What Distant Deeps — Snippet 27

They were baiting the Autocrator. That certainly hadn’t been Daniel’s intention when he jumped to obey Admiral Mainwaring’s summons, but he knew instinctively that it was the correct response — at least when he had a partner like von Gleuck to support him.

If he didn’t make clear the position of Cinnabar relative to that of Palmyra, the Autocrator would begin ordering him around like a puppy. That would force him, as an RCN officer in the middle of an RCN base, to react. She might become angry at being treated with gentle amusement, but that was less dangerous in the long run to the relations among the powers of the Qaboosh Region.

The Autocrator’s chiseled features went pale. It occurred to Daniel that it would not be beyond possibility that the ruler of a world so far out on the fringes might order her guards to shoot them all dead. After long moments of silence she smiled coldly and said, “Come into my suite, then, all of you. It is well that you should have seen the Piri Reis for yourselves.”

She swept back through the hatchway. Daniel exchanged glances with von Gleuck, then led the way. The Alliance officer followed Posy.

Bailey seemed to have disappeared. Goodness knew what this would mean for the gunnery officer, but Daniel couldn’t find much sympathy for someone who knew what civilization was but preferred to sell himself to barbarians.

The interior of the large compartment surprised Daniel, though he supposed it shouldn’t have. Rugs covered the deck. Over them were piled cushions which must be fixed in place or acceleration and weightlessness would fling them about. The curved tables at two corners were low, and the very capable-looking console against the forward bulkhead was intended to be used by someone sitting cross-legged.

There were four male servants in uniforms like the Palmyrene spacers’ but with cloth-of-gold bands at wrists and ankles. The fifth man present was a burly fifty-year-old with a full beard. He wore robes similar to those of the Autocrator but in black silk; only the sash at his waist was gold.

“So, Polowitz,” she said. “The tall one is an Alliance officer come to spy on us.”

Von Gleuck stood very straight. “I assure you, Admiral Polowitz,” he said, “that I am not a spy but rather a naval officer like yourself. And –”

He turned and nodded toward Daniel.

“– like Captain Leary here. Your Excellency –”

Looking back toward the Autocrator.

“– if my presence disturbs you, I will of course take my leave.”

“Nothing the Alliance does disturbs me,” she said, “except its pretensions and its very existence. Isn’t that so, Captain Leary?”

“Quite the contrary, your Excellency,” Daniel said, smiling easily. “The Alliance, and particularly its Fleet, have often done things that disturbed me.”

He grinned at von Gleuck and added, “For example, an Alliance missile struck the ship I was commanding less than six months ago and left it a constructive loss. I was lucky to escape that with only a headache, but it was a very bad headache.”

“I heard reports of the Battle of Cacique,” von Gleuck said, “though I was not present. Fortunately I was not present, I may say. I believe that since our nations are now at peace, it is proper for me to congratulate you on your victory, Captain; even if it cost you your flagship.”

“I have heard you fancy yourself as an astrogator, Leary,” said Polowitz. Von Gleuck had been the first to mention the admiral’s rank, but it didn’t surprise Daniel that the Fleet officer had done his homework. “Perhaps you will come with me on one of our cutters and I will show you what real astrogation is.”

“I’ve heard remarkable things about Palmyrene abilities, sir,” said Daniel. He kept his lips smiling and his voice pleasant, but he felt his back stiffen despite willing himself to relax. Who cares was a barbarian thinks? “And having seen the external controls on the cutters in the basin when I arrived, it’s clear to me that the stories were not exaggerated.”

“What do you think of the Piri Reis, Lieutenant Commander?” the Autocrator said to von Gleuck, showing that she had been not only been listening but was able to convert Fleet ranks to their RCN equivalent. “Now that you’ve had an opportunity to view her.”

“She’s a trim ship and well found in all respects that I was able to see,” said von Gleuck, neatly finessing the subject of the antimatter converters. They appeared to be absorbing the efforts of both Power Room watches, save for spacers who had been on some other fatigue and exempted. Bailey hadn’t taken the visitors through the converter bay. “You and your officers –”

He nodded precisely to Polowitz.

“– must be rightly proud of her.”

The Autocrator gave von Gleuck a guarded expression, perhaps because she either thought he was mocking her or because she had expected some form of condemnation. Tsk! He’s a gentleman, not a barbarian who picks his teeth with a knife.

Instead of replying, however, she turned to Daniel and said, “And you, Captain? What is your view of our flagship?”

That I’d be happy to take her on with any light cruiser in the RCN, thought Daniel. Missiles and gunnery would decide a battle between heavy ships, and there the Palmyrenes didn’t have the experience an RCN crew would. Though I suspect she could give me points in dodging her way through the Matrix.

Aloud he said, “I’ve never seen a crew as tightly disciplined, your Excellency, or a ship as well maintained.”

He coughed. “Some cables that struck me as worn. But we’ll be loading rigging from the base stores here to replace some of ours, also. After we’ve delivered our passengers to Zenobia, that is.”

The Autocrator’s head snapped around. “Polowitz!” she said. “Is that true?”

“Your Excellency, cables of the length required for a cruiser’s rigging are not standard on Palmyra,” the Admiral said. He wasn’t pleading, but his voice had lost the bluster of moments before. “We have more on order –”

“It will be ready when we return home!” the Autocrator said. “Or there will be executions, you understand? Perhaps starting with the Admiral who failed to see to it that the cables were available when they were needed!”

“Yes, your Excellency,” Polowitz whispered.

The Autocrator’s eyes swiveled back to Daniel and von Gleuck. “Well then, Captain,” she said, her voice still trembling with fury. “You have criticized my cruiser, well and good. But —

Daniel would have protested, but he knew that would make the situation worse. The Piri Reis was perfectly safe to operate, and her rig was in better condition than that of almost any merchant vessel in Cinnabar registry. The RCN — or the Fleet — would by now have replaced some of the cables on vessels in frontline service, that was all he’d meant.

“– perhaps you will be good enough to show me your ship in turn?”

“Yes, of course, your Excellency,” Daniel said. “When would you like to visit the Princess Cecile?”

“Now!” said the Autocrator. “And these others –”

She nodded to von Gleuck and Posy.

“– can come too. If her brother will allow her, that is.”

“We on Zenobia are civilized, Irene,” Posy said with her nose lifted again. “Hergo does not direct my movements, nor I his.”

“Master von Gleuck,” Daniel said, standing formally straight, “Lady Belisande. Will you do me the honor of touring the Princess Cecile with the Autocrator and me?”

He broke into an honest smile. “I’m quite proud of her, you know,” he said.

Von Gleuck clasped Daniel’s hand. “The honor would be ours, sir,” he said. “And I hope in the future you will call me Otto. There need be no formality between two professionals, need there?”

They laughed together while Autocrator Irene watched in stony silence.