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In The Stormy Red Sky: Chapter Six

       Last updated: Friday, January 9, 2009 00:41 EST



En route to Paton

    Midshipman Else, holding the brass rod to her helmet with one hand, pointed the other gauntlet toward the blur of iridescence just to port of the A Ring topmast yard. Daniel stooped slightly while following the line of her arm with his eyes so that he kept his helmet in contact with the rod’s other end.

    “C-6-7-9,” Else said, using the four-digit terminator which the computer had assigned to that particular bubble universe. “C-6-7-3, then D-4-9-1 on this reach, sir. Is that right?”

    Her voice sounded thin but remarkably clear through the communications baton. On the hull of a starship in the Matrix, the only competing sounds were your own breath and your heartbeat.

    “I think you’ll find that the computer solution will route us through 6-7-6, then 6-7-5 and into D Sector,” Daniel said. He was amazed that Else–on her first real voyage out of the Academy–had correctly identified the visible stages of the Millie’s course. “Why did you choose the route you did?”

    The batons were thirty-six-inch lengths of thin tubing, filled with a polymer gel that vibrated the way the column of air did in a stethoscope. An electronic signal, even a quarter-watt radio or the magnetic field generated by a charged wire, would distort the sail fabric. That in turn meant that the Casimir radiation which impinged on those sails would drive the ship in some uncertain–unguessible–direction through the Matrix.

    No electrical communication device was allowed on the hull of an RCN vessel, except by permission of both the signals officer and the captain, and that only in sidereal space. The RCN operated on the principle that if you eliminated all possible risks of mistake, then you reduced–not eliminated–mistakes.

    That didn’t matter to the riggers who spent their watches on the hull and communicated with hand signals when they needed to. Experienced men didn’t need to speak any more often than the elements of a gear train did. A rigger who needed regular instruction got it at the end of a bosun’s starter of braided copper wire, heavy enough to sting even through the stiff fabric of a hard suit.

    The ordinary way to carry on a spoken conversation was by touching helmets. On most ships the need to do that was so rare as not to be considered. The astrogation computer determined the course and the sail plan which would best achieve it, the hydro-mechanical winches adjusted the rig, and the riggers corrected the inevitable malfunctions in the automatic systems.

    Daniel did quite a lot of talking on the hull. It was possible to read the Matrix and–if you knew what you were doing–to improve on the course that the computer chose based on calculated averages. Daniel could do it, thanks to his Uncle Stacy’s instruction, and he’d found that he could pass on the techniques to at least a few of the midshipmen under his tutelage. Vesey was his greatest success, but Blantyre was coming along nicely also.

    The other reason for having a conversation on the hull was that it was the only place where you could be sure of not being overheard. Privacy wasn’t possible in a warship with a crew so large that there were only enough bunks for the off-duty watch. For the most part that didn’t matter; captains learned to keep their own counsel.

    But a captain who had a resource like Signals Officer Mundy available would be a fool not to utilize her. Daniel had acted like a fool more times than he could’ve counted even if they’d all happened when he was sober enough to remember, but he wasn’t so great a fool that he didn’t mull his knottiest problems over with Adele.

    Faced with a recurring problem, Daniel had designed the rods. He’d thought of going to Bergen and Associates, but instead he’d asked the maintenance overseer at Bantry to build them. A great estate was a self-sufficient community whose personnel were used to creating one-off solutions for particular tasks.

    The chance to do something for the young master–though Daniel had been disinherited, and after nine years in the RCN he didn’t feel especially young–brought out the best in the tenants. The four rods which a delegation from the shop had brought to Xenos were polished till they gleamed, and the Bantry crest–three leaping fishes–was embossed on each.

    “Well, sir…,” Else said. She turned, shuffling her magnetic boots on the hull to face him. It was possible to do that while speaking through the rods, but Daniel was used to the older technique of standing shoulder to shoulder with the other party while touching helmets. He saw no reason to change, since you couldn’t see much of another person’s expression through the plates of a vacuum suit illuminated by the Matrix alone.

