Garol Vogel stood in the wheelhouse of the flagship as the Langsarik fleet came off the exit vector and dropped to sub-tactical speed. The Langsarik commander stood beside him; together they watched the massed ships of the Jurisdiction’s Second Fleet come to position, flanking the Langsariks as they progressed toward Port Charid and their new home.
The Langsarik commander — Flag Captain Walton Agenis — stared impassively, her expression so flatly neutral that Garol knew it was a struggle for her to contain her emotion. The Langsarik fleet surrendered under escort with full military honors, true enough, but surrender was surrender nonetheless, and now they were wards of Jurisdiction.
The terms of their probation were not punitively strict. Port Charid was a small tightly knit community dominated by the Dolgorukij Combine, people among whom the Langsariks would stand out by virtue of their accent and their non-Combine blood. The Bench was counting on Port Charid to deny the Langsariks access to space transport and to provide a certain basic level of population monitoring — roll call, head count, attendance reconciliation.
In return Port Charid received the Langsariks, a population of five thousand souls with sophisticated technical skills, proven adaptability, and nowhere for them to work but as cheap labor to fuel Port Charid’s commercial expansion in cargo management and freight handling.
“Are we clear?” Agenis asked; and one of her lieutenants stood to answer. Hilton Shires was actually her nephew as well as her lieutenant, though Garol didn’t think there was more than twelve years between them; and Agenis had yet to see forty years, Standard. She and Garol himself were almost the same age.
“Reports are complete, Captain, the fleet has cleared the vector. Standing by.”
Walton Agenis had been a lieutenant herself when the Jurisdiction had annexed the Langsariks’ home system. She had risen to command over the fifteen years of the Langsarik fleet’s stubborn if futile resistance, forging what had been a local commerce patrol fleet into mercantile raiders whose continued evasion of Fleet’s best efforts to locate and contain them had become a scandal from one end of the Bench to the other.
She’d seen her family either ostracized on her home world — where it was no longer expedient to admit to having kin with the Langsarik fleet — or lost in battle; and now she stood witness to the final loss of the fleet itself.
Still, it was only the ships that they were losing.
The Langsariks themselves — people who had made the Langsarik fleet a challenge and a reproach to Jurisdiction — would live; and someday yet be free. Eight years of probation as Port Charid’s labor pool was not so terrible a price to pay for reconciliation with the Bench; and once eight years had passed the Langsariks could go home.
“Specialist Vogel,” Flag Captain Agenis said, not looking at him. Garol bowed in salute at her side.
“The fleet is assembled in good order and ready to surrender the controls as agreed. Your action, Bench specialist.”
Langsariks didn’t salute. It wasn’t the Langsarik way. “Thank you, Flag Captain. Lieutenant Shires, if you would hail the Margitov, please.”
Jils Ivers was on the Jurisdiction Fleet Flagship Margitov, waiting. She had worked as hard as Garol himself to see this happen: a peaceful solution to the Langsarik problem, one that avoided the crying waste that simple annihilation would have been. Lieutenant Shires made the call; and piped Jils Ivers’s voice over the public address in the wheelhouse.
“Jurisdiction Fleet Flagship Margitov, standing by. Prepared to assume direction.”
It was tactful of Jils to say “direction,” and not “command” or “control.” The reality of it was hard enough for those proud people to accept. They were under no illusions as to the impact of the change in status waiting for them. It was to their credit that they went forward into a sort of bondage as bravely as they ever had confronted the Bench in sortie.
“By direction from Flag Captain Walton Agenis,” Garol said, choosing his words carefully. “Properly delegated by the Langsarik fleet to do so on its behalf. The Langsarik fleet surrenders the motivational controls to remote direction. Now.”
Lieutenant Shires sat back at his post and folded his arms.
The images on the panoramic screens that lined the wheelhouse walls, the picture of space on monitor, faltered; then steadied again.
“The ship is on remote direction,” Lieutenant Shires said, looking over his shoulder at Flag Captain Agenis. “They’ve got us, Captain.”
I hope we’re doing the right thing.
Shires didn’t have to say it for the message to be clear, and Agenis didn’t need to answer.
The Langsariks had made their decision.
They had agreed to accept amnesty and terms.
Not all of the Langsariks had agreed that it was their last best chance for survival under Jurisdiction: but the entire Langsarik fleet had sworn to be honor-bound by the majority vote, and Langsariks kept their promises. Sometimes all too well.
“Your ship, Bench specialist.” Captain Agenis bowed her head and stepped back half a pace. “What are they going to do with it, may I ask?”
After the obvious, of course, repossession, disarmament, and evacuation of all Langsarik personnel on arrival at Port Charid. The Bench had hired transport from the mercantile resources in port to ferry the Langsariks from orbit to Port and from there to the nearby settlement that had been prepared for them.
Under the terms of the amnesty no Langsarik was to own, lease, direct, or appropriate space transport for the duration of the probationary period, unless under immediate and direct supervision by non-Langsarik employers. And these ships, the ships of the Langsarik fleet, the ships whose computing systems had just been surrendered to remote control, these ships had been home to the Langsariks for more than fifteen years.
“I believe they’re to be taken back to Palaam.” The Langsarik system of origin had a technical claim on the ships. Once the planetary government — the puppet government — of Palaam had formally repudiated them, the Langsariks had become pirates in the eyes of the law, and the hulls they fought with and lived on belonged to Palaam. “I don’t know what the Palaamese government will do with them.”
Agenis made a sour face, but it was gone almost as quickly as it had appeared. In a sense it was no hardship for the Langsariks to be forbidden to return to Palaam for eight years, Garol knew. As far as the Langsariks were concerned they had been betrayed by their own government, their families, their communities all turning their backs under pressure from the Bench. Maybe after eight years the Langsariks would come to forgive their home world for bowing to pressure. They were about to gain first-hand knowledge of how dispiriting life under Jurisdiction could be.
“Well. I hope they get some good maintenance people in. The condition of quarters, really, Bench specialist. It’s shocking.”
But her forced humor could not cover up her grief; and Garol could offer no help. He had already done everything he could for the Langsariks, not only to get the amnesty approved, but to structure the amnesty so that it would not become intolerable to the Langsariks. He felt responsible for them now; it was his doing that they were to accept probation here, his and Jils’s. It had to work. Criminals by Bench definition, no question, but they were brave, smart, stubborn, strong-willed people, and the Bench could not afford to waste the resource they represented for the sake of mere vengeance, or ego-gratification on the part of Palaam’s Bench-appointed puppet government.
Since he could not change the hard facts of the matter, Garol attempted to provide reassurance of another sort, instead.
“I’ve inspected the settlement, Flag Captain. All new construction.” Put up in a hurry, and not the best quality. Fleet contracting, let to the lowest bidder, but Garol had been given the authority to demand some of the less satisfactory elements be upgraded and improved.
It wasn’t luxury.
But it would keep weather out and heat in; and the Langsariks would be able to make changes themselves, as time went on. “Paint job all one color, more or less, but at least it’s clean. Funny thing, though. Not a trace of rose gold to be seen in the entire settlement.”
She smiled, as if despite herself, and glanced down at the front of the uniform that she wore. Rose gold. The colors of the Langsarik fleet. “Do we surrender our clothing as well, then, Garol?”
