IN THE STORMY RED SKY – snippet 9:

Communications ships had the hull and spars of light cruisers, but their armament was sharply reduced. Space that on a cruiser would’ve been given over to additional gun turrets and missile magazines was fitted out as luxurious staterooms. Communications ships were fast, comfortable, and designed to carry high officials on embassies to friendly powers. Just as Woetjans said.

“I’m not privy to the Navy Board’s thinking, Chief…,” Daniel said, speaking with a deliberate care that his listeners were intended to notice. “But I suspect a number of things could’ve gone into their decision. The Hegemony of the Veil is indeed a friendly power, but in a time of change it doesn’t hurt to remind the new Headman of the power of the Republic, since he’s too young to have experienced it himself.”
The dorsal gun house was offset forward; Daniel stood at the back of it, facing his officers. Now he turned to look aft along the spine of the great ship.
Though Daniel was really making a gesture for emphasis, the view held his attention for a long moment. It wasn’t the best way to see the Milton–only from a distance to port or starboard could you take in her full size and power–but she was an impressive sight nonetheless.
The cruiser was shaped like a steel cigar, six hundred and fourteen feet in length between perpendiculars. The thirty-two antennas and the spars which stretched the sails in the Matrix were telescoped and folded along the hull for liftoff at present: even so their size startled him every time he focused on them. The main yards were greater in diameter than the masts of the Princess Cecile, the corvette in which he’d served most of his career to date.
Indeed, each of the two outriggers which stabilized the Milton while she floated in harbor was greater in volume than a corvette. Battleships were much bigger yet, but even so the cruiser was ten times the Sissie’s familiar size. She carried 312 missiles, and a bolt from her eight-inch plasma cannon was orders of magnitude more powerful than one from four-inch tubes like a corvette’s.
Am I going to be able to handle her?
Well, we brought her from the Bromley Stars to Cinnabar with a jury rig, didn’t we?
Grinning to remember that past triumph, Daniel turned to face his officers again.
“The situation in the Veil might be part of the reason for the Board sending a cruiser instead of a communications ship,” he resumed. “Also I imagine that quite a number of people in the RCN have reasonable doubts about Millie’s design, making her easier to spare on a junket than a cruiser of the Warrior Class, for example.”
He smiled and gave Robinson a friendly nod. It was good that somebody’d had the courage to voice the doubts about the Milton that they must all be feeling, though Daniel hoped that it wouldn’t impair the First Lieutenant’s performance.
“I believe,” Daniel said, “that the Millie’s unusual features can prove a benefit, in the right circumstances and with the right crew. I’ve got the right crew–”
He felt a sudden rush of emotion. This crew was the cream of the RCN! Not only the spacers who’d followed him from the Princess Cecile, but nearly all those who’d volunteered.
“–which leaves it to me to arrange that the circumstances are right should we engage the enemy.”
“Nobody here doubts that, Six,” said Woetjans. She didn’t make a boast of it, but the certainty in the bosun’s harsh voice was obvious to anyone who heard her.
“Dismissed, then, fellow officers,” Daniel said. It’d gone rather well, he thought. “Just remember that our Millie may be a bit of an oddball, but she’s a real fighter nonetheless.”
Cory turned to his fellow midshipmen. In a voice meant to be heard by all present, he said, “And you who weren’t on the Princess Cecile with us? You remember the same’s true of Captain Leary!”
Xenos on Cinnabar
The three-story brownstone a few blocks west of the Pentacrest was unmarked. It fit the imagery Adele had checked to prepare for the meeting, but so would half a dozen other buildings in this old-money section of the city.
“This is it,” Tovera murmured from behind. Adele nonetheless reached for her data unit for a satellite position.
“Good afternoon, Lady Mundy!” the doorman said as he stepped forward. He was certainly sixty and perhaps older yet. “Bleeker’s is pleased to welcome you at last.”
