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What Distant Deeps: Chapter Ten

       Last updated: Monday, July 12, 2010 23:22 EDT



Calvary Harbor on Zenobia

    Adele was contentedly engaged with her duties as the Princess Cecile roared down toward the surface of Zenobia. Occasionally she wondered if her “contentment” was what other people referred to as happiness. There wasn’t any way to test the hypothesis, however, so she generally ignored the question.

    Landing a starship from orbit was a matter of lengthy, thunderous buffeting. Though the antennas had been retracted and clamped as firmly as possible to the hull, every section rattled at a different frequency. The atmosphere howled and whistled; the thrusters pulsed deafeningly as they ionized reaction mass, spewing the plasma out at high velocity to brake the corvette’s approach.

    Adele was more or less aware of what was going on around her, but she ignored it. The cacophony was familiar from long repetition; and besides, nothing that didn’t physically interfere with her work was of great importance when she had something to do. She was quite good at finding things, but first landing on a new planet was always an embarrassment of riches.

    She had set Cory at the astrogation console and Cazelet in the BDC to various tasks that she had broken out for them. The Sissie’s internal operations would have astounded — appalled — any RCN officer who wasn’t already familiar with them: during a landing, all officers should be at their posts, prepared to deal with crises — not harvesting electronic data under the direction of a junior warrant officer.

    Daniel — who had the conn — or Vesey either one could have landed the Princess Cecile and dealt with anything untoward that happened. If both of them — if every watch-standing officer — aboard the corvette suddenly dropped dead, there were a dozen ratings who could have brought the ship in safely. And if Captain Daniel Leary chose to give his signals officer a free hand in directing the crew as she saw fit, then surely the results justified his decision.

    Adele grinned slightly while she examined data from the Founder’s Palace: regular officers would still be appalled. Which was in part why an irregular officer like Daniel had proved so successful.

    The thruster output increased in a smooth curve rather than a series of jolts, showing that a human hand rather than a computerized landing program was in charge of the process. Even so the perceived increase in the weight of Adele’s control wands made her pause until the ship sank finger’s-breadth by finger’s-breadth into the steam which her exhaust boiled from the harbor.

    The Palace’s electronic security was conspicuous by its absence: Adele had seen local shops which did a better job of safeguarding their data. Security was so bad, in fact, that her first thought was that the Founder’s important files had been concealed so skillfully that she couldn’t locate, let alone penetrate, them.

    That was paranoia on her part. Founder Hergo had no important files. The lack of security was actually a reasonable allocation of resources, since the only risk was that someone would divert the monthly household expense allowance.

    When on Zenobia — the Z 46 hadn’t yet returned from the Qaboosh Assembly — Posy Belisande lived within the Palace, as indicated by those household expenses. She had no electronic files whatever. As Adele had expected, if she was to learn anything from Posy, it would have to be a result of personal contact.

    She managed a wan smile. The risk of embarrassment shouldn’t deter her. She could have spent her whole life without being more than vaguely aware of the Qaboosh and the residents thereof, so it could hardly matter to her if in future years somebody here felt that she had behaved in a self-important or otherwise foolish fashion.

    Well, it wouldn’t deter her. Nothing would. But she feared embarrassment as she had never feared death.

    Daniel brought the Sissie in so gently that the first sign that they were down was the relative silence as the thrusters shut down rather than the outriggers splashing into the harbor. The ship gave a long drawn-out sigh; then hatches rang open all over the hull.

    It would be some minutes before the entry ramp could be lowered, but the Sissie’s veterans weren’t concerned about a little steam or ozone from the exhaust. A pump began to chug, hauling harbor water through twin hoses to replace the reaction mass expended in landing.

    Adele went back to work. Her first priority had been military installations, since she put her duty to the RCN — or at any rate, to her fellow Sissies — ahead of Mistress Sand in the present circumstances. Very likely she would say the same in any circumstances, but she tended to disregard questions in the abstract.

    There were no warships in Calvary Harbor or elsewhere on Zenobia as far as she could tell. The Z 46 was either still on Stahl’s World or more likely en route to Zenobia, and her sister ship — the other vessel in the Zenobia Detachment, the Z 42 — was in powered orbit as it had been since von Gleuck lifted off. A Water Buffalo — basically a tanker with enough thrusters to reach orbit — had replenished the destroyer twice, according to her log.