Negotiations had gone on for months, and they’d been intense. In all that time, she’d never used his personal name. Garol was pleased and honored by her grant of intimacy, formal though it was, and at the same time grieved by the depth of her personal distress.
“You’ll remove all rank and insignia on the ferry shuttle between the ships in orbit and Port Charid. But no. You keep your clothing.” The Langsariks didn’t have any other clothing, not after fifteen years. For all Garol knew they slept in uniform. “There’ll be a concession store to serve your needs at the settlement, but they haven’t selected a vendor yet. Food service and clinic and utilities, yes.”
There were five thousand people in the Langsarik fleet, men, women, and even children born to a people at war with the civilized worlds and the Bench that governed them.
There were many logistical details yet unresolved, but Chilleau Judiciary would do the best it could for the Langsariks.
Chilleau Judiciary had no choice.
The First Judge — the single most powerful individual under Jurisdiction, the woman who held the tiebreaking vote on the Bench — was old; the Second Judge at Chilleau Judiciary was ambitious, and well placed to mount a bid for the First Judge’s position when it became vacant. But there were nine Judges in all, several with their own ambitions with respect to the ultimate position of influence under Jurisdiction, and the Second Judge had suffered a staggering humiliation within the past year.
Chilleau Judiciary’s political rivals had made full use of the lurid details of torture, murder, and waste of lives and property that had been taken into evidence during the trial of the Domitt Prison’s administration for failure to uphold the rule of Law.
If the Second Judge was to reclaim her honor from the blow it had received in the court of public opinion after the scandals at the Domitt Prison, the Langsarik settlement could not be allowed to fail.
“Okidan Yards, this is the freighter Sevior, requesting docking protocol. Please respond.”
In the year since the Bench had settled the Langsariks at Port Charid, Port Charid itself had prospered, through its unequal partnership with its captive labor pool. Traffic was up more than thirty-five percent overall, and the arrival of a freighter at a warehouse yards excited much less notice these days than it might have done a year and a half gone by.
Fisner Feraltz stood in the dock-master’s office on the asteroid warehouse complex of the Okidan Yards, watching the freighter’s approach on monitor.
He could remember.
He’d been fifteen years old, interning on a Combine ship carrying a shipment of garments from the manufactory in Berin, in Givrodnye — where he’d been born — to the clearing-house at Corcorum, outside Combine space. They’d been attacked by Langsariks, ordered to stand by for boarding and prepare to surrender goods on demand. Someone — no one had ever claimed to know who it might have been — had fired the ship’s signal guns, which weren’t designed for offensive purposes.
So it hadn’t even been Langsarik fire that had destroyed the ship. It had been an accident. The signal guns had never been used before, and somebody under the stress of the event hadn’t unshipped the barrel shunts. Or had used the wrong rounds. Or something; and it didn’t really matter, in the end. The entire crew but one had been lost in the explosion.
The Langsariks had never hinted at suspecting him, and no one else who might have accused him had survived.
But he lived with shame that never ended.
The dock-master spoke from her post at her master-board. “We have you, freighter Sevior, Okidan Yards confirms. Stand by for transmission of docking protocol.”
The Langsariks had boarded the crippled freighter and found him barricaded in the cargo holds, trembling in terror. They’d taken him with them, because the ship had been too badly damaged to hold its atmosphere for long enough for rescuers to reach him from any other source.
He had been the only survivor.
And how could he have gone home to his family, after that? How could he explain the fact that he was alive while his brothers, uncles, cousins were dead? How could he have hoped to tell the truth — that the Langsariks had offered threats, but no violence; and had cared for him with creditable charity until they could see him safely on neutral ground — without raising questions in people’s minds that he could not bear to face?
There was no hope of any such homecoming, not for him, not forever.
He had stayed with the Langsariks for almost a full year, Standard, until they found a way to smuggle him back into friendly hands. That had been at Markov, as it had happened, and Fisner had never gone home.
The freighter on-screen, Sevior, turned its great bulk slowly to sink down between the signal markers on Okidan’s flat side and come to ground. The Shawl of Rikavie was full of asteroids like Okidan; large enough to site warehouses and docks, small enough to maneuver out of the way of other asteroids in orbit if need arose. There was plenty of room to maneuver in the Shawl — the asteroid belt halfway between the planet Rikavie and the Sillume vector, entry and exit, the space-lane terminals that gave Rikavie system its place in the web of transport under Jurisdiction.
The Jurisdiction had failed to take revenge for Fisner’s family. After fruitless attempts to bring the pirates to account, the Bench had cravenly made peace with them instead, and left the crime unpunished to burn in Fisner’s heart.
He had found work where he could, ending up at last within the Combine’s mercantile authority, the oversight agency that coordinated trade on behalf of Combine interests within Jurisdiction as a whole.
It had been chance that had brought him to Port Charid, to work in the warehouses on-planet and oversee the Combine’s yards on its own asteroid base in the Shawl.
But once the Jurisdiction had brought the Langsariks to settle at Port Charid and be its labor pool, Fisner Feraltz had understood the hand of the Holy Mother in his life, and known what he had to do.
If there had been no Langsariks, there would have been no accident.
It was their fault his family was dead, and he was exiled. No amount of self-serving charity on their part could wash away their guilt, or ease his suffering. Blood called for blood. Nor could he afford to forgive and forget in his heart, whatever the requirements of social discourse. The Holy Mother herself expected vengeance of him: The Angel had told him so.
On-screen, Fisner could see that the freighter Sevior had settled into its berth. Its umbilicus had completed its initial handshake, pressurized environment to pressurized environment. It was bright on the surface where the freighter lay, and the small sun of Rikavie shone like a beacon over the shoulder of the beast. The dock-master sat at her station, however, her fingers drumming the console absentmindedly.
“Funny,” she said, and Fisner thought it was maybe only to herself — idle curiosity, but no alarm. “That doesn’t look like the specs it sent. Didn’t they say it was a dray? That looks like a distance carrier, to me.”
“Hard to say,” Fisner replied politely, just in case she was talking to him. “But it does seem a little other than one would expect. Maybe we could ask the captain about it. Get a tour. You never know what’s coming out of shipyards these days.”
He was lying, in a way, because he knew quite well that it was a heavy transport freighter. It hadn’t come to deliver stores to Okidan. It was here to take the Okidan Yards for everything it could plunder.
The dock-master clearly didn’t have a clue, not yet — just the germ of a suspicion. She pivoted slowly around in her seat and stood up, frowning slightly. “Good manners to go say something, either way. Coming?”
“No, thanks. I’ve got finishing up to do.”
Inventory validation was a chore, but it had to be done. Since the Combine Yards were the largest in system, it had quite naturally fallen to the Combine Yards to oversee and facilitate, to manage all of the administrative details required to keep the flow of traffic moving, to provide insurers and contract holders alike with assurances as to the quality and condition of goods, to collect and remit fees and taxes, and generally to act as the Bench proxy in Port Charid.
The dock-master left Fisner to his task. He was alone; and after a moment he locked the office door, secure in the knowledge that the observation ports — which were proof against unplanned decompression — would not be easy to break in, should someone on staff try to find shelter in the office from what was to come.
