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Some Golden Harbor: Chapter Five

       Last updated: Saturday, April 8, 2006 11:36 EDT



Above Bennaria

    Adele focused on images of Bennaria in real-time through the ship's sensors and in the data she was pulling out of a dozen computers on the ground below. Bennaria Control wasn't particularly efficient--though there were only five ships queued to land or lift off, the Sissie'd been waiting half an hour already--and the controllers insisted arrivals remain in freefall orbits while they were being processed.

    Adele disliked weightlessness a great deal when she let herself think about it, so she lost herself in work. That wasn't difficult; indeed, her problem tended to be the reverse. She was sometimes oblivious of what was going on in her immediate surroundings under circumstances which made her detachment insulting to others or dangerous to herself. That wasn't likely now; and anyway, nobody'd benefit from Signals Officer Mundy vomiting across her console.

    Data cascaded in. Adele was vaguely aware that she was smiling and as happy--as content--as she was ever likely to be in this life. Charlestown, the planet's capital, was on the west side of a roadstead fed by two major rivers. A long island--it'd probably been a mudbank initially and still wasn't much above sea level--bulged away from the mainland. The port facilities were on the island's landward side, reasonably sheltered though port records indicated that storm surges sometimes swept the island.

    She'd assumed the fenced enclosures in the island's interior were cattle sheds. Being Adele Mundy she'd checked her assumption against the records of port duties instead of just accepting it.

    She grimaced. They were cattle sheds in the broader sense, but the cattle in this case were human slaves rather than cows or sheep. She'd known that Bennaria based its foreign trade on the export of rice throughout Ganpat's Reach and beyond. The major landowners appeared to have decided that slaves were more cost effective than machinery. Here on the fringes of the settled universe, one could expect pirates to supplement the natural increase of the existing labor force.

    "Officer Mundy?" said Daniel over the command channel; all the Sissie's commissioned and warrant officers were included in the conversation. "I don't see any warships in the harbor below. Is the Bennarian fleet off-planet, or--"

    Before Daniel got the unnecessary remainder of his question out, Adele imported an image to the upper right quadrant of his screen. He'd been viewing the harbor at the largest possible scale. She'd expanded it to include the area fifteen miles to the north, then thrown a red mask over the pool in the river where six slim destroyers were moored.

    "Ah!" said Daniel. "Many thanks, Mundy."

    It shouldn't have been possible to adjust another officer's display unasked except from the command console where Vesey was dealing with the port authorities. In general that was a reasonable safety feature. It barely crossed Adele's mind that she was acting improperly to override it: she wasn't the general case.

    She'd searched immediately for naval message traffic--and found none of any significance. She'd followed that by searching for facility locations in the database of the Armed Squadron. There were squadron terminals on the Charlestown premises of twelve of the Counciliar Families and an office building on the harbor esplanade, but the ships themselves were some distance from the city.

    Only two vessels, the Sibyl and the Tenerife, appeared to have crews aboard, and even those were of a few dozen spacers. A destroyer's normal complement would be two hundred.

    A score of communication streams ran as text crawls across the lower half of Adele's display. They included anything from the ground that might have bearing on the Princess Cecile, as well as the ship's internal chatter. A new incoming signal shouldered its way onto the screen, this one highlighted red because it was a response to the message Adele had sent as soon as the Sissie reached orbit. She opened the channel immediately, routing it also to Daniel on a one-way link.

    "Manco One to Mundy," a male voice said. The transmission was microwave from Bennaria's communications satellite system, but it'd been scrambled using Manco Trading Company's commercial encryption system. "Please identify yourself. Your message didn't make sense! Over."

    "Master Luff," Adele said, "I'm Signals Officer Mundy, aide to Commander Leary whom the Navy Board has sent in response to the Bennarian Council's request for help. I--"

    "What!" said Luff without waiting for her handover. Adele was using separate input and output channels so it didn't matter, but he was clearly too rattled to care. "There's an RCN fleet in orbit and I haven't been warned about it? Oh my God, Councilor Waddell will, will--I don't know what he'll do!"