    Besides, the splendor of the Matrix was the most wonderful thing in Daniel’s life. He swam in its shifting magnificence whenever he found himself on the hull.

    “Ah…,” the midshipman said, shuffling back in probable embarrassment when she realized Daniel wasn’t going to face her. “6-7-9 is a high state, in the yellow-orange, and 6-7-3 has dropped into the deep blue, almost indigo.”

    She gestured again to the points of light, whole universes rather than individual stars, in the glowing swirl.

    “It’ll be some strain,” she said, “but we have new rigging, and the gradients won’t be excessive when the universes are in their current states.”

    She coughed and went on, “Mister Cory says we should always look to cut stages where that’s possible. It reduces our duration in the Matrix, and every stage stresses the rig and hull more than the differences between gradients.”

    Daniel blinked; unseen, of course, by his companion. “Mister Cory told you that?” he said.

    “Yessir,” Else said nervously. “Ah–isn’t it right, sir?”

    Well, I will be buggered, Daniel thought. Aloud he said, “That’s quite right, Else. If you take it to extremes, you’ll jerk the sticks right out of her, of course… but that’s certainly not the case here. You’ve proposed the course I’ve already loaded in the computer.”

    The hull transmitted a quick metallic staccato. Daniel turned to look behind him.

    Hydraulic semaphores transmitted commands from the bridge to riggers on the hull. He stood with Else on the ship’s spine, ten feet forward of one. The six arms clacked together at 180o, then spread with the message. A moment later the port and starboard antennas began to rotate on their axes while winches shook out their topgallant sails.

    Daniel cleared his throat. “Have you been talking a great deal with Cory, then?”

    The port B Ring antenna turned about fifteen degrees and stopped; those to fore and aft–Daniel checked–continued to thirty. He couldn’t see what was wrong; it was probably a kink which prevented a shroud from paying out properly. Three riggers, hidden among the tubes and cables while they were motionless, scrambled to clear the jam.

    “Well, sir…,” Else said. She’d been watching the riggers also, perhaps to give herself time to refine her answer. “When we’re studying in the midshipmen’s berth, Mister Cory shows us things he learned from you. We’d heard about you–and Commander Bergen, of course–in our astrogation classes at the Academy. But, well, he’s served with you.”

    “Yes, he has,” Daniel said. “And I’m pleased that he’s passing on what he learned. It makes my job much easier.”

    Daniel looked into the rippling, riotous beauty of the Matrix. If asked to bet last month, he would’ve given long odds that Cory hadn’t retained–let alone understood–any of the instruction on reading the Matrix that Vesey as well as Daniel himself had provided. Had the boy become an astrogator when he had to teach astrogation to somebody else?

    “Fink, Triplett, and me’re very lucky to have a senior midshipman like Mister Cory with us, sir,” Else said. “I mean, the lieutenants are very good, and the instruction you have time to give us–this is wonderful. My classmates will be in awe when they hear. But Cory’s with us all the time.”

    “Some times you get lucky, Else,” Daniel said. “We’ll go inside now and I’ll watch you set up the course you just eyeballed.”

    Midshipman Cory appeared to have gotten lucky: he’d learned the trick that would allow him to become a successful RCN officer.

    And Captain Daniel Leary had gotten lucky too. The officers of his new command were shaking down very well indeed.




Above Paton

    The High Drive motors buzzed, holding a 1g acceleration to give the Milton the illusion of gravity while waiting for clearance to land in Hereward Harbor. The vibration sawed at Adele’s skull.

    She supposed her headache was a result of their strikingly unpleasant extraction from the Matrix. She’d felt as though ice water had replaced the marrow of every bone in her body. She didn’t see an obvious connection between that and now feeling as though her head were splitting, but she doubted it was a coincidence.

