What Distant Deeps — Snippet 47

* * *

Adele gave the prisoner her usual dispassionate appraisal. Viewing a subject the way a butcher looks at a hog had more of a softening effect on some people than growled threats did.

She behaved as she did because it was natural to her, not for some “practical” reason. Though in truth, she couldn’t imagine anything more practical than behaving the way she felt like.

“You’re making a mistake!” said Gibbs. Even with the hood off he couldn’t manage much bluster. Then he said, “What are you going to do with me?”

His wrists and ankles were strapped to a chair in the Captain’s Suite — her home and Daniel’s again now that the Browns had been delivered — with cargo tape. The chair in turn was bolted to the deck, like all furniture on a starship.

“We’re not going to torture you, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Adele said, her face probably showing the disgust she felt at the subject. “I have a few questions for you, and my colleagues –”

She glanced over her shoulder to indicate Daniel and the two servants on jumpseats against the wall behind her.

“– may have additional ones. Then we may request your help. If you’re completely helpful, we’ll turn you over to the authorities on Stahl’s World.”

“If I’m helpful?” Gibbs snarled. “They’d hang me and you know it!”

Adele shrugged. “Perhaps,” she said, “but I don’t believe that’s certain. The Republic is at peace, and in any case you were intriguing with an allied power rather than with agents of the Alliance.”

“I didn’t intrigue with anybody!” Gibbs said, trying to regain ground he’d already surrendered in his fear. “I don’t know who you’ve been talking to, but I’ve been doing my job as well as anybody can in this bloody backwater. That’s all!”

“Here’s a list of amounts paid to you by your Palmyrene handler,” Adele said, ignoring the outburst as she projected a hologram of the records where Gibbs could read them. Though she used her personal data unit as a controller, the imaging system of the suite’s console provided a crystalline display at any level of resolution she wanted. “He uses the name Bimbeck with you and claims to be a Zenobian merchant, but he’s actually named Erzolan and has the rank of Squadron Leader in the Horde.”

“How . . . ?” said Gibbs. “H-how did you . . . ?”

His face had become sallow. His limbs tensed against their bonds, but it seemed to Adele that it was a subconscious reaction to blind panic. Gibbs was smart enough to realize that he couldn’t break tape that was meant to immobilize cargo through violent landings.

“There were flaws in your system,” Adele said. “Obviously. But even if there hadn’t been, I assure you that your Palmyrene friends fall a great deal short of civilized standards of security. Whatever possessed you to trust barbarians like them?”

“Oh, gods,” Gibbs muttered. He closed his eyes and probably would have cradled his head in his hands if he could. “Oh, gods.”

In fact the security of the computer in Gibbs’ home was of a very high order. The only reason Adele had been able to get into it quickly was that the assistant commissioner had three months ago accessed it from Cinnabar House and hadn’t reset the encryption afterwards.

But everything she said about the Palmyrenes was completely true. Their data wasn’t as complete or well organized as Gibbs’, but it would have been quite sufficient by itself to hang him.

“You know, Gibbs,” Daniel said judiciously, “you weren’t really in such a bad place even if your plot had been uncovered. Oh, the Zenobians would’ve been upset, but we’d have gotten you off-planet to try you ourselves.”

He chuckled. “Fancy letting a passel of wogs try a Cinnabar citizen — and an RCN officer besides!” he said, sounding exactly like the sort of hearty, prejudiced officer that so many of his colleagues were in fact. “And sure, the charge would be treason — but treasonously trying to take a world away from the Alliance isn’t the sort of business an RCN court martial gets too worked up about, not so? Certainly not to the point of hanging anybody.”

“But then you decided to murder two RCN officers,” said Adele. Gibbs’ head jerked toward her again. “Not to put too fine a point on it — us. That’s a different matter.”

“That was quite a clever piece of work, you know,” Daniel said, nodding in appreciation. “Keying the shorting strips to the test frequency of the portable landing controller that you added to the files before you turned them over to Brown. You know, it seems to me you might have gone high in the RCN if you’d put your cleverness to better use.”

“Gone high?” Gibbs said bitterly. “Don’t make me laugh! I was going nowhere. I was going to rot here on Zenobia for the rest of my life — unless they found a worse posting for me.”

“And it wasn’t clever to try to kill us by a method that pointed straight to you when it failed,” Adele added. She wasn’t acting: Gibbs was getting a clear view of the reality of the way her mind worked.

She coughed primly. “Just as you needn’t worry about torture,” she said, “you needn’t worry about a court martial. If you refuse to cooperate, we’ll simply release you.”

“From a thousand feet over the Green Ocean,” Daniel said. “Fair is fair: that’s what you tried to do to us.”

“What is it that you want from me?” Gibbs said in a monotone. His eyes were closed. He opened them and added with more animation, “Can you let me loose, please? My legs at least, so I can move them?”

“You’ll remain as you are until you’ve satisfied us,” Adele said. The corner of her mouth quirked. “Or fail to do so, of course. Tell us precisely what the Palmyrenes are doing, if you will.”

Gibbs looked at her in amazement. Did he think she was mocking him by being courteous? She had been raised to be courteous. She regarded the practice to be basic to civilization.

Adele smiled at the man, in her way. She was perfectly willing to shoot him, of course. She had shot people who simply happened to be standing in the way when she needed to move fast. They had been enemies by political definition, of course, but they were complete strangers to her personally.

But she wouldn’t have mocked those people, living or dead. Nor would she mock Gibbs.

Her train of thought may have shown on her face. The prisoner seemed to swallow something sour.

“I bought land for them three hundred miles south of the city in Commissioner Brassey’s name,” Gibbs said. “It’s just called the Farm. I pretended that I was just a flunky and that Brassey was milking the secret account to create a retirement estate for himself. Of course there wouldn’t be any recourse. The Alliance wouldn’t extradite him to Xenos for trial, you see.”

“Go on,” Adele said. There were many references to “the Farm” in the information she had gathered, but she hadn’t had enough time to process them. Besides, she hadn’t had a context. Without a context, it was very possible to mistake a grocery list for an attack plan — or vice versa.

“The smart part was me — pretending to be Brassey, I mean — developing the land illegally,” Gibbs said. “So the secrecy and the bribes to customs officials — and to the Alliance Resident — everybody understood. The Commissioner was bringing in advanced farming equipment that he’d bought with embezzled money, so of course he’d want to keep it quiet!”