On the station’s master monitor screens Fisner could see the dock-master cross the load-in apron to where the freighter’s cargo umbilicus debouched into the load-in docks. No one had appeared from the freighter yet. Abandoning his task for more pressing concerns, Fisner moved to the dock-master’s master-board to cut the video feeds between the docks and the rest of the warehouse complex.
The dock-master’s chair was still warm from her body heat. Fisner hefted it to test the weight, and smashed it down across the master communications nexus board. The auxiliary fail-safe panel was on a subsidiary board some paces removed, and he left that intact. He had no intention of dying here.
There were people coming out of the freighter’s umbilicus now, the cheerful color of their Langsarik blouses clearly visible even at a distance. They had the dock-master, but she had yet to panic — at least to judge by appearances. Was it his imagination, or was she looking up into the monitor, up into the screens?
She knew he was in the office. She might be hoping for some quick-witted action on his part.
Fisner bore her no ill will. It wasn’t her fault. It was the fault of the Bench, the Jurisdiction’s fault for suffering Langsarik predation to go unpunished. Fisner set off the station alarms: standard emergency procedure, and it would bring everyone on station running to the load-in docks. The freighter’s crew had had enough time to get themselves into position by now, and were lying in wait.
The Bench had said that he had no claim against Bench or Langsariks for damages, that the loss he had suffered had been through misadventure. An accident.
The Angel of Destruction said differently.
The Angel of Destruction said that it was an offense against the Holy Mother herself that an ungodly and alien hand had been permitted to steal from Dolgorukij, and with impunity; an amnesty was no punishment for such a crime. The Angel of Destruction had sought him out and recruited him, sounded him out and tested him, tried his mettle and his faith — but at the end of it all the Angel had opened its arms to him and welcomed him, granted him membership in its sacred fellowship and made him the agent of the vengeance of the Holy Mother against the Langsariks at Port Charid.
The warehouse staff were unarmed; the slaughter was quick and efficient, over almost as soon as it had begun. Fisner scanned the load-in docks outside the dock-master’s office with the remote monitors, counting the bodies.
Everyone seemed to be accounted for.
The dock-master was to be shot over her boards, as if in the act of trying to call for help. She was still alive, standing under guard with two raiders in Langsarik dress as the plunder of the warehouse commenced. The hand of the Holy Mother was clearly discernible in the fortunate circumstance that had brought the Langsariks to Port Charid. They were a perfect cover for the Angel’s fund-raising activities, and once they were shown guilty — too guilty for the Bench to overlook their faults and let them live free, this time — Port Charid would go begging for labor once more.
Labor that the Combine was in a position to provide, at a premium, of course.
Labor that would only solidify the hold the Holy Mother held over trade at Port Charid and access to the Sillume vector alike.
Meanwhile the Angel stood in need of goods to convert into funds, because the righteous were not welcome in the debased Church of the Autocrat’s court. The Angel of Destruction had been outlawed through the malice of its enemies and the weak-spirited failings of the Autocrat himself octaves ago, when even Chuvishka Kospodar — the man who more than any other had nurtured their holy order, and welcomed it as the hand of the Holy Mother on Sarvaw — had been forced publicly to repudiate the Angel and its fearless defense of Her honor.
The money had to come from somewhere.
Just now it was coming out of the Okidan Yards, and the Langsariks would be blamed — two blessings in one devotion.
After a while the raiders in Langsarik dress came to the door of the dock-master’s office, and Fisner opened the door. They had the dock-master with them, and her eyes brightened with sudden hope when she saw him.
Hadn’t she figured it out yet?
No, for they had been coached very carefully, Langsarik phrases, Langsarik swear words, Langsarik songs. Langsariks were responsible for the slaughter here, not honest Dolgorukij.
“Here?” raid leader Dalmoss asked Fisner, gesturing toward the broken master console with a tilt of his chin. A shot could serve to disguise the previous damage that had been deliberately inflicted on the communications console; with enough blood, people would be discouraged from looking very closely. It wouldn’t be a problem. There were good reasons for the Langsariks to have first smashed the console and then shot the dock-master, if anyone felt honor-bound to establish a precise sequence of events.
Dalmoss bowed his head and glanced toward his people. They pulled the dock-master over to her console and turned her so that she faced Fisner and the raid leader alike; but the venom in her expression, the hatred in her eyes, the acid in her voice was all for Fisner.
“You. I should have known better.”
It was as if she no longer even saw the others, staring at Fisner with baffled rage. “Sharing spit with Langsariks, you might as well have been one of them all along. Imagine you working for the Combine. I guess you must have grown to like the life, is that what happened?”
He could snatch Dalmoss’s weapon and kill her himself.
But that would have been a gesture of anger, an act of violence done with a resentful heart. The Angel killed without mercy, but without malice. The Angel was only the humble tool of the Holy Mother, blessed by Her toward the furtherance of Her sacred plan; and therefore when the Angel killed it was without anger, without fear, without hatred or joy in cruelty.
It was for that reason that the Angel could kill, and not sin in doing so.
Therefore, Fisner simply nodded to Dalmoss. The raiders in Langsarik dress who had brought the dock-master to her console backed away; she was so focused on Fisner that there was no need to watch for any sudden moves on her part. She was paralyzed with hatred as surely as though it had been fear.
Dalmoss shot her in the middle of her body, and her shoulders and head fell backwards over the top edge of the communications console while her legs fell in opposite directions, to each side of her shattered pelvis, as her arms flew wide.
What a mess, Fisner thought. And Dalmoss had prudently used his sidearm. Had he used one of the others’ more powerful weapons — it didn’t bear thinking on.
Just as well that the false Langsarik colors didn’t have to be particularly clean to be recognizable for what they were.
“And now you, firstborn and eldest brother,” Dalmoss said respectfully.
This was the most challenging part of this raid; but Fisner almost welcomed it. He would put any lingering doubts about his courage to rest, he would bear witness to his devotion to the Holy Mother with his body. And not least of all, he would bear witness with his words as well, damning witness against the Langsariks — so long as he survived, and his testimony was properly handled.
“I’m going over here to the auxiliary call,” Fisner explained, setting the scene, proud of himself for being able to speak so calmly. He was afraid. But he would not falter. “You shoot me down, I fall, you leave. Near miss, but there must be enough damage to make it convincing.” They’d been over all that already. They’d carefully chosen the angle of the shot, and where Dalmoss should aim. “Here I go — to reach the auxiliary call, and give the alarm — ”
He had his back turned, so he didn’t have to see Dalmoss raise his weapon.
And when the blow came it was so huge and shocking that he completely lost track of what he was doing.
People were dragging him along the ground, why was that?
Lifting, pressing his hands against the console.
Something was wrong with him.
The right side of his body seemed to have disappeared, and yet he could see it well enough — arm, leg, foot, hand.
He was bleeding, and his clothing was torn. Something in his mind noticed that no blood gushed, though it seeped quickly, and took that for an encouraging sign.
He lay against the auxiliary communications console with his face to the panel. Someone moved his hand; and there was a light, there, very close to his eyes. Green. Communication. Sending.
“Help me,” Fisner croaked. He was supposed to say something. What was he supposed to say? He needed help. Yes. Langsariks had attacked the Okidan Yards. “This is Okidan. Feraltz. We’re raided. Dying. Help.”