    “Adele, are you feeling all right?” someone asked.

    Adele opened her eyes. She hadn’t realized they’d been closed until the shock of light dizzied her. She blinked but put both palms on the console to steady herself.

    Rene Cazelet had spoken over a two-way link from the astrogation station across the bridge. He must’ve been watching her through the camera in her own console.

    “Tend to your own work, if you please,” Adele said. She kept her tone neutral, but she cut power to her camera. Rene would take that as a sharp rebuke, which is exactly what she meant it for.

    Oddly enough, Adele immediately began to feel better. The surge of adrenalin from her anger had apparently settled whatever biochemical imbalance was causing the headache.

    She smiled faintly. Perhaps she owed Rene an apology. After the Milton had landed she’d give him one, but for now she had work to do.

    Cory was handling ordinary communications with Paton Control on the ground in Hereward City, the regional capital. Paton didn’t have either guardships in orbit or a Planetary Defense Array, a constellation of nuclear mines whose focused blasts could destroy even a battleship. There was nothing either to protect or to steal here.

    Das, the Resident of the Veil, had thirty worlds under his authority, a larger number than most of Cinnabar’s regional governors. That was only because none of the worlds was significant. The gross economic product of all thirty together was less than that of any of the five suburban boroughs of Xenos.

    Normally Adele would’ve felt that her primary duty was to gather information from the ships in Hereward Harbor and from the Residency databases–particularly anything that Das and his cronies tried to keep secret. For now she left that to her equipment and, opening a shielded link to the command console, said, “Daniel, Senator Forbes has just entered the BDC. Lieutenant Robinson admitted her. So that you know.”

    “Umm,” said Daniel. They didn’t bother with protocol when they used a two-way link. In fact, Adele had difficulty remembering to use protocol at any time. “Well, I’d rather she were there than up here. I’ll be interested to see if Robinson reports it, though.”

    After a pause he added, “And make sure she can’t speak to anyone on the ground, if you please. Ah–you can do that?”

    “Yes, Daniel,” Adele said aloud. And I can count to eleven without taking off my shoes… but that she didn’t say. She’d already snapped at one friend as a result of the headache which was fast fading to a memory.

    She grimaced. Before turning her attention to the information which was flooding into her electronic nets, she repowered the camera and switched to the link with Cazelet. “I’m sorry, Rene,” she said. “Extraction gave me a headache, but it seems to be gone now.”

    “I thought for a moment I’d lost the use of my legs,” Cazelet said. “This was a bad one, all right.”

    After pausing again, he added, “I’ve drafted landing plans for every berth in Hereward Harbor; none of which will be needed, of course. If there’s some data stream that you won’t have time to review till later, I could look at it.”

    There’s nothing on Paton for which I require help, Adele thought. She said, “All right. The Veil Protective Service is the closest thing to a military here. I’m particularly interested in any contacts between them and the Hegemony.”

    She didn’t bother to tell Cazelet how to find VPS databases or how to enter them, nor did she tell him that contact with the Alliance was even more important than contact with the Headman Terl and his successor. Rene would ask for help if the information were unexpectedly well protected, but he was clever and had picked up specialist knowledge and tools from her in the past. There weren’t likely to be any problems.

    Cazelet’s help wasn’t necessary to her. That she apologize by permitting him to help was necessary.

    Adele started with on the ships in the harbor. There were two Protective Service gunboats. The Cockchafer had been deadlined for repairs: three of her High Drive motors had failed on her most recent cruise, and the remaining three could go the same way momentarily. She was likely to remain in dock for the foreseeable future because her log listed the replacements as OUT OF STOCK/ON ORDER FROM XENOS.

    Presumably more was going on than the log showed, since High Drive motors were more or less interchangeable. Still, the situation didn’t constitute a threat to the Republic or to the Milton’s mission.

    The Moth had just completed a cruise touching seven of the worlds administered from Paton. She could lift again within a day or two if necessary, though it was hard to imagine any real need for that.

