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What Distant Deeps: Chapter Six

       Last updated: Monday, June 7, 2010 01:32 EDT



    Above Stahl’s World

    Adele had researched Stahl’s World extensively during the voyage from Cinnabar. Nothing she had read had mentioned that the planet looked pink from orbit because — she had just checked — of microorganisms in the extensive oceans. Near the poles the water tended toward magenta; around the equator, its frothy lightness reminded her of cotton candy.

    In a manner of speaking, the apparent color of the planet from space didn’t matter in the least. Nonetheless Adele was irritated that the first thing that she noticed on arrival above Stahl’s World was unexpected. I need to do better!

    Cazelet’s interactions with Raphael Control ran as a text sidebar along the right side of her display. The midshipman was handling the ordinary chores of a Signals Officer while Adele — and Cory, at the astrogation console — were gathering data to be sorted at greater leisure.

    The harvest was largely automatic — devouring the logs of all the ships in harbor along with the open files of public bodies and private institutions concerned with trade and shipping — but human oversight refined the work. When files were sealed or encrypted, Cory opened them if he could and otherwise flagged them Adele’s attention. Thanks to software from Mistress Sand’s organization and the processing power of an astrogation computer, there was very little in a backwater like the Qaboosh Region which was really unavailable.

    “Adele?” said Daniel over a two-way link. “I recognize the destroyer in the civilian basin below as a 40-series Alliance vessel, but I’m not familiar with the heavy cruiser except that it seems to be a Pantellarian design. Brief me, please, over.”

    “Yes,” said Adele. Instead of sorting through data on her console, she simply highlighted the link she’d already placed on the command display. She didn’t object to the question, because she felt it was her fault that Daniel had to ask it.

    Information gathering wasn’t difficult: machines did most of it more efficiently and in greater volume than human beings could. The trick — and craft helped, but it really was an art form at the higher levels — was information retrieval. In sufficient mass, unsorted data was as difficult to penetrate as encrypted data.

    Adele had put over thirty items onto Daniel’s sidebar, ranging from the names and biographies of the dignitaries still present — this was the final day of the Qaboosh Assembly; it was mid-afternoon in Raphael, the assembly site and the Cinnabar regional headquarters — to the local weather and the indicia of every ship in the harbor below. That had obviously been too much, so Daniel had called in an expert to sort it for him.

    Adele grinned minusculy. That was a typically good decision on his part.

    The cruiser was the Piri Reis, flagship of Palmyra’s naval forces, the Horde. It had been built only five years earlier on Pantellaria which, though an Alliance ally, did considerable business with neutral worlds which lacked the capacity to build larger warships themselves.

    Adele had heard Daniel and his fellow officers sneer at Pantellarian design and workmanship, but they sneered at any vessel that wasn’t RCN — and often enough at RCN ships other than whichever one they served on. All Adele could say was that Piri Reis had clean lines and longer antennas and spars than was usual for a heavy cruiser. Her defensive battery of 15-cm plasma cannon was arranged in three triple turrets — two dorsal, one ventral — instead of the four twin turrets of most heavy cruisers.

    Adele was sure that Daniel would say that the design was a bad one and that the Piri Reis was more susceptible to damage either from accident or enemy action. That said, the cruiser presumably had a higher rate of fire than an RCN — or Fleet — vessel of the same displacement.

    Speaking but directing the console to convert her words to a text crawl at the bottom of Daniel’s display so as not to disturb him until he was ready for the information, Adele added, “The ship is carrying the Autocrator Irene to and from the Assembly. There are six Palmyrene cutters escorting the cruiser; I’m –”

    Adele’s wands sorted, then clicked pale green halos about the Horde vessels. They appeared to be a standard type for the region, as — she counted — seventeen other ships in the civil basin were similar enough to be confused with them.

    The highlight color was a good contrast with the water, but the result made a startlingly ugly combination; she switched to blue, wondering if she would have bothered to do so five years ago. The universe in all its aspects had seemed very ugly then.

    “– marking them now.”

    The Alliance destroyer Z 46 — which Daniel had correctly identified, of course — was at the other end of the civil basin from the Palmyrene cruiser. Though Cinnabar and the Alliance were in a state of peace, it was unexpected to find a warship of one party making a courtesy call at a regional headquarters of the other.

    Adele couldn’t reach the core databases of a Fleet warship without time and a great deal of luck, but the log was a relatively simple proposition and gave her the reason: the Z 46 was serving as transportation for Founder Hergo Belisande of Zenobia. The Founder was accompanied by his sister, Lady Posy Belisande.

    Adele smiled wryly. It would be all right to say that this gave her an opportunity to meet her target on neutral ground if she wished to do so but imposed no requirement if she did not. Sand had been clear that the primary purpose of the mission was to give a trusted agent, Lady Adele Mundy, an opportunity to relax in a quiet region while the needs of the Republic didn’t require her special skills elsewhere.

