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Some Golden Harbor: Chapter Three

       Last updated: Saturday, March 25, 2006 12:25 EST



Bergen and Associates Yard near Xenos

    Adele settled herself at the Princess Cecile's signals console and adjusted the familiar seat restraints. It was a good six months since she'd been aboard the corvette. In the interim she'd served on cutters, the smallest craft capable of interstellar travel, and on cruiser-sized vessels with vastly more room than the Sissie. More room by naval standards, that is: to a landsman, quarters on even the 12,000-tonne Scheer would've seemed a cramped steel prison.

    The Sissie felt right. That was an emotional judgment but--Adele smiled wryly--all human judgments are based on emotion, even those of librarians who conceal their emotions under a thick curtain of intellect.

    The bridge had five consoles: the captain's toward the bow, with the signals and gunnery officers along the starboard hull and missileer and astrogator to port. Each console had a jumpseat and duplicate display on the back side, intended for a striker being trained to carry out the officer's duties in an emergency.

    At present, Adele's servant Tovera sat on the other side of the holographic display. She was a thin, colorless woman, a sociopath who acted the part of a responsible member of society out of an intellectual concern for the consequences of anti-social behavior.

    "Ship, this is the Captain," said Lieutenant Vesey over the Sissie's PA system. "Prepare to lift in ten, I repeat ten, minutes. Close all hatches now, out."

    Vesey's presence at the command console was the only discordant note in Adele's homecoming to the Sissie. Daniel was a passenger being transported to Ganpat's Reach, and he'd insisted that Vesey take command in fact as well as in name. He was astern in the Battle Direction Center, the duplicate control room. Signals Officer Mundy was on the bridge to demonstrate to the world and to Vesey both that this, her first command, was a real one.

    In a way Daniel was fully present, of course, since to Adele virtual reality was more comfortable and familiar than the thing itself. Keeping her commo data as a sidebar, she shifted her display to a real-time image of the BDC. Commander Leary was explaining something on an astrogation screen to Cory and Blantyre.

    Hogg--Hoggs had been retainers of the Learys ever since they settled at Bantry long before the thousand-year Hiatus--watched with a sleepy expression that convinced most people that he was a harmless rural bumpkin. In fact Hogg viewed his surroundings with a poacher's constant alertness, and his baggy garments were likely to conceal more weaponry than a squad of Shore Police carried.

    Adele switched back to the transmissions within the Bergen and Associates office and those from ships and equipment operating in the small basin shared by three private yards. For an instant the holographic curtain parted in a flash of Tovera's face; she looked faintly amused, as perhaps she was. She studied human beings with an unusually concentrated intelligence.

    Tovera had no conscience; indeed, she didn't even understand what other people meant by the word. Nevertheless she considered her every deed and never acted out of anger. She was just as safe to be around as the pistol in Adele's pocket, which didn't fire unless Adele pulled its trigger. Because of the training Tovera'd gotten as a member of Guarantor Porra's personal intelligence agency, however, she was a great deal more deadly than that pistol.

    Sun, seated beside Adele at the gunnery console, looked over to her and grinned. "Good to be back on the old girl, isn't it? Mind, I'm looking forward to the Milton when they get her into service. She'll rate a real gunnery officer, but I figure Mister Leary'll tap me for turret captain on a pair of them twenty-see-emma guns. Don't you think?"

    "Ah, if the circumstances arise...," Adele said. There were so many variables behind the gunner's question! It was like being asked the date of the first frost of two years in the future. "I, ah, assume from the fact Commander Leary continues to employ you that you have good efficiency reports, but a commander wouldn't usually be given so large a ship, would one?"

    "Oh, they'll give Six the Millie!" Sun said cheerfully. "You know they will!"

    Adele didn't know anything of the sort, but neither did she see a reason to argue about something so speculative. Pasternak's warning, "Lighting thrusters one and eight," provided an excuse to end the conversation.

    The pumps had been circulating reaction mass--water--through the plasma thrusters for some minutes with a deep thrumming. Now two flared nozzles buzzed, gushing plasma into the slip in which the corvette floated. Rainbow ions mixed with steam, swathing the image of the Sissie on Adele's display.

    "Two and Seven," said Pasternak. The buzz grew louder but the hull's vibration damped noticeably. "Three and Six, Four and Five. All thrusters lighted and performing within spec, over."

