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Some Golden Harbor: Chapter Two

       Last updated: Sunday, March 19, 2006 10:47 EST



Southwest of Xenos on Cinnabar

    Daniel stood with his hands crossed behind his back as the tram rocked to a halt at the end of the spur line. His convoy's five cars were from the RCN pool. They were made of pressed metal with no pretense of comfort, and the cush drive standard on civilian vehicles had been left off the suspension units in the interests of cost and reliability.

    Adele was in the first car with Daniel. She grabbed a stanchion to keep from being thrown forward; he just shifted his angle slightly, keeping his balance by practiced reflex.

    Daniel grinned, though not at his friend. Signals Officer Adele Mundy had by now spent a great deal of time on starships under way; a common spacer of comparable experience would probably have been rated Able. Adele was still a landsman in both the RCN and general senses of the word.

    The double doors ratcheted open. Daniel didn't let anything show on his face, but he sighed mentally to see that the view was just as bleak as it'd seemed through the grimy portholes that served as windows. He'd known it would be, of course, but he regretted it. Officers on ships as small as the Princess Cecile live too close to their spacers to ignore the fact that they're human.

    The slough was an even darker gray than the overcast sky. The reeds were a sullen green that might as well have been gray; likewise the algae-smeared mud from which they grew. The only brighter colors were iridescent patches of scum. The air was muggy even this early in the day, and Daniel smelled the bite of kerosene. They must've used fuel oil as a carrier when they fogged the site with insecticide.

    He stepped onto the gravel slip. Well, it'd been graveled once, but that'd been too long in the past: the soft soles of his boots settled noticeably in the mud.

    He slapped his cheek to crush a biting fly. The insecticide had been at best a partial success.

    "But where are the barracks?" Adele said, her eyes scanning the bleak scene. "That isn't it, is it? It won't house sixty-two... well, I suppose it could, but...."

    The other monorail cars clattered up, stopping directly behind Daniel's because there was no sidetrack as there would've been in Xenos proper. There wasn't a stretch of double track in the seven miles from where this spur left the great naval facility at Harbor Three on the outskirts of the city. There was very little traffic to this storage facility, and what little there was fell under tight RCN control.

    "That's just the guard room," Daniel said. It was a standard modular structure, two stories high with an overhang at both levels. An officer of the Land Forces of the Republic came out the front door; the two soldiers who'd been playing cards on the bench outside got up and ported their stocked impellers.

    "Those're the receiving barracks, so called," he said, stretching out his left arm to indicate the starships anchored almost a half mile offshore. "The hulks out there."

    The swamps around this backwater of the Ancien River was too muddy to support the heavy structures of a working port without expensive site preparation. They were, however, a good place to store ships that'd reached the end of their useful lives but weren't to be sent to the scrap yard yet. The hulls had considerable storage volume, especially since the fittings and fusion bottles had been removed.

    Now they were storing spacers. Admiral Vocaine and his staff viewed RCN crews as goods to be warehoused between periods of use.

    "Yes sir?" said the officer of the guard, a lieutenant. He'd apparently donned his tunic hurriedly when he heard the convoy pull up: the press closure down the front was sealed askew.

    "I'm Commander Leary," Daniel said, "here to pick up a draft of spacers." He handed over a coded chip but with it the usual printout that was all anybody really looked at. "I hope you got the warning order so that you could have them prepared for transfer."

    Daniel knew perfectly well that the guard detachment had received the warning order: Adele had seen to that, as she'd seen to every other electronic jot and tittle of the process. Now that he'd met the officer in charge, though, he doubted that the order'd been read. Though a lieutenant and by several steps Daniel's junior in rank, the fellow was in his late thirties. The RCN didn't hold the Land Forces in high regard in general, but this one--the name on his left breast was PLATT--seemed to be dull even for a pongo.

    The personnel accompanying Daniel, one per vehicle, were walking toward him down the muddy trail paralleling the monorail line. He'd brought Woetjans, his long-time bosun and Chief of Rig; Pasternak, the engineer and Chief of Ship, plus Midshipmen Cory and Blantyre.

    Rather to Daniel's surprise, the middies had volunteered for the mission. They'd been among the personnel of the Hermes, the tender on which Daniel had served as First Lieutenant in the Gold Dust Cluster, but that was the first time they'd served with him.

    Platt scratched his groin as he peered at the document doubtfully. He could read, couldn't he? After a moment he turned and shouted back toward the open door of the building, "Higby! Ready sixty packages now!"

    "Your orders state sixty-two spacers, not sixty, Mister Platt," Daniel said. He didn't raise his voice, but there was a rasp to his tone. "And they're named individuals, not random personnel."

    "Look, spacehead," said Platt, starting back toward the building. "We got a system here, and you're not in my chain of command. First in, first out, and you'll take who we give you.

