What Distant Deeps — Snippet 05

CHAPTER 2: The Bantry Estate, Cinnabar

“You’re not one for small talk, are you, Mundy?” said Bernis Sand. She tapped the bottle. “Help yourself to the whiskey.”

“No,” said Adele, “I’m not. And I expect the sun to rise in the east tomorrow, if you choose to discuss the obvious.”

Adele had known she was in a bad humor, but she hadn’t been aware of exactly how bad it was until she heard herself. Despite that, she took the bottle and poured a half-thimbleful into the glass. After swirling the liquor around, she filled the glass from the carafe.

It was what she’d done in the years when the water where she lived wasn’t safe to drink. The liquor wasn’t safe either, of course, but in small doses it would kill bacteria without being immediately dangerous to a human being.

It wasn’t precisely an insult to treat Mistress Sand’s whiskey that way. But it wasn’t precisely not an insult, either.

Adele took a sip. Very calmly, Sand said, “What’s wrong, Mundy? The last mission?”

Adele set the glass down. She swallowed, trying to rid herself of the sourness which — she smiled — was in her mind, not her mouth.

“I’m sorry, mistress,” she said. “I –”

She paused, wondering how to phrase it without being further insulting. The things other people said or did would always give room to take offense, if you were of a mind to take offense. Therefore the fault wasn’t in the other people.

“Yes, I suppose it was the most recent mission, the battle above Cacique at least,” Adele said. “It affected me more than I would have expected.”

“Your ship was badly hit,” said Sand as Adele paused to drink. “I understand that it will probably be scrapped instead of being rebuilt. You could easily have been killed.”

Adele smiled faintly and refilled the glass with water. Her mouth was terribly dry. When she laughed, the ribs on her lower right side still ached from where a bullet had hit her years ago on Dunbar’s World. Fortunately, she didn’t laugh very often.

“I’m not afraid of being killed, mistress,” Adele said, meeting the spymaster’s eyes over the rim of her glass. “I haven’t changed that much.”

“Go on, then,” Sand said quietly. She was a stocky woman on the wrong side of middle age. In the brown tweed suit she wore at present, she could easily have passed for one of the country squires Adele had seen with Daniel on the sea front.

Mistress Sand had been more important to the survival of Cinnabar in its struggle with the much larger Alliance than any cabinet minister or admiral in the RCN. What Adele saw in the older woman’s eyes now were intelligence and strength . . . and fatigue as boundless as the Matrix through which starships sailed.

“Debris flew around inside the ship after the missile hit us,” Adele said. “A piece of it struck Daniel — that is, Captain Leary –”

Sand flicked her hands in dismissal of the thought. “Daniel,” she said. “This isn’t a formal report. It’s two old acquaintances talking. Two friends, I’d like to think.”

“Yes,” said Adele. “Debris struck Daniel in the head.”

She raised the carafe, but her hand was trembling so she quickly put it back. Sand reached past and filled the glass.

“It cracked his helmet and gave him a concussion, but the injuries weren’t life threatening,” Adele said. “If it had struck an inch lower, however, it would have broken his neck. Severed it, like enough. That would have been beyond the Medicomp or any human efforts to repair. And I don’t believe in gods.”

“An RCN officer’s duties are often dangerous,” Sand said, carefully neutral. Adele realized that the spymaster still didn’t understand the problem. Sand was afraid of saying the wrong thing — and equally afraid of seeming uninterested if she didn’t say anything. “That might have happened to any of you.”

“Yes,” said Adele, “exactly. Whereas I’d been thinking — feeling, I suppose — that it might happen to all of us. That is, if a missile hit our ship, we would all be killed. That event, that incident, proved that there might well be a future in which Daniel was dead and I was alive.”

She took her glass in both hands and drained it again. This wasn’t coming out well, but she wasn’t sure there was a better way to put it.

“Mistress,” Adele said, “I’ve built a comfortable life. Rebuilt one, perhaps. The RCN is a family which accepts and even appreciates me. The Sissies, the spacers whom I’ve served with, they’re closer than I would ever have been with my sister Agatha in another life.”

In a life in which two soldiers hadn’t cut off Agatha’s ten-year-old head with their belt knives and turned it in for the reward.

“And Daniel himself . . . ,” Adele said. She didn’t know how to go on. She hadn’t expected this conversation. She hadn’t expected of ever to have this conversation. It was obvious that she was in worse shape than she had imagined only a few moments ago.

It was less obvious to see how she was going to get out of her present straits.

Adele felt her lips rise in an unexpected smile. The RCN prided itself that its personnel could learn through on-the-job training. No doubt life would prove amenable to the same techniques by which Adele had learned to be an efficient signals officer.

“There’s no one like Daniel,” Adele said simply. “I don’t mean ‘no one better than Daniel,’ though in some ways that’s probably true. But my entire present life is built around the existence of Daniel Leary. I would rather die than start over from where I was when I was sixteen and lost my first family.”

Mistress Sand sighed. “I have my work, Mundy,” she said. “And my –”

Her face went coldly blank, then broke into an embarrassed grin. “I may as well be honest,” Sand said. “I have my children. That’s how I think of them.”

With a hint of challenge she said, “That’s how I think of you.”

“I wasn’t a notably filial child when I was sixteen,” Adele said. “Perhaps I’ll do better with the advantage of age.”

Sand laughed and pushed the bottle another finger’s breadth across the table. From her waistcoat she took a mother-of-pearl snuffbox. She sifted some of the contents from it into the seam of her left thumb closed against her fingers.

Adele poured two ounces of whiskey and sipped it neat. It was a short drink but a real one, and an apology for her previous behavior.

“You were wondering why I wanted to see you,” Sand said. Her eyes were on her snuffbox as she snapped it closed. “Are you ready to go off-planet again, do you think?”

“Yes,” said Adele. She’d considered the question from the moment she’d been summoned to this meeting, so she spoke without the embroidery others might have put around the answer.

Sand pinched her right nostril shut and snorted, then switched nostrils and repeated the process. She dusted the last crumbs of snuff from her hands, then sneezed violently into her handkerchief. She looked up with a smile.

“There’s a Senatorial election due in four months, perhaps even sooner if the Speaker fancies his chances,” she said. “All the parties will attempt to use Captain Leary. He’s a genuine war hero and, shall we say, impetuous enough that he might be maneuvered into blurting something useful.”

“Yes,” Adele repeated, waiting.

“That would be a matter of academic import to me,” Sand continued, “were it not for the fact that Leary’s close friend is one of my most valued assets, and that asset would become involved also.”

Sand cleared her throat. “Do you suppose Captain Leary would be willing to undertake a charter in his private yacht to deliver the new Cinnabar Commissioner to Zenobia?”

Adele set her data unit on the table and brought it live. Sand knew her too well to take the action as an insult, but that wouldn’t have mattered: Adele had done it with no more volition than she breathed. If asked whether she would prefer to be without breath or without information, she would have said there was little to choose from.

“I had understood . . . ,” she said as her fingers made the control wands dance. She found the wands quicker than other input devices — and so they were, for her. Adele used them as she did her pistol, at the capacity of the machine. “That Daniel was to be kept on full pay despite the fact that the Milton is scheduled to be broken up.”

“That’s correct,” Sand said, pouring herself another tumbler of whiskey. She controlled her reactions very well, but Adele could tell that the older woman was more relaxed than she had been since Adele entered the room. “The officers and crew will serve as members of the RCN –”

Sand used the insider’s term instead of referring to “the Navy.”

“– but as a matter of courtesy to the Alliance, they will be in civilian dress while in Zenobian territory, and their ship will be a civilian charter rather than a warship.”