What Distant Deeps — Snippet 10

Desk 7 was in the further two row, identified by a rectangular sign on a short post; the letters were tarnished silver. The clerk was a woman in the process of passing middle age; her throat was wrinkled and her jowls were slipping, but her figure was still good.

She beamed at Daniel, an expression he had never expected to see on the face of an assignment clerk. “Do be seated, Captain,” she said, gesturing toward the straight chair across the desk from her. “May I say that I regard it an honor to meet you professionally?”

“I . . . ,” said Daniel. He didn’t know where to go with his response. Here on this side of the bar, the noise of the hall was more noticeable than it had been among the hundreds of waiting officers whose whispers and shuffling were responsible for it. “I, ah, thank you.”

“There are a few formalities to take care of first,” she said, sorting through a file of hardcopy. “As the final commander of RCS Milton, you’re to initial this Finding of Loss and Disposal.”

Sliding a sheet of paper and a stylus across the desk, she added peevishly, “They haven’t attached the court martial decision, though. There’s normally a copy of the court record.”

She raised her eyes to Daniel’s. “Not that that there was anything to be concerned about in your conduct, of course,” she added hastily.

The document was a form whose blanks had been filled in by someone with casually beautiful handwriting. Daniel began to initial each paragraph that had holograph additions. He said, “A court martial is required for any captain who loses his ship, mistress. We — because it wouldn’t have been possible without an exceptional crew — were able to sail the Milton home. The surveyors declared her a constructive loss, but that was decided after I’d handed her over to the dockyard.”

Daniel returned the finding and stylus. Smiling to make a joke of what he was about to say, he added, “There wasn’t much doubt about their decision, I’m afraid; even without the end of hostilities, the Milton couldn’t have been economically repaired . . . and there was a prejudice against her design, as well. But I, ah, regret her loss nonetheless.”

Sixty-three spacers had died when an Alliance missile vaporized the Milton’s stern. Daniel felt for every one of them; but he felt for the cruiser herself as well. A theologian might claim that ships don’t have souls, but Daniel was a spacer and knew things that no landsman would ever fathom.

The clerk replaced the form in her file folder, then handed Daniel another document. “Here is your new assignment, Captain,” she said. “Oh! I should have told you to keep the stylus, I’m afraid. You’re to sign the upper copy.”

“Thank you,” said Daniel dryly, retrieving the instrument which was only six inches from his hand. He scanned the document, smiling with satisfaction—and, truth to tell, with relief.

The past generation had been one of constant war or looming war between Cinnabar and the Alliance. The Peace of Rheims appeared to be a different animal from the brief truces of the last twenty years, if only because both empires were on the verge of social and economic collapse.

Peace had put the RCN in a state of flux like nothing before in Daniel’s lifetime. It had been possible that someone very senior in the RCN or even the Senate was going to trump the cards that Captain Daniel Leary and his friends could play.

“Captain,” the clerk said earnestly, “I realize that being assigned to a chartered vessel may appear to be a slight after your command of a heavy cruiser. I assure you that it is not: the Cinnabar Commissioner died suddenly on Zenobia. It’s necessary to rush a replacement there, but the world is in the Alliance sphere. We can’t send a warship without giving offense, which might have the most serious implications for the recent treaty.”

“Mistress . . . ,” Daniel said, looking up from his orders. He was faintly puzzled. “I understood that the needs of the service were paramount from the moment I enlisted. I’ve never objected to a lawful order.”

There had been times when Daniel Leary’s superiors might have complained regarding the speed and manner in which he executed his orders — but he wasn’t going to say that to a civilian.

“Oh!” said the clerk, touching her fingertips to her lower lip. “Oh, of course not, Captain! But surely the needs of the service include the proper treatment of officers who have done so much for the Republic. Why, the peace treaty might not have been signed without your victory at Cacique!”

Daniel blinked. He supposed he ought to be pleased that the clerical staff was treating him as an individual rather than a cog to be put in whatever bin a computer decided.

In fact he found he preferred to be a cog. If the clerks treated Captain Leary as a person, then he had to think of them as people. It took much less energy to view clerks as minor irritations to the life of an RCN officer, much like the gnats that rose from the marshes at Bantry to clog the eyes, noses, and food of everyone who had to be outdoors in early spring.

But after all, it might be just this clerk at Desk 7. Perhaps he could go on being callously dismissive of all the faceless others here in Navy House and beyond.

Daniel smiled broadly; the clerk seemed to glow in reaction. That was fair even though she probably misunderstood his expression: she’d led him to the train of thought, after all. Anyway, it made the world a better place than it would have been after another sneering exchange like his with the receiving clerk.

The woman was forty years past the age that Daniel’s smile would’ve meant what she apparently understood from it, though.

Aloud he said, “Well, since I’m to have my pick of spacers to crew her, I’ll see if we can’t get Commissioner –”

He glanced at the document he’d just signed.

“– Pavel Brown and his family to Zenobia before the vacancy causes problems for distressed Cinnabar spacers in the Qaboosh Region.”

Simply being in the Qaboosh Region would be distressing enough for an RCN officer; the place could be used as the illustration of the term “backwater.” Though peace meant that there weren’t any postings which were likely to be a springboard to higher rank.

The clerk took the signed copy of the orders. As Daniel stood she said, “Using a chartered yacht means money in the pocket of some well placed civilian, but we mustn’t complain about reality. I only hope that this Princess Cecile is well found.”

Daniel grinned again. “The ship is as tight and nimble as any vessel in the RCN, mistress,” he said. “And the charter fee won’t be going to a civilian — because I own her myself.”

He had to remind himself not to begin whistling as he strode toward the door to the street.

Harbor Three, near Xenos on Cinnabar

“Ma’am?” said Benthelow. He was a Power Room tech who’d been on guard duty when Adele boarded the Princess Cecile an hour before. He probably still was, but he’d left his sub-machine gun back in the boarding hold with his fellow guard before he came up to the bridge. “There’s a guy here that, well, I thought you might talk to him.”

Adele was alone on the bridge. Tovera had gone off on her own business; Adele made a point of not knowing what her servant did in her free time. She sat at the Communications console, going over the software she had just installed.

Every time Adele landed on Cinnabar, Mistress Sand’s organization provided her with updates for the codes she might encounter. The top Alliance military codes were still effectively closed to her if they were applied properly, but the computing power necessary to guide a starship through the Matrix could by brute force gut almost any commercial code like a hooked fish.

And even unbreakable codes were often misused. Adele found that people were frequently careless.

Other people, that is.

She got to her feet. Adele was wearing civilian clothes because she had come from her townhouse and hadn’t bothered to change into utilities before she went to work. Her garments were similar in cut to RCN utilities but were light brown instead of mottled gray on gray, so she could wear them in public without violating regulations.

“Yes sir?” she said to the man in the hatchway behind Benthelow — who really shouldn’t have brought the fellow up with him, but Signals Officer Adele Mundy wasn’t the proper person to give lectures on following protocol. Nor was Captain Daniel Leary, if it came to that.

“I apologize, mistress,” the man said. He was over six feet tall; well over, in fact, though the way he hunched forward tended to conceal his height. He had limp, sandy hair and a high forehead, making him look older than his forty or so Standard Years. “I asked to see the captain for permission to view our quarters, but this man brought me to you. I’m Pavel Brown. Ah, my family and I are to be his passengers.”