    "One moment, Lieutenant," Daniel said. The metal in his voice stopped Platt in mid-stride and turned his head.

    To emphasize the expected distinction in ranks between him and the Land Force officer, Daniel'd worn his Whites with award ribbons instead of utilities like Adele and the others. There shouldn't have been a problem in getting the draft of spacers, but there generally were problems when you had to deal with base personnel.

    That the administration of the receiving ships had been transferred to the Land Forces made the situation worse. The fact that the new head of the Navy Board chose pongoes instead of RCN Shore Police to enforce his regulations damned him utterly.

    "You're right, I'm not in your chain of command," Daniel said, quietly again though he could feel the muscle at the back of his jaw twitching. "And I'm not in the chain of command of your battalion commander, Major Joinette."

    He paused, giving time for Platt to realize that Daniel knew his CO; if Platt was smart enough to understand the implications, of course. It'd been Adele's idea and her research as well, of course. Daniel'd come to believe what Adele had always claimed, that there was no useless information.

    "But Marshal of the Land Forces Leaver does report to the Senate Defense Committee under Lord Manco," Daniel continued, smiling now, "and the mission for which these spacers are required is one decreed by Lord Manco personally. Now, Lieutenant, why don't you just carry out your orders so that we don't have to look at each other any longer than necessary."

    "I'll give the orders," Platt muttered, tracing a figure-8 in the ground with the toe of his boot. "I'll send a signal to the Hopeless and they'll have your, ah, spacers ready by the time the barge gets there. Except--"

    He frowned at the hardcopy again.

    "--it'll take fuck knows how long to enter all these names."

    "Don't bother," said Adele. "I've already sent the request. You have, that is."



    Daniel glanced at where his friend had been standing a pace behind while he dealt with the Land Forces officer; then he looked down. Adele'd seated herself cross-legged in the mud and taken out her personal data unit; her slanted wands flickered like the forked tongue of a snake, licking information out of empty air. With a nod of self-congratulation, she shut down the unit and slipped the control wands back into the case.

    Platt gaped at her. "What're you doing there?" he said.

    Daniel hid a smile. Adele was wearing utilities; they were meant for this kind of use, but Daniel knew perfectly well that she'd have done the same in a dress uniform. Funnier still was the fact the lieutenant was more amazed at seeing a spacer sitting on the ground than what she'd just told him: that she'd entered his command console and issued orders in his name, albeit much more efficiently that Platt could have managed on his own.

    "Got some trouble to sort out, Captain?" asked Woetjans, a little ahead of the others because she'd been in the second car. Her big hands clenched and opened again.

    The bosun was six-and-a-half feet tall, raw-boned rather than bulky, and immensely strong. She was just as plain as the vehicles they'd arrived in. When Woetjans taught newbies the rigging on the ground, she used a starter of flexible cable that raised welts through utilities; in a brawl, her weapon of choice was a length of high-pressure tubing that broke bones with every stroke. She didn't carry anything now, but she wouldn't need tools for the likes of Platt.

    "Not at all, Woetjans," Daniel said. "They appear to keep the ferry on this side, so we'll ride over to the hulk with it. Lieutenant, would you like to come along?"

    He was going to offer Adele a hand up, but Pasternak was already doing that. He wasn't a man for a fight, and helping the signals officer gave him something to do with his hands in case Woetjans belted somebody.

    Pasternak was in late middle age; his service cap hid the fact he was bald above a fringe of red hair. He never moved fast, but neither did he waste motion or hesitate. His skills and seniority rated a post on a heavy cruiser if not a battleship, but he'd chosen to accompany Daniel on an unrated private yacht--which was all the Sissie was now.

    He liked serving under Daniel because he understood the details of the Power Room and propulsion machinery better than most captains; but Pasternak was an officer who took the long view as well. Lieutenant, now Commander, Leary had a remarkable record of taking prizes from the enemy, and the spacers who'd served with him had earned more florins than any other crews in the RCN. Pasternak was one of the exceptions who'd saved his money, and at least one element of his calculation must've been how much he was likely to get from another voyage with Mister Leary.

    That was perfectly all right with Daniel. He was lucky to have so able a Chief Engineer, even if the fellow's thinking was completely foreign to him.

    "You can't go over to the Hopeless!" Platt said to the backs of the spacers who'd walked past him toward the ferry--a double-ended tub, originally a barge for carrying bulk cargo. "That's not allowed."

    "Of course it is, my good man," Daniel called brightly over his shoulder. "Come along with us, please."

    Though Daniel hadn't expected it, he was pleased when Platt followed. The guard officer's mere presence might be useful in convincing his staff that what was going on was proper even if it was unusual.

