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What Distant Deeps: Chapter Three
Last updated: Wednesday, May 19, 2010 15:39 EDT
Xenos on Cinnabar
Daniel, holding the ivroid chit inset with 444 in black which he’d just gotten from the receiving clerk, turned and looked for an empty place on the benches. The General Waiting Room was as full as he’d ever seen it.
Navy House had grown into a complex of buildings as the Republic of Cinnabar Navy expanded into the sword of an empire. What people ordinarily meant by Navy House was the Navy Office, built around the hall in which RCN officers waited to be summoned for new assignments.
Generally they waited in vain. They would return tomorrow and following tomorrows until they either lost hope or received an assignment. A third of the RCN’s ships had already been paid off in response to the Treaty of Rheims, and perhaps as many more would follow over the next few months. Today’s crush of unemployed officers could only get worse.
Daniel wondered if officials in the Procurement Bureau had ordered additional ivroid chits. The highest number he recalled having seen was in the seven hundreds. He smiled faintly: the apparatus of the waiting room might have to expand because of the demands of peace, just as Navy House itself had grown due to the needs of war.
Someone ten benches back waved in the air, then pointed to Daniel. His grin spread as he recognized Pennyroyal, a friend — or at least friendly acquaintance — from his Academy days; he strode down the aisle toward her.
He wouldn’t have said there was a real space beside Pennyroyal, but she was widening what there was with animated whispers to the officers in both directions as she mimed shoving them aside. The result was still tight, but that was in part a result of Captain Daniel Leary having put on a few pounds. A few more pounds, unfortunately. He sat with a grin of apologetic embarrassment to the older lieutenant to his left.
“I’m surprised to see you slumming with us poor sad jetsam, Leary,” Pennyroyal whispered. From another’s mouth that could have been a bitter gibe; from hers, it was ruefully appreciative. “I heard you got a Cinnabar Star for that business off Cacique, didn’t you?”
“Ah, yes,” Daniel said. He was wearing his best set of Grays. Medal ribbons were proper but were not required with Grays, the 2nd Class uniform; Daniel had chosen not to wear his.
In fact he’d gotten a Wreath for the Cinnabar Star which he’d been awarded after the Battle of Strymon while he was still a lieutenant. “We had a great deal of luck there, I must say.”
The Annunciator stood with the receiving clerk, beside the gate in the bar separating the assignment clerks from the ranks of benches. The printer beside him whirred out a length of flimsy. He pulled it off, glared at it, and said, “Number One-Seven-Two, come forward!”
A thin, almost cadaverous, lieutenant scraped up from one of the back benches and strode toward the front. She was trying to look nonchalant, but she stepped a little too quickly. She was wearing her Whites; when she passed, Daniel saw that fabric of the elbows and trouser seat had been polished by long use.
Daniel felt uncomfortable discussing his career with former classmates. He had been lucky, very lucky; and particularly, he’d been lucky in gaining Adele’s friendship and support, which were matters he couldn’t discuss. Indeed, Adele’s intelligence duties — her spying — made Daniel even more uncomfortable than discussing his victories did.
“Well, I’m hoping for some luck myself,” Pennyroyal said. “Vondrian — you remember Vondrian, don’t you?”
“Of course,” Daniel said truthfully. Vondrian, who’d been a class ahead of him at the Academy, had private money. Instead of lording it over his less fortunate fellows, he’d been liked and respected by all who knew him. “He has a ship of his own, I understood?”
“That’s right, the Montrose in the Tattersall Flotilla — which Vondrian says is three destroyers n a good day but generally less,” Pennyroyal said. “Tattersall is an Associated World of the Republic but not a Friend, you see. It gives the RCN an observation base in the Forty Stars where every other world worth mentioning is part of the Alliance.”
“I dare say Vondrian’s breathing easier for the Peace of Rheims,” said Daniel, shaking his head. The trouble with a detached command like what Pennyroyal described was that if the enemy decided to get rid of you, you probably wouldn’t have enough warning even to run away.
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” said Pennyroyal. “And I hope to be able to ask him personally soon, because he swears he’s requested me as his First Lieutenant. I don’t mind telling you, Leary, it’s going to be bloody short rations for me if I have to live on half pay for very long.”
“Vondrian’s as straight as a die,” Daniel said. It was the truth, but he added verve to the words to buck up Pennyroyal. “If he told you he was going to request you, you can take it to the bank that you’ll have your berth shortly.”
