IN THE STORMY RED SKY — snippet 24

IN THE STORMY RED SKY – snippet 24:

Adele gave a mental shrug. She could only hope that Beckford’s aircar arrived before Das and Forbes found themselves at the end of the pier together. The governor could avoid awkwardness by dawdling, of course, which he should be able to figure out on his own. His record in Client Affairs–she’d looked Das up, of course–was good if unspectacular.

She and Forbes had reached the broad esplanade which ran in both directions around the harbor. Tractors hauled cargo wagons, many of them wooden-framed, to and from lighters. Some of the piers had derricks, but much of the work was being done by human beings. Some stevedores were women, but the gangs themselves were segregated by gender.
Forbes looked at the buildings across the esplanade. It was early in the day, but the taverns were busy. Several of the spacers staggering through the swinging doors were so drunk that they must have spent the whole night inside.
“What a bloody dump,” she said bitterly.
“Oh, Paton isn’t really so bad, Senator,” said Adele, following the other’s eyes with her own. “You mustn’t judge a planet by its harborfront. Even Cinnabar, I’m afraid.”
“You have the advantage of experience, I suppose, Mundy,” Forbes said. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to learn to accept this sort of–”
She gestured toward the buildings. They were roofed with corrugated metal or plastic sheeting, and the bright paint had flaked in many places to show underlayers that from a distance had looked like designs.
“–environment unless I can somehow find a way to get back into the fight in Xenos. My whole life to date has been spent in civilized surroundings.”
An aircar was approaching from the north at 500 feet. As Adele glanced up, it dropped into a spiral centered on the senator and her entourage. It was a large, enclosed vehicle, painted light blue with swirls of pink blurring into magenta.
“I’ve learned I’m not very good at predicting the future,” Adele said in a neutral voice as she watched the car landing. One of the things “civilization” meant to her, of course, was her sister’s head nailed to Speaker’s Rock; but there was no need to remind Forbes of that. “The best things that have happened to me have been wholly unexpected.”
“Life has made me less optimistic than you, Mundy,” the senator said. “You may be right, of course.”
The aircar fluffed to a halt on the esplanade twenty feet away. The driver had landed downwind so that he didn’t blow grit on the waiting passengers. If he’d been hired locally, the standard of drivers on Paton was extremely high.
Servants hopped from the vehicle’s open rear compartment and opened the double doors in the middle. They wore full livery, not collar flashes, in the same blue and pink color scheme as the car.
Beckford waddled out. He was at least fifty pounds heavier than he looked in the last images taken of him before he left Cinnabar, and he hadn’t been slim then. He made kissing gestures with both hands and cried, “Bessie, dearest!”
His costume had feathers for a theme; Adele wondered if Beckford had designed it himself. There was a range of competence in any specialty, of course, but she would’ve expected any professional designer to have some taste.
“Hello, Willie,” the senator said. She didn’t step closer, but she gave Beckford a tiny bow in greeting. “It’s my great good luck to find you here in this–”
She lifted her hands, palms up, and gave him a false smile.
“–corner of the universe, shall we say?”
Adele stood quietly with only her eyes moving, but Beckford’s attention fell on her nonetheless. “I say, Bessie,” he said. “Couldn’t they find an officer to escort you? You really are slumming, aren’t you?”
Adele realized she’d been waiting for that; waiting for some excuse, anyway. She’d known it would happen ever since she watched Forbes snub Governor Das.
Her mind was as cold as steel in the Matrix. She smiled.
“Willie,” Forbes said urgently, her eyes flicking between Beckford and Adele. “You should know–”
“You are mistaken, Beckford,” Adele said. There was a rasp she didn’t expect beneath her drawl. Her left hand hung down at her side. “My father, who was Mundy of Chatsworth before me, didn’t shun you because your people are in trade. He was quite willing to entertain tradesmen and even manual laborers when the needs of the party required it, but as a gentleman he had to maintain some standards.”
She paused and smiled a little wider. “He shunned you,” she said, “because you personally are a maggot.”
“Willie…,” said Senator Forbes. She took Beckford by the right hand and half-guided, half-forced, him to turn toward the car again. “I was going to introduce you to Lady Mundy, but I don’t think this is the time. Come, be a dear and get me to a hot bath and dinner at once, won’t you?”
She shoved Beckford into the shadowed interior of the vehicle and followed him. “But your ladyship, what are we to do?” bleated Platt, stepping forward.
“Stay here until the car comes back for you!” Forbes shouted. “For Hell’s bloody sake, stay here till you rot, you fool! Driver, get us out of here!”
The footmen closed the doors with mechanical precision, then leaped like acrobats for the rear compartment. Before they were fully in, the aircar lifted as smoothly as it’d settled to the pavement.
Tovera chuckled. “I didn’t have anything heavy enough to get the driver,” she said. “The windows were armored. But I don’t suppose he was much of a threat anyway, do you?”
“None of them were threats,” Adele said. She was trembling in response to the adrenalin she hadn’t burned off in an orgy of killing. “There wasn’t going to be any trouble.”
“Officer Mundy?” Daniel called.
Adele turned, clenching and unclenching her left hand to work the tension out of it. Daniel, with Hogg and the three Paton officials, stood beside the official ground car. “S-sir?” she said.
“Would you care to join us at the Governor’s Palace for a discussion of recent events in the Veil?” Daniel said. “Since you appear to be free, that is.”
He’ll learn more without me, Adele realized. Her presence would disturb the locals, either because they didn’t know why a signals officer was at the meeting, or because they did know. Daniel was inviting her as a way of getting her out of what must have looked like a dangerous situation.
“No thank you, sir,” she said aloud. “I’ll return to by duties on board, if I may.”
“Carry on, then, Mundy,” Daniel said, but she was already walking back down the pier. Of course she’d carry on; that’s what she did.
And she’d keep on doing it until the day she died.

About Eric Flint

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