What Distant Deeps — Snippet 17

Daniel leaned back at the waist to look upward, a complicated task while wearing a rigging suit. The rigid panels, including protective sleeves over each joint, made the hard suits much safer for the personnel who actually worked on the hull. The edge of a slipping tool or the frayed end of a whipping cable would bounce off instead of tearing a long, probably fatal, gash.

The suits weren’t even clumsy once people got used to them. The riggers who wore them throughout their daily watches executed acrobatics, regularly swinging through the rigging and even leaping from antenna to antenna.

RCN regulations required riggers to wear safety lines and always to grip a fixed element of the ship with one hand. On no vessel Daniel knew of did riggers wear safety lines, and most bosuns — including Woetjans — felt that the ship’s needs took precedence to what the regs said about crew safety. Despite that, there were very few accidents involving veteran riggers.

Daniel wasn’t quite as nimble as a rigger, but he wore his hard suit with ease and a lack of concern. At the moment, his concern was wholly directed at the civilian he’d brought out with him.

Commissioner Brown wasn’t the clumsiest person Daniel had ever seen on the hull — that would probably be Adele, despite her having what was by now a great deal of experience — but walking in magnetic shoes took some practice. The Commissioner hadn’t learned the trick yet.

Daniel pointed upward with his left arm. “The lights you see,” he said, checking through his side lens to make sure that the communication rod was firmly against Brown’s helmet, “aren’t stars, Commissioner. They’re universes, every one as real as our own.”

Brown wore an air suit: light compared to a rigging suit, flexible, and not nearly so bulky. It was safer for a layman because it was less awkward to move around in, and it was much more comfortable: the interior of a hard suit bruised and scraped an unfamiliar wearer. Air suits were regulation for ship-side crewmen when they went out on the hull, though veterans like those aboard the Sissie had often found rigging suits for their own use.

“I –” Brown said, but he turned his head as he spoke and took his helmet away from the rod. Daniel waited, expecting Brown to realize his mistake and lean back into contact.

He did. “I’m sorry, Captain,” he said. “I’m not used to having to hold my head in the same position in order to speak. Well, to be heard, that is.”

The suits aboard starships were not fitted with any means of communication in the electro-optical band. In sidereal space, radios or modulated lasers would have been harmless; but such a device if used by accident in the Matrix would throw the ship unguessed — and possibly unrecoverable — distances off course.

Spacers didn’t add to the risks they faced. They knew — the survivors knew — better than anyone else just how good their chances of being killed already were.

Riggers talked with hand signals when they needed to talk at all; the personnel of an experienced rigging watch knew their own duties and expected their fellows to do the same. Daniel and Adele, for their own individual reasons, needed privacy for to discuss ideas more complex than, “Help Jones clear the frozen block on the A3 topsail lift.”

Until recently they had touched helmets to hold conversations. Daniel had improved the technique by having mechanics at Bantry fabricate eighteen-inch long brass tubes which allowed people to speak in vacuum with fewer contortions.

“As I was saying,” Brown resumed. “I can’t see what you see, but I think I understand what you see, Captain. I –”

He turned carefully, gripping the rod to keep it in contact with his helmet. “Numbers mean more to me than they are, you see,” he said with a wistful grin. “More than they are to other people, that is. Here I see a –”

He gestured with the fingers of his gloved left hand spread.

“– pattern of light, rather like the streets in a business district on a rainy night. Only less intense. Whereas from the way you’ve described the Matrix to me, I think you see religious significance. Do you not?”

Daniel blinked. That wasn’t what he’d expected from the Commissioner. And it was very close to being correct, which he also hadn’t expected.

He guffawed. If they’d been inside and he weren’t wearing a rigging suit, he’d have clapped Brown on the shoulder in startled camaraderie.

“I don’t know that I’d call it religious, Commissioner,” he said, “but I won’t object if you do. Do you see the string of green, well, blurs there, off the port bow?”

