What Distant Deeps — Snippet 09

CHAPTER 3: Xenos on Cinnabar

Daniel, holding the ivroid chit inset with 444 in black which he’d just gotten from the receiving clerk, turned and looked for an empty place on the benches. The General Waiting Room was as full as he’d ever seen it.

Navy House had grown into a complex of buildings as the Republic of Cinnabar Navy expanded into the sword of an empire. What people ordinarily meant by Navy House was the Navy Office, built around the hall in which RCN officers waited to be summoned for new assignments.

Generally they waited in vain. They would return tomorrow and following tomorrows until they either lost hope or received an assignment. A third of the RCN’s ships had already been paid off in response to the Treaty of Rheims, and perhaps as many more would follow over the next few months. Today’s crush of unemployed officers could only get worse.

Daniel wondered if officials in the Procurement Bureau had ordered additional ivroid chits. The highest number he recalled having seen was in the seven hundreds. He smiled faintly: the apparatus of the waiting room might have to expand because of the demands of peace, just as Navy House itself had grown due to the needs of war.

Someone ten benches back waved in the air, then pointed to Daniel. His grin spread as he recognized Pennyroyal, a friend — or at least friendly acquaintance — from his Academy days; he strode down the aisle toward her.

He wouldn’t have said there was a real space beside Pennyroyal, but she was widening what there was with animated whispers to the officers in both directions as she mimed shoving them aside. The result was still tight, but that was in part a result of Captain Daniel Leary having put on a few pounds. A few more pounds, unfortunately. He sat with a grin of apologetic embarrassment to the older lieutenant to his left.

“I’m surprised to see you slumming with us poor sad jetsam, Leary,” Pennyroyal whispered. From another’s mouth that could have been a bitter gibe; from hers, it was ruefully appreciative. “I heard you got a Cinnabar Star for that business off Cacique, didn’t you?”

“Ah, yes,” Daniel said. He was wearing his best set of Grays. Medal ribbons were proper but were not required with Grays, the 2nd Class uniform; Daniel had chosen not to wear his.

In fact he’d gotten a Wreath for the Cinnabar Star which he’d been awarded after the Battle of Strymon while he was still a lieutenant. “We had a great deal of luck there, I must say.”

The Annunciator stood with the receiving clerk, beside the gate in the bar separating the assignment clerks from the ranks of benches. The printer beside him whirred out a length of flimsy. He pulled it off, glared at it, and said, “Number One-Seven-Two, come forward!”

A thin, almost cadaverous, lieutenant scraped up from one of the back benches and strode toward the front. She was trying to look nonchalant, but she stepped a little too quickly. She was wearing her Whites; when she passed, Daniel saw that fabric of the elbows and trouser seat had been polished by long use.

Daniel felt uncomfortable discussing his career with former classmates. He had been lucky, very lucky; and particularly, he’d been lucky in gaining Adele’s friendship and support, which were matters he couldn’t discuss. Indeed, Adele’s intelligence duties — her spying — made Daniel even more uncomfortable than discussing his victories did.

“Well, I’m hoping for some luck myself,” Pennyroyal said. “Vondrian — you remember Vondrian, don’t you?”

“Of course,” Daniel said truthfully. Vondrian, who’d been a class ahead of him at the Academy, had private money. Instead of lording it over his less fortunate fellows, he’d been liked and respected by all who knew him. “He has a ship of his own, I understood?”

“That’s right, the Montrose in the Tattersall Flotilla — which Vondrian says is three destroyers n a good day but generally less,” Pennyroyal said. “Tattersall is an Associated World of the Republic but not a Friend, you see. It gives the RCN an observation base in the Forty Stars where every other world worth mentioning is part of the Alliance.”

“I dare say Vondrian’s breathing easier for the Peace of Rheims,” said Daniel, shaking his head. The trouble with a detached command like what Pennyroyal described was that if the enemy decided to get rid of you, you probably wouldn’t have enough warning even to run away.

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” said Pennyroyal. “And I hope to be able to ask him personally soon, because he swears he’s requested me as his First Lieutenant. I don’t mind telling you, Leary, it’s going to be bloody short rations for me if I have to live on half pay for very long.”

“Vondrian’s as straight as a die,” Daniel said. It was the truth, but he added verve to the words to buck up Pennyroyal. “If he told you he was going to request you, you can take it to the bank that you’ll have your berth shortly.”

That wasn’t quite so true. Captains had a great deal of influence in the choice of officers serving under them, and Vondrian’s wealth gave him more influence than most. At a time like this, however, when any posting was worth fighting for, there was always the risk that an admiral’s nephew was going to be appointed into the place a lieutenant commander had requested for a friend.

Partly because Daniel was afraid his smile would slip if he looked directly at Pennyroyal, he focused on the bench ahead of him. Faintly visible in the wood was a pentacle about three inches across from flat to the point opposite. The illumination from the skylights thirty feet above was so diffuse that he first noticed the texture rather than the slight difference in color.

“Why, I’ll be!” Daniel said. He was glad to change the subject, but his enthusiasm was real. “Here, Pennyroyal — do you see the fungus growing through the wood? The gray pentacle?”

“I suppose I see the pentacle,” Pennyroyal said — agreed would be too strong a word. “If you say it’s a fungus, I’ll believe you.”

“You remember that some of these benches were supposed to have been made of paneling from the Alliance flagship captured in the Battle of Cloudscape?” Daniel said. Burbled, he supposed — but he’d always found the wonder of the universe more interesting than tensile strength or power-to-weight calculations. “Well, that must not be just a legend. This is a Pleasaunce species!”

He grinned in satisfaction at having dredged up another datum. “A male. They’re bisexual, and the females grow in circular patterns.”

“That’s your number, isn’t it, Leary?” said Pennyroyal.

For a moment Daniel tried to fit her words into a context of history or natural history, which between them were absorbing his attention. The bench in front of me is over three hundred years old!

“Four-forty-four?” Pennyroyal said.

Oh, dear gods!

“Yes, and I thank you sincerely,” Daniel said as he rose. The two officers between him and the aisle turned sideways to let him slip past. Their faces were stoical, but Daniel didn’t think he was imagining a touch of envy on the face of the overweight commander.

The receiving clerk looked up at Daniel. The sour disdain with which he greeted an expected new suppliant turned to fury when he saw the person approaching was an officer who’d been to see him only minutes before.

“If you’re looking for a luckier number, Captain –” the clerk sneered. When he realized that the chit Daniel was displaying face-out was the number that had been called a moment earlier, he swallowed the rest of whatever the comment would have been.

“This one seemed lucky enough to me,” Daniel said with a pleasant smile; he handed the chit to the Annunciator to drop back into the wire hopper. “Four-four-four, if you please.”

He was in too good a mood for a minor functionary to spoil it. Besides, he was pretty sure that just being cheerful would irritate the clerk as much as anything else he could do.

The twelve or fifteen personnel at desks on the clerical side of the Waiting Room bar were civilians. The only RCN officer in their chain of command was the Chief of the Navy Board. No one else in uniform, not even a full admiral, could give a valid order to an assignment clerk. That was a necessary feature of a job which would often lead to outbursts of fury from frustrated officers.

But facing anger and resentment day after day would have taken a toll on a saint, in the unlikely event that a saint applied for the job. The receiving clerk in particular had to be ruthless, but his duties had curdled necessity into cruelty.

“Yes, of course, Captain,” the clerk muttered. The Annunciator gave Daniel the flimsy printed with 444 — Desk 7 and nodded to the usher, who lifted the gate.