Though the doorman’s trousers and cutaway jacket were dove gray, his waistcoat was of incongruous red-and-white checks. Bleeker’s was over three hundred years old. Quirks which would’ve been gauche in a more recent club were lovable eccentricities here.
The doorman pulled open the door. It was veneered in dark wood with a broad grain, but it moved with a sluggish inertia that indicated a steel core. Xenos had been largely peaceful since the suppression of the Three Circles Conspiracy and even for the fifty years before that, but the doors and heavily grated windows of buildings in the heart of the city were nonetheless built to keep out more than bad weather.
Adele stepped through. Another servant, younger but not young, waited in the anteroom; a girl in the same livery stood behind and to his left. Adele said, “I’m the guest of Captain Keeley, whom I’m–”
“Not at all, Lady Mundy,” said the servant. “Your father entered you on the membership rolls the day you were born. And–”
His voice lowered with regret that Adele couldn’t tell from the real thing.
“–may I say that all of us here at Bleeker’s were saddened at the passing of Senator Mundy and his lady, your mother.”
“Thank you,” Adele said, dipping her head to acknowledge the condolences. Noncommittal politeness was her usual response when she received a complete surprise.
“If you’ll follow me, your ladyship,” the fellow said, “I’ll take you to your guest. Destry, guide Tovera to the Servants’ Lounge if you would.”
At Adele’s nod, Tovera followed the young woman through a doorway concealed beyond the impressive central staircase. Tovera hadn’t expected to accompany Adele to this meeting, but she had to be told so specifically.
A pair of gentlemen were coming down the staircase, talking about either a marriage or a business merger. One was Senator Gripsholm, whose rumpled clothing must be the despair both of his valet and of the tailor who’d been paid the price of a modest aircar to create his suit.
“George,” he said, acknowledging the servant. He nodded to Adele, who returned it coldly; his companion merely grunted. Neither had appeared to recognize her.
Adele followed her guide up the stairs, noticing that the treads looked like polished wood but in fact had a surface that felt tacky to the soles of her shoes. Otherwise there’d have been a risk of members bouncing down the whole gleaming length after the port had passed too often after dinner.
In the case of Senator Gripsholm, that would’ve been a good result. He’d been a colleague of Lucius Mundy in the Popular Party. Back then, he might even have boasted that they were rivals for the leadership.
That Gripsholm had survived the Proscriptions implied that he’d had a hand in them. Adele wasn’t going to check to be sure of that, because if the answer was what she expected it would be, she might choose to do something about it. That wouldn’t help anyone, including the severed heads of her father, mother and little sister. Far better to let the matter lie.
At the head of the stairs, George led Adele down a corridor to the right and tapped on the door at the end. “Lady Mundy is here.”
“Enter,” said a voice that had become familiar to Adele over the years since she’d first heard it as an exile on Kostroma. She stepped into a private sitting room as George closed the door behind her.
Bernis Sand was built like a fireplug in a suit of green shepherd’s plaid. She had the features of an ageing bulldog, but she couldn’t have been much prettier as a girl of eighteen. For all that, she shone with an energy and determination that made her almost attractive when the light caught her at the right time.
Sand rose to greet Adele from across the leather-covered table in the center of the room. There was a matching chair on each side, one of which could be turned to face the information console folded into a sidewall. On the wall opposite was an open sideboard with a selection of bottles.
“Sit down, if you will,” Sand said, gesturing to the chair facing hers. “Something to drink?”
“No thank you,” said Adele. Mistress Sand had a tumbler which, given her taste, would be a whiskey and soda. Adele wasn’t thirsty, and a meeting with the Republic’s spymaster would never have been a good time to numb her intellect.
She seated herself primly and brought out her personal data unit, then glanced at the club’s information console. Did members really use it? She could only assume that they did.
“Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?” said Sand.
Adele felt the corner of her lips quirk in a smile. “Actually, I was wondering whether Bleeker’s has a sideline in blackmailing its members,” she said. “But that’s unworthy of me. Besides, you wouldn’t have asked me to meet you here if that were the case.”
