp and a built-up sole on his right boot. He couldn't have gotten through the Academy with that physical impairment, so it must be a service-incurred disability--and the reason he was now in a desk job.

    "Be a good chap, Leary," he said. "Don't keep making people salute, eh? This isn't Xenos."

    Daniel flashed an apologetic smile in reply.

    "We're all glad to seee you, Lieutenant," said a man in his early thirties, one of the two lieutenant commanders in the group. Nodding to the other LTC, a woman a few years older, he went on, "Tooney and I have been talking about how we'd manage the lift. She's got the Cutlass, I'm Peggs of the Chrysoberyl. And I'll tell you frankly, Leary, I'm glad you know how to do it. Because neither of us think it's possible."

    The challenge in Peggs tone was mild and so far as Daniel was concerned perfectly justified. Nobody enjoys being told an outsider--and a junior besides--says he can do what you can't. Nonetheless, Peggs wasn't flatly hostile to the notion.

    "You're related to Commander Bergen, Leary?" Tooney asked.

    "My uncle, sir," Daniel said, nodding.

    Tooney shrugged to Peggs. "I served with the Commander," she said. "There's nothing God could do with a ship that he couldn't, in the Matrix or in a gravity well, either one."

    She fixed Daniel with her eyes again. Tooney's face was thin and ascetic; it reminded Daniel not a little of Adele Mundy. "I'm willing to learn anything you can teach me about the business, Leary," she said. "And if you want to take the controls yourself, I won't fight you for the honor."

    "With respect, Commander," Daniel said, "I don't believe it is possible to lift the Cornelwood that way. Certainly not with me at the controls of an unfamiliar ship. I pride myself on my ship-handling, to be sure--"

    He quirked a grin at the local officers. He wasn't going to pretend false humility, because the truth would make his point much better.

    "--but I'd had years with the Sissie and knew her quirks. More important, though, the freighter I righted was on dry land and didn't weigh half what a heavy cruiser does, even if you manage to gut her down to the hull. I don't believe any practical net of cables can survive sufficient thrust to bring the sunken outrigger to the surface."

    The local officers looked at one another. Farschenning and the other two lieutenants kept blank faces, but the lieutenant commanders began to smile. Molliman wore a look of grim satisfaction.

    "Well, I shouldn't say it, Leary," Peggs said, obviously speaking for all of them, "because I'd like to see the Corny back in service ASAP... but I was a little concerned that somebody else thought he could succeed at what I expected t' be a disaster if I tried it."

    "Somebody who didn't talk through his hat, you understand," Tooney added. "We know the Gold Dust Cluster is out in the sticks, but even here we've heard about you, Leary."

    "That leaves us the problem of righting the cruiser, though," Captain Molliman said glumly. "And don't say build a coffer dam, drain the slip, and jack up the hull--because the bottom of the slip won't bear the weight. It's porous limestone and less than ten feet thick. And under that is three hundred feet of sea-water, which isn't much of a help."

    "A reputation's like a snowball, sir," Daniel said, nodding to Tooney. "It gets bigger the farther it gets from where it started. But Captain? I think there is a trick that might work."

    "Well, I'd like to hear it," Molliman said, his eyes narrowing. "And I hope it doesn't require sacrificing a black goat or something. Mind, I don't say I wouldn't do it."



    He flashed Daniel a wry smile. It struck Daniel that Molliman knew perfectly well that his career was seriously at risk, but he'd managed to remain professional when many officers would either be ranting or drinking themselves into oblivion.

    "I've compared site imagery with as-built drawings of the other ships available," Daniel said. "The Cutlass has too wide a footprint by several yards, but there's room for either of the Jewel Class cruisers to fit in the slip alongside the Cornelwood as she lies. That's the Chrysoberyl, or the Garnet which I gather's due back from Yang momentarily?"

    "Mister Leary," Peggs said, his tone quiet but full of amazement, "I couldn't possibly land Chrissie beside the Corny there without winding up on top of her in the surface eddies. I couldn't, God couldn't, and I very much doubt you could either."

    "And even if you could," Molliman said, frowning but not angry, "the exhaust'd hammer the cruiser to a wreck. We've got enough problems already with water damage."

    "We'd planned to have the lifting vessel in the next slip," Tooney said. "That way the quay protects the Corny from the blast."