That wasn’t quite so true. Captains had a great deal of influence in the choice of officers serving under them, and Vondrian’s wealth gave him more influence than most. At a time like this, however, when any posting was worth fighting for, there was always the risk that an admiral’s nephew was going to be appointed into the place a lieutenant commander had requested for a friend.
Partly because Daniel was afraid his smile would slip if he looked directly at Pennyroyal, he focused on the bench ahead of him. Faintly visible in the wood was a pentacle about three inches across from flat to the point opposite. The illumination from the skylights thirty feet above was so diffuse that he first noticed the texture rather than the slight difference in color.
“Why, I’ll be!” Daniel said. He was glad to change the subject, but his enthusiasm was real. “Here, Pennyroyal — do you see the fungus growing through the wood? The gray pentacle?”
“I suppose I see the pentacle,” Pennyroyal said — agreed would be too strong a word. “If you say it’s a fungus, I’ll believe you.”
“You remember that some of these benches were supposed to have been made of paneling from the Alliance flagship captured in the Battle of Cloudscape?” Daniel said. Burbled, he supposed — but he’d always found the wonder of the universe more interesting than tensile strength or power-to-weight calculations. “Well, that must not be just a legend. This is a Pleasaunce species!”
He grinned in satisfaction at having dredged up another datum. “A male. They’re bisexual, and the females grow in circular patterns.”
“That’s your number, isn’t it, Leary?” said Pennyroyal.
For a moment Daniel tried to fit her words into a context of history or natural history, which between them were absorbing his attention. The bench in front of me is over three hundred years old!
“Four-forty-four?” Pennyroyal said.
Oh, dear gods!
“Yes, and I thank you sincerely,” Daniel said as he rose. The two officers between him and the aisle turned sideways to let him slip past. Their faces were stoical, but Daniel didn’t think he was imagining a touch of envy on the face of the overweight commander.
The receiving clerk looked up at Daniel. The sour disdain with which he greeted an expected new suppliant turned to fury when he saw the person approaching was an officer who’d been to see him only minutes before.
“If you’re looking for a luckier number, Captain –” the clerk sneered. When he realized that the chit Daniel was displaying face-out was the number that had been called a moment earlier, he swallowed the rest of whatever the comment would have been.
“This one seemed lucky enough to me,” Daniel said with a pleasant smile; he handed the chit to the Annunciator to drop back into the wire hopper. “Four-four-four, if you please.”
He was in too good a mood for a minor functionary to spoil it. Besides, he was pretty sure that just being cheerful would irritate the clerk as much as anything else he could do.
The twelve or fifteen personnel at desks on the clerical side of the Waiting Room bar were civilians. The only RCN officer in their chain of command was the Chief of the Navy Board. No one else in uniform, not even a full admiral, could give a valid order to an assignment clerk. That was a necessary feature of a job which would often lead to outbursts of fury from frustrated officers.
But facing anger and resentment day after day would have taken a toll on a saint, in the unlikely event that a saint applied for the job. The receiving clerk in particular had to be ruthless, but his duties had curdled necessity into cruelty.
“Yes, of course, Captain,” the clerk muttered. The Annunciator gave Daniel the flimsy printed with 444 — Desk 7 and nodded to the usher, who lifted the gate.
Desk 7 was in the further two row, identified by a rectangular sign on a short post; the letters were tarnished silver. The clerk was a woman in the process of passing middle age; her throat was wrinkled and her jowls were slipping, but her figure was still good.
She beamed at Daniel, an expression he had never expected to see on the face of an assignment clerk. “Do be seated, Captain,” she said, gesturing toward the straight chair across the desk from her. “May I say that I regard it an honor to meet you professionally?”
“I . . . ,” said Daniel. He didn’t know where to go with his response. Here on this side of the bar, the noise of the hall was more noticeable than it had been among the hundreds of waiting officers whose whispers and shuffling were responsible for it. “I, ah, thank you.”
“There are a few formalities to take care of first,” she said, sorting through a file of hardcopy. “As the final commander of RCS Milton, you’re to initial this Finding of Loss and Disposal.”
Sliding a sheet of paper and a stylus across the desk, she added peevishly, “They haven’t attached the court martial decision, though. There’s normally a copy of the court record.”
She raised her eyes to Daniel’s. “Not that that there was anything to be concerned about in your conduct, of course,” she added hastily.
The document was a form whose blanks had been filled in by someone with casually beautiful handwriting. Daniel began to initial each paragraph that had holograph additions. He said, “A court martial is required for any captain who loses his ship, mistress. We — because it wouldn’t have been possible without an exceptional crew — were able to sail the Milton home. The surveyors declared her a constructive loss, but that was decided after I’d handed her over to the dockyard.”
