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What Distant Deeps: Chapter Four

       Last updated: Friday, May 28, 2010 21:13 EDT



Harbor Three, Cinnabar

    Daniel was familiar with the Sissie’s Power Room. He was the captain: he must have at least a working acquaintance with every aspect of the ship he commanded.

    Having said that, he always felt like an unwelcome visitor when he passed through the armored hatch which, unlike the ship’s other internal hatches, was always closed and dogged when not in use. Larger vessels even had airlocks between the Power Room and the rest of the ship, but a corvette like the Princess Cecile couldn’t spare the space.

    If the Sissie’s fusion bottle vented while someone was entering or leaving the Power Room, it was just too bad for the rest of the ship. Realistically, that was true even if the containment bulkheads retained their integrity. For the technicians themselves it made no difference whatever.

    “Anything I should know about, Chief?” Daniel said, looking about the steam-hazed chamber with appreciation if not affection. To him, star travel meant standing on the masthead, feeling his soul merge with the cosmos, while infinite bubble universes glowed in pastel splendor all around him.

    That magnificence wouldn’t be possible without the energy developed by the fusion bottle cradled here in muggy discomfort in the Power Room. Thank the gods there were people like Chief Engineer Pasternak who not only accepted this environment but who thrived in it.

    Pasternak turned and glared at Daniel in grim satisfaction. “Like enough there is, yes,” he said. “I’ve never lifted yet but there was a seal that cracked or a fleck of corrosion to scale off the inside of a line and clog a converter inlet or the like. But –”

    The glare didn’t become a smile, but it suggested that the engineer’s face was capable of smiling. Years of association with Pasternak hadn’t given Daniel any evidence that the suggestion was true, however.

    “– I’ll say that the Sissie could — could, mind you — become the first one.”

    Though they stood side by side, Daniel and the Chief Engineer were using a two-way link through their commo helmets. The noise in the Power Room was as omnipresent as the steam. Though no single machine was particularly loud, in combination they were overwhelming. Pumps ran constantly, to maintain the fusion bottle’s equilibrium as well as to circulate the water that when vaporized drove the generators which in turn powered everything else on shipboard.

    There were many possible working fluids with higher thermal efficiency than water. The reason they weren’t used was that starships were closed environments which were subjected to all manners of strain. Everything within a ship’s hull was certain to become part of the atmosphere eventually. Crews readily accepted lower efficiency in the power train so that they could avoid poisoning by minute concentrations of whatever heat, pressure, and bad luck could turn metals and long-chain molecules into.

    Daniel beamed. That was perhaps the most positive statement he’d heard from Pasternak in all their years together. “Very good, Chief,” he said. “You and your team have dealt with every problem you’ve been thrown, but I’d say that you’ve earned a chance at an uneventful voyage. Mind, I will be pushing this time.”

    “And when have you not pushed, captain?” Pasternak said. “In your cradle, you were trying to rock faster than the other lads, were you not?”

    Both Power Room watches were present, crowding the space which wasn’t given over to machinery. Liftoff was in six hours. Though there wasn’t much to do by this time, everybody down to the engine wipers wanted to make sure of that.

    Gauges were being calibrated, synchronized, switched off, and checked again to make sure they had held their zero. Flow rates were calculated, compared against the lines’ logged history, and compared again with that of the other feed lines.

    A pair of very serious assistant engineers were even running density checks of the contents of the reaction mass tanks. That determined the quantity of impurities in the water being sucked up from the harbor to be later spewed out as plasma through the thrusters or converted to antimatter and recombined in the High Drive motors. Since the reaction mass was cleared by centrifugal filters before it even left the tanks, Daniel couldn’t imagine how the answer could matter — but maybe it did; and in any case, Pasternak’s assistants were bent on learning it.

    Daniel looked directly at the Chief Engineer. Despite the crush and bustle around them, the very noise gave them complete privacy. Further, though Daniel found the atmosphere — in all senses — of the Power Room to be oppressive, Pasternak was in his element and as relaxed as he ever seemed to get.

    “Chief?” Daniel said. “Why did you sign on for this voyage? Don’t mistake — I couldn’t be happier to have you. But, well, not to pry, but –”

    Bloody hell. He was prying, that was all he was doing.

