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What Distant Deeps: Chapter Eight

       Last updated: Saturday, June 26, 2010 10:01 EDT



Raphael Harbor on Stahl’s World

    Headquarters Annex 6 was the last in a row of pre-fabricated single-story buildings behind the stuccoed masonry of the Headquarters Building proper. It was built from sheets of structural plastic. The walls were beige, while the corrugated roof was reddish brown where it had been in the shade. Where the surface took direct sunlight, it had faded to pink.

    “Not a very secure site,” Tovera said as they approached. By training she stepped slightly ahead, putting herself between Adele and the door in the center of the building, but neither of them imagined that there would be any real trouble here.

    Adele smiled faintly. “My suspicion is,” she said, “that if they tried to attack us, they would injure themselves.”

    “If you follow your training, you have less to think about and so make fewer mistakes,” said Tovera in a primly chiding tone. She accepted Adele’s ethical decisions without question: Tovera had no conscience, but her sharp intelligence let her act within the bounds of society so long as she had a guide she trusted to tell her what those bounds were.

    Tovera did not, however, defer to Adele’s judgments regarding doctrine and technique, except under orders. She was apt to honor even direct orders in the breach if she decided they would endanger her mistress unduly.

    That wasn’t simply a matter of loyalty, though perhaps it was that as well. Tovera knew that she wouldn’t survive in society without direction. She had been the tool of a 5th Bureau officer. After he was killed, she had attached herself to Adele as someone who would appreciate the usefulness of a murderous sociopath the way she appreciated the pistol in her tunic pocket. Either would kill at Adele’s direction, and Adele’s duties and ruthlessness guaranteed that she was likely to need them.

    A hefty middle-aged woman in utilities watched through the glass-paneled door. She pushed it open a moment before Tovera would have had to reach for the latch.

    “Officer Mundy?” the woman said. Her voice was the one Adele recognized from the call. “I’m Technician Runkle. Lieutenant Leonard is waiting—”

    A thin, very serious looking, young man, also in utilities, came out of the office at the end of the hall. “Officer Mundy?” he called.

    “Yes, I’m still Officer Mundy,” Adele said as she followed Tovera into the building; Runkle locked the door behind them. “Now, shall we go to your office where you can explain what this rigmarole is about?”

    “Officer Mundy,” Leonard said, looking nervously over his shoulder as he trotted back the way he had come, “I have to apologize for deceiving you. You see –”

    Tovera snickered.

    “You didn’t deceive us,” Adele said in a more formal version of the same statement. “You’re the Regional Intelligence Section. What do you want of me?”

    “Oh!” said Leonard. “Oh, yes, of course. I suppose we should have expected that, Runkle.”

    “Sir,” the technician muttered in agreement. “Sorry, ah, Officer.”

    Adele said nothing — and Tovera didn’t sniff, as she might have done — but that was certainly true: if this pair knew who Adele was, they should have expected her to investigate them.

    In fact they probably thought they knew who Adele was, but only by reputation. They could no more understand what she really did than they could imagine the processes going in at the heart of a star.

    Half the building was an open clerical pool with storage cabinets along one wall. On the other side of the hallway was Runkle’s office with Assistant to the Director on the door, a closed file room, and the door Leonard had come out of. The four of them seemed to be the only people in the building — Tovera would know for certain — but going into the lieutenant’s office seemed the choice that would put the locals most at ease.

    Which in turn would get them to the point most quickly, though Adele didn’t have high hopes for that. People simply wouldn’t be as direct as efficiency required.

    There were only two extra chairs in the office. Runkle, realizing that, said, “Just a second. I’ll bring another chair.”

    “Don’t bother,” said Tovera. “I’ll stand.”

    She placed herself in the corner to the left of the outward-opening door. Her expression was probably one of amused contempt, but it could be read as friendly openness.

    Adele seated herself. She knew Tovera as well as anyone did, she supposed, but she certainly wouldn’t claim to know what was going on in her servant’s mind.

