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What Distant Deeps: Chapter Eleven

       Last updated: Monday, July 19, 2010 19:09 EDT



Calvary on Zenobia

    A middle-aged servant wearing an outfit of slanted black-and-white stripes opened the door of Cinnabar House to Adele and Tovera. For more than a generation the garb had been standard for servants in Xenos households that couldn’t claim livery.

    This woman was obviously local, however, and the tailored garment made her look more dowdy than she might have done in the looser national costume. Behind her was a tile courtyard with a roof but no furniture.

    “Lady Adele Mundy!” the woman bellowed, then turned and waddled toward the arched gateway at the back. “Come this way if you please, your Ladyship!”

    They followed; Tovera looked wary. Adele smiled faintly and said, “She was directed to announce us when we arrived. She appears to be a little fuzzy about the details, however.”

    Clothilde Brown had risen from her seat in the garden to meet Adele. She gave the servant a despairing glance, but managed to sound cheerful — albeit brittle — as she chirped, “Lady Mundy, I’m so glad you could come. And may I present my friend –”

    She turned to gesture to the other young woman rising from a chair in the garden.

    “– Lady Posthuma Belisande?”

    “Posy, please, your Ladyship,” the Founder’s sister said, offering her hand and a bright smile. “Clothilde tells me that you too were aboard Captain Leary’s yacht when it landed during the Assembly. I had no idea until I called on Clothilde yesterday. Do please forgive me for my oversight.”

    “There’s nothing to forgive,” Adele said, taking Posy’s hand briefly and releasing it. “We both had our duties on Stahl’s World, I’m sure, and we properly focused on them at the time.”

    She had been concerned that Posy would remember her from their proximity on the Sissie’s bridge. Adele’s present outfit, a lavender pantsuit with a thin white stripe, seemed to have driven out all recollection of the RCN signals officer in utilities.

    “Please, do sit down, both of you,” Clothilde Brown said, extending her hands to her guests and walking toward three chairs set at arm’s length apart, facing their common center. “Lady Mundy, what would you like to drink?”

    “A white wine, I suppose,” Adele said. “A local vintage, if such a thing exists.”

    “Braga,” Clothilde said to the male servant at the refreshments table. He looked even more uncomfortable in his uniform than his presumed spouse did. “Pour Lady Mundy a glass of Knight’s Reserve.”

    Adele smiled, hoping her expression was pleasant. Social interactions were almost entirely a matter of acting for her, and she knew that she wasn’t very good at them. Fortunately, most people heard and saw what they expected, so they mentally corrected Adele’s missteps.

    She probably wouldn’t have accepted the invitation had she not known — from an intercepted call — that Posy had asked Mistress Brown to arrange a meeting with Lady Mundy. It seemed the best way for Adele to meet her target; and a meeting was necessary, because in the two days the Princess Cecile had ridden in Calvary Harbor, it had become obvious that electronic means were not going to unveil any of Posy’s secrets.

    The garden was a square fifty feet on a side. A service building, probably a kitchen, and a wall of open brickwork set it off from what may have been intended as a park. Now it was a tangle from which trees with coppery foliage emerged.

    The enclosure wasn’t in a great deal better shape. The shrubs had been pruned within the past day or less, so that statues of cherubs with gardening tools were again visible among the lopped stems.

    The “lawn” had been hacked off also. Short tufts of something grasslike were surrounded by circles of dirt which their foliage had shaded bare until the recent shearing.

    The clearance work — calling it yard work seemed akin to describing a heart attack as indisposition — might explain why Braga glowered so fiercely as he handed Adele a glass of faintly greenish wine. Unless the job market in Calvary was very tight, Mistress Brown would be looking for new servants shortly.

    The wine tasted all right, despite the hue. The glass was etched with the monogram dS, marking it as a piece Clothilde deSales Brown had brought with her to the marriage.

    “Quite good,” Adele said to her hostess. That was a bit of an exaggeration, but it was close enough. Some of the Mundys and their affines had been experts in vintages and liquors, but Adele’s interests ran to colophons and Pre-Hiatus incunabula.