His hand dropped away from the toggle, then his body followed, sliding slowly to the floor.
He didn’t feel the impact as he fell.
He lay on the floor and stared at the wall stupidly until the room went black on him.
Langsariks had done this.
It was all the Langsariks’ fault that this had happened.
Standing at the aide’s station in the small Combine hospital, Garol Vogel scanned the status report. Fisner Feraltz, Combine citizen, Givrodnye national. Injuries sustained at the hands of armed pirates at the Okidan Yards in the Shawl of Rikavie, Rikavie system.
Rikavie system: port of departure, Charid — where the Langsariks had been settled by the Bench, just over a year ago, now. Checking the date on the status report Garol made a quick calculation. Twenty days. They’d brought Feraltz here as soon as he could be stabilized for distance transport; Port Charid had a small clinic of its own, and they could handle just about anything there, but Feraltz was Dolgorukij, and Dolgorukij suspected that nobody else really understood the intricacies of a Dolgorukij physique.
And perhaps they were right.
Injuries including but not limited to mass soft tissue laceration, especially of the right portion of the body. Knee joint requiring replacement, ankle may require fusing, biomedical netting wrap on long bones of thigh and lower leg, silica glazing therapy in effect over 85 percent of rightmost surface of hip.
“Lucky to be alive,” Garol said to the patient’s advocate who was serving as his guide and escort. The advocate nodded.
“That’s what the staff says as well, Bench specialist. But since he is alive, the surgical board felt it best to postpone any interviews until he had regained at least some of his mobility. Since his basic evidence had already been read into the record at Port Charid.”
Well, there wasn’t a Record at Port Charid, not in the formal sense. For a Record to be official a Judicial officer qualified for custody was required, and Port Charid didn’t rate any on-site staff, let alone a Record of its own. It was on circuit, yes, but that was it.
Once traffic started to pick up at Port Charid the Bench would site Chambers there — as well as a fleet detachment, to monitor attempts at unauthorized communication across the Sillume vector with Free Government insurrectionaries outside the pale of Jurisdiction, out in Gonebeyond space.
But first Port Charid had to grow its traffic. It took an on-site tax base to support Chambers and Fleet detachments, and so far Port Charid’s tax base simply did not qualify.
“Langsariks, I heard.” Garol frowned down at the closed medical record. “In fact I’m told there’s been more than one disturbance at Port Charid recently.”
The patient’s advocate shrugged, looking almost bored. “If that’s what they say, Bench specialist. Nothing to me one way or the other, except of course when they start shooting at honest Dolgorukij. No aspersion on the Bench umbrella, of course.”
Of course not. Equal respect in theory for all hominid species under Jurisdiction was an important aspect of good Bench citizenship. And sensible acknowledgment of the fact that people would always favor their own was just common sense, and no offense to it.
“Very properly so, Advocate. Can we go in now?”
The patient’s advocate looked to the medical aide who waited in the doorway; the medical aide nodded, and opened the door. It was a hinged door, here, in a hospital. Dolgorukij knew what was proper: at least what they believed to be proper. This little hospital smelled of money all the way out to the street. And Fisner Feraltz, the patient Garol had come to see, was here at his employer’s expense, heroically wounded in a cowardly attack.
Garol had a notion that they’d made Feraltz very comfortable indeed, here.
The patient was in plain clothes, resting on an incline-board and doing a slow lift with his right leg. Physical therapy; Garol recognized the apparatus, and he could sympathize deeply with the look of carefully screened pain and concentration on Feraltz’s face.
Even with the brace, it wasn’t fun.
Feraltz wore bracing all over his right side, but Garol knew how little of the load the bracing really took off injured limbs and joints — not nearly enough. Feraltz would be wearing pieces of that body-bracing for months, if not years.
Personally Garol had always preferred to discard such aids as quickly as possible and pay the price of mobility in pain.
Garol stopped a pace or two from where Fisner Feraltz pursued his physical rehabilitation with grim determination and nodded a polite greeting.
“Thank you for seeing me, Feraltz. I’m Vogel, Bench specialist Garol Aphon Vogel. Doing your exercises I see.”
Feraltz was middling tall but well made, to look at him, more bone than flesh but adequately muscled by his hands and shoulders, fair-skinned and blue-eyed and very nearly blond. It was a type more general than some Dolgorukij Garol had met, who could have never been mistaken for Dynad or Jekrab, Nurail, or any other similar ethnicity; still, it was a type. Garol was a mixed category hominid himself, and his family generally tended toward a muddier complexion and less lithely limber a frame.
Feraltz lowered his eyes in acknowledgment. “Yes, thank you, Bench specialist. — Not at all, my pleasure, sir, as well as my duty.” Well-spoken young man, and no trace of an accent that Garol could detect offhand. He noticed that. Dolgorukij generally had an accent, in part because of the basic conviction of the superiority of their blood and culture, in part because as a result of that conviction Dolgorukij who spoke Standard had very seldom learned to do so as children.
Nor had they taken it quite seriously as adults.
There almost wasn’t any such thing as an unaccented Standard. The only people who spoke Standard as their native tongue were wards of the Bench raised at public expense; those, or the crèche-bred Command Branch officers the Bench was experimenting with, the orphaned children of the Bench’s enemies raised by the Bench in strict indoctrination to serve the Bench and uphold the rule of Law.
“I’m concerned that the evidence I gave the Clerk of Court could be too liberally interpreted,” Feraltz added, while Garol mused, distracted, on Feraltz’s lack of an accent. “So I hope you haven’t come on a misunderstanding, Bench specialist. But I’m glad to answer any questions you might have, sir.”
Polite, as well as a well-spoken man. “How do you mean, ‘liberally interpreted’?” It was an interesting thing to say, and could serve to ease in to the questions Garol had come to ask. “If you would care to elaborate.”
The statements that had been forwarded to him said Langsariks. If there was going to be any trouble with the Langsarik settlement at Port Charid, Garol needed to cut it out quickly and quietly, before Chilleau Judiciary got any creative ideas about revising the amnesty.
Feraltz was very willing to elaborate, apparently. “If I can say so without reproach, Bench specialist, the Clerk of Court who came to see me seemed to be determined that she already knew exactly what had happened. She kept on helping me out, you know the kind of thing I mean, and I think she recorded things I didn’t actually say. I really think she did. There’s no real reason to blame the Langsariks for that raid, it’s just circumstantial evidence, from start to finish.”
Well, that was a start on what Garol wanted to hear; so it was that much more important to be careful about it, accordingly. “I’ve reviewed the evidence certified by the Clerk of Court who interviewed you, but it’s been a few days since then. I do seem to recall a positive identification attributed to you. Langsariks, in the raiding party.”
Difficult to tell whether Feraltz’s pained expression resulted from psychological distress over a potentially serious misunderstanding, or just reflected physical pain. “I never made any such assertion, Bench specialist, I’d swear to it. I might not have been as coherent as I would have liked to be, though.”
The statement had been taken only days after the Okidan Yards had been raided and its crew left for dead. Feraltz’s statement had been taken at Port Charid while Feraltz had been waiting for transport to the private hospital here at Nisherre, and thus given while Feraltz had been surrounded by Langsariks — figuratively if not literally, the Langsarik labor force having relatively few technically proficient medical practitioners to spare from the clinic in the settlement for hire out to the port.