    Von Gleuck was clearly taking the Palmyrene threat seriously. Having met the Autocrator, Adele couldn’t imagine the woman launching at attack without herself being present to watch, but von Gleuck had no intention of returning to Zenobia and finding that Irene had stolen a march on him and was in control.

    There were no Alliance ground troops on Zenobia, and the security presence controlled by the Resident was only about 20 personnel, fewer than Adele had learned to expect. Apparently Zenobia’s independence was less nominal than it had seemed from Xenos.

    The Founder’s Regiment had a present strength of 319 effectives, with an average of about ten percent over the past six months absent for illness or on leave. They were light infantry trained for urban combat — but they were trained: they weren’t simply thugs and torturers like the troops of many fringe-world leaders.

    The commander was Major Aubrey Flecker, a Norstrilian who had left the Grand Army of the Stars to avoid a prison sentence. Though the regiment’s equipment was to Alliance standards, none of the personnel were from Pleasaunce or Blythe. Or from Cinnabar, of course; but again, Adele got an impression of Zenobian independence.

    A company of forty-four men was on duty at the Palace now. They appeared to be primarily a reaction force to deal with trouble of a serious nature anywhere on Zenobia, but they also guarded the building itself with a surprising amount of enthusiasm. Instead of fixed guard posts, several four-man teams patrolled at intervals set by a randomizing timer. After checking the surveillance imagery for several days running, Adele was impressed by the way the system appeared to keep the troops on edge.

    There was also a battery of anti-starship missiles under three soldiers and a lieutenant; the installation squatted in the middle of what had been a Palace courtyard. Adele’s quick check of the records showed that the whole regiment had been cross-trained in missile control; personnel rotated through the installation on the regular duty rota. The battery had links variously across the planet, but the missile controls were only accessible from within the command post.

    Adele recalled her discussion on Stahl’s World about the problem of capturing Cavalry Harbor. She wouldn’t be willing to bet against the troops on duty being alert enough to spike the first three enemy vessels attempting an assault landing

    “Ma’am?” said Cory; not in any sense proper communications protocol — or RCN procedure more generally — but sufficient on a two-way link with Adele. “Would you like me to go down and help the Browns, like before?”

    Adele awoke to her immediate surroundings. She brought up a panorama of the harbor, then shrank the imagery to the quay where the Sissie had landed. The large aircar waiting there was military in all respects but one: the identification numbers on the front had been painted over, and on the door the seal of the Representational Affairs section had been appliquéd over what was almost certainly the stenciled legend Land Forces of the Republic.

    A tall, neatly dressed, man stood beside the vehicle. The caret Cory had thoughtfully added above him read Comm M Gibbs/Acting Commissioner.



    “There’s nobody from the Palace to meet them, I mean,” Cory added, probably concerned that Adele hadn’t responded immediately.

    “Ship, this is Six,” Daniel announced over the Sissie’s general channel. “I’m turning over command to Lieutenant Vesey, who will set up the liberty roster as soon as we have a little better notion of the ah, spirit of the community. Remember, Sissies, Zenobia is an Alliance planet, and it would reflect on my personal honor if your actions harmed the recent peace between our nations. Make me proud of you, fellow spacers! Six out.”

    “I have the conn,” Vesey reported from the BDC. “Three out.”

    When Daniel rose from his console, Adele noticed for the first time that he was wearing blue trousers and an unmarked blue coat over a gray tunic: the garb of an officer of a civilian vessel. He shot his cuffs, grinned at Adele — this was fancy dress for him — and strode purposefully off the bridge with Hogg behind him. Adele heard him in the companionway starting to whistle, “The Ring-Rang-Do.”

    “I think we can leave the Browns’ comfort to our betters, Cory,” Adele said. “Have you found a roster of the Zenobian militia? It doesn’t appear to be in the Palace, at least not in electronic form.”

    As she spoke, a much newer, fancier aircar landed on the quay, dissipating a few final swirls of steam remaining from the Princess Cecile’s arrival. Acting Commissioner Gibbs glanced sidelong at it, then stepped back into his vehicle.

    The man who got out from the back was short, dapper and balding, with a pencil moustache. The men who had ridden in the tonneau walked to either side of him. They were big and wore black clothing which, despite the lack of insignia, was meant to be seen as uniforms.

    Adele didn’t need Cory’s caret to know that the newcomer was Louis Tilton, the Alliance Resident on Zenobia. He sauntered toward the Sissie’s boarding ramp as the Browns started to descend.



