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The Way to Glory: Chapter Nine

       Last updated: Wednesday, February 23, 2005 23:32 EST



Above Nikitin

    The environmental system moaned as it ventilated the Battle Direction Center, and the consoles themselves whirred and squeaked. Even so, the Hermes was as quiet as an operational starship ever got.

    Adele paid no attention to Nikitin, the planet they were orbiting, beyond noting that it was a glowing blue ball of ocean dotted with islands. That was true of many of the worlds where the RCN based its outlying fleets.

    Sea worlds made it easy to refill tanks with reaction mass--any liquid would do, though water was ideal--but that was a relatively minor consideration. Broad seas gave a ship with mechanical problems a wide variety of places to land safely: thrust reflecting from hard ground created dangerous turbulence in the instant before touchdown, the last thing the captain of a vessel with a clogged feedline or cracked nozzles wanted.

    And if things went wrong anyway, a ship crashing into the ocean was less likely to fling dangerous debris into the port facilities than one hitting the land. Naval planners had to include that possibility in their considerations also.

    "Very satisfactory for a shakedown cruise," Daniel said. He lifted his helmet and rubbed his fingers through his fine blond hair with a pleased expression. "Aside for those three 70-foot spars fracturing at the central weld, that is, and that just meant we had to fish the others from that batch."

    Adele suspected that he would've been disappointed if nothing had gone wrong during the voyage. Daniel wasn't the sort to stir up trouble where there wasn't any, but he always seemed just a touch more alive when there was a serious problem to solve.

    Her mouth quirked into her familiar wry grin. Daniel had certainly chosen a profession to suit his temperament, because an RCN officer was rarely faced with a shortage of life-threatening situations. Nor, she'd noticed, was a librarian who chose to accompany Lt. Daniel Leary.

    As a vessel newly arrived over Nikitin, the Hermes remained in unpowered orbit until Planetary Control in Sinmary Port cleared them to land. Because Nikitin was a major naval base, an orbital minefield of X-ray lasers pumped by fusion bombs protected it. They'd automatically destroy any vessel that did anything but float in orbit till Planetary Control vetted it and gave permission.

    Adele disliked weightlessness a great deal. The Hermes would probably be cleared to land in a half hour or so, but to fill the gap she threw herself into the mass of information which a new planet offered her. So long as Adele's mind was occupied, she didn't care--didn't know--what her body was doing.

    Several data strands combined into something extraordinary. "Daniel," she said, ignoring his cheerful prattle. "The Cornelwood's been damaged. That's the--"

    "Good God!" said Daniel. "That's the flagship of the Gold Dust Squadron! Was she attacked?"

    Although she and Daniel were at adjacent consoles, Adele had spoken over the intercom connection she'd set up for the two of them alone. She was using her console's sound-cancelling feature to prevent anyone nearby from hearing her words directly.

    Peeler, the engineer's mate, a gunner's mate named Enescue, and two midshipmen were at the other consoles. The remaining three midshipmen sat on jump-seats along with Hogg and Tovera. Adele didn't mind the others knowing the information she was providing to Daniel, but she didn't want to advertise to them that she had learned it. Based on the way Lt. Ganse had talked, there were already too many rumors regarding Mistress Adele Mundy going around.

    "No, it seems to have been an accident," Adele said, sorting as she spoke. "On landing after returning from Haislip Prime...."

    Her control wands flickered through reams of extraneous data as if she were a miner clearing overburden. Recent communications--and there was an enormous volume of them; most of the base traffic for the past three days was devoted to the subject--dealt with salvage and repair. Getting back to the cause of the trouble was unexpectedly difficult.

    "Yes, I see!" Daniel said. Sinmary Port was directly below the Hermes at this stage of her orbit. Daniel had switched his display--echoed in miniature on Adele's--to a real-time image of the harbor, then magnified it till a single large vessel completely filled the field. "She's sunk on her port side. The outrigger must've ruptured, but there should've been at least six separate compartments...."

