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The Far Side of the Stars: Chapter Six

       Last updated: Friday, July 11, 2003 22:29 EDT



    A dozen spacers from the Princess Cecile and the civilians of both sexes attached to them shared the tramcar with Adele and Daniel as it slowed to the siding at Harbor One. She frowned again at her civilian clothes and said in a quietly tart voice in Daniel's ear, "I really could have worn my dress uniform too, you know!"

    Daniel looked down at his own resplendent Whites. Instead of medal ribbons, he was wearing the awards themselves. That meant a startling amount of glitter--in particular the Order of Strymon in Diamonds, an aiguillette of gold and silver cords fastened at his breast and epaulette with clasps whose stones were the size of a child's teeth.

    "Oh, that's not called for," he said in a tone of mild satisfaction. "I'd never look like this at a real RCN affair, but to impress civilians--and civilians from Novy Sverdlovsk besides--I thought it was the thing."

    He met her eyes; his smile had just the least professional crispness. "That's my job," he added. "You'll want to stay inconspicuous, I believe."

    The tram rocked to a halt. Without thinking about it, Daniel stepped through the mass of spacers standing closer to the door; they were squeezing against the sides to let the officers by. Adele followed, realizing wryly that she was the only person on the car who didn't take it for granted that the captain and signals officer would get out first. Her parents would have understood perfectly--not that they'd ever have ridden in a public conveyance--but Adele herself had lived in poverty for long enough to have lost the instincts of privilege.

    Two more cars pulled up behind the one they'd ridden. Both were full of spacers and the same assortment of civilians as the ones who'd accompanied Daniel and Adele. The remainder of the Princess Cecile's crew already stood in four loose ranks on the quay in front of the corvette.

    An officer in grays was seated behind a portable table with an enlisted clerk, flanked by a pair of Shore Police with sub-machine guns. The pay chest, still locked, waited on the table.

    "Daniel, the civilians?" Adele whispered.

    "Some are wives," Daniel murmured in her ear. "Well, spouses. The others are crimps or their agents, making sure that their advances are covered before the rest of the pay is drunk up. If there's any remaining, of course."

    Lt. Mon, wearing his dress uniform like Daniel, stood at a little distance from both the paymaster and the crew. He brightened noticeably when he saw Daniel approaching, but he still looked haggard.

    "Mr. Mon, might I have a word with you please?" Daniel called. In an aside he added, "This concerns you in a way also, Adele, so I'd appreciate it if you joined us."

    Mon threw a glance over his shoulder, then came toward them at a quickstep; the newly-arrived spacers passed him in the opposite direction to fall in with their fellows.

    Adele judged Mon had been looking at the strangers who were watching from the open hatches of the Princess Cecile's bridge, forward on A Deck--the uppermost of the corvette's four levels. Several wore RCN uniforms, but two were civilians. The woman was dressed in a medley of garish colors; the man's black-and-white suit was cut to slant toward his left shoulder, making him look as though he were about to fall over.

    "The Klimovs are aboard with the dockyard representative and a survey party from the Navy Office," Mon muttered, making explicit what Adele had already assumed. He wrung Daniel's hand. "Sir, I... I'd be very grateful for anything you can bring yourself to say to the crew."

    "Before I address the crew, Mon...," Daniel said. "I have a proposition for you."

    It seemed to Adele that he was being unusually formal with his old shipmate. Daniel hadn't been the sort of captain who maintained a psychic distance between himself and those whom he commanded.

    "Sir?" said Mon, straightening instinctively. His expression was too blank to be described as puzzled.

    "You may know that I've become heir to my uncle's controlling interest in Bergen and Associates," Daniel continued with the same smooth formality. "I'll need a yard manager, as I myself will be off-planet much of the time even if the present state of peace lasts. Which is unlikely unless the Almighty shows Guarantor Porra the path of righteousness before the RCN has to do it again."

    His smile was that of a senior taking a junior into his confidence to the extent of a mild joke. Adele marveled strait-faced to watch her friend become a kindlier version of his own father. At this moment the two lieutenants had ceased to be fellow officers: they were patron and client, and she saw exactly where the interview--it wasn't a discussion--was going.

    "I want you for my yard manager, Mon," Daniel said. "I can't tell you precisely what the conditions of employment will be--I made a brief call to my sister Deirdre this morning and she's working out the details--but there'll be profit participation. I told her to set the percentages so that the manager is initially paid at the level of a full commander. If the yard flourishes, so of course will the manager. Uncle Stacey wasn't healthy enough for the past several years to keep things going at their best."

    "Good God, captain," Mon said. "Good God!"