    The maid standing behind Posy’s chair wore a white cap and pants suit with a broad black sash, a servant’s uniform in the Pleasaunce style. Adele wouldn’t have paid particular attention — it wasn’t surprising that Lady Belisande would have brought a maid when she returned home from civilization — were it not that the servant was looking at Tovera.

    Adele’s lips squeezed into a tiny, cold smile. Posy’s servant was from the same mold as Tovera herself. That wasn’t surprising either, given who Posy had been. That left the question of whether the “maid” was a bodyguard or a minder to the Guarantor’s former favorite; or most likely both.

    “When I left Zenobia five years ago,” Posy said, sipping a glass of what was probably the same wine, “I thought I’d love the excitement of Pleasaunce society. After I’d been there a time, well –”

    She gave Adele and Clothilde a dazzling smile.

    “– it was very exciting, but sometimes a little too much so. I wasn’t altogether sorry when events made it prudent for me to come back home. And I do like it in Calvary, really, but when I first arrived I found no one to talk to. I’m so glad that the new Commissioner’s wife is a lady.”

    She saluted Clothilde with her glass.

    “Commissioner Brassey was an old bachelor, and he neither visited nor entertained.” Posy smiled again. “I gather he found our local vintages, ah, compelling.”

    “And it was wonderful to meet you, dear,” Clothilde Brown said with warm sincerity. “Pavel would be happy anywhere that he had accounts to check — that’s what he’s doing now. But I thought I was going to go mad here until I met you. There’s no one to talk to!”

    “There’s an Alliance Resident on Zenobia, is there not?” Adele said, raising an eyebrow as she sipped. She’d watched Daniel deal with Resident Tilton, but she was interested in Posy’s description of the man.

    “He’s a reptile!” spat Clothilde, slashing her hand before her face. She wrinkled her nose.

    “Tilton is certainly a reptile,” Posy said. “He’s a tradesman’s son, and from Pinnacle besides. I don’t know how familiar you are with the Alliance, Lady Mundy . . . ?”

    “I was educated on Blythe,” Adele said. “And yes, it’s possible that there are good people on Pinnacle, but they certainly seem to have sent their scum to other worlds.”

    She paused. Posy giggled; Clothilde nodded with grim enthusiasm. Adele added, “And I would prefer to be ‘Adele’, Posy.”

    “Well, you understand then, Adele,” Posy said, gesturing with her glass again. It was nearly empty, but even so the remaining thimbleful sloshed perilously close to the rim. “Tilton made a, well, an infamous suggestion when he first called on me. Not only that, but I think he might have tried to use force if Wood hadn’t been present. He ordered her out of the room, of all things. Giving orders to my maid in my brother’s palace!”

    Wood smiled faintly at the reference. The expression reminded Adele of Tovera, or of a predatory bird.

    “He touched me on the pier,” Clothilde said with another grimace. “If it hadn’t been for Captain Leary and his man, I don’t know what might have happened. Pavel isn’t any use in that sort of business.”

    Your Pavel might not be as used to knocking people down as Hogg and Daniel, Adele thought. But a woman with pretensions to culture might consider that an attribute rather than a flaw in her husband.

    Aloud she said, “Surely there’s a foreign community on Zenobia in addition to the government representatives, is there not? The warehouses facing the harbor include the names of several trading firms which I know have their headquarters on Pleasaunce. At least some of them have off-planet managers, do they not?”

    Clothilde looked hopeful, but Posy grimaced and said. “When I was young, I thought the foreigners on Ship Hill — that’s where they live, most of them — were arrogant swine. All us Zenobians did, and we despised them. Now –”

    The grimace turned to a sneer.

    “– I know what they really are: failures from the core worlds, the drunks and fools, the embarrassments whose families shipped them as far away as they could get. Some of them sent their cards when I returned, trying to scrape acquaintance with Guillaume’s mistress . . . .”



    Posy paused, giving Adele a speculative glance. Adele met it with no hint of emotion or understanding.