    His fingers hammered commands into his console's virtual keyboard. You could've asked me to find the information, Adele thought in momentary annoyance--and caught herself with a grin of self-awareness.

    And so he could have, but on this particular point Daniel was faster than she'd have been searching for data which to her was unfamiliar. He'd simply highlighted the vessel half-sunk in the natural harbor and called up design particulars with a keystroke.

    "Right, ten sealed compartments in each float," Daniel said with satisfaction. "It should've been that many for a heavy cruiser, but the Tree Class has enough other design problems that I wouldn't have sworn they hadn't skimped on safety measures. How in hell did they manage to lose integrity on the port side almost completely?"

    "There!" Adele said. She'd finally gotten to the correct file in the archives of Squadron HQ. It was classified, which didn't keep her out, but it'd kept the location from appearing during her initial data search. "A thruster nozzle burst as they were coming down."

    There was even imagery of the accident, taken by automatic cameras in the harbor and on the cruiser's underside to aid investigation of situations just like this one. At one moment the vessel's thrusters were all spewing rainbow jets of plasma. In the next, a nozzle midway along the vessel's port side blew into glowing tungsten shards.

    "Ah!" Daniel said as he watched the archival feed. "What bad luck... though I would say they were coming in rather hot."

    Plasma-streaked steam enveloped the image of the Cornelwood, smothering the ship's own cameras and those of the port facilities as well. The present file was optical only, which was probably sufficient; but being who she was, Adele reminded herself to look for microwave or sonic imagery as soon as she had a moment.

    The Cornelwood splashed into the harbor and reappeared, bobbing violently as the curtain of steam cleared. To the distant cameras was obviously listing to port; the ship's own imagery showed rips in the port pontoon until they sank beneath the surface. The nozzle had burst like a bomb, riddling the whole length of the float.

    The other portside thrusters were still glowing from what'd probably been overload to counteract the cruiser's too-swift descent. They cracked one after another in gushes of steam as they dipped into the water. Their failure wasn't violent enough to damage the float further, but it was already a total loss.

    The images from the Cornelwood's cameras went black. Their mechanisms were sealed against worse environments than this, but they couldn't see through harbor scum.

    "What very bad luck," Daniel repeated, this time in a tone of wondering amazement. "Raising and refitting her's going to take the whole port establishment, so we'll have to do all our own repairs."

    "Should we report this to the Captain?" Adele said. If Daniel had been in command, the answer would've been, "Yes, of course!" but Daniel wasn't in command.

    "We should, but I'm afraid he'd think we were boasting," Daniel said, voicing Adele's own thought. "He'll be informed by the port authorities as soon as we're on the ground, so--"

    "Sir?" said Midshipman Vesey on a BDC-only channel. "There's something wrong with the flagship. She's too deep on the port side, and there's barges around her in the water, over."

    Though Vesey was in a jump seat, gathering data through her helmet display, she'd seen what Bragg and Cory at the consoles had missed. Her partner Dorst was viewing a signal imported from her helmet--Adele checked by reflex--but Blantyre beside them was searching for the image with her mouth set in a grim line.

    "Roger, Vesey," Daniel said, winking at Adele. "Break, Captain this is Leary. Midshipman Vesey has noticed that the flagship is half-submerged. Salvage appears to be in progress. Over."

    After a moment, Slidell's voice replied, "Roger, Mister Leary. It looks like we'll have to handle our own refit, and I wouldn't wonder if they drafted some of our crew for their project as well. My regards to Mistress Vesey; that's the sort of observation that the RCN needs. Out."

    Without asking permission, Adele clipped Captain Slidell's comment and relayed it to Vesey. The midshipman straightened in her seat, beaming like an angel.

    "Sir?" Vesey said. "You've got experience lifting a ship with another ship, and they're certainly not going to get the cruiser up any other way. Over."