    Adele, either reading Daniel's mind or having decided Lieutenant Platt's spine needed a little stiffening, said in a mildly testy voice, "This has been approved at the very highest naval authorities, lieutenant, and they are RCN personnel, after all. Admiral Vocaine simply wanted a picked crew for the mission."

    "Right, well...," Platt muttered. He didn't look happy, but he seemed to accept the explanation. It was completely true, except that Commander Leary rather than the Chief of the Navy Board had made the decision.

    Two soldiers wearing utility trousers but undershirts rather than tunics were taking the boardwalk from the back of the building toward the barge. They were obviously surprised to see the spacers and their CO walking across the mud to meet them.

    "Sir?" one of them asked. The other tucked his khaki undershirt into his trousers with a sidelong glance.

    "It's quite all right," said Daniel with a breezy confidence that he knew reassured other people more than words alone could do. "We're all going over together."

    He waved cheerfully. It reassured him, to tell the truth.

    A twelve-inch outside-diameter steel tube had been driven deep in the bank of the slough to anchor a heavy line of beryllium monocrystal. The rest of the line was coiled on one of two large drums in the center of the barge; a similar line ran from the second drum to the hulk, though it lay in the water for most of the distance. An electric motor drove both drums through a gear train so that one line paid out while the other was taken up.

    The barge's interior was empty except for the drive train, the controls--a six-foot lever, now in neutral, which could be thrown into forward or reverse positions--and metal ladders welded to both sloping ends.

    Water pooled in places on the deck plates. It'd probably slosh onto Daniel's boots and possibly his trousers when the barge got under way, but that couldn't be helped. He grinned as he boarded after the two soldiers: if they got through this business at no worse cost than him replacing a pair of dress trousers, he'd count it a win.

    "I'll give you a hand, lieutenant," Woetjans said. Daniel glanced back. Platt must've hesitated on the landing stage after Pasternak and the midshipmen clattered down the ladder. The bosun picked him up with one arm and followed, facing forward into the barge like the other spacers instead of back toward the ladder. Platt yelped, but he had better sense than to squirm.

    Daniel grinned more broadly. Adele'd come down the ladder facing the bulkhead. She was RCN though, even if she wasn't a spacer!

    "Cast off if you will, my good man," Daniel said to the soldier at the controls. He wished the pongoes were wearing proper uniforms so he could address them by their ranks, but behaving as a good-natured noble toward menials would do in a pinch. "The sooner this is over, the sooner we can all go back to doing things we prefer."

    Daniel thought the soldier'd check with his CO, but he just threw the lever forward. The motor whined and the drums began to rotate in opposite directions with a hollow thumping. The line running over the bow and through an eyelet added a high-pitched squeal to the general racket.

    It didn't bother Daniel: a starship under way frequently had as much equipment working at the same time, and there the noise was enclosed in a steel tube. The ferry was open to the sky.

    On the other hand, the cable snaking up from the slough sprayed everybody aboard with algae and dirty water as it wound onto the take-up spool. Cheap at the price....



    The other soldier'd climbed the ladder at the bow end. To conn the barge, Daniel supposed, since the hull was too deep for anyone in her belly to see the surface. The receiving ship would be a looming presence ahead as they neared her, but Daniel supposed there could be some floating object in the way.

    He couldn't imagine what--and the ferry couldn't maneuver around such an object anyway--but no doubt having a lookout was the proper procedure. Besides, it wasn't as though the guards had something better to do.

    "That's a battleship, isn't it?" Adele said, making a visor of her hands to keep the filthy spray out of her eyes. She reached for her data unit, then caught herself.

    The flying droplets were probably why she wasn't sitting in the bilges with her wands flickering. Her data unit was sealed--Daniel'd seen it dunked in salt water and perform flawlessly moments later--but Adele nonetheless lavished care on the tool that she'd scorn to expend on her own person.

    "She was," Daniel agreed. They stood close enough together that he didn't have to shout to be heard over the noise of the ferry's jolting passage. "The Lucretius, built before my father was born."

    Not that Corder Leary knew or cared about any aspect of the RCN unless one of his companies was making money from it. Which they might well be, even here.

    "She served as a guardship on Plenty for a decade," Daniel went on. "Longer than that, I believe. They brought her back to Cinnabar some five years ago when she'd become too decrepit even for a guardship, but instead of scrapping her they stripped her for a hulk. They renamed her when she left service, the Hope. And of course either the guards or more likely the spacers billeted here renamed her again unofficially."

    "Yes," said Adele. "The Hopeless. Well, perhaps not for the Sissies."

    "'Ware the dock!" shouted the lookout. "Twenty yards, Feeley!"

    Daniel put his arm around Adele's shoulders, correctly anticipating that the bow wave rebounding from the battleship's outrigger would make the ferry lurch violently. He felt Adele tense, then relax as intellect overcame instinct. For a moment she didn't know why Daniel was bracing her, but she knew there must be a reason.