    “If you don’t mind telling me, I mean. Because it can’t be the pay, after what you’ve salted away in prize money over the years.”

    For a moment, Pasternak’s face had no more expression than the Tokomak squatting in the center of the compartment; then it creased into a smile that suggested ice breaking up on the Bantry shoreline as the tide came in. Daniel swallowed a sigh of relief.

    “You’ve made me a rich man, Captain,” Pasternak said. “And no, I haven’t pissed it away in the alleys behind dram shops and knocking houses like half the crew has. Half the crew and nigh all the riggers.”

    The Chief of Ship — Pasternak — and the Chief of Rig — the bosun, Woetjans — had to work together to make the Sissie the first-rate fighting ship she was. The rivalry between the two sides from top to bottom was also a factor in that success, however.

    “When I first signed on with the RCN,” Pasternak said, “I started saving for a piece of land in Wassail County where I come from. I’m not a farmer, no, but my dad, he was chief mechanic on the Tomlinson Estate there. And now, because I shipped with Captain Leary, I own the Tomlinson Estate, sir, I own it. Lev Pasternak is the richest man in Wassail County and everybody calls his children Squire or Lady, they do.”

    Daniel clapped his hands in delight. Heaven knew what the other people in the Power Room made of that, but they’d all shipped with Captain Leary before so it wouldn’t greatly surprise them.

    Senior warrant officers took a significant share of prize money. Land prices in Wassail County, far south of Xenos, were moderate, and Daniel’s commands had captured a fortune in prizes while Pasternak served with him.

    “Chief,” he said, “that’s marvelous! By all that’s holy, I’d never have dreamed it! I mean — not that you could become a country squire, but that you’d want to be a country squire.”

    Which the gods knew, Daniel Leary — though raised as he was and full of fond memories of his childhood — did not. But if vaccinating swine and talking to stodgy neighbors about corn prices really were Pasternak’s ideal, all the more reason to wonder what he was doing aboard the Princess Cecile.

    “Testing only!” snarled a male voice over the ceiling loudspeakers, adding to the cacophony. Power Room personnel would be getting the warning through their commo helmets as well. “Testing only!”

    A blat of sound and pulsing red light followed immediately and lasted much longer than Daniel thought it should have. He wondered, as he often had, whether alert signals weren’t distractions that interfered with an intelligent response. Though when the alerts were real, he’d always been too busy to notice.

    “Well, between you, me, and the bedpost, sir,” Pasternak said, “a month or two every year or two, when we’re on Cinnabar between voyages — that’s pretty much my limit. But the wife likes it, and the little ones like it, not that they’re so little any more, and those’re good things.”

    “I understand exactly how you feel, Chief,” Daniel said. “But I hadn’t thought of you as needing adventure; and, well, there’s houses to be had in Xenos or another place if you fancied.”

    Pasternak touched the side of his commo helmet as though he’d forgotten he was wearing it when he tried to knuckle his head. He was frowning; perhaps the question puzzled him as much as it did Daniel.

    “I been shot at enough times now to know I don’t like it, that’s a fact,” he said. “But you know, sir? I find I’m happy being around people who’re good at their jobs and who understand that I’m good at mine. You don’t see that on many ships, and you bloody never get it with civilians. Does that make sense?”



    Daniel thought of his sister Deirdre. He was pretty sure that the personnel of the Shippers’ and Merchants’ Treasury were just as sharp and hard-working as his Sissies. But trying to imagine Pasternak working in a bank –

    Daniel clapped the engineer on the shoulder. “It makes perfect sense, Chief,” he said. “Perfect. Now I’ll leave you to it and get up to the bridge and my own job.”

    Daniel pressed the touchplate in the center of the hatch and waited for the hydraulic systems to open it for him. He was grinning.

    Pasternak working in a bank would be almost as silly as me working in a bank!



    Adele sat upright at the signals console — she rarely reclined — as she skimmed the data from the battleship Euclid which was pouring into her data banks. Tovera moved into the corner of Adele’s vision and swayed back and forth very slowly.

    Adele froze her holographic display — though the data dump continued — and met Tovera’s eyes directly. She could no more have ignored her servant than she could have ignored an onrushing fire — though if needs must, she could have worked through the distraction in either case.

