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What Distant Deeps: Chapter Five

       Last updated: Wednesday, June 2, 2010 07:06 EDT



En Route to Stahl’s World

    “Why, this is interesting,” said Cazelet from what was meant for a training position across from Adele at the back of the Signals Console. “The Councilors of Zenobia, that’s the oligarchy, claim to be autochthones.”

    “That’s odd,” Adele said. “The record of the settlement vessel Lombard arriving from Earth are quite detailed, including passenger lists. Hmm. It must have been one of the last settlement ships, too; it landed less than a generation before the wars that led to the Hiatus. Zenobians wouldn’t have had as much contact with Earth as most colonies, but there doesn’t seem to be any doubt that they know they were an Earth colony.”

    The compartment was quiet enough that they could have talked directly. Besides the two of them and Sun at the gunnery console, nobody was on the bridge. Vesey was conning the Sissie from the BDC, though while they were in the Matrix there wasn’t really anything for her to do either.

    Nonetheless, by mutual choice Adele and Cazelet used a two-way link. It wasn’t that she was worried about Sun overhearing them while he set up gunnery simulations — besides being totally disinterested, the gunner was as trustworthy as Daniel himself — or that the discussion involved anything that could be considered a security matter.

    Adele had gotten into the habit of not talking about the things that interested her in front of spacers, however. Cazelet had automatically followed her lead in this as in all other matters. A starship was a tightly closed environment, and spacers tended to think the worst of any situation.

    People who reacted fifty times as if to a threat when they were faced with unfamiliar occurrences would live to be embarrassed when the events turned out to be benign. Ignoring what was a real danger was likely to be fatal the first time. Spacers might not be logicians, but the survivors didn’t have to be.

    Because of who Adele was, whatever she said aboard the Princess Cecile would be the subject of general attention, and she had learned that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that there wouldn’t be somebody who could give it a negative spin. That interpretation would become the common property — and common dread — of the company.

    Spacers were used to operating in a state of dread, so it wouldn’t affect their efficiency. Nonetheless, it offended Adele to be — no matter how innocently — the instrument of negative misinformation. If she kept her thoughts secret, that wouldn’t happen . . . though she supposed the secrecy itself caused rumors.

    “My goodness,” Cazelet said in wonder. “Zenobia retains blood sacrifice, can you imagine that. The Councilors slaughter a bird on the altar after they elect the new Founder following the death of his predecessor. Or her predecessor. I can’t recall a planet with star travel where they were still sacrificing living creatures.”

    “Perhaps the Browns’ former governess was right,” said Adele as her wands raked data through her holographic display. “She claimed the Zenobians were barbarians who might eat strangers. Do you find any reference to cannibalism?”

    “No, but they’d probably hide that from outsiders,” Cazelet said. “I could do a search for records of off-planet visitors disappearing on nights of the full moon if you’d like.”

    “Perhaps later,” Adele said. “Though if I remember correctly –”

    Her wands flicked.

    “– yes, there it is. Zenobia has three moons, but none of them are large enough to be distinguished from stars without a telescope.”

    The most interesting thing Adele had learned thus far from the great mass of data was that Zenobian singing marmosets were not only popular pets in the Qaboosh Region but also were widely distributed throughout the Alliance. She didn’t imagine that would affect her own mission one way or another, but she copied the material in case Daniel would be interested in it.

    Reminded by that thought, Adele began sorting out information on Zenobian natural history from the material which she had acquired as soon as she learned where they were going. The Sailing Directions for the Qaboosh Region would be adequate for most purposes, but they were unlikely to differentiate among, say, the amphibian species to be found on the margins of Calvary Harbor. And Daniel might want to know.

    “Adele?” Cazelet said. He was properly formal in public, but though he was now wearing an RCN uniform he remained, like her, a civilian of the better classes in his self-conception. “This may be significant. We’ll be arriving just after the closing of the Qaboosh Assembly. On Stahl’s World, that is, not Zenobia.”

    Adele switched her search parameters. She’d put Cazelet to combing the data for regional data; she, using the same material, had been sorting for items specific to Zenobia.

    In the days before liftoff from Cinnabar, she had busied herself in gathering as much information as she could which might be useful for the current mission. Anything with possible bearing was grist for her mill: memoirs, logbooks, histories; even fiction which touched on the Qaboosh Region. The Mundy name, her personal connections, and her very considerable experience in knowing where something of significance might be stored, had allowed her to cast a very wide net.

    All the material had been converted to electronic form. Adele had an affection for hardcopy documents that went well beyond their utility, but what she needed now was the ability to search quickly.

    She’d retained electronic facsimiles of the documents, however, to edit and inform what the text-only versions provided. If she wanted to, she could pore to her heart’s content over the manuscript records of Captain Christopher French, the semi-literate drunk who had made the initial landing on the world now called Zenobia.

    “Yes,” she said, scrolling quickly through the data. She had two streams running on her display simultaneously, a regional handbook from the External Bureau and news reports from Stahl’s World as archived in the Library of Celsus in Xenos. “Yes, good work, Daniel will want to know about this.”