    Adele’s expertise was in databases and information flow. Posy Belisande wouldn’t have brought electronic information bearing on Porra’s inner circles here to Stahl’s World, so Sand wouldn’t think her agent was shirking if she spent the entire time out of Posy’s sight.

    Adele would have been shirking. And though she and Sand both considered this mission to be make-work for a burned-out agent, it was a mission and Adele would carry it out to the best of her ability.

    Adele’s smile faded. It would no doubt do her good to interact socially with strangers. It was the sort of thing that human beings did regularly. She needed the practice, because she generally thought of herself as a species not dissimilar to humanity but certainly not the same.

    The exchange between Raphael Control and Midshipman, Acting Signals Officer, Cazelet had been on hold for several minutes. When the ground controller came back, Adele’s sidebar read Princess Cecile, I have instructions for your captain from Admiral Mainwaring, over.

    Without having to think about it, Adele locked out Cazelet and took over the duties. She said, “Go ahead, Control, over.”

    Cazelet could certainly have handled this, but he shouldn’t have to. Admirals could be whimsical; indeed, admirals could be peevish swine. If somebody had to deal with such a person, it wouldn’t be a midshipman to whom Adele had delegated what she had thought was a simple task.

    “Princess Cecile, this is Commander Milch, ADC to Admiral Mainwaring,” said the voice from the other end of the microwave transmission. “The Admiral requests that Captain Leary join him at the reception being given this afternoon by the Autocrator Irene. I’m leaving the reception now and will pick him up in an aircar at Slip 4 of the Naval Basin. You are to land ASAP, I repeat, as soon as possible. Captain Leary is to wear Dress Whites with all his medals.”

    Milch paused to chuckle. Adele had his face and file — a record of pedestrian competence, with neither exceptional luck nor the interest of powerful figures to push him upward — before her. He might well end his career in a post like this one, aide to the admiral commanding a squadron of ageing ships in a backwater.

    “That’ll give the locals something to see, won’t it?” Milch said. “Raphael Control out.”

    “One moment, Control!” Adele snapped. “If you please. The Princess Cecile is a yacht under private registry and not authorized to use the Naval Basin, over.”

    “The Princess Cecile is authorized to land wherever on Stahl’s World that Admiral Mainwaring says it will,” Milch snapped. “And the Admiral said he’d be buggered if Captain Leary was going to set down in the middle of a bunch of wogs. Out, and I mean it.”

    Raphael Control broke the connection. Adele was already passing the information on to Daniel and Vesey in the BDC. So much for being polite to the Founder of Zenobia and his Alliance masters.

    Adele smiled grimly. She didn’t really disagree with the decision, after all. Her highly cultured mother would have been horrified to hear Adele shouting, “Up Cinnabar!” after a bloody victory, but her mother hadn’t been RCN.

    Up Cinnabar! And up the RCN!




Raphael Harbor on Stahl’s World

    Daniel didn’t ordinarily think about how the Princess Cecile looked to civilians, let alone civilian children. As he stood beside the Browns, however, watching the little girl — Hester? — cling to the Commissioner’s leg, he realized that there was very little to choose between the Sissie’s boarding hold and a detention cell.

    The steel surfaces were flecked with rust — landings were more often than not made in salt water — and streaked with hydraulic fluid: a working ship couldn’t be clean, not after the first liftoff and landing. Other than that, the compartment’s only features were the hatches which were steel like the bulkheads. They were dogged and sealed more securely than a bank vault, let alone a prison.

    The main present feature of the hold was noise: the sighs and wheezes and clanks of the ship’s internal workings, and the trip-hammer clangs of the hull and rig cooling, each part at a differing rate. Steam no longer roared — Pasternak had shut down the thrusters — but it continued to sizzle angrily as harbor water boiled from hot metal.

    “It’ll be over soon now, mistress,” Daniel said, bending toward the child with the care his closely tailored Whites demanded. Though they weren’t as tight as they might have been: in the Matrix, he ate less than he did in port, and he spent a good deal of time on the hull. Walking in a rigging suit was exercise, and climbing repeatedly to a masthead and back was that in spades.

    As Daniel spoke, the multiple bolts — the dogs — which locked the entry hatch into the hull withdrew deafeningly. To someone who’d been aboard while automatic impellers were raking the corvette, the clangor — even when expected — was similar enough to induce a start.

    To civilians like the Browns, it probably sounded like a load of anvils had been dropped on them. Clothilde screamed, her husband threw his arms around her, and the child began to bawl as though she’d accidentally smashed her pet hamster. She was trying to climb her father’s leg.

    Daniel put his hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Ah, mistress?” he said. “It’s all right, really it is. The noise will stop soon –”

    The hatch began to lower into a boarding ramp. Metal squealed against metal, and the pumps driving the hydraulic jacks had a vibration so high-pitched that one experienced it instead of hearing it. Stepping outside his experienced viewpoint, Daniel had to admit that it would have been pretty unpleasant even without the steam and biting plasma which curled in through the widening gap.

