Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

The Far Side of the Stars: Chapter Seven

       Last updated: Tuesday, July 29, 2003 02:53 EDT



    Adele had expected to reinstall the special equipment in the Signals console; she'd removed it herself, after all, when she left the Princess Cecile in dock on Tanais and returned to Cinnabar aboard a Strymonian cutter. It'd been unlikely that anybody would even notice the non-standard modules, let alone be able to use their sorting and cryptographic capabilities, but a librarian who isn't obsessive probably isn't a good librarian, and Adele Mundy was a very good librarian indeed.

    As it turned out, three technicians and Lt. Wilsing--wearing coveralls and looking as incongruous as Adele would in a brothel--were doing the refit. There was neither need nor for that matter room for her involvement. She could've found a place to sit and work either aboard the corvette or elsewhere, but she decided to simply step out onto the quay and view what was going on from enough distance to get a grasp of the whole of it.

    The two companionways--the only internal connection among the corvette's four levels--were armored like the decks themselves. The spacers went up and down the helical treads in long jumps; Adele wasn't especially sure-footed, nor was she in a hurry. She was halfway down the stage from B to C deck when she heard someone enter the tube at the top, but she'd scarcely gotten clear of the hatchway when Sun crashed into the entrance hold behind her.

    "Oh, sorry, mistress!" the gunner's mate said. He gestured her ahead of him out the main hatch and onto the catwalk; Adele didn't have any real destination, so she walked along. "I didn't hear you with all the racket. Do you know how many missiles they'll leave behind for us?"

    Adele deliberately stepped onto the concrete quay before she turned to follow Sun's gesture. A lowboy with three cradles, two of them already holding missiles, waited to receive the third long cylinder clanking gear-tooth by gear-tooth down the conveyor from the magazine on B Deck.

    "One moment," Adele said, setting her data unit on the barrel where she'd sat earlier in the morning to listen to Daniel's speech. It was already linked to the Sissie's computer; she brought up the proposed manifest and said, "We're to carry ten."

    She heard Daniel's voice from above, modulated by the faint breeze; she glanced up. Daniel and Woetjans were on the top, the truck, of an antenna extended to its full 90-foot height above the corvette's dorsal spine.

    Adele grimaced and looked back at her display; she was mildly afraid of heights. Besides, she didn't see what Daniel and the bosun could learn in that fashion that they couldn't learn by looking at the tubes while they were nested together and lying flat against the hull. Still, it was their job; she wouldn't thank anyone who tried to tell her how to do hers.

    Though Adele's attention was deliberately on her display, it was a moment before the words she read penetrated her disquiet over what might happen to her friends if a freak gust of wind struck or the Sissie for some reason rolled; then she frowned. Sun peered over her shoulder--uselessly, because the air-formed holograms were only a shimmer anywhere except at the focal point of Adele's own eyes.

    "This says that the missiles are single-converter units captured with the vessel when it was in Kostroman service," Adele said. "But surely that's wrong? Daniel acquired RCN standard missiles before we even left Kostroma."

    Sun cleared his throat in something like a chuckle. "Well, mistress," he said, "if there was any deal like that, it was done off-book. A fighting captain like Mr. Leary--and a captain with as much to trade as Mr. Leary had--wouldn't have lifted with wog missiles no matter what the manifest showed."

    Missiles, a warship's primary armament, were miniature spaceships driven by High Drive motors. If they were allowed to run to burnout they reached .6 C. The projectiles were solids, because even fusion warheads would've added nothing significant to their kinetic energy at such speeds.

    For shorter-range engagements, acceleration was a significant factor. Twin-motor missiles, each with its own antimatter converter, had the same terminal velocity as single-motor units, but they reached it in half the time though at nearly double the cost. Cinnabar and the Alliance considered the expense justifiable; most of the lesser navies didn't or couldn't spend the extra money.

    The lowboy's pair of lifting arms locked around the missile, fore and aft. A man from the Logistics Service stood at the control panel at the vehicle's rear; his female partner was in the articulated cab. Chief Betts, the Princess Cecile's missileer, watched from the open bay.

