Read an Excerpt
By Elizabeth Moon
Baen BooksISBN: 0-7434-3552-4
Chapter OneHeris Serrano went from her room in the small but respectable dockside hotel on Rockhouse Station to the berth of her new command convinced that she looked like an idiot. No one laughed aloud, but that only meant the bystanders had chosen to snicker later rather than risk immediate confrontation with an ex-Regular Space Services officer on the beach.
Heris kept her eyes away from any of those who might be contemplating humor, the dockside traffic of the commercial district. Her ears burned; she could feel the glances raking her back. She would not have changed her military posture even if she could have walked any other way; she had been R.S.S. from birth or before, daughter of officers, admirals' granddaughter and niece, a service family for all the generations anyone bothered to count. Even that miserable first year at the Academy had seemed familiar, almost homey: she had heard the stories from parents, uncles, aunts, all her life.
And here she was, tricked out in enough gold braid and color to satisfy a planet-bound admiral from one of the minor principalities, all because of the whims of a rich old woman with more money than sense. They had to be laughing behind her back, those merchanter officers and crewmen who didn't meet her eyes, who went about their business as if purple and scarlet were normal uniform colors, as if two sleeves covered with gold rings didn't look ridiculous, as if the rim of gold and green striped cord around collar, lapels, and cuffs didn't tell everyone that an R.S.S. officer had descended to the level of carting wealthy eccentrics on pleasure jaunts in something far more like a mansion than a spacefaring ship.
Commercial dockside ended abruptly at a scarred gray wall with a lockgate in it. Heris inserted her card; the barred gate slid aside, then closed behind her, leaving her caged between the bars behind and a steel door with a thick window. Another keyslot, this time her card produced a human door-opener, who swung the door aside and held out his hand for her papers. She handed over the neat packet civilian life required. Master's license, certifications in five specialties, Imperial ID, military record (abbreviated; only the unclassified bones), letters of recommendation, and-what mattered most here-Lady Cecelia de Marktos's seal of employment. The human-Station Security or Garond Family, Heris did not know which-ran a handscanner over this last, and replaced the entire pile in its file cover before handing it back to her.
"Welcome to North, Captain Serrano," the man said, with no inflection of sarcasm. "May I be of assistance?"
Her throat closed a moment, remembering the words she would have heard if she had gone through a similar lockgate on the other side of the commercial docks, where sleek gray R.S.S. cruisers nuzzled the Station side by side. Where her gray uniform with its glowing insignia would have received crisp salutes, and the welcome due a comrade in arms. "Welcome to the Fleet," she would have heard, a greeting used anywhere, anytime, they came together away from civilians. But she could not go back there, back where her entire past would wrap around her. She had resigned her commission. She would never hear those words again.
"No, thank you," she said quietly. "I know where the ship is." She would not say its name yet, though it was her new command.... She had grown up with ships named for battles, for monsters, for older ships with long histories. She could not yet say she commanded Sweet Delight.
North, on all Stations, defined the environs of aristocracy. Wealth and privilege could be found anywhere, in the R.S.S. as well as the commercial docks, but always near something. Here was nothing but wealth, and its servants. This deck had carpeted walkways, not extruded plastic sheeting; the shops had no signs, only house emblems. Each docking bay had its own lockgate, enclosing two large rooms: one marked "Service Entrance," lined with racks and shelving for provisions delivered, and the other furnished luxuriously as a reception salon for going-away parties. Heris's card in the slot produced another human door-opener, this time a servant in livery, who ushered her into the salon. Heris made her way between overstuffed sofas and chairs covered in lavender plush and piled with pillows in garish colors, between low black tables and pedestals supporting what were probably priceless works of art, though to her eye, they looked like globs of melted space debris after a battle.
The actual docking tube lay unguarded. Heris frowned. Surely even civilians had someone watching the ship's main hatch, even with the security of a lockgate on the dock itself. She paused before stepping over the line that made the legal division between dock and ship. The lavender plush lining of the access tube hid all the vital umbilicals that connected the ship to Station life support. Unsafe, Heris thought, as she had thought on her earlier interview visit. Those lines should be visible. Surely even civilians had regulations to follow.