    By virtue of being manager of Manco Trading's operations here, Adrian Luff was Cinnabar's consular agent on Bennaria. Were it not for the Mancos, there probably wouldn't have been an official Cinnabar presence on Bennaria, so Adele'd contacted him through commercial rather than government channels.

    She hadn't had time to learn much about Luff before leaving Cinnabar. The man's obvious panic over their arrival didn't positively impress her, but she'd learned over the years to make allowance for her impatience with other people's poor performance. She wasn't wrong to be disgusted, of course, but letting it show was counterproductive.

    "Master Luff," Adele said calmly, "Commander Leary leads a Cinnabar advisory mission. There's no squadron and indeed no warship; we're aboard the Commander's yacht. And since the Senate requested the RCN respond with all possible speed, we've outrun word of our coming."

    "Oh my God," Luff repeated. "I'll have to inform the Council at once. But--no ships? The RCN isn't sending real help?"

    "I assure you," Adele said, feeling her voice grow even colder than it'd been, "that our presence constitutes real help and that you should so inform the Council. That would be the Bennarian Council, over?"

    The Sissie's thrusters roared, braking for descent. The sound and the sudden shove from the couch startled Adele, though she knew Vesey and Pasternak in the Power Room must've given the usual sequence of warnings. She'd been concentrating too hard on Luff--the whimpering fool!--to pay attention.

    "Yes, of course, the Council!" Luff said. "Oh my God, they'll blame me, I know they will!"

    Braking thrust built rapidly, squeezing Adele against the cushions. A starship's hull wouldn't accept really heavy accelerations, though, so this was nothing that she couldn't speak through without noticeable effort. Her voice was already as thin and hard as a razor blade, of course.

    "We'll be landing within the half hour at--" Adele began.

    A text block flashed onto her screen reading CHARLESTOWN HARBOR SLIP W12, followed by a digital clock in minutes reading down from 17:04.

    "We'll be landing in seventeen minutes at Slip W12," Adele resumed. "Commander Leary would like a meeting with you as soon as possible, so--"

    "With me?" said Luff. "Oh, no--he'll have to meet with Councilor Waddell immediately. Perhaps some of the others too. I'll be waiting for you as soon as you touch down. Oh, there's so little time to set this up!"

    The Princess Cecile was deep enough into her descent that atmospheric buffeting added to the thrusters' predictable vibration. Raising her voice minusculely before she caught herself, Adele said, "Commander Leary will be pleased to meet with the Bennarian government, but he was expecting a briefing from you before he did so. A delay of a few hours or even less to consult with you will permit him to--"

    "Look, I'll talk to him on the way!" Luff said. "I don't have an aircar so there'll be time. But if you think I'm going to have Councilor Waddell thinking I've deliberately delayed him, you're out of your mind. Now goodbye, I have a great deal to attend to!"

    The transmission cut off abruptly. Adele pursed her lips, staring at her display in a mixture of anger and amazement.

    "Adele?" said Daniel over a two-way link. "Is that gentleman a Bennarian native, over?"

    "No, he's not," she said. The degree of her anger surprised her. "He's a Cinnabar citizen; a distant cousin of Senator Manco, in fact. That disturbs me in itself. In addition he's probably convinced the local elite that all Cinnabar citizens are contemptible worms so our own dealings with them will be more difficult."

    "Oh, well," said Daniel cheerfully. His image on a corner of her display grinned. "I dare say an RCN officer and Mundy of Chatsworth can correct them on that point quickly enough."

    He grinned wider. "It could even be fun."



Charlestown on Bennaria

    Daniel, standing in the Princess Cecile's entrance hold with Adele and the ship's officers, tugged the trousers of his 1st class uniform. He was trying, without much luck so far, to loosen them or least keep them from riding up so badly. Hogg tutted, gripped the hem of Daniel's tunic with both hands, and twisted hard.