So in a sense Feraltz’s continued survival argued against any Langsarik involvement in the Okidan raid: if Feraltz had been in a position to give credible evidence against Langsariks, to positively implicate Langsariks, the Langsariks in danger had had perfectly good opportunities to silence him before his evidence went anywhere.
And they hadn’t.
So Feraltz wasn’t and couldn’t, and therefore hadn’t needed to be silenced. Unless Feraltz’s prior association with Langsariks, a detail Garol had found buried in the intelligence analysis, hinted at collusion; but if there was collusion, surely they would have managed a way to arrange Feraltz’s survival without the risky cover of the physical injuries Feraltz had sustained?
“Without reference to your earlier testimony.” Garol knew he could challenge that testimony, which had not been taken under appropriate controls, potential drug interactions compromising quality of evidence, and so forth. And he would, if he needed to; but first he needed to be sure of the facts. To the extent that there were facts. To the extent that objective truths even existed. “How about telling me what you remember that could be used to identify the raiders. Don’t worry about anything you said before, for now. Just talk to me.”
Feraltz let his leg rest, frowning. “That’s probably the problem right there, Bench specialist. I don’t have much to offer. I was in the dock-master’s office doing inventory audit for the tax assessment, and I heard her talking to them on the comms, but I don’t remember anything the least unusual about the conversation. I only barely remember hearing her talking to them at all.“
He probably hadn’t been paying attention. Dock-masters talked to inbound freighters all the time. A Langsarik accent was one of the more subtle ones — as if a Langsarik wouldn’t have disguised his or her voice anyway. As if any pirate wouldn’t have done that, out of baseline prudence.
As if Langsariks could have come up with a ship to mount a raid in the first place: unfortunately fifteen years of successful commerce raiding had created a belief in the public mind that the Langsariks could work miracles before breakfast, when it came to their ships.
“She went out, she shut the door; I remember thinking she might have some unrecorded transaction going with the freighter. And it’s none of my business; I audit to the record, there are specialists who audit for unrecorded transactions. So I minded my own business.”
It had just been bad luck for Feraltz that he’d even been there in the first place. But inventory audit was supposed to be unannounced, and the raiders wouldn’t have expected him to be in the dock-master’s office.
“I heard the door, it was pushed open with a crash. Startled me. There were three men, and the dock-master. She made a break for the master communications panel. They shot her. Into pieces.”
The surprise of finding the dock-master’s office occupied would explain it; otherwise, it would have been hard to understand the dock-master getting away from her escort, even for a short dash across the room. They’d probably meant to force her to open her safe room. If so, the death she’d won by resisting might well have been one infinitely to be preferred to the manner in which she might have died — except that Langsariks had never gone for torture in any big way. Nor massacre, come to that.
“And I think they were wearing that color, the yellow-pink. Langsarik colors. What is it called? Rose gold. It’s a familiar color, Bench specialist, I should tell you that I spent some time as the guest of the Langsarik fleet, when I was younger.” Garol made a mental note; Feraltz’s candid confession simplified things a bit. “But that doesn’t make them Langsariks. I could wear a Bench intelligence specialist’s uniform if I wanted, but it wouldn’t make me a Bench intelligence specialist.”
No, it would make him a criminal. It was against the law to wear a uniform to which one was not legally entitled — or bound, in the case of the bond-involuntaries. The point was well taken, all the same.
“What do you remember about their appearance apart from the color of their clothing?” Garol prompted. “Anybody you may have thought you recognized, for instance. Cut of the garment. Hair color. Size and shape. Accent.”
But Feraltz frowned, with apparent perplexity. “I’m sorry, Bench specialist. I didn’t recognize anybody. They were all men, I think. I remember the color very vividly. But about the people themselves — not much.”
Disappointing; but predictable. Feraltz had only seen them moments before he was shot, and then only under conditions of deep emotional shock and horror.
The Bench couldn’t pin a Langsarik crime on the settlement on the basis of this evidence. Feraltz knew Langsariks, had lived with Langsariks, and refused to say that they were Langsariks; but the strength of the evidence went both ways. Maybe he was protecting someone.
And yet Garol couldn’t discount the implications.
Maybe the raiders wore Langsarik colors in order to divert suspicion to a visible target in the event that they were seen. It would be a coup for Langsariks to manage a raid from quarantine; unfortunately, the Langsariks had proved — time and again — that they were capable of almost anything.
And therefore maybe the raiders wore Langsarik colors because they were Langsariks, and that was the only clothing they had.
That was the simplest — and therefore most obvious, if unlikely — explanation; and Garol did not look forward to taking this intelligence to Chilleau Judiciary.
It was his duty. He didn’t have to like it.
The only way he was going to be able to determine whether or not there was a problem with the amnesty agreement was to go to Port Charid and see for himself. If nothing else, the public-relations angle had to be carefully managed, and he could best decide how to handle that on-site.
“Are you willing to do a pharmaceutical investigation?” Garol asked, because he had a duty to ask. Sometimes the right drugs could pull up a previously un-retrieved detail from memory; but drugs were also frequently responsible for the spontaneous generation of false memories, or for complete misinterpretation of imperfectly understood information.
It took a real expert to hope to tell the difference, especially in circumstances where the subject witness might have ulterior motives that affected what and how much he remembered.
Garol wasn’t particularly interested in risking the survival of the Langsarik settlement on a point of interpretation; so he was just as glad when Feraltz shook his head, rejecting the suggestion. Reluctantly. But absolutely.
“I’m sworn to Abstain, Bench specialist, and it’s hard enough that I have to take all of this medicine, even though the priest insists on it. I’ll do a drug inquiry if you come back with an Ecclesiastical Exception, of course I will. But I really don’t want to. I’m sure I’ve already told you everything I remember.”
The Dolgorukij church administration would make allowances for the requirements of Bench process, even for zealots like Abstainers. But zealots hated to compromise, on Ecclesiastical Exception or any other grounds. This young man had already suffered; Garol was quite willing to forgo a step that might only produce ambiguous or flawed evidence for which there was no pressing immediate need — at least for the time being.
If there were problems on Charid, he would find out about them his own way; too much potentially ambiguous information too soon would only seriously constrain his freedom of action.
“Let’s not worry about that for now. Time enough later if we need corroborative evidence,” Garol reassured Feraltz, who seemed to relax gratefully. “I’ll be going, Feraltz. Thanks. for your time. And keep up with your therapy. It’s the best thing for a complete recovery.”
He should talk.
But maybe giving lip service to the acknowledged but disregarded truth would balance out his own personal and admittedly flamboyant disobedience of doctor’s orders, and help even everything out in the end.
He was going to have to go to Chilleau Judiciary and talk to the Second Judge’s First Secretary, Sindha Verlaine; that could be as unpleasant as rehabilitation therapy, so maybe that would count on the credit side of his personal register, too.
It was worth hoping for.
Garol set his mind firmly on that encouraging but unlikely idea and left Feraltz to exercise in peace.