    The bow juddered with a quick rhythm that made Daniel more uncomfortable than he'd expected. The physical shock was slight, but a vibration at that frequency on a starship meant that something had gone seriously wrong with the High Drive motors. A problem in a system that involved matter/antimatter annihilation could get lethal in an eyeblink.

    The helmsman--if that's what you called him--walked around the control lever so that he could push it into reverse instead of pulling. A squeal rose to a shriek as the ferry's inertia fought the torque of the big electric motor. At the very instant the barge slammed the outrigger and lost the slight remainder of its way against log bumpers, the soldier brought the control to neutral.

    "He's not the most military fellow I've met," Daniel said to Adele in a lowered voice, "but he's done a professional job getting us here."

    "I dare say your superiors have often made similar remarks," Adele said, her expression deadpan.

    The lookout had jumped into the belly of the ship rather than riding the bulkhead into collision. Before he could get to the ladder again, Woetjans had scrambled up it while still carrying Platt. She set the lieutenant down and tied the coil of vegetable-fiber rope that Cory tossed her around a stanchion.

    "Shall I pipe you aboard, cap'n?" the bosun offered with a grin. On her roughhewn face, the expression was ferocious.

    "Bite your tongue, Mistress Woetjans!" Daniel said as he climbed, as easily as she had but no quicker for being unburdened. "I'll willingly leave the command of the Hope here to Lieutenant Platt."

    "I'm not in command!" Platt said with frightened emphasis. "I just have first platoon of the guards, that's all!"

    Everybody ignored him. That must've become a familiar experience during his military career.

    Daniel strode across the catwalk connecting the outrigger with the main hatch. All--well, most--of the Hope's ports and hatches were open; those that weren't had probably jammed closed. Spacers sat on the coamings, looking down at the open barge. A man--Daniel thought it was Barnes--cried in delight, "By all the Gods and their buggering priests! It's Mister Leary!"

    Daniel waved, but faces were already disappearing from the hatches. His face hardened into a frown.

    Barnes and his friend Dasi were excellent spacers. If Daniel'd known what was going to happen when the Milton reached Cinnabar orbit, he'd have rated them as bosun's mates. The new regulations covered only common spacers, not warrant officers, and those two were due a chance to spend their accumulated pay and prize money anywhere they pleased.

    Indeed, all the Sissies were due that--and so far as Daniel was concerned, the same was true for every one of the spacers putting their lives on the line for Cinnabar. Sure, most of them were going to blow their wad down to the last trissie in the bars and brothels fronting Harbor Three, but that was their choice to make.

    Daniel's usual smile reappeared as he walked through the Hope's main hatch. Given that Commander Daniel Leary's tastes were pretty much the same as his crew's--albeit of a somewhat higher class now that he could afford better liquor and women--he wasn't about to take a moral stand on the matter.

    In the entrance foyer were a squad of guards and a Land Forces clerk. The clerk's self-powered console and folding chairs the soldiers had brought themselves were the only furnishings. The internal hatches were dogged and locked, as were three of the four companionways that would've given access to the decks above and below.

    The swinging grate that replaced the hatch of the remaining companionway was also locked, but there had to be some opening at the other end; the compartment echoed with the happy excitement of spacers shouting down the armored tube. The guards had grabbed their weapons and were staring nervously at the grate, while the clerk was shouting into the console's audio pickup.

    The soldiers didn't notice Daniel until Woetjans bellowed, "Atten-shun!" in a voice that snatched their heads around. Several of the gun muzzles swung around also.

    Platt had followed the bosun into the foyer. She grabbed the squawking lieutenant and thrust him in front of Daniel.

    "Sir!" the clerk cried, jumping up from his console. "I've been trying to raise you! The packages've all gone crazy!"

    "There's no problem," said Daniel. "Do you have a PA system?"



    The compartment stank; he could only imagine what the rest of the hulk was like. The Hope hadn't had power since her fusion bottle was removed, so her environmental system and plumbling didn't work. The open hatches would circulate air to a degree, but they also let in rain every time it stormed. And with no officers present, there were inevitably going to be spacers who relieved themselves into the vessel's interior instead of hanging their equipment out a hatch.

    Woetjans walked to the grating, secured with a padlock. "Pipe down!" she shouted. "All the Sissies are going home shortly, but keep your bloody mouths shut!"

    "No, no," the clerk said, looking from Daniel to Platt and then quickly back to Daniel. "We go to the head of the stairs and call through the grill, but we can't do that when they're in a state like this. What got into them?"

    Daniel glanced at the padlock; it wasn't substantial. He gripped the nearest stocked impeller and pulled it out of the guard's hands before she realized what was going on. "I'll borrow this if you don't mind, mistress," he said calmly.

