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By David Drake
Baen BooksISBN: 0-7434-7177-6
Chapter OneAbove Salute
Piet Ricimer stood out like an open flame on the crowded, cluttered bridge of the Sultan as she orbited Salute. Stephen Gregg was amused by the young officer's flashy dress.
Well, Ricimer was no younger than Gregg himself-but Gregg, as a member of a factorial family, was mature in ways that no sailor would ever be. More sophisticated, at any rate. Realizing that sophistication and maturity might not be the same made Gregg frown for a moment until he focused on the discussion again.
"I suppose it might be Salute," mumbled Bivens, the navigator. Gregg had already marked Bivens down as a man who never saw a planetfall he liked-or was sure he could identify.
"Look, of course it's Salute!" insisted Captain Choransky, commander of the Sultan and the other two ships of the argosy. "It's just this tub's lousy optics that makes it hard to tell."
His vehemence made the landfall seem as doubtful as Bivens' concern had done. This was Gregg's first voyage off Venus, much less out of the solar system. He was too young at twenty-two Earth years to worry much about it, but he wondered at the back of his mind whether this lot would be able to find their way home.
Besides the officers, three crewmen sat at the workstations controlling the forward band of attitude jets. The Sultan had been stretched by two hull sections after her first decade of service as an intrasystem trader. That had required adding another band of jets.
The new controls and the sprawl of conduits feeding them had been placed on the bridge. They made it difficult for a landsman like Gregg to walk there under normal 1-g acceleration without tripping or bruising himself against a hip-high projection. Now, with the flagship floating in orbit, Gregg had even worse problems. The spacers slid easily along.
The most reassuring thing about the situation was the expression of utter boredom worn by every one of the crewmen on the control boards. They were experienced, and they saw no reason for concern.
"Sir," said Ricimer, "I'll take the cutter down and find us a landing site. This is Salute. I've checked the star plots myself."
"Can't be sure of a plot with these optics," Bivens muttered. "Maybe the Dove got a better sighting than I could."
"I'll take the six men who came with me when I sold The Judge," Ricimer said brightly. "I'm pretty sure I've spotted two Southern compounds, and there are scores of Molt cities for sure."
Ricimer was a short man, dark where Gregg was fair. Though willing to be critical, Gregg admitted that the spacer was good-looking, with regular features and a waist that nipped in beneath powerful shoulders. Ricimer wore a tunic of naturally red fibers from somewhere outside the solar system, and his large St. Christopher medal hung from a strand of glittering crystals that were more showy than valuable.
"Might not even be Molts here if it isn't Salute," Bivens said. "Between the twenty-third and twenty-ninth transits, I think we went off track."
Choransky turned, probably as much to get away from his navigator as for a positive purpose, and said, "All right, Ricimer, take the cutter down. But don't lose her, and don't con me into some needle farm that won't give me a hundred meters of smooth ground. The Sultan's no featherboat, remember."
"Aye-aye, sir!" Ricimer said with another of his brilliant smiles.
"I'd like to go down with the boat," Gregg said, as much to his own surprise as anyone else's.
That drew the interest of the other men on the bridge, even the common sailors. Piet Ricimer's face went as blank as a bulkhead.
Gregg anchored himself firmly to the underside of a workstation with his left hand. "I'm Stephen Gregg," he said. "I'm traveling as supercargo for my uncle, Gregg of Weyston."
"I know that," Ricimer said, with no more expression in his voice than his face held.
"Ah-Ricimer," Captain Choransky said nervously. "Factor Gregg is quite a major investor in this voyage."
"I know that too," Ricimer said. His eyes continued to appraise Gregg. In a tone of challenge, he went on, "Can you handle a boat in an atmosphere, then, Gregg?"
Gregg sniffed. "I can't handle a boat anywhere," he said flatly. "But I'm colonel of the Eryx battalion of the militia, and I'm as good a gunman as anybody aboard this ship."
Ricimer's smile spread again. "Yeah," he said, "that might be useful."
He reached out his hand to shake Gregg's. When he saw the landsman was afraid to seem awkward in reaching to take it, Ricimer slid closer. He moved as smoothly as a feather in the breeze. Ricimer's grip was firm, but he didn't make the mistake of trying to crush Gregg's hand to prove that he was as strong as the bigger man.
"Maybe," Ricimer added over his shoulder as he led Gregg out through the bridge hatch, "we can give you some hands-on with the boat as well." (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Reaches by David Drake Excerpted by permission.
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