    "We'll see what my superior officers wish, Vesey," Daniel said. He grinned at Adele and added over their private channel, "Though from my viewpoint, it'd be rather a vacation not to be directly under Commander Slidell's eye the way I've been during the past seventeen days!"



    Daniel, wearing his best 2nd Class uniform with a saucer hat instead of a commo helmet, stood in the entry hold. To his left was Captain Slidell, to his right the five midshipmen in declining order of seniority. Lt. Ganse remained on the bridge as duty officer--the traditional place of the junior lieutenant at a new landfall.

    Neither Pasternak nor Woetjans, the Chiefs of Ship and Rig respectively, were present. A crew of six techs under Brouwer, a Senior Mechanic from the Bainbridge, were in the hold with a large toolchest, but they weren't members of the party waiting to greet the delegation from the port establishment and the staff of Admiral Milne, who'd come aboard as soon as the slip cooled enough.

    "It seems quite idyllic," Adele said through the miniature phone in the canal of Daniel's left ear. He couldn't respond, of course, but it was nice to have her coolly chatty presence as he wasted time in an uncomfortable fashion. "There're trees up to eighty feet over all the islands that I've checked, except where colonists have cleared them. The flowers are striking, so I suppose you'll have plenty of new animals to observe too."

    Daniel smiled; so long as his First Lieutenant held himself at Parade Rest, Captain Slidell couldn't complain that his mouth had quirked. Adele wasn't any more interested in flowers than she was in manufacturers of plasma thrusters. They and most of the rest of the world about her were bits of data to be stored and classified, generally at the whim of someone else.

    Hydraulic pumps whined, forcing the main hatch open for the first time since the Hermes closed up on Cinnabar. It squealed loudly: metal surfaces have a tendency to migrate in vacuum, so the hatch and its coaming had grown minusculely together during the voyage. Steam and a hint of strange spices curled in as the ramp lowered.

    "Another bloody hellhole," a tech muttered. "It seems it's always a jungle or a bloody glacier. How's about a nice city some time?"

    The senior mechanic caught Captain Slidell's glare. He muttered, "Belt up, Murtagh."

    It wasn't that Adele didn't have personal interests--she could discuss books and manuscripts with as much enthusiasm as anyone in the human universe. But so far as Daniel could tell, most of his friend's attention went into what she could do for others.

    He smiled again, then let the expression fade. That made Adele Mundy sound like a saint... which in an odd fashion she might be. A fashion that included the pistol in her pocket, and the cold certainty with which she used it at need.

    The ramp squawled, then stuck halfway. "Coop and Filippa, get the number three jack, and you get the heavy hammer, Murtagh!" Brouwer snapped. He and his team rushed to the jammed lower hinge. Captain Slidell scowled, then seemed to relax.

    "The islands are made by coraline algae," Adele continued. "Plants that form limestone."

    She paused, then continued, "Hmm. The algae grows from the top, but the mats reach down as the lower portions die. If they touch the bottom, they form islands. I'd never heard of anything like that."

    Nor had Daniel, and it gave him something interesting to ponder while he waited silently. He understood the need for drill and ceremony. He'd never be much good at it, but he wouldn't be a good engineering officer either; that wasn't the problem. It simply didn't seem to him that the landing of a tender at a distant station was a proper venue for formality.

    "I got it, chief!" Murtagh said. "Gimme room, just gimme some bloody--"

    The rest of Brouwer's team leaned or stepped backward, depending on where they stood. Murtagh brought the sledge around in a three-quarter's circle that ended in a bell-like whang-g-g. The ramp jumped, then settled into smooth downward movement till it squelched into the ground at the edge of the slip. The maintenance crew moved out of the way with murmurs of satisfaction.

    Murtagh and the rest of the team Brouwer had chosen for the present duty were former Bridgies. From what Daniel had seen during the voyage--and now--they knew their business. He'd have been happier if Brouwer had integrated his crew, though, the way Woetjans had done with her rigging watches.

