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The Far Side of the Stars: Chapter Eight

       Last updated: Tuesday, August 5, 2003 22:59 EDT



    A barge with two powerful hydraulic winches pulled the Princess Cecile slowly from her slip by cables attached to ringbolts on her outriggers. A tensioning capstan on the quay paid out a third wire cable, attached to the corvette's stern to keep her from sliding into the barge once she started moving.

    By splitting her display, Adele could watch both; but in fact she didn't really understand what was going on, so watching the affair would be a pointless exercise. She'd switched instead to an analysis of Harbor One's message traffic. That had nothing to do with her either, but at least she understood it.

    The noise was quite remarkable. Adele's helmet protected her eardrums, but the cacophonous shrieks and roars and bangs through the hull made her body vibrate.

    Most of the Sissie's hatches were closed, but the bridge access port was still hinged down. Daniel stood on the lip, steadying himself with one hand while he called orders to his own crew and the yard personnel through his commo helmet. He'd clipped a safety line to his equipment belt, but if he slipped from the transom he'd strike hard against the lower curve of the hull before snubbing up.

    Adele grimaced. Daniel didn't expect to slip, and having seen him in the Sissie's rigging she didn't expect him to slip either. Besides, nobody was asking her to do it.

    "Daniel, what is going on?" Countess Klimov asked over what she'd been told was the command channel. "Is everything all right?"

    During undocking and any other time the captain's full attention ought to be on his work, the Klimovs' messages were routed to Adele's console—and stopped there. The only signals going directly to Daniel were those of the Chiefs of Rig and Ship, First Lieutenant Chewning at his station in the Battle Direction Center astern, and the ground staff controlling the winches.

    Acting by the polite reflex of handling something for a friend while he was busy, Adele reverted to the split view and exported it to the Klimovs display. Because the icon at the top of the screen wouldn't mean anything to them, she added a realtime image of her face… and a grim, glowering person she looked, she realized.

    She attempted a smile without much improvement and said over the private channel she'd just opened, "Sir and madam, Captain Leary directed me to keep you fully informed while he's immersed in preparations for liftoff. Do you have any questions about what's going on?"

    "What is going on?" Klimov demanded. "These pictures? What are they?"

    There wasn't room on the corvette's bridge for two additional consoles, but neither was there any practical way to keep the ship's owners off the bridge. Daniel's answer had been to turn his watch cabin into an annex by removing the bulkhead. He'd placed two acceleration couches in the space. Armored conduits welded to the deck connected the Klimovs' jury-rigged displays to the main computer, but their controls worked only to access data unless Adele released the lockout she'd imposed.

    "A tugboat's pulling us into the center of the pool so that we can lift off without damaging other vessels," Adele said calmly. "The images are of our bow and stern."

    The bow pickup was at the base of Antenna Dorsal One; she could see a tiny image of Daniel's head and torso, his right arm gesticulating. You had to know what you were looking at for it to make any sense, of course; which was generally true of life. Context was everything.…

    "There's not really much to see," she continued aloud. She chuckled. "Though rather more than there will be as we lift off, since then we'll be in a cocoon of steam and then hydrogen ions. I wonder—would you care to see what I suggested to, ah, Captain Leary for our first planetfall?"

    Adele turned her head to look into the annex, past Sun reclining at the gunnery console. She'd have gotten a better view of the Klimovs by putting their images on her display, but she hoped looking directly at them would seem reassuring. Even as a child she'd been more interested in her privacy than she was in other people, but her present task required that she appear to be social. She supposed she could manage it, at least for the time being.

    "There is a planetfall?" said the Count. "But I have not been told!"

    "She's telling you now, Georgi," his wife said sharply. Adele wasn't sure they realized they were speaking, even to each other, through the communications system rather by ordinary voice. The helmets they wore projected cancellation waves to save their hearing. She went on, "Yes, all right, mistress. Show us the planet. It can only be better than machines and dirty water, yes?"

    "Cuvier Catalogue 4795-C has a sufficiency of dirty water also," Adele said dryly, her wands weaving a set of images from the corvette's computer onto the Klimovs' displays. When Adele had leisure, she slaved whatever computer she was accessing to her personal data unit and used the familiar system as her controls. Occasionally this cost her a few microseconds of machine time, but that was a cheap price to pay for the reflexive assurance she gained. "There are compensations, however."

    The Austines were one-time allies of the Mundy family, though distantly enough that the house had been merely decimated after the Three Circles Conspiracy instead of facing near extermination. They'd provided family documents at Adele's request.