    "I believe the Chrysoberyl--" Daniel bobbed his head toward Peggs "--can be towed into the slip by liftoff tugs if you have them here--"

    "We don't," said Molliman, "but--"

    "--or winches, maybe anchored on other ships," Daniel continued. In the enthusiasm of the success he saw looming, he'd just cut off an officer three pay grades higher than his. Right now they were talking as peers, and the Port Commander was at least equally excited. "And then tie her to the Cornelwood and float her up gently instead of jerking her with the thrusters--"

    "Wait, wait!" Tooney said. "It won't work, a patrol cruiser doesn't have enough excess buoyancy to lift a heavy cruiser. But--"

    "We can get the top of the outrigger above the surface," Molliman said, drawing his engineering calculator from its belt holster. Daniel had already done the calculations. It'd be close, but still on the right side. "Patch the holes there, blow in air and lift to the next holes, then do the same. If we can return two more compartments to integrity, we've got it. We've got the bitch!"

    A thrumming in the high sky made them all look up, slipping their goggles or--those who were wearing helmets--visors down to protect their eyes from the actinics in plasma exhaust. It was a moderate-sized vessel; Daniel reached up to boost his goggles' magnification, then caught himself with a grin and said, "A freighter? Or is this the Garnet?"

    Molliman was talking over the radio, his voice blanked by his helmet's noise-cancelling feature. He raised his visor again and said, "It's the Garnet. I was just making sure they'd been assigned a slip at the east end of the harbor. They left for Yang three days before this happened--"

    He nodded grimly to the Cornelwood.

    "--and might just drop into their usual berth, Slip 12, right the other side of the cruiser."

    "My Chrissie's up for the next run to Yang," Tooney said to Peggs with a grin, "but if we're going to be lashed to the Corny, I guess you'd better start plotting a course, Peggs."

    "As if I don't have it memorized," Peggs muttered, shaking his head. "Well, your turn in the barrel'll come up soon enough, Tooney. Yang's not going to settle down any time soon. We ought to station a ship there permanently. Of course she'd have to stay in orbit the whole time, because otherwise the whole crew'd desert and hop freighters off-planet."

    "I'd resign my commission if I got that assignment," said one of the lieutenants, speaking for the first time. "A week at a time's bad enough."

    "What's so awful about Yang?" Daniel asked. "And besides, it's not a Cinnabar dependency, is it? What're we doing there?"

    "Wasting our time, mostly," Tooney said. "Cinnabar citizens will go there--mostly citizens from client worlds here in the Cluster, but according to the Ministry of External Affairs they're owed the same protection as a Senator from Xenos. Only Senators have better sense 'n to go to Yang."

    "And as for what's wrong," said another of the lieutenants, "you can take your pick. The women, the water, the food, the liquor--they'll all kill you, sometimes faster, sometimes slower."

    His name-tape read Teiro, the name Daniel vaguely recalled for the First Lieutenant of the Cutlass. The Cornelwood's own officers must be aboard their vessel directing the sensitive internal aspects of the salvage while external matters were under the control of the Port Commander.

    "I'd say they were all pigs on Yang," said Farschenning, "but my family kept pigs back on Cinnabar. The people on Yang don't measure up to pig standards. They got their independence from the Alliance eighty years ago and it's been downhill ever since."

    "Independence?" Daniel repeated incredulously. "The Alliance doesn't let anybody go. Guarantor Porra's bad, but he's not much worse than any of his predecessors. The only way a planet leaves the Alliance of Free Stars is for Cinnabar to pry it loose."

    He chuckled. "And we're not in the habit of letting our valued allies change their minds either, I'll admit," he added.

    Captain Molliman grunted. "Yang was an exception," he said. "There's anywhere between twelve and twenty clans on Yang. They each think they ought to be running the planet, and the only thing they agree on is killing whoever says he's in charge. Usually that's whichever clan says it's on top, but so long as there was Alliance troops on the planet everybody shot at 'em. It didn't pay, not a tenth the cost. Things hadn't changed in a century and they weren't going to change in another century."

    He shrugged. "Nor has it," he added. "Not in eighty years, anyhow."

    Peggs nodded agreement. "There's money to be made on Yang," he said forcefully. "Not so much anti-aging compounds but other drugs. Which means you can always hire enough guns and shooters to say you're a popular revolution."

    "The local hash'll lift the brain outa your skull and put it in orbit," Lt. Teiro said. Everybody looked at him. He wetted his suddenly-dry lips with his tongue and added, "That is, you hear that."

    The Garnet settled into a slip at the far end of the harbor. The snarl of the thrusters merged with and smothered the thunder of steam lifting as an incandescent plume from the water. Talk paused while the low-frequency roar echoed over the harbor's surface.

    "And of course nobody on Xenos has the faintest idea what the place is really like," Tooney said bitterly when it stilled. "As far as that goes, the Navy Office is as bad as External Affairs."

    "Watch it!" said Peggs, looking past Tooney's shoulder toward the northeast. A large aircar had curved out over the open sea to avoid the Garnet; now it arrowed toward the Cornelwood's slip.