    The child didn’t stop crying, but she transferred her grip to Daniel. That allowed him to lift her and mutter into her ear, “There, there, dear. It’s all going to be all right.”

    He wasn’t good on names, particularly women’s names. He’d learned over the years that ‘dear’ or ‘love’ were safe, whereas a ‘Hester’ which should have been ‘Heather’ could lead to a very unpleasant discussion.

    Hogg hovered close at hand, wearing what for him were dress clothes. His cap, shirt, sash, trousers and shoes were brand new and bright orange. Unfortunately they were five separate shades of orange, and his socks were chartreuse. He looked like a clown, a countryman dressed in what he imagined was sophisticated finery.

    That was all true. Hogg was also an expert poacher and as ruthless as a countryman has to be. He would throttle a man with a length of monocrystal fishing line with as little hesitation as he would snap the neck of a snared rabbit. The pockets of his baggy clothing sagged with various weapons, and he was expert with them all.

    “She’s going to slobber on your Whites, young master,” Hogg grumbled. He half-extended his arms, but he wasn’t quite willing to take the girl away. Just as well, Daniel supposed. Hogg wasn’t really a bogeyman, but it wouldn’t be hard for a child to imagine otherwise.

    “And if she does, Hogg?” Daniel said. “You’ve sponged worse than drool off my uniforms, have you not?”

    “Aye, but not before you went to a reception with an admiral,” Hogg said. “Although not much of an admiral or they wouldn’t have stuck him in a bloody dump like this.”

    He patted the girl on the back and said, “Sure, go ahead and puke, sweetie. It don’t matter on this pisspot out in the sticks.”

    The end of the hatch banged against the corvette’s starboard outrigger, extended to provide stability as well as buoyancy. It floated twenty feet from the concrete quay, but members of the harbor’s permanent staff were already swinging an extension bridge to meet the ramp.

    “I’m not going to whoopsie!” the child said, turning her head toward Hogg with injured dignity. “You shouldn’t say that.”

    “No, dear, I’m sure you’re not,” Daniel said. “Now can I give you back to your –”

    He started to say “Mommy” but switched instead to “– Daddy?”

    He bent. The girl obediently got back onto her own feet, but she continued to hold Daniel’s right hand.

    An eight-place aircar with a closed cabin made a fishhook turn over the harbor and settled crosswise on the quay. “Is that the Governor’s car for us, Pavel?” Mistress Brown said. She started forward, tugging at her daughter’s free hand. “It must be, thank goodness. Come along, Hester.”

    Adele had been watching them, which Daniel found about as predictable as there being a sky overhead. The overhead speakers — so that the Browns would hear the information — announced, “Captain Leary, this is Signals. The Squadron Commander’s vehicle has arrived for you.”

    “Oh!” said Clothilde Brown, rocking back on her heels. Hester still gripped Daniel’s hand.

    “Roger, Signals,” Daniel said. “Break. Lieutenant Cory, what uniform are you wearing, over?”

    “Sir?” said Cory, using the earbud only. “Sir, I’m in my Grays, over.”

    The 2nd Class uniform was proper public garb — an important consideration, because a Regional RCN Headquarters wasn’t a place to openly flout regulations. Daniel said, “Report immediately to the entry hold immediately and escort the Commissioner and his family to the quay where the –”

    Daniel’s tongue fluttered an instant. The Governor himself would not be sending anybody to meet the Browns; he would almost certainly be attending the affair on the Palmyrene cruiser.

    “– Governor’s office will be having them picked up and escorted to Government House, over.”

    “Sir!” said Cory. “On the way, out.”

    Daniel smiled faintly, visualizing Cory banging down the companionway three steps at a time. The boy had always been willing, but it was a pleasant change that he’d become competent as well.

    “I have to go off now, Commissioner,” Daniel said, bowing slightly. He didn’t owe that to a civilian official below him in equivalent rank, but courtesy was cheap. Courtesy and kindness were cheap. Brown looked as though he had been staked over an anthill; the glare he was getting from his embarrassed wife explained why. “Lieutenant Cory will be down in a moment to take charge of you while I go play the –”

    He fingered the sash that marked him as a Knight of Novy Sverdlovsk. It was one of a number of foreign decorations whose empty magnificence impressed civilians who didn’t understand the significance of the Cinnabar Star with Wreath.

    “– dashing naval hero for people who don’t know any better.”

    He squeezed the child’s hand and firmly released it. “Hester,” he said. “Ask Lieutenant Cory to tell you how he helped me steal a destroyer on Bennaria when he was only a midshipman. Can you remember that?”

    The girl bobbed her head enthusiastically. Daniel turned and strode briskly down the ramp. He hadn’t really felt sorry for Commissioner Brown, who was an accountant. Daniel couldn’t get inside the head of an accountant.

    But he had been a child; many would say that he still was. It seemed rather hard lines for Hester to be stuck out here in the back of beyond.

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