    “That’s what I was, you see,” Posy said after a moment. “Guillaume Porra’s mistress, Guarantor Porra. Perhaps you knew that?”

    “My parents were executed for treason, Lady Belisande,” Adele said evenly. “In fact my ten-year-old sister was executed for treason as well. I’m scarcely in a position to make moral judgments, even if I were the sort of person who approved of doing such things.”

    Wood was staring at her. Adele glanced up, and the maid looked away.

    “I’m sorry,” Posy said. She reached out and touched Adele’s left hand, then settled back on her chair. “Others have made judgments, you see — though generally women who would have liked to know Guillaume as well as I did. And please — Posy.”

    “Adele?” said Clothilde Brown. “If you don’t mind my asking?”

    “Asking what?” said Adele, more sharply than she had intended. She raised her hand in apology. “Please, I’m sorry; but just ask the question, Clothilde. It’s wasting time, which is likely to make me snappish.”

    “Well, it’s about you being on the ship,” Clothilde said. “I know you say that you’re Officer Mundy when you’re there, not Lady Mundy, but you are still Lady Mundy. How do you stand it?”

    Adele wondered what the other women saw when they looked at her. Something quite different from what she was in the mirror of her own mind, certainly. The thought made her smile, but she suspected some of the sadness she felt showed in her expression also. Sometimes she wished she could be the person that other people saw.

    “I’m not a gregarious person,” she said, “but I escape into my work, so cramped physical surroundings don’t bother me. Nor do I feel the lack of elite society with whom to –”

    She started to say, “natter,” but she caught her tongue in time to change that to, “– exchange views.”

    Posy Belisande’s hinted smile showed that she understood the word or at least the type of word that Adele had barely avoided, but she didn’t seem offended. Clothilde remained intently quizzical. She had recovered from Adele’s verbal slap, but she obviously wasn’t looking for another one.

    “As for being in close confinement with spacers,” Adele said, “I assure you that they’re far better companions than the neighbors I was generally thrown together with during the years I was very poor. Besides, on a starship I don’t have to deal with people like Louis Tilton. Space is a very dangerous environment, and people of his sort don’t last long.”

    “I wish Resident Tilton could drift off into vacuum,” Posy said. Lifting her glass to shoulder height, she added, “More wine, Wood.”

    Wood carried the glass to the serving table, sidling so that she didn’t have to turn her back on Adele and Tovera. Which of us is she more concerned about? Adele wondered.

    The truth was — if Wood was anything like Tovera, and she certainly appeared to have been trained in the same school — she probably worried even that the Commissioner’s wife might smash her stemware into a spike of crystal and lunge for Lady Belisande’s throat. Once you start down the path of paranoia, there’s simply no line that you can’t cross.

    Adele smiled — internally, because Posy would have misinterpreted the expression. She fought her own tendency to consider everyone as a potential enemy and every place as a potential ambush site. That was madness.

    But Adele had the luxury of knowing that Tovera was being paranoid on her behalf, unasked. That didn’t seem fair, but the world wasn’t fair. And since madness was a word used to describe human beings, perhaps Tovera wasn’t at risk.

    Posy gulped half her refilled glass, then lowered it and forced a smile. “Tilton fancies himself a ladies’ man. He isn’t interested so much in the sex, I think, as the degradation of his victims. He particularly fastens on the wives and daughters of the Councilors of Zenobia.”

    “They don’t give in to him, do they?” Clothilde said with a look of revulsion. “Ugh! That bald little pervert!”

    “I’m told that Councilor Pumphrey objected forcibly, not long after I left Zenobia,” Posy said. Her voice was frighteningly colorless. “I remember his daughter Chris quite well, though we weren’t close. She was a very proper girl, and I’m afraid I was too wild for her.”

    “Did he use the secret police,” Adele said, her voice equally detached, “or members of his own security detail?”

    Her personal data unit was in its thigh pocket — of course — but she would send the wrong signal if she brought it out now. She wanted the wands in her hands to keep her from reaching for her pistol, which would be even more undesirable.