    "Will you accept, Mon?" Daniel said, raising his eyebrows. "I can't think of a man I'd rather have in the position."

    "Sir," Mon said. He stepped forward and wrung Daniel's hand hard. "Oh, bless you, sir, I.... You won't regret this, I swear!"

    He sobered and started to look over his shoulder, then caught himself. "Ah, what about the Klimovs, sir?" he said quietly. "I haven't signed the articles, I couldn't until the ship passed to their ownership, of course. But they're expecting me, you know, to...."

    Daniel clapped Mon on the shoulder. "Well, Mon," he said, "the RCN has always stood by its commitments. But while the crew is being paid, why don't you introduce me to the Count and his wife? Since you're taking a knotty problem off my shoulders, it's only right that I should solve a relatively minor one for you."



    There were seven people already on the bridge. Daniel ducked through the hatch and stepped aside so that Mon could enter to introduce him. The quarters weren't exactly cramped, but when Daniel stood in this familiar space he was always mentally prepared to control a warship... which would be very difficult with so many supernumeraries crowding him.

    The RCN personnel were a yard superintendent named Blaisdell with the rank of Lt. Commander--a red-faced man whom Daniel knew slightly; he was indifferently competent and must by now have given up all hope of promotion before he was forcibly retired--and four nattily-uniformed personnel from the Navy Office: a commander, two lieutenants (Daniel had expected one), and a senior clerk with warrant officer's pips. All were strangers to him.

    In addition there were the two civilians, a trim little man with a moustache and square-cut beard, both gray-speckled, and a tall woman who'd looked like a walking jumble sale when Daniel'd glimpsed her from the quay. Close up he could see that the swatches of bright-colored fabric had been donned with care and taste--albeit flamboyant taste. She'd fit in well with the spacers on the quay in their shore-going costumes and the civilians who'd battened onto them in more-or-less formal arrangements.

    "Count Klimov," said Mon, commencing the series of presentations, "allow me to present my colleague and former commanding officer, Lt. Daniel Leary."

    Klimov extended his right hand, palm down. Daniel wondered if the fellow expected him to kiss it. If so, he was due for a disappointment....

    Daniel touched fingertips with the Count, saying, "Your highness, it's a pleasure to meet you. Mon and the crewmen I've spoken with describe you and your wife as gracious companions on the voyage from Strymon."

    "And we've been hearing about you from Lt. Wilsing and the others," said the strikingly-dressed woman. "The Hero of Kostroma and the Hero of Strymon. And so young and handsome!"

    She embraced Daniel, offering her cheek imperiously. Daniel gave her the peck she demanded and disengaged herself. Valentina Klimovna was younger than her husband but not young. To be sure, she was attractive enough to provide real competition for some of the professionals watching the pay parade.

    Wilsing--the male lieutenant--nodded minusculely at the mention of his name. The fellow was still a total stranger to Daniel.

    "Civilians are impressed by the sweep and color of battle, of course," Wilsing said, offering his hand. "Though it's your skill as an astrogator that particularly impresses me, Leary. An honor to meet you at last."

    Daniel shook the man's hand, feeling a trifle dazed. Part of his mind was trying to remember sweep and color in any of the battles he'd participated in. All his memories of battle seemed to be in black and white, dots on a Plot Position Indicator and people without faces running across landscapes whose features remained schematic while the action was going on. There'd never been time for anything else.

    "Mr. Wilsing...," Daniel said, returning the fellow's firm handshake. He had a reputation in the RCN, he knew that well, but the most common effect of it on his peers--his rivals for promotion--was grudging respect when it wasn't unconcealed envy. This was the sort of fulsome praise an ignorant civilian would offer.

    Daniel faced the commander--his name tape read QUERIMAN--and saluted as crisply as he could manage. It wouldn't have done for an admiral's aide, but drill and ceremony had never been Daniel's strong suit. "Sir!" he said sharply.

    The commander nodded, waving a negligent hand in an informally sufficient acknowledgement of the salute. "Pleased to meet the ship's commander, Lieutenant," he said. "For a foreign-built corvette, you managed to keep her in respectable order."

    Daniel gave Queriman a professional smile. The Sissie had faced an Alliance battleship at pistol range, so she wasn't going to be hurt by casual insults from a bureaucrat in uniform. Biting off the several further comments that crossed his mind, he said, "I'm pleased that you think so, sir."

    The Klimovna tugged her husband against the bulkhead between the gunnery and signals consoles. They whispered to one another in rapid, husky voices--in some language other than Universal as best Daniel could tell, though he was deliberately trying not to overhear.