Kazmer Daigule strolled casually through the narrow lanes of Port Charid’s warehouse district with his hands deep in the worn pockets of his old coat, trying to guess how long it would take for the early-morning sun to warm the air at street level. It would be mid-morning before the shadows began to lift, as far as he could tell; these lanes were only wide enough to admit a small transport mover, and the warehouses themselves towered to the skies.
At least that was the impression from ground level, and the effect seemed to have a discouraging impact on the relatively few people Kazmer could see coming and going in the streets. Maybe they were all just minding their business; Kazmer could approve of that.
Then something caught his eye.
Didn’t he know that man —
Kazmer had seen the familiar figure approach, but so far as he could tell he hadn’t been remarked upon for his own part. This could be good. Looking around him quickly, Kazmer located the nearest doorway and ducked into the shallow alcove the doorway offered for concealment, then waited.
Then the man crossed in front of him, and Kazmer knew him all right. Tall and thin, big-boned, almost gangly, with a fine sharp expression of quick intelligence and lively wit — and big ears that stood out from his head, though perhaps it took a friend to notice. Frowning, just now, and apparently sunk so deep in thought that he didn’t so much as look up until Kazmer spoke.
“Hilton Shires, as I live and breathe. What brings you into Port Charid, Hilton?”
Kazmer stepped out of the alcove and extended his hand in greeting, but it seemed that the surprise he’d given Hilton was unpleasantly complete. It took Hilton a moment to respond.
“Kazmer. Hey. Long time, how’ve you been?”
Well, it hadn’t been all that very long a time. Not really. He’d taken his leave of the Langsariks well ahead of their rendezvous with the Jurisdiction fleet, and he hadn’t seen hide nor hair of a Langsarik since. Two years, maybe.
“I’ve got no complaints.” Kazmer took a step or two down the street, to encourage Hilton to walk with him; but Hilton wasn’t moving. Maybe Hilton was annoyed at Kazmer for getting the drop on him, which would be a little oversensitive on Hilton’s part. It was Kazmer who owed his life to Hilton, and not the other way around. “You?”
“Life is changed.” Hilton made the obvious point so blandly that it was almost as though the fact had just occurred to him. “Not like old times at all, Kazmer. What brings you to Port Charid?”
“I’ve been called in on a transport job.” By Hilton’s people, as a matter of fact. As if he didn’t know, him with his Langsarik colors showing beneath the sober collar of a new if inexpensive work shirt. But maybe he had gotten cautious, in his old age; or it could as easily be that Hilton felt they were too vulnerable to eavesdropping, out in the street like this. They’d be a lot less obvious if they were walking together, Kazmer told himself; but Hilton had a stubborn streak. “From what I’ve heard there’s been more than one of that sort of thing through Port Charid lately.”
But what could Langsariks need cargo transport for? The Langsariks’ property had been impounded by the Bench, along with the Langsarik hulls — as a very practical means of assuring good behavior by removing the means of any independent behaviors at all.
The only transport a Langsarik could get would be illegal and surreptitious by definition. So the only need that Langsariks could have for a mercantile pilot to transport cargo was to move contraband, and Kazmer and Hilton both knew it.
Which only made Hilton’s resolute play at oblivious ignorance all the more irritating. “Well, traffic is picking up. That’s true. Plenty of work to go around.” And Hilton actually leaned his back up against the external wall of the warehouse that fronted on the street, folding his arms across his chest as he did so. Those were his racing thermals that Hilton was wearing with his new work shirt, Kazmer noted. Somewhat the worse for wear, too, but Hilton had always been hard on his racing thermals. A demon for speed, land-borne, airborne, space-borne. “Still. Isn’t this a little out of the way?”
Yes, it was. “I’m a free agent, and I thought it sounded interesting.” He wouldn’t have come so far on a job offer for anyone but Hilton’s people — let alone for a job offer that involved contraband. He was trying to get away from contraband. The least Hilton could do was acknowledge the debt, even if it was obliquely. “Are you on your way to anywhere in particular yourself?”
Of course he was. Hilton was there for the same reason Kazmer was; Kazmer was sure of it. Hilton, however, shook his head, and lied.
“Not really. There isn’t much to do out in the settlement, though, and I got a pass. So I thought I’d come down to watch the shuttle traffic, kind of get away from it all for a bit.”
Now Kazmer was annoyed, and beginning to think about being insulted. Prudence was one thing, but Hilton was taking this whole secrecy bit a little too far. And if that was the way Hilton was going to be, Kazmer would not keep him any longer.
“I see. Well, enjoy yourself, Hilton. Give my regards to your family, all right?”
There was a thought.
So long as Hilton was here in Port Charid maybe Kazmer would have a chance to get out to the settlement and see sweet little Cousin Modice.
Hilton had warned him — if only half-seriously — never to let him catch Kazmer in bed with his little girl-cousin ever again; and him knowing what the joke was, because it had been Hilton’s idea. It hadn’t taken Kazmer long to develop a crush on Modice, true, but he’d known from the start that there was no real future in it.
Modice’s guardian — the Flag Captain of the Langsarik fleet herself — had let him know that Sarvaw mercantile pilots didn’t figure into any Langsarik domestic equations that she was willing to consider for her niece. She’d done it gently and with humor, but the message had been clear enough.
Hilton wouldn’t catch him.
Modice was a grown girl, or close enough to it to make up her own mind. By now, anyway. It had been three years since the bed incident.
“Sure thing,” said Hilton. “Maybe I’ll see you around. Before you go. Where are you staying?”
Kazmer was tired of the game. “Just in, actually, I don’t know yet. I’ll be in touch. Nice to see you, Hilton.”
He was on his way to meet with Hilton’s people in a common meal-room two streets over, right now.
But if Hilton genuinely didn’t know where he was, there was no danger of Hilton guessing that he had gone out afterward to see Modice.
That would pay Hilton out for being so excessively cagey with him in the street. Pleased with this thought, Kazmer went on to his meeting with his prospective employers in good humor once again.
Hilton Shires lingered on the pavement, leaning as casually as he could manage against the exterior wall of a featureless warehouse building, watching Kazmer Daigule’s back as he lumbered out of sight.
Of all the bad luck, rotten luck, disgusting luck, unfair luck.
No, he had nothing against Sarvaw mercantile pilots, not in so many words. Kazmer was his friend; he’d saved Kazmer’s life — or at least it had been his stratagem that had saved Kazmer’s life — and there was little that endeared one man to another quite so strongly as the sense of being benefactor to a peer.
It was true that Kazmer had shown signs of getting sweet on Modice, but that was hardly Kazmer’s fault; Modice had that sort of effect on a lot of people. And the provocation had been more extreme than usual, what with their first meeting being in such potentially compromising circumstances.
But mercantile pilot Kazmer Daigule was one of the last people Hilton had expected to see in Port Charid that morning, and the surprise rendered the awkwardness all the more unpleasant.
He’d made up his mind to take action. They were a displaced people on probation; and while the Bench provided well enough for them to evade public outrage and avoid creating discord from extremes of want, the Bench did not provide for them generously, in any sense.
Hilton’s parents had grown old at war, serving with the Langsarik fleet. The cold season was coming on in the settlement, and the weary bones of retired warriors creaked in the chill wind that blew from the south-southwest. He was young and fit and could labor; and also he had destroyed the latest in a long line of speed machines, and needed the wherewithal to buy another.
