Cross the Stars by David Drake



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CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT


The pumps were already sluicing the lines again in start-up mode, testing the system for leaks which had opened during the hours of darkness. Their hoosh announced Slade as he entered the crew area, then closed the door behind him.

"Hey, it's Soldier," called Chesson as Leaf was saying, "Via! Look how he's togged out!" Slade wore a Steward's tunic, blue-green with silver piping. It fit him no worse than the garment he had worn to the House.

"Fried potatoes with your breakfast?" asked Pretorius. He shook the skillet.

"Via, yes," Slade said as he sat down beside the fourth chair at the table. He took the plate the foreman handed him. Raw fries, nothing processed about them, gleamed beside a filet of shallotte or some similar fish. "You guys teaching potatoes to swim, then?" the tanker asked. There was certainly no garden plot at the station, swept as it was by tides on an average of once a month.

"My wife grows them," said Chesson as he took another mouthful. "Well, we both do every other month when I'm off, but I can't take much credit."

"No trouble at the House, then?" Leaf asked.

"Yeah, what did the Mistress say?" Chesson added as he recollected the circumstances in which the big man had ridden off in the truck.

"Let the man eat his breakfast," said Pretorius. He took his own place at the table. Even in the foreman's eyes, however, were questions dancing to be answered.

"There was a bit of trouble," Slade said. Instead of eating, he eased his chair back and looked across the other three men. "Nothing that couldn't be handled. What happens this afternoon, though, that's going to be harder. They're going to give Bev Dyson guardianship of the Slade Estate."

Unexpectedly Leaf said, "I wasn't but a boy, not so much as Chessie's age." Chesson, who was a good thirty years old, bridled but did not interrupt. "The storm of 161 it was, the Great Storm. You remember that, Piet?"

Pretorius shrugged. "Before my time," he said.

Leaf nodded as if to pump up his memory. "There was never anything to match it," the old man said. "Fifteen days of wind and waves. There wasn't a let-up till the end. The eye missed Main Island altogether, just curled through us like the blade of a circle saw. But you know, lads—it did pass. Master Teddy is of age in two years?"

Chesson and the foreman were nodding slowly in agreement. Slade said, "If Bev Dyson takes over—" he raised his left hand, palm up and fingers extended— "in six months, Teddy will be in a fish's belly." The hand clenched with the suddenness of jaws snapping.

The three other men looked at Slade, at the fist and at the face set as hard as that fist. "This planet's been run a certain way since the Settlement," the tanker said. "Some mightn't like it, but it seemed to suit most pretty well. If Dyson takes over, the system isn't going to change, not really . . . but the way it's applied won't ever be the same. The Council Islands'll toe the line set from the Main, from Slade House or Paraclete, whichever Bev decides should be his capital."

Slade's voice was getting louder, but he did not move from his chair. "Councilors won't decide anything but who they screw on a given night. And all right, that doesn't bother you or me either. But the rock-hoppers, the independants, they'll all be pulled in and settled if they'll come—or hunted down if they won't, you know Bev Dyson. And when there's nowhere to run, he'll start squeezing every laborer on Tethys . . . and he'll squeeze you the worst, my friends, because he hates every soul and thing that ever wore Slade Blue."

The clenched fist opened again as if it bore the future on a platter.

Pretorius shook his head with a look of sad wonder. "I can't leave, Holt," he said. "Maybe you can go back as a mercenary, but they wouldn't have me at my age. And I wouldn't have them! This is the life I want, right here. And if that means Dyson and all the things that Dyson means, then it'll have to be that way.

"It's not what Mistress Slade wants," said the tanker softly.

"It's not what we want," Chesson burst out, "but what bloody difference does that make?"

"A good question," said Slade. He grinned as the pieces came together, working his fingers closed again without haste. "You know, I used to wonder why the Old Man put us so heavy into food production. There's ten stations just about like this one, right?"

"Sure, but that's business," said Leaf, watching Slade with puzzlement.

The tanker nodded. "Business, sure," he agreed. "The Slades feed most of the planet from these stations. But there's a lot more profit to cost of plant and maintenance in mining operations, which is why we've pretty well got food stations to ourselves. Right?"

The crewmen gaped or frowned. The economics of the situation had never consciously affected them. They were Slade retainers, and they did the jobs their forebears had done before them.

"Right," said Slade gently. "So what's the difference between mining and food extraction? Besides what you're trying to bring out of the sea?"

Pretorius saw where the conversation was directed. He said, "No."

The others looked at him. The foreman nodded to the weapons racked beside the doorway. "The mining rigs have guards, too. Any time you work men near the sea, you need sensors and guards."

"Right again," said Slade. It was good to be sure he could trust the men he was with. Trust them to think as well as act. "But a manganese dredge doesn't bring them halfway around the planet the way the juice does from your rig, does it? How many critters—how many monsters, they'd call them back at the House—have you put down, Piet?" He gestured. "Leaf? Chessie?"