    "You can't!" she said, but of course he already had. Woetjans stood in front of her and walked the soldier back slowly.

    Daniel raised the impeller, then brought it down in a crisp blow that cracked the steel buttplate into the lock's body between the arms of the hasp. The lock popped open.

    Daniel really looked at the impeller for the first time and noticed that the LED on the back of the receiver was green: it was ready to fire. He thumbed the safety on. He doubted that the slug would've penetrated a battleship's decking if the bloody thing'd gone off, but there'd have been about a hundred grains of osmium ricochetting hypersonically around the compartment.

    "You can't go up there!" a soldier said. None of them wore insignia but the speaker was older than the rest and so probably a noncom. "Bleeding hell, sir! If they get loose like this they'll have us for breakfast, guns or no guns!"

    "My gun!" protested the guard he'd taken the impeller from.

    "Don't act a bigger fool than God made you, pongo," Woetjans said contemptuously as she stepped into the companionway. "But I'll lead, sir. Just to make sure everybody hears it's Mister Leary."

    "You can have your weapon in a moment, soldier," Daniel muttered over his shoulder. "Right now I need to unlock the other end."

    "Wait!" cried the clerk. "How'll we close it again if you knock the bloody lock off there too! Here, take the key!"

    "I have it," said Adele, plucking the chip-implanted tab from the clerk's fingers. "Shall we go?"

    She was smiling as much as she ever did, but Daniel noticed that she'd taken the key with her right hand; her left was in the pocket of her tunic. He was sure Adele didn't expect to need her pistol, but she was a very careful person.

    "Right," Daniel said, nodding Adele ahead just in case some of the soldiers tried to push in and crowd her. There was small chance of that, but--well, Adele wasn't the only careful person present.

    Woetjans' bellowed threats seemed to have brought a degree of order if not silence to the crowd outside the hatchway on E Deck. Dasi was on the other side of the grating. Daniel didn't see Barnes, but he didn't have much of a view between the bosun's legs and past Adele's torso. Kumara, a Power Room tech, was there, though.

    "Back up!" Woetjans said. "Give me'n Mister Leary room to stand, damn your eyes! D'ye expect us to stand here in the bloody companionway tight as bloody maggots in a corpse?"

    "Back, give the cap'n room!" shouted half a dozen Sissies on the other side of the grating; not all in unison, but close enough. A space opened.

    The shift in the bodies in the corridor probably took physical effort beyond just words, but there wasn't anything like a brawl taking place. The Sissies would work as a team, whereas the other spacers had nothing to organize them. As short as the RCN was of personnel, they at least wouldn't have to be in this tubular steel latrine for very long.

    Adele reached past; Woetjans then jerked the grill open. Instead of hanging the padlock from its staple, Woetjans dropped it on the deck as she led Daniel's delegation out of the companionway. Daniel suspected she'd have preferred to knock the lock apart; in any case, she didn't feel a need to make it easy for the soldiers to keep fellow spacers in what amounted to prison.

    "Atten-shun!" Woetjans repeated, making fittings rattle. "Listen up for Mister Leary, damn you!"

    Daniel stepped forward to give Pasternak and the two midshipmen room to get onto the deck proper. "Fellow spacers!" he said. He didn't have lungs like the bosun, but everybody up and down the corridor could hear him. "I'm here with a draft for the crewmen who arrived with me on the Milton. I'm taking only those personnel, but I'm taking all those personnel. If there's any Sissies who aren't in earshot, I want you who are to go fetch them now. We don't leave shipmates behind, spacers!"

    "Sir?" said Claud, a rigger. "Hergenshied and Borjaily're up on K Deck with fever. The medicomp here don't work and the pongoes won't take 'em off to shore, saying they's faking."

    "Which is a bloody lie!" somebody shouted from too far back in the crowd for Daniel to be sure who she was. The only light in the corridor came from hatches open on compartments whose inner hatches were open also. "There's a hundred and fifty down with the crud and three died since we been here!"

    "Yes," said Daniel, a placeholder while his lips smiled faintly and his mind fantasized about standing on the spine of the battleship and hurling Admiral Vocaine into the slough. "Midshipman Blantyre, take Claud and a party to K Deck and bring the sick personnel down immediately. The medicomp of the Princess Cecile is functioning, I assure you."

    "Sir, we're going back to the Sissie?" Kumara said. "Oh, bless you, sir, bless you for a saint!"

    "Sissies get moving," Daniel said. "We've got trams waiting. The sooner you're in the barge, the sooner we can get back to a job that'll benefit ourselves and the Republic. And Kumara?"

    "Sir?" said the tech who'd bolted for the companionway.

    "Don't talk like a bloody fool, if you please. Otherwise I'll leave you here to your religious exercises!"