    Catching Daniel's eye Peggs continued in a murmur, "That'll be Admiral Milne bringing some of her local friends to see how the job's coming. She spends a lot of time with the planters when the squadron's in Sinmary Port."

    Peggs' tone was neutral, and the words weren't criticism on their face. Given that they came from an RCN officer talking about another RCN officer, the statement was implicitly damning. The rest of those present were nodding agreement.

    The aircar landed twenty feet down the quay from the group of salvage officers; a gust of wind plastered Daniel's utilities against his body before the driver, an RCN enlisted man in Grays, feathered his fans. He was the only person aboard in uniform.

    Daniel hadn't met Admiral Milne, a beefy, frog-faced woman in her sixties, but she was easy to identify from imagery even though she now wore a trousered suit with broad vertical stripes. Verticals were a good idea for the Admiral's build, but the lemon and fuchsia stripes were not.

    The car's six passengers formed three couples, though the striking thirty-ish man in the middle seat with the Admiral certainly wasn't her husband. As the newcomers got out of the vehicle, Daniel whispered to the local officers, "Should I salute?"

    According to regulations, the answer was simple: you didn't salute unless both you and the other party were in uniform. Admirals were likely to think their whims were the word of God, and in outlying stations like Nikitin there was nobody to tell them they were wrong. Daniel couldn't guess how Milne would react.

    "I'll take care of it," Molliman muttered. He stepped forward, putting himself between the others and Milne's contingent. Raising his voice he said, "Admiral, good to see you. I think we have an answer to the problem of raising the Cornelwood safely. Lieutenant Leary from the Hermes, here--"

    He gestured.

    "--has been quite helpful."

    "I've heard of Leary," Milne growled, eyeing Daniel but pointedly not speaking to him. "I'd advise you to be careful, Molliman. The trouble with these lucky ones is that when their luck finally goes sour--and it always does!--you have to look sharp not to be caught in the same bloody smash."

    Daniel kept his lips in a mild, slightly vacuous, smile. He had enemies in the service; anybody did if his career wasn't as bland and colorless as tapioca pudding. Daniel had never had contact with Admiral Milne, but she'd obviously met some of those enemies. There was nothing for it but keep his mouth shut and his face pleasant.

    It was possible that the particular enemy Milne had talked to was Commander Slidell. Well, worse things happen in wartime....



    "The Tylers," Milne said, gesturing to the couple from the back of the aircar in a grudging effort at introductions on her part. The wife was half the age of her husband and dressed in what'd been Xenos fashion in the recent past.

    The other couple who wore matching jumpsuits of shiny aquamarine fabric. Milne nodded to them. Daniel couldn't imagine where the outfits came from, though the effect rather pleased him. "And the Vallevas. And this is Master Mondreaux, of course."

    The young man at her side gave Daniel, presumably the only stranger, a nod that was almost a bow. Mondreaux dressed like a fop, with ruffs at throat and wrists; but he moved gracefully, and the muscles under his even tan were firm.

    He looked to the side and said, "Ah, I see that Lady Raynham has decided to come after all. She and her daughter Geneva both hoped to meet you, Lieutenant Leary--"

    Mondreaux bobbed slightly to Daniel. The surface of his expression was a bland smile.

    "--but the lady's companion Master Buscaigne thought they had more pressing business than to greet the great hero from Xenos."

    Another aircar was approaching from the north, smaller than the first but very well appointed. A slick-looking man was driving. The woman beside him was middle-aged and too big to fit comfortably into the garments she was wearing, but the girl alone in the back seat was very nice indeed.

    The car settled next to Admiral Milne's. During the moment it hovered, Lieutenant Farschenning leaned close to Daniel and said through the thrum of the fans, "I won't say anything against Lars Buscaigne, but I don't recommend you play cards with him."

    Daniel nodded. He knew the type. Master Mondreaux was another of them....

    Violent activity alongside the heavy cruiser drew everybody's eyes. A pair of spacers using atmosphere suits as makeshift diving apparatus shot to the surface, sloshing violently.

    "What is that?" Mistress Tyler shrieked on an ascending note. Staring at the commotion, she grabbed her husband with one hand and Mondreaux with the other.

    A man in the stern of the nearer barge hurled a gallon bucket into the water beside the risen spacers. The container started sinking, then burst in a gout of steam shot through with white fire. A ripple that looked like water out of a sluice peeled from one of the divers and merged with the churning slip.

    Mister Tyler had been detaching his wife's hand from Mondreaux. The younger man stood impassively, unaffected by the nearby violence and seemingly unaware of the lady's grip.

    "Bloody hell!" Tyler said, shocked in turn. He looked at Admiral Milne and said, "Quicklime, I suppose? Is that safe with the men right there?"