    “Yes?” she said crisply. She was irritated, but she tried to keep her feelings out of her voice. She knew Tovera wouldn’t interrupt without what she considered a good reason; and in all truth, there was no reason for Adele to enter the Euclid’s data banks except to prove that she could.

    Mind, the data might come in handy for some unexpected purpose. But the exercise was reason enough.

    It should have been impossible to breach a battleship’s electronic security, but when the Euclid was docked to replace half her thruster nozzles, the Communications Officer — a lieutenant commander, not a mere junior warrant officer as on a corvette — had failed to complete his shut-down procedures. By reversing the instructions which Adele found echoed onto the command console, she was able to copy all the Euclid’s data except the codes which were housed in a separate computer and not linked to the main system.

    Adele had become too familiar with that sort of carelessness to even become angry about it. Well, very angry. Which was an even better reason not to vent her transferred displeasure onto her servant.

    “The Commissioner’s wife would like a word with you in private, mistress,” Tovera said. She didn’t point, but her eyes flicked in the direction of the bridge hatch, open but guarded by technicians Munsing and Rawls.

    Adele let her gaze follow the minuscule gesture. Clothilde Brown looked furious, but the Sissie was within an hour of liftoff, so personnel were restricted to their stations.

    Rawls wouldn’t have let the woman pass anyway. He’d been a labor organizer as well as a machinist at Harbor Three. When a squad of Militia had suddenly arrived at the dockyard, he’d decided to ship out on the RCS Aglaia under a false name to avoid discussing his recent activities.

    Rawls had learned very quickly that everybody aboard a starship pulled together or none of them saw home again. He’d stayed with the RCN and with the newly promoted Lieutenant Daniel Leary after the survivors of the Aglaia’s crew transferred to the corvette Princess Cecile. But Rawls wasn’t going to forget his orders because a civilian with a snooty accent told him to.

    Adele looked around the bridge without expression. Pasternak hadn’t lighted the thrusters yet, so there was time for a short conversation . . . and no reason not to have one, except that Officer Mundy was in a bad mood.

    Smiling faintly, Adele stood up. “I’m going to my quarters for a moment, Cazelet,” she said to the midshipman on the jumpseat opposite her on the console. “Take over until I return, if you will.”

    “Ma’am,” Cazelet said, his face and tone neutral. There was a flat-plate terminal in the midshipmen’s quarters; he would watch the interview through it unless Adele told him not to, which she had no intention of doing. If Clothilde Brown wanted to believe that her privacy was being respected, she was free to do so; but civilians didn’t give orders on an RCN vessel.

    Before Clothilde could speak, Adele said, “Since you want privacy, mistress, we’ll go down to my quarters.”

    “If you’ll follow me, mistress,” Tovera said. “Please be careful of the treads.”

    The midshipmen’s compartment was the point of the bow on B Level, directly below the command console. The hatch was locked open; Tovera bowed Clothilde through, then stood in the hatchway when Adele had followed.

    Clothilde frowned. “Does your servant have to be present, Lady Mundy?” she said.

    Adele grimaced, though for the most part the reaction didn’t reach the muscles of her face. “Yes,” she said. “She has to be present.”

    She didn’t offer an explanation. She didn’t have an explanation, except that she now understood the purpose of this conversation and that added to her existing ill temper.

    Clothilde Brown blinked. “Ah,” she said. “Well, this is embarrassing. Lady Mundy, I most sincerely apologize for waiting this long to pay my respects. If you can believe it, it was only a few minutes ago that my husband finally told me who you are! I was furious, of course. I told him that he must watch Hester while I saw you — since he refused to allow me to bring Hester’s governess on this horrible trip.”

    Adele considered a number of responses. She would not, of course, shoot Clothilde. If she had been Commissioner Brown, however, that option would have been closer to the top of the list.

    “On this voyage,” Adele said aloud, “I am Officer Mundy — as I believe I told your husband. It would be regrettable, mistress, if you were to object to the Commissioner having obeyed my instructions.”

    “Oh!” said Clothilde, touching her mouth with the fingertips of her left hand. “Oh, no, your ladyship, I didn’t mean that at all.”

    “Very well, Mistress Brown,” Adele said. “I’ll return to my duties, then.”

    Clothilde’s face scrunched up; she began to cry. “Oh, please,” she blubbered, “I’m sorry but I’m so miserable and I’m afraid! This is so awful, all of it.”