    "Six," said Midshipman Blantyre in the entrance foyer. "We've got a full load down here for the barge. Shall I take them across and Cory catch the rest as they come down, over?"

    Adele nodded approvingly: though Blantyre'd addressed Daniel directly--Ship Six, the Captain--she'd used the general channel so that everybody involved in the operation could hear her. Adele wouldn't claim she'd warmed to Blantyre during the months they'd served together, but both midshipmen had absorbed what Adele felt were correct communications principles.

    That didn't necessarily mean what the RCN considered proper commo protocol: Adele herself was very poor at that. It did mean passing on information to everybody who might need it, without saying anything that wasn't necessary. That required a degree of intelligence, Adele supposed, which was praiseworthy as well.

    She smiled faintly. And after all, she didn't warm to many people.

    Daniel turned to face Adele before answering. He was using an earclip communicator since while he was in Whites he couldn't wear a commo helmet. The Hope was enormous, and without a PA system it was taking a considerable while to get word to Sissies in distant compartments.

    "Blantyre and Cory?" he said, holding Adele with his eyes as he spoke to the midshipmen on the deck below. "I want the two of you to cross with thirty of the lot you have and run them to the Sissie in two tramcars. I'll come down and take your place as a catcher, and I'm sending Officer Mundy along with you. In case there're any questions along the route. Over."

    He raised an eyebrow to Adele; she nodded and put away her data unit. She hadn't been using it--there was no need to sit on the slimy floor of the corridor--but the familiar presence in her hands was comforting.

    She understood perfectly why Daniel wanted her to accompany the midshipmen. The tramline was dedicated to RCN traffic until it got to the other side of Harbor Three. There was a good chance that an officer--perhaps a senior officer--would try to snatch some of these picked personnel on the way. Signals Officer Mundy only technically outranked the midshipmen; but Mundy of Chatsworth had a presence that would make even an admiral hesitate before crossing her.

    Daniel turned. "Woetjans and Pasternak?" he said to the chiefs who were sorting spacers as they pushed forward in the corridor. "Carry on here. When all the Sissies are accounted for, follow the last one down to me below."

    "Please, Commander?" said a spacer who must've been in his sixties as he tried to slip past Woetjans. "I served with your uncle on the Beacon."

    The bosun shoved the fellow back contemptuously. "If you're not a Sissie, it don't matter that you served with God Herself!" she said. Switching her attention to someone farther back in the corridor--Adele wasn't tall enough to see who--she went on, "Yermakov, bring your ass forward! Do I have to go fetch you myself?"

    Adele went down the companionway with one hand on the railing--not gripping it, but ready to grab if her boots went out from under her. That'd happened often enough in the past, and the filthy patina covering all the hulk's interior surfaces meant it could happen again.

    She grinned mentally. She'd spent too many years in poverty to be overly concerned about embarrassing herself, but she wasn't going to embarrass the RCN in front of Land Forces personnel.

    Cory, a middling youth in all senses--average height and weight with sandy-blond hair--was facing the guards at Parade Rest, his back to the happy spacers coming out of the companionway and crossing to the open hatch. In a verbal description he'd sound similar to Daniel, but nobody seeing them could possibly mistake one for the other. Cory was earnest, whereas Commander Leary was as vivid as raw flame.

    "Join Blantyre in the barge, Cory," Daniel said as he followed Adele from the companionway. "I'll take your place here. Oh, and Mundy'll be going back with you."

    The clerk, seated at his console by the entrance hatch, called, "You know, I'm supposed to be checking off every one of them packages before they're passed outa here."

    Adele walked to the console. Her anger was an icy thing. Record keeping was a necessary prerequisite for civilization, but this pismire was using it as a club to bully others. "Keep a civil tongue in your head while addressing an officer of the senior service, sirrah!" she said.

    "You watch your own tongue, spacehead!" the clerk said. He was covered in rolls of flesh that must've made the muggy heat unbearable. "You don't rank me and--"

    Adele slapped him. Her left hand was in her tunic pocket. She felt rather than saw Daniel's presence at her side, but he was no longer part of what was happening.

    "I'm Mundy of Chatsworth," she said without raising her voice. She never raised her voice. "In the future you will address me as Officer Mundy or as Your Ladyship. I will not warn you again."

    The fingers of her right hand throbbed. The clerk's cheek was bright red and already beginning to swell.

    The clerk's mouth worked but he couldn't get words out; his eyes were wide and staring. After a moment he managed to nod.

    Adele turned and strode through the hatchway. Behind her Daniel said something to Cory, but she didn't hear the words.

