IN THE STORMY RED SKY – snippet 39:

CHAPTER 11: Port Hegemony, Karst

“Ma’am?” said a voice.
Adele was aware of the sound in the same way that she noticed the high-frequency flicker in one bank of the overhead lights. It was a mild irritation at the edge her consciousness, unpleasant but nothing that affected her ability to do her job.

Her job at present was to observe and record events within the audience hall where Headman Hieronymos was receiving the Cinnabar delegation. She’d decided not to alert Daniel to what she’d just learned from the Merkur’s log. His little epaulet communicator couldn’t handle real encryption, and the risk of the incoming message being intercepted by the locals and/or the Alliance mission outweighed the slight possible gain.
“Ma’am?” the voice repeated.
“Barnes, don’t bloody interrupt Officer Mundy when she’s busy!” said Cory.
The unwonted snap of anger from the diffident midshipman focused Adele on her present surroundings in a fashion that Barnes’ own voice had not. She turned and looked up at the rigger, who stood at parade rest.
Behind Barnes was an uncomfortable-looking man whom Adele didn’t recognize. The stranger wore the usual shapeless clothing common to all spacers, whether they were currently in the merchant service or naval, but there was a black armband with two red stripes on his left sleeve. That marked him as an engineer’s mate–in the Fleet.
“Ma’am?” said Barnes, his tone changing now that he really had her attention. “This is Doug Triplett. I had the squad guarding the boarding bridge. He come up to us and I called Chief Woetjans. She said I ought to bring him up to you, so that’s what I did. He’s from the Merkur, you see?”
“Yes,” said Adele, looking the fellow over. “I did see. You want to desert to us, is that it?”
She wondered if she ought to take the fellow to a private compartment. At this moment, she had to assume he was a spy pretending to desert in order to get inside the Milton. Perhaps he’d been sent to target her specifically.
Adele smiled coldly; the self-styled deserter winced. He probably wouldn’t have been reassured if he’d realized that she was thinking that it was a good thing that Tovera and Hogg both were absent, because they’d be unhappy if she ordered them not to kill the fellow. And it really shouldn’t be necessary to kill him.
“Sir,” said Triplett. He stared at his cap as he twisted it in his fingers. Whatever Barnes had told the fellow was enough to have frightened him badly; he wasn’t reacting to a junior warrant officer. “Look, I’m from the Merkur, sure, but I’m not Alliance. I was born in Xenos–”
“Where in Xenos?” Adele said, deliberately putting him off balance.
“Ma’am, Sydenham Ward, my dad worked for a ship chandler and for a couple years he owned a bar on the Strip,” Triplett said. “Ah–I enlisted on the old Charybdis, and fifteen years back I deserted. I admit it, I did, but it was because the engineer thought I was seeing too much of his daughter. He’d of killed me, arranged an accident, I know it! So I jumped ship to a Kostroman freighter.”
“And later enlisted in the Fleet?” Adele said, her voice as dry as a payroll clerk’s. Her eyes were on her display, pretending to be bored by the whole business. She was actually watching an image of Triplett’s face, though the hologram was focused only from her viewpoint.
“No sir, really that’s not so!” Triplett said. “I was engineer on a customs boat on New Horizon, the Lyn, only listed as Kostroman because, you know, I’d deserted. When Admiral Petersen landed and the Alliance took over, all of us with ratings got transferred to the Fleet–being told, not asked.”
He made a face as though he’d swallowed something bitter. “The ships’re all right, I grant you that,” he said. “The Merkur’s brand new and a lot roomier than I’d figured for a destroyer, but the crews, they’re crap! Swept outa the slums half of ’em, not spacers at all. I could see why they grabbed up ratings like they did.”
“Woetjans thought that, you know…,” said Barnes. “If you said something to Six, ma’am, maybe he could square things about Triplett being a deserter, you know?”
I think I can do a great deal better myself, Adele thought, by listing him as an intelligence agent. If I choose to do so….
Aloud she said, “What was your name in RCN service, Triplett?”
“Rooksby, sir,” the man said. He’d stopped wringing his hat and his expression was one of worshipful pleading. “Paul Alan Rooksby, enlisted in ’92 and jumped ship in ’95, the night before the Charybdis was due to lift from Harbor Three.”
Adele already had full personnel records from Navy House up on her display. They weren’t classified, exactly, but the Milton was probably the only ship in the RCN which had a set of them. If it came to that, Adele was probably the only signals officer in the RCN who was capable of using them to advantage–as now.
“Sir, I’ll take my knocks for running, I did it sure enough,” Triplett said desperately toward his cap. “But I won’t fight the RCN, I’ll die first if that’s what it is.”
Adele looked up at him directly. He was stocky and muscular; the scars she could see–he was missing the little finger of his left hand–and the black grit worked deep into the skin of his callused hands proved he was a real Power Room technician, not a Fifth Bureau agent pretending to be one.
In theory he could still be a spy, one recruited on the spot by Captain Greathouse. The likelihood that anybody found locally would be so good–Triplett’s speech patterns still had touches of Sydenham, the district to the west of Harbor Three–was much slighter than that the man was exactly what he claimed: a deserter who wanted to come home.
And even if Triplett were a spy, he’d be willing to offer real information at this stage to win Adele’s trust. She could use some information, so… “You mentioned that the Alliance has taken over New Harmony, Triplett,” she said. “How did that come about?”
“Well, ah…,” Triplett said. “The way I heard the story–from the engineer of the Rasp that was on orbit duty when it all happened, you see?”
“Yes,” said Adele. She noticed that the bridge had become crowded. Woetjans and Hogg had arrived from the boat hold, which meant they must have started up the companionways as soon as Barnes had called the bosun to ask about Triplett. Blantyre had entered with the new midshipmen–Else, Barrett, and Fink.
Besides those officers, the A Level corridor was packed with regular crewmen who hadn’t dared enter the bridge but who wanted to hear about the disaster in the Montserrat Stars. If there was bad news going around, spacers liked to learn it as soon as possible. It gave them a better chance to get clear.
Rene Cazelet hadn’t left the BDC, nor had Cory risen from his seat. Both men were watching the interrogation through the signals console. If Adele for some reason blocked their access, they’d switch to the command console for almost as good a vantage point.
She smiled, faintly but with pleasure. She’d trained them well.