Daniel returned the finding and stylus. Smiling to make a joke of what he was about to say, he added, “There wasn’t much doubt about their decision, I’m afraid; even without the end of hostilities, the Milton couldn’t have been economically repaired . . . and there was a prejudice against her design, as well. But I, ah, regret her loss nonetheless.”
Sixty-three spacers had died when an Alliance missile vaporized the Milton’s stern. Daniel felt for every one of them; but he felt for the cruiser herself as well. A theologian might claim that ships don’t have souls, but Daniel was a spacer and knew things that no landsman would ever fathom.
The clerk replaced the form in her file folder, then handed Daniel another document. “Here is your new assignment, Captain,” she said. “Oh! I should have told you to keep the stylus, I’m afraid. You’re to sign the upper copy.”
“Thank you,” said Daniel dryly, retrieving the instrument which was only six inches from his hand. He scanned the document, smiling with satisfactionand, truth to tell, with relief.
The past generation had been one of constant war or looming war between Cinnabar and the Alliance. The Peace of Rheims appeared to be a different animal from the brief truces of the last twenty years, if only because both empires were on the verge of social and economic collapse.
Peace had put the RCN in a state of flux like nothing before in Daniel’s lifetime. It had been possible that someone very senior in the RCN or even the Senate was going to trump the cards that Captain Daniel Leary and his friends could play.
“Captain,” the clerk said earnestly, “I realize that being assigned to a chartered vessel may appear to be a slight after your command of a heavy cruiser. I assure you that it is not: the Cinnabar Commissioner died suddenly on Zenobia. It’s necessary to rush a replacement there, but the world is in the Alliance sphere. We can’t send a warship without giving offense, which might have the most serious implications for the recent treaty.”
“Mistress . . . ,” Daniel said, looking up from his orders. He was faintly puzzled. “I understood that the needs of the service were paramount from the moment I enlisted. I’ve never objected to a lawful order.”
There had been times when Daniel Leary’s superiors might have complained regarding the speed and manner in which he executed his orders — but he wasn’t going to say that to a civilian.
“Oh!” said the clerk, touching her fingertips to her lower lip. “Oh, of course not, Captain! But surely the needs of the service include the proper treatment of officers who have done so much for the Republic. Why, the peace treaty might not have been signed without your victory at Cacique!”
Daniel blinked. He supposed he ought to be pleased that the clerical staff was treating him as an individual rather than a cog to be put in whatever bin a computer decided.
In fact he found he preferred to be a cog. If the clerks treated Captain Leary as a person, then he had to think of them as people. It took much less energy to view clerks as minor irritations to the life of an RCN officer, much like the gnats that rose from the marshes at Bantry to clog the eyes, noses, and food of everyone who had to be outdoors in early spring.
But after all, it might be just this clerk at Desk 7. Perhaps he could go on being callously dismissive of all the faceless others here in Navy House and beyond.
Daniel smiled broadly; the clerk seemed to glow in reaction. That was fair even though she probably misunderstood his expression: she’d led him to the train of thought, after all. Anyway, it made the world a better place than it would have been after another sneering exchange like his with the receiving clerk.
The woman was forty years past the age that Daniel’s smile would’ve meant what she apparently understood from it, though.
Aloud he said, “Well, since I’m to have my pick of spacers to crew her, I’ll see if we can’t get Commissioner –”
He glanced at the document he’d just signed.
“– Pavel Brown and his family to Zenobia before the vacancy causes problems for distressed Cinnabar spacers in the Qaboosh Region.”
Simply being in the Qaboosh Region would be distressing enough for an RCN officer; the place could be used as the illustration of the term “backwater.” Though peace meant that there weren’t any postings which were likely to be a springboard to higher rank.
The clerk took the signed copy of the orders. As Daniel stood she said, “Using a chartered yacht means money in the pocket of some well placed civilian, but we mustn’t complain about reality. I only hope that this Princess Cecile is well found.”
Daniel grinned again. “The ship is as tight and nimble as any vessel in the RCN, mistress,” he said. “And the charter fee won’t be going to a civilian — because I own her myself.”
He had to remind himself not to begin whistling as he strode toward the door to the street.
Harbor Three, near Xenos on Cinnabar
“Ma’am?” said Benthelow. He was a Power Room tech who’d been on guard duty when Adele boarded the Princess Cecile an hour before. He probably still was, but he’d left his sub-machine gun back in the boarding hold with his fellow guard before he came up to the bridge. “There’s a guy here that, well, I thought you might talk to him.”