    Adele had to make do with the wine glass and conscious control. Her control had always been sufficient in the past.

    “The police,” Posy said. “Some of them objected also, till the security detail executed two for treason. The rest were willing to carry off Chris Pumphrey. She hasn’t been seen since.”

    “Oh, dear heavens,” Clothilde Brown said, the knuckles of her left hand in her mouth. “Oh dear heavens, where has Pavel brought me?”

    “Are Tilton’s security personnel from the 5th Bureau?” Adele asked, still sounding as though she were asking about the color scheme in the kitchen.

    “No, Residential Services,” Posy said absently. Her gaze sharpened. “How do you happen to know about the 5th Bureau, Adele?”

    Taking a calculated risk, Adele said, “My servant, Tovera –”

    She cocked her head slightly to indicate the woman standing behind her.

    “– used to be associated with the organization. Before she retired and went into personal service.”

    Tovera and Wood had obviously recognized one another — at least as types, but probably as individuals as well. There was no point in refusing to acknowledge what the other party already knew; and with luck, the admission would prove disarming.

    “I see,” said Posy in a puzzled tone that proved she did not. No one retired from the 5th Bureau, the intelligence service which reported directly to Guarantor Porra. “Perhaps one day we will discuss mutual friends, Adele. Without boring Clothilde –”

    She gave the Commissioner’s wife another dazzling smile.

    “– that is.”

    “With all respect to your maid,” Adele said, glancing up at Wood, “I would think that a security detail of . . . eighteen or twenty Residential Services personnel?”

    “About that, yes,” Posy agreed.

    “Eighteen,” said Wood, the syllables as short as successive clacks from a pair of wood blocks. “But two of them haven’t been sober for months on end. If they were issued live ammunition, they would shoot themselves.”

    “Sixteen, then,” said Adele. “A large enough body to seriously endanger your safety, Posy, if Tilton is the sort of man you describe.”

    “I could have gotten rid of him when I was on Pleasaunce,” Posy said, glancing at her empty wine glass. “I didn’t realize, though. Perhaps if someone had told me; my brother could have, I think. But nobody did. And now, well –”

    Her mouth twisted in a mixture of anger and disgust.

    “– I no longer have that kind of authority.”

    Her smile became impish. She said, “I do, however, have a friend in Otto von Gleuck. Otto is a dear man and of very good family. There are five hundred spacers on his ships, and they love him like a father. Perhaps you understand that, Officer Mundy?”

    “I might,” Adele said with her usual lack of expression. “But — and I don’t mean to raise an awkward question . . . but how long will Lieutenant Commander von Gleuck be stationed on Zenobia?”

    “Yes,” said Posy. “Fleet appointments are of limited duration, and a destroyer doesn’t have the facilities for passengers that a heavy cruiser does.”

    She glanced sidelong to see if Adele would react. Lady Belisande had left Zenobia five years ago as the mistress of Captain Karl Volcker, commander of the Barbarossa. The heavy cruiser was showing the flag in the Qaboosh Region during an interval of peace between Cinnabar and the Alliance.

    The well-connected Volcker had brought Lady Belisande to a court ball following the cruiser’s return to Pleasaunce. There she caught the Guarantor’s eye, and very shortly thereafter Volcker had been promoted to command a battleship on distant assignment.

    Of course I won’t react.

    Posy smiled faintly at Adele’s bland silence and continued, “And that wouldn’t be a practical response anyway, since it was suggested at the time I left Pleasaunce that I might want to remain on Zenobia until I was informed otherwise. I suspect –”

    She glanced up toward the servant behind her.

    “– that I would be reminded of that suggestion if I seemed to be forgetting it.”

    Wood didn’t react either. Of course.



    “Perhaps Tilton will be recalled or, or something?” Clothilde said. Her hands were tight together on the stem of her glass. Adele suspected their hostess was considering the possible results of her having slapped the Resident when they met.