Underfoot, the lavender plush carpet felt five centimeters thick. A warm breath of air puffed out of the ship itself, a warm breath flavored not with the spice she remembered from the interview, but with the sour stench of the morning after a very large night before. Her nose wrinkled; she could feel her back stiffening. It might be someone else's ship in principle, but she did not allow a dirty mess on any ship she commanded-and would not now. She came out of the access tube into a family row; the tube's privacy shield had kept her from hearing it until she stepped across the barrier. Heris took in the situation at a glance. One tall, angular, gray-haired woman with a loud voice: her employer. Three sulky, overdressed young men that Heris would not have had on her ship, and their obvious girlfriends ... all rumpled, and one still passed out on a lavender couch that matched the plush carpet and walls. Streaks of vomit stained its smooth velour. As she came through the barrier, the chestnut-haired youth with the ruffled shirt answered a final blast from the older woman with a whined "But, Aunt Cecelia-it's not fair."
What was "not fair" was that rich spoiled brats like him hadn't had the nonsense taken out of them in boot camp, Heris thought. She smiled her normal good-morning-bridge smile at her employer and said, "Good morning, milady."
The youths-all but the unconscious snorer on the couch-stared; Heris could feel her ears going hot and ignored them, still smiling at Cecelia Artemisia Veronica Penelope, heiress of more titles than anyone needed, let alone more money. "Ah," said that lady, restored to instant unruffled calm by the appearance of someone to whom it meant something. "Captain Serrano. How nice to have you aboard. Our departure will be delayed, but only briefly"-here she looked at the chestnut-haired youth-"until my nephew is settled. I presume your things are already aboard?"
"Sent ahead, milady," Heris said.
"Good. Then Bates will show you to your quarters." Bates materialized from some angle of corridor and nodded at Heris. Heris wondered if she would be introduced to the nephew now or later; she was sure she could take that pout from his lips if given the chance. But she wouldn't get the chance. She followed Bates-tall, elegant, so much the butler of the screen and stage it was hard to believe him real-down the carpeted passage to her suite. She would rather have gone to the bridge. Not this bridge, but the bridge of the Rapier or even a lowly maintenance tug.
Bates stood aside at her door. "If the captain wishes to rekey the locks now ...?"
She looked at that impassive face. Did he mean to imply that they had thieves on board? That someone might violate the privacy of her quarters? The captain's quarters? She had thought she knew how far down the scale she'd fallen, to become a rich lady's yacht captain, but she had not conceived of needing to lock her quarters. "Thank you," she said, as if it had been her idea. Bates touched a magnetic wand to the lockfaces; she put her hand on each one. After a moment, the doorcall's pleasant anonymous voice said, "Name, please?" and she gave her name; the doorcall chimed once and said, "Welcome home, Captain Serrano." Bates handed her a fat ring of wands.
"These are the rekeying wands for ship's crew and all the operating compartments. They're all coded; you'll find the full architectural schematics loaded on your desk display. The crew will await your arrival on the bridge, at your convenience."
She didn't even know if she could ask Bates to tell the crew when to expect her, or if that was something household staff never did. She had already discovered that the house staff and the ship crew had very little to do with each other.
"I could just pass the word to Mr. Gavin, the engineer," Bates said, almost apologetically. "Since Captain Olin left"-Captain Olin, Heris knew, had been fired-"Lady Cecelia has often asked me to speak to Mr. Gavin."
"Thank you," Heris said. "One hour." She glanced at the room's chronometer, a civilian model which she would replace with the one in her luggage.
"Philip will escort you," Bates said.
She opened her mouth to say it was not necessary-even in this perfumed and padded travesty of a ship she could find the bridge by herself-but instead said, "Thank you" once more. She would not challenge their assumptions yet.
Her master's certificate went into the mounting plaque on the wall; her other papers went into the desk. Her luggage-she had asked that it not be unpacked-cluttered one corner of her office. Beyond that was a smaller room, then the bathroom-her mouth quirked as she forced herself to call it that. And beyond that, her bedroom. A cubage larger than an admiral would have on most ships, and far larger than anyone of her rank ever had, even on a Station. A suite, part of the price being paid to lure a real spacer, a real captain, into this kind of work.
