SOME GOLDEN HARBOR – snippet 69:
Master Nordeen's conveyance was a low-slung runabout which'd surprised Adele when his chauffeur first brought it out of the garage behind the merchant's townhouse. The vehicle was nearly silent because it ran on four hub-center motors but they were extremely powerful. The open wheels tilted on the axles, allowing the car to hold the road like molasses running down the side of a bottle.
Adele turned to her host as the chauffeur pulled up beside the Stoddard in slip West 35. The traffic passing on Harbor Drive was heavy; a large freighter was discharging a cargo of bales onto a line of lowboys, each pulled by a snorting diesel tractor.
"I didn't expect so sporting a car, Master Nordeen," she said, speaking over the noise of the tractors.
"Because I am old and feeble, I must ride in something old and feeble, mistress?" the merchant said as he got out on his side. He patted the flank of the car. "This is a whim, I admit; quite unnecessary to my needs. But at my age, there are few things that give me pleasure. I can afford my whims."
The Stoddard was slightly bow-down, enough so that the boarding ramp touched the quay on one corner instead of along the whole edge. Nordeen walked up step for step with Adele, showing no signs of discomfort. Old certainly, but not feeble….
Though the freighter's hatch was open, no one was on watch on the ramp or in the entry hold beyond. Adele frowned, wondering if she should've radioed ahead. She hadn't done so because of what was now looking like a misplaced concern over communications security.
While waiting for Master Nordeen to awake from his afternoon nap, Adele had reviewed the intercepts she'd made already. Chancellor Arruns' secret police did quite a lot of electronic eavesdropping themselves, but their own protective measures were conspicuous by their absence. If they'd shown any interest in the Stoddard, Adele would know it–so they didn't.
Tovera stepped past Adele and Nordeen, walking on the balls of her feet. Her head moved in quick jerks, searching for movement in her peripheral vision. She was looking for enemies rather than trying to rouse a friend. That was no more than to be expected from Tovera, of course, but it wasn't very helpful….
"Captain Evans!" Adele said. She walked over to the Up companionway. "Anyone? Will someone come down, please? We're here to see the crew of the Stoddard!"
"What's that?" someone called from above. "Come up to bridge level, then. We're on the bridge."
Adele glanced at Nordeen, standing impassively at her side. Putting her head into the companionway again, she shouted, "Get down here, and get down here now! Unless you want to spend the rest of your lives on this miserable excuse for a planet!"
Adele backed away and turned, drawing in deep breaths in an attempt to calm herself. She took her left hand out of her pocket. It appeared that she was closer to her personal edge than she had any reason to be. The Stoddard's crew didn't know the situation, after all.
They still needed to do their jobs promptly and without argument. Their jobs now were whatever Mundy of Chatsworth told them to do.
Adele had time to look around the compartment. Pressed-metal benches were folded against the bulkheads. She twisted the dogs to drop one with a bang. The third dog was stiff; Tovera murmured a warning and slammed it with the heel of her shoe, then backed to face the companionway down which the sound of boots echoed.
Nordeen settled onto the bench with a grateful nod. Starships didn't use elevators because the stresses of entering and leaving the Matrix warped the shafts and caused the cages to stick. Ordinarily that was of no great matter as even the largest ships were rarely more than ten decks high, with the entryways at midpoint or close to it. Master Nordeen wasn't an ordinary visitor to a starship, however.
"All right, what is this?" boomed the first man out of the companionway, a burly fellow in his fifties. His flaring beard was pepper-and-salt, but the hair on his scalp was thick and as black as a crow's wing. Two men and a woman followed. One of the men was bare-chested, scarred, and carried a short pry-bar.
"I'm Signals Officer Mundy of the RCN," Adele said crisply. She cocked an eyebrow at the bearded man. "I assume you're Captain Evans?"
The Stoddard's officers brought themselves up short. Adele wore a civilian suit whose deep green cloth showed chartreuse undertones at certain angles. The tunic and trousers weren't flashy, but they were well-made and expensive, obviously so even to the eyes of spacers who'd never shopped on the Golden Plaza in Xenos.
"Aye," muttered the man she'd directed the question to. His bluster of a moment before had vanished. The bare-chested fellow lowered the pry-bar to beside his leg, then concealed it behind him. "What do you want here?"
"Which of you are Cinnabar citizens?" Adele demanded, only answering the question indirectly. The bosun's name was Hartopp according to the crew manifest. She hadn't found pictures of the personnel, but it seemed evident that Hartopp was the bare-chested man and that the slim youth in a blue jacket was Stonewell, the mate.
"I am and Stoney is," Evans said cautiously. "Hartopp, are you?"
"My brother is," said the bosun, looking at his toes. "We're from Caprice."
Caprice was a Cinnabar protectorate, but the only citizens on the planet were immigrant bureaucrats and locals who'd done one or another kind of favor for those bureaucrats. Adele didn't care about citizenship in itself; the question was an indirect way of seeing whether any of the officers had been born on an Alliance planet, as they might very well have been.
"I'm Kostroman but I've been with the Stoddard the past three years," said the woman–the purser, Linde. From her diction, she was better educated than the others. Quite well educated, in fact. "Why are you asking, please?"
"I'll get to that shortly," Adele said. She knew that Daniel'd do this differently; he'd probably have them cheering by this point. Nevertheless Adele was better off being herself than she'd be trying to ape Daniel's style. "Is there anybody aboard the ship besides yourselves? Anybody at all?"
The officers looked at one another again. "No," said Evans. "I paid off the crew when I saw how long repairs were going to take. I'll hire a new crew when we're ready to lift."
"Look, you can't just walk aboard and ask questions," said Hartopp. "What're you doing here?"
"You know theConsular Agent, Master Nordeen, I believe," Adele said, cocking her head toward the merchant without taking her eyes off the spacers. "I asked him to accompany me so you'd know that the orders I'm going to give you have the full weight of the Republic behind them."
"Me'n Boobs talked to Nordeen right after we landed," Evans growled. If Purser Linde had a problem with being called Boobs, she concealed it behind a mask of wary silence. "He did bugger-all for us, I don't mind telling you."
"I provided my good offices in putting you in touch with repair facilities," Nordeen said calmly, his eyes focused on the infinite distance. "Under normal circumstances it is not the place of the Republic of Cinnabar nor of Bright Dragon Trading Company to pledge its credit to effect repairs on a privately owned vessel."