    Ninety years earlier, an Austine had been associated with a colonial survey endeavor. No official reports of the expedition survived so far as Adele could find, but Surveyor Austine's handwritten journal did. With it was a holocube which projected six separate images depending on which face was pressed.

    "It's a little farther out than Captain Leary had intended for our first planetfall," Adele continued. "Eighteen days, he estimates. There are no major ports between Cinnabar and the Ten Star Cluster anyway, and 4795-C at least will supply us with reaction mass."

    The first image was of a rolling, misty landscape in which trees dangled serpentine branches. Occasional highlights gleamed above the fog's monochrome blur, but they were too far away to have shapes.

    Surveyor Austine hadn't used standard notation in her private journal. Adele by herself could no more have identified the planet than she could have flown—but of course she hadn't been by herself. She'd explained the situation to Daniel, and after only a few minutes at the astrogation computer he'd found the world and begun plotting their course. They made a good team.

    "The dominant predator…," she said, cueing the next image. "Ranges up to thirty-five feet in length."

    "Ho!" said the Count. "Yes, a fine trophy! Yes!"

    Austine had called the animal a dragon. For her amusement Adele had checked a zoological database for Cinnabar and its client worlds; she'd found over three thousand species called "dragon" alone or in combination. For all that, the name fit well in this case.

    The pictured creature rested on a point of rock, its head turned toward the camera—which must have been at a considerable distance, judging from the lack of image resolution. Its body was snakelike but it had a pair of strong clawed legs at the point of balance and, barely visible, a pair of slender arms folded against the upper body. The eyes were faceted, set to either side of a great hooked beak.

    "The creatures, the dragons…," Adele said, switching to the next image. "Fly. You can't see it very well, but the source says that the animal extends translucent plates, she calls them feathers, out more than a yard along its midline all along its body."

    The dragon in flight was little more than a twisting shimmer in the sky with a dark line running down the middle of it. Adele had allowed her software to sharpen the image somewhat, but going farther than this would've been invention rather than improvement. Mist, distance, and the creature's movement conspired against clear imaging.

    "Flying?" Klimov said. He turned to his wife. "This is wonderful! Our captain has done well, little dove."

    Adele blinked at the affectionate diminutive—Klimovna certainly wasn't little nor could Adele imagine her as a dove, but that was between the couple. Nor was Adele particularly offended by the Count giving Daniel credit for what she had done; she'd read enough to know that Novy Sverdlovsk society was straitjacketed by preconceptions of rank and gender.

    But it was also true that it didn't make her like Klimov better.

    A warning whistle blew; red icons pulsed on the displays of those within cancellation fields. The Princess Cecile lurched sideways, then steadied with a slap/slap/slap of waves reflected between the outriggers.

    Because in an atmosphere starships used plasma thrusters, whenever possible they landed on enclosed bodies of water. That made it easy to take on reaction mass, and in addition a lake or lagoon absorbed the jets of charged ions harmlessly. A few liftoffs and landings would begin to crater any solid surface, even bedrock or reinforced concrete.

    The Princess Cecile was a long cigar balanced by the outriggers which were now extended; after liftoff they'd be drawn up against the hull so as not to interfere with the antennas and sails. She wasn't a boat, though, but rather a floating solid with no more ability to maneuver than a bobbing cork. All things considered, the yard personnel were doing a competent job of towing the corvette's 1200 deadweight tons from the narrow slip to the center of the pool where her liftoff wouldn't damage the other vessels in the harbor, but it was still an awkward task.

    "Good," Adele said with brusque enthusiasm. She wasn't exactly faking her reaction in order to calm her audience, but in this case the approval she voiced was more intellectual than emotional. She didn't like being sloshed sideways any better than the Klimovs' expressions showed that they did. "There'll be a few final adjustments; then I believe we can expect to lift off."

    She cleared her throat, projected the next two images as a pair, and resumed, "Most of the animals on 4795-C—no one bothered to name the place, of course—are plant eaters. The lesser ones hop—"

    You could see a degree of kinship between dragons and the animal browsing sedges at the margin of a lake, but the herbivore was built more like a bipedal egg than a serpent. It showed no sign of alarm at the photographer whose shadow showed in the image.

    "—whereas the large ones are nearly sessile and sweep the area around them with their tongues. I doubt you'd find them good sport, though they do get very large."

    The image on the right could've been a muddy hillock except for the description Austine had left in his journal. Knowing that it was alive, Adele could see tiny eyes and realize that the curved line at the edge of the image area was the creature's thirty-foot tongue rather than a branch waggling from the trunk of a fallen tree. The photographer had kept his distance, perhaps realizing as Adele did that being caught in the tongue's sweep would be fatal even if the creature spat out your remains in disgust a few moments later.