    Rather than turn her head to look, Adele brought a panorama of the Sissie's bridge across the top of her display. No one was at the consoles intended for the Chief Missileer and the Astrogator.

    Daniel had generally acted as his own missileer, and the Princess Cecile wasn't carrying missiles on this mission anyway. Likewise there was no need for a separate astrogator since Vesey was skilled and Commander Leary was aboard as a passenger. Nonetheless, the empty places reminded Adele that the Sissie had normally operated with a complement of a hundred and twenty, while the entire crew for this voyage was seventy-five.

    She looked at Sun, turning her head this time instead of switching her attention electronically. He noticed the movement and raised an eyebrow. The gunner had as little to do as the riggers during liftoff.

    "Sun," she said, keying a separate channel so that they wouldn't disturb personnel who had duties. They couldn't talk without the intercom; the thrusters were running up and down, making every object aboard the ship rattle against its neighbors. Instead of finishing the question she'd intended to ask, Adele said, "Why is there so much noise? There isn't usually, is there?"

    Sun grinned. "The Chief's checking mass flow and the nozzle petals, mistress," he said. "The Sissie's been rebuilt since we last ran her, you see. That oughta be good, but it's not the sort of thing you take a chance on. At any rate, you don't if you serve under Mister Leary, right?"

    "Ah," said Adele. "Thank you."

    She didn't say, "Of course," as another person might've done, because it hadn't been obvious to her. She'd known the corvette's modular hull had been tightened since she'd been sold out of service to Bergen and Associates, but she hadn't realized that Daniel'd replaced the plasma powerplants.

    "And the High Drive too?" she said to Sun.

    "Motors and antimatter converters both," Sun agreed with an enthusiastic nod. "D'ye suppose Six knew he'd be needing the old girl for a run like this?"



    Adele considered the question. "No," she said, "I don't. And I don't even think it was a case of Mister Leary being careful. I think he loves the Princess Cecile, and he spent on her all the money he thought she could use simply because he could afford to."

    I love the Sissie too, Adele realized, though I'd never say that out loud. Even as the thought formed in her mind she realized that it wasn't true. What she did love, as much as the word had any meaning, was the community of which the corvette was the symbol. The RCN was the first real family she'd ever known, and the son of the man who'd had her blood kin murdered was her first real friend.

    "Ship, this is the captain," Vesey said. "The hatches are sealed and environmental systems are operating normally. All personnel proceed to their liftoff stations. Repeat, take liftoff stations, out."

    "Well, we're lucky he did," Sun said with a chuckle. "And I'll tell the world, Mister Leary isn't just the best officer I ever served under, he's the luckiest too! Wouldn't you say, mistress?"

    "I think we're all lucky," Adele said after a moment's reflection. It wasn't a question to take lightly; well, no question should be taken lightly, for all that most people seemed to respond without considering what they were saying or even what they'd really been asked.

    That wasn't a thought she wanted to pursue so closely on the heels of remembering that Speaker Leary and the Proscriptions had been absolutely necessary for Adele Mundy to find a friend and a family. The universe posed questions that a human mind, even a mind as good as Adele's, simply couldn't answer.

    To change the subject, she returned to the concern she hadn't gotten out a moment before: "Sun, are we going to be able to manage with so short a crew? I know we're not meant to be fighting, but--"

    "Lord love me, mistress!" the gunner said in surprise. "We handled the Millie well enough, didn't we, ten times the size? And jury-rigged too!"

    "Well, yes," said Adele, feeling a little defensive but trying to keep it out of her tone. "But we came from Nikitin to Cinnabar without maneuvering any more than absolutely necessary. I know that Mister Leary normally replots the course from a masthead every few hours."

    Without Adele consciously intending to, her wands flicked her display back to the Battle Direction Center. Daniel was still talking with animation to the midshipmen, but this time they were examining Power Room readouts.

    "Oh, aye," said Sun. "But don't worry, Mistress. Woetjans had her pick of riggers from the whole Gold Dust Squadron, though I don't think she took anybody who hadn't shipped with us before. Between them and the ship having a fresh rig with no frays or splices, we'll show our heels to most anybody. With Six conning us, of course."

    "Of course," said Adele, but her mind was full of wonder at what her life had become and who she shared it with. I am lucky beyond human understanding....

    "Ship, this is the captain," Vesey said. "Before we lift, I'd like Commander Leary to say a few words. Break, Commander Leary, over?"