Chesson snorted. "I remember my first, though not real well," he said. "It was when Pops was on this rig, so I must have been maybe five. He let me pull the trigger when a networm surfaced right under the platform."

"All right, friends," said the tanker as he rose to his feet. He stood, arms akimbo, facing the crewmen. "This isn't your job or that of the crews off-duty and at the other stations. But if it isn't done by you, it won't be done at all. For yourselves, and for the Mistress—and for Master Teddy, who can just maybe set things straight again, like they were when I was a kid. If he just gets a chance and a little help. Are you up to it?"

The pumps gentled the silence with their background of hoosh, hoosh. At last Pretorius spoke. "It's us you'll want to call the others, I suppose, Soldier?"


CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE


"Mark," said Beverly Dyson to key his throat mike. "Subiyaga, be very careful with that one. Take the detector down to aluminum spray if you have to to make sure he doesn't have a throwaway derringer. Mark."

"Mark," said the civilian-suited specialist responsible for the detection unit. "Yes, milord." Subiyaga nodded toward Councilor Dyson, halfway across the courtyard on the roof of his van. Dyson had moved the vehicle ostentatiously into the courtyard the night before when he was ordered out of Slade House.

A squad of Dyson retainers had been told off specifically to support Subjyaga. Besides them, representatives of five other Council Islands observed the detector. Coon Blegan glowered at the equipment on behalf of the Slades. The newness and tailoring of Blegan's blue livery could not disguise the old man's paunch; but the pistol beneath his left arm was to be surmised rather than seen with clarity. Whatever might be the instructions other Councilors had given their observers, it was quite certain that Blegan would object forcefully if anything irregular occurred during the weapons checks.

Councilor Dyson did not care. He and those of his retainers whom he chose to bring within the Hall would submit to the same careful vetting as the others. For this mercenary from Friesland, however, the search had to be extraordinary.

"Bastard," Dyson whispered. The three men of his personal staff stood behind him on the van roof. They looked sidelong at one another in concern.



Ten Dyson retainers were playing music opposite the detection station. Danny Pritchard did not recognize their wind instruments. Allowing for local conventions, Pritchard did not think the musicians were particularly skillful, either. Certainly the pair of Slade Housemen who accompanied Pritchard to the Hall did not seem to appreciate the music any better than did the ex-mercenary.

In all likelihood, the musicians were there to divert attention from the indignity of search; for even Councilors and their families had to go through the detection loop.

As Danny stepped into the loop, he smiled at Subiyaga. The specialist's brief conversation with his master was easy enough to guess, though Pritchard had heard neither end of it. Subiyaga let the unit run its pre-programmed settings without result. Then he began to punch additional commands into the cabinet.

Pritchard watched the apparatus with professional interest. The unit was considerably bulkier than the best of Hammer's similar equipment, but it appeared to be fully as capable once it was set up. The subject within the ground loop was a dancing outline on the screen. A line swept up the image, then down again, for as long as it took the cabinet to run its program. The color of the sweep varied according to the element which was to be detected on a given pass.

Danny had deliberately worn a suit scintillant with fine wire to determine how sensitive the apparatus might be. The threads of stabilized aluminum remained on screen as an orange glow across his image after one of the sweeps. The circuitry of his stylus, his mastoid implant, and the heavy remote unit at his belt, were separate blotches. Their greenish tinge on the screen reflected the close mixture of metals within the electronic mechanisms.

Nowhere on the screen was there evidence of iridium; or significant amounts of iron; or a cylindrical blur of metal deposited to mirror a glass weapons-tube.

Subiyaga ignored Pritchard's stylus. "Mark," he said, so that his master could hear the details. "Sir, what is this, please?" The specialist pointed to a blotch on the screen, but his eyes were on the back of Pritchard's jaw which the blotch indicated.

"That's an implanted radio link," the ex-mercenary replied. He tapped the spot with his forefinger. "Keyed to a base unit, it's very useful. On Tethys, of course—" the smile became momentarily carnivorous— "and without the Regiment, it serves no function. Except to fill the hole cut in the bone to hold it."

"And—" the specialist began, his finger sliding to the lower blotch.

"And this is a remote unit that does function on Tethys," Pritchard said, almost anticipating the question. He spoke with the cool good-nature he generally maintained around things wearing crimson. "It's linked to the Port, where a message capsule is already cleared for Friesland. Colonel Hammer wished to be informed immediately if anything untoward occurred during today's deliberations."

He turned. The clothing Pritchard now wore was nothing like the battle-dress he had doffed for good, two years before. No one could look at him at that moment, however, and doubt his military background. "Do you object to Colonel Hammer having that full report?"

"Mark," said Subiyaga, clearing his link.

The man who met Danny's eyes from the van across the courtyard spoke briefly, sharply.

"No, Mister Pritchard," said the specialist to the ex-soldier's back. "We have no objection. You may enter the Hall, sir."

"I appreciate your courtesy," said Pritchard as he faced the specialist again. Danny's eyes swept like gunsights across the retainers, noting their stance, their alertness; where they set or carried the gun cases which were their badges and power. "And in thanking you," Pritchard went on, "I speak for Colonel Hammer."

