What Distant Deeps — Snippet 11

“I’ll take care of this, Benthelow,” Adele said. “And yes, Commissioner Brown, I’ll be happy to show you your quarters. I’m Adele Mundy.”

She patted her trousers with a smile that was mostly for show. People liked other people to smile.

“When I’m in uniform, I’m Signals Officer Mundy. A moment, please.”

She sat again, this time crossways on the bench. The data unit which she used as a control interface was on her lap. Nobody was likely to meddle with Adele’s console in her absence, and nobody except Cory or possibly Cazelet would be able to get into it anyway. Nonetheless she made sure everything was switched off before she rose, slipping the PDU into her cargo pocket.

“Surely not Lady Mundy?” Brown said as he followed her into the corridor and down the forward companionway. “I was told that she might be a passenger on this voyage as well, though I assumed that was one of those silly departmental rumors.”

“Watch your footing,” Adele said as their footsteps echoed within the armored tube. Her clumsiness on shipboard was something of a joke among the spacers she’d served with, but the slick steel treads of the stairs between levels of the ship had never given her trouble: she’d spent years trudging up and down similar steps in the stacks of research libraries. A warship’s companionways were a memory of home to her.

“I’m Mundy of Chatsworth,” Adele said as she exited onto D Level, the deck below the bridge. In harbor on Xenos the companionway doors were left open, but in combat they would be closed and could be locked both for structural strength — maneuver and battle damage both twisted a ship’s hull, which the transverse tubes resisted — and to limit air loss in event of penetration. “But not aboard the Sissie, where I’m a warrant officer, not a passenger.”

She led the way briskly down the corridor. Several spacers were about their business in the compartments to either side; they murmured, “Ma’am,” or bobbed their heads when they saw Adele.

She paused at the hatch of what would ordinarily be the Captain’s Suite. On previous voyages, she had lived in the Captain’s Office, which had a fully capable computer though with a flat-plate rather than holographic display. She would be with the midshipmen until the Browns were delivered, and Daniel would live in his space cabin adjacent to the bridge.

“I don’t know what you may have heard, Commissioner,” she said. “But as you’re already aware, most rumors are silly. And in any case, they have no bearing on my duties or our relationship while the Sissie –”

She smiled coldly. “While the Princess Cecile, I should say, is under way. Forgive me for dropping into jargon.”

“Your pardon, Officer Mundy,” Brown said. He looked miserable, at a loss in all possible fashions; but she’d had to say it. “I didn’t intend to give offense.”
“Your quarters,” Adele said instead of replying directly. She found it best to let matters drop when they were embarrassing. “The stateroom here. The door to the right is the sleeping cabin, and on the left is the office, which now has a bunk as well. I gather there are three of you?”

“Yes, Clothilde and Hester, our four-year-old, will accompany me,” Brown said sadly. “Clothilde wanted me to bring Hester’s governess along, but the wages Mistress Beeton demanded to come such a distance from Xenos were beyond my resources, quite beyond them. I told Clothilde that perhaps we could hire a governess when we reached Calvary, but she seems to believe that the inhabitants of Zenobia are all barbarians who might be expected to eat babies. The governess was of a similar opinion.”

The Commissioner’s glumness seemed to be the mindset he — like others whom she had met — found most congenial. That puzzled Adele. She was bleak — how could any intelligent person view the universe and mankind without being bleak? — but there seemed neither pleasure nor profit in a negative attitude.

And then there was Daniel’s example: an intelligent man who was also cheerful. Knowing Daniel had made Adele question the primacy of data and reason, the elements on which she built her life.

She couldn’t do anything to change her attitude, of course, even if she were wrong about the pointlessness of life. And presumably Brown couldn’t help but be negative even if he had enough common sense to realize that his attitude was silly.

“I think you’ll find the culture of Calvary on a level with that of most provincial cities on Cinnabar,” Adele said dryly. “And even in the countryside, I believe that the staple meat is goat rather than babies. Though my information is no doubt incomplete.”

Brown looked at her in amazement, then realized that the comment had been ironic. He forced a smile.

“Yes,” he said. “And I believe Clothilde knows better as well. I’m not sure Mistress Beeson did.”

He crossed the stateroom and peered into the sleeping cabin. Rather than try to replace the single fold-down bunk into something suitable for a couple, Pasternak and the shipyard crew had left the bedroom as it was — for the child, presumably — and put a double bed in the office where the desk and terminal had been. That also required expanding the office some distance into the stateroom, but internal partitions were expected to be moved.

“It’s very small, isn’t it?” Brown said sadly. “Clothilde won’t be happy. And such a long voyage, a month and a half.”

“I doubt the Princess Cecile will take anywhere near that long on the passage,” Adele said. It was natural for her to keep her tone unemotional, but she felt a spike of irritation at Brown’s comment. What does the fellow expect? “But unquestionably, interstellar travel is uncomfortable.”

She cleared her throat. She hadn’t researched the Browns’ backgrounds as thoroughly as she should have. “This is your first voyage, then?”

He turned and nodded as he walked to the refitted office. “Yes,” he said. “I’ve been on Xenos my entire career with the ministry. I’m an accountant, you see.”

Brown smiled in embarrassment, though Adele couldn’t imagine why he should think an accountant had to apologize to a librarian. Both vocations were necessary to civilization, and both involved organizing data, making them —

She grinned minusculy, but in her heart she believed it.

— the highest forms of human endeavor.

Adele nodded noncommittally. “If you’ve seen your fill of the suite,” she said, “we’ll go back down the corridor to the wardroom where you’ll be eating.”

She wondered whether Brown had received any briefing from his superiors. She was beginning to suspect that he had not.

“You can either bring along your own food, which will go in a storage locker on A Level . . . ,” she said, stepping back into the corridor. “Or you can pay a subscription and mess with the officers. I suppose you’ll at least want to bring, well, whatever your child eats.”

Or do four-year-olds eat adult food? That wasn’t a question Adele had previously considered; nor, she realized, did she need to do so now.

The hatch to the wardroom was open. The hanging table was fast against the ceiling, so she gestured to call attention to it and said, “It will be lowered for meals, of course.”

“I see,” Brown said sadly. “Thank you, ah, Officer.”

“The purser can help you with questions of what stores you should bring,” Adele said. “He’ll be in Warehouse 73, I believe . . . .”

She took out her data unit and sat on the nearest of the chairs bolted to the deck plates. A few flicks of her control wands gave her the answer.

“Yes, he’s there now,” she said with satisfaction. “Master Reddick. I can send a spacer with you as a guide, if you like?”

“No thank you, Officer Mundy,” Brown said as though he were announcing the death of his mother. “The Bureau’s handbook gives extensive information on supplies for off-planet assignments and I’ve read it thoroughly.”

“Well, then. . ,” said Adele. “If you don’t have any more questions . . . ?”

“I’d intended to stay in the accounting department until I retired,” Brown said. He was looking toward the holographic seascape on the compartment’s outer wall, but his eyes were on something far more distant. “Clothilde thought that I should be promoted more quickly, and of course promotion in Accounting isn’t very fast. We don’t have the casualties that you naval personnel do, you see.”

Adele smiled; Brown smiled back shyly.

“I transferred to the Representational Service,” he said. “It was a two-step promotion, which made Clothilde very happy. The trouble is, accounts have to balance in life as well as finances. Now that Clothilde is beginning to realize what the higher pay grade cost, she isn’t so happy.”

He smiled wider. The expression showed both misery and genuine amusement.

“I think you’ll find the voyage more congenial than you now think, Commissioner,” Adele said truthfully. With that sense of humor, Brown might get along well after all.