“Bleeker’s is as safe as the Senate House,” Sand said. “And it gives me a chance to be your guest, Lady Mundy. Someone in my position can’t be a member of a political club, of course.”
She smiled, but her face looked tired. The war was going well enough–the war was going well, in fact–but the Alliance had half again the resources of Cinnabar and her circle of client worlds. A single misstep by the Republic could lead to a downward spiral which nothing could arrest. Avoiding that misstep was as much the business of the intelligence services as it was of the RCN, and Mistress Sand didn’t have four colleagues to spread the burden as the President of the Navy Board did.
“Sure you won’t…?” Sand said, then spread her hands in apology when Adele lifted her chin curtly. “No, of course, you meant what you said. I’m–”
Her eyes drifted to the pair of portraits flanking the information console. Adele resisted the urge to pull out her data unit and learn who the couple–the man and woman, anyway–was. She could check the club’s inventory list; there was bound to be one.
But it was more important to hear how Mistress Sand completed her sentence.
“I’m delighted that you’ll be accompanying Senator Forbes to Karst,” Sand said, which from the tone wasn’t anything like the thought she’d almost offered. “The business is of critical importance to the Republic, so much so that I’d have gotten you assigned if my uniformed friends hadn’t done just that without my interference.”
“Gotten me assigned?” Adele said as her wands called up the folder titled Ships on Active Service; she’d downloaded it from a Navy House. Her voice was flat. Only the fact she’d made the repeated words a question lent emphasis to “me.”
“Gotten Leary assigned!” Sand said. She reached for her glass, then instead took out a meerschaum snuffbox carved with mythological figures in high relief. “Dammit, Mundy, I don’t need to fight about the obvious with you too, do I?”
I’m angry about Huxford, Adele realized. But I’ve decided not to raise the matter directly, so it’s dishonorable to let my anger out in petty ways.
“No,” she said, “you don’t. Why is the Hegemony so important? Their naval forces have been negligible since the Treaty of Karst, and they’ve never supplied us with ground troops.”
Adele had been about to sort the Navy List for vessels with staterooms comparable to those on the Milton. That had been merely a task to occupy her fingers and the surface levels of her mind while her intellect worked on the greater problem of why Sand had summoned her. She now shifted her attention back to the Hegemony of the Veil, which of course she’d looked into as soon she’d learned of the Milton’s mission.
“What Headman Terl did and we’re very anxious that his successor continue,” said Sand, “is to supply food and naval stores to the Cinnabar forces in the Monserrat Stars. The Alliance was well on the way to completing the conquest of the entire cluster, which would give Guarantor Porra a large pool of spacers. We were forced to respond, so Admiral’s Ozawa took a large squadron there. We have no way of supplying him if the Hegemony withdraws its support.”
Adele shifted her information fields once again. “Do you think it’s likely that Headman Hieronymos will do that?” she said. “His grandfather died wealthy and in bed, because he remained a Cinnabar ally.”
The Monserrat Stars had never united on their own, and none of the individual worlds had warships bigger than destroyers. There was a great deal of intersystem trade, however, and Adele knew that small freighters could provide trained spacers for the ships which Alliance yards were building.
Mistress Sand raised her left hand to her nose with a pinch of snuff in the cup of her thumb. She pressed the right nostril closed with an index finger and inhaled sharply. After sneezing violently into her palm, she drew a handkerchief from her sleeve and wiped her face.
Adele slid the data unit to the right so that its holographic display wasn’t between them. She waited silently.
Sand finished her ritual and met Adele’s eyes. “Jason Das on Paton is the governor of the thirty worlds of the Veil which are under Cinnabar authority,” she said. “He’s a career officer of the Ministry of Client Affairs, not a political appointee.”