    "No, no, nothing there," Klimov agreed dismissively. "But a dragon, now, that will make a unique trophy."

    "There are also structures on high ground," Adele said, throwing up the final image. She heard the Countess take a sharp breath.

    A tetrahedral crystal pyramid shone on a hilltop. Even in this world's dim sunlight, the shimmering reflections and refractions had overwhelmed the image until Adele's software corrected for them. The pyramid's base appeared to have been cast onto the rocks rising from the slope beneath; rain had splashed mud some distance up the clear sides. In the center of the face toward the camera was an opening, a wedge whose triangular sides paralleled those of the structure itself.

    "The source wasn't able to analyze them, but they're clearly artificial. There were over a thousand of them on the main land mass ninety years ago, and that was on the basis of a very cursory survey from orbit."

    "Yes, this is very interesting!" said Klimovna. "Who is it who built this, please?"

    The words were polite though the tone was peremptory. Adele smiled faintly; she might have done the same, so she couldn't fault the Countess.

    "The source didn't have the faintest idea," she said. "The dragons, the large ones at least, appear to use the structures as their lairs, but it seems unlikely that they were the builders."

    She didn't say, "impossible." As a scholar Adele had always been willing to discount travelers' tales, but since fate and the RCN snatched her from the library to the surface of distant worlds, she'd seen things with her own eyes that she found hard to explain.

    Clearing her throat again she continued, "I presume more vessels have landed on 4795-C than the survey ship on which the source travelled, but they've left no record I could access in the time available. Perhaps I'll be able to learn more in the archives of Todos Santos, if you choose to delay there."

    The Countess looked at her husband. "Yes, perhaps we shall," she said.

    The whistle blew again. Daniel stepped back into the Princess Cecile with a smile of satisfaction while behind him the rectangular port began to whine closed.

    "Ship, this is the captain," he said as he grinned at Adele. "Prepare for liftoff!"



    Daniel Leary, captain of the private yacht Princess Cecile, settled into the couch of his console. His tremble of fear was a new thing, something he'd noticed only since he'd become a commanding officer. Liftoffs had never bothered him before.

    He checked the lockout disconnecting the console, then let his fingers caress the touchpad to gain its feel again. Everything was as it should be, the minuscule hum of a living machine waiting for him to order its next action. He switched it on.

    Daniel grinned. He'd worked, he'd fought, very hard to rise to a position where he could fear that some freak failure of hardware or programming would flip the vessel onto her back as she started to lift off.

    "Captain to Power Room," Daniel said over the command channel. "How do things look, Mr. Pasternak? Over."

    "All green, Captain," said the Chief Engineer from his post in the center of D Deck. "The flows on Port Four and Starboard Five are down ten percent, but the valves are brand new. They'll wear in, and if they don't I'll polish them with emery. Over."

    "Ninety percent is more than adequate, Mr. Pasternak," Daniel said. "Out."

    Being slightly down in water flow on two of the corvette's plasma thrusters wasn't a matter of concern. The Princess Cecile could reach orbit with 40% total power, though Daniel'd be dumping reaction mass if he ever got into that situation. The thrusters were all in the green—literally; the icons showed across the top of Daniel's display—but it was more than a matter of courtesy that caused him to check directly with Pasternak. A good engineer had a feel for things that a computer readout couldn't equal, and Pasternak had shown himself to be good as well as dedicated.

    "Mr. Chewning," Daniel said, his words cueing the channel to his new first lieutenant at the duplicate controls in the Battle Direction Center. "Are you ready for liftoff?"

    Chewning was thirty-eight standard years old and still a midshipman. He was a heavy-set man, slow of speech and perhaps of thought as well. He'd applied for the vacancy created when Mon took a dirtside job; and Daniel had accepted him over the score of younger, sharper officers looking for adventure under Lieutenant Leary.

    Chewning wasn't flashy, but his record showed him to be utterly dependable. He'd accepted a series of thankless, demanding duties during his service with the RCN, including twice nursing home vessels too badly damaged for repair anywhere but in a major dockyard. He'd plodded through each task successfully… and been handed another one in return.

    The last thing the Princess Cecile needed was a brilliant young first lieutenant determined to show himself—or herself—to be just as dashing as Daniel Leary. Chewning was brave—he must be, to have brought the crippled Cape Coronel to port in seventy-two days with a six-man crew. But he didn't feel he had to prove it.