    The Qaboosh Assembly had been instituted some three hundred years in the past, but the leaders who set it up claimed to be reinstituting a pre-Hiatus gathering. Such statements were common — every other planetary strongman claimed to be of pure Earth blood descended in direct succession from the captain of a colony ship — but in this case there was some substance to them.

    One of the documents Adele had just perused, The Rambles of a Misspent Life, described the author, the younger son of an unnamed family, posing as an official observer from Cinnabar at a meeting of the Qaboosh Assembly and profiting from the bribes he took from all sides. The work had been published in Xenos in the year 878 Old Style, thus antedating the Hiatus by almost a century.

    “The Assembly is supposed to occur every other year,” Cazelet said, “but this will be the first in eight years because of the war. Since they’re held on Stahl’s World from before it was a Friend of Cinnabar.”

    “And before Palmyra became so important in the region,” Adele noted aloud. But the Autocrator of Palmyra had been present eight years ago and generally, and so were heads of state or at least delegations from a score of other worlds in the region — including the Founder of Zenobia.

    “A pity we’re not going to arrive a little sooner,” Cazelet said. “The Assembly will be over by two days by the time we reach Stahl’s World. Though perhaps at least some of the dignitaries will still be present.”

    “And perhaps . . . ,” said Adele, “when Daniel learns about the timing, he’ll find a way to shave a little more time off our run. Break. Lieutenant Vesey, where is Six now, if you please, over?”

    “Mistress,” Vesey said, replying instantly. “The Captain has taken Commissioner Brown out to show him the Matrix. Would you like me to summon him, over?”

    “No, thank you, Vesey,” Adele said. She grinned ruefully. “I’ll get him when he returns. Mundy out.”

    Daniel had probably gone onto the hull through the forward airlock, which Adele could see when the bridge hatch was open — as it was now. She’d been so focused on her work that she hadn’t noticed the considerable noise and commotion which must have occurred when Daniel had fitted a layman into a vacuum suit. Well, they had been none of her present business, and her business could be expected to absorb her completely.

    Quirking a grin, Adele set a signal to flash across her display when the inner airlock next cycled open. Otherwise she was likely to miss Daniel’s return as completely as she had his exit.

    Then she went back to work on her data. Of course.




    Daniel leaned back at the waist to look upward, a complicated task while wearing a rigging suit. The rigid panels, including protective sleeves over each joint, made the hard suits much safer for the personnel who actually worked on the hull. The edge of a slipping tool or the frayed end of a whipping cable would bounce off instead of tearing a long, probably fatal, gash.

    The suits weren’t even clumsy once people got used to them. The riggers who wore them throughout their daily watches executed acrobatics, regularly swinging through the rigging and even leaping from antenna to antenna.

    RCN regulations required riggers to wear safety lines and always to grip a fixed element of the ship with one hand. On no vessel Daniel knew of did riggers wear safety lines, and most bosuns — including Woetjans — felt that the ship’s needs took precedence to what the regs said about crew safety. Despite that, there were very few accidents involving veteran riggers.

    Daniel wasn’t quite as nimble as a rigger, but he wore his hard suit with ease and a lack of concern. At the moment, his concern was wholly directed at the civilian he’d brought out with him.

    Commissioner Brown wasn’t the clumsiest person Daniel had ever seen on the hull — that would probably be Adele, despite her having what was by now a great deal of experience — but walking in magnetic shoes took some practice. The Commissioner hadn’t learned the trick yet.

    Daniel pointed upward with his left arm. “The lights you see,” he said, checking through his side lens to make sure that the communication rod was firmly against Brown’s helmet, “aren’t stars, Commissioner. They’re universes, every one as real as our own.”

    Brown wore an air suit: light compared to a rigging suit, flexible, and not nearly so bulky. It was safer for a layman because it was less awkward to move around in, and it was much more comfortable: the interior of a hard suit bruised and scraped an unfamiliar wearer. Air suits were regulation for ship-side crewmen when they went out on the hull, though veterans like those aboard the Sissie had often found rigging suits for their own use.

    “I –” Brown said, but he turned his head as he spoke and took his helmet away from the rod. Daniel waited, expecting Brown to realize his mistake and lean back into contact.

    He did. “I’m sorry, Captain,” he said. “I’m not used to having to hold my head in the same position in order to speak. Well, to be heard, that is.”

    The suits aboard starships were not fitted with any means of communication in the electro-optical band. In sidereal space, radios or modulated lasers would have been harmless; but such a device if used by accident in the Matrix would throw the ship unguessed — and possibly unrecoverable — distances off course.

    Spacers didn’t add to the risks they faced. They knew — the survivors knew — better than anyone else just how good their chances of being killed already were.

    Riggers talked with hand signals when they needed to talk at all; the personnel of an experienced rigging watch knew their own duties and expected their fellows to do the same. Daniel and Adele, for their own individual reasons, needed privacy for to discuss ideas more complex than, “Help Jones clear the frozen block on the A3 topsail lift.”

    Until recently they had touched helmets to hold conversations. Daniel had improved the technique by having mechanics at Bantry fabricate eighteen-inch long brass tubes which allowed people to speak in vacuum with fewer contortions.

