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The Way to Glory: Chapter Fourteen

       Last updated: Monday, March 28, 2005 23:30 EST



Sinmary Port on Nikitin

    "Through there, Leary," Lt. Pontefract said, opening the door. The lieutenant's face was impassive, but Daniel read in it a look of disgust. Perhaps that was a guilty conscience. "She's waiting for you."

    "Thank you," Daniel said, walking stiffly into the enclosed garden behind the Admiral's Mansion. The door closed after him.

    He didn't have any choice but to move stiffly: twelve hours in the Hermes' Medicomp, the tender's automated sick bay, had repaired much of the previous night's damage, but it'd be weeks if not months before Daniel would be able to move without twingeing reminders. His left wrist was in a brace, but his left elbow and shoulder joints jabbed him regularly also.

    Milne's garden was small but more attractive than Daniel would've guessed. In the center was a paved patio with a square stone table. The benches on two sides were set at an angle rather than facing one another. The ends of the tract were shaded by a terran dogwood, at present full of white flowers, and a small tree with scarlet foliage. Shrubs--Daniel didn't recognize any of the half-dozen species--bordered the back wall, and a variety of flowers grew in discrete sections. Several were Terran hostas.

    There were blue Cinnabar silkflowers as well. Daniel felt an unexpected pang when he saw them. His mother'd had a window box of silkflowers, so that even when she'd grown too weak to walk outdoors she had a reminder of the garden to which she'd devoted much of her life. An odd thing to remember now.

    Admiral Milne stood in front of the table, her hands crossed behind her. To Daniel's surprise she was in civilian clothes, a suit of white-speckled brown. Makeup on her left cheek covered what must be extensive bruising despite treatments to dissolve the extravasated blood, but the side of her face was still swollen. She'd been very lucky that Hogg hadn't broken bones when he decked her.

    Hogg, and more particularly Hogg's master, had been lucky as well. Adele had been able to fix matters as they now stood, but Daniel wouldn't have wanted to test how much farther her powers of persuasion went.

    "You will not salute, Leary," the Admiral said in a tone that only charity would describe as a snarl. "And I'd rather you hadn't worn your uniform, so that I wouldn't have to be reminded you have a commission in the service to which I've devoted my life."

    "Sir," said Daniel neutrally. He stood at Parade Rest, figuring that was the pose least likely to aggravate the already uncomfortable situation. He kept his eyes on the silver-barked shrub spreading beyond Milne's right shoulder.

    "If justice were done, Leary," the Admiral continued, "you'd be on trial for murder. Yes, murder! The only reason that isn't happening is that your--I don't know what to call her!"

    "Sir," said Daniel, angry to a degree that took him by surprise. "You may refer to her as Officer Mundy, or if you prefer her civilian title, Mundy of Chatsworth. A very noble house, as I'm sure you're aware; and one which is notably punctilious of its honor."

    Milne blinked, suddenly wary. She looked like a toad realizing that the meal she's just swallowed might have a sting. "RCN regulations flatly forbid duels between officers," she said. "If that's what you're implying."

    "Yes sir," Daniel said to the distant shrub. "But please keep in mind that the lady in question has been a Mundy all her life and an RCN officer for only the past few years. I assure you that she is aware of that."

    "That's neither here nor there," said Milne, but the hectoring anger had gone out of her voice. Adele's reputation as a pistol shot had gotten around, and that the Mundys had tender honors was well known. So, of course, did the Learys of Bantry.

    "Anyway," Milne continued, "you needn't worry about being prosecuted. Officer Mundy made it quite clear that such proceedings would lead to the scandalous blackening of poor Mondreaux's name. Better he be allowed to rest in peace as a victim of accident, which I suppose in a strictly literal fashion he was."

    "Sir," said Daniel. Nobody'd intended Mondreaux to die, that was true; and Daniel couldn't imagine having an enemy whom he'd want to die in the particular fashion that Mondreaux had. It was Mondreaux's bad luck. And bad judgment, and perhaps bad karma--though that was a matter for priests and philosophers, not RCN officers.

    The Admiral didn't say anything about what would happen to her own career if a court martial heard the full story of what and why events had occurred the previous night. It was even possible that she wasn't thinking so much about her career as she was about her husband's reaction. "A tongue like a diamond drill," Captain Molliman had said, describing Master Milne.

    "I dare say you understand, Leary," Milne continued, swinging her hands in front of her and then stuffing them clenched into her pockets, "why I don't want to look at you and your consort any more than I have to, though."

    She paused. Daniel wasn't sure she wanted an answer--it wasn't a question, strictly speaking--and in any case the only answer he could've given was another place-holding, "Sir." He said nothing.