    He glanced out the open service hatch, wide enough to pass a navigation console. Adele was sitting beside Woetjans as the line of spacers wound its way past the paymaster to fall into new ranks on the other side. When the whole crew had been paid, Mon as their acting captain would dismiss them from the RCN in accordance with his orders from the Navy Office.

    "Count Klimov?" Queriman said with a touch of asperity. "I believe if you're ready, we can proceed now with the sale of the vessel. That's correct, isn't it, Blaisdell?"

    "Yessir, it surely is," the dockyard representative said. "Nothing for me to do but sign the forms. The sale's as-is, no warranties whatever."

    "I will be with you shortly, gentlemen," the Count said sharply. As if he was talking to a servant, Daniel thought, and then suppressed a smile. No, if Queriman was a servant, the Count would've backhanded him instead of speaking.

    "Lt. Leary," Klimov continued, "join my wife and me in private, if you will. The room next door--"

    The captain's watch cabin.

    "--will do."

    The Klimovs stepped off the bridge, obviously expecting Daniel to follow them; which of course he did. Matters were developing even better than he'd hoped they would.

    The watch cabin was little more than a fold-down bunk which doubled as a desk when reversed, and a chair which could be cantilevered from the opposite side. The flat-plate communicator above the stowed bunk could access the navigational system, but the exiguous display meant the captain would use it only for cursory checks on the officer with the conn. Some captains would've curtained off the head beside the hatch--the ship's plumbing ran through the interior bulkheads--but the same bare functionality as the crew facilities sufficed for Daniel.

    A prison cell on a civilized planet would generally have more room and amenities, but the symbolism thrilled Daniel every time he entered it. It was the captain's watch cabin, after all.

    "Lt. Leary?" Klimov said before Daniel had closed the hatch behind them; he didn't latch it, but the appearance of privacy was important to Daniel if not the civilians. "The war with the Alliance is over, so many naval officers will be released with only a pittance, is that not true?"

    "Yes, though of course as citizens we can only be thankful that our Republic is at peace," Daniel said sententiously. He wouldn't lie to these foreigners, but everyone would benefit if they were allowed to continue in the misapprehensions with which they'd started.

    "We will pay you forty florins a week in Cinnabar money to captain the Princess Cecile for us to the North!" Valentina said with a theatrical gesture. It would've looked better in larger quarters; here her rings clacked the bulkhead, chipping paint. Undeterred she continued, "Lt. Wilsing says a lieutenant like you on half pay would get only fifteen florins, that is correct?"

    "Yes it is," Daniel agreed, wondering why a functionary from the Navy Office would be at such pains to praise him to the Klimovs and at the same time convince the Klimovs that he would be available to captain the Sissie as a civilian. The answer of course was that a functionary from the Navy Office wouldn't; therefore Wilsing's real duties lay somewhere else. "Of course money isn't the only matter that would concern me should I consider your offer."

    "More money, then!" Klimovna said, glaring at her husband. "Georgi, I told you were a fool! Captain Dannie, fifty florins a week!"

    She doesn't listen very well, Daniel thought with a faint smile. Of course that wasn't a problem limited to women or to civilians, either one.

    Aloud he continued, "Count and Countess, let me ask you a question: were you satisfied with the ship and her crew on your voyage from the Strymon system?"

    "Yes of course," Klimov said, exchanging puzzled expressions with his wife. "That is why we wish to buy her, don't you see?"

    "Ah, but you're buying only the ship," Daniel explained. "You need a crew as well--and I'll tell you frankly, without a crew as good as this one the voyage you contemplate will at best be very unpleasant."

    "So hire this crew," said Klimovna, shrugging expressively. "Where is the problem? Hire whoever you want--you are the captain."

    "The only way I believe I can hire these spacers or others of their experience," Daniel said, "is if they come as my retainers. That is, you and the Count contract with me for the Sissie's full wage bill, and I undertake to pay the crew out of that amount. A director of the Merchants and Shippers bank--"

    He'd almost said 'Deirdre'. It wouldn't have been a disaster, but formality was still the better policy here.

    "--is working up a detailed contract now; I don't have the precise figures."

    Count Klimov guffawed with delight. He turned to his wife and said, "You see what the sly dog is doing? We pay him, and he pays the serfs--what he pleases!"

    "You have the principle correct," Daniel said through a fixed smile. "Though Cinnabar spacers are not serfs."

    Still smiling but enunciating with care he continued, "I asked you if you were satisfied during your voyage from the Strymon system. This new endeavor will be on the same terms. That is, the control and discipline of the crew will be entirely in the hands of me as captain. You will give me orders, and I will command the ship."

    "What difference does it make?" said the Count.