He pointed with his full arm, shifting his feet slightly so that Brown could watch without adjusting the communication rod again. “That’s the direction we’re going,” he said. “Though ‘direction’ isn’t really correct. Our brains are used to seeing in three dimensions, so that’s how they translate the images they receive through our eyes.”

They stood in the far bow at the base of the Dorsal antenna in the A ring. The mainsail wasn’t set but the topsail and topgallant were, cocked a few degrees to port.

The sails of metalized fabric, tough but only microns thick, gleamed with their own light. They blocked the Casimir radiation which was the only constant in the Matrix where otherwise time, distance, and all other factors varied among the bubble universes.

Radiation pressure served to shift starships among universes, using the variations between adjacent bubbles. Ships circumvented the limitations of the sidereal universe simply by travelling outside it. A computer with the right software could calculate a course. A trained astrogator using the same software could calculate a shorter course than a machine alone could do.

Someone who had developed an instinct for the Matrix could tell at a glance what the energy states of other universes were in respect to that of the bubble of the ship herself. Such an astrogator could do subtle wonders in company with a crew which translated those calculations into the set of the sails. Cinnabar had never raised a more gifted astrogator than Commander Stacy Bergen and he — Daniel’s Uncle Stacy — had worked hard to bring his nephew up to his own high standard.

Daniel tried to pass his uncle’s knowledge on to the officers under his command. Now on the masthead high above him and Commissioner Brown, Lieutenant Cory stood with an ambitious technician named Loomis and took the line of descent a generation further. Uncle Stacy would be proud of me.

“I cannot see the order, Captain,” Brown said. “But I can see that there is order, and it’s obvious to me that you see it. I’m fortunate to be making this voyage under your care.”

“I realize that star travel isn’t ever comfortable,” Daniel said, meaning, comfortable for a civilian. “But the crew and I will continue to do whatever we can to minimize the discomfort. We should be on Stahl’s World in ten days –”

Which is a bloody good run, if I do say so myself.

“– and after a layover for you and your family to catch your breaths, it’ll be only three days more to Zenobia.”

“It’s not the discomfort of the voyage that concerns me, Captain,” Brown said, turning toward Daniel. He held his end of the communications rod against his lower face shield, hiding his mouth, but his eyes looked sad. “It’s what awaits me when I get there. I know numbers, perhaps as well as you know . . . .”

He made a circular gesture with his right hand. Daniel winced mentally, but it was perfectly safe. Two safety lines were clipped to the hasp on the Commissioner’s waist belt, attaching him to the stanchion just outside the forward airlock and to Daniel’s belt as well.

“Know the path through those universes. But I don’t know much about people, I’m afraid.”

“I don’t believe . . . ,” Daniel said, trying to word this so it wouldn’t be taken as an insult. “That the duties of a Commissioner in a quiet area like the Qaboosh Region will prove too arduous, sir.”

“It’s not the distressed spacers that I’m primarily worried about, I’m afraid,” Brown said. Then he said, “Are you married, Captain?”

“Ah . . . ,” said Daniel. “Ah, no I’m not, though I’ve, a, reached an understanding with a fine woman. A very fine woman.”

“Ah,” said Brown with a nod that might have meant anything. “No doubt it will work out well for you, Captain. You’re obviously a forceful young man. Whereas I am an accountant.”

He barked a laugh that nobody could have mistaken for humor.

“Better,” he said, “I should be an accountant. Instead I have become the Cinnabar Commissioner to Zenobia, in order to please my wife. As I said, I don’t know very much about people.”

Daniel saw the semaphore station ahead of the airlock clack its six arms upward, then begin to chop out a message. It was hydro-mechanical rather than electrical, the only way to communicate between the bridge and the outside of the hull while the ship was in the Matrix.

“We’d best go aboard, Commissioner,” Daniel said. “The Sissie will be shaking out her mainsails in a moment, and I don’t want you to have to dodge a cable.”

He took Brown by the arm and began shuffling with him toward the airlock. What he’d just said was true.

But what he really meant was that he didn’t want to go any further with the present conversation. Daniel Leary was not a person who had any business giving relationship advice.