    "Fortunately for both of us," Milne continued, "the needs of the service provide an answer. No doubt you've heard about the difficult situation on Yang?"

    "Yessir," Daniel said. Was Milne going to order the Hermes to Yang? Because if she did, Commander Slidell was going to be angry enough to chew hull plating.

    "The government of Yang has captured some two hundred mercenaries serving with the rebels," Milne said. "President for Life Shin has put them to hard labor, but I suspect that he'll have them all executed the next time he wants to give his supporters a little treat. Normally I'd say, 'Good riddance,' but it seems this particular lot is from the Burdock Stars, so they're Cinnabar citizens. It's my duty to procure their release and repatriation. Are you beginning to understand, Leary?"

    Yes, Daniel thought. Aloud he said, "Sir, not at present."

    Insectoids buzzed around the flowers. Daniel couldn't have told what they were without slipping his goggles over his eyes and dialing up the magnification. He'd wondered if these varied off-world plants had to be hand-pollinated, but apparently Milne or her predecessors had imported animals for the purpose.

    Thinking about the garden was much less uncomfortable than imagining where the Admiral was going with this conversation.

    "I'm going to send you to remonstrate with President Shin, Leary," Milne said. She grinned, then winced to have stretched muscles swollen from the wallop Hogg'd given her. "You and Officer Mundy. You've proven yourself such resourceful people that I'm sure you'll have no difficulty making Shin see reason. What do you think?"

    "Sir," said Daniel to the bush. "The Hermes won't be ready to lift for some days, perhaps a week. Ah--"

    "Who said anything about the Hermes, Leary?" Milne snapped. "I'm going to request that Commander Slidell send one of his cutters to deal with the situation on Yang. I can't tell a captain which of his officers to detail to a task, of course, but I'm sure the Commander will accept my friendly suggestion."

    A cutter? To cow the Yang government into submission?

    "They're all barbarians on Yang," Milne continued cheerfully. "The government as surely as the rebels. After all, only a year ago President Shin was a rebel. That's why I think you and Officer Mundy are perfect for the task. You understand the minds of the puerile butchers you'll be dealing with!"

    She laughed, then winced again. "At the very least," Milne added in a rasping snarl, "I think I can promise you an interesting time. Don't you think so, Leary?"

    "Yes sir," said Daniel, even now managing not to meet the Admiral's eyes. "I do."

    At least for as long as they survived. Which might very well be a matter of seconds after Lt. Leary delivered an ultimatum to President Shin with nothing but a cutter and her thirty-man crew to back it up.



    Adele watched as Sun, lying on his back, spliced her specialized equipment into Cutter 614's command console. The commo suite was quite sophisticated--virtually identical to that of the Hermes herself though without the redundancy--but there wasn't provision for anybody but the captain to use it: cutters didn't ordinarily carry their own signals officer.

    Daniel, obviously thinking the same thing, said, "We'll weld you a jumpseat on the back of the console, Mundy."

    He cleared his throat and added, "I regret this situation. That I involved you in it, particularly."

    "There you go, mistress!" Sun said, starting to inch his way out of the very close quarters he'd been working in. No starship could be described as roomy, but cutters were tight even by the standards of a corvette like the Princess Cecile. "Want to test it now?"

    "In a few minutes, Sun," Adele said. "Thank you for your help. I don't have the expertise with tools to have done that myself."

    "My pleasure," Sun said cheerfully. He got his head clear, glanced to either side, and then sat up carefully in the space between the console and the gunnery board. "I'll bring my duffel in, then. Captain, it'll be a pleasure to sail with you again."

    "Are you assigned to 614, Sun?" Daniel said in surprise. "I'd have thought...."

    Sun grinned. "Every place in the cutter's crew went to a senior Sissie, sir," he said. "And it's not volunteers, though I guess we all would. Captain Slidell assigned us, just like that."

    "Let's go out on the hull, Lieutenant," Adele said, closing down her personal data unit. She smiled. "I believe it's too early to watch the sunset, but I'm sure we'll find something."

    "Eh?" said Daniel. His puzzlement warmed into a great, beaming smile. "Yes indeed, I'm sure we will. If I'm stationed on Nikitin for any length of time, I'd like to make a study of the seabirds. Do you know, I've already seen three off-planet species? I wonder if they're accidental or deliberate introductions?"

    The cutter's single hatch for the present connected it to the tender. Going onto the hull required entering the Hermes' central passage, then exiting through one of the tender's hatches. With Daniel in the lead, they went out the same way they'd done a few days before.