    Local information confirmed the judgment of the Sailing Directions that there wasn’t a problem with piracy in the Veil. The Cinnabar Residency didn’t produce anything worth stealing, and the Hegemony had a small but very efficient anti-pirate squadron which enthusiastically exercised its treaty right of hot pursuit into Cinnabar territory. The Moth couldn’t do more than show the flag, but that was all she would be required to do.

    Most of the forty-odd vessels in Hereward Harbor were local traders: the largest was a little over 1,500 tons, and a number were well under a thousand. A hulk, formerly the 3,000-ton freighter Jinyo Maru, provided shops and accommodations for both ground and space elements of the Veil Protective Service. A slightly smaller freighter, the Sallie Murchison, had brought a semi-annual shipment of merchandise to the Residency’s only off-world trading house, Cone Transport. The Cone factor in Hereward would break up the cargo and transship the smaller packets to outlying worlds.



    The only unexpected vessel below was the Spezza, a Hydriote transport of 5,000 tons. Adele dug into her particulars; the commercial code “protecting” them could be opened by any halfway competent signals officer in the merchant service. To Adele’s surprise, she found that the Spezza was under charter to the Ministry of Defense on Xenos.

    Adele echoed Daniel’s display in a quadrant of her own to make sure that he wasn’t in the middle of a critical operation, then cued her link to the command console. This might be something to report openly, but when in doubt she preferred to keep their conversations private. Daniel could open it up if he wished.

    “Daniel?” she said. “The transport in harbor is here to pick up a regiment of Cinnabar troops. Well, allied troops. But the ship’s from Hydra, not one of the Republic protectorates.”

    “That is odd,” Daniel said. He’d been examining the degree of wear on the Milton’s thruster nozzles and the throats of her High Drive motors. He switched to real-time imagery of the transport with her specifications in a sidebar beneath. He didn’t have to ask which of the ships below was the Spezza, nor did he fumble with the sensor controls: ships were to him what information generally was to Adele. “What’s their itinerary?”

    “The Spezza carried twelve hundred migrant laborers from Abraxis to Domedovo,” Adele said. “It then proceeded empty here to Paton, that’s three days, to pick up the troops. It hasn’t logged a course as yet. That is, there isn’t a course prepared on the Spezza’s computer, not just that they haven’t reported one to Paton Control.”

    As she spoke, she called up the summary section on Hydra from the Sailing Directions. The Hydriotes had quite a lot of the carrying trade in this sector of human space.

    War between Earth and her oldest colonies had created a thousand-year Hiatus in star travel. For the first seven hundred years following the Hiatus, the Hydriotes had been pirates. Bases on Hydra’s two moons provided a defensive screen that none of the neighboring worlds could breach.

    With the appearance of major powers, first the Kostromans and even more when Cinnabar and the Alliance moved into the region, the Hydriotes had become traders with a reputation of rigid honesty. Hydra might have been absorbed by one or the other empires, but though the moon bases no longer conferred absolute safety, they did make the world an uneconomic mouthful to swallow.

    Adele felt a flash of irritation at herself. She didn’t have a list of all Ministry of Defense charters. She wasn’t even sure that a list existed, but she probably could have compiled one back in Xenos. She hadn’t thought to do so, and now she needed the information!

    Well, she wanted the information. In what Adele Mundy regarded as a perfect world, all information would be immediately accessible.

    Aloud she said, “I don’t have record of any other instance of Defense chartering vessels from outside the protectorate for carrying troops. There have been cases of foreign ships being bought into service and given Cinnabar officers, that’s all. But I have only a small sample available, a very small sample. I’m sorry, Daniel, I’m not prepared.”

    To her surprise, Daniel laughed. “I don’t know that you’ll consider this to be real data,” he said, “but speaking as a politician’s son, I can’t imagine any contracting officer letting a lucrative transportation contract to a foreign carrier and keeping his job. There’s quite a lot of money in those contracts, Adele, and they don’t go to firms which don’t have senatorial support in one way or another.”