    "Wish we were keeping them all," Sun said wistfully. "Though I guess we'll be well-armed compared to most freighters--and the Chief knows how to use 'em."

    "The Klimovs needed the space for their stateroom," Adele explained. "A warship doesn't ordinarily have room for an extra pair of socks, in my experience."

    Sun laughed. "Well, mistress," he said. "I never heard about anybody trying to smuggle a pair of socks. But most everything else at one time or another's found its way into frame spaces or spar cavities."

    He looked at Adele and grinned. "And into the bores of plasma cannons, some folk say. Though I wouldn't know anything about that myself."

    Adele chuckled because it was expected of her. Looking past Sun's shoulder toward the compound's gate she saw one of the half-ton powered carts the Logistics Service used for light deliveries. Tovera was driving and the man beside her was Hogg.

    "Pardon me, Sun," Adele said, shutting down her data unit and stowing it with the same easy reflex as she breathed. "My servant's arrived, and I need to check some matters with her." "God speed you, mistress!" Sun called back over his shoulder as he started for the gate. He was carrying a well-stuffed ditty bag. As he passed the cart going the other way he began to sing, "I don't want your millions, mister, I don't want your diamond ring...."

    Adele wondered what you'd want to smuggle from Strymon to Cinnabar that fit within the 4"-bore of a plasma cannon. She didn't know, but she was pretty sure that the gunner's mate did.

    The cart stopped directly in front of Adele. Hogg hopped out, stepped around the blunt prow of the vehicle, and helped Tovera down from the driver's seat. Both of them stank of smoke, and Tovera in particular looked as though she'd had to crawl through a sewer pipe.

    "We figured you'd want to hear it from us," Hogg said belligerently. His voice rasped, his eyes were bloodshot, and the hair on the backs of his hands had been singed. At that, he looked much better than Tovera did. "There was a fire in a townhouse in West Valley where the new money lives. Folks named Rolfe had been in the house this past six months or so."

    "I see," said Adele. "And yourselves? You look as though you should have medical attention."

    "Tovera's going to take a session with the Sissie's Medicomp," Hogg said. "Rather'n, you know, do anything official. All right?"

    "Yes, of course!" Adele said. "Tovera, do you need help to--"

    "No mistress," Tovera said. She held her attaché case in both hands as though it were a lifebuoy as she floated on a shoreless sea. "No one died in the fire. No one at all."

    "Good," said Adele. "Now get into the Medicomp."

    Hogg watched the slight figure walk up the boarding bridge without wobbling. From the back she looked even worse. Her hair was crinkled, and sparks had burned holes in her tunic.

    "Get some of the soot sluiced out of her lungs and some burn cream, she'll be right as rain," Hogg said. That was a reasonable assessment--the corvette's automated medical system was capable of tackling much more serious injuries than Tovera's appeared to be--but Adele thought she heard an element of prayer in Hogg's voice as well.

    "I'm a little surprised," she said, trying to keep her tone non-judgmental, "that the flames spread so quickly that you were caught in them."

    "Mistress, I swear to God!" Hogg snarled in frustration. "Look, I'm not trying to cover my screwup, not to you and the master, but there wouldn't have been any problem at all if that woman had the sense God gave a goose!"

    The lowboy was pulling away from the quay with the deliberation imposed by its load of multi-ton missiles. A similar vehicle waited to take the single extra round remaining in the Princess Cecile's magazines. Up the roadway from the tram stop walked the Klimovs and a Navy Office functionary whose gray uniform made him look like a tree-branch fallen between his florally-arrayed companions.

    "An electrical fire broke out in the walls, you see," Hogg said, pursing his lips with the memory. "Anyhow, that's what it looks like. All the walls at once, though. There was plenty of warning, alarms going off all over the house, and the stupid bitch stays to get her jewelry before she runs!"

    "Marina Rolfe," Adele said. She remembered the face screaming, its features distorted by rage and fear but not, Adele was sure, attractive on their best day. "Marina Casaubon Rolfe."

