Cross the Stars by David Drake

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The doors of the Hall were four meters high and proof against more than storms when they were closed and locked from the inside. The trunions on which they swung inward ran in trackways grooved into the base slab. Open, the doors gaped as wide as they rose in the concrete facade. For the symmetry of the occasion, the leaves were fully open now; but a solid line of Dyson retainers across the threshold made sure that none of those entering failed to go through the security check first.

Two of the red-clad men had stepped aside with perfunctory smiles. Councilor Roosevelt, his wife, and fourteen assorted members of his family and staff were passing into the Hall. The youngest child made a curious attempt to pat a crimson trouser leg. His nurse snatched him back immediately. The adults of the entourage preferred to act as if the guards did not exist.

At least that rascal Dyson had shown the decency to leave his squad unarmed. The remainder—almost fifty—of his men in the courtyard flaunted their cased guns with a particular relish this afternoon. The deliberations of the Council would be sealed by custom against interference; but there was only the single exit from the Hall.

"Passage, gentlemen," said a voice from within the door alcove. The guards were bored and unprepared for someone who wanted to leave at this moment.

"I said," snarled Danny Pritchard, "get your butts out of the way, turtleheads!"

The line clotted as Dyson's men wheeled to face the ex-mercenary. Those in the queue waiting to be checked began craning their necks to see what had happened. The music tangled to a momentary halt before the leader of the musicians snapped his group back to attention with a nervous look toward Beverly Dyson. The musicians were supposed to cover, not join, awkward incidents of this sort.

Danny Pritchard stood with a sneer and his fists on his hip bones. He was not a scarred tough like many of the men he now faced; but he was a commander glaring at men who knew they were only vessels of power. The guards would be discarded without hesitation if they overstepped bounds of which they were only hazily aware.

"Subiyaga! Via!" shouted the leader of the squad on the threshold. Subiyaga was not even in the blurred chain of command, but he was the only one present with a link to the source of power. "Are we supposed to let people out?"

"Blood, McKinney!" Subiyaga said. "Are you crazy? Of course they can get out. What do you think you're doing?"

"Let him go! Let him go!" the shaken squad leader said. His men were already reacting like dollops of a fruit hit by a projectile. They were not there to alienate Councilors whom Dyson wished for the time to coddle.

Danny Pritchard strolled out with a nod toward the specialist. The guards at the detection cabinet had fumbled with their cases during the tension. It was only now, however, that they saw who the source of the incident had been.

"Hey!" called Ahwas, the leader of that armed group. "Mister! You got to go through the loop again before you go back inside!"

The man from Friesland grinned broadly. "I hear you talking," he said. He continued to walk toward the House from which he had come so recently.

Subiyaga watched him walk away. The specialist's face was troubled, but he could not be quite certain of what he saw.

The courtyard was not particularly hot. The bright sun which had been a caress in the Trophy Room was here a slap in the face. Perhaps that was because of the way the light danced with such frequency from crimson livery. There were numerous groups led by Councilors at one stage or another of their progress to the Hall. Even so, Dyson's retainers seemed omnipresent. The man himself stood on his van ten meters away, as if he were on a reviewing stand.

Marilee paused in the doorway. Behind the Slades, Councilor Picolo squeaked as her way was blocked by her hostess and son. Marilee murmured an apology to her, one of only two women who were Council members in their own right. As Marilee did so, she drew her son into the shade of one of the armored drones flanking the doorway. She needed to take stock.

"Mistress, I was told to escort you into the Hall," said the man who had waited patiently beside the same drone. "Told by Mister Pritchard."

His livery had blended well enough with the blue shade; and until he spoke he had been as motionless as the 10 cm gun above him. For that matter, Don Slade was no longer the flamboyant hell-raiser who had left Tethys twenty years before. Like the gun-drone, he was scarred and stolid now; but not to be ignored.

"You fool, you mustn't be here!" the woman said in a voice that was as much a curse as a whisper.

"Mistress," said the big man calmly. "I'm going inside as your escort. Nothing you say will have any effect except to call attention to—us."

"Mother, he should go," interjected Edward. "You said we had no one except Coon we could trust. Well, this man, this Holt, proved yesterday that he wasn't afraid of Dyson or Dyson's men. Didn't he?"

"T—," Marilee began. Then, "Edward, there are things you can't . . ." She paused again when she realized that this was neither the time nor the place to explain. Anyway, the explanation would not matter in any real sense.

Not when Don Slade said, "I will enter the Hall this day, Mistress." One did not have to know the big man as Marilee Dorcas had known him to realize that he would do just what he said, though it killed him. As this time it surely would.

"I think," said Marilee carefully, "that Mister Pritchard's own presence within the Hall will prevent anything—untoward. I—truly appreciate the solicitude, Holt, but I don't think it's wise under the circumstances."

She and her son could almost pass for sister and brother, Slade thought. His dry mouth made it hard for him to speak. He felt as if he were strapped in and waiting for insertion, desperately afraid as always. To those who heard him, his slow speech was only obsequious. Possibly Edward thought the speech was a symptom of a slow mind, the sort of mind that befitted a powerful body as his father might have said.