Adele was alone on the bridge. Tovera had gone off on her own business; Adele made a point of not knowing what her servant did in her free time. She sat at the Communications console, going over the software she had just installed.
Every time Adele landed on Cinnabar, Mistress Sand’s organization provided her with updates for the codes she might encounter. The top Alliance military codes were still effectively closed to her if they were applied properly, but the computing power necessary to guide a starship through the Matrix could by brute force gut almost any commercial code like a hooked fish.
And even unbreakable codes were often misused. Adele found that people were frequently careless.
Other people, that is.
She got to her feet. Adele was wearing civilian clothes because she had come from her townhouse and hadn’t bothered to change into utilities before she went to work. Her garments were similar in cut to RCN utilities but were light brown instead of mottled gray on gray, so she could wear them in public without violating regulations.
“Yes sir?” she said to the man in the hatchway behind Benthelow — who really shouldn’t have brought the fellow up with him, but Signals Officer Adele Mundy wasn’t the proper person to give lectures on following protocol. Nor was Captain Daniel Leary, if it came to that.
“I apologize, mistress,” the man said. He was over six feet tall; well over, in fact, though the way he hunched forward tended to conceal his height. He had limp, sandy hair and a high forehead, making him look older than his forty or so Standard Years. “I asked to see the captain for permission to view our quarters, but this man brought me to you. I’m Pavel Brown. Ah, my family and I are to be his passengers.”
“I’ll take care of this, Benthelow,” Adele said. “And yes, Commissioner Brown, I’ll be happy to show you your quarters. I’m Adele Mundy.”
She patted her trousers with a smile that was mostly for show. People liked other people to smile.
“When I’m in uniform, I’m Signals Officer Mundy. A moment, please.”
She sat again, this time crossways on the bench. The data unit which she used as a control interface was on her lap. Nobody was likely to meddle with Adele’s console in her absence, and nobody except Cory or possibly Cazelet would be able to get into it anyway. Nonetheless she made sure everything was switched off before she rose, slipping the PDU into her cargo pocket.
“Surely not Lady Mundy?” Brown said as he followed her into the corridor and down the forward companionway. “I was told that she might be a passenger on this voyage as well, though I assumed that was one of those silly departmental rumors.”
“Watch your footing,” Adele said as their footsteps echoed within the armored tube. Her clumsiness on shipboard was something of a joke among the spacers she’d served with, but the slick steel treads of the stairs between levels of the ship had never given her trouble: she’d spent years trudging up and down similar steps in the stacks of research libraries. A warship’s companionways were a memory of home to her.
“I’m Mundy of Chatsworth,” Adele said as she exited onto D Level, the deck below the bridge. In harbor on Xenos the companionway doors were left open, but in combat they would be closed and could be locked both for structural strength — maneuver and battle damage both twisted a ship’s hull, which the transverse tubes resisted — and to limit air loss in event of penetration. “But not aboard the Sissie, where I’m a warrant officer, not a passenger.”
She led the way briskly down the corridor. Several spacers were about their business in the compartments to either side; they murmured, “Ma’am,” or bobbed their heads when they saw Adele.
She paused at the hatch of what would ordinarily be the Captain’s Suite. On previous voyages, she had lived in the Captain’s Office, which had a fully capable computer though with a flat-plate rather than holographic display. She would be with the midshipmen until the Browns were delivered, and Daniel would live in his space cabin adjacent to the bridge.
“I don’t know what you may have heard, Commissioner,” she said. “But as you’re already aware, most rumors are silly. And in any case, they have no bearing on my duties or our relationship while the Sissie –”
She smiled coldly. “While the Princess Cecile, I should say, is under way. Forgive me for dropping into jargon.”
“Your pardon, Officer Mundy,” Brown said. He looked miserable, at a loss in all possible fashions; but she’d had to say it. “I didn’t intend to give offense.”
“Your quarters,” Adele said instead of replying directly. She found it best to let matters drop when they were embarrassing. “The stateroom here. The door to the right is the sleeping cabin, and on the left is the office, which now has a bunk as well. I gather there are three of you?”
“Yes, Clothilde and Hester, our four-year-old, will accompany me,” Brown said sadly. “Clothilde wanted me to bring Hester’s governess along, but the wages Mistress Beeton demanded to come such a distance from Xenos were beyond my resources, quite beyond them. I told Clothilde that perhaps we could hire a governess when we reached Calvary, but she seems to believe that the inhabitants of Zenobia are all barbarians who might be expected to eat babies. The governess was of a similar opinion.”