    Adele recoiled in horror, though she hoped she managed to keep her face blank. Daniel would know what to do. Of course one of the reasons Daniel had more experience with crying women was that his own behavior was often the cause of the tears. Adele had done nothing to provoke this unpleasant outbreak.

    “I assure you that there’s less danger now than you’d face crossing the Pentacrest at rush hour, mistress,” she said. “Captain Leary and his crew are very skilled, uniquely skilled I might say. There’ll be no trouble.”

    Clothilde produced a handkerchief from her sleeve and blew her nose thoroughly. “Ah,” said Adele. “Would you care to sit down? There’s just the bunks, I’m afraid.”

    She released her own, the bottom portside unit. Midshipmen Cazelet was on the starboard side.

    “No, no, I’m all right,” Clothilde said, then snuffled again. As she folded the handkerchief, she looked around the compartment for the first time. “My goodness, L — Officer Mundy. I would have expected you to have, well, larger quarters.”

    I did, until you and your husband came aboard.

    Aloud Adele said, “This isn’t so bad, mistress. Though it would be tight if the Sissie had five midshipmen instead of the present one.”

    Clothilde’s carefully neutral expression — she clearly hadn’t wanted to be too damning of Lady Mundy’s present lodgings — turned to open amazement. “You mean you share this –”

    Her tongue froze before it framed the word “closet” or the like. She had a stricken look

    Adele began to find the business amusing. Smiling faintly, she said, “Space is at a premium on a starship, mistress. Even on a large ship, which the Princess Cecile certainly is not. But I’ve slept in worse conditions in civilian life.”

    “You have?” Clothilde said. “That is, I don’t of course doubt you, La– La– Officer. But I’m surprised to hear that.”

    “I lived in straitened circumstances for years following the Proscriptions,” Adele said calmly. “For a time I slept in a flophouse where the beds were fenced off from one another by barbed wire. Most of the other residents were drunks who were likely to urinate through the wire in the night.”

    Clothilde stared without speaking, her eyes wide. She was quite a pretty woman, the sort men called doll-like. She wasn’t as young as she dressed to appear, but Adele guessed she was still several years short of thirty . . . and therefore fifteen years younger than her husband.



    “Did you . . . ?” she said, glancing toward Adele’s left tunic pocket. The stories about Lady Mundy and her pistol were common property in the RCN and probably a long way beyond it by now. “Threaten them?”

    “No,” said Adele, her smile a little wider but as cold as an asteroid’s core. “It wouldn’t have done any good — they were drunk, as I say, and drunks simply can’t process information in a useful fashion. And there would have been repercussions had I shot them, you see.”

    “Nowadays they’d hush it up, of course,” Tovera said primly. The fact she spoke — and what she said — implied that Clothilde’s behavior had irritated her as well.

    “Perhaps,” said Adele. “At the time I expect it would have been a brief criminal court proceeding. Fortunately I didn’t have to learn.”

    She smiled again. The matter wasn’t humorous, even in memory, but the fact that she had solved a difficult problem was worth a smile of satisfaction.

    “The manager was sober,” Adele said, “or at any rate not so drunk that he couldn’t rationally respond to a threat. His office wasn’t much bigger or cleaner than an individual sleeping cell, but it did have walls. I slept there.”

    Clothilde swallowed with difficulty, but she didn’t look away as Adele had thought she might do. Instead she managed a smile and said, “You must think I’m very foolish to be concerned about such little things when you’ve gone through so much. Well, I apologize again.”

    “Problems are only large or small when one is able to look back on them,” Adele said. She looked into her own past and smiled, faintly and very crookedly. “When they’re happening, they’re all huge. Or so it has seemed to me.”

    Right now my problem is how to get free of you without giving offense. Although — as a puzzle, Clothilde Brown was at least as interesting as entering the Euclid’s data banks, and the information to be gleaned was likely to be of more immediate importance.

    Instead of taking her leave immediately as she probably could now have done, Adele said, “The discomfort of the voyage will be over in a few weeks, mistress. And you may find cramped conditions less burdensome than you thought. I did.”

    “It isn’t that, Officer Mundy,” Clothilde said, “as I’m sure you know.”