Pritchard strode toward the massive doors of the Hall. The Councilors and attendants whom the delay had forced to queue now began passing through the checkpoint as well.

Councilor Dyson stared at the empty doorway for some seconds after Hammer's man had passed through it.



"Mother!" said Edward Slade when he saw how Marilee was dressed. "It's—you know you can't wear blue, they'll say you look like a servant!"

His mother snorted. Teddy blushed at the patent absurdity of what he had just said.

Marilee's garment flowed from a loose-fitting stasis to follow its wearer's movements with its own slow grace. The garment's color was indeed blue, Slade Blue, but pulses moved up it with the inexorable polish of color in heat-treated steel. The pulses did not, however, so much change the color of the fabric as the saturation of that color. Marilee could no more have been mistaken for a servant than Slade House could have been mistaken for a mining station.

"Besides," the woman said, amplifying the rebuke she had not needed to voice, "there won't be any servants with us. Though—" a wrinkle flitted across her face as she recalled— "I did send two Housemen with Danny since he wanted to enter the Hall early. I suppose they may stay."

"Mother," the youth repeated, this time in irritation rather than surprise.

Teddy himself was a stiff ensemble in black and white. From his outfit, he might have stepped from a subordinate position in Late-Nineteenth Century diplomacy. Housemen in fresh livery glanced from one to another behind the youth, wondering how Marilee's statement would affect them. "I realize how you must feel," Teddy said without even considering whether his words had meaning or were merely sounds, "but we mustn't give in to frustration. We're Slades, and even if we're beaten we mustn't slink away into a corner. That is, I—"

Teddy's breath caught and strangled the next words in his throat.

That was by no means soon enough, but it halted the arm Marilee had raised to slap her son. The tall woman's face was white with blotches as the muscles drew back over her bones, "Will you say I am no Slade, boy?" she whispered. Her right arm slipped forward so that the fingers of her left hand could knead some of the tension out of it. "I was a Slade before you were conceived, Edward. Don't you ever forget it. Ever."

She looked back at the servants. "Get out of here!" she shouted.

The Housemen scattered down the corridor. There were more of them than Marilee had realized, at least a dozen.

"Edward, come in here for a moment," the woman said. Her voice trembled around expended emotion. Mother and son had been standing near the door to the Trophy Room. Now she opened the door and waved the nervous youth within.

The corridor had skylights and, along the baseboards, glow-strips. The Trophy Room's great window was vivid with ambient light and the sun reflected from the facade of the Hall. Marilee could have chosen to polarize the glazed expanse, but she did not. The light bathed her, and the warmth massaged the shuddering from her muscles.

Marilee looked at her son. He braced himself defiantly, but she was no longer angry. She had assumed that Teddy did not know how soon he was going to die, to be killed like his father. Now Marilee realized that the youth was not a fool and not too young to recognize that Beverly Dyson had made murder an instrument of policy. Edward was keeping up the appearances of the world in which his father had raised him to believe. The youth did so for the same reason that a drowning man finally breathes the water that will kill him: there is nothing else to do.

"Edward," Marilee said slowly, "I decided—about the Housemen—when we were discussing who we should put at the checkpoint to make sure that everyone was checked even if they wore red."

Her son nodded. He was relieved but still uncertain about his mother's change of tone. "Coon Blegan," he said.

"Yes, Coon," Marilee agreed. "Because there was no other member of this House we could really trust with that duty."

The woman sighed and put a hand on her son's clasped hands. "Something went wrong, Edward," she said. "Somewhere along the line. I think my husband would have been good for Tethys if he had been allowed to be. But not for Slade House."

Her voice rose. "Three times as many servants here as when I was married, and only one holdover that we can trust with our lives. That shouldn't be. All the bowing and sharp dress in the world doesn't make up for that, does it?"

Teddy squeezed his mother's hand. He took a deep breath. "I'm sorry, Mother," he said. He was neither willing nor fully able to state the subject of his apology. "We'll have to do something about the Housemen. As soon as we—can." It would not be their House after the Council met, as surely as the seas washed the shores. "But for now, I think we had best get to the Hall. We are Slades."

They walked formally, arm in arm, the few steps to the door. Edward then preceded his mother down the narrow, tightly-coiled staircase. His head was high, and his pace was as measured as if he had scores of attendants.

Marilee was close to tears, though there was nothing in her quizzical expression to suggest that. Perhaps if he ran? Fled Tethys, became—became a mercenary soldier, with his uncle easing his way in that alien culture, watching over him. And then in a few years, when it was safe to come home—

Don was right. It would never again be safe on Tethys.

As her feet patted against the stair treads, Marilee's face drew itself into a smile as taut as a tetanic rictus. Each tap of sole on stone put her and the House and the planet twenty centimeters closer to disaster. She should have hired the Slammers, curse the expense in all its meanings.

Dear Lord, she should not have ordered away Don Slade. Not now.

And not twenty years before, either.




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