    "Right, and she could roast like a chicken for anything I cared," Hogg said, "but damned if Tovera didn't go in after her. Said she mustn't die."

    The second lowboy whirred and clanked into place. The tractor ran on caterpillar treads, but the trailer was supported by four full-width pneumatic tires like bolsters. The Klimovs started to walk across where the lowboy was about to back into position, but the naval official stopped them in time.

    "Well, hell," Hogg said. "She's just a little thing, Tovera is--"

    Adele managed not to blink at the description. It was accurate enough in the sense that viruses are small, weasels are small, and the pistol in Adele's pocket was quite a small one....

    "--and I went in to fetch them both." He brushed his fingertips over the back of his left wrist with a sour expression.

    "Are you all right, Hogg?" Adele said, irritated that she hadn't said something sooner. While he didn't look or sound as bad as Tovera, he'd obviously had a harrowing time himself.

    He chuckled. "Bless you, mistress," he said. "I've looked worse than this plenty mornings after an oyster roast back at Bantry. And been hung over."

    Reaching in a baggy countryman's side-pocket, he brought up a sparkling handful. The settings were ugly, but some of the gems were very fine indeed. "Besides, there were compensations," Hogg said.

    He sobered suddenly. "But I want you to know that Tovera didn't do anything wrong," he went on. "She's the only reason that woman's alive. Left to her own devices, they'd be combing her bones outa the rubble when it cools enough tomorrow or the next day."

    "Didn't do anything wrong," was a matter of definition, of course; but in this particular case, Hogg's definition and Adele's own were quite similar.

    "Thank you, Hogg," she said. "I'll keep that in mind."

    She looked at the short, stocky man; middle-aged and no more prepossessing than the fellow who'd just maneuvered the lowboy into position. "And thank you for your services to the Mundys of Chatsworth as well. I won't forget that."

    Hogg laughed. "Oh, mistress, you're as much a Leary now as I am," he said, "for all my name's Hogg. But this one, well, let's just say I take it personally when somebody litters the master's street the way that lot did."

    He sauntered up the catwalk, whistling a jig. The powered cart remained where it was, abandoned rather than parked, Adele supposed.

    "Count Klimov!" Daniel called as he started down the shrouds bracing the antenna. He wore riggers' gloves, but even so he must be risking tearing his forearms as he swung and slid. "Countess! I'll meet you on the bridge and we'll go over the route!"

    Adele smiled at a memory. If Hogg said she was a Leary now, who was she to argue?




    Daniel signed the articles--Daniel Leary, son of Corder, of Bantry; Lt (Res) RCN--and handed them to Count Klimov with a flourish. "Well sir," he said, "you've hired the finest crew a vessel this size ever shipped; and you've hired me as well."

    Diamond saws and the snarl of arc welders vibrated through the Princess Cecile as yard workmen converted her into a yacht with quarters suitable for a pair of aristocrats. Star travel couldn't be made comfortable, but a stateroom in place of half the missile magazine would give the Klimovs more personal volume than an admiral could boast.

    The question of comfort aside, star travel couldn't even be made safe when it involved the sort of destinations the Klimovs fancied. Well, again the Sissie and her crew should suit them as well as they could be suited.

    "That your crew should be excellent is no coincidence, Captain," the Countess said. "We've been talking with the guest-friends we're staying with here in Xenos, the Collesios, and hearing what a great hero you are. They're impressed that we were able to hire you. You are a coup for us, you see?"

    She and the Count had changed clothes since he saw them at the pay parade this morning, but the style was the same. Daniel wondered if the Countess intended to wear bulky outfits throughout the voyage. The Princess Cecile's corridors and spaces--and those of any other warship, even an 80,000 ton battleship--were tight to allow the greatest possible quantity of equipment and stores to be packed aboard.

    "With all respect to your friends, Countess...," Daniel said, seating himself at the command console to bring the navigational display live in the center of the bridge. "They're civilians and don't appreciate how much luck and the professionalism expected of every RCN officer went into the stories they heard. Besides which there was--"

    He grinned through the pearly blur that was coalescing into a star chart.