    The last of the eddying steam cleared, leaving a familiar stench of baked loam that would linger for days. The slips of Sinmary Port were of natural earth rather than being concrete lined, so volumes of organic compounds burned when plasma vaporized the water they were suspended in.

    The two lieutenants waiting on the quay sauntered up the ramp. One wore utilities, while the other was in Grays but with no decorations except the scarlet collar flash of a staff officer. There was no sign of the formal greeting party Captain Slidell had obviously expected.

    "Commander Slidell?" the man in Grays said cheerfully. "I'm Sloan Pontefract, Admiral Milne's Flag Lieutenant. The Admiral sent me to invite you to tea this afternoon, say seventeen hundred local. She served with your wife's father and brother, perhaps you know."

    Pontefract took in the spectacle of the Hermes' officers standing in line at Parade Rest. He halted at the head of the ramp and threw Slidell a salute which was razor sharp despite being clearly off-hand.

    "I'm sorry, sir," he said. "We don't stand on ceremony much here in the back of beyond. No offense intended, I assure you."

    Slidell returned the salute. "None taken, of course," he said grudgingly. He turned to Daniel and snapped, "All right, Leary. You and the midshipmen are dismissed."

    "Commander?" said the other lieutenant. "I'm Farschenning from the port office. I'm afraid the facilities here are rather stretched at the moment as we've had a bit of an emergency. If you need repairs, I'm afraid they'll have to wait--unless your own complement can carry them out, of course?"

    "We noticed the flagship's situation," Slidell said. "How in the name of heaven did something like that happen?"

    Farschenning and Pontefract exchanged glances. Farschenning pursed his lips and said, "Bit of a disputed question, Commander. Some think the thrusters were overstressed, while others believe that yard maintenance here at Sinmary Port may have been to blame. And of course some times you have bad luck. That's perhaps the most likely explanation, though of course there'll have to be a Navy Office inquiry to get to the bottom of the matter."

    Daniel kept a neutral expression as he considered Farschenning's careful statement. Squadron command and the base establishment--which reported to the Bureau of Material on Xenos, not to Admiral Milne--had started out by blaming one another for an event which'd been just short of disastrous. The likely result of such a public brawl would be half a dozen people forced into retirement for negligence or worse.

    Cooler heads seemed to have prevailed, though. The parties were uniting to claim an Act of God that'd save everybody's career.

    "The major problem now is to lift the Cornelwood so we can repair her," Farschenning continued. "The, ah, repercussions from the accident will be easier to deal with if the damage is repaired."

    Lt. Pontefract nodded grimly. "The Cornelwood's the only real combat unit in the squadron, you see," he said, admitting what Daniel had noticed when he first he looked at the ship-list for the Gold Dust Squadron. "Oh, I don't mean the others aren't warships, but they're a frigate and patrol cruisers configured for station-keeping and landing operations. Or your tender, Commander. All very well for chasing pirates or pulling civilians off Yang when they're having another of their bloody revolutions--"

    "Bloody is right," muttered Farschenning. "The poor devils in the Garnet got the job of dealing with the savages this time. I don't envy them."

    "--but not for slugging it out with other warships," Pontefract went on. He'd paused, nodding agreement while Farschenning spoke. "Of course that's not likely to happen since the Alliance doesn't have any bases within thirty days of here, but not having the capacity would...."

    He rolled his palms upward with an apologetic smile rather than put the rest of his thought into words. Daniel could finish the sentence easily: a squadron commander whose error degraded his force below the level required to face a putative enemy could expect to be recalled if not cashiered when Xenos heard about it.

    "Yes, a very difficult situation," Slidell said, pursing his lips and nodding. "We've got a variety of problems to deal with--the Hermes is directly out of the builders' hands, you see--but I understand your priorities."

