What Distant Deeps — Snippet 24

CHAPTER 8: Raphael Harbor on Stahl’s World

Headquarters Annex 6 was the last in a row of pre-fabricated single-story buildings behind the stuccoed masonry of the Headquarters Building proper. It was built from sheets of structural plastic. The walls were beige, while the corrugated roof was reddish brown where it had been in the shade. Where the surface took direct sunlight, it had faded to pink.

“Not a very secure site,” Tovera said as they approached. By training she stepped slightly ahead, putting herself between Adele and the door in the center of the building, but neither of them imagined that there would be any real trouble here.

Adele smiled faintly. “My suspicion is,” she said, “that if they tried to attack us, they would injure themselves.”

“If you follow your training, you have less to think about and so make fewer mistakes,” said Tovera in a primly chiding tone. She accepted Adele’s ethical decisions without question: Tovera had no conscience, but her sharp intelligence let her act within the bounds of society so long as she had a guide she trusted to tell her what those bounds were.

Tovera did not, however, defer to Adele’s judgments regarding doctrine and technique, except under orders. She was apt to honor even direct orders in the breach if she decided they would endanger her mistress unduly.

That wasn’t simply a matter of loyalty, though perhaps it was that as well. Tovera knew that she wouldn’t survive in society without direction. She had been the tool of a 5th Bureau officer. After he was killed, she had attached herself to Adele as someone who would appreciate the usefulness of a murderous sociopath the way she appreciated the pistol in her tunic pocket. Either would kill at Adele’s direction, and Adele’s duties and ruthlessness guaranteed that she was likely to need them.

A hefty middle-aged woman in utilities watched through the glass-paneled door. She pushed it open a moment before Tovera would have had to reach for the latch.

“Officer Mundy?” the woman said. Her voice was the one Adele recognized from the call. “I’m Technician Runkle. Lieutenant Leonard is waiting—”

A thin, very serious looking, young man, also in utilities, came out of the office at the end of the hall. “Officer Mundy?” he called.

“Yes, I’m still Officer Mundy,” Adele said as she followed Tovera into the building; Runkle locked the door behind them. “Now, shall we go to your office where you can explain what this rigmarole is about?”

“Officer Mundy,” Leonard said, looking nervously over his shoulder as he trotted back the way he had come, “I have to apologize for deceiving you. You see –”

Tovera snickered.

“You didn’t deceive us,” Adele said in a more formal version of the same statement. “You’re the Regional Intelligence Section. What do you want of me?”

“Oh!” said Leonard. “Oh, yes, of course. I suppose we should have expected that, Runkle.”

“Sir,” the technician muttered in agreement. “Sorry, ah, Officer.”

Adele said nothing — and Tovera didn’t sniff, as she might have done — but that was certainly true: if this pair knew who Adele was, they should have expected her to investigate them.

In fact they probably thought they knew who Adele was, but only by reputation. They could no more understand what she really did than they could imagine the processes going in at the heart of a star.

Half the building was an open clerical pool with storage cabinets along one wall. On the other side of the hallway was Runkle’s office with Assistant to the Director on the door, a closed file room, and the door Leonard had come out of. The four of them seemed to be the only people in the building — Tovera would know for certain — but going into the lieutenant’s office seemed the choice that would put the locals most at ease.

Which in turn would get them to the point most quickly, though Adele didn’t have high hopes for that. People simply wouldn’t be as direct as efficiency required.

There were only two extra chairs in the office. Runkle, realizing that, said, “Just a second. I’ll bring another chair.”

“Don’t bother,” said Tovera. “I’ll stand.”

She placed herself in the corner to the left of the outward-opening door. Her expression was probably one of amused contempt, but it could be read as friendly openness.

Adele seated herself. She knew Tovera as well as anyone did, she supposed, but she certainly wouldn’t claim to know what was going on in her servant’s mind.

“Well, if you’re sure . . . ?” said Runkle; Tovera didn’t deign to answer. Runkle sat gingerly on the open chair.

A Technician Grade 8 was a senior warrant officer, on a level with a bosun or a chief engineer — far superior to a signals officer. The deference Runkle and her commissioned superior were displaying proved, which was scarcely necessary, that they weren’t thinking of Adele in the RCN chain of command. It also indicated that they believed that she and they were all in a continuum of the intelligence community. That was a degree of arrogance which would have made Adele angry if it weren’t so foolish.

Leonard coughed and crossed his hands precisely on the deck before him. He said, “I suppose it’s too much to hope that you’ve been sent here because of our reports to Xenos, Lady Mundy?”

“With respect, Lieutenant . . . ,” Adele said. There was no respect whatever in her tone. “While I’m wearing this uniform –”

She flicked her left sleeve with her right little finger. Her personal data unit was in her lap — she had brought it live without really thinking about it when she sat down — and she was holding the control wands in her thumbs and first two fingers of both hands.

“– I am Officer Mundy.”

“I’m very sorry, Officer Mundy!” Leonard said hastily, clasping his hands by reflex. “It won’t happen again!”

“And as for the question,” Adele continued, “I know nothing about your reports, but I’m inclined to doubt that they had anything to do with me passing through Stahl’s World. As I was given to understand the matter, a minor figure of the Representation Service died and the Princess Cecile was chartered to deliver his replacement as quickly as practical. I am the Signals Officer aboard the Princess Cecile.”

The locals looked at one another. Runkle grimaced and said, “I don’t wish to speak about matters which shouldn’t be discussed generally, Officer, but if I may say — it’s public knowledge that you have a reputation beyond the RCN.”

“I shouldn’t wonder,” Adele said dryly. “I won’t speculate on what you or anyone else may have heard — about me, or about the inner workings of the Senate, or the true story of this or that video entertainer’s love life. I will say, however, that my duties to the RCN brought me to Stahl’s World, and my courtesy has brought me to this room.”

She paused, then said, “That courtesy is rapidly becoming exhausted, Technician.”

The lieutenant opened his mouth but then froze. Runkle looked at him, then blurted, “Palmyra is dangerous, really dangerous. We thought, everybody out here, thought Autocrator Odin was less an ally than a tin-pot king with delusions of grandeur. After he died, though, we saw — we in the Intelligence Section, I mean — that the real pressure had been coming from Irene all the time. Odin had been holding her back.”

She looked again at Leonard. This time he said, “No one will listen to us, Officer Mundy. You know how the RCN is. Nobody counts except watch-standing officers. They completely ignore us technical specialists.”

Adele kept a straight face. The lieutenant had obviously forgotten who he was talking to.