She smiled harshly. “The post isn’t important enough to be political,” she explained. “The significant worlds of the cluster are subject to the Hegemony. Regardless, Das as the nearest Cinnabar official sent his deputy to Karst to congratulate the new Headman on his elevation. Das reported that Hieronymos seemed uninterested in treating with local officials. As a result of this report, the Senate decided to send a high level delegation.”
“Yes,” said Adele, to show that she was paying attention. Though there wasn’t much reason she should: everything Mistress Sand had just said was so public that even news commentators were hinting at it. Whether they Viewed the Matter Darkly or considered it a Great Diplomatic Opportunity depended on whether they supported the opposition or the government.
“There are Alliance agents in the Headman’s court,” Sand said, turning the snuffbox over, then upright, between her fingers. “Their intercepted reports say that Hieronymos treated the deputy governor with utter contempt. The hall porter told him that the Headman would not recognize any subordinate as an envoy. The tone put a different complexion on Governor Das’s description of the meeting.”
Adele frowned. She started to call up another folder but paused when she realized it would be better to ask Mistress Sand instead. The file of officers, agents, and sources might give a more truthful answer, but she could check it when she was alone. It would be even more informative if she found discrepancies with what her superior told her.
“Mistress,” Adele said. “We have agents on Karst also, do we not?”
“The Republic has agents, yes,” Sand said. She chuckled and put the snuffbox away. “We may as well laugh, eh?”
Her expression focused, rather like Daniel’s when he was working at the attack board. She continued, “For historical reasons, those agents report to the Ministry of Client Affairs. Which in its wisdom chose to route all information through the governor on Paton rather than setting up a parallel reporting network. I believe that Das’s deputy, the man who acted as envoy to Hieronymos, has the Veil’s intelligence portfolio also.”
“Ah,” said Adele.
“That’s much milder than what I said when I learned of the situation,” Sand said with a rueful smile. “Fortunately, I was keeping a closer eye on Alliance agents than I was on how Client Affairs ran their shop. Though for a time after I learned about this, I wondered if my priorities had been wrong.”
Adele looked toward her holographic display–still showing economic data on the Hegemony–rather than appear to be staring at Mistress Sand while she considered options. After a moment, she met Sand’s eyes and said, “How do you foresee my being able to help Senator Forbes?”
“I don’t,” said Sand. “What I want from you is a current, authoritative report on the situation in the Hegemony. With that in hand, I hope to be able to convince my colleagues in government–”
A smile brushed across her face as lightly as a cat’s tail. Sand had no formal position whatever in the Republic’s government.
“–to withdraw Admiral Ozawa from the Monserrat Stars to Karst immediately. That will mean giving the Alliance a free run in the cluster, but if we don’t bring Hieronymos to a better sense of his place quickly, I’m afraid we’ll lose the Hegemony also. And very possibly Ozawa’s squadron to boot.”
“I see,” said Adele. After a moment’s hesitation, she shut down her data unit and stood to put it away. Her gray civilian suit had hair-fine blue stripes on the bias; because it was cut fuller than the tailor had initially recommended, neither the data unit nor the little pistol attracted notice until she brought them out.
“Will you have a drink now, Mundy?” Sand said, still seated. “There’s a good white wine in the sideboard?”
“I have a great deal to prepare before liftoff,” Adele said. “And frankly, I don’t see that a drink will help.”
Mistress Sand smiled like a crucified saint. “Nor do I,” she said. “But at the moment I’m not confident that anything will help. I hope you’ll prove me wrong, Mundy.”
“Yes,” said Adele. “So do I.”
She paused and turned with her hand on the latch. Sand put down the whiskey decanter and raised a quizzical eyebrow.
“Mistress,” Adele said, “Client Affairs has failed the Republic. I can see why you’d feel that the business is down to your organization… and I will try not to fail, of course.”
“Thank you, Mundy,” Sand said, waiting for the rest of the thought.
“But you’re not considering the RCN as a factor,” Adele said. “I think you should. Especially when Daniel Leary represents the RCN.”
She heard Mistress Sand chuckling as the door shut between them.