    Daniel reached the entry hold a little later than he’d intended: the Browns had started down the ramp without an escort. He grimaced and lengthened his stride.

    Daniel had initially planned to simply hand the ship over to Vesey, but at the moment of doing so he’d remembered that Zenobia was part of the Alliance. Ordinary fights between Sissies and civilians or other spacers took on greater significance.

    Hogg, following him into the hold from the companionway, said, “The last time we landed on an Alliance planet, we come in with all guns blazing. I kinda prefer it that way. You know where you stand, then.”

    Daniel laughed, but he knew just what his servant meant. Peace was a much trickier proposition than open war.

    “Daniel,” said Adele through his earbud, “the Alliance Resident, Tilton, is approaching the Browns. He’s got his bodyguards, over.”

    “Follow my lead!” Daniel said over his shoulder as he galloped forward. He reached the bottom of the ramp just as Brown did. The Commissioner gave him a worried look, but Hester pulled her hand from her mother’s and trotted over to attach herself to the fabric of Daniel’s trousers. Clothilde’s expression was unreadable, at least in the brief time Daniel had to spend on the question.

    The walkway from the stone quay was of floating wood, typical for a fringe world harbor. The floats were waterlogged, so that the surface dipped into the harbor at several points. Woetjans, standing at the bottom of the ramp with three riggers, turned to Daniel with a disgusted expression and said, “Hey, Six? Want us to lay out our own instead of this piece of crap?”

    The Sissie had a metal pontoon-bridge in her starboard outrigger. It would save the Browns getting their shoes wet, but the locals might take a Cinnabar captain deploying it as an insult. Daniel made a snap decision and said, “Negative, Chief.”

    Lifting the little girl into his arms, he smiled past her to her parents and said, “Up Cinnabar, eh, Commissioner?” He strode onto the walkway.

    It was five feet wide and even had rope handrails, so there was no danger. Nonetheless, Daniel was a bit concerned when he didn’t feel the adults start to follow until he’d almost reached the platform floating up and down between two pilings against the quay. He could have ordered a team of Sissies to carry the Browns to land, but that had seemed, well, insulting.

    The Alliance Resident stood at the top of the stairs from the platform. Daniel’s foot quivered an instant short of the first of five steps, wondering how to handle this.

    “Out of the way of the little girl, buddy!” called Hogg in a cheerful voice as he bounded past. He turned on the fourth step and held his arms out.

    “Here you go, honey!” he said as he thrust his body the last step up to the quay without looking behind him. “I’ll take you now!”

    Tilton jumped out of the way. Daniel mounted swiftly, murmuring, “Careful now, dear one, because I may have to set you down.”

    Hogg didn’t try to pass the girl off, of course. That had just been an excuse to slam the Resident onto his butt ‘by accident’ if he hadn’t moved quickly enough.

    As for what would’ve happened then, Daniel wasn’t sure. He wasn’t worried about him and Hogg being able to handle the bodyguards in normal circumstances, but he didn’t want the four-year-old to get hurt in the brawl.

    The Commissioner was up beside them in an instant. Daniel wasn’t sure how much Brown had seen — or at least understood — of the recent byplay; but the fact that his instinct had been to join the men in front instead of holding back raised him in Daniel’s estimation.

    Not that there was much Brown could do except hold his daughter. Daniel swept Hester into her father’s arms while continuing to smile toward the Alliance Resident. The child gave a squeal of protest, but Brown took her firmly and stepped sideways to let his wife join them.

    Hogg looked at the nearer of Tilton’s bodyguards and deliberately picked his nose with his left index finger; his right hand was in a jacket pocket. “Are you guys local talent?” he said in a rustic drawl. “Or did they have to ship you in from the big city?”

    The guard — they were both young, muscular men, but they’d shambled rather than moving with grace — cocked his fist. Tilton waved him back, snarling, “Stop that, you fool!”

    Daniel continued to smile quizzically, as though he were a little bemused by everything around him. If he’d known that coming a shore was going to be this interesting, he’d have brought Woetjans and a dozen Sissies along for an escort. That was what the bosun always wanted to do anyway.

    He’d rejected the thought as out of place in the circumstances. And so it was, but Resident Tilton’s behavior was out of place as well. He grinned more broadly at the humor of it.