    Vesey hadn't warned Adele that she was going to do that--had she warned Daniel?--but Adele's wands moved by reflex to export Daniel's real-time image to every screen and commo helmet aboard the Princess Cecile. Where the screen was already busy--the displays in the Power Room bubbled with data--Adele placed the image as a variable that waxed and waned with the gaps in the existing display.

    Daniel smiled engagingly at the crew whom he saw only in memory: Adele hadn't seen any point in filling Daniel's display with seventy-odd expectant faces.

    "Fellow spacers," he said. "And you are that, but you're also my brothers and sisters by now. We don't know what we'll be facing on this mission; it's not to a theater of war, at least not war the way you and I know it. Space and the Matrix have enough dangers without the Alliance getting involved, though, don't they, Sissies? And from what I hear of Ganpat's Reach, we might at least find ourselves alongside a pirate for long enough to keep our reputation as the best fighting crew in the RCN."

    Adele heard Sun cheer even over the sound of the thrusters, now settling into a dull drumming from below. The whole crew was cheering, she knew... and as Daniel had known. He had a real talent for telling people what they wanted to hear, perhaps because they knew he meant every word of it.

    Adele echoed Vesey's display out of curiosity and saw what expected: across the top a line of green lights indicated closed ports and hatches. A red telltale at the end showed a pump sucking water from the slip to replace the slight amount of reaction mass being expended in running up the thrusters. It was unlikely that the difference between "tanks topped off" and "tanks down by a hundred gallons" would ever matter, but Lieutenant Vesey'd been trained by an officer who only took chances deliberately.

    "We don't know what we'll face," Daniel repeated, "but there's one thing for certain: we know we can trust our shipmates. The spacers next to us will do their jobs, just as surely as we'll do ours. And so far as I'm concerned, that makes us the luckiest folk in the RCN. Cinnabar forever!"

    Daniel raised his right fist on the display. Sun raised his too and cheered again. Faint echoes came down the corridor from riggers suited up to go onto the hull when the Princess Cecile reached orbit. Adele, affected but smiling at herself, blanked the image.

    "Ship," said Lieutenant Vesey, "this is the captain. Prepare to lift in thirty, repeat, three-oh, seconds. Out."

    The rumble of the thrusters built into a snarling roar. Adele settled herself against the seat cushions. Her mind was lost in memory.



En Route to Bennaria

    Daniel shifted slightly to bring his helmet in contact with midshipman's and said, "I don't think there's anything as beautiful as this, Blantyre. On my oath as a Leary, I don't!"

    "Sir?" said Blantyre, her voice thinned by contact transmission. "I can sort of see what you mean, but...."

    Casimir Radiation, the sole constant among the infinite bubble universes of the Matrix, impinged on the microns-thin sails of charged fabric. Even an intercom signal or the electromagnetic field of a tiny servomotor on the ship's exterior would be sufficient to modify the charge and incalculably distort the ship's course. The yards were worked by hydraulics rather than electricity and communication on the hull was by handsignals, semaphores, or occasionally helmet-to-helmet contact.

    "Sir," the midshipman repeated more forcefully, "maybe it'd be beautiful if I didn't have to work in it, but I do. You expect me to see courses the way you do and I want to. But to me it's like porridge, a porridge of light instead of oatmeal. Until I learn to read it, I won't be able to call it pretty."

    Daniel took his head away from Blantyre's helmet so that she wouldn't hear his laughter and think it was directed at her. The Princess Cecile was a cylinder with six mast rings numbered from bow to stern, each with a mast at the four cardinal points: Dorsal and Ventral, Starboard and Port. He and Blantyre were on the highest yard of mast 6D. Facing the bow they viewed not only the rippling light of the cosmos but also the corvette herself.

    The Sissie was a trim vessel, but even Daniel knew that the ship's beauty was in his eyes rather than being an objective thing. Her sails were set in the asymmetric pattern which he'd chosen to match the conditions of the present, and the web of cables bracing the masts and yards was as confusingly complex as a black widow's web.

    The High Drive motors recombined matter and antimatter to impart velocity to a ship, but it was only by shifting from the sidereal universe into bubbles with different constants of time and velocity that interstellar travel became practical. The sails didn't drive a ship through space: they moved it among the manifold bubbles of the Matrix, multiplying its sidereal velocity so that it could reenter the normal space light-years or hundreds of light-years from where it'd inserted.