    His wife looked at Daniel with unexpected shrewdness. "Your lords of the navy make you captain on those terms," she said. "You've served them well, it seems. Georgi and I will trust you as far as they, I think."

    Daniel nodded politely. "Then there's only one matter left to clear up before I accept your offer," he said. "I'll ask my colleague Lt. Mon to relinquish his prior right to the position. I believe he'll be willing to do so."

    He set his hand on the hatch's bar handle.

    "There is no need!" said Klimov. "Nothing was signed, nothing at all!"

    "Perhaps not," said Daniel, his tone courteous to a fault. "But RCN officers are punctilious about their honor... and so are the Learys of Bantry. I hope you'll keep that in mind, because I'm looking forward to congenial relations with you during our voyage."

    He cleared his throat and smiled broadly. "I believe we're ready for you to conduct your business with the Navy Office. While you're doing that, I'll address what I hope will be our crew," he said. "Yes?"

    "Yes, yes of course," said the Count with a dismissive gesture.

    "Yes," said Klimovna. "Very congenial."



    Adele sat on a forty-gallon drum on the quay beside the Princess Cecile. The container was still part full from the way it sloshed when she shifted her weight, but she had no idea with what. Her data unit was on the similar drum in front of her, so she'd adjusted it to project its holographic display higher than she'd normally have done. Nothing that she needed to attend was happening on the dock, so she'd resumed winnowing data regarding Radiance and the Commonwealth of God more generally.

    Calling the Commonwealth a government was stretching the point. The Chief Elder was the titular head of a polity of over a hundred stars, but he answered to a Council of Seventy--and the fleets, numbering anything from three to a dozen depending on politics, were semi-autonomous and elected their own admirals.

    "Mistress," Woetjans said. Adele heard the bosun speak and filed the fact to be dealt with as soon as she'd shut down the volume of the Shipping Instructions she was reviewing.

    Factions within the Commonwealth elite were at daggers-drawn--literally, often enough. If the Alliance navy was willing to expend its resources at such a distance from its nearest existing bases, it could easily find powerful backers on Radiance.

    A group claiming that human beings could breathe water could find backers on Radiance; all it would take was spreading a little money around. The Commonwealth was a bizarre assemblage that seemed to cling together only because its parts couldn't even agree to separate.

    "Mistress?" Woetjans repeated. The bosun touched Adele's shoulder. Adele's left hand dropped into her tunic pocket. Her eyes were blank and her mind was awash with blazing terror, the hormonal rush that short-circuited thought by screaming "Run or kill!" to the lizard brain.

    "The captain's about to speak, mistress," Woetjans whispered. If she'd noticed Adele's hand starting to come out of her pocket holding the little pistol, she was too polite to mention it.

    "Thank you, Woetjans," Adele said, her voice trembling. She got off the drum to pick up the wand she'd dropped. With it again in her hand, she shut down the data unit as Daniel faced the crew in the light of the sun edging over the corvette behind him.

    "Well, shipmates, it's been a long time since I've seen you all together," he said, his cheerful voice booming. "In a moment Lt. Mon will give you your discharges, but he's allowed me to say a few words to you first."

    Daniel stretched his left arm back, pointing toward the Princess Cecile without taking his eyes off the ranks of spacers. The midshipmen and warrant officers, all but Adele herself and Woetjans--who'd apparently appointed herself to look after the signals officer--stood at the left end of the common crewmen.

    "You all know the Sissie's being sold out of service," he said. "What you haven't known till now is that I'm leaving the RCN to become her captain. The Klimovs, the passengers who came from Strymon with you, have hired me to take them to the Galactic North aboard what was the finest corvette in the RCN!"

    "Holy God and Her Saints!" Woetjans bellowed. The whole crew was either chattering or standing open-mouthed, a matter of how different temperaments reacted to amazement.

    Dorst and Vesey were embracing. They couldn't afford 1st Class uniforms--neither had family money--but their Grays sported more medal ribbons than most officers several ranks their senior could claim.

    "What about Lt. Mon?" Sun called, his voice echoing from the corvette's flank with a metallic harshness that was probably unmeant. "We heard he was going to be captain!"

    "Mr. Mon has agreed to manage my late Uncle Stacey's shipyard," Daniel said, adjusting his volume as the crew fell silent as he resumed speaking. "He'll be hiring in the near future, I shouldn't wonder, and any of you who fancy staying on solid ground for a time might look him up. But for the rest of you...."

    Adele smiled. She could've broadcast the speech through the Sissie's public address system, but Daniel obviously hadn't felt he needed mechanical support; and he'd been right, as he generally was with anything to do with ships or spacers.