    “Which of you is the new Commissioner?” Tilton said harshly. He focused on Brown and went on, “You, of course. You are Cinnabar Commissioner Brown?”

    “I am,” said Brown, stepping between Daniel and Hogg. Hester was clinging to Clothilde’s leg with her face buried against it. “To whom have I the pleasure of speaking?”

    The man who had flown up in the Commission aircar got out of the vehicle again and approached slowly. He was tall and rather good looking, wearing civilian clothing. The flounced jacket would have been fashionable in Xenos about five years ago.

    “Pleasure?” Tilton said. As well as being a pushy little fellow generally, he appeared to resent Brown’s height. “We will see about that. It will be a pleasure if you know your place, Commissioner. I am Resident Louis Tilton.”

    “Pleased to meet you,” Brown said, extending his arm to clasp Tilton’s. Instead the Resident stepped past him and stopped in front of Clothilde.

    “Well, now,” said the Resident. “This is more interesting.”

    Daniel shifted to stand beside the woman. That meant Hogg would have to handle both bodyguards — which he could do beyond question, but it greatly increased the likelihood of death or maiming for the pair.

    “May I present my wife –” Brown said.

    “Let’s see your profile,” Tilton said. He pinched Clothilde’s chin between two fingers and tried to turn her head.



    Clothilde slapped him; her fingers made an impressive crack against Tilton’s cheek. “You are a bald little worm,” she said in a coldly distinct tone.

    Daniel stepped between Tilton and the woman. “Mommie!” cried the little girl.

    A score of Sissies was double-timing from the ship, carrying travel cases. Woetjans was in the lead with a suit carrier in her left hand and a length of high-pressure tubing held out in her right as if for balance.

    Simultaneously the corvette’s dorsal turret rotated. The twin four-inch plasma cannon were probably pointed at the Alliance aircar, but Daniel could only hope that Sun had sense enough to disengage the firing circuit while he was playing his silly game. If the weapons accidentally fired in an atmosphere, their side-scatter would fry everybody on this portion of the quay.

    Risk aside — and spacers weren’t especially concerned about risk — the squeal of the turret got the Resident’s attention. His face went white except for the mark of Clothilde’s fingers. He backed until he was standing behind his two guards. Hogg put his folding knife away.

    “Well, Commissioner Brown,” Tilton said. “We will see if you become more forthcoming when you’ve had a little time to reflect, no? Alternatively, you may find that import charges for private ventures by Cinnabar officials have risen prohibitively!”

    He turned and stalked off, followed by his guards. One of them glanced back several times on his way to the aircar, but it wasn’t a very impressive demonstration of their training in personal protection.

    Woetjans mounted the steps in two movements, balancing the case and the cudgel. It was like watching a fish mount rapids to spawn. An extremely ugly fish, but Daniel had felt as though he’d lost his left arm when the bosun took a burst of slugs through the chest. She’d made a good recovery, though . . . .

    “Got anything you want us to do quick-quick, Six?” Woetjans said, bobbing the tip of her tubing in the direction of the disappearing Alliance personnel.

    “Negative, Chief,” Daniel said, repeating his words of a few minutes before but in a very different tone. “But for a moment, I thought I might have some work for you if Hogg had any leftovers.”

    “I wouldn’t've,” Hogg said firmly. “But I like to see that kind of spirit, my girl, and I’m proud to have your acquaintance.”

    The Alliance aircar lifted and made an immediate low-altitude turn, heading back into Calvary. Hogg said in a regretful tone, “I kinda thought they might try to buzz us, you know?”

    “Yeah,” agreed the bosun. She flipped her cudgel a dozen feet in the air and caught it neatly by the end as it came down. She grinned with satisfaction. “I kinda wondered that too.”

    The Browns were talking with the fellow in Cinnabar clothing. Daniel walked over and joined them, now that he had leisure to. The child and all three adults looked at him.

    “Commissioner Brown, my spacers have brought your baggage,” Daniel said brightly. “Would your driver here like to show us where to stow it?”

    He didn’t see any point in discussing what had happened: it had worked out, which is all that mattered. Besides, he was rather afraid that he’d make a comment about the driver’s courage which — however true — would be neither necessary nor helpful.

    “This is Assistant Commissioner Gibbs, Leary,” Brown said. “He’s a commander in the navy, I’m surprised to learn.”

