IN THE STORMY RED SKY – snippet 18:

CHAPTER 6: En route to Paton

Midshipman Else, holding the brass rod to her helmet with one hand, pointed the other gauntlet toward the blur of iridescence just to port of the A Ring topmast yard. Daniel stooped slightly while following the line of her arm with his eyes so that he kept his helmet in contact with the rod’s other end.

“C-6-7-9,” Else said, using the four-digit terminator which the computer had assigned to that particular bubble universe. “C-6-7-3, then D-4-9-1 on this reach, sir. Is that right?”
Her voice sounded thin but remarkably clear through the communications baton. On the hull of a starship in the Matrix, the only competing sounds were your own breath and your heartbeat.
“I think you’ll find that the computer solution will route us through 6-7-6, then 6-7-5 and into D Sector,” Daniel said. He was amazed that Else–on her first real voyage out of the Academy–had correctly identified the visible stages of the Millie’s course. “Why did you choose the route you did?”
The batons were thirty-six-inch lengths of thin tubing, filled with a polymer gel that vibrated the way the column of air did in a stethoscope. An electronic signal, even a quarter-watt radio or the magnetic field generated by a charged wire, would distort the sail fabric. That in turn meant that the Casimir radiation which impinged on those sails would drive the ship in some uncertain–unguessible–direction through the Matrix.
No electrical communication device was allowed on the hull of an RCN vessel, except by permission of both the signals officer and the captain, and that only in sidereal space. The RCN operated on the principle that if you eliminated all possible risks of mistake, then you reduced–not eliminated–mistakes.
That didn’t matter to the riggers who spent their watches on the hull and communicated with hand signals when they needed to. Experienced men didn’t need to speak any more often than the elements of a gear train did. A rigger who needed regular instruction got it at the end of a bosun’s starter of braided copper wire, heavy enough to sting even through the stiff fabric of a hard suit.
The ordinary way to carry on a spoken conversation was by touching helmets. On most ships the need to do that was so rare as not to be considered. The astrogation computer determined the course and the sail plan which would best achieve it, the hydro-mechanical winches adjusted the rig, and the riggers corrected the inevitable malfunctions in the automatic systems.
Daniel did quite a lot of talking on the hull. It was possible to read the Matrix and–if you knew what you were doing–to improve on the course that the computer chose based on calculated averages. Daniel could do it, thanks to his Uncle Stacy’s instruction, and he’d found that he could pass on the techniques to at least a few of the midshipmen under his tutelage. Vesey was his greatest success, but Blantyre was coming along nicely also.
The other reason for having a conversation on the hull was that it was the only place where you could be sure of not being overheard. Privacy wasn’t possible in a warship with a crew so large that there were only enough bunks for the off-duty watch. For the most part that didn’t matter; captains learned to keep their own counsel.
But a captain who had a resource like Signals Officer Mundy available would be a fool not to utilize her. Daniel had acted like a fool more times than he could’ve counted even if they’d all happened when he was sober enough to remember, but he wasn’t so great a fool that he didn’t mull his knottiest problems over with Adele.
Faced with a recurring problem, Daniel had designed the rods. He’d thought of going to Bergen and Associates, but instead he’d asked the maintenance overseer at Bantry to build them. A great estate was a self-sufficient community whose personnel were used to creating one-off solutions for particular tasks.
The chance to do something for the young master–though Daniel had been disinherited, and after nine years in the RCN he didn’t feel especially young–brought out the best in the tenants. The four rods which a delegation from the shop had brought to Xenos were polished till they gleamed, and the Bantry crest–three leaping fishes–was embossed on each.
“Well, sir…,” Else said. She turned, shuffling her magnetic boots on the hull to face him. It was possible to do that while speaking through the rods, but Daniel was used to the older technique of standing shoulder to shoulder with the other party while touching helmets. He saw no reason to change, since you couldn’t see much of another person’s expression through the plates of a vacuum suit illuminated by the Matrix alone.
Besides, the splendor of the Matrix was the most wonderful thing in Daniel’s life. He swam in its shifting magnificence whenever he found himself on the hull.
“Ah…,” the midshipman said, shuffling back in probable embarrassment when she realized Daniel wasn’t going to face her. “6-7-9 is a high state, in the yellow-orange, and 6-7-3 has dropped into the deep blue, almost indigo.”
She gestured again to the points of light, whole universes rather than individual stars, in the glowing swirl.
“It’ll be some strain,” she said, “but we have new rigging, and the gradients won’t be excessive when the universes are in their current states.”
She coughed and went on, “Mister Cory says we should always look to cut stages where that’s possible. It reduces our duration in the Matrix, and every stage stresses the rig and hull more than the differences between gradients.”
Daniel blinked; unseen, of course, by his companion. “Mister Cory told you that?” he said.
“Yessir,” Else said nervously. “Ah–isn’t it right, sir?”
Well, I will be buggered, Daniel thought. Aloud he said, “That’s quite right, Else. If you take it to extremes, you’ll jerk the sticks right out of her, of course… but that’s certainly not the case here. You’ve proposed the course I’ve already loaded in the computer.”
The hull transmitted a quick metallic staccato. Daniel turned to look behind him.
Hydraulic semaphores transmitted commands from the bridge to riggers on the hull. He stood with Else on the ship’s spine, ten feet forward of one. The six arms clacked together at 180o, then spread with the message. A moment later the port and starboard antennas began to rotate on their axes while winches shook out their topgallant sails.
Daniel cleared his throat. “Have you been talking a great deal with Cory, then?”
The port B Ring antenna turned about fifteen degrees and stopped; those to fore and aft–Daniel checked–continued to thirty. He couldn’t see what was wrong; it was probably a kink which prevented a shroud from paying out properly. Three riggers, hidden among the tubes and cables while they were motionless, scrambled to clear the jam.
“Well, sir…,” Else said. She’d been watching the riggers also, perhaps to give herself time to refine her answer. “When we’re studying in the midshipmen’s berth, Mister Cory shows us things he learned from you. We’d heard about you–and Commander Bergen, of course–in our astrogation classes at the Academy. But, well, he’s served with you.”
“Yes, he has,” Daniel said. “And I’m pleased that he’s passing on what he learned. It makes my job much easier.”
Daniel looked into the rippling, riotous beauty of the Matrix. If asked to bet last month, he would’ve given long odds that Cory hadn’t retained–let alone understood–any of the instruction on reading the Matrix that Vesey as well as Daniel himself had provided. Had the boy become an astrogator when he had to teach astrogation to somebody else?
“Fink, Triplett, and me’re very lucky to have a senior midshipman like Mister Cory with us, sir,” Else said. “I mean, the lieutenants are very good, and the instruction you have time to give us–this is wonderful. My classmates will be in awe when they hear. But Cory’s with us all the time.”
“Some times you get lucky, Else,” Daniel said. “We’ll go inside now and I’ll watch you set up the course you just eyeballed.”
Midshipman Cory appeared to have gotten lucky: he’d learned the trick that would allow him to become a successful RCN officer.
And Captain Daniel Leary had gotten lucky too. The officers of his new command were shaking down very well indeed.