What Distant Deeps — Snippet 54

CHAPTER 19: The Matrix, between Zenobia and Palmyra

Daniel lived with enthusiasm and liked most of what life had brought him. What he felt on the hull of a ship in the Matrix was on an even higher plane than sex or a perfect piece of ship handling, however. It was —

Well, Daniel believed in the gods — of course. One just did; and the fact that he was pretty sure that Adele did not — it wasn’t a matter they discussed, of course — was more disturbing to him than if she occasionally turned green and grew horns. He wasn’t what anyone would call a religious man, however, and he shared the normal RCN disquiet about the occasional captain who really was a temple-haunting zealot.

But when he stood here on the hull, watching the infinity of separate universes dusted across his field of view, he truly felt that there were gods. And in the back of his mind was a thought that he had never spoken: that any human who saw and felt what Daniel Leary did in this moment was a god.

But that wasn’t accomplishing the mission nor train Cory either one. We can hold a prayer service later, he thought with a rueful grin, though he half suspected that the lieutenant would join him if he suggested it.

Daniel put the communications rod to the waiting Cory’s helmet and pointed with his left arm. “Follow the line R386, R377, P915. Got that?”

Cory lifted his own left arm; he had reached around his helmet to hold the rod with his right hand, allowing him to mimic Daniel’s gesture. After a moment that proved he wasn’t just chattering, he said, “Yes, I have it.”

“Now, do you see the distortion across the first two?”

The bubble universes which Daniel had described by their four terminal digits were blotches of yellow-green in a fainter wash of the same color. An Academy scientist had told Daniel that the colors and relative brightness were artifacts of the viewer’s mind; they were tricks his consciousness played on itself to impose order on what was really chaos.

And perhaps that was true, but Uncle Stacey had taught his nephew to see those variations, and Daniel in turn had taught others. Not, he had to admit, all others: apparently to Adele, “glowing chaos” was a sufficient description of what she saw from the hull.

But what Daniel saw was real enough to refine his astrogation beyond what was possible for those who had only the Academy’s training. And in the present instance, it had permitted him to find the track of what he hoped was the Palmyrene convoy.

“Yes, sir,” said Cory. “I do.”

“The disruption is someone moving through the Matrix,” Daniel said, “and on the same course as we are.”

He lowered his arm, but it was a moment before Cory mirrored the movement. He was desperately eager to succeed. The thing that amazed Daniel was that Cory was succeeding, to a degree that very few astrogators could equal.

“Being on the correct course doesn’t prove that they’re the convoy we’re looking for,” Daniel said, “but it isn’t unlikely. There’s very little direct traffic between Palmyra and Zenobia.”

They stood just astern of one of the hydro-mechanical semaphores by which the bridge transmitted orders to the hull when the ship was in the Matrix. Now the six arms clacked upright in an attention signal; then four vanished in line with the support pillar and the remaining two flared to starboard, informing the rigging crew of the new sail plan.

A moment later the port and starboard antennas shook out their topgallants in a coordinated shudder. When Daniel was seven, Uncle Stacey had shown him the Matrix for the first time, from the hull of a freighter being rerigged by Bergen and Associates.

Uncle Stacey could tell what the masts and yards were doing simply from the vibration through the soles of his magnetic boots. That had seemed like magic to the young Daniel . . . and maybe it was. But it was second nature to him as well by now.

“Now, what I think . . . ,” Daniel said. “Is that the track is too diffuse to be that of a single ship. But I can’t swear to that. I may be inventing the, the blurriness, because that’s what I want it to be.”

A Palmyrene cutter captain would know for sure, he thought. The Palmyrenes might be barbarians — blazes, they were barbarians! — but they were spacers also, like none in Daniel’s previous acquaintance.

“Yessir,” said Cory, though if Daniel read his tone correctly through the vibrating brass rod, the lieutenant wasn’t really agreeing. “But sir? I don’t think you’re wrong.”

Daniel frowned, though his companion couldn’t see the expression since they stood side by side. He expected a great deal from his officers — but he didn’t expect flattery, and he wouldn’t have it.

“Sir,” Cory continued, “My dad paves roads. It’s what he’s done all his life.”

“I’d been told that, yes,” said Daniel guardedly. According to Adele, Cory’s father was the largest paving contractor on Florentine. That made the boy’s decision to join the RCN rather than, say, getting a suite in Xenos and chasing women, to be both puzzling and honorable.

“Dad can look at a stretch of concrete once it’s had a little while to wear and tell you to a cupful how much cement was in the batch.”

Daniel was still frowning. He pursed his lips, then said, “All right, I accept your word on that.”

“And that’s you out here in the Matrix, sir,” Cory said earnestly. “I’ve watched you, believe me I have, ever since I was assigned to the Hermes when you were First Lieutenant. And I’ve never known you to be wrong about the Matrix. Maybe you can’t say how you know, and maybe you don’t even know how yourself — but you do know. Sir.”

Daniel thought for a moment. At last he said, “Cory, I appreciate your confidence, but I think we’ll change the subject.”

He coughed and continued, “We won’t know for certain whether we’re on the convoy’s track until it drops into normal space and we can join it. Or them, whatever we’re following. It would be quite possible to make the run from Palmyra to Zenobia in one stage, but I don’t expect freighters that’re saving on the pay bill by sailing short-crewed to do that. Especially not in convoy. But –”

“Sir, the track stops in P915,” Cory interrupted, and a bloody good thing he had. “They’ve extracted into normal space.”

Daniel snapped, “Good man, Cory!” He thrust the communication rod back into its belt sheath, then he lifted the cover from the head of the semaphore pillar, exposing the keyboard. There had to be a way to send messages from the hull to the ship’s interior, but Daniel didn’t recall having seen the apparatus used more than a half dozen times in his RCN career.

Cory watched in awe as Daniel hammered the pad with his gauntleted fingers. The keys were stiff, as there couldn’t be any boost for the strokes for the same reason radios couldn’t be used on the hull: an electrical discharge would be trapped by the sails and induce oscillations from the intended course.

That didn’t matter. Daniel always pounded when he typed. The fascia plate onto which his console projected its virtual keyboard sounded like a drum set when he was inputting data.

Daniel closed the cover and started for the airlock, gesturing Cory to accompany him. With luck, Vesey would already have extracted the Sissie into sidereal space before he reached the bridge. Daniel usually found transition to be an unpleasant or occasionally very unpleasant process, but he didn’t think he would notice it this time.

He would be far too busy.