    "Safe enough," Captain Molliman replied instead. "Caustic won't harm the suits, and usually the lime doesn't splash the fabric directly."

    He looked at Daniel and explained, "There's big one-celled animals here. Blobs, we call 'em. In the harbor where they've got garbage and sewage to eat, they get to the size of bed quilts. If there's not a crack in your suit, they're not dangerous--but nobody likes to have one crawling on him, either."

    "The water around the islands's very acid from decaying algae," added Lieutenant Farschenning. "It's not the heat so much as for making the water basic that we drive them away with quicklime when they show up."

    "I once saw a ship being raised from a swamp," Mondreaux said, looking out toward the Cornelwood. "A tank of reaction mass was empty though the gauge read full, and a bank of thrusters failed on liftoff."

    The water of the slip still stirred, but for the most part the lime had slaked itself to quiescence. For the time being the divers continued to cling to a net over the side of the barge.

    "The swamp was full of great carnivores," Mondreaux continued, turning again to his companions. Everyone but the trio coming from the second aircar was looking at him. "They were cold blooded, I gather, but they certainly weren't sluggish. There were more people defending the salvage crew than there were raising the ship. It was a constant battle, and the stench of the corpses rotting was beyond belief."

    He chuckled. "Maybe they should've tried chasing them away with quicklime instead of killing them with impellers and plasma cannon," he added in a light tone. "I think after the first day or two, it was the smell of meat that drew the creatures more than the workmen around the ship."

    The older of the women from the second aircar stepped out in front of her companions. The man with her, Lars Buscaigne, laid a hand on her arm to rein her in; she jerked herself free.

    "Hello!" she said, holding both her hands out to Daniel, palms down. "I'm Celia Raynham, Lady Celia, but that's only because my dear late husband had a title of sorts on Lindesfarne before he came here and made so very much money. You must be the Daniel Leary we've heard so much about!"

    "Madame," Daniel said, bowing low to forestall the hug with which he was pretty sure Raynham was about to enfold him. She'd gotten an amazing amount of information out in the form of a simple greeting. An interesting woman, but not in the least interesting to him as a woman.

    "Yes," said the younger woman with a bright, cruel smile. "Poor mommy would be quite alone now in her later years if it weren't for darling Lars here. He's in constant attendance on her, aren't you, Lars?"

    She held out her hand to Daniel, drawing demurely back but managing to place herself in the direct line between him and her mother. "I'm Geneva Raynham," she said sweetly, "but please call me Ginny. It's enthralling to read of such heroic exploits by a man not much older than I am myself."

    Geneva turned to her mother, keeping the same smile. "I'll bet it reminds you of back when you were young too, doesn't it, mommy?" she added.

    Daniel didn't expect Geneva Raynham would age any better than her mother had, but that wasn't a present concern. She couldn't be much over twenty standard years old, though she was obviously quite sure of what she wanted.

    Which seemed to be the same as what Daniel wanted. The future wasn't going to be an issue. Repairs to the Hermes would be complete in five days probably, eight at the outside. The tender'd go off to her assigned station among the Burwood Stars. With luck Daniel would never see the lady again. That'd probably suit Geneva as well, but that wasn't a question he need ask himself once he'd lifted off in the Hermes.

    "Very good to meet you both, ladies," Daniel said, bowing again. He didn't have to look at Admiral Milne to know how their fawning would affect her. "We of course have work to do here, but perhaps at a later time we can pursue the acquaintance."

    "I wonder, Zita?" Mondreaux said unexpectedly. It was only by checking the direction of his glance that Daniel realized that he was speaking to Admiral Milne. "Of course I'm only a civilian, but it doesn't seem to me that one recently arrived lieutenant is really necessary for this business. Perhaps Lady Raynham and her daughter could show Leary the sights of our charming planet? I notice that there's a seat open in their aircar."

    "That would be quite impossible!" said Lars Buscaigne, his face flushing dangerously. He was a good ten years older than Mondreaux, though he'd been to considerable pains to disguise the fact. "The extra weight--"

    "Really, Lars," Celia Raynham said. "I'm sure the car will carry four. And if it can't--"

    She threw Daniel a broad smile.

    "--perhaps the Lieutenant can replace you as driver. You can drive an aircar, can't you, Lieutenant?"

    In fact Daniel couldn't, but there was no danger of the situation arising. "No, no, I will drive, of course!" Buscaigne said. "It was only your safety that I was worried about, Celia. My skill is equal to the challenge, I am sure."

    Mondreaux was whispering in the Admiral's ear. Milne snorted and said, "Well, why not? Do you need Leary here, Molliman?"

    "No sir," said the Port Commander, "but I do want to emphasize that it was Leary who showed us the way to get this business done fast and safely."