But he wasn’t about to admit to Kazmer, of all people, that Hilton Shires was looking for a job. Kazmer knew him as a lieutenant in the Langsarik fleet, a man of acknowledged capability, authority, daring. Kazmer still had space transport, and no Fleet directive to restrict him from using it. Hilton was grounded and flightless, emasculated, powerless.
He had swallowed a good deal of humiliation over the past two years, as the necessary price of purchasing their lives and eventual freedom from a vengeful Bench; but there were limits to how low he could tolerate forcing himself to bend, and confessing his sorry estate to Kazmer was right down there near rock bottom.
It was almost enough to put him off his enterprise altogether: but Kazmer was gone, and the weather was still slowly but surely on its way toward wintertime. The Combine Factor in Port Charid — a big, brash, bearded man named Shiron Madlev — had been a friend to the Langsarik settlement in too many quiet subtle ways to deserve rude behavior from Hilton. Accepting Madlev’s offer of a job interview and then canceling at a moment’s notice would be an entirely gratuitous slap in the face.
And without a speed machine to remind him, howsoever briefly, of the freedom of the stars, Hilton was not sure he could survive; so he took a deep breath and composed himself, and walked on.
It was easy enough to find the Factor’s front office, even though Hilton hadn’t been there before. There was a man behind a desk with a high counter, and another man sitting by the beverage server having a flask of the leaf-based beverage that Combine people drank by preference — rhyti, that was right. It smelled like flowers to Hilton, but his aunt liked the stuff.
“Good-greeting. My name is Hilton Shires.” The man at the desk had watched him come in; clearly the doorkeeper, so Hilton spoke to him first. “I have an appointment for an interview.”
Out of the corner of his eye Hilton saw the other man present put down his flask of rhyti and stand up. The doorkeeper nodded at the second man, but he was speaking to Hilton.
“Yes, Shires, you’re expected. This is floor manager Dalmoss. Factor Madlev has asked the warehouse foreman to interview you, you’re to go with Dalmoss to find him, if you please.”
Well, Hilton had found the prospect of talking to Factor Madlev himself about a job a bit awkward. He was just as glad he would be talking to a foreman; the less overall power the foreman had in the organizational structure of the Combine Yards, the less keenly Hilton expected to feel the gap between what the foreman had the power to dole out and what he himself could expect or hope to be offered.
Something like that.
“Dalmoss Chzagul,”, the floor manager said, coming up to Hilton. Then, unexpectedly, Dalmoss offered his hand to clasp in the Langsarik fashion. Hilton didn’t particularly need to clasp hands with any non-Langsarik, but it was a nice gesture and would be rude of him to ignore it, so he took Dalmoss’s hand and clasped it politely.
“Pleased. Hilton Shires. Thank you for seeing me.”
Dalmoss seemed as willing as Hilton to call the gesture complete and break contact, but that was entirely fair as far as Hilton was concerned. “I’ll be honest with you, Shires, it’s not my idea.” But the admission was merely frank, and not challenging; Hilton could find no cause to take offense. “Still, we need help. I can grant you that, without hesitation. Let’s go find the foreman; he said he might be in the meal-room this time of the morning. We’ll check there first.”
It was a way of giving him a tour of the facility, maybe. Hilton looked around him with interest as Dalmoss led him through the administrative offices, across a load-in dock, past the great hulls of not one but three freighter tenders being off-loaded, and finally out into the street and down a half a block to a subsidized meal-room, where Dalmoss paused in the foyer to scan the crowded hall.
“Look at all these people,” Dalmoss suggested. “You can see our problem. We keep on picking up freight. We’re running out of capacity to handle it.”
Hilton followed Dalmoss’s lead in looking around him politely. It was very candid of Dalmoss to make such remarks when they both knew that the reason the Combine Yards were picking up freight was that the Okidan Yards and other yards before it had lost capacity, and the freight had to be handled somewhere. The Okidan Yards hadn’t merely lost capacity, of course. The Okidan Yards had lost its staff and its plant, and there was a lot of gossip that blamed Langsariks. Hilton knew the gossip was baseless. It was still an awkward situation to be in.
Who was that over there by the far wall?
Kazmer Daigule, sitting at table with some people Hilton didn’t recognize — discussing terms and conditions of hire, clearly enough, public meal-rooms being convenient meeting spaces for people without offices to call their own. Such as Sarvaw mercantile pilots.
So Kazmer was here to run a Combine cargo.
That would explain his refusal to come right out and say what he was doing here. Kazmer was Sarvaw. Hilton knew what Kazmer thought of the rest of the Dolgorukij Combine — or at least he knew what Kazmer had to say about other Dolgorukij.
“I don’t see him here,” Dalmoss said. “Something you need to know about the foreman, Shires. He was at the Okidan Yards when the — when it was hit. He’s only been back at Charid for two days, still in med-assist; so it’s hard for him to get around, or he’d have met you himself. You can thank him for your job. He saw your name on the resource list and grabbed for you.”
Dalmoss had started to move again; Hilton had to keep up. “That’s flattering. If confusing. What’s one Langsarik among others? You know what I’m saying.”
Dalmoss grinned. Hilton was beginning to think he liked the man. “I wondered myself. Feraltz insisted. Said you had the leadership skills we were going to need in the remote warehouse. You were an officer? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“ ‘Was’ being the pertinent word. Yes. Junior officer. But these days I’m just another unemployed Langsarik, like the rest of us.”
That was unfair, maybe. There were plenty of jobs for Langsariks at Port Charid; that was one of the reasons the Bench had settled them there, after all, to be Port Charid’s very own captive labor pool. There were all the nasty, difficult, soul-wearying, low-paying jobs anyone could want available.
“A cut above the rank and file, even so. We’re expanding. Fisner will tell you all about it — he said to try Receiving if he wasn’t having first-meal.”
The name seemed familiar, somehow.
Dalmoss moved quickly, and there was a lot of territory between the meal-room and the receiving floor. A man could clearly get his exercise, working here.
Hilton had heard about warehouse operations, and he had an idea of their size from living near Port Charid; but he’d never been so deep inside of a major mercantile complex before. The receiving floor was the size of an asteroid warehouse, it seemed, and there were more freighter tenders there, four of them.
Hilton let his eyes rest on the great beasts that Port Charid used to ferry cargo between the surface and the freighters in orbit, the ships that were too large to land and lift except from the yards in the Shawl of Rikavie, where the gravitational pull was minimal.
Four freighter tenders.
He’d seen passenger shuttles that would carry maybe a thousand souls, at least for two days or so, and these freighter tenders were even bigger than a mass passenger ferry. He slowed to a stop without noticing what he was doing and stared at the ships hungrily; then Dalmoss’s voice called him back to where he was.
“There’s the boss,” Dalmoss said. “Over there. On the crate, by that mover. Come on.”
Those freighter tenders might as well be crates themselves. He’d not be allowed to so much as move them into orbit, if he was allowed onto them at all. Hilton pushed his wild fantasies firmly into a comer of his mind and followed Dalmoss to where a man of Hilton’s approximate age was sitting on a crate, waiting for them.