    “Perhaps,” Posy said, with the unvoiced implication, that perhaps pigs would fly. “I only hope that he doesn’t provoke a rebellion first. Because I didn’t need Otto to warn me what the response to that would be.”

    She gave Adele a tired grin and added, “I know Guillaume even better than Otto does, you see. He reacts badly to betrayal, which is how he would view the murder of his representative.”

    Adele rose to her feet. “I’m afraid I need to return to my duties,” she said. “I hope I’ll be able to see you both again before we lift, though. The Princess Cecile has to remain on Zenobia for some time while her rigging is being replaced, Captain Leary informs me.”

    Tovera whisked the empty glass out of Adele’s hand. She circled with it to the refreshments table, keeping at least one eye on Wood at all times; but she was smiling.

    “Oh, surely there’s nothing for you to do while you’re on the ground?” Clothilde said, rising to squeeze Adele’s hands. Braga stood like an unattractive statue; it hadn’t occurred to him to take his mistress’ empty glass the way Wood and Tovera had done. “Can’t you stay?”

    “Another time, then,” said Posy, coming forward also. “Meeting you has been an even greater pleasure than I expected, Adele. I hope we can talk often while you’re here.”

    “Yes,” said Adele truthfully. “It has been pleasant.”

    Clothilde’s maid had been watching from the covered courtyard. A light dawned in her dull eyes and she trotted toward the outside door.

    Wood’s presence had made this a very different conversation than the one Adele had planned. Very likely her task, to elicit secrets which Posy had gained in pillow talk, was now impossible.

    Mistress Sand would be interested to learn that Resident Tilton had created disaffection among the Zenobian elite, but that was of no real importance at present. There was no gain for the Republic in destabilizing so distant an Alliance world in peacetime, though Adele knew there were Cinnabar agents who would have worked to raise a rebellion here on general principles.

    To Adele, that sort of behavior was simply grit in the gears of civilization. And civilization was in bad enough shape without people actively trying to sabotage it.



    Daniel stood at the head of the Dorsal C antenna, which was extended to its full height of 120 feet. His excuse was that the location gave him the best view of Woetjans and her crew stripping the rigging from one antenna at a time and reeving fresh cables through the blocks. That was true, but the Sissie’s veteran riggers could have done the work blindfolded and blind drunk besides; they didn’t need their captain’s eye on them.

    The other thing the location gave Daniel was privacy, or as close to privacy as anybody could have aboard a starship. Certainly everybody could see him perched above them. They could even approach him, but they had to want to do so enough to make a long climb. On the masthead, he had figurative as well as literal distance from the rest of the world.

    Primarily Daniel was on top of the antenna because he liked to be on top of antennas: in harbor, as here; in sidereal space; and especially on a ship in the Matrix, where all space and time would have been visible if his eyes had been able to comprehend it.

    The ground car driving up the quay stopped at the Sissie’s slip. Daniel didn’t think anything of it: the four Sissies on guard there would be polite, but they had weapons within easy reach if it turned out to be a visit from Resident Tilton’s thugs.

    The vehicle was obviously local. It appeared to be a high-sided farm wagon with a canvas roof and pneumatic tires. A fifth wheel supported the wagon tongue, on which an engine putted and rattled. The whole installation showed a great deal of ingenuity, combined with a marked lack of polish.

    The passenger got out of the box and walked forward to pay the driver. Daniel had considerable experience in watching people foreshortened by his high vantage point, but Commissioner Brown’s tall, stooped figure and jerky walk were easy to identify. He moved like a shore bird mincing through the shallows.

    Without having to think about it, Daniel grasped the forward stay and began sliding down it as the quickest route to the hull. Woetjans saw him coming and bellowed, “Stand clear! Here comes Six!”

    Daniel wore utilities as he ordinarily would aboard the Princess Cecile. Before he started up the antenna, however, he had donned the boots and gauntlets of his rigging suit. They sparked and screeched against the cable as gravity carried him down.