    After a moment’s pause, he added, “How did the soldiers arrive here if the Spezza didn’t bring them? They surely weren’t recruited on Paton, were they?”

    “No,” said Adele, switching files to answer the new question. Data was pouring into her console from a score of sources, but she could only access one stream at a time. This answer came from Paton Control, not the log of the Spezza.

    “The troops are from Thebes,” she said. “They’re the Brotherhood of Amorgos; some sort of religious order, apparently. Two small freighters registered on Sundog brought them to Paton from Horizon last month, then returned to Sundog with a cargo of dried fish. They, the regiment, lived in a Cone Transport warehouse until the Spezza arrived a week ago.”

    “Gods above!” Daniel said. “The Brotherhood? Adele, they’re crack troops. I know, most allied units aren’t to the standards of the Land Forces of the Republic, but the Brotherhood’s an exception. We must’ve stumbled into some sort of secret operation. Though I can’t imagine what it could be around here.”

    Adele could very easily imagine an operation that required a first-class regiment: a swoop onto Karst, detaining Headman Hieronymos in his palace on Angouleme, and using him as a spokesman for directives framed by a senior RCN advisor. There was absolutely no evidence of that or other secret activities in the region, however, and there was no chance that Mistress Sand wouldn’t have warned Adele about such matters even if her organization weren’t involved in them.

    Aloud Adele said, “That would explain why I’m not finding information about the regiment’s past or intended route, certainly. I’m not sure it’s the correct answer, however.”

    “Six, this is Three,” said Robinson over the command channel. “We have clearance to land in Hereward Harbor. Will you be taking her down, sir, over?”

    The image of Daniel’s face went professionally neutral. Then he said, “Mister Robinson, I’d appreciate it if you landed our Millie today. I found her to run a few degrees nose-down when we lifted off, but she’s not tender as I’d feared she might be. Six out.”

    “Aye-aye, sir!” said Robinson. “Ship, this is Three. Prepare for landing sequence in one, I repeat one, minute, over.”

    To Adele, Daniel said, “He should have a chance to shine in front of his aunt, don’t you think? I’m very pleased with him as an officer, you know.”

    Adele brought up an image of Hereward Harbor. It wasn’t real-time because the Milton’s orbit had her on the opposite side of the planet, but it was only ten minutes old.

    “Daniel, why wouldn’t he let the automatic systems bring us down?” she said. “There’s nothing in a landing like this that requires human involvement, is there?”

    Daniel’s smiling image nodded. “That’s correct,” he said. “It’s an open harbor. But it will give Robinson a chance to get the feel of the ship before he has to, say–”

    His face grinned. There was more than humor in the expression.

    “–land her in the middle of an Alliance fortress, you see?”

    “Yes, Daniel,” Adele said. She thought of Fort Douaumont. Woetjans’ body flying backward with blood splashing the plastron of her rigging suit; the face of an Alliance soldier filling the sights of Adele’s pistol. His mouth was open, shouting in blind terror, as her trigger released….

    “Ah, Adele?” Daniel added. “I think we’d better leave the Brotherhood’s course alone. We might call attention to matters that aren’t our business and complicate another department’s operations.”

    “Beginning landing sequence–now!” said Blantyre’s voice from the BDC.

    The thrusters’ roar and vibration doubled in intensity as the Milton began braking to land. The real buffeting wouldn’t start till the cruiser dropped into the lower levels of the atmosphere, but this was enough to draw a reasonable end to the conversation.

    Adele settled back in her acceleration couch. She was glad to have an excuse not to reply to Daniel’s statement. It hadn’t been a real order, after all.

    And she wouldn’t have obeyed it regardless. She was going to learn what brought the Brotherhood of Amorgos to Paton, if it was humanly possible to do so.

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