    "Now don't you go splitting a seam," Hogg grunted. "Behave like a gentleman, why don't you? We don't have another of these monkey suits along and I don't want to have to sew you up with a bunch of wogs watching."

    "I hope that's the last time you'll refer to wogs while we're here, Hogg," said Daniel. Because of the way the trousers pinched his crotch, he was able to sound more severe than he usually managed with the servant who'd raised him.

    "Hope's a fine thing," said Hogg, stepping back and eyeing the hang of Daniel's uniform critically. Then in a vaguely conciliatory tone he added, "Anyway, it's just us Sissies, right?"

    "You can open up, Woetjans," Daniel said; the bosun, two decks above on the bridge, activated the hydraulic rams. The hatch released with a clang and began to lower into a boarding ramp, letting in a gush of Bennaria's atmosphere--breathable, though the back of Daniel's throat suddenly felt as though he were trying to swallow a sheet of plastic--and the usual remnants of steam.

    Because Charlestown harbor was open to the sea, the water vaporized by the thrusters had almost completely dissipated. Daniel'd kept the ship closed up for a full ten minutes, longer than he'd ordinarily have done, to give him time to put on his Whites. He'd expected to change from his utilities at leisure while he met with the Manco agent here aboard the Sissie; more fool him to have assumed, of course.

    He grinned. Given the choice was to sit squeezed into his Whites during landing--and it was always possible for something to go wrong during landing--he'd have made the same decision anyway. If that meant the Bennarian Council waited, well, who cared if a gaggle of wogs had to twiddle their thumbs for a while?

    He glanced at Adele; she smiled in response, though you had to know her to realize it was a smile or an expression at all. She was in her 2nd class uniform, gray with black piping, because she hadn't brought a set of Whites along. If necessary she could appear as Mundy of Chatsworth in an expensive civilian suit, but Grays were sufficiently formal for a junior warrant officer on Commander Leary's staff.

    Daniel's grin broadened. The thigh sheath holding Adele's data unit and the weight of the pistol in her tunic pocket were less obtrusive than they'd be on closely tailored Whites, too.

    The ramp clanged into its locking seat on the port outrigger. Dock personnel had already floated a wooden boarding bridge into place between the outrigger and the concrete quay, and the civilian waiting on it started up the ramp immediately.

    Normally Lieutenant Vesey as the ship's captain would receive the delegation, but Daniel realized from Luff's flustered call that this was no time to stand on ceremony. He stepped forward, saying, "Master Luff? I'm Commander Leary. I'm--"

    "Yes, of course," said Luff. "Come along quickly, please. They'll be arriving by aircar; some of them are probably at Manco House already."

    The Manco agent was short and, if not exactly fat, still plump enough to make Daniel feel a tiny glow of superiority. Luff wore a bicorn hat with a feather and a magenta tunic with puffed sleeves--presumably the local fashion--but there was still a touch of Xenos nasality in his speech.

    "This is Signals Officer Mundy, my aide," Daniel said as he fell into step with Luff. Adele'd followed on Daniel's other side, with Hogg and Tovera a little behind their principals. "I believe you've spoken to her already."

    Daniel glanced back to wave goodbye to the Sissie and her crew, resisting the reflex to call, "Carry on, Vesey." Vesey, blond and slight, was already in charge. She saluted but she didn't match his smile. He hadn't seen her smile since Midshipman Dorst died. A fine officer, though.

    "Yes, yes," Luff said. In a burst of sudden anger he added, "They snap their fingers on Xenos and expect everything to be done just as they say. They have no idea what it's like out here for a foreigner!"

    A good sized barge rocked on the other side of the quay; sailors waited to cast off the bow and stern lines. Luff led the Cinnabar contingent toward the glazed cabin aft; the considerable bay forward was covered with chain link fencing.