    She felt sick with reaction to the surge of adrenalin that hadn't been burned off by action. If the fellow'd said the wrong thing--if he'd said almost anything--Adele would've fired a shot into his console. She'd considered but rejected--initially at least--the plan of shooting him, because with soldiers present that could easily have led to a massacre. She'd considered that sequence all the way to the end before she'd confronted the gross bully--

    And she'd done it anyway.

    "Here you go, mistress," Dasi said, offering Adele a hand down the ladder. She'd walked all the way to the ferry with her mind filled by visions of possible futures, most of them bleak.

    She chuckled. "Ma'am?" said the big spacer, walking her down while stepping only on the edges of the treads himself.

    "There was a long period in my life," Adele said, "when what I now consider a bad result wouldn't have made my situation worse. There are philosophers who would say that I was better off then."

    "Then they're bloody fools," said Dasi after a moment to parse what she'd just said.

    "Yes," said Adele, "they are. Or rather they would have been if they'd really believed what they were saying."

    The barge wasn't crowded now, but doubling the number of people in its belly would be uncomfortable if not dangerous. Cory freed the hawser from the bitt on the battleship's outrigger and tossed it into the ferry, then jumped to the gunwale and walked along it before dropping into the barge at a relatively clear spot. He was bragging Adele supposed.

    The soldier who acted as lookout had shifted to the other end of the ferry. "Get us under way!" said Blantyre, standing beside the helmsman; the fellow threw his weight onto the control lever. Adele found the rumble of wire cables circling the spools to be oddly soothing; the low frequency seemed to muffle the jagged edges in her mind.

    The clerk hadn't done anything that made him worthy of shooting; but his like had been responsible for the worst of human behavior all through history. They were the ones who killed and brutalized not out of belief but simply because they were permitted to. Speaker Leary had ordered the Mundys to be exterminated for what he saw as the good of the Republic, but the soldiers who cut off the head of a ten-year-old child did so merely out of bestial whim.

    The ferry grounded in the mud more gently than it'd brought up against the battleship. When Adele swayed forward, she found Dasi and Cory waiting to grab her arms and keep her on her feet.

    "Take care nobody tramples Officer Mundy, Dasi," the midshipman ordered officiously as he scrambled up what was now the stern ladder.

    "Aye aye, young gentleman," Dasi said, but he was grinning and speaking to his friend Barnes instead of making the irony bite. He and Barnes were both riggers; Adele thought there was a degree of affection in the way they watched Cory scampering along the gunnel to get to shore as soon as possible.

    The spacers who'd just been released from the receiving ship weren't waiting for the ladder either. Making steps of their hands for one another and reaching down to help their comrades, they emptied the ferry in thirty seconds or less. Adele looked at Barnes and Dasi--her keepers--and said, "I think I can manage not to fall on my face in an empty boat, so shall we go?"

    The riggers chuckled. Dasi led the way through the empty barge while Barnes followed Adele. "We don't mean no disrespect, ma'am," Barnes said with a hint of embarrassment. "It's just, you know, Mister Leary'd have our guts for garters if anything happened to you."

    Dasi climbed--the word was too clumsy for the smooth grace of his motion--the bow ladder, then looked back down. "If you need a hand--" he said.

    "Thank you, no," said Adele, taking each rung as she went but not slipping or making a fool of herself in some other way. She glowered for a moment, then smiled at her brief pet. In allowing for her awkwardness, Barnes and Dasi were doing the jobs Daniel and their shipmates expected them to do. She had no more right to be irritated at that than she did if they were careful while loading cases of ammunition for the ship's plasma cannon.



    As Blantyre and Cory shouted directions, the Sissies boarded the first two tramcars. They carried their belongings in bags or occasionally in small lockers, hand-carved and inlaid: works of art rather than merely functional.

    Their possessions were pitiably meager, yet they seemed as cheerful as any gathering of the rich and powerful Adele remembered from her father's day. Indeed, they were clearly ecstatic--because they were returning to service under a captain renowned for hard runs and hot fighting.

    "Sir?" said somebody. Adele tramped toward the lead car, glaring at the muck she was stepping in. When they reached Bergen and Associates, she'd hose herself off. Being wet was better than being filthy.

    "Sir?" the voice repeated.

    "Ma'am, I think he means you," Barnes said diffidently. Adele jerked her mind out of its dark reverie and looked toward the Land Forces warrant officer standing in front of the guard barracks. He'd donned full utility uniform including rank tabs on his collar.

    "Yes?" Adele said, suddenly cold again.

    "Sir, you don't have an escort," said the soldier uncomfortably. He wasn't a spiritual brother to the clerk aboard the receiving ship after all. "Ah, usually replacements come in and outa the Hopeless under escort."

    "Under guard, you mean," Adele said, feeling another wash of cold anger. "Your concern is misplaced."

    She got into the lead car before she said--or did--something she'd regret. The problem was with Admiral Vocaine, not that soldier. Spacers made way for her to join Blantyre at the controls in the front of the car.