    "Yes, yes, I heard you before," Milne said peevishly. "Get along with you, Leary. I'll square it with Commander Slidell. And try to stay out of trouble, if you can manage that!"

    Celia Raynham seized Daniel's right hand. "Come, Lieutenant," she said. "We'll show you the Grand Gallery. And I'll ride with you in the back of the car to point out sights."

    Her daughter gripped Daniel's other hand. "I wouldn't think of tearing you away from dear Lars, mother," she said. "I'll ride with the Lieutenant. Daniel--may I call you Daniel?"

    Buscaigne didn't speak as he stomped toward the aircar on Celia's other side. Daniel had been eight years in the RCN and a regular visitor to his uncle's dockyard for a decade before that. A glimpse at Buscaigne's expression suggested that if the fellow had spoken, Daniel might still have heard some new curses.



    There were various ways for Adele to have gotten from the Hermes to Squadron House. She was on Navy Office business, so she could even have summoned an RCN aircar from the base establishment.

    Instead she chose to walk. Tovera followed a pace behind her mistress, like a modest and dutiful servant.

    Adele smiled faintly. She supposed Tovera was modest, at least in the sense that she'd never brag or claim more than her due, and she was dutiful to a fault. One had to be very careful what one told a sociopath who'd been trained to kill: a word to Tovera was very like pulling the trigger of a pistol. In neither case would another's conscience override your expressed will.

    Fortunately, Adele was very careful.

    A starship was landing at the east end of the harbor, the hammer of its thrusters redoubling as their shockwaves began to echo from the water. The walkway trembled. It wasn't a serious problem, but the way the beryllium mesh shivered at the best of times made Adele feel as unsteady as if she'd been walking on black ice.

    She chuckled. "Mistress?" Tovera asked quietly.

    "I don't like aircars," Adele said. She nodded to the vehiclular track alongside the raised mesh pedestrian-way. It was two parallel ruts filled with black muck except where an unusually deep cavity gaped in the limestone substrate. "And the roads here are bad enough that ground traffic must bounce instead of rolling if it's at any speed. I wonder if the Navy Office would approve a request for a Xenos-style tramway to carry me between the ship and Squadron House?"

    "It wouldn't be necessary to ask Cinnabar," Tovera said. "Commanders of detached squadrons have large discretionary funds at their disposal. Admiral Milne could approve the project herself. As, of course, could anyone else who had the Admiral's authentication codes."

    Adele wasn't sure whether Tovera actually had a sense of humor or if she made jokes in the same way that she acted as though she had morals: by analyzing jokes that normal people told and reproducing their elements in workmanlike fashion. Either possibility amused Adele, albeit in a gray fashion. It brought her a smile nonetheless.

    The walkway zigzagged between two-story barracks blocks and small duplexes, housing for the port's permanent staff. The yards were raised with dredged material confined by retaining walls. Children played among the buildings, watched by women and a few men. Often they waved as Adele and Tovera walked by.

    Many of the duplexes were surrounded by impressive displays of off-planet species, and even the barracks had planting boxes. Gardening seemed to be a favorite pastime here, presumably aided by the same climate that made Nikitin a planetary truck farm for neighboring worlds.

    "It'd be a quiet place to live," Adele said. "I noticed when I went over the staff lists that forty percent of the personnel have been here five years or more."

    Squadron House, a rambling three-story structure on what constituted the high ground inland of Sinmary Port, was easily visible. The building's walls were blocks of coarse brown limestone. Lesser structures were roofed with sheets of dull blue or green extruded plastic, but on the headquarters building sunlight gleamed from glazed ceramic tiles like the white heart of a lime kiln.

    "Do you want a quiet place to live, mistress?" asked Tovera. She didn't sound concerned; she never sounded concerned. She just seemed curious about how human beings felt.

    "Not without a library," Adele said. And in truth, probably not even with a library. She wouldn't say she'd become addicted to... excitement, danger, adventure. However you chose to describe it, the words meant the same thing while you were undergoing them: chaos and generally misery.

    But that was the only life Adele had known since the Three Circles Conspiracy left her an orphan and exile at age sixteen. Many spacers preferred home brewed slash when they could get better liquor, just because they were used to it. She supposed that was a definition of home: the environment you were used to.

    A spacer in Grays was on guard at the entrance to Squadron House. He sat in a chair. His sub-machine gun lay beside him on the edge of a planting box filled with hyacinths and a red spiral flower. Adele didn't know the red flower's name, but she'd seen them frequently on her way here. She'd look them up when she had a moment, not because she needed the information but because it was information....

    "Signals Officer Mundy with my assistant," she said, offering the guard her ID. The embedded chip provided complete identification, including her retina scan and DNA patterns. "I have an appointment with Commander Rittenhouse."

