What Distant Deeps — Snippet 13

Daniel thought of his sister Deirdre. He was pretty sure that the personnel of the Shippers’ and Merchants’ Treasury were just as sharp and hard-working as his Sissies. But trying to imagine Pasternak working in a bank —

Daniel clapped the engineer on the shoulder. “It makes perfect sense, Chief,” he said. “Perfect. Now I’ll leave you to it and get up to the bridge and my own job.”

Daniel pressed the touchplate in the center of the hatch and waited for the hydraulic systems to open it for him. He was grinning.

Pasternak working in a bank would be almost as silly as me working in a bank!

* * *

Adele sat upright at the signals console — she rarely reclined — as she skimmed the data from the battleship Euclid which was pouring into her data banks. Tovera moved into the corner of Adele’s vision and swayed back and forth very slowly.

Adele froze her holographic display — though the data dump continued — and met Tovera’s eyes directly. She could no more have ignored her servant than she could have ignored an onrushing fire — though if needs must, she could have worked through the distraction in either case.

“Yes?” she said crisply. She was irritated, but she tried to keep her feelings out of her voice. She knew Tovera wouldn’t interrupt without what she considered a good reason; and in all truth, there was no reason for Adele to enter the Euclid’s data banks except to prove that she could.

Mind, the data might come in handy for some unexpected purpose. But the exercise was reason enough.

It should have been impossible to breach a battleship’s electronic security, but when the Euclid was docked to replace half her thruster nozzles, the Communications Officer — a lieutenant commander, not a mere junior warrant officer as on a corvette — had failed to complete his shut-down procedures. By reversing the instructions which Adele found echoed onto the command console, she was able to copy all the Euclid’s data except the codes which were housed in a separate computer and not linked to the main system.

Adele had become too familiar with that sort of carelessness to even become angry about it. Well, very angry. Which was an even better reason not to vent her transferred displeasure onto her servant.

“The Commissioner’s wife would like a word with you in private, mistress,” Tovera said. She didn’t point, but her eyes flicked in the direction of the bridge hatch, open but guarded by technicians Munsing and Rawls.

Adele let her gaze follow the minuscule gesture. Clothilde Brown looked furious, but the Sissie was within an hour of liftoff, so personnel were restricted to their stations.

Rawls wouldn’t have let the woman pass anyway. He’d been a labor organizer as well as a machinist at Harbor Three. When a squad of Militia had suddenly arrived at the dockyard, he’d decided to ship out on the RCS Aglaia under a false name to avoid discussing his recent activities.

Rawls had learned very quickly that everybody aboard a starship pulled together or none of them saw home again. He’d stayed with the RCN and with the newly promoted Lieutenant Daniel Leary after the survivors of the Aglaia’s crew transferred to the corvette Princess Cecile. But Rawls wasn’t going to forget his orders because a civilian with a snooty accent told him to.

Adele looked around the bridge without expression. Pasternak hadn’t lighted the thrusters yet, so there was time for a short conversation . . . and no reason not to have one, except that Officer Mundy was in a bad mood.

Smiling faintly, Adele stood up. “I’m going to my quarters for a moment, Cazelet,” she said to the midshipman on the jumpseat opposite her on the console. “Take over until I return, if you will.”

“Ma’am,” Cazelet said, his face and tone neutral. There was a flat-plate terminal in the midshipmen’s quarters; he would watch the interview through it unless Adele told him not to, which she had no intention of doing. If Clothilde Brown wanted to believe that her privacy was being respected, she was free to do so; but civilians didn’t give orders on an RCN vessel.

Before Clothilde could speak, Adele said, “Since you want privacy, mistress, we’ll go down to my quarters.”

“If you’ll follow me, mistress,” Tovera said. “Please be careful of the treads.”

The midshipmen’s compartment was the point of the bow on B Level, directly below the command console. The hatch was locked open; Tovera bowed Clothilde through, then stood in the hatchway when Adele had followed.

Clothilde frowned. “Does your servant have to be present, Lady Mundy?” she said.

Adele grimaced, though for the most part the reaction didn’t reach the muscles of her face. “Yes,” she said. “She has to be present.”

She didn’t offer an explanation. She didn’t have an explanation, except that she now understood the purpose of this conversation and that added to her existing ill temper.

Clothilde Brown blinked. “Ah,” she said. “Well, this is embarrassing. Lady Mundy, I most sincerely apologize for waiting this long to pay my respects. If you can believe it, it was only a few minutes ago that my husband finally told me who you are! I was furious, of course. I told him that he must watch Hester while I saw you — since he refused to allow me to bring Hester’s governess on this horrible trip.”

Adele considered a number of responses. She would not, of course, shoot Clothilde. If she had been Commissioner Brown, however, that option would have been closer to the top of the list.

“On this voyage,” Adele said aloud, “I am Officer Mundy — as I believe I told your husband. It would be regrettable, mistress, if you were to object to the Commissioner having obeyed my instructions.”

“Oh!” said Clothilde, touching her mouth with the fingertips of her left hand. “Oh, no, your ladyship, I didn’t mean that at all.”

“Very well, Mistress Brown,” Adele said. “I’ll return to my duties, then.”

Clothilde’s face scrunched up; she began to cry. “Oh, please,” she blubbered, “I’m sorry but I’m so miserable and I’m afraid! This is so awful, all of it.”

Adele recoiled in horror, though she hoped she managed to keep her face blank. Daniel would know what to do. Of course one of the reasons Daniel had more experience with crying women was that his own behavior was often the cause of the tears. Adele had done nothing to provoke this unpleasant outbreak.

“I assure you that there’s less danger now than you’d face crossing the Pentacrest at rush hour, mistress,” she said. “Captain Leary and his crew are very skilled, uniquely skilled I might say. There’ll be no trouble.”

Clothilde produced a handkerchief from her sleeve and blew her nose thoroughly. “Ah,” said Adele. “Would you care to sit down? There’s just the bunks, I’m afraid.”

She released her own, the bottom portside unit. Midshipmen Cazelet was on the starboard side.

“No, no, I’m all right,” Clothilde said, then snuffled again. As she folded the handkerchief, she looked around the compartment for the first time. “My goodness, L — Officer Mundy. I would have expected you to have, well, larger quarters.”

I did, until you and your husband came aboard.

Aloud Adele said, “This isn’t so bad, mistress. Though it would be tight if the Sissie had five midshipmen instead of the present one.”

Clothilde’s carefully neutral expression — she clearly hadn’t wanted to be too damning of Lady Mundy’s present lodgings — turned to open amazement. “You mean you share this –”

Her tongue froze before it framed the word “closet” or the like. She had a stricken look

Adele began to find the business amusing. Smiling faintly, she said, “Space is at a premium on a starship, mistress. Even on a large ship, which the Princess Cecile certainly is not. But I’ve slept in worse conditions in civilian life.”

“You have?” Clothilde said. “That is, I don’t of course doubt you, La– La– Officer. But I’m surprised to hear that.”

“I lived in straitened circumstances for years following the Proscriptions,” Adele said calmly. “For a time I slept in a flophouse where the beds were fenced off from one another by barbed wire. Most of the other residents were drunks who were likely to urinate through the wire in the night.”

Clothilde stared without speaking, her eyes wide. She was quite a pretty woman, the sort men called doll-like. She wasn’t as young as she dressed to appear, but Adele guessed she was still several years short of thirty . . . and therefore fifteen years younger than her husband.