    "You're the representative of one of the most powerful families on Cinnabar," Adele said in her usual tone of cool dispassion.

    "And Cinnabar is very bloody far away!" Luff said. "Do you think Senator Manco would care if he had to replace his manager on Bennaria? I don't, and I don't imagine Councilor Waddell believes he'd care either."

    A crewman opened the cabin door. Luff gestured Daniel ahead of him but followed without waiting for Adele to enter. Tovera entered the cabin also, but Hogg stayed on deck. Leaning against a railing, he seemed every inch the amazed rube just off the farm. Hogg had gambled very profitably with people who mistook the costume for the man underneath.

    Tovera, on the other hand, looked like nothing at all: a small woman with a briefcase, colorless and completely devoid of personality or interest. The description wasn't entirely untrue: Daniel had never been quite sure whether or not Tovera had a personality. Occasionally she displayed a flash of one, but that could be an intellectual construct like her grasp of morality.

    Tovera was a very drab, very dangerous, reptile. It was a great relief--to Daniel, to Adele, and probably to the parties themselves--that she and Hogg got along well together.

    The launch pulled away from the quay with a slap of propellers and the higher-pitched vibration of electric motors. The city half a mile across the strait sprawled on the left side of the Gris River; there were only shanties on the right bank. Though the sun was still well above the western horizon, a mist blurred the landscape.

    Most of the buildings Daniel could see were low, but a number rose to six or more stories; an aircar was landing on the roof of one of the latter. Luff noticed Daniel's attention and said, "Yes, that's where we're going, Manco House. The meeting's being held there because doesn't belong to a Councilor. Not that there's any real animus, not among the families that'll be present, but Councilors Knox and Fahey at least would feel insulted to be told to meet at Waddell House."

    "What do you ordinarily carry in this barge, Master Luff?" Daniel asked. The wire netting over the hold wouldn't protect a loose cargo, grain for instance, and it was too heavy simply to retain something bulky.

    "Before Master Luff answers that," Adele interjected, her tone as thin and cutting as a snare of piano wire, "I'll remind him that slavery is against the laws of Cinnabar--"

    "Mistress!" said Luff harshly. "The Republic's laws do not apply on independent worlds!"

    "--and that the RCN enforces this prohibition on Cinnabar citizens no matter where they happen to be found at the time," Adele continued. "Now, Master Luff, you may make what answer you please to the question of Commander Leary."

    The Manco agent looked from Adele to Daniel, his face in an angry scowl. That faded to wariness when he saw the expression Daniel felt stiffening his own cheeks.

    "I'll retract the question, Adele," Daniel said. "I was naive to have asked it."



    The launch nosed into a concrete slip; its walkways were heavily fenced. The barriers wouldn't do for long-term confinement, but backed by a few armed guards they'd prevent human cargo from making a break for freedom while they were being transferred to some other form of transportation.

    Daniel looked at Luff. The agent hunched away and said to the bulkhead, "Look, you were sent here about Dunbar's World. That's all that need concern you."

    Daniel reached past him and opened the hatch, stepping onto the concrete. He didn't reply to Luff; the fellow hadn't asked a question, after all.

    Hogg was whistling a song called Lulu; he grinned and Daniel grinned back, and with the others from the cabin following they walked toward the waiting landau with Cinnabar flags fore and aft. The driver, a thin, nervous-looking man in magenta and cream, held open the door of the enclosed passenger compartment.

    "You can ride up front this time," called Tovera.

    "Who died and made you Speaker?" Hogg grumbled, but it was a good-natured comment. He walked around the front of the vehicle and slid onto the driver's open-topped bench seat.

    "Commander," Luff said in surprise, "there's a platform for servants behind the passenger saloon."

    "Right, and I'll be on it," said Tovera. She smiled at the agent, or at least the corners of her mouth curled up. She'd opened her attaché case just wide enough to stick her hand inside. It rested on the grip of her compact sub-machine gun, Daniel knew, though the pose was unobtrusive to anybody who didn't know what Tovera was.

