What Distant Deeps — Snippet 32

“There’s nobody from the Palace to meet them, I mean,” Cory added, probably concerned that Adele hadn’t responded immediately.

“Ship, this is Six,” Daniel announced over the Sissie’s general channel. “I’m turning over command to Lieutenant Vesey, who will set up the liberty roster as soon as we have a little better notion of the ah, spirit of the community. Remember, Sissies, Zenobia is an Alliance planet, and it would reflect on my personal honor if your actions harmed the recent peace between our nations. Make me proud of you, fellow spacers! Six out.”

“I have the conn,” Vesey reported from the BDC. “Three out.”

When Daniel rose from his console, Adele noticed for the first time that he was wearing blue trousers and an unmarked blue coat over a gray tunic: the garb of an officer of a civilian vessel. He shot his cuffs, grinned at Adele — this was fancy dress for him — and strode purposefully off the bridge with Hogg behind him. Adele heard him in the companionway starting to whistle, “The Ring-Rang-Do.”

“I think we can leave the Browns’ comfort to our betters, Cory,” Adele said. “Have you found a roster of the Zenobian militia? It doesn’t appear to be in the Palace, at least not in electronic form.”

As she spoke, a much newer, fancier aircar landed on the quay, dissipating a few final swirls of steam remaining from the Princess Cecile’s arrival. Acting Commissioner Gibbs glanced sidelong at it, then stepped back into his vehicle.

The man who got out from the back was short, dapper and balding, with a pencil moustache. The men who had ridden in the tonneau walked to either side of him. They were big and wore black clothing which, despite the lack of insignia, was meant to be seen as uniforms.

Adele didn’t need Cory’s caret to know that the newcomer was Louis Tilton, the Alliance Resident on Zenobia. He sauntered toward the Sissie’s boarding ramp as the Browns started to descend.

* * *

Daniel reached the entry hold a little later than he’d intended: the Browns had started down the ramp without an escort. He grimaced and lengthened his stride.

Daniel had initially planned to simply hand the ship over to Vesey, but at the moment of doing so he’d remembered that Zenobia was part of the Alliance. Ordinary fights between Sissies and civilians or other spacers took on greater significance.

Hogg, following him into the hold from the companionway, said, “The last time we landed on an Alliance planet, we come in with all guns blazing. I kinda prefer it that way. You know where you stand, then.”

Daniel laughed, but he knew just what his servant meant. Peace was a much trickier proposition than open war.

“Daniel,” said Adele through his earbud, “the Alliance Resident, Tilton, is approaching the Browns. He’s got his bodyguards, over.”

“Follow my lead!” Daniel said over his shoulder as he galloped forward. He reached the bottom of the ramp just as Brown did. The Commissioner gave him a worried look, but Hester pulled her hand from her mother’s and trotted over to attach herself to the fabric of Daniel’s trousers. Clothilde’s expression was unreadable, at least in the brief time Daniel had to spend on the question.

The walkway from the stone quay was of floating wood, typical for a fringe world harbor. The floats were waterlogged, so that the surface dipped into the harbor at several points. Woetjans, standing at the bottom of the ramp with three riggers, turned to Daniel with a disgusted expression and said, “Hey, Six? Want us to lay out our own instead of this piece of crap?”

The Sissie had a metal pontoon-bridge in her starboard outrigger. It would save the Browns getting their shoes wet, but the locals might take a Cinnabar captain deploying it as an insult. Daniel made a snap decision and said, “Negative, Chief.”

Lifting the little girl into his arms, he smiled past her to her parents and said, “Up Cinnabar, eh, Commissioner?” He strode onto the walkway.

It was five feet wide and even had rope handrails, so there was no danger. Nonetheless, Daniel was a bit concerned when he didn’t feel the adults start to follow until he’d almost reached the platform floating up and down between two pilings against the quay. He could have ordered a team of Sissies to carry the Browns to land, but that had seemed, well, insulting.

The Alliance Resident stood at the top of the stairs from the platform. Daniel’s foot quivered an instant short of the first of five steps, wondering how to handle this.

“Out of the way of the little girl, buddy!” called Hogg in a cheerful voice as he bounded past. He turned on the fourth step and held his arms out.

“Here you go, honey!” he said as he thrust his body the last step up to the quay without looking behind him. “I’ll take you now!”

Tilton jumped out of the way. Daniel mounted swiftly, murmuring, “Careful now, dear one, because I may have to set you down.”

Hogg didn’t try to pass the girl off, of course. That had just been an excuse to slam the Resident onto his butt ‘by accident’ if he hadn’t moved quickly enough.

As for what would’ve happened then, Daniel wasn’t sure. He wasn’t worried about him and Hogg being able to handle the bodyguards in normal circumstances, but he didn’t want the four-year-old to get hurt in the brawl.

The Commissioner was up beside them in an instant. Daniel wasn’t sure how much Brown had seen — or at least understood — of the recent byplay; but the fact that his instinct had been to join the men in front instead of holding back raised him in Daniel’s estimation.

Not that there was much Brown could do except hold his daughter. Daniel swept Hester into her father’s arms while continuing to smile toward the Alliance Resident. The child gave a squeal of protest, but Brown took her firmly and stepped sideways to let his wife join them.

Hogg looked at the nearer of Tilton’s bodyguards and deliberately picked his nose with his left index finger; his right hand was in a jacket pocket. “Are you guys local talent?” he said in a rustic drawl. “Or did they have to ship you in from the big city?”

The guard — they were both young, muscular men, but they’d shambled rather than moving with grace — cocked his fist. Tilton waved him back, snarling, “Stop that, you fool!”

Daniel continued to smile quizzically, as though he were a little bemused by everything around him. If he’d known that coming a shore was going to be this interesting, he’d have brought Woetjans and a dozen Sissies along for an escort. That was what the bosun always wanted to do anyway.

He’d rejected the thought as out of place in the circumstances. And so it was, but Resident Tilton’s behavior was out of place as well. He grinned more broadly at the humor of it.

“Which of you is the new Commissioner?” Tilton said harshly. He focused on Brown and went on, “You, of course. You are Cinnabar Commissioner Brown?”

“I am,” said Brown, stepping between Daniel and Hogg. Hester was clinging to Clothilde’s leg with her face buried against it. “To whom have I the pleasure of speaking?”

The man who had flown up in the Commission aircar got out of the vehicle again and approached slowly. He was tall and rather good looking, wearing civilian clothing. The flounced jacket would have been fashionable in Xenos about five years ago.

“Pleasure?” Tilton said. As well as being a pushy little fellow generally, he appeared to resent Brown’s height. “We will see about that. It will be a pleasure if you know your place, Commissioner. I am Resident Louis Tilton.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Brown said, extending his arm to clasp Tilton’s. Instead the Resident stepped past him and stopped in front of Clothilde.

“Well, now,” said the Resident. “This is more interesting.”

Daniel shifted to stand beside the woman. That meant Hogg would have to handle both bodyguards — which he could do beyond question, but it greatly increased the likelihood of death or maiming for the pair.

“May I present my wife –” Brown said.

“Let’s see your profile,” Tilton said. He pinched Clothilde’s chin between two fingers and tried to turn her head.