What Distant Deeps — Snippet 20

CHAPTER 7: Raphael Harbor on Stahl’s World

Daniel lengthened his stride. A commander wearing Whites had gotten out of the aircar. Instead of waiting, he marched down the quay to the base of the cantilevered bridge which had been swung out to meet the Sissie’s boarding ramp. There he chatted with the riggers under Woetjans who were lashing the free end to bitts on the ramp.

“Do you want an escort today, Six?” the bosun asked as Daniel approached.

“In case I have to shoot my way out of the party, Woetjans?” he answered with a grin. “Thank you, but I hope that won’t be necessary.”

“Aw, not that, Six,” Woetjans said. She obviously wasn’t sure whether Daniel really believed that was what she’d had in mind. “Just to show you’re important.”

“Carry on, bosun,” Daniel said, hoping that Woetjans didn’t understand his smile. To base personnel, let alone civilians, twenty Sissies with their weapons of choice would be seen as ragged tramps — an embarrassment rather than an honor. Only people who had been in hard places themselves could understand what it meant to have a crew like that at your back.

The commander started down the bridge. It was wide enough for even three to walk abreast, but his steps and Daniel’s made the tubular frame flex awkwardly.

If I’d had my choice, I’d just as soon we’d met on the concrete, Daniel thought. But then, if he’d had his choice, he wouldn’t be rigged out like this to meet what passed for the Great and Good of the Qaboosh Region.

He grinned. The son of a Cinnabar senator knew who counted in this universe. It wasn’t anybody he’d be meeting today.

“Captain Leary?” the commander called. “I’m Milch, and I’m honored to meet you. Or — should I have saluted? Bloody hell, Leary, I apologize! We don’t stand much on ceremony out here, you know.”

Milch was a little taller than Daniel and a little plumper, but he looked both alert and friendly. Sometimes the officers you found in posts like this were people who for one reason or another — booze was a frequent one — couldn’t be trusted anywhere they might actually have to do the job of an RCN officer.

“I don’t stand much on ceremony either, Commander,” Daniel said, “because I’m so bloody poor at it. Even when I’m not wearing this clown suit –”

He flicked the sash again with a grimace.

“– for which I apologize, but I understood it was the admiral’s orders that I wear foreign decorations.”

“Oh, don’t apologize, Leary,” said Milch as they walked back alongside one another toward the car. “You’re quite a coup for us. The Palmyrenes have been making all the running at this Assembly, but you’ve just given Admiral Mainwaring a way to top the Autocrator. The only thing better would be if you’d come in a bloody great battleship instead of a corvette.”

“I think a battleship would rather defeat the intention of delivering the new Commissioner to Zenobia in a quiet and courteous fashion, Commander,” Daniel said dryly. “Though I’m surprised that Palmyra is, well, so important. I had the impression that it was merely a regional power, and the Qaboosh Region isn’t — you’ll forgive me?”

Milch chuckled and said, “Isn’t worth mentioning in the same sentence as, oh –”

He gestured to the aigrette on Daniel’s left shoulder, the Order of Strymon.

“– Strymon, you mean? Or Kostroma? Well, you’d be right — but the people here, in the region, don’t know that. The Qaboosh is so far from Cinnabar — or Pleasaunce — that the Autocrator gets taken at her own valuation because nobody knows any better. Including her.”

Daniel found the quay a subconscious relief because it didn’t spring up and down in response to the commander’s forceful strides. A starship under way vibrates on many simultaneous frequencies, but one whose hull actually bounces is in very serious trouble indeed.

“But surely one heavy cruiser, even out here . . . ,” he said. “And a local crew, I assume?”

Milch didn’t bridle, exactly, but there was a slight sharpness in his tone as he said, “Local crew except for specialists, yes, by and large. And you won’t find better spacers than the Palmyrenes, Captain. As for the Piri Reis, that’s the cruiser, she’s enough to handle everything else in the region, ours or the Alliance’s. But it’s the cutters that make Palmyra important. I’ll show you when we get aloft. Simmons?”

“Sir?” replied the driver, opening the car’s middle door for the officers. Milch gestured Daniel to a front-facing seat of the middle pairs, then took the one opposite him as the driver got in.

“Take us up to a hundred feet and circle the Civil basin clockwise instead of going straight to the Palmyrene do,” Milch said. To Daniel he went on, “Palmyra was independent for five hundred years following the Hiatus, but Pleasaunce took over in the First Expansion and held the planet till the Consolidation Wars. It was their regional HQ.”

The driver had left his fans idling at zero incidence while waiting instead of shutting down. That allowed him to lift off as soon as he got in, simply by running up the throttle with one hand and coarsening the blade pitch with the other. The lightly loaded car rose in steep curve.

“The Pleasaunce governor,” Milch said, “revolted and declared independence. The regional forces went along with him. By the time the Alliance of Free Stars had formed around Pleasaunce and Blythe thirty years later, it would have taken a major expedition to recover the place. Nothing in the Qaboosh Region was worth the effort.”

Daniel grinned wryly. A certain amount of grit had blown over the tops of his ankle boots — the footgear of 1st Class uniforms was standard space boots in design, though they were glossy black instead of gray suede — but it wouldn’t have time to work down to where it would raise blisters. What was presumably good enough for the Squadron Commander was perforce good enough for the captain of a private yacht.

“I’ll grant you the Autocrator has been putting on airs — Odin was bad enough, but to listen to his widow Irene you’d think you were hearing the Speaker of the Senate,” Milch said. “But it’s a bloody good thing the Horde is out there or the region’d be overrun with pirates. There’s not much we could do with four patrol sloops — when none of them are in the yard — and an old gunboat. The Alliance has two modern destroyers on Zenobia, but besides that it’s a handful of gunboats scattered through the region.”

“I noticed the Z 46,” Daniel said. The aircar’s wide circle had brought them around to the destroyer’s berth. “Frankly, I was a little surprised. The Peace of Rheims is fresh enough –”

He meant “fragile enough.”

“– that there aren’t likely to be courtesy calls to most squadron bases for a while yet.”

“Oh, we’ve always been more relaxed here,” the commander said. “Neither side was strong enough to push matters, and until the past year Irene was busy with two of her husband’s sons by mistresses who had their own ideas about who should be the new Autocrator. But the reason the Z 46 is here is Hergo Belisande, the Founder of Zenobia. He’s a very small fish, as you might expect, but he’s as noisy as if he counted for something. He’s been raising holy hell at the Assembly, claiming that Palmyra plans to attack him and that he wouldn’t be safe travelling by anything but an Alliance warship.”

Milch shrugged. “The Fleet commander on Zenobia, Lieutenant Commander von Gleuck, asked Admiral Mainwaring through a back channel if it would be all right — it’s not a decision for the Governor, you see. And we didn’t see any reason why not.”