"Mistress," Slade explained, "Major Pritchard had other business to attend. He's left the Hall, and he's told me to accompany you." When the woman hesitated with her mouth open but the words not quite ready to come out, Slade added, "We're all adults, you know. We can't live any lives but our own."

"What?" said Edward.

"All right, Holt," Marilee said crisply, unemotionally. "You will follow us at two paces, and you will not speak unless spoken to."

"Yes, Mistress," the big man said. The bill of the cap he wore nodded submissively.

"Come along, then, Edward," the woman said. There were only a few people waiting yet to be passed through the check point. "It's almost 1500 . . . and I very much doubt they'll delay the door closing because we aren't yet present."

She glanced up as they began walking toward the Hall. "0f course," she added dryly, "we can be sure the doors will remain open until the President of the Council deigns to enter."

The man behind her kept his face blank, but Marilee's expression at that moment would have very well fit Mad Dog Slade.

"Them," said one of the men standing behind Beverly Dyson.

The comment had been as much as anything an attempt to drag a reaction, even a rebuke for speaking, from the Councilor. Dyson had not spoken for the past quarter hour, as the queue shortened and more and more people waited within the Hall for his coming triumph. Presidency of the Council was nothing. The Slade Estate was and always had been Tethys itself.

Dyson was erect behind the rail on the van's roof. He had intended to move the vehicle into the courtyard at this time even if—the Widow Slade—had not ordered him out of the House the night before. Now he rotated his head very slightly to watch the trio striding toward the Hall . . . the youth fashionably archaic, the other pair in Slade Blue.

As Councilor Dyson wore crimson.

She understood, the bitch. What it meant to be a Council family, to share Main Island with the Slades, to be as wealthy as the Slades—and to be ignored, whenever a difference arose, because you were not Slade. Ever since the Settlement.

Until now.

"The big one," said the retainer. "He's the one . . ."

"Baucom," whispered Beverly Slade as his eyes tracked those crossing beneath him, "shut up or I'll have you killed."

It could not be. Every man aboard every ship which landed was checked. Whether they were passengers or crew, whether they planned to disembark on Tethys or were only staging through. The gunman, Pritchard; he had been noted. A mercenary, very likely a courier from the Mad Dog. But not the man himself, not by a half.

Don Slade had not come home. There was no such money in the galaxy that would preserve the man who took it to hide Slade on Tethys from Beverly Dyson. Everybody on Tethys knew that. And Slade, even the madman Dyson knew him for, was as sure of that as were any of the guards searching incoming starships. Don Slade would never even try to walk on Tethys.

And yet—

More or less audibly, the Councilor said, "I can't remember his face." The men behind him strained to catch the words, but the words would have meant nothing without a context thirty years in their master's past. "I hadn't realized that. When I try to remember his face, I see the wrench instead and I see the wrench when I look at that—"

Dyson broke off. He had not realized that he was speaking aloud. "Baucom," he said. The brief tremor in his voice sounded dangerous to the men who stiffened to attention.

"Sir?" said Baucom. His eyes were wide, but he was deliberately staring past the Councilor.

"I was going to use the radio," Dyson said, again fully composed, "but I will not. That man, the large one."

"Sir." Marilee Slade had passed through the detection loop without incident. Her son was preparing to follow with an expression of cool indifference.

"I want you," the Councilor continued, "to take the squad leader—it's Ahwas, isn't it? At the cabinet?"

"Yes, sir."

"Take him aside before you join us in us in the Hall. Tell him that when that man comes out again, after the Council meeting or before, he is to be shot. Immediately. Is that understood?

There was nothing in the Councilor's voice which permitted any question. "Yes, sir," said Baucom.

As if he were a machine switching frequencies, Beverly Dyson said, "Mark. Subiyaga, I want that man with the Slades checked the same way you did the mercenary. Mark."

The specialist looked up and bowed toward the van. In Dyson's ear, his voice said. "Yes sir, I'm already doing that. There don't seem to be any weapons, but he has the same kind of communications device in his jawbone as the other one did."

The man, the Slade retainer—if he were a retainer—stood in the loop with his back to Dyson. He seemed to be oblivious of the hushed conversation of which he was the subject.

"Mark," said the Councilor. "Very good, Subiyaga. Carry on. Mark."

Dyson turned to face the trio accompanying him. "When they kill that one, Baucom," he said, "they are to avoid injury to Mistress Slade and her son if possible." He paused. In a measured voice, he continued, "I expect that mercenary gunman, Pritchard, to come out of the House carrying his weapon. If he is present when the—other—is killed, I want him treated the same way. Ahwas can pass the word among the other squads."

"Yes, sir," Baucom repeated. He was terrified that his master was about to add some final order which would be suicide for the retainer to execute personally. An order to personally provoke a confrontation with Blegan, for instance, to get the old gunman out of the way as well.

But instead, Dyson said mildly. "They think to threaten me with some jumped up mercenary twenty Transit minutes away. Not here. Not on my world."

Then he added, "Come. It's time for us to open the meeting." Lithely, the Councilor swung down the ladder to the ground.

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