    "Yes, ma'am," the fellow said, waving her through without checking the ID in his reader. "Ground floor, take the corridor to the right and it's all the way to the back. The door says Communications, but it'll probably be open."

    "Thus far I'm not impressed by their security," Adele murmured to Tovera as they walked in. The entrance hall was the full height of the building, and the three corridors leading from it were broad and airy.

    "Would you be able to enter their data banks if you'd been barred from the building?" Tovera asked.

    Adele frowned. "Yes, of course," she said. She'd already done so. She always sucked the information out of the local control center when her ship arrived in port, whether it was friendly or hostile.

    "Then perhaps the guard had the right attitude," Tovera said blandly.

    Adele looked at her servant. Tovera smiled at her. That had to have been a conscious joke.

    The guard inside the open door marked COMMUNICATIONS was leaning on the desk of the very feminine-looking male receptionist and chatting. When he saw Adele coming down the hallway, he retrieved his weapon, a stocked impeller tilted against the wall, and said, "This is a restricted area, ma'am."

    Adele held up her ID. "I have an appointment with Commander Rittenhouse," she said. "My name is Mundy. This is my assistant."

    The guard handed the chip to the receptionist to check. "You just in from the Garnet?" he asked. "Any change in things on Yang?"

    "I'm from the tender Hermes, not the Garnet," Adele said. "Are you expecting a change on Yang?"

    The guard laughed bitterly. "Not in my lifetime," he said. "Or in my bastard grandchildren's neither. I was just making conversation, I guess."

    "Well, it's correct," said the receptionist, eyeing Adele doubtfully as he handed back her ID. "But...."

    "Then announce me to the Commander, if you will," Adele said sharply. If a thing was correct--and of course her identification was--then there were no buts: you carried out your duty promptly instead of delaying your betters by hemming and hawing.

    The Communications Center was a large room. Ten workstations faced inward in the middle, but only one was occupied. There were three private offices on the right side; the doors of the two nearer were closed. Dissonant music drifted out of the open third door.

    The receptionist keyed his intercom and said, "Commander? The survey officer from Xenos is here."

    The receptionist paused; the music from inside the office shut off. In the silence, Adele heard Tovera ask the guard about local liquors. While Adele was closeted with the Commander Rittenhouse, the Cluster Communications Officer, Tovera would be learning the routines of the office personnel and scouting places to put bugging devices in the unlikely event that Adele decided such were necessary. Tovera did that sort of thing as naturally as Adele herself dug into the heart of whichever information source was handy.

    "Yessir," said the receptionist. He wasn't using sound cancellation, though his desk communicator had the capability. "But she's a warrant officer, sir. Yes sir."

    The receptionist pursed his lips and looked at Adele. "He says you're to go on back," he said. "He figures there's a mistake, but he'll clear it up himself."

    Adele looked at the handsome young fellow. It wouldn't take a great deal to convince me to clear you up, she thought. She'd intended to keep her face expressionless, but the receptionist squealed and drew back. Adele strode past the fellow, knowing that he wasn't worth the price of a pellet from the gun in her pocket.

    But then, neither was she. She and the receptionist were both human and both flawed. There was no point in getting angry at one more twit in a universe which seemed to be largely populated with twits.

    Adele entered the private office. The back wall--west-facing and on the exterior of the building--had been replaced by an expanse of frosted glass. Rittenhouse sat behind a desk pushed so far forward that there wasn't room to sit between it and the door, though there were comfortable chairs to the sides. The rear half of the room was a burgeoning confusion of flowering plants.

    "Mistress Mundy," Rittenhouse said in a frowning tone that echoed his expression. "When I was told the Navy Office was sending an officer to review our information and communication systems here at Cluster Headquarters, I expected someone of commissioned rank. And properly of very high commissioned rank, I must say."

    Rittenhouse was a military-looking fellow whose moustache flowed into his closely trimmed beard. He'd donned his 1st Class uniform to meet the officer from Xenos, but he obviously hadn't worn it for some while in the past. The tunic closed so tightly around his neck that his face was turning red.

    That excused the Commander's testiness to some degree, though in her heart Adele believed that one didn't allow mere physical discomfort to affect one's behavior. Especially if you were uncomfortable because you'd gotten fat, an unacceptable weakness....

    Adele smiled. There were other weaknesses, of course--like Adele Mundy's tendency to feel everybody should behave the way she did. Apart from anything else, that would be a polite but exceedingly dangerous world in which to live.

    Her smile had taken Rittenhouse aback: his expression wavered between amazement and outright fury. To calm him and because the situation suddenly amused her, Adele said, "Well, Commander, I'm quite sure I wasn't chosen because I'm the Mundy of Chatsworth. Admiral Hagbard--"

    The Director of the RCN's Bureau of Communications and the person whose signature was on the orders under which Adele was operating, though Mistress Sand had dictated their content.