    "Car Two ready, sir!" chirped Cory over the command channel. Blantyre raised an eyebrow, then stabbed EXECUTE on the control screen when Adele nodded. The vehicles lifted on their magnetic levitators and began to shake and rattle their way toward Daniel's shipyard and the Princess Cecile's berth.

    "Can you tell us what this mission is about, sir?" Blantyre asked, speaking directly to Adele instead of using the helmet intercom. The other spacers were keeping their distance, and the sound of the car provided as much privacy as a white noise generator.

    There was no need for privacy, of course.

    "It's purely transportation," Adele said. Outside the blurry circular window, mudflats were giving way to factories. A canal paralleled the monorail track for a distance. Its surface was as black and still as bunker oil.

    "Commander Leary's going to Ganpat's Reach as an envoy, Adele said, "and the Princess Cecile was his best available means of getting there. Navy House rated the Sissie an RCN Auxiliary for this purpose so you'll continue to accrue time in grade, but the same would be true on a provisions ship."

    "Navy House" in this instance (as with most other things involved with support for Daniel's mission) meant Signals Officer Mundy, hacking into the system and changing entries to what they would have been if the bureaucracy was doing its job. Adele hadn't been indoctrinated by RCN specialist training to do things by the book, and the Mundys had never been known for obeying somebody else's stupid regulations.

    Adele gave Blantyre a searching look. It didn't bother her to know that people she focused her eyes on this way thought she was angry, though in the present case she wasn't.

    "I was surprised," she said, "to learn that you and Midshipman Cory had signed on with Commander Leary, as a matter of fact. There won't be opportunities for promotion aboard the Princess Cecile. I've been assured that with your record during the fighting in the Bromley system, you could easily find berths on a larger vessel with a good chance of an acting lieutenancy during a long voyage."

    Blantyre's face stiffened; she looked out the porthole. The tram was juddering past a squatter camp; children and adults stared at the gray vehicles with listless expressions.

    "Look," she said, turning sharply. "Can I talk to you straight?"

    "Yes," said Adele. She didn't bother to dress the truth in empty protestations.

    Blantyre cleared her throat and looked down again for a moment. She was a solid woman, muscular rather than fat. She was certainly no beauty, but Adele had seen her spiky drive make an impression in gatherings of other women who were better looking in a merely physical sense.

    "Look, sir," she said. "Cory and I were aboard the Hermes with Dorst, right? He'd served with Mister Leary his whole time after Academy."

    "Yes," said Adele again. "And Lieutenant Vesey as well."

    "Sure," Blantyre agreed, "but Vesey's sharp. I didn't have an instructor at the Academy who could navigate better'n Vesey does, not to notice, anyway. But Dorst was thick as two short planks."

    "Go on," Adele said. She thought of adding, "And if you use that phrasing in Vesey's presence, she'll probably shoot you without the formality of a duel," but she didn't bother. Blantyre had made it clear that she was talking to Officer Mundy, not to the world in general.

    "But if Dorst hadn't been killed, he'd have been the first of his class to make captain!" Blantyre said. "When he gave an order, spacers jumped. Not because of anything the regs said but because he was an officer. And Vesey too, sure, but she'd have had that anyway, like enough. Though she herself says that it's Mister Leary who taught her astrogation."

    "Commander Leary says the credit is Vesey's alone," Adele said. She'd almost said, "Daniel says," but a discussion with Daniel's subordinates could never be allowed to become that informal. "Personally though, I suspect Vesey has much of the right on her side of the argument."

    "So sure," Blantyre continued, "Cory and I could've shipped aboard the Zoroaster and had a good chance of making lieutenant, assuming we pass our boards. Which we will. But we talked it over and decided we'd be better off learning to be officers under Mister Leary than get our pips on a battleship and not know how to use them."

    Adele sucked at her lips for a moment. "I see," she said.

    "And if you're thinking, well it didn't work out for Dorst in the long run," Blantyre added fiercely, "well, that's what the job is. That's what being an RCN officer is, you take chances like that or you shouldn't have requested a commission!"

    Adele gave the midshipman what was for her an unusually broad smile. "I don't usually consider the chance of death to be a determinative factor, Blantyre," she said. "It's a matter of historical record that every other member of my immediate family has died, and I don't expect to be the exception."

    "What?" said Blantyre. Then the words penetrated and she blanked her face in surprise. "Oh. I didn't mean...."

    "I apologize for shocking you," Adele said. "My sense of humor asserts itself at inappropriate times, I'm afraid."

    She smiled wryly. "We seem to be approaching the Harbor Three reservation," she said. "Let's keep an eye out to make sure that nobody poaches the best-trained spacers in the RCN, shall we?"

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