    Unexpectedly she sat on the bunk, then slid over and patted the portion nearer Adele. Adele shrugged mentally — this was what she had decided she wanted, after all — and accepted the invitation. She preferred to have personal discussions while standing, but here as generally the other party’s ease was of more importance.

    “It’s Pavel’s career,” Clothilde said. She’d apparently decided to treat Tovera as a door panel rather than a pair of ears. “On non-career. I understand that one can’t expect a plum appointment immediately unless one is a member of one of the Great Houses –”

    Her face changed as her intellect caught up with her emotions. “Oh!” she said. “I didn’t mean you, La . . . .”

    “The Mundy name took my family to a very high place, mistress,” Adele said dryly. “To the top of Speaker’s Rock, in fact.”

    Clothilde Brown wasn’t stupid, but the words came from so unexpected an angle that it took her a visible moment to process them. When she did understand, she lurched halfway to her feet, then sat down heavily. Her face was white.

    “I’m sorry, mistress,” Adele said in real embarrassment. “I’ve lived so closely with my family’s execution that I forget that treating it as simply a fact of existence will disturb other people. I didn’t mean to offend you.”

    “Oh, not you, your ladyship,” Clothilde said. “How could I have been so, so . . . ?”

    Throwing the other party off-stride was sometimes a useful interrogation technique, but here the effect had been closer to having Woetjans club the poor woman over the head with a length of high-pressure tubing. At least Tovera hadn’t snickered, as she sometimes did when she saw a civilian discomfited by Adele’s sense of humor.

    “I misspoke, Mistress Brown,” Adele said. “You were discussing your husband’s career, I believe.”

    “So to speak, I was, yes,” Clothilde said, giving Adele a wry smile. “I’m –”

    She paused.

    “You are a very remarkable woman, Officer Mundy,” she said, fully composed again. “As I was saying, I know that one must expect to start at the bottom, but after Pavel accepted the posting, I learned that the previous Commissioner had been left on Zenobia fifteen years. Fifteen years. And he died there! I couldn’t bear that, and Hester shouldn’t have to bear that!”

    “Georg Brassey, the previous Commissioner,” Adele said, “was the third son of the Brasseys of Chorn. He wasn’t a professional diplomat, just an unambitious man whose family had enough influence to arrange for him to have the quiet life he wanted. Your husband won’t remain on Zenobia for longer than the normal two-year posting unless something goes badly wrong either there or in Xenos.”

    “I see,” said Clothilde, shaking her head with the same wry smile as a moment before. “My, it’s certainly my day for embarrassing myself, isn’t it?”

    With a slightly sharper expression, she said, “Do you know the Brasseys, Officer?”

    “I did, slightly,” Adele said in a neutral tone. “There were marriage connections. And I knew the de Sales family, to the same slight degree.”

    “Yes, of course you would have known my family,” Clothilde said. “The de Sales homestead wasn’t far from Chatsworth Major, though it was all gone by the time I was born; and my father was of the cadet line anyway. Well, I am a fool. You knew everything about me before I even came aboard.”

    “I’m a librarian by training and vocation, mistress,” Adele said, rising. “Information fills the part of my existence that others choose to give over to life. I think they’re wrong, of course, but I realize I’m in a minority.”



    The Princess Cecile began to shudder, and a low roar permeated the ship. Stains on the bulkheads blurred from the vibration.

    Clothilde jumped up again. “Is something wrong?” she asked in a tone that meant, “Are we all going to die?”

    “Chief Pasternak is testing the thrusters,” Adele said. “Which he wouldn’t do unless he and Captain Leary believed that everything is in order. It does mean that I need to return to my station, however.”

    Clothilde sucked her lower lip in and nodded. “Thank you, Officer Mundy,” she said.

    “If I may volunteer some advice,” Adele said, “your husband will need all the help he can get to be sure of obtaining a better posting for his next assignment.”

    “He’ll have it,” Clothilde said as she followed Adele out of the compartment. “And thank you again.”

    Adele Mundy understood better than most how much everyone needed help. Some of us need the help of others just to find a reason for going on with life.



    Daniel Leary, captain of the Cinnabar-registered private yacht Princess Cecile, stretched by working his muscles against the couch of his command console. He grinned and on a whim shrank his holographic display to look sternward across the bridge.