In the hour she had unpacked her few necessary clothes, her books, her reference data cubes, and made sure that the desk display would handle them. The chronometer on the wall now showed Service Standard time as well as ship's time and Station time, and had the familiar overlapping segments of color to delineate four-, six-, and eight-hour watches. She had reviewed the crew bios in the desk display. And she had shrugged away her regrets. It was all over now, all those years of service, all her family's traditions; from now on, she was Heris Serrano, captain of a yacht, and she would make the best of it.
And they wouldn't know what hit them.
* * *
Some of them suspected within moments of her arrival on the bridge. Whatever decorator had chosen all the lavender and teal furnishings of the rest of the ship, the bridge remained functional, if almost toylike in its bright, shiny, compactness. The crew had to squeeze in uncomfortably; Heris noticed who squeezed in next to whom, and who wished this were over. They had heard, no doubt. They could see what they could see; she might be wearing purple and scarlet, but she had the look, and knew she had it; all those generations of command came out her eyes.
She met theirs. Blue, gray, brown, black, green, hazel: clear, hazy, worried, frightened, challenging. Mr. Gavin, the engineer-thin, almost wispy, and graying-had announced, "Captain on the bridge" in a voice that squeaked. Navigation First, all too perky, was female, and young, and standing close to Communications First, who had spots and the slightly adenoidal look that Heris had found in the best comm techs on any ship. The moles-environmental techs, so-called everywhere from their need to crawl through pipes-glowered at the back. They must have suspected she'd seen the ship's records already. Moles never believed that strange smells in the air were their fault; they were convinced that other people, careless people, put the wrong things down the wrong pipe and caused the trouble. Gavin's junior engineering techs, distancing themselves from the moles, tried to look squeaky-clean and bright. Heris had read their records; one of them had failed the third-class certificate four times. The other juniors-Navigation's sour-faced paunchy male and Communications' wispy female-were clearly picked up at bargain rates for off-primeshift work.
Heris began, as always on a new ship, with generalities. Let them relax; let them realize she wasn't stupid, crazy, or vicious. Then ..."Now about emergency drills," she said, when she'd seen the relaxation. "I see you've had no drills since docking here. Why is that, Mr. Gavin?"
"Well, Captain ... after Captain Olin left, I didn't like to seem-you know-like I was taking liberties above my station."
"I see. And before that, I notice that there had been no drills since the last planetfall. That was Captain Olin's decision, I suppose." From Gavin's expression, that was not the reason, but he went along gratefully.
"Yes, Captain, that would be it. He was the captain, after all." Someone stirred, in the back, but they were so crammed together she couldn't be sure who it was. She would find out. She smiled at them, suddenly happy. It might be only a yacht, but it was a ship, and it was her ship.
"We will have drills," she said, and waited a moment for that to sink in. "Emergency drills save lives. I expect all you Firsts to ready your divisions."
"We surely can't have time for a drill before launch!" That was the sour-faced Navigation Second. She stared at him until he blushed and said, "Captain ... sorry, ma'am."
"It depends," she said, without commenting on his breach of manners. "I know you're all readying for launch, but I would like a word here with the pilot and Nav First."
They edged out of the cramped space; she knew the muttering would start as soon as they cleared the hatch. Ignoring that, she fixed the Navigation First with a firm glance. "Sirkin, isn't it?"
"Yes, Captain." Brisk, bright-eyed ... Heris hoped she was as good as she looked. "Brigdis Sirkin, Lalos Colony."
"Yes, I saw your file. Impressive qualification exam." Sirkin had topped the list with a perfect score, rare even in R.S.S. trained personnel. The younger woman blushed and grinned. "But what I want to know is whether you plotted the final approach from Dunlin to here." The way she said it could lead either way; she wanted to see Sirkin's reaction.
A deeper blush. "No, Captain. I didn't ... not entirely, that is."
"Umm. I wondered why someone who'd swept the exam would choose such an inefficient solution. Tell me about it."
"Well ... ma'am ... Captain Olin was a good captain, and I'm not saying anything against him, but he liked to ... to do things a certain way."
Heris glanced at the pilot.
Excerpted from Heris Serrano by Elizabeth Moon Excerpted by permission.
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