WHEN THE TIDE RISES – snippet 6:
It occurred to Daniel, walking back to find a seat with the numbered chit in his hand, that the waiting room of the Navy Office was very like a cathedral. He grinned, a familiar expression on his broad features. There were probably more prayers–and certainly more sincere ones–offered here than in any religious edifice on Cinnabar.
Even the hall's front five benches weren't crowded, and the twenty or so beyond held only a scattering of suppliants. Most of those waiting were lieutenants, but there were some passed midshipmen hoping their first assignment. On the other end of the continuum, several superannuated captains sat in stiff dignity with all the decorations they could claim, hoping the Republic's need would bring them out of forced retirement.
All were well dressed. This morning Daniel had donned his best 2nd Class uniform, his Grays, but a good number of senior officers and those with private incomes were in Dress Whites.
As Daniel prepared to sit some ten rows back, he noticed a familiar face across the aisle. "Why, hello, Christopher," he said in a low voice, stepping toward the thin lieutenant seated there. "Haven't seen you since the Academy."
Christopher Cha continued to sit stiffly, gripping his chit between the thumbs and forefingers of both hands. Instead of looking up when Daniel spoke his name, he turned his face the other way as if he were searching for something further down the empty row.
I didn't go home with his girlfriend after a party, did I? Daniel wondered. He certainly didn't remember doing so, but there were some nights during graduation week that were at best hazy.
"Leary!" said a lieutenant commander in the fourth row. He was making an effort to mute his voice, but the resulting husky whisper could be heard for a dozen places in every direction. "Come tell me about the hero's life, bold fellow!"
Daniel went back and slid past the slanted knees of four strangers, all lieutenants, to get to Scott Morgan. They'd been classmates at the Academy. Morgan had run with a faster crowd than Daniel, estranged from his father, could afford to follow, but they'd gotten on well enough during such contact as they'd had.
"Pretty, eh?" said Morgan, tapping the pip-in-a-circle on the epaulette of his Dress Whites. As Daniel slid onto the backless bench beside him, Morgan touched the solid rectangle of a full commander on the collar tab of his Grays and went on, "Of course, they're not nearly as pretty as these, Danny-my-boy. Congratulations, and further congratulations for still being alive. I'd say the rank is pretty much a given if you do the sorts of things you've done and manage to survive."
"I think you're overstating things, Scott," Daniel said, "but I appreciate your congratulations."
Without being really conscious of what he was doing, he glanced back at Lieutenant Cha. Morgan caught his expression and laughed. "Little Chrissie is afraid that if the Chief learns that he knows you, it'll hurt his chances of an appointment. As if Admiral Vocaine cares two pins about him! If we'd given a class award to the Least Likely to be Promoted, it'd've been engraved Christopher Cha!"
"You think that's it, Morgan?" Daniel said. He smiled, but it was a little lopsided. He'd always gotten on well with others, and it disturbed him to think that people he'd known for the best part of a decade would shun him because of his difficulties wiht the Chief of the Navy Board.
"Of course that's it!" Morgan said. "But I have to correct you on one point, laddy: I'm not Morgan, I'm Fanshawe–as in the son and heir of Senator Fanshawe. My uncle, that's the one with the money in the family, adopted me last month."
He grinned widely and added, "I'd still sit with you, Danny; you're good company and no bloody admiral is going to tell me who my friends are. But under the circumstances, I don't care whether the Republic chooses to keep me on half pay."
"Ah!" said Daniel. "Then hearty congratulations to you too, Fanshawe!"
He'd always believed that Morgan' birth parents had quite enough money as it was, but no doubt there were as many gradations at the higher levels of these things as there were with poverty. Corder Leary would probably understand better than his son did.
A green light blinked on the desk of the functionary who guarded the gate between the benches and the clerks beyond the railing. He glared at the screen before him, then called, "Number twenty-two!" in a stentorian voice.
A lieutenant of forty rose so abruptly that she almost overbalanced and fell backward over the bench. Her 2nd Class uniform was clean but nearly threadbare. She bustled to the gate, her face in a rictus of mingled hope and terror.
It would've been possible–and a great deal more practical–to've left the whole process to technology. Officers between assignments could've been paged electronically to report to a given office at a given time. For that matter, their orders could've been delivered without human involvement. Not only would the process be more efficient, it would avoid awkwardness and embarrassment for those waiting day after day in the echoing hall.
Daniel doubted there was an officer in the RCN who would've preferred that cold, impersonal world. Certainly he wouldn't have.
He looked again at his chit: the numerals 414 were inlaid in black on the ivroid. Or was it…?
"Why, look at this, Morgan!" Daniel said, too excited to remember his friend's current name. "This is one of the originals, I'm sure of it! It's not a synthetic at all, it's cut from a moonfish eye."
"Sorry, I don't follow you, laddy," Fanshawe said. "Is it valuable, do you mean? There's a plum assignment waiting for you if you draw this chip?"
"Well, not that," Daniel said. It'd be easy to mistake Morgan, now Fanshawe, for a buffoon. He'd never been that: his scores at the Academy ranged from good to remarkably good, and he'd come as close as anyone in their class to matching Daniel Leary in astrogation. "Though it's a prize in its own right. Only the original run of chits were cut from the natural substance. They date from when Navy House was opened a century and a half ago! And the moonfish has been extinct for, well, for very nearly that long."
He pursed his lips. "I wonder how many of the originals remain in use?"
"For now, my lad," said Fanshawe, "I suggest you forget about natural history and hand the thing back to Cerberus at the bar, there. He's just called your number."
"Thanks, Fanshawe," Daniel said as he rose and slid past the lieutenants again. "Thank you indeed."
The thanks were for much more than telling Daniel that he'd been paged. Wealthy connections had doubtless created an interest furthering Fanshawe's promotion, but the RCN would be fortunate if all its lieutenant commanders were his equal.
The attendant at the gate examined Daniel's chit with sour thoroughness, as if he thought it might be a counterfeit. The clerical staff of Navy House were not members of the RCN and tended to view themselves as superior to the serving officers who came to them as suppliants. Daniel understood the mechanism–his study of lower animals as a hobby had given him more than a few insights into human society as well–but it didn't make him like it any better.
The attendant replaced the chit in the hopper from which it would be dispensed to future generations of waiting officers, perhaps over another hundred and fifty years. "Office 12B," he said, swinging the gate open with his right hand.
"Pardon?" said Daniel. He'd been expecting to be sent to the desk of one of the clerks on the other side of the bar, but "office" meant–
"Through the door and ask the guard for directions," said the attendant peevishly. For the first time in the process, he looked up at Daniel's face. "Or have him guide you, if you don