    “Well, if you’re sure . . . ?” said Runkle; Tovera didn’t deign to answer. Runkle sat gingerly on the open chair.

    A Technician Grade 8 was a senior warrant officer, on a level with a bosun or a chief engineer — far superior to a signals officer. The deference Runkle and her commissioned superior were displaying proved, which was scarcely necessary, that they weren’t thinking of Adele in the RCN chain of command. It also indicated that they believed that she and they were all in a continuum of the intelligence community. That was a degree of arrogance which would have made Adele angry if it weren’t so foolish.

    Leonard coughed and crossed his hands precisely on the deck before him. He said, “I suppose it’s too much to hope that you’ve been sent here because of our reports to Xenos, Lady Mundy?”

    “With respect, Lieutenant . . . ,” Adele said. There was no respect whatever in her tone. “While I’m wearing this uniform –”

    She flicked her left sleeve with her right little finger. Her personal data unit was in her lap — she had brought it live without really thinking about it when she sat down — and she was holding the control wands in her thumbs and first two fingers of both hands.

    “– I am Officer Mundy.”

    “I’m very sorry, Officer Mundy!” Leonard said hastily, clasping his hands by reflex. “It won’t happen again!”

    “And as for the question,” Adele continued, “I know nothing about your reports, but I’m inclined to doubt that they had anything to do with me passing through Stahl’s World. As I was given to understand the matter, a minor figure of the Representation Service died and the Princess Cecile was chartered to deliver his replacement as quickly as practical. I am the Signals Officer aboard the Princess Cecile.”

    The locals looked at one another. Runkle grimaced and said, “I don’t wish to speak about matters which shouldn’t be discussed generally, Officer, but if I may say — it’s public knowledge that you have a reputation beyond the RCN.”

    “I shouldn’t wonder,” Adele said dryly. “I won’t speculate on what you or anyone else may have heard — about me, or about the inner workings of the Senate, or the true story of this or that video entertainer’s love life. I will say, however, that my duties to the RCN brought me to Stahl’s World, and my courtesy has brought me to this room.”

    She paused, then said, “That courtesy is rapidly becoming exhausted, Technician.”

    The lieutenant opened his mouth but then froze. Runkle looked at him, then blurted, “Palmyra is dangerous, really dangerous. We thought, everybody out here, thought Autocrator Odin was less an ally than a tin-pot king with delusions of grandeur. After he died, though, we saw — we in the Intelligence Section, I mean — that the real pressure had been coming from Irene all the time. Odin had been holding her back.”

    She looked again at Leonard. This time he said, “No one will listen to us, Officer Mundy. You know how the RCN is. Nobody counts except watch-standing officers. They completely ignore us technical specialists.”

    Adele kept a straight face. The lieutenant had obviously forgotten who he was talking to.



    She would agree that spacers, not just RCN officers, tended to treat anyone who wasn’t a spacer with good-natured contempt. Space officers of Adele’s acquaintance had invariably accepted her as soon as she had given evidence of her abilities, however. Leonard and Runkle hadn’t yet convinced even her that they had a point.

    “The Squadron staff treats us like a joke,” Runkle said. “We’ve compiled evidence that Palmyra intends to expand by force in the near future, but nobody will pay any attention to our dossier.”

    “Commander Milch told me that the Palmyrenes were ‘good fellows and bloody fine spacers,’” Leonard said bitterly. “As if commanding a light cruiser in the Battle of Dorking made him an authority on political intelligence!”

    “You believe that Palmyra intends to attack us, Technician?” Adele said. Her tone was dry, by habit rather than policy. She kept her eyes on the display her wands were manipulating, though she was listening to the locals as she worked.

    “We don’t know,” said Leonard. He spread his hands on the table and scowled at them. “But they have four regiments of infantry confined to base in preparation for embarkation. Plus the Horde on high alert, though that isn’t so unusual. The Palmyrenes feel the same way about the importance of the Horde as RCN officers do about the RCN.”