    "Sir, we're ready," Chewning said. He and the two midshipmen with him in the armored BDC were ready to take over if the bridge crew were lost or incapacitated. "Over."

    "Captain, we've been cleared by Harbor Control," Adele said, her voice as emotionless as a speech synthesizer. "Over."

    "Ship, this is the captain," Daniel said on the general push. "All systems are green, all hatches are closed, the vessel is cleared for liftoff. We will lift in thirty seconds. Commencing sequence… now."

    He enabled the plasma thrusters, letting the control system itself light the nozzles in balanced port and starboard pairs. He could override the computer and do as good a job, but he didn't need to—either because of the ship or to prove himself.

    The thrusters lit but remained at low power: Starboard Three and Port Four, Starboard Two and Port Three, working outward from the ship's center of gravity to affect her balance as little as possible.

    The Princess Cecile trembled, as much from waves in the pool as from the minimal thrust. A shroud of steam billowed, masking the optical sensors on the hull. Daniel's external displays switched automatically to high-frequency, low-power radar to paint a picture of the vessel's immediate surroundings.

    A ship could lift or set down with its ports open, but the bath of live steam and charged particles was uncomfortable for the crew as well as damaging to the vessel's interior. An assault barge landing on a hostile world had reason for such a stunt; a yacht on a pleasure cruise did not.

    "Orbital control has reserved a slot for us," Adele said. Her voice, calm even when she was murderously angry, seemed particularly out of place while the ship around her strained thunderously to slip the leash of gravity. "I've fed the course data to the navigational computer. Over."

    "Message received," Daniel said. "Out."

    He could check the data, but there was no point in doing so. While in cis-lunar space above Cinnabar, all vessels were under dirtside control. Depending on the state of alert—and even after an armistice with the Alliance had been formally approved, Daniel suspected the state remained very high—deviating from the imposed course would bring either a guard vessel and the loss of the captain's papers… or simply a ship-wrecking blast of ions from the Planetary Defense Array that protected Cinnabar from attack.

    Thruster output rose to a nominal 20% power; the Princess Cecile skipped up and down on the waves her own exhaust hammered into the pool. All other gauges and readouts were at the high range of their readiness parameters.

    "Ship," Daniel said as he thumbed a roller switch from Standby to Liftoff, "we are commencing liftoff."

    All eight feed valves opened to 70%; the thrusters roared. The Princess Cecile shuddered, matching thrust to gravity, then began to lift with the ponderous majesty of a queen mounting her throne. But no queen ever had a throne as high as the one to which the Sissie would carry her captain.…

    Icons on Daniel's display indicated the Klimovs were both speaking; to him, he supposed, but you couldn't expect laymen to have good sense. Adele would keep them occupied, and perhaps they'd learn in the future.

    The Princess Cecile rose, her initial acceleration moderate. The bow was down three degrees, but the computer had begun adjusting power before Daniel could reach the control. The thruster nozzles were aligned correctly—that could be checked on the ground—so there must be a problem with stowage. Perhaps one of the tanks of reaction mass had warped during the hammering the Sissie'd taken in battle. Mon should have noticed it, but he'd had other problems to deal with—

    And despite Mon's technical skill, he didn't have quite Daniel's feel for a ship. Daniel grinned with a pride that was surely harmless if he kept it within himself: very few captains had his feel for a ship.

    The Princess Cecile lifted suddenly out of the plume of steam from the harbor. She was accelerating at 1.2 g, as much thrust as a sensible captain chose except in an emergency. Starship hulls were optimized for the barely-perceptible thrust of Casimir radiation against their charged sails; high acceleration, especially within a gravity well, would strain her fabric if it didn't rupture the vessel outright.

    An occasional streak of plasma drifted past the Sissie. From below the vessel would be a flare of coronal brilliance, dangerous to the eyes of anyone who looked directly at her; the thunder of her progress would tremble through Xenos and the surrounding countryside. Nothing like the liftoff of a battleship, of course, but still a reminder of Mankind's raw power.

    The vessel's progress steadied. Daniel looked at the altimeter; they were passing through 100,000 feet. The atmosphere had become thin enough that he could engage the High Drive, if he had to and if he was willing to accept the erosion of the motors when air molecules combined violently with antimatter particles which hadn't been devoured in the normal reaction. He wouldn't switch to High Drive here until Cinnabar Control had routed him through the minefield, of course.

    "Ship, this is your captain," Daniel said. No one could see his face, but he knew he was smiling like a triumphant angel. "God bless the Princess Cecile and those who fare upon her!"

    He couldn't hear the cheering for the ship's own thunder, but he knew the cheers were there; and he was cheering himself.

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