    Daniel brought his helmet back against Blantyre's with his usual care. They were in rigging suits, stiff and bulky but intended for the knocks that spacers got when they moved at speed on the hull. There were enough dangers inherent in standing on a ship in the Matrix, though, that he didn't intend to increase them by tapping helmets clumsily.

    "Blantyre," he said, "the sensors and the astrogational computer treat the Matrix as a problem. They do a better job of analyzing it than you or I could. What people can do that the machines can't is to feel the patterns."

    He stretched his arm toward the sky, being careful to bring it within the midshipman's field of view. Rigging suits traded field of view for strength. Skilled riggers--and RCN midshipmen were trained to do the work of the spacers they'd be commanding--allowed for that instinctively, both in their actions and in the way they turned constantly to compensate for the peripheral vision they lacked.

    "You said you couldn't see the beauty in this sky till you'd learned to read it," Daniel said. "It's the other way around: find the beauty and the Matrix gives up all its secrets. They used to say my Uncle Stacey knew what the sky would be in six hours from when he last glimpsed it. I thought it was magic, but it's not--I can almost do that myself. And when Lieutenant Vesey's on, which she is more and more every day, she's very good too. You and Cory can learn it, Blantyre. Just open yourself up."

    "Sir," Blantyre said. It wasn't just the awkward means of communication that made her voice sound desperate. "I hear what you say, but I don't understand. I really don't!"

    Daniel moved his arm to call attention to it, then pointed toward the flaring ambiance below the starboard bow. It wasn't the sky, though that's what spacers called it:, it was the edge of the bubble around the Princess Cecile, the limits of the miniature universe surrounding the ship herself.

    "You see the sequence of bright spots, there between the topsail yards of Starboard Two and Three, right?" he said. "Seven of them, ranging from ruby down through deep amber."

    "Yes sir," said Blantyre, wary but more relaxed. "Those are universes."

    "That's right," Daniel said, "and the bluish-whitish cloud they shine through is a universe as well. You can see the energy gradients. Now, you've studied the computer's course plot, haven't you?" "Yessir!" the midshipman said. "I've memorized it! Ah, I think I've memorized it."

    "Then you know the computer would send us through the fourth in the line there, MDG446-910," Daniel said. "That will get us to the next stage. What will happen if we enter MGD446-833 instead?"

    Blantyre didn't respond instantly. "The lowest of the seven, the amber one," Daniel said, his voice calm. He couldn't expect a midshipman to have the Universal Atlas at her fingertips. It'd taken him years to understand how Uncle Stacey did it, not by memorizing numbers but rather by understanding the dimensional relationships of the cosmos.

    "The gradient between us and it's lower," Blantyre said quickly, "so we'll enter quicker and with less strain. That's good. And those bubbles are a set--"

    Daniel smiled. She was probably guessing as much from what he'd said as from anything she understood herself, but a good RCN officer learned to use any data available to solve a problem.

    "--so the constants'll be similar. So we should steer for MGD446-833 instead of the plotted course!"

    Beneath them, 6D's topgallant yard began to rotate ten degrees clockwise along with those of the other dorsal yards. The port and starboard rigs were shifting also; as were, Daniel knew from the semaphores, the unseen ventral masts.

    "Which is just what we're doing, because Vesey saw the opportunity when she took a view three hours ago," Daniel said. "It's not magic, Blantyre, it's just common sense and a feel for the most perfect beauty there is."

    The furled sails spilled out, trembling minusculely. 6D deployed properly, but half of 5D hung on a kinked cable. A rigger scrambled up the mast even before the semaphore relayed Vesey's instruction from the bridge.

    "I'll try, sir," Blantyre said. Her tone might pass for hopeful, but it certainly wasn't optimistic. "I'll keep trying, I mean. But...."

    Daniel chuckled and patted the midshipman on the shoulder, his gauntlet clacking on her vambrace. "We'll land on Pellegrino to get a look at things from their side before we go to Bennaria, Blantyre," he said. "We're twelve days out from there now. You and Cory'll be aloft with either me or Vesey on every watch. By the time we touch down, you'll both be able to conn the ship as well as any merchant captain and not a few in the RCN."

    "I hope so, sir," said Blantyre. "I'll try."

    Daniel looked at the spreading, flaring sky, the most beautiful sight in all the universes. It was perfect and splendid, and for this instant it was all his.

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