IN THE STORMY RED SKY – snippet 42:
Daniel felt a sudden hot buzzing under his skin as though he were about to faint. They wouldn’t say that if there weren’t something behind it.
Forbes had no such concerns. “Where did you hear this arrant twaddle?” she demanded. Her eyes were riveted on the Headman. “Has your dog here taken leave of his senses, boy?”
“I take no offense, Mistress…,” said Scully. Despite the easy words, his smirk looked somewhat the worse for wear. “Since I realize you’re ignorant rather than merely boorish. Captain Greathouse, will you and your colleagues come forward and inform these poor folk from Cinnabar?”
Three men in bright green and gold stepped from a doorway concealed behind the throne. Any one of them would’ve fit in with the crowd of courtiers in the body of the hall, but three together meant they were in uniform; specifically, the dress uniform of officers in the Alliance Fleet.
“Captain Stewart Greathouse,” said Scully, still grinning at Forbes but gesturing toward the Alliance officers with his right hand. “And his aides, the Lieutenants Chieftain Brian and Melvin Cohen.”
Greathouse was well over six feet tall and built in proportion to his height. Though bulky, he moved as smoothly as a fighting bull. There was a long purple scar on his right cheek. It continued to the point of his chin, whitening a wedge of his otherwise-black beard. His eyes glanced across Robinson and Forbes, but they lingered for a time on Daniel Leary.
The slender, blond, Cohen brothers had girlishly pretty features. They were in their mid-twenties, but if the lighting were helpful they could pass for teenagers. They gave the Cinnabar contingent practiced sneers as they followed Captain Greathouse to the front of the throne. All three fell forward, abasing themselves as abjectly as the Hegemony citizens had done earlier.
“Rise, my brothers from the Alliance!” said the Headman, speaking for himself. “Inform these visitors of how you crushed your enemies in the Montserrat Stars.”
Greathouse rose with the ponderous grace of a starship lifting. He bowed low to Hieronymos, then turned to face the Cinnabar envoys. His eyes were on Daniel, not on Senator Forbes.
“Gladly, your holy majesty,” Greathouse said. Directional microphones picked up and amplified his voice, but that thunderous bass could’ve filled the hall without support. “The enemy was in force on the world of New Harmony. My friend and superior Admiral Petersen isn’t the sort to dally. He gathered his forces and struck for the enemy’s heart.”
“We ground them to dust!” cried one of the Cohens. The operator of the parabolic mike picked him up in mid-phrase. “When a battleship explodes, it looks like a star, and there were four of the Cinnabar rascals exploding together. It was like the Feast of the Guarantor’s Birthday on Pleasaunce!”
“Yes,” said Greathouse, still watching Daniel. He wasn’t gloating, but made his delivery all the more believable. “We caught the Locke and Aquinas in orbit and crushed them. The Heidegger and Hobbes tried to join the action, but they were still climbing out of the gravity well when we destroyed them. They fell into the harbor.”
Greathouse shrugged. “A few of the smaller RCN ships got away,” he went on, “but that’s temporary; we’re chasing them down now. And of course those few worlds of the cluster who hadn’t already joined the Alliance did so since the victory.”
That could be a complete fabrication, Daniel thought, but the Veil is too close to the Montserrat Stars for deception to last more than a few days. Unless Petersen has a very short-term objective, the story is basically true.
“Well, Captain Leary?” jeered the boy on the throne. “What do you have to say to that?”
“I have nothing to say to that, your majesty,” Daniel said. His words weren’t being miked. Well, he hadn’t thought they would be.
He turned very deliberately to face the belly of the hall. Hieronymos and his flunkies would still be able to hear him; and if they thought they were being insulted, so much the better.
“I am an officer of the Republic of Cinnabar Navy!” he boomed. He’d learned to project his voice while calling to shore from a small boat off the coast of Bantry. He might not sound as honey-smooth as a practiced orator, but by thunder! they’d hear him at the back of the hall. “We’re not in the habit of getting our facts from officers of the Alliance, whom we’ve defeated so many times in the past!”
“Come along, men!” Senator Forbes said. She turned on her heel, crisply but with more vehemence than an Academy drill instructor would’ve approved. “This is no place for Cinnabar nobles who value their reputations.”
This certainly didn’t work out well, Daniel thought as they strode along. That was nothing new to a spacer, of course. When he was outside the audience chamber, he’d be able to start serious planning; which left the problem of getting outside, of course.
The central aisle had seemed long when he and Robinson followed the Senator down to the throne. It seemed a great deal longer in the other direction with Daniel’s shoulders prickling against the possibility of a shot.
Or perhaps rotten fruit. That would be even more embarrassing, though more survivable as well. He didn’t suppose the Headman’s petitioners attended his levees with rotten fruit, though, or that they were permitted to attend with guns. There was still a risk that Hieronymos would order his guards to shoot the Cinnabar envoys, but that was unlikely even for an arrogant, rather stupid, boy.
Daniel grinned. The usher who’d barred their way to the throne watched them from the doorway. When he saw Daniel’s cheerful expression, he backed aside in growing horror.
Daniel threw the double doors open for his companions. Still smiling, he tossed the usher a salute as they went out. Generally his salutes looked as though he were trying to learn fly-fishing, but this time it was uncommonly sharp.
The soldiers, some of them probably guards, in the antechamber were just as bored and relaxed as they’d been when the Cinnabar contingent arrived. They and the civilians–aides, courtiers, and loungers who could afford good enough clothes to enter the palace–watched the envoys leave with the same mild interest that they’d have given dogs walking across the room, and a good deal less than if the dogs had been mating instead. Tovera was almost invisible among the gaily colored rabble.
“A communicator!” Daniel said, holding out his right palm. Tovera tossed him the standard RCN unit she held ready, then put her hand back inside the attaché case as she fell in behind the envoys.
They crossed the antechamber. “Signals, this is Six,” Daniel said. He was taking some risk in speaking before they were at least out of the building, but he very much doubted that anybody on Karst would be able to crash whatever encryption Adele and her servant were using. “I need any information you’ve gotten on recent events in the Montserrat Stars, over.”
“Captain, this is intolerable!” Senator Forbes said in her buzz-saw voice. “We’ll return to Xenos immediately and–”
To Daniel’s utter amazement, Mister Robinson touched the tips of his left index and middle fingers to the Senator’s mouth. “Aunt Bessie,” he said, “Captain Leary needs to concentrate on the safety of the mission right now.”
As they exited to the courtyard where the aircar waited, Adele began recounting the disaster at New Harmony with her usual frigid calm.