    "--is far too professional to allow mere social concerns to influence his duties to the RCN."

    The statement was completely true, at least to the extent that Adele's birth had nothing to do with her appointment. Hagbard was rather a snob, but his only connection with her presence is that he'd signed the orders pro forma.



    Commander Rittenhouse assumed Adele was lying, of course. Occasionally Adele found herself trying to correct lies useful to her which somebody else had invented, but intellectually she knew that was an absurd thing for her to do.

    "Oh!" Rittenhouse said, straightening in his seat. "Oh. Well, I trust the Admiral's judgment completely, Mundy. Have a chair, won't you?"

    He gestured to the one on his right. "Are you a gardener yourself by chance?"

    "No sir," Adele said, sitting in the chair opposite the one Rittenhouse had indicated. That one was under the curve of a fleshy plant whose blossoms dangled at or a little below the height of Adele's short-cropped hair. "Most of my experience with the natural world comes through written descriptions, though my shipmate Lieutenant Leary is a gifted amateur."

    "Indeed," Rittenhouse said in evident disappointment. "Well, regardless, what is it that you and the Admiral want from me, Mundy?"

    "All I require is access for me and my assistant," Adele said. "How many coupled consoles does Squadron House have in all?"

    "Well, there's the group here," Rittenhouse said, waving vaguely toward the main room. "I think seven of them are working. We've had some problems, you see. But we don't really have enough trained personnel here in the Cluster for that to make any difference. We're rather forgotten here, I'm sorry to say."

    Adele noticed that a line of what she'd thought were little blue flowers on the stem above the Commander's head followed his motion. They were animals of some sort. Daniel would be interested....

    "And there's four more in the major departments in the building," Rittenhouse continued. "Plus the one in the Admiral's mansion. Admiral Milne had a console moved there so that she could access the system without coming to Squadron House. She's got a full office in one wing."

    Adele frowned despite her intention of remaining expressionless. "I'd think that would raise security concerns," she said carefully.

    "Oh, my goodness," Rittenhouse said with a chuckle. "You mustn't think this is like Xenos, Mundy. The only intelligence we in the Cluster deal with is piracy, and that's entirely a small-scale business--mostly a village clubbing together to buy a clapped-out starship and man it, hoping to steal a load of anti-aging drugs before their ship falls apart on them. They aren't going to break into the Admiral's mansion. And as for the wretched situation on Yang--"

    He threw up his hands.

    "I think you could mix up the past ten years of intelligence reports on Yang and not be able to tell the difference. Nothing changes on Yang."

    "I see," said Adele mildly. What she saw was that Rittenhouse was even stupider than she'd thought, which was saying a good deal. Intelligence about the Cluster was of no great concern, but Squadron HQ received the general RCN distribution by courier vessels. That included information of potential value to Alliance operations in every zone of conflict.

    She cleared her throat and added, "So there's no security whatever on Admiral Milne's personal console?"

    "Oh, heavens, Mundy!" Rittenhouse said. "We may be a little relaxed by your Xenos standards, but we're not a pack of fools here on Nikitin. The Admiral's office is sealed off from the rest of the mansion. There's a guard at the door. Entry's limited to the same authorized personnel as this department, with the additional requirement that Admiral Milne herself has to be present. Why, not even her husband is allowed into the office!"

    You're wrong about not being a pack of fools, Adele thought, but the precautions as Rittenhouse described them seemed reasonable by the standards of the Gold Dust Cluster. She wouldn't prejudge the source of the leak.

    "I'll get to work, then," she said, rising carefully to avoid brushing a plant which she'd swear had stretched its violet-streaked flowers closer to her while she'd been sitting there. "I expect my assessment to take three days, but it might be a day or two longer. And I'll need access to Admiral Milne's console."

    "Umm...," said Rittenhouse, getting up also. "I'm not sure that'll be possible, Mundy. The Admiral's quite picky about who she allows into her office."

    Adele noticed that he shifted sideways to stand upright; a shrub whose stem and branches were double spirals arched over his chair. Service on Nikitin was idyllic in many respects, but it seemed to have driven the Commander insane by the standards of Cinnabar society.

    "I regret that it'll be necessary nonetheless," Adele said. Most of what she'd be doing was checking each console's internal history: what information had been accessed through it, when, and what passwords had been used. Because these were purpose-built RCN consoles, the internal histories couldn't be wiped without physically destroying the machine.