    The cables were woven from filaments of beryllium monocrystal, the toughest flexible material available to shipbuilders. Even so, hair-fine fibers snapped as a result of wear and fatigue, leaving the rigging covered with an invisible fuzz of broken ends. Running a bare hand along a shroud would have the same effect as trying to pet a bandsaw.

    Hard suits — rigging suits — were made to be used by personnel handling the cables in brutal haste and under the worst conditions. There were lighter gloves and footgear available that were supposed to be equally protective if you weren’t working in vacuum, but Daniel had never met a spacer who used them.

    Hogg was lounging at the base of the antenna, turning his head to check each line of approach alternately. He had his hands in his pockets and looked as lethargic as a sheep digesting her supper.

    He glanced upward, saw Daniel, and immediately slung the stocked impeller which until that moment had been concealed between the antenna and his baggy garments. So far as Hogg was concerned, the spacers guarding the end of the boarding bridge were simply decoys to absorb an attacker’s attention till the real hunter on top of the hull could put slugs through the problem.

    The Commissioner looked up at the squeal of Daniel’s descent. Daniel hit the hull with a double bang! of his soles against the steel plating.

    “Toomey,” he said, verbally keying his commo helmet to the Tech 3 who was the senior member of the guard detachment, “this is Six. Link Commissioner Brown with me if you will. Give him a helmet, over.”

    “Roger, Six,” Toomey said. She was built like a fuel drum, but her voice was as light and cheery as a schoolgirl’s.

    There was brief confusion on the quay. Daniel remained where he was so that all those involved could see him. In theory that didn’t matter, but human beings aren’t theories. At last Brown settled a helmet borrowed from Hilmer, the junior guard, over his head.

    “Commissioner, this is Leary,” Daniel said with determined cheeriness. “How can we help you, over?”

    Visor magnification made Brown’s discomfort obvious, even a hundred yards away. “Ah, Captain Leary?” he said. “I was wondering if I could speak with you privately. I don’t want to take you away from your own duties, but . . . .”

    “Certainly,” said Daniel. “Meet me in the BDC. Ah — I’ll have Hilmer guide you, over. Break. Toomey, send Hilmer up to the BDC with Commissioner Brown, over. Break. Six to Cory, have the BDC vacated immediately. I’m going to confer with Commissioner Brown there, over.”

    “Thank you, Captain.”

    “Roger, out.”

    “Yes sir, out.”

    All that was simple courtesy. Daniel really had no duties on Zenobia except to invent make-work until Adele got the information she had been sent for or decided the task was impossible. The rerigging could be spun out for a month if necessary, so even planning the make-work was complete.

    “What do you s’pose he’s got in mind?” Hogg asked quietly as he helped Daniel take off the pieces of his rigging suit in the rotunda. “Because he looked more upset even than when we were playing games right after we landed.”

    Midshipman Cazelet and Chief Missileer Chazanoff bustled out of the Battle Direction Center. They were off-duty at present, but Cazelet was trying to learn the fine points of missile attacks and Chazanoff, like most experts whom Daniel had met, was delighted to have an audience to expound to.

    They muttered, “Sir,” and bobbed their heads as they passed Daniel on the way to the bridge where Cory was on watch. It would have vacant consoles to practice on also.

    “I’m not sure the Commissioner fully appreciated what was happening on the quay,” Daniel said, smiling. “It isn’t the sort of interaction that ordinarily takes place in the offices of auditors.”

    The comment opened a train of thought. “I would guess he’s worried about something to do with the late Commissioner Brassey’s accounts,” Daniel said as Hogg eased off his right boot, the last bit of gear. “That’s what he was going to work on, he said when he left us. But how that would involve me is beyond my imagination.”



    They reached the BDC well before Hilmer could chivy his charge up the stern companionway, so Daniel waited at the open hatch. Hogg glanced into the armored chamber and scratched himself.

    “You’d best be elsewhere,” Daniel said. “Since the Commissioner wants privacy.”

    “I figured,” Hogg agreed. “Well, I guess you’ll be safe alone with him, young master.”

    He snorted and said, “You know, it looks like a bank vault, but Cory can watch and listen to any bloody thing that happens in there.”