    "--quite a lot of media fabulation, to be frank."

    The Collesios weren't a family familiar to Daniel. In all likelihood they were a merchant house with interests on Novy Sverdlovsk, whose members had stayed with Count Klimov or his ancestor while visiting that planet. The Collesios were now returning the hospitality.

    The Countess patted his cheek. "I am Valentina, yes? Georgi can be the Count all he likes...," she gave her husband a look that Daniel classed as "appraising" in the same sense that one appraises a suite one may rent. "But my father was a duke, and the title doesn't have the same ring in my ears."

    "Your father, the duke with thirteen daughters on the right side of the blanket," Klimov said. The words had the sound of familiarity; if there'd ever been passion in the exchange, time had cooled it. "You did well to get me, and you know it."

    He stepped back so that he could see Daniel without looking through the air-formed hologram. "Now, Captain Leary, what do you propose for our itinerary?"

    Spacers were passing up and down the A-Deck corridor with a frequency that duty didn't explain, but so long as they didn't intrude on the bridge Daniel was happy with them getting a look at the Sissie's new owners. Most of the crew was at liberty for the next five days anyway, though Pasternak and Woetjans had teams making bloody sure that the series of aggravating failures in both rig and powerplant ended before the ship lifted from Cinnabar.

    "Well, sir," Daniel said, cueing the first of the presets he'd loaded into the computer this morning before joining the bosun aloft on the replaced antenna, "the red pip is the Sverdlovsk system, green is Strymon, and blue here is Cinnabar, that's just for scale."

    He gestured. A fourth dot, this one orange, appeared at a considerable angle to the others among the milky dusting of stars too small to see as individuals. "And here is Todos Santos, the capital of the Ten Star Cluster and the entry point to the North for vessels sailing from Cinnabar. You know, of course, that distance--time, really--within the Matrix doesn't precisely equate with that of sidereal space, but it gives you a feeling for what's involved strictly as a matter of astrogation."

    "Yes, yes, of course it is very far," Klimov said, his tone marginally short of sounding irritated. "Thus we buy a fine ship and hire you, not so? Why are you telling us this when I ask you what planets we will stop at on our course through the North?"

    "Very good, sir," Daniel said mildly. He'd listened to what the Count was saying instead of simply flying hot... and Count Klimov was quite right. He'd meant what he said, not what Daniel had assumed he meant.

    "The short answer...," Daniel continued, touching the control panel; Novy Sverdlovsk and Strymon sank into the sparkling mass, leaving only Cinnabar and Todos Santos highlighted. "Is that we'll put in at Todos Santos, both to refit the Sissie after a long run and to gather better information about the region. Through me and my Signals Officer, Mistress Mundy, you have access to the best information available in the Republic about the North; but that's none too good. Besides Todos Santos, I expect we'll put into Radiance at the other end of the Commonwealth of God. By then we'll probably be ready for a further refit."

    "Yes, but the purpose of our voyage...?" Klimov said, no longer peevish but clearly unsatisfied. "The things we have come to see?"

    "Yes," said Daniel. "You want to go hunting, Count, and Countess--Valentina--"

    Catching himself before her slim, beringed finger waggled in his face.

    "--you are a student of ethnology. While you share an interest in pre-Hiatus artifacts."

    "Yes, exactly," said the Count. "What of those things?"

    "He doesn't know yet, but he'll learn," the Countess said. "That is correct, is it not, Captain Dannie?"

    Daniel shrank the starfield so that he could meet the Klimovna's eyes without a milky holographic veil between them. "Countess," he said, "I will promise to call you Valentina henceforth if you promise not to call me Captain Dannie. Are we agreed?"

    "Agreed, Daniel," she said and stretched her hand out over the astrogation tank. He touched fingertips with her and withdrew his hand.