    Not nearly as surprised as I am, thought Daniel. The RCN rank was higher in the governmental pay scale than an assistant commissioner on the civil side.

    “I’ve been seconded from the RCN,” Gibbs said airily. He didn’t offer to clasp hands. “Very glad to meet you, Leary. You can have your people put the baggage anywhere they please. This car was meant to carry a squad in combat gear, so there shouldn’t be any difficulty with no more truck than that.”

    Adele’s voice whispered metallically in Daniel’s right ear canal, “Gibbs became involved with an admiral’s daughter but turned out to have a wife already. He couldn’t divorce her because he couldn’t pay back the jointure which he appeared to have mortgaged fraudulently. Reading between the lines, he wasn’t cashiered because that would have brought the admiral’s name into the public’s attention, but he was given what is listed as a lateral transfer into the Representation Service and sent here.”

    Daniel continued to smile, though a trifle more tightly. Hard lines on the wife, but he supposed she’d made her own bed when she chose to marry Gibbs.

    “The Resident made a comment about Cinnabar private ventures here on Zenobia, Gibbs,” said Commissioner Brown. “Do you know what he was talking about? That wouldn’t be permitted under the regulations on an Alliance planet, would it?”

    “I have no idea, Brown,” Gibbs said. “We should be getting you to Cinnabar House, such as it is, I suppose.”

    “Well, I’ll want to go over all the late Commissioner Brassey’s accounts immediately,” Brown said. “Tonight, if you can get them together.”

    Daniel smiled faintly. Brown was a decent fellow but completely at sea in his new duties. He was focusing on the thing he knew how to do: audit accounts. In fairness, that was probably as important as any of the other duties he would face as Commissioner on this benighted world.

    “Did you serve with Captain Leary, Gibbs?” Clothilde said unexpectedly. She was holding Hester firmly by the hand; the girl wanted to follow what was probably her personal case: it was pink and covered with broadly smiling blue fish.

    “No, mistress, I did not,” Gibbs said with a hint of hauteur. “I realize the distinction may be lost on laymen, but Master Leary is a civilian and I am an officer of the Republic of Cinnabar Navy.”

    “As a matter of fact, Gibbs,” Daniel said, hearing his voice grow a little harder in response to the other man’s implied sneer, “I’m RCN also. I’m wearing these –”

    He flicked the cuff of his plain blue jacket.

    “– out of courtesy to our hosts, which I suppose is why you’re in that old –”

    Goodness, he was angrier than he’d realized. The nerve of this little cheat, to try to patronize Daniel Leary!

    “– outfit yourself.”

    “Captain Six is a great hero!” piped the little girl. “He beat the bad people in M–, M–, Montserrat and all sorts of places! He’s killed ever so many bad people!”

    Who’s been talking to the child? Daniel thought; and at once the answer: almost anybody aboard the Princess Cecile.

    Only he wished she hadn’t put it in just that way, because Daniel suddenly flashed back to his missiles ripping open the guard ship Heimdall, spilling out her many hundreds of crew before they even knew they were in danger. And they hadn’t been bad people, just spacers like Daniel Leary and his Sissies; and now they were dead.

    “Captain Leary?” Gibbs said, his face scrunching in anger. His expression blanked, then became one of horror. In a quiet voice he said, “Great heavens. Captain Daniel Leary? That Leary?”

    Daniel cleared his throat. “I’m sure the stories you’ve heard are exaggerated,” he said. “Certainly the ones that have gotten back to me have been. But yes, I suppose I’m ‘that’ Leary.”

    Gibbs moistened his lips with his tongue. He looked like an animal turning on its pursuit at the base of a high wall. He said, “What are you doing here, then, with a record like yours?”

    “Well, with my lack of seniority in peacetime . . . ,” Daniel said, choosing to overlook the discourteous form of the question. Gibbs seemed stunned rather than deliberately insulting. “I consider myself lucky not to be on half pay. And of course in the RCN, it’s always ‘the needs of the service,’ not so? For both of us.”

    Gibbs swallowed, then nodded. He turned to the Browns and said, “Your baggage is loaded, I see. I’ll drive you to Cinnabar House. We don’t have a staff here except for a pair of local menials.”

    He turned and walked toward the aircar. Little Hester hopped along sideways with her mother so that she could wave to Daniel with her free hand the whole way.

    Daniel smiled, but his mind was on other matters. What in the name of heavens is wrong with Gibbs?

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