    “The soldiers are under General Osman,” said Runkle. She had her own personal data unit out. It was larger though far less capable than Adele’s, but the technician handled the virtual keyboard with skill. “He’s a good officer. Probably the only Palmyrene ground officer who you could say that about.”

    The section’s electronic databases were well protected, much better protected than Adele had expected them to be. Their weakness was the provision to allow transfer of files from open storage to locked storage. Adele set her PDU to emulate the Section’s administrative computer, then used it to insert a Trojan Horse to take control of the remainder of the system.

    “The Palmyrenes have been talking for a generation about their traditional hegemony over the Qaboosh,” Leonard said, relaxing slightly now that he and his assistant had begun talking without being slapped down. Since they’d finally come to the point, Adele had no reason to slap them. “If you go back far enough there’s evidence for that.”

    If you go back far enough, Earth rules the human universe, Adele thought. The reality is that since a dozen asteroids crashed into the home planet to begin the Hiatus, so what remains of Earth is either pastoral or barbaric depending on your viewpoint.

    But the present reality in the Qaboosh Region appeared to be the Horde; which did indeed put a different complexion on Palmyrene claims.

    “Founder Hergo may well be right,” said Runkle. “Though he doesn’t do himself any good with his yelping and posturing. And if Irene attacks Zenobia or another Alliance possession, who’s to say that the Alliance isn’t going to retaliate against our shipping because Palmyra is a Cinnabar ally?”

    “You said that two thousand Palmyrene ground troops appear to be poised for invasion,” Adele said as her wands moved. She was switching tasks. The data harvest was complete, but it could have continued without her oversight if that were necessary. “My information is that Zenobia has a population of about three million, almost entirely on Setif, the main continent?”

    When Runkle referred to Zenobia, she brought up a subject with which Adele had been familiarizing herself. Adele let her tone suggest a question, but she was confident in her statement. Quite apart from anything else, the data she’d brought from Xenos turned out to mirror that which she’d just gleaned from Section files.

    “Well, yes, but there’s no Zenobian regular army,” Runkle said. “A sudden landing at Calvary might capture the government.”

    “Except for the 300 personnel of the Founder’s Regiment,” Adele said, her lip curling in contempt at Runkle’s imprecision.

    “Besides that,” she went on, viewing her display as she spoke. “Calvary Harbor has anti-starship missiles. It would be necessary to capture or disable those, or else to land at a distance — at least a hundred and eighty miles from the batteries. Even then there would be a risk if a battery commander were alert. A landing starship can’t maneuver; it’s already operating at maximum stress.”

    “Have you technical specialists ever been on an assault landing?” Tovera said, her voice a buzz as quiet as a wasp’s wings. “Mistress Mundy and I have, several times. Even when Captain Leary was in charge, they weren’t nearly as neat and simple as they may seem on a computer display.”

    “Yes,” said Adele, “there’s that.”

    She shut down her data unit and rose. The visit hadn’t been a waste of time, since she would have found it very difficult to enter the Section’s locked files from outside the building. This way she could check whatever information the Section gave her without them knowing she was doing so.

    “I will relay your concerns to such persons as might have an interest in them, Lieutenant Leonard,” Adele said; she turned her head slightly to include Runkle in her statement. She thrust the data unit away in the thigh pocket she’d had added to her Grays. “For the moment, however, I must repeat that to the best of my knowledge, the fears you express are not shared on Xenos.”

    “But there has to be a reason you were sent to the Qaboosh!” Runkle said, frustration getting the better of her tone. “It doesn’t take an agent of your stature to nursemaid some Commissioner!”

    “I am here, Technician . . . ,” Adele said, suddenly coldly angry. “As signals officer to the best fighting captain in the RCN. And now that you’ve reminded me, I’ll get back to my duties. Good day to you both!”