    “As I was saying,” Brown resumed. “I can’t see what you see, but I think I understand what you see, Captain. I –”

    He turned carefully, gripping the rod to keep it in contact with his helmet. “Numbers mean more to me than they are, you see,” he said with a wistful grin. “More than they are to other people, that is. Here I see a –”

    He gestured with the fingers of his gloved left hand spread.

    “– pattern of light, rather like the streets in a business district on a rainy night. Only less intense. Whereas from the way you’ve described the Matrix to me, I think you see religious significance. Do you not?”

    Daniel blinked. That wasn’t what he’d expected from the Commissioner. And it was very close to being correct, which he also hadn’t expected.

    He guffawed. If they’d been inside and he weren’t wearing a rigging suit, he’d have clapped Brown on the shoulder in startled camaraderie.

    “I don’t know that I’d call it religious, Commissioner,” he said, “but I won’t object if you do. Do you see the string of green, well, blurs there, off the port bow?”

    He pointed with his full arm, shifting his feet slightly so that Brown could watch without adjusting the communication rod again. “That’s the direction we’re going,” he said. “Though ‘direction’ isn’t really correct. Our brains are used to seeing in three dimensions, so that’s how they translate the images they receive through our eyes.”

    They stood in the far bow at the base of the Dorsal antenna in the A ring. The mainsail wasn’t set but the topsail and topgallant were, cocked a few degrees to port.

    The sails of metalized fabric, tough but only microns thick, gleamed with their own light. They blocked the Casimir radiation which was the only constant in the Matrix where otherwise time, distance, and all other factors varied among the bubble universes.

    Radiation pressure served to shift starships among universes, using the variations between adjacent bubbles. Ships circumvented the limitations of the sidereal universe simply by travelling outside it. A computer with the right software could calculate a course. A trained astrogator using the same software could calculate a shorter course than a machine alone could do.

    Someone who had developed an instinct for the Matrix could tell at a glance what the energy states of other universes were in respect to that of the bubble of the ship herself. Such an astrogator could do subtle wonders in company with a crew which translated those calculations into the set of the sails. Cinnabar had never raised a more gifted astrogator than Commander Stacy Bergen and he — Daniel’s Uncle Stacy — had worked hard to bring his nephew up to his own high standard.

    Daniel tried to pass his uncle’s knowledge on to the officers under his command. Now on the masthead high above him and Commissioner Brown, Lieutenant Cory stood with an ambitious technician named Loomis and took the line of descent a generation further. Uncle Stacy would be proud of me.

    “I cannot see the order, Captain,” Brown said. “But I can see that there is order, and it’s obvious to me that you see it. I’m fortunate to be making this voyage under your care.”

    “I realize that star travel isn’t ever comfortable,” Daniel said, meaning, comfortable for a civilian. “But the crew and I will continue to do whatever we can to minimize the discomfort. We should be on Stahl’s World in ten days –”

    Which is a bloody good run, if I do say so myself.

    “– and after a layover for you and your family to catch your breaths, it’ll be only three days more to Zenobia.”

    “It’s not the discomfort of the voyage that concerns me, Captain,” Brown said, turning toward Daniel. He held his end of the communications rod against his lower face shield, hiding his mouth, but his eyes looked sad. “It’s what awaits me when I get there. I know numbers, perhaps as well as you know . . . .”

    He made a circular gesture with his right hand. Daniel winced mentally, but it was perfectly safe. Two safety lines were clipped to the hasp on the Commissioner’s waist belt, attaching him to the stanchion just outside the forward airlock and to Daniel’s belt as well.

    “Know the path through those universes. But I don’t know much about people, I’m afraid.”

    “I don’t believe . . . ,” Daniel said, trying to word this so it wouldn’t be taken as an insult. “That the duties of a Commissioner in a quiet area like the Qaboosh Region will prove too arduous, sir.”

    “It’s not the distressed spacers that I’m primarily worried about, I’m afraid,” Brown said. Then he said, “Are you married, Captain?”

    “Ah . . . ,” said Daniel. “Ah, no I’m not, though I’ve, a, reached an understanding with a fine woman. A very fine woman.”

    “Ah,” said Brown with a nod that might have meant anything. “No doubt it will work out well for you, Captain. You’re obviously a forceful young man. Whereas I am an accountant.”

    He barked a laugh that nobody could have mistaken for humor.

    “Better,” he said, “I should be an accountant. Instead I have become the Cinnabar Commissioner to Zenobia, in order to please my wife. As I said, I don’t know very much about people.”

    Daniel saw the semaphore station ahead of the airlock clack its six arms upward, then begin to chop out a message. It was hydro-mechanical rather than electrical, the only way to communicate between the bridge and the outside of the hull while the ship was in the Matrix.

    “We’d best go aboard, Commissioner,” Daniel said. “The Sissie will be shaking out her mainsails in a moment, and I don’t want you to have to dodge a cable.”

    He took Brown by the arm and began shuffling with him toward the airlock. What he’d just said was true.

    But what he really meant was that he didn’t want to go any further with the present conversation. Daniel Leary was not a person who had any business giving relationship advice.

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