    “Yes,” said Daniel, “but I don’t think he will. And anyway, I’m just making Commissioner Brown comfortable. If I were worried about whether one of my officers could be trusted to keep information secure, he wouldn’t be my officer for very long.”

    Hilmer, a rigger who’d lost two fingers from his left hand, came up from the companionway and waited. Long moments later, Brown stumbled out, winded by the fast climb. He was carrying a small case; now that he no longer needed a hand for the railing, he switched it from his left to his right.

    “Let me help you with that, Commissioner,” Daniel said, lifting off the commo helmet which he returned to Hilmer. “The BDC will give us both privacy and good displays.”

    “I’m embarrassed to be doing this, Leary,” the Commissioner said. “After all, you have your own duties. But –”

    He waited till the hatch had closed — it was hydraulic, since the armored valve was impractical for even someone of Woetjans’ unaided strength — and the dogs had clanged into their mortises, then continued, “– I don’t know who else to turn to. Since it involves naval stores, I thought of you.”

    “Sit down at here, Commissioner,” Daniel said. Five consoles identical to those on the bridge formed a star in the center of the BDC. Daniel rotated the seat of the nearest one sideways, then sat on an adjacent one which he turned so that he and Brown were facing one another.

    He cleared his throat and went on, “Your predecessor was stealing RCN stores?”

    How in heaven’s name would Brassey have managed that on Zenobia, where there wasn’t and couldn’t be an RCN presence? But it would explain the Commissioner Brown’s discomfort.

    “Oh, good gracious, no!” Brown said in surprise. “I’ve gone over Commissioner Brassey’s accounts, and so far as I can see they’re quite in order. Making allowances for sloppiness, that is, but I assure you that I’ve seen worse. He certainly wasn’t fiddling the secret accounts, which is where in the past I’ve most often found problems.”

    Daniel blinked. He’d been leaning slightly forward; he felt himself straighten. “Ah,” he said. “Could you be mistaken, Commissioner?”

    Brown’s smile was wry and surprisingly engaging. “About many things, Captain,” he said, “yes, I certainly could be. But not about accounts of this sort, filed by a man whom I may charitably say was not one of the great intellects of his age. You have every right to dismiss my opinions on most subjects, but I’ve spent nearly twenty years becoming an expert on matters of this sort.”

    Daniel grinned. “Your pardon, Commissioner,” he said. “I spoke without thinking. But if there’s no problem with the accounts, then why are you here?”

    “If I may give you some background . . . ,” Brown said. “When we took possession of Cinnabar House, we found the Commissioner’s private apartments were nearly full of empty wine bottles. My wife informs me that they had contained decent local vintages.”

    He shrugged. “I had access to Commissioner Brassey’s private accounts as well as his official ones,” he said, “so I went over those also. You may object that this was improper if you wish to.”

    “It doesn’t appear improper to me,” Daniel said with what he hoped sounded like sincerity. Actually, it probably was improper, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. Nothing about accounting seemed to him worth caring about.

    “Well, anyway, I did,” said Brown. He’d opened his case; it contained a personal data unit and pockets to hold over a hundred data chips. “Brassey had a private remittance from relatives at home as well as his official salary. His outlays for wine almost perfectly balanced those sources of income, leaving very little overage for food and what I might call general maintenance. From the state of his quarters, the figures were accurate.”

    “Go on,” said Daniel, nodding. He’d learned not to anticipate the Commissioner, who appeared to be telling his story in an orderly fashion. If his hearer was still completely at sea as to where that story was going — well, the answer to that was to shut up and listen.

    “There’s simply no evidence that Brassey had any private venture on Zenobia,” Brown said firmly. “Or that he would have been able to manage it if he had. Gibbs did all such business as the Commission required.”

    He frowned. “Which I must say isn’t very much. Now, I admit that Gibbs says that the late Commissioner wasn’t as incapable as I believe and that he had secret meetings outside Cinnabar house, though Gibbs knows nothing of the purpose or the other parties involved. But –”

    Brown’s voice was animated. He had lost the diffidence and confusion with which he had begun the discussion. The accountant was very different from the embryonic Commissioner, let alone the husband.

