IN THE STORMY RED SKY – snippet 53:

Adele drifted into the umbilicus. The fabric bulged slightly outward so that the ridges of the stiffening helix were ideal for batting oneself along in freefall.

Adele knew that she was better off letting somebody else–here Tovera–direct her. Initially her clumsiness in freefall had been an embarrassment and an irritation, but over time she’d come to the conclusion that she should concentrate on things she did well rather than trying to train herself in skills she utterly lacked.
The spacers she served with didn’t mind; they didn’t even laugh. Maybe they’d at least have smiled if it weren’t for the other stories. Lady Mundy keeps a pistol in her tunic pocket, and she never misses with it….
Vesey waited thirty feet up the umbilicus with the helmet of her hard suit latched open. She seemed worn. Her short hair, a nondescript blond at the best of times, now looked as though somebody had layered wet straw on her scalp.
Adele glanced about and nodded with approval. Even if there were other people ahead or behind in the umbilicus, she and Vesey wouldn’t be overheard. The ridged, flexible tube was nearly perfect for deadening sound: it would drink normal voices from even a few feet away.
Tovera gripped the back of Adele’s belt and eased her to an upright halt. When she’d turned her head, her body had started rotating in reaction; Tovera straightened that out too.
“Vesey?” Adele said, realizing that her face and tone were as hard as steel plate. Adele didn’t like to stand as close as she was to the lieutenant. That was likely Tovera’s plan for security rather than the awkward mechanics of freefall, but it was still uncomfortable.
Vesey swallowed, but she met Adele’s eyes. “Mistress,” she blurted, “why doesn’t Six trust me to command the Wartburg? I’ve done this before, I brought the Rainha in on Mandelfarne Island, didn’t I? You were with me! Why doesn’t he trust me now?”
Adele nodded to give herself time to process the information–what she’d just been told, and what that implied. She didn’t like commo helmets and wasn’t wearing one now, but as a result she was out of touch with the currents of information flowing about her. That was an irritation, which was good. It meant she was concentrating on that trivial matter instead of dwelling on the huge problem Vesey had just posed her.
Adele smiled wryly. Vesey was using displaced anger as a safety valve in the same way. If she weren’t angry, she might start to cry. And that, of course, was the key to the problem.
“Does Daniel’s action strikes you as unfair?” Adele said, using her friend’s first name deliberately. It got Vesey’s attention as effectively as slapping her face would have done, and it was–humor really did spark Adele’s tiny smile, though she might be the only one who would realize that–more to her taste than the other.
“I don’t–” Vesey said; but of course she did. “Well, I suppose–”
“Fairness had nothing to do with it,” Adele said, as crisply as a pistol cycling. “Fairness never has anything to do with Daniel’s decisions. He doesn’t care about fairness.”
“Captain Leary isn’t unfair!” Vesey said. She clapped her heels together by reflex, then started rotating sideways around her navel.
“Of course not,” Adele snapped. “I said fairness wasn’t a criterion by which he framed his professional decisions. He decides on the basis of what will best achieve his ends, which because of who he is means the ends of the RCN and the Republic itself. And because he always decides by the same criteria, his decisions are always fair–without fairness ever having been considered. Do you understand?”
Vesey pinched a strand of the stiffening coil between the thumb and forefinger of her left gauntlet, bringing her slow spin to a halt and then reversing it. She was really quite strong to have been able to do that; and the physical effort was a useful way of burning off the hormones which anger had spilled into her bloodstream.
“But Mistress?” she said. “I did do a good job with the Rainha, capturing her and then landing her on Mandelfarne. Why wouldn’t C-c…, Six, not let me have the Wartburg? Mister Robinson’s a good officer, a very good one, I agree–but I’ve done this.”
Adele raised an eyebrow. “Is there anything so very difficult about taking a transport from point to point and landing it in prepared harbors, Vesey?” she said. “Not that I could do it, of course; but for somebody with training–”
She paused to set the hook properly. Logic was a game; but then, so was a duel with pistols. She was rather good at both.
“–like Cory or Cazelet?”
“Oh,” said Vesey, stiffening upright again. She blushed. “No, mistress,” she said, “not the shiphandling, of course. But this will be an enemy base, like Mandelfarne Island.”
“Yes,” said Adele. “It’ll be very dangerous, I’m sure. But I don’t think we need worry about Mister Robinson’s courage–”
“By the Gods!” Vesey said. “I didn’t mean that! Of course his courage is above reproach!”
“And as for you having a chance to risk your life, Vesey,” Adele continued dryly, “I’m sure Daniel will oblige you in some other fashion. Personally, I haven’t found any lack of danger during my association with him.”