    All eight thrusters were running at half volume with the petals of their Stellite nozzles fully open. Their plasma exhaust sprayed into the water of Harbor Three, dissipating its energy as steam, while two great pumps in the vessel’s stern refilled the reaction mass tanks from the harbor. The noise would have been deafening if the commo helmets hadn’t had active sound cancellation; vibration made loose objects walk across flat surfaces.

    Everything was as it should be. Daniel was in his element.

    He’d lifted the Princess Cecile hundreds of times by now, and he’d commanded much bigger ships. There was still a unique thrill to this moment, a visceral memory of the first time they’d lifted from Kostroma — a newly made lieutenant at the controls of a corvette which had never been close to anything more dangerous than the fireworks of a national celebration.

    They’d showed the Alliance fireworks on that day, and on many later days.

    Daniel grinned. The Republic was at peace now, and that was a good thing; a necessary thing if the civil government was to survive. But by the gods, the Sissie and her crew had proved themselves against anything the Alliance could throw at them!

    Sun, the Gunner and one of the original Sissies, sat at the console to Daniel’s immediate left. With the record he’d compiled in the years since, he could choose his own assignment, up to and probably including a battleship.

    Sun had chosen to stay with the Princess Cecile and her meager two pairs of 4-inch cannon: a turret on the dorsal bow and another in the ventral stern. He liked using his guns, not just having the rank of gunner. If Captain Leary was commanding a corvette, then Sun was happy to be gunner on a corvette.

    On most warships, the Chief Missileer would be at the Attack Console on the port side of the bridge. Because Daniel liked to control at least the initial launches himself, that warrant officer — Chazanoff, on a corvette rated as a missileer’s mate — was in the Battle Direction Center in the stern. The Sissie would be fought from the BDC if the bridge were destroyed.

    At the console here sat an engineering tech named Fiducia who was striking for a missileer’s rating. He was compulsively checking the status of the Sissie’s missiles, the two ready to launch in her tubes and the eighteen additional rounds in her magazines. A corvette’s punch was minuscule compared with the eighty and more missiles which a battleship could launch in a single salvo, but used shrewdly she could be effective.

    Daniel grinned. Many of the Republic’s enemies could testify to how effective the Sissie had been in the past.

    Lieutenant Cory was at the Astrogation Console to Daniel’s immediate right; there was unlikely to be anything for him to do in that line. Lieutenant Vesey, in the BDC as normal for the First Lieutenant, had started as an exceptionally skilled astrogator and had become better: long service with Daniel Leary had taught her to read the Matrix the way his uncle, Stacey Bergen, had taught him.

    But Cory’s position wasn’t as much of a joke as it would have seemed a few years ago. He had become a pretty fair astrogator, which initially Daniel would have said was as unlikely as a pig learning to dance ballet.

    The final console on the bridge was Signals. Midshipman Cazelet, in the backup position in the BDC, could do everything an ordinary signals officer did. Nobody — nobody in the human universe, in Daniel’s considered opinion — could equal Adele. The chance that brought her and Daniel together had been fortunate for both of them, and more fortunate still for the Republic of Cinnabar.

    Daniel stretched again. Everything that could be checked in harbor was in the green. The thrusters’ steady output was rocking the Sissie as plasma boiled away the water in which she floated. The input hoses had withdrawn into the hull.

    “Ship,” said Daniel on the general push, “this is Six. We will lift under my control in thirty, that is three-zero, seconds. Prepare to lift.”

    “Ready/ready/ready,” replied Pasternak, Vesey, and Woetjans.

    The bosun stood in the forward rotunda with a crew of riggers wearing hard suits. They were prepared to go onto the hull as soon as the Sissie reached orbit. The antennas and sails were hydraulically controlled, but the hard knocks the rigs took on liftoff through an atmosphere meant that there were always kinked cables and frozen joints to clear.

    “Ship,” said Daniel, his left hand on the throttle control of his virtual keyboard, “we are lifting –”

    He ran the thrusters up to full output; then, with his right hand, he sphinctered the thruster nozzles to narrow aperture.


    The Princess Cecile trembled thunderously, then started to rise. Daniel laughed with joy. It was pure magic and wonder, this time and every time.

    “Up Cinnabar!” he shouted, and the crew’s triumphant cries echoed him.

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