    “– we have learned, that is, I learned, in the Audit Division to ignore verbal testimony when it conflicts with written documentation. I am almost certain that Resident Tilton’s suggestion about ‘Cinnabar private ventures’ was false. As false as one would expect any statement by a man of that sort to be.”

    He paused with what approached being a smug smile. Daniel had picked up on the key word. Suppressing a smile of his own — he found himself liking the suddenly competent Brown — he said, “‘Almost,’ Commissioner?”

    “Exactly!” said Brown. “Look at this item, if you will.”

    He typed quickly on the virtual keyboard of his data unit, but the display winked to life on the console at which he sat. With a quick adjustment, Brown moved an omnidirectional hologram to hang between himself and Daniel. It was a series of figures and legends.

    This was the sort of thing Adele did all the time. It was surprising to see a stranger — and one who until moments previously had been something of a joke — accomplishing the task with the same reflexive skill.

    “I normally work on my own unit,” said Brown, who had apparently understood Daniel’s expression. “I frankly don’t trust linked computers when I’m dealing with financial records. And, ah — I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve disconnected the reporting and export functions of the consoles in this room for the duration of our conference.”

    “Quite all right, Commissioner,” Daniel said. Smiling faintly — had Adele spent time with this fellow during the voyage? He didn’t think she had — he added, “There’s a separate recording function built into the lighting circuit. It’s part of the log. If you like, I can have my signals officer wipe it when she returns to the ship.”

    “Ah!” said Brown in surprise. “Ah. No, I don’t think that will be necessary, Captain. But I appreciate your candor.”

    He cleared his throat, then touched a point in the air. On the display Daniel was viewing, line items expanded while the background faded. The excerpt read:
ITEM PN425-9901SJ:
Requisitioned Regional Naval Stores 9-13-45. No Charge.
Delivered Calvary Harbor 12-07-45.
Installed 12-09/10-45 at 4PP10418653. Barge rental 100 florins. Casual labor (off-planet spacers) 100 florins plus 30 florins alcohol bonus.

    “The fund charged is the secret account,” Brown explained. “This is the only charge on the secret account during Brassey’s tenure as Commissioner. Do you have any idea what it could mean?”

    “Well . . . ,” Daniel said, turning to his own console and bringing it live. “I can find out what the item is easily enough.”

    Perhaps not as easily as Adele could. Regardless, it didn’t take long to find an RCN equipment catalogue. Indexing was almost instantaneous once he’d entered the item number.

    Brown stared at the image and description blankly. “It’s a portable landing beacon,” Daniel explained. “Not something that you ordinarily need, but I suppose it might be more useful in the Qaboosh than in most regions, so it’s reasonable they’d have a few in stock on Stahl’s World.”

    Brown still looked blank. Daniel grinned. Now you know how I’ve been feeling, he thought. Aloud he said, “It’s for bringing ships in on ground control at a place where there isn’t a proper port installation. Colonies usually do it that way: send down a lifeboat with a portable rig, then bring the main ship or ships down on ground control.”

    “Ah,” said Brown. “Now I see. But why a colony?”

    “I don’t know that it is,” Daniel said. “That’s what came first to mind. As for where the beacon was placed –”

    He switched to a global display, assuming that the grid reference was to Zenobia. If it wasn’t, then all bets were off.

    “Here,” Daniel said, viewing the cursor which seemed to be pulsing in the middle of the Green Ocean, some six hundred miles east of Calvary. He expanded the display, hoping that something that made sense would appear. The detail wasn’t very good, but at high magnification the point appeared to be a marshy islet in a scattered archipelago.

    “What does it mean?” Brown said, frowning in puzzlement.

    “It means . . . ,” said Daniel, grinning as he keyed an alert signal to Adele’s personal data unit. “That I will make inquiries.”

    Just as soon as Adele returned.

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