What Distant Deeps — Snippet 26

“What Captain Leary says is my experience also,” von Gleuck said. “Commander, has the ship been cleaned specially for the gathering? Even so it is remarkable — and we are not in the public parts of the vessel where strangers are to be expected.”

Bailey led them out into the corridor through the sternward hatch. None of the off-duty spacers had spoken while visitors were present, save for the man who had called the compartment to attention.

“No,” Bailey said. “That’s how it is in the Horde. It’s a good thing, you know, but to tell the truth it gives me the creeps some times.”

“You’re from Cinnabar yourself, are you not, Commander?” Daniel said with a friendly smile.

Bailey had been reaching for the control of the hatch marked Missile Magazine #2. He started and gave Daniel a look of nervous surmise. “I’m from Kostroma, born right in Kostroma City,” he said. “But, ah, I lived a while in Xenos. And had twelve years as Chief Missileer in the RCN if you want to know the truth. But I didn’t desert, I mustered out proper, and anyway I’m an officer in the Horde now and the Autocrator won’t let you haul me back!”

“Nothing like that, my good man,” said Daniel. “Quite a number of RCN personnel will be entering foreign service or trying to live on half-pay very shortly if the peace holds.”

He’d slipped into the tone of a superior to a servant rather than speaking as peer to peer. Bailey had merely confirmed Daniel’s existing assumption: the fellow was a warrant officer with a commission from barbarians rather than an officer by birth and education.

“Are there many foreign officers in the Horde?” von Gleuck said. “I met a number of cutter captains below at the gala, and they were all Palmyrenes.”

“Specialist officers is all,” admitted Bailey. He’d apparently decided just to answer what he was asked rather than worry about what he should say. “Which means some of us aboard the Piri Reis and also the Turgut. And nobody from Cinnabar or Pleasaunce, either: I’m Kostroman, remember. The destroyer’s got a Palmyrene chief engineer, but Antoniani here on the Piri Reis is from Pantellaria.”

Daniel looked into the missile magazine without entering. All the cradles were filled, and everything was as precisely arranged as the interior of a mechanical timepiece.

The missiles were single-converter units, however. They had the same terminal velocity as the weapons in front-line service with Cinnabar and the Alliance, but they took twice as long to accelerate.

The units that turned reaction mass into the antimatter which was annihilated with ordinary matter in the High Drive were expensive. Otherwise a missile was a water tank which relied on kinetic energy to destroy its target. Navies which expected to use their missiles — and who could afford them — equipped their ships with dual-converter models, thereby gaining an advantage in combat.

“Is the Piri Reis having trouble with her own converters, Bailey?” Daniel asked as he turned away from the magazine.

That got through the commander’s cloak of resignation. He blurted defensively, “Why do you ask that?”

“Probably because every Pantellarian ship in the RCN has converter problems,” von Gleuck said. “Certainly that’s true in the Fleet, as I know to my cost. I was a midshipman on the Turbine. We counted ourselves lucky when we had 75% of our High Drive motors on line.”

Daniel laughed. “Yes, but they have such pretty lines, do they not?” he said, exchanging grins with von Gleuck.

He bowed to Lady Belisande and added, “Though not nearly so pretty as those of her ladyship here.”

“Captain,” she said with an arch lift of her slim nose, “I will slap you if you do not immediately begin referring to me as Posy. Lady Belisande died at my birth, as you might guess from my given name of Posthuma. I am alive.”

“And quite lively, in a ladylike fashion,” said von Gleuck with an affectionate grin.

“Sometimes ladylike,” Posy said. She covered her giggle behind her hand. They were obviously an affectionate couple, comfortable in one another’s presence.

The commo unit on Bailey’s shoulder gave three shrill beeps. That must have been more than merely an attention signal, for he cracked his heels together and stiffened before replying, “Bailey here, Excellency!”

“Bring Captain Leary to my suite, Bailey,” a woman’s voice directed. The Palmyrenes used external speakers rather than earbuds. While the tiny speaker might account for some of the harsh tone, Daniel suspected that it gave a fairly accurate impression of the Autocrator’s manner. “At once.”

“This way,” said Bailey, gesturing with his hands as though he were shooing his guests toward the companionways in the stern rotunda which widened the central corridor just beyond the missile magazine. “And don’t dawdle! The Admiral’s suite, that’s where Her Excellency is, is just forward of the BDC.”

Daniel took the lead, which would allow von Gleuck to shepherd his lady at the speed they chose. He and the Alliance officer exchanged glances, but they both understood the situation without needing to speak. This way there wasn’t a risk that a spacer — well, a rated landsman; no spacer would behave that way — would barrel down the up companionway, nor that someone in a hurry would try to push by from below.

Posy couldn’t have a great deal of experience on helical metal staircases, but her steps pattered up quickly enough that Daniel didn’t feel a need to slow down for her sake. He grinned, remembering how easily Miranda Dorst took to companionways. In Miranda’s case, poverty after her father’s early death had meant the elevators of the apartment block where she and her mother lived were frequently out of order.

Pantellarians wearing body armor and carrying mob guns — impellers whose short barrel fired clusters of aerofoils which spread widely when they left the muzzle — stood outside the open hatch just up the corridor. Two guards turned to cover Daniel and his companions, while the third kept his weapon aimed toward the bow.

If the Autocrator is really concerned for her safety . . . , Daniel thought, she had better consider how aerofoils would ricochet from steel bulkheads. He gave the guards an engaging smile.

A man in black Cinnabar formalwear with a white ruff stepped out of the compartment, followed by a young woman with a briefcase; she wore a beige suit with maroon piping, the dress uniform of members of the External Service. She and her superior strode silently past Daniel and disappeared into a down companionway. The man — Governor Wenzel, by deduction — nodded warily to Daniel’s uniform.

The woman who followed the Cinnabar officials into the corridor wore a tiara. Golden robes concealed her body, but there was no fat in her cheeks or hands.

“You’re Captain Leary?” she said. “Come into my suite. I want to talk to you.”

The commo unit hadn’t misled Daniel about her voice, though in person the Autocrator had a resonance that commanded respect. He said, “Yes, I’m Daniel Leary, your Excellency. May I introduce my friends, Lady Posthuma Belisande of Zenobia and Fregattenkapitan Otto von Gleuck of the Alliance Fleet?”

“A Zenobian?” Irene said on a rising note. “And you –”

Her eyes searched for Commander Bailey. He had stepped behind the visitors as soon as Daniel made his announcement.

“– have brought a Fleet officer here?”

“Your pardon, Leary,” von Gleuck said politely. He fluffed the sleeve of his ‘Zenobian’ blouse and added, “Aboard this vessel, your Excellency, I am the Honorable Otto von Gleuck, second son of Count Johann. We on Adlersbild continue the custom of hereditary nobility, foolish though it may seem to you sturdy republicans of Cinnabar.”

“I recall my father, Speaker Leary, commenting on that very thing,” said Daniel, grinning at von Gleuck.