    Adele didn't have magnetic boots this time, but Daniel snapped a short safety line to her belt and attached the other end to his own harness. The worst her clumsiness was going to do was leave her hanging at the end of a six foot line. Unless Daniel's injuries--

    "Daniel, are you physically fit?" she said sharply as she followed him up the ladder to the mast platform. "Perhaps we shouldn't--"

    "Oh, heavens yes!" Daniel said, turning at the top and offering Adele his hand. "You mean from the squid? Yes, I need to use my legs or they're apt to swell and stiffen, but there's no better exercise than running up and down the antennas the way the crew has to do on a cutter."

    He held up his left hand. "This wrist isn't quite right since I jammed it the other night, but there's nothing for it but exercise as well. I'll be fine."

    Adele looked at her friend. He sounded both cheerful and pellucidly honest, but sweat beaded his forehead after the short climb and the muscles of his face were taut beneath the smile. To avoid pain Daniel would have to take enough drugs to turn him comatose. He wasn't willing to accept loss of function, so he was living with the pain.

    Adele nodded in silent agreement. That was the same thing she'd have done, of course. No doubt the shared attitude was part of the reason they were friends.

    "This is going to be a very dangerous operation," Daniel said quietly, his eyes on the birds circling overhead. It was obvious even to Adele that they weren't all native to the same world, since some had two wings but others four. "I don't mean difficult--frankly, it may well be impossible to achieve. President Shin won't surrender the captives unless he feels threatened, and a cutter is unlikely to threaten him sufficiently."

    He turned his hands palms up and looked at Adele with a wistful smile. "The risk," he continued, "the danger, is that Shin will become so angry at the request that he'll massacre the cutter's whole crew out of hand. He'll view as an insult a ship that can't launch missiles into his palace from orbit. By foolish grandstanding, I've endangered people for whom I have high regard and a sense of responsibility."

    "Daniel, that's nonsense," Adele said in honest surprise. "Mondreaux was a spy. Certainly I'm willing to let the Admiral wear a fig-leaf to save her retirement and I suppose her marriage, but you needn't be in any doubt about the contents of the recording chip that we took from Mondreaux's body. He was copying all traffic that passed through the console in Milne's office."

    "I realize that," Daniel said, looking away again and crossing his hands behind his back. Though his face had seemed calm, he was knotting and unknotting his clenched fingers. "I realize that. But by deciding to capture him myself instead of taking my suspicions to the proper authorities, I created a real mare's nest. And got Mondreaux killed, which wasn't my intention."

    "Daniel," Adele said quietly. "Look at me."

    He met her eyes and nodded. "Yes?" he said.

    "Daniel, I don't normally discuss this with you since I believe you'd rather not know, but I am the proper authorities," Adele said. She gave him a wry smile. "If you were wondering how this will affect your service record--"

    "I'm not," he said. "That's the farthest thing from my mind."

    "I know it is," she agreed. "But if you were wondering, I'd tell you that I will report to my superior that I requested the assistance of an RCN line officer to apprehend the spy whom I was sent to the Gold Dust Cluster to deal with; and my superior will speak a quiet word in the ear of Admiral Anston, who will offer you the Republic's discreet thanks at his next opportunity."

    Daniel grinned, then shook his head in bemusement. "I swear to God," he said, "I never dreamed that Lt. Pontefract's duties as aide-de-camp extended to matters quite as personal to the Admiral as they apparently did. If I had...."

    His voice trailed off. He was still smiling.

    "If you had realized that Pontefract was a pimp...," Adele said. "Or if I had, which I did not--what would you have done differently?"

    "Well, I'd have asked Hogg not to slug her with brass knuckles," Daniel said. "I'm not entirely sure he'd have obeyed me, but I'd have made the effort."

    "Ah," said Adele. She cleared her throat, then smiled in turn. "Daniel, Admiral Milne won't receive any formal punishment. It'd embarrass too many people to publicize the business last night. Embarrassment to me in my future duties to the Republic, not least. Milne's folly, her stupidity--her thinking with her genitals--"

    Daniel's face went watchfully blank. Adele had been a little too vehement, she supposed, in denouncing matters toward which others--Daniel certainly among them--took a more relaxed view.

    "The Admiral's ill-judged actions," Adele continued in a calm, clinical tone, "caused injury to the Republic and very likely the death of Cinnabar citizens. If solving the problem she caused involved her being punched in the face, then I can only say I wish Hogg had hit her again."

    Daniel's smile spread over his face again. "Well, just between us," he said, "Hogg feels the same way."

    His chuckle built to bellowing laughter that bent him double. The riggers working on the antennas forward looked over at them, and the former Sissies began to laugh also.

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