What Distant Deeps — Snippet 19

Raphael Harbor on Stahl’s World

Daniel didn’t ordinarily think about how the Princess Cecile looked to civilians, let alone civilian children. As he stood beside the Browns, however, watching the little girl — Hester? — cling to the Commissioner’s leg, he realized that there was very little to choose between the Sissie’s boarding hold and a detention cell.

The steel surfaces were flecked with rust — landings were more often than not made in salt water — and streaked with hydraulic fluid: a working ship couldn’t be clean, not after the first liftoff and landing. Other than that, the compartment’s only features were the hatches which were steel like the bulkheads. They were dogged and sealed more securely than a bank vault, let alone a prison.

The main present feature of the hold was noise: the sighs and wheezes and clanks of the ship’s internal workings, and the trip-hammer clangs of the hull and rig cooling, each part at a differing rate. Steam no longer roared — Pasternak had shut down the thrusters — but it continued to sizzle angrily as harbor water boiled from hot metal.

“It’ll be over soon now, mistress,” Daniel said, bending toward the child with the care his closely tailored Whites demanded. Though they weren’t as tight as they might have been: in the Matrix, he ate less than he did in port, and he spent a good deal of time on the hull. Walking in a rigging suit was exercise, and climbing repeatedly to a masthead and back was that in spades.

As Daniel spoke, the multiple bolts — the dogs — which locked the entry hatch into the hull withdrew deafeningly. To someone who’d been aboard while automatic impellers were raking the corvette, the clangor — even when expected — was similar enough to induce a start.

To civilians like the Browns, it probably sounded like a load of anvils had been dropped on them. Clothilde screamed, her husband threw his arms around her, and the child began to bawl as though she’d accidentally smashed her pet hamster. She was trying to climb her father’s leg.

Daniel put his hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Ah, mistress?” he said. “It’s all right, really it is. The noise will stop soon –”

The hatch began to lower into a boarding ramp. Metal squealed against metal, and the pumps driving the hydraulic jacks had a vibration so high-pitched that one experienced it instead of hearing it. Stepping outside his experienced viewpoint, Daniel had to admit that it would have been pretty unpleasant even without the steam and biting plasma which curled in through the widening gap.

The child didn’t stop crying, but she transferred her grip to Daniel. That allowed him to lift her and mutter into her ear, “There, there, dear. It’s all going to be all right.”

He wasn’t good on names, particularly women’s names. He’d learned over the years that ‘dear’ or ‘love’ were safe, whereas a ‘Hester’ which should have been ‘Heather’ could lead to a very unpleasant discussion.

Hogg hovered close at hand, wearing what for him were dress clothes. His cap, shirt, sash, trousers and shoes were brand new and bright orange. Unfortunately they were five separate shades of orange, and his socks were chartreuse. He looked like a clown, a countryman dressed in what he imagined was sophisticated finery.

That was all true. Hogg was also an expert poacher and as ruthless as a countryman has to be. He would throttle a man with a length of monocrystal fishing line with as little hesitation as he would snap the neck of a snared rabbit. The pockets of his baggy clothing sagged with various weapons, and he was expert with them all.

“She’s going to slobber on your Whites, young master,” Hogg grumbled. He half-extended his arms, but he wasn’t quite willing to take the girl away. Just as well, Daniel supposed. Hogg wasn’t really a bogeyman, but it wouldn’t be hard for a child to imagine otherwise.

“And if she does, Hogg?” Daniel said. “You’ve sponged worse than drool off my uniforms, have you not?”

“Aye, but not before you went to a reception with an admiral,” Hogg said. “Although not much of an admiral or they wouldn’t have stuck him in a bloody dump like this.”

He patted the girl on the back and said, “Sure, go ahead and puke, sweetie. It don’t matter on this pisspot out in the sticks.”

The end of the hatch banged against the corvette’s starboard outrigger, extended to provide stability as well as buoyancy. It floated twenty feet from the concrete quay, but members of the harbor’s permanent staff were already swinging an extension bridge to meet the ramp.

“I’m not going to whoopsie!” the child said, turning her head toward Hogg with injured dignity. “You shouldn’t say that.”

“No, dear, I’m sure you’re not,” Daniel said. “Now can I give you back to your –”

He started to say “Mommy” but switched instead to “– Daddy?”

He bent. The girl obediently got back onto her own feet, but she continued to hold Daniel’s right hand.

An eight-place aircar with a closed cabin made a fishhook turn over the harbor and settled crosswise on the quay. “Is that the Governor’s car for us, Pavel?” Mistress Brown said. She started forward, tugging at her daughter’s free hand. “It must be, thank goodness. Come along, Hester.”

Adele had been watching them, which Daniel found about as predictable as there being a sky overhead. The overhead speakers — so that the Browns would hear the information — announced, “Captain Leary, this is Signals. The Squadron Commander’s vehicle has arrived for you.”

“Oh!” said Clothilde Brown, rocking back on her heels. Hester still gripped Daniel’s hand.

“Roger, Signals,” Daniel said. “Break. Lieutenant Cory, what uniform are you wearing, over?”

“Sir?” said Cory, using the earbud only. “Sir, I’m in my Grays, over.”

The 2nd Class uniform was proper public garb — an important consideration, because a Regional RCN Headquarters wasn’t a place to openly flout regulations. Daniel said, “Report immediately to the entry hold immediately and escort the Commissioner and his family to the quay where the –”

Daniel’s tongue fluttered an instant. The Governor himself would not be sending anybody to meet the Browns; he would almost certainly be attending the affair on the Palmyrene cruiser.

“– Governor’s office will be having them picked up and escorted to Government House, over.”

“Sir!” said Cory. “On the way, out.”

Daniel smiled faintly, visualizing Cory banging down the companionway three steps at a time. The boy had always been willing, but it was a pleasant change that he’d become competent as well.

“I have to go off now, Commissioner,” Daniel said, bowing slightly. He didn’t owe that to a civilian official below him in equivalent rank, but courtesy was cheap. Courtesy and kindness were cheap. Brown looked as though he had been staked over an anthill; the glare he was getting from his embarrassed wife explained why. “Lieutenant Cory will be down in a moment to take charge of you while I go play the –”

He fingered the sash that marked him as a Knight of Novy Sverdlovsk. It was one of a number of foreign decorations whose empty magnificence impressed civilians who didn’t understand the significance of the Cinnabar Star with Wreath.

“– dashing naval hero for people who don’t know any better.”

He squeezed the child’s hand and firmly released it. “Hester,” he said. “Ask Lieutenant Cory to tell you how he helped me steal a destroyer on Bennaria when he was only a midshipman. Can you remember that?”

The girl bobbed her head enthusiastically. Daniel turned and strode briskly down the ramp. He hadn’t really felt sorry for Commissioner Brown, who was an accountant. Daniel couldn’t get inside the head of an accountant.

But he had been a child; many would say that he still was. It seemed rather hard lines for Hester to be stuck out here in the back of beyond.