Fisner Feraltz only half sat on the crate, his right leg stretched out straight and resting on the floor, covered in bracing. A little more to the fleshy side than Hilton himself was, perhaps, but then it wasn’t as if the food in settlement encouraged overindulgence.
“Hilton Shires, Foreman,” Dalmoss called. “We missed you in the meal-room, sorry.”
Feraltz waved the apology off with his left hand. The right hand was braced stiff. “My fault, Dal, I didn’t make it to first-meal. Too much effort. Hilton Shires? Fisner Feraltz. Excuse me if I don’t offer my hand.”
He was a lot more informal than Hilton had expected, which came as a relief. “Quite all right. When in Combine Yards do as Combine does, after all. Thanks for the opportunity to interview.”
Feraltz beckoned him closer, so that he could speak more quietly Hilton supposed. “My pleasure, Shires. I owe a debt of gratitude to your family, but I’m keeping quiet about it. Sentiment isn’t very supportive of Langsariks in Port Charid just now, I’m afraid.”
Dalmoss wasn’t looking surprised, so it apparently wasn’t a particular secret; but Hilton could certainly understand why Feraltz might want to avoid calling attention to his personal history, just at the moment. To have spent a year with Langsariks was probably about the same as having been raised by wolves, as far as Feraltz’s fellow Dolgorukij were concerned.
“So. Look at this, Shires.” Feraltz’s gesture took in the entire sweep of the receiving area, the tenders, the work crews, the load-in cranes. The crates. “The Combine Yards are picking up the slack for lost capacity elsewhere in system. We’re going to have to make some pretty significant increases to accommodate the overflow. There’s new facilities under construction — ”
Hilton knew that. The Combine’s new warehouse project had been one of the first things Port Charid had drawn on its new Langsarik labor pool to get started.
“ — but we’re not staffed for it, and I need someone with prior management experience to help us grow. I’ll need to start you on the entry levels, of course, so you can familiarize yourself with the administration of this kind of an operation.”
It sounded good.
“I don’t have any prior management experience.” It sounded a little too good. All right, Feraltz felt he owed something to Aunt Agenis’s extended family for saving his life and getting him safely back to his own people, even though it had taken them a while. Hilton still wanted to be sure that Feraltz wasn’t overestimating his ability, in his desire to be accommodating. “I was a lieutenant. It’s people like my aunt who actually ran things.”
He’d commanded raids, successful ones, but he wasn’t about to make a point of that. Not here. Very poor taste.
Feraltz shook his head, rejecting Hilton’s disclaimer. “I know what your position was, and I think the skills are transferable. I’d like you to accept an entry-level position in order to train for assistant floor manager, looking forward to the time when the new facility comes up to capacity. I can’t promise anything, but I’m confident you’ll demonstrate the qualities we need. Will you consider my offer?”
It really wasn’t an option. He needed the job.
“I’ll be happy to accept your offer, Foreman. I appreciate the opportunity to come work for the Combine Yards and learn about warehouse management. I see it as a long-term investment. And I’m not going anywhere.”
Maybe he shouldn’t have said that last bit. It sounded a little bitter, a little petty. He’d only make things worse if he made a fuss about it by qualifying or rephrasing, though, so he bit his tongue firmly to shut himself up, and waited.
Feraltz smiled sympathetically, while Dalmoss — his arms folded across his chest — looked at the floor, smiling as well, and scuffing his foot against some unseen object by way of making a show of going along with the joke.
“I understand perfectly,” Feraltz said. “Dockman’s wages to start, Shires; you’ll report to Dalmoss here, you can discuss your shift with him once you’ve done your in-processing. Do we have a contract?”
Dockman’s wages were better than the day laborer’s rates usually offered to Langsariks. Maybe Feraltz was serious about his plans; one way or the other he was certainly making it much easier for Hilton to commit himself to regular employment than Hilton had expected.
“Contract,” Hilton agreed. “Thank you, Foreman. Floor manager.”
Dalmoss had waved someone over, and the man approached them with a look of genial curiosity on his face. “This is Ippolit,” Dalmoss said. “Ippolit, Shires is coming on to join receiving and inventory. Would you take him out to personnel, please, they’re expecting him.”
Were they, indeed.
But the prospect of dockman’s wages went a long way toward sweetening any residual difficulties Hilton might have experienced on that account; and he followed the man called Ippolit away to the personnel office, not so much happy as relieved enough to feel almost as though he were.
Fisner Feraltz watched Shires leave with Ippolit. Dalmoss was unhappy; Fisner knew it. He could tell.
“Was it prudent to remind him, firstborn and eldest?” Dalmoss asked, his voice pitched low enough to guard against anyone eavesdropping by accident. “He may speculate.”
“He may.” Fisner could afford to accept a portion of the rebuke from Dalmoss; it was no challenge to his authority. “But he’s the Flag Captain’s nephew. To not have at least mentioned it would look like ingratitude. He might have wondered why I’d not allowed the obligation.”
Dalmoss thought about it for a moment, time Feraltz used to adjust his position on the crate. The bracing was awkward. He was having a hard time adjusting to it.
“I understand. Yes,” Dalmoss said. Fisner knew that what Dalmoss understood about Fisner’s history with Langsariks was not the whole truth, but that was the way it had to be. No one could know the true depths of his shame: that was between him, and the Angel of Destruction, and the Holy Mother. “Does the bracing trouble you, firstborn and eldest?”
Well, yes, it did. But Dalmoss’s anxiety could be traced at least in part to the fact that it had been Dalmoss who had fired the round that had injured him.
“It’s an annoyance, I admit.” And there were drugs for annoyance, as there were drugs for pain. He’d told the Bench Specialist that he was an Abstainer, but he’d had reason for that deception that did not extend so far as actually to abstain from medication required to heal flesh, knit bone, and ease one’s way through life generally. “But a minor one. And it puts our purpose forward.”
It was very convenient if others thought him to be Abstaining, of course.
It could only increase the effectiveness of his deception if people who saw him at all only ever saw him obviously crippled, dependent upon the medical brace to support a clearly only slowly healing frame.
Dalmoss nodded. “I’ll go arrange for a team meeting, Foreman. To introduce our new employee. We start him on inventory, I believe.”
Yes, so that it would be creditable to claim that Shires had learned to manipulate the inventory systems. Not only to learn the location of cargo to be appropriated, but also to hide stolen goods within the Combine Yards themselves, so that when the Bench finally sent troops to Port Charid to search, the evidence of Langsarik predation would be utterly damning. Unchallengeable.
“You have nothing with which to reproach yourself, Dalmoss.” Since they both knew what they needed to do with Shires, Fisner decided to address the other issue instead. The one that had been there, unspoken but near palpable, hanging in the air between them since Fisner had returned from the hospital in Nisherre. “All went as expected, as hoped. As planned. Believe me, next born and second eldest. From my heart.”
Dalmoss could not but accept his superior’s assurances, whether or not he seemed fully convinced by them. “Just as you say, then, eldest and firstborn. I’ll be going to call my crew meeting, with your permission.”
Fisner was not concerned. Dalmoss would learn that Fisner spoke only plain truth.
Dalmoss had not done him any injury, even though Dalmoss’s shot had injured him.
Dalmoss had made it possible for the plan to go forward: and Fisner had nothing but gratitude to him, for that.