Though Hell Should Bar The Way – Snippet 21


The captain and I went from the companionway to the bridge: he to his console, me to stand at parade rest in front of Officer Mundy. She sat as usual with her back to the flat-plate display and her attention on the data unit in her lap.

Tovera watched me from the jump seat beside her mistress. I was reading amusement into Tovera’s expression, but I knew that was me. I wasn’t sure that Mundy’s servant had feelings.

“Officer Mundy,” I said. “To prepare for my escort duties, I would like to see pictures of the members of the Councillor’s court whom I may be meeting. Can you provide me with such imagery?”

“Yes,” said Mundy. I hadn’t been sure she was listening to me, but as an afterthought she looked up at me. “Would you like dossiers on them as well?”

“Ah, yes, very much,” I said. “That would be…”

“Take the striker’s position,” Mundy said. Her hands did something with the control wands. “Hogg has no reason to be there.”

Her eyes lifted and held mine for a moment. “From your performance before Director Jimenez,” she said, “I’m surprised that you didn’t continue with the foreign ministry. You would seem to have a natural aptitude for the work.”

I swallowed. Captain Leary hadn’t said anything to her; we’d returned to the bridge together. Mundy must have eavesdropping apparatus in the passenger lounge…and very possibly in every other compartment in the Sunray. I thought of Enery’s concern to keep our conversation private.

I smiled. I didn’t think I’d said anything I shouldn’t have, but there wasn’t much I could do about it now anyway. Aloud I said, “Officer Mundy, I left shortly after telling Director Kwalit that if he didn’t take his hand off my thigh, I was going to rip it off and return it through his arsehole. I don’t think diplomacy is really one of my strengths.”

“I see,” Mundy said. Her eyes returned to her holographic display. “Perhaps you’re correct, then.”

“Ma’am,” I said. “I could be more helpful if I knew what I was really supposed to be doing.”

I suppose the tiny movement of Mundy’s lips was a smile. She looked at me again. She appeared to be a middle-aged woman without any distinguishing features, but every atom of her being was precise. She reminded me of a chronometer; or a target pistol.

“What you’re supposed to do, Olfetrie…” she said. “Is to be yourself. To behave as you would normally behave. That’s all.”

I wanted to shout, “I don’t understand!” which would have been just as pointless as it was true. Instead I nodded and said, “Thank you, Officer Mundy,” and took the saddle at the back of the console. Hogg had moved to an open seat across the bridge from Tovera.

The data Mundy had offered waited for me as a glowing icon on the striker’s display. I began sifting through it. There were about forty personnel all told, including members of the Saguntine government, the members of the bureaucracy who would be negotiating with our passengers, prominent business people — and to my surprise, members of the Karst Observation Mission to Saguntum.

I should have expected that. I knew that though Saguntum was independent in most realms, her foreign policy was wholly under the control of Karst.

The chief executive of Saguntum was called the Councillor. He was elected for life from the Board of Advisors, of whom he had to be a male member. The Councillor for the past fifteen years was Israel Perez; he’d succeeded his uncle, and before that the Councillor had been his grandfather. Israel was forty, intellectual looking, and had a receding forehead. There was nothing surprising about any of that.

The surprise came with the second person, Colonel Eugene Foliot, the Director of Public Safety. Foliot’s picture showed a man of over fifty, clean shaven and hard. He wore a civilian suit of thin blue stripes, but he’d have looked more at home in uniform.

Before coming to Saguntum fifteen years ago and allying himself with the new Councillor Perez, Foliot had been Chief of the Governing Board — ruler — of Garofolo. He left Garofolo after a coup.

“Officer Mundy,” I said, opening a link to her position, “this is Olfetrie. I have a question about the information you sent me, over.”

“Go ahead, Olfetrie,” Mundy said through the console. “You want to know why Perez trusts Foliot, I suppose?”

She didn’t close the statement, but I could see that she’d stopped talking. I said, “Well, yes, ma’am. Why anybody would trust Foliot, I guess. If he was ousted by a coup himself, surely it’d be natural for him to at least consider returning power the same way.”