    He gave the two station officers a wintry smile and went on with the closest thing to a joke that Daniel had heard from the Commander: "I even agree with them, though I doubt Admiral Milne was concerned about whether I did or not."

    "You'll have to lift the Cornelwood on the thrust of another ship attached by cables, won't you, sir?" Vesey said to Lt. Farschenning. "The only alternative's to drain the slip, and the mud bottom makes that problematic."

    Daniel looked at Vesey in surprise. The midshipmen had remained to listen to the station officers, standing with polite informality. That was perfectly proper--their primary duty was to learn the business of a commissioned officer before they themselves received commissions--but they weren't expected to take part in discussions unasked.

    "We'd come to that conclusion, yes," Farschenning said, his eyes slightly narrowed but his tone polite. Vesey's observation had been both insightful and accurate, after all. "You're welcome to observe--"

    He nodded to Slidell.

    "--if your commanding officer approves, of course."

    "You see, sir...," said Midshipman Dorst. He was a big, extremely fit young man. Vesey could spot him quite a few IQ points and still come out ahead, but Dorst never hesitated to put himself between others and trouble. The RCN needed officers like that as well as clever ones, and there were few better than Dorst. "Lieutenant Leary has personal experience with using one ship to lift another. He did it on Morzanga."

    The station officers stared at Daniel. Captain Slidell turned, his eyes flicking from Dorst to Daniel and his lips forming a tight line.

    "Good God!" Pontefract blurted. "You're that Leary? Leary of the Princess Cicily?"

    Daniel nodded curtly. "The Princess Cecile," he said, "but yes. I don't think the business on Morzanga makes me an expert, though. That was very much a matter of 'needs must when the devil drives', I assure you."

    "Well, you're certainly the closest thing to an expert on Nikitin right now!" Lt. Farschenning said. "This is very good luck indeed. But what are you doing on...?"

    He caught himself with a guilty look at Commander Slidell. The rest of his sentence was just as clear as Pontefract's unspoken discussion of how the Cornelwood was damaged: what's a dashing officer like you doing as First Lieutenant of a tub?

    "I can't speak for the Navy Office's reasons," Daniel said to cover the embarrassment. Can't speak in public, at any rate. "But my service has been primarily on a single vessel, and I'm learning a great deal on the Hermes. If I'm assigned to cutter operations--"

    He gave Slidell a deferential nod. The Captain preserved a stony silence.

    "--then I'll have a chance to hone my ship-handling skills in still another fashion."

    "Well, it's certainly good luck for the Gold Dust Squadron," Pontefract said. "Leary, I'm sure you'll be receiving orders assigning you to the project as soon as I get back to Squadron House."

    He glanced at Slidell and flashed a wry grin. "I'm sorry about snatching your First Lieutenant away when you've got refitting of your own to do, sir," he said, "but you understand the priorities."

    "Indeed I do, Lieutenant," Slidell said with heavy sarcasm. "I trust the Hermes will somehow manage without the remarkable Lieutenant Leary."

    The station lieutenants exchanged puzzled glances. Daniel kept his face expressionless. He was glad to see the midshipmen did also.

    "Well...," said Farschenning. "We'll take our leave, sir. Send in your supply requests and we'll fill them as quickly as we can."

    "And don't forget the Admiral's invitation, Commander," said Pontefract. "She's looking forward to seeing you again."

    He threw Slidell another sharp salute. It looked easy when he did it; Daniel always felt that he'd grown an extra elbow when he tried.

    "Indeed," said Captain Slidell as he returned the salute. "Perhaps the Admiral and I can discuss priorities."

    Daniel returned to Parade Rest, waiting for what Slidell would say when the station officers were out of earshot. In fact the Captain said nothing, only turned on his heel and stalked up the companionway toward the bridge on A Deck.

    Daniel looked at the midshipmen. Both Vesey and Dorst wore broad smiles. And after a moment, Daniel smiled back.

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