    He put his hands on his hips and leaned his torso back slightly, giving the assembled spacers a huge grin. "You'd have to be crazy to come with me!" he said. "You may think some foreign civilian would let you slack off, but think again! The Sissie's crew won't be working for Count Klimov, they'll be signing on with me personally, Daniel Leary. They'll be under RCN discipline same as if the Sissie were in commission."

    The murmuring of the listening spacers built again like sudden surf.

    "We'll be lifting with a full crew," Daniel resumed after a pause to let the more clever spacers explain what he'd just said to their denser fellows. "We'll be carrying missiles, though not a full magazine, and we'll have expended some of them before we come back or I badly misjudge the North."

    Adele realized suddenly that her friend was addressing not only the Cinnabar citizens in front of him but also the Klimovs watching from the bridge hatch above. He was being carefully circumspect in the words he used--

    Which didn't prevent Koechler from shouting to his fellow riggers Barnes and Dasi, "No, you ninnies, we won't be working for wogs, we'll be working for Mr. Leary!" in a voice loud enough to be heard on the street outside the compound.

    "We won't be at war," Daniel went on, "but going among those cut-throats and pirates in the North will be as dangerous as war. Maybe worse!"

    "We've seen pirates, sir!" Sun cried. "Seen 'em and seen 'em off, haven't we, spacers!"

    "You know we bloody have!" Woetjans roared and the whole crew took up the shout.

    "You'll be paid an honest spacer's wage and a little more," said Daniel, "because you're working for the Learys of Bantry now! But there'll be long watches and no loot. I'll be conning us according to my Uncle Stacey's logs, and I'll tell you God's truth that there'll be hard runs. I wouldn't trust any other ship and crew than the Princess Cecile and her Sissie to make them."

    "If anybody else could do it, then you can do it blindfolded, sir!" Dorst cried.

    For a half-heartbeat Adele wondered if Daniel had instructed a claque before he spoke... but he surely hadn't. The corvette's crew was speaking its collective mind, and it was with its former captain, body and soul.

    "Let me give you a warning," Daniel continued, as though he weren't noticing the chorus of cheers. "Some of you men'll 've heard that dancing girls in the Commonwealth have their cunts crosswise so they get tighter when they spread their legs. I don't believe it!"

    He paused again, then thundered through the laughter, "Though I feel it's my duty to science and the Republic to investigate the matter fully!"

    And what do the Klimovs think of that? Adele thought, smiling faintly again. She didn't recall hearing that the culture of Novy Sverdlovsk was notably prudish, however. Even if it were the Klimovs could realize from the delighted hilarity that most of the assembled spacers would follow Daniel Leary into the jaws of Hell, let alone to the Galactic North.

    Daniel would doubtless be investigating dancing girls and an assortment of other women. So long as they were young enough and pretty enough and bubble-headed enough to meet his standards.

    Adele had started to pull out her data unit again, to check on the sexual mores of Novy Sverdlovsk. She slipped it back into its pocket and crossed her hands firmly in her lap... though she doubted that at this moment she could draw the attention of the Sissie's crew away from Daniel even if she took off her clothes and danced on the barrel.

    "I expect we'll lift from Cinnabar in seven days time," Daniel said. "For the next forty-eight hours, any spacer who served under me on the Princess Cecile in the past has a guaranteed berth on her. After that I may start filling places with folk I don't know and trust so well."

    "By God, I'll sign the articles right now!" Barnes said. "Dasi and me both! Where's the book, captain?"

    The formation started to break up as spacers edged forward. Adele stepped from the barrel; in a moment, there was likely to be a rush that shoved Daniel off the quay into the filthy water of the pool on which the Princess Cecile floated.

    "Fellow spacers!" he shouted, holding his arms straight up in the air for attention. The crowd quieted.

    "In a moment," Daniel continued, "I'll go back onto the Sissie's bridge There I'll sign aboard every soul of you who wants to join me. But before I do that--"

    He raised his arms again. "No, wait!" he said. "Hear me out!"

    The crowd quieted again. "Fellow spacers," Daniel said. "I've joked with you this morning, but I say this in all truth, the truth I owe you as my shipmates in hard places. The voyage I intend will be a hard one and dangerous. When we return, if we return, we'll have nothing to show for it but the memory of a job well done. That is all I promise you."

    "They'll have the right to say to the whole world," Adele shouted, surprising no one more than herself, "that they were with Captain Leary in the North. Every real spacer who hears that will envy us--and they'll envy the money we come back with!"

    This time Daniel couldn't have silenced the cheers if he'd wanted to. Instead he turned grinning and walked up the catwalk into the Princess Cecile. The crew, all but a handful, jostled to follow him to the bridge and the muster book.

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