Vesey smiled, her first sign of relaxation since Adele met her here in the umbilicus. “No, I haven’t either,” she said. “Mistress, I’m sorry, I just–reacted. I’m sorry.”
And part of the problem is that Rene Cazelet will be aboard the transport, Adele thought. She didn’t say that out loud, though, because it would lead to the next problem: that Vesey no-doubt suspected that Daniel was trying to separate her from the midshipman with whom she’d been… socializing, call it.
Vesey was quite a clever young woman, but people constantly imagined that they and their actions were more important to those around them than common sense would’ve dictated. Why in heaven would Daniel care? He hadn’t objected to Vesey’s association with the late Midshipman Dorst, had he?
This wasn’t the time to discuss an inflated sense of importance–because that’s what it amounted to, despite Vesey’s self-effacing personality; Adele doubted there would ever be a time for that. And there were more important things to cover now.
“Daniel sent you aboard the Wartburg,” Adele said. “What did you do there?”
Adele knew perfectly well what Vesey had done. The lieutenant’s helmet sensors had been transmitting the whole time, so Adele had dipped into the imagery–and that of the other members of the boarding party–as a matter of course while it was going on. She hadn’t had a specific reason to do so other than the general one of liking to know things, but she’d never needed a better reason than that.
“Well, I checked the reaction mass and the consumables,” Vesey said, frowning slightly. She didn’t see the point of the question, but she knew that there had to be a point if Lady Mundy was asking it. “There was a risk that they’d be too low to reach Fonthill, so we’d have to top off here or on the way. The volumes were fine, a twenty percent margin on food and probably better than that on air and reaction mass.”
Adele nodded. “But you didn’t check by the gauges and inventory,” she said. “You looked at the lockers and the tanks.”
“Well, Rene, ah–”
“Rene is fine,” Adele interrupted, smiling a trifle less harshly.
“Ah, yes, mistress,” Vesey said, lowering her eyes. “Midshipman Cazelet and I did look at the gauges, of course, but we also made a hands-on inspection the way Six taught us. It’s just a matter of opening hatches and thumping the side of a tank to see how it rings.”
“Right, you did what Daniel knew you’d do, because as you say, he’s trained you,” Adele said. “He didn’t train Lieutenant Commander Robinson, Vesey. So he made sure you’d board the ship. That way he avoided a potential problem without embarrassing a subordinate by appearing to be checking up on him.”
Vesey swallowed. “I’m sure Mister Robinson would’ve made a physical inspection,” she said. “In fact, he thanked me for saving him time when he saw what Rene and I were doing. But do you think…?”
“Yes,” said Adele. “I do. And there’s the other matter: who’s the Milton’s First Lieutenant now?”
Vesey’s face went flat. “Mistress,” she said, “I’m not a better officer than Mister Robinson. Thank you for what you’re trying to do–”
“Be quiet, Vesey,” Adele said. Her voice snapped, which was useful for her purposes but quite natural under the circumstances. It was all right for people to leap ahead of her actual words, but they should not assume that Adele Mundy was about to say something patently stupid.
Vesey stiffened again. She didn’t lose her hold on the umbilicus, so she remained in place. “Sir!” she said reflexively.
“I’m sure either of you has the skill set required for the First Lieutenant’s duties,” Adele resumed, back to her normal flat delivery now that the flash of anger was gone. Not that there was anything abnormal about her being angry. “What you personally will do is keep out of Daniel’s way in a crisis. You’ll anticipate and without direction solve all the problems that occur around the edges, but you won’t try to fight the battle when that’s in the hands of the best fighting captain in the RCN. Daniel trusts you.”
Vesey’s face remained blank for a moment. “Mistress,” she said, her eyes shifting away. “I apologize.”
For a moment Adele thought she was going to explain why she was apologizing, but Vesey really was sharper than that when she let intellect rather than her emotions direct her. Instead she said, “If Six were incapacitated in action, mistress, I would handle maneuvering and damage control myself. But I’d hand off battle direction to Lieutenant Blantyre, who has more of a talent for it.”
“Thereby demonstrating why the best captain in the RCN wants you for his First Lieutenant, Vesey,” Adele said; smiling also, but stating the flat truth. A compliment was always more effective when people knew that you said what you meant, no matter what that was. “Now, can we get back to our duties?”
Vesey looked at her with an odd expression. “Mistress,” she said, “I don’t think you’ve ever done anything but your duty. As you said about Captain Leary and fairness. But yes, our standing out here won’t get these ships to Fonthill.”
She exchanged a glance with Tovera, then led the way back toward the cruiser’s airlock. Adele, sandwiched between her servant and the lieutenant, found herself smiling.
That was a very nice compliment indeed. For someone like me.