“Quite reasonable, granting the initial premise,” Mundy said. “Which is incorrect. Foliot wasn’t ousted by his chancellor’s coup. He survived the bomb explosion which killed his wife, and he carried out a purge of the plotters with a thoroughness that Speaker Leary would have approved. It’s reported that he personally executed several of the leading plotters — and also the technician who placed the bomb. Foliot was quite attached to his wife.”

If I hadn’t made a point of keeping my mouth closed, I’d have been gaping. When I decided that Mundy had finished speaking, I said, “Ma’am, if he’d won, why did Foliot leave Garofolo? Was he afraid there’d be another coup?”

Mundy shrugged where she sat, though she didn’t look up at me. “You’ll have to ask him yourself when you see him,” she said. “If I were speculating, I would suspect that he felt uncomfortable about doing what he felt necessary after the coup he’d survived.”

Suddenly she did look at me. “There’s no evidence that Speaker Leary regretted his similar actions, however.”

“I see,” I said. “Thank you, Officer Mundy. Olfetrie out.”

There was more to what Mundy had said than was in her words, but I didn’t know what it was. She had to be referring to the Three Circles Conspiracy, but that had taken place before I was born.

I could look it up on the console’s database, but I might as well ask Mundy directly since certainly she would learn about any search I made on the Sunray. It sounded like a minefield, and it seemed a much better idea for me to leave it alone.

I resumed reading about the Saguntine government.

* * *

“Saguntum Orbital Control, we are preparing to land,” Cory announced. Orbital Control was a tug with no interstellar capacity and additional sensors and communications gear added. “Break. Ship, prepare for landing. Braking for landing…now!”

Cory slammed the High Drive on hard. I had an image of Jacquerie Harbor set at the center bottom of my display. It began to swell, though that was a computer effect in between samples of real imagery from the sensors when the orbit permitted it.

I was in the stern station, seated at the flat-plate display alongside Lieutenant Enery. My hand was poised over the switch that would return our landing to computer control if Cory and Enery were simultaneously struck dead. Even a disaster of vanishingly small likelihood wasn’t going to make me capable of a manual landing in crisis conditions.

For several seconds the thrusters added their braking effort to that of the High Drives. Then the High Drive buzzing vanished and even the roar of the thrusters became lost in the shaking and rattling of the atmospheric buffeting as the Sunray plunged deeper toward the surface.

Beside me, Enery had her fingers on the virtual throttles at the base of her display. She was prepared to take over manually if something happened to Cory. I’d seen how skillful she was when she landed on Hansen’s World so I didn’t doubt that she could do it…and yet, and yet —

It was just a form of bragging. There was no point in it, and no point in Cory choosing to make a manual landing to begin with. There were circumstances where a manual landing was a good idea — when the landing had to be made on a hard surface, a skilled human could ease the ship in more gently than a computer would when billowing steam didn’t swaddle the hull in the final approach. Jacquerie had a well-appointed harbor, and at present it wasn’t even crowded.

Maybe Cory felt that practice made perfect. More likely, he was bragging — and Enery was ready to play the same game.

And why had I decided to join the RCN? Sure, now it was a job with a real chance of advancement, but at the time I decided to enter the Academy I was the son of a wealthy entrepreneur who moved at the highest levels of the Republic. I could have spent my life in study and leisure activities — or in drunken debauchery, like the sons of most of Dad’s intimates.

Cory brought the Sunray into balance with gravity at two hundred feet, then eased her to the surface. For a moment I thought we were drifting; then I realized that Cory had hovered us to the mouth of the slip and was slanting us in bow foremost. As the thruster exhaust licked the harbor, steam shrouded the Sunray and hid our surroundings in the optical range. I manually switched to active imaging — microwave — as we slid neatly into our berth. It had been a lovely piece of work.

The thrusters shut down, though the slap of water between the walls of the slip continued to buffet us as the environment cooled.

I took my fingers from the controls and let out a deep breath. I was where I wanted to be.

If choosing to be a member of the RCN was a form of bragging, so be it. It was something worth bragging about.