    "My servant's eccentric, Master Luff," Daniel said, getting into the passenger compartment. There were two plush-upholstered benches within; he gestured the manager to the seat opposite him so that he and Adele would be facing forward. "He's from the country, you see."

    "Yes, I certainly do see!" said Luff, who didn't see at all. Hogg, a dumpy man in tastelessly garish clothing, grinned at Daniel through the front window; then he resumed his search of roofs and doorways for anybody who might be a danger to his master.

    The car pulled out, turning down a street leading away from the water. The building on one corner was a theater with gilt columns down both frontages. The corner opposite was a bar with what must be a bordello on the second floor; the woman lounging over the railing with a drink in her hand was probably off-duty at this early hour, but she gave Daniel an appraising look.

    "What resources does Bennaria plan to put toward aiding Dunbar's World, Master Luff?" Adele asked. She had her data unit out, though the wands were still for the time being.

    "You'll have to ask the Council," Luff said firmly. "I don't know, and if I did know I wouldn't say anything. That's the Council's business, and the Councilors don't like outsiders meddling."

    The harbor area was obviously Charlestown's entertainment district. Spacers could find it easily and locals wouldn't care. There were thirty-odd ships docked on the island, most of them of only moderate size. For a block or more from the waterfront, small bars, restaurants, and amusement arcades squeezed into the spaces between more pretentious establishments.

    Beyond that were ramshackle buildings, many of them missing windows or even doors. People sat on steps and window ledges, watching the limousine with angry expressions.

    "Sometimes they throw things," Luff muttered, looking at his feet. "They don't all know what the Cinnabar flag is, and anyway some of them don't care. I tell them in Xenos that I need an aircar, but do they listen?"

    He looked up at Daniel and said fiercely, "It wasn't always like this. Councilor Corius stirred them up! He's all right, he has an aircar, but what does he think it's like for me having to drive to the harbor to check shipments and pay suppliers?"

    "Will Councilor Corius be meeting us today?" said Daniel. He wasn't a politician himself, but Speaker Leary's son had seen this sort of gathering in the past: members of the elite meeting at an out of the way venue to determine policy.

    "Of course not!" Luff said. "Corius meet with Councilor Waddell? Absurd!"

    It wasn't absurd, but the fact Luff thought it was told Daniel that neither the Manco agent nor the political process on Bennaria was very sophisticated in Cinnabar terms. Sophisticated didn't necessarily mean subtle. The Proscriptions following the Three Circles Conspiracy hadn't been in the least subtle, but they'd brought everyone who wasn't on the list strongly out in support of what was happening lest their names be added.

    On the left was a shoulder-to-shoulder block of solidly built buildings; only a few narrow windows faced the street. Beyond them rose one of the six-story towers.

    "Are those warehouses?" Daniel asked, nodding toward the structure.

    "That?" said Luff. "That's Fahey House and the apartments of the Fahey retainers around it. There's a courtyard on the inside, of course. The Councilor's been living at his estate since the troubles started, though he's flying in for this meeting."

    Luff cleared his throat. "Look," he said, "I haven't told the Councilors, even Waddell, that you're not... that Cinnabar isn't sending a squadron. I'd like--"

    He looked at his shoes again. "I'd like you not to have told me, all right?" he said at last.

    Daniel opened his mouth to speak, but he reconsidered his words. In the tone his father would've used to an erring client, he said, "I would not expect to discuss the business of Cinnabar citizens with representatives of a distant planet, Master Luff. Especially a planet as peculiar and backward as Bennaria seems to be."

    They were approaching another of the towers that dotted Charlestown, though this one wasn't surrounded by housing for clients. A solid metal gate opened in the wall; the landau turned into the tunnel beyond.

    "Welcome to Manco House," Adele said ironically as she put away her data unit.

    The gate clanged shut behind them.

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