    A team of experts might be able to create a false log, but that would require time and effort well beyond what was required to steal the information in the first place. If Adele didn't discover the source of the leak by checking the access histories, she'd have to consider the possibility of false logs along with others even less probable, but for the time being she was confident that the logs'd tell her how if not necessarily by whom the information was abstracted.

    "Well, that's between you and the Admiral," Rittenhouse said, following Adele to the door. "I can't help you there at all."

    A young lieutenant in utilities was standing at the front desk. The receptionist turned and said, "Commander? This is Mister Zileri, the First Lieutenant from the Garnet, you remember? They're still having trouble with their commo."

    "Right, Commander," the lieutenant said. He had dark, curly hair and a round face whose normal expression was probably more cheerful than the one it wore at the moment. "It's the same thing as before, half the time we think we're sending but no signal's getting out. The only thing that helps is switching the unit on and off a couple times when we notice the problem, and that doesn't always work either. Can you get your techs on it again and this time solve it? Because my commo officer sure can't."

    "Look, Lieutenant," Rittenhouse said, "I'm sorry about your problem but I'm not a miracle worker. This isn't Xenos, you know. If my technicians couldn't cure it before, they can't cure it now. And besides, how do you know that it wasn't fixed and you people broke it again after it was out of our hands?"

    Adele wondered how often on average the phrase "this isn't Xenos" occurred in one of the Commander's work-related discussions. She herself had found no lack of lazy incompetents on Xenos, but the greater pool there allowed for a certain number of people who actually could do their jobs.

    "Excuse me?" she said, inserting herself in a conversation that obviously wasn't going anywhere useful. It was none of her business, of course, but it was a problem and very possibly one she could solve.

    "Yes?" said the lieutenant, raising his eyebrows in friendly inquiry. Commander Rittenhouse remained calmly aloof, rather like one of his plants standing silently while two birds twittered to one another.

    "Is your communications system part of the main navigation computer or do you have a dedicated unit for commo alone?" Adele asked.

    "I don't have any idea," the lieutenant said, frowning in concentration. "I don't think there's a separate computer. But say--neither unit's been changed in the past three years, but the problem only cropped up five or six months ago."

    "Has your navigational software been updated recently?" Adele said. She didn't bother to argue about the definition of "changed," just pursued the problem as it took shape before her. "Say in the last five or six months?"

    "Well, yes, that's a regular thing," the lieutenant said. "Every time the courier arrives from Xenos, actually--every month or so. But that's been going on too."

    Adele nodded. "One of the updates may have changed a default, however," she explained. "It may give absolute priority to astrogational computations."

    She shrugged. "There's no need for that under normal circumstances," she added. "Commo takes almost no computing power compared to astrogation, but a software engineer with no practical experience may very well have ignored that reality. You just have to reconfigure your defaults to the original settings. If that's the problem, of course."

    "Bloody fucking hell!" the lieutenant said. "I--"

    His eyes narrowed as he peered at Adele's name tape. Then his face brightened and he said, "Mundy? Is that the Mundy who's done so much with Danny Leary? Because I hear he's on the Hermes now and she's in port."

    "Yes, that's right," Adele said with a degree of reserve that almost certainly wasn't justified, given the lieutenant's friendly enthusiasm. She was a cautious, reserved person. She saw no point in trying to change the personality that was natural to her and which had kept her alive in circumstances which had been fatal to others.

    "Well by heaven!" the lieutenant said, reaching out to clasp Adele's hand in greeting. "I'm Paolo Zileri. Danny and I were great friends at the Academy. I've been looking forward to seeing him once I got this commo mess cleaned up. By heaven!"

    "If you're satisfied now, Lieutenant," said Commander Rittenhouse, "then I'll return to my duties."

    He disappeared into his office without waiting for an answer. The door closed and the dissonant music resumed.

    Zileri snorted. Adele merely let an almost-grin lift a corner of her mouth. If Rittenhouse hadn't spoken, nobody would've noticed he was leaving....

    "Look, Mundy," Zileri said. "I know this is an imposition, but is there any chance you can fix this for us? It's not your duty, but it'll be me and Hernandez otherwise. Even with you telling us where the problem is, I'm not... well, I don't think Hernandez is up to the job and I know I'm not."

    Adele thought for a moment. She had nothing to do aboard the Hermes at the moment, and her duties to Mistress Sand weren't pressing in the sense that the delay of an hour would make a difference.

    "Yes, all right," she said. "We'll take care of that immediately."

    She started out of the Communications Center beside Zileri. "Mind," she added. "I'm not guaranteeing that I've diagnosed the real problem."

    "But knowing Mistress Mundy...," said Tovera unexpectedly from behind them. "I'm sure that she will have solved the problem before we leave. I'm as sure as I am of death."

    That was, Adele thought, another joke. In its way. In a way she shared with Tovera.

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