    She stalked into the hall, past Runkle who was trying to burble an apology. Tovera followed, walking backward with her hand inside her attaché case. A needless precaution, but she would ignore Adele’s objection; and anyway, Adele didn’t feel like objecting.

    The trouble was that Adele suspected there really was fire somewhere in the smokescreen of sloppy thinking which the Intelligence Section had raised. The best hope was that Autocrator Irene planned to attack a Cinnabar ally or even Stahl’s World itself; such a business could be put down at modest cost in lives and property.

    If the attack was on an Alliance world, however, the danger wasn’t just commerce raiding in reprisal. It would light a fuse which, when it burned back to Pleasaunce, would engulf the Peace of Rheims and with it, very possibly, both exhausted empires.



    “This bay houses the Power Room watches,” Commander Bailey said as he entered the B Level compartment with Daniel at his side; von Gleuck and Lady Belisande followed closely. Most of the bunk towers had been lifted against the ceiling to clear the huge compartment.

    Three spacers squatted near the hatch to play cards on the floor. They hopped to their feet and one — presumably the senior man, but they wore only breechclouts — shouted, “Attention!”

    A dozen other personnel leaped up in various stages of undress. “Stand easy,” Bailey said with a nonchalant wave. The Palmyrene spacers may have relaxed slightly, but they didn’t go back to their previous occupations while the visitors strode down the center aisle.

    “The room is very clean,” said Lady Belisande said as the party approached the rear bulkhead. “But perhaps that is because it’s so much bigger than your destroyer, Otto?”

    Von Gleuck snorted. Daniel said, “Your ladyship, I’ve never seen a ship of any size this neat before. I’ve seen battleships straight from the builders’ yard that had more trash and litter about them, not to mention grease.”



    “What Captain Leary says is my experience also,” von Gleuck said. “Commander, has the ship been cleaned specially for the gathering? Even so it is remarkable — and we are not in the public parts of the vessel where strangers are to be expected.”

    Bailey led them out into the corridor through the sternward hatch. None of the off-duty spacers had spoken while visitors were present, save for the man who had called the compartment to attention.

    “No,” Bailey said. “That’s how it is in the Horde. It’s a good thing, you know, but to tell the truth it gives me the creeps some times.”

    “You’re from Cinnabar yourself, are you not, Commander?” Daniel said with a friendly smile.

    Bailey had been reaching for the control of the hatch marked Missile Magazine #2. He started and gave Daniel a look of nervous surmise. “I’m from Kostroma, born right in Kostroma City,” he said. “But, ah, I lived a while in Xenos. And had twelve years as Chief Missileer in the RCN if you want to know the truth. But I didn’t desert, I mustered out proper, and anyway I’m an officer in the Horde now and the Autocrator won’t let you haul me back!”

    “Nothing like that, my good man,” said Daniel. “Quite a number of RCN personnel will be entering foreign service or trying to live on half-pay very shortly if the peace holds.”

    He’d slipped into the tone of a superior to a servant rather than speaking as peer to peer. Bailey had merely confirmed Daniel’s existing assumption: the fellow was a warrant officer with a commission from barbarians rather than an officer by birth and education.

    “Are there many foreign officers in the Horde?” von Gleuck said. “I met a number of cutter captains below at the gala, and they were all Palmyrenes.”

    “Specialist officers is all,” admitted Bailey. He’d apparently decided just to answer what he was asked rather than worry about what he should say. “Which means some of us aboard the Piri Reis and also the Turgut. And nobody from Cinnabar or Pleasaunce, either: I’m Kostroman, remember. The destroyer’s got a Palmyrene chief engineer, but Antoniani here on the Piri Reis is from Pantellaria.”

    Daniel looked into the missile magazine without entering. All the cradles were filled, and everything was as precisely arranged as the interior of a mechanical timepiece.

    The missiles were single-converter units, however. They had the same terminal velocity as the weapons in front-line service with Cinnabar and the Alliance, but they took twice as long to accelerate.