    "And of course your wife is quite right, Count," Daniel continued with a smile. "I don't have enough information yet to give you our intermediary planetfalls; but I will before we lift in a seven days. I'm going through my Uncle Stacey's logs. For the most part they deal with sailing directions, but there are notes regarding the planets where he put in for air and reaction mass. More important, I've asked Mistress Mundy to use her resources. She's Mundy of Chatsworth, by the way; one of the most noble houses in the Republic, as your friends the Collesios will tell you."

    "But she is your Signals Officer?" Klimovna said. "The sort of populations which interest me will not have radios, let alone starships."

    "She's acting as my signals officer," Daniel explained, "but her training in the Academic Collections on Bryce was as a librarian--an information specialist. Mistress Mundy will learn whatever can be learned on Cinnabar about suitable planetfalls. When we reach Todos Santos, she will learn more. You will not be disappointed, sir and madam."

    The Klimovs exchanged a long glance. She nodded and the Count stepped to the hatch and swung it to before returning to face Daniel.

    It was the wife who spoke, however, saying, "There is one further matter, Daniel. Eighty years ago our planet was ruled by a man named John Tsetzes."

    "He was a mercenary soldier who made himself emperor," Klimov put in. "He called himself Emperor Ivan the First. Twenty years later he was overthrown and fled on an armed yacht."

    "I see," said Daniel, a placeholder limited to the very little bit that he did understand thus far. Keeping his mouth shut seemed to be the best way to learn more.

    "Tsetzes took the national collection with him," Valentina said. "Items of great sentimental value to the nation and sometimes more. In particular he took the Earth Diamond. You have heard of it?"

    "No ma'am," Daniel said, "I have not."

    But in thirty seconds Adele could tell you more than you know yourself, he thought, or I miss my bet.

    "Regardless, it is very famous," Valentina said with a dismissive gesture. "It is a perfect diamond, the size of a man's head; spherical and hollowed out."

    "That's indeed impressive," said Daniel. Jewels had value, but no jewel could truly be said to be unique given that all the universe was open to human acquisitiveness. The labor of hollowing out a huge diamond, however, invested it with a value beyond that of the material itself.

    "It is more than that," said Klimov. "The name, the Earth Diamond, is not just words. On the inside of this diamond sphere is carved a map of the continents of Old Earth before the Hiatus, a thing that could never be duplicated in the past two thousand years. Now do you see?"

    "Yes," said Daniel. He blinked with the weight of what he'd just been told. "I do."

    The Hiatus in human civilization occurred when the first tier of star systems colonized from Earth revolted against the home world. The war was fought with asteroids accelerated to slam into planets, distorting the crust and killing all but a few percent of those living on those worlds before the war started.

    It was a millennium before mankind returned to the stars, and the return came from second- and third-tier colonies, worlds like Cinnabar and Pleasaunce which had been too minor for either side to bother destroying. No one today could tell what the Earth looked like before the Hiatus, because the continents had died along with those who lived on them.

    "We know--" Valentina said.

    "We believe!" said her husband.

    "We know," Valentina repeated, "that John Tsetzes fled toward the Galactic North. Deserters from his ship said as much. No sign of him or the treasures he took has ever appeared. We thought, Georgi and I, that if we could perhaps trace Tsetzes, it would be very important for us at home."

    Daniel pursed his lips. "I can see that, yes," he said. "But I must emphasize that ships vanish in the Matrix, and ships crash while trying to land on planets that no one else ever visits. The chance of our finding a vessel that disappeared sixty years ago isn't very great."

    He didn't know enough about the political structure of Novy Sverdlovsk to be sure what 'very important' meant in the present context, but the Countess might well be suggesting the return of such an heirloom could be parlayed into leadership of the planet. That was none of Daniel's business, of course.

    "No one has been searching," Valentina said. "Not really."

    "In any case," said the Count, "we will hunt and collect artifacts. And if more eventuates--who knows? Eh?"

    "Indeed, who knows?" said his wife. With a smile that emphasized her unusually wide mouth, she again reached over the astrogation tank.

    Daniel smiled back; but instead of touching hands, he brought up the display. "Sir and madam! he said, "Mistress Mundy and I will do our best to accommodate you."

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image