The Commissioner’s glumness seemed to be the mindset he — like others whom she had met — found most congenial. That puzzled Adele. She was bleak — how could any intelligent person view the universe and mankind without being bleak? — but there seemed neither pleasure nor profit in a negative attitude.
And then there was Daniel’s example: an intelligent man who was also cheerful. Knowing Daniel had made Adele question the primacy of data and reason, the elements on which she built her life.
She couldn’t do anything to change her attitude, of course, even if she were wrong about the pointlessness of life. And presumably Brown couldn’t help but be negative even if he had enough common sense to realize that his attitude was silly.
“I think you’ll find the culture of Calvary on a level with that of most provincial cities on Cinnabar,” Adele said dryly. “And even in the countryside, I believe that the staple meat is goat rather than babies. Though my information is no doubt incomplete.”
Brown looked at her in amazement, then realized that the comment had been ironic. He forced a smile.
“Yes,” he said. “And I believe Clothilde knows better as well. I’m not sure Mistress Beeson did.”
He crossed the stateroom and peered into the sleeping cabin. Rather than try to replace the single fold-down bunk into something suitable for a couple, Pasternak and the shipyard crew had left the bedroom as it was — for the child, presumably — and put a double bed in the office where the desk and terminal had been. That also required expanding the office some distance into the stateroom, but internal partitions were expected to be moved.
“It’s very small, isn’t it?” Brown said sadly. “Clothilde won’t be happy. And such a long voyage, a month and a half.”
“I doubt the Princess Cecile will take anywhere near that long on the passage,” Adele said. It was natural for her to keep her tone unemotional, but she felt a spike of irritation at Brown’s comment. What does the fellow expect? “But unquestionably, interstellar travel is uncomfortable.”
She cleared her throat. She hadn’t researched the Browns’ backgrounds as thoroughly as she should have. “This is your first voyage, then?”
He turned and nodded as he walked to the refitted office. “Yes,” he said. “I’ve been on Xenos my entire career with the ministry. I’m an accountant, you see.”
Brown smiled in embarrassment, though Adele couldn’t imagine why he should think an accountant had to apologize to a librarian. Both vocations were necessary to civilization, and both involved organizing data, making them –
She grinned minusculy, but in her heart she believed it.
– the highest forms of human endeavor.
Adele nodded noncommittally. “If you’ve seen your fill of the suite,” she said, “we’ll go back down the corridor to the wardroom where you’ll be eating.”
She wondered whether Brown had received any briefing from his superiors. She was beginning to suspect that he had not.
“You can either bring along your own food, which will go in a storage locker on A Level . . . ,” she said, stepping back into the corridor. “Or you can pay a subscription and mess with the officers. I suppose you’ll at least want to bring, well, whatever your child eats.”
Or do four-year-olds eat adult food? That wasn’t a question Adele had previously considered; nor, she realized, did she need to do so now.
The hatch to the wardroom was open. The hanging table was fast against the ceiling, so she gestured to call attention to it and said, “It will be lowered for meals, of course.”
“I see,” Brown said sadly. “Thank you, ah, Officer.”
“The purser can help you with questions of what stores you should bring,” Adele said. “He’ll be in Warehouse 73, I believe . . . .”
She took out her data unit and sat on the nearest of the chairs bolted to the deck plates. A few flicks of her control wands gave her the answer.
“Yes, he’s there now,” she said with satisfaction. “Master Reddick. I can send a spacer with you as a guide, if you like?”
“No thank you, Officer Mundy,” Brown said as though he were announcing the death of his mother. “The Bureau’s handbook gives extensive information on supplies for off-planet assignments and I’ve read it thoroughly.”
“Well, then. . ,” said Adele. “If you don’t have any more questions . . . ?”
“I’d intended to stay in the accounting department until I retired,” Brown said. He was looking toward the holographic seascape on the compartment’s outer wall, but his eyes were on something far more distant. “Clothilde thought that I should be promoted more quickly, and of course promotion in Accounting isn’t very fast. We don’t have the casualties that you naval personnel do, you see.”
Adele smiled; Brown smiled back shyly.
“I transferred to the Representational Service,” he said. “It was a two-step promotion, which made Clothilde very happy. The trouble is, accounts have to balance in life as well as finances. Now that Clothilde is beginning to realize what the higher pay grade cost, she isn’t so happy.”
He smiled wider. The expression showed both misery and genuine amusement.
“I think you’ll find the voyage more congenial than you now think, Commissioner,” Adele said truthfully. With that sense of humor, Brown might get along well after all.
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