    The units that turned reaction mass into the antimatter which was annihilated with ordinary matter in the High Drive were expensive. Otherwise a missile was a water tank which relied on kinetic energy to destroy its target. Navies which expected to use their missiles — and who could afford them — equipped their ships with dual-converter models, thereby gaining an advantage in combat.

    “Is the Piri Reis having trouble with her own converters, Bailey?” Daniel asked as he turned away from the magazine.

    That got through the commander’s cloak of resignation. He blurted defensively, “Why do you ask that?”

    “Probably because every Pantellarian ship in the RCN has converter problems,” von Gleuck said. “Certainly that’s true in the Fleet, as I know to my cost. I was a midshipman on the Turbine. We counted ourselves lucky when we had 75% of our High Drive motors on line.”

    Daniel laughed. “Yes, but they have such pretty lines, do they not?” he said, exchanging grins with von Gleuck.

    He bowed to Lady Belisande and added, “Though not nearly so pretty as those of her ladyship here.”

    “Captain,” she said with an arch lift of her slim nose, “I will slap you if you do not immediately begin referring to me as Posy. Lady Belisande died at my birth, as you might guess from my given name of Posthuma. I am alive.”

    “And quite lively, in a ladylike fashion,” said von Gleuck with an affectionate grin.

    “Sometimes ladylike,” Posy said. She covered her giggle behind her hand. They were obviously an affectionate couple, comfortable in one another’s presence.

    The commo unit on Bailey’s shoulder gave three shrill beeps. That must have been more than merely an attention signal, for he cracked his heels together and stiffened before replying, “Bailey here, Excellency!”

    “Bring Captain Leary to my suite, Bailey,” a woman’s voice directed. The Palmyrenes used external speakers rather than earbuds. While the tiny speaker might account for some of the harsh tone, Daniel suspected that it gave a fairly accurate impression of the Autocrator’s manner. “At once.”

    “This way,” said Bailey, gesturing with his hands as though he were shooing his guests toward the companionways in the stern rotunda which widened the central corridor just beyond the missile magazine. “And don’t dawdle! The Admiral’s suite, that’s where Her Excellency is, is just forward of the BDC.”

    Daniel took the lead, which would allow von Gleuck to shepherd his lady at the speed they chose. He and the Alliance officer exchanged glances, but they both understood the situation without needing to speak. This way there wasn’t a risk that a spacer — well, a rated landsman; no spacer would behave that way — would barrel down the up companionway, nor that someone in a hurry would try to push by from below.

    Posy couldn’t have a great deal of experience on helical metal staircases, but her steps pattered up quickly enough that Daniel didn’t feel a need to slow down for her sake. He grinned, remembering how easily Miranda Dorst took to companionways. In Miranda’s case, poverty after her father’s early death had meant the elevators of the apartment block where she and her mother lived were frequently out of order.

    Pantellarians wearing body armor and carrying mob guns — impellers whose short barrel fired clusters of aerofoils which spread widely when they left the muzzle — stood outside the open hatch just up the corridor. Two guards turned to cover Daniel and his companions, while the third kept his weapon aimed toward the bow.

    If the Autocrator is really concerned for her safety . . . , Daniel thought, she had better consider how aerofoils would ricochet from steel bulkheads. He gave the guards an engaging smile.

    A man in black Cinnabar formalwear with a white ruff stepped out of the compartment, followed by a young woman with a briefcase; she wore a beige suit with maroon piping, the dress uniform of members of the External Service. She and her superior strode silently past Daniel and disappeared into a down companionway. The man — Governor Wenzel, by deduction — nodded warily to Daniel’s uniform.

    The woman who followed the Cinnabar officials into the corridor wore a tiara. Golden robes concealed her body, but there was no fat in her cheeks or hands.

    “You’re Captain Leary?” she said. “Come into my suite. I want to talk to you.”

    The commo unit hadn’t misled Daniel about her voice, though in person the Autocrator had a resonance that commanded respect. He said, “Yes, I’m Daniel Leary, your Excellency. May I introduce my friends, Lady Posthuma Belisande of Zenobia and Fregattenkapitan Otto von Gleuck of the Alliance Fleet?”

    “A Zenobian?” Irene said on a rising note. “And you –”

    Her eyes searched for Commander Bailey. He had stepped behind the visitors as soon as Daniel made his announcement.

    “– have brought a Fleet officer here?”

    “Your pardon, Leary,” von Gleuck said politely. He fluffed the sleeve of his ‘Zenobian’ blouse and added, “Aboard this vessel, your Excellency, I am the Honorable Otto von Gleuck, second son of Count Johann. We on Adlersbild continue the custom of hereditary nobility, foolish though it may seem to you sturdy republicans of Cinnabar.”

    “I recall my father, Speaker Leary, commenting on that very thing,” said Daniel, grinning at von Gleuck.



    They were baiting the Autocrator. That certainly hadn’t been Daniel’s intention when he jumped to obey Admiral Mainwaring’s summons, but he knew instinctively that it was the correct response — at least when he had a partner like von Gleuck to support him.

    If he didn’t make clear the position of Cinnabar relative to that of Palmyra, the Autocrator would begin ordering him around like a puppy. That would force him, as an RCN officer in the middle of an RCN base, to react. She might become angry at being treated with gentle amusement, but that was less dangerous in the long run to the relations among the powers of the Qaboosh Region.

    The Autocrator’s chiseled features went pale. It occurred to Daniel that it would not be beyond possibility that the ruler of a world so far out on the fringes might order her guards to shoot them all dead. After long moments of silence she smiled coldly and said, “Come into my suite, then, all of you. It is well that you should have seen the Piri Reis for yourselves.”

    She swept back through the hatchway. Daniel exchanged glances with von Gleuck, then led the way. The Alliance officer followed Posy.

    Bailey seemed to have disappeared. Goodness knew what this would mean for the gunnery officer, but Daniel couldn’t find much sympathy for someone who knew what civilization was but preferred to sell himself to barbarians.

    The interior of the large compartment surprised Daniel, though he supposed it shouldn’t have. Rugs covered the deck. Over them were piled cushions which must be fixed in place or acceleration and weightlessness would fling them about. The curved tables at two corners were low, and the very capable-looking console against the forward bulkhead was intended to be used by someone sitting cross-legged.

    There were four male servants in uniforms like the Palmyrene spacers’ but with cloth-of-gold bands at wrists and ankles. The fifth man present was a burly fifty-year-old with a full beard. He wore robes similar to those of the Autocrator but in black silk; only the sash at his waist was gold.

    “So, Polowitz,” she said. “The tall one is an Alliance officer come to spy on us.”

    Von Gleuck stood very straight. “I assure you, Admiral Polowitz,” he said, “that I am not a spy but rather a naval officer like yourself. And –”

    He turned and nodded toward Daniel.

    “– like Captain Leary here. Your Excellency –”

    Looking back toward the Autocrator.

    “– if my presence disturbs you, I will of course take my leave.”

    “Nothing the Alliance does disturbs me,” she said, “except its pretensions and its very existence. Isn’t that so, Captain Leary?”

    “Quite the contrary, your Excellency,” Daniel said, smiling easily. “The Alliance, and particularly its Fleet, have often done things that disturbed me.”

    He grinned at von Gleuck and added, “For example, an Alliance missile struck the ship I was commanding less than six months ago and left it a constructive loss. I was lucky to escape that with only a headache, but it was a very bad headache.”

    “I heard reports of the Battle of Cacique,” von Gleuck said, “though I was not present. Fortunately I was not present, I may say. I believe that since our nations are now at peace, it is proper for me to congratulate you on your victory, Captain; even if it cost you your flagship.”

    “I have heard you fancy yourself as an astrogator, Leary,” said Polowitz. Von Gleuck had been the first to mention the admiral’s rank, but it didn’t surprise Daniel that the Fleet officer had done his homework. “Perhaps you will come with me on one of our cutters and I will show you what real astrogation is.”

    “I’ve heard remarkable things about Palmyrene abilities, sir,” said Daniel. He kept his lips smiling and his voice pleasant, but he felt his back stiffen despite willing himself to relax. Who cares was a barbarian thinks? “And having seen the external controls on the cutters in the basin when I arrived, it’s clear to me that the stories were not exaggerated.”

    “What do you think of the Piri Reis, Lieutenant Commander?” the Autocrator said to von Gleuck, showing that she had been not only been listening but was able to convert Fleet ranks to their RCN equivalent. “Now that you’ve had an opportunity to view her.”

    “She’s a trim ship and well found in all respects that I was able to see,” said von Gleuck, neatly finessing the subject of the antimatter converters. They appeared to be absorbing the efforts of both Power Room watches, save for spacers who had been on some other fatigue and exempted. Bailey hadn’t taken the visitors through the converter bay. “You and your officers –”

    He nodded precisely to Polowitz.

    “– must be rightly proud of her.”

    The Autocrator gave von Gleuck a guarded expression, perhaps because she either thought he was mocking her or because she had expected some form of condemnation. Tsk! He’s a gentleman, not a barbarian who picks his teeth with a knife.

    Instead of replying, however, she turned to Daniel and said, “And you, Captain? What is your view of our flagship?”

    That I’d be happy to take her on with any light cruiser in the RCN, thought Daniel. Missiles and gunnery would decide a battle between heavy ships, and there the Palmyrenes didn’t have the experience an RCN crew would. Though I suspect she could give me points in dodging her way through the Matrix.

    Aloud he said, “I’ve never seen a crew as tightly disciplined, your Excellency, or a ship as well maintained.”

    He coughed. “Some cables that struck me as worn. But we’ll be loading rigging from the base stores here to replace some of ours, also. After we’ve delivered our passengers to Zenobia, that is.”

    The Autocrator’s head snapped around. “Polowitz!” she said. “Is that true?”

    “Your Excellency, cables of the length required for a cruiser’s rigging are not standard on Palmyra,” the Admiral said. He wasn’t pleading, but his voice had lost the bluster of moments before. “We have more on order –”

    “It will be ready when we return home!” the Autocrator said. “Or there will be executions, you understand? Perhaps starting with the Admiral who failed to see to it that the cables were available when they were needed!”

    “Yes, your Excellency,” Polowitz whispered.

    The Autocrator’s eyes swiveled back to Daniel and von Gleuck. “Well then, Captain,” she said, her voice still trembling with fury. “You have criticized my cruiser, well and good. But –

    Daniel would have protested, but he knew that would make the situation worse. The Piri Reis was perfectly safe to operate, and her rig was in better condition than that of almost any merchant vessel in Cinnabar registry. The RCN — or the Fleet — would by now have replaced some of the cables on vessels in frontline service, that was all he’d meant.

    “– perhaps you will be good enough to show me your ship in turn?”

    “Yes, of course, your Excellency,” Daniel said. “When would you like to visit the Princess Cecile?”

    “Now!” said the Autocrator. “And these others –”

    She nodded to von Gleuck and Posy.

    “– can come too. If her brother will allow her, that is.”

    “We on Zenobia are civilized, Irene,” Posy said with her nose lifted again. “Hergo does not direct my movements, nor I his.”

    “Master von Gleuck,” Daniel said, standing formally straight, “Lady Belisande. Will you do me the honor of touring the Princess Cecile with the Autocrator and me?”

    He broke into an honest smile. “I’m quite proud of her, you know,” he said.

    Von Gleuck clasped Daniel’s hand. “The honor would be ours, sir,” he said. “And I hope in the future you will call me Otto. There need be no formality between two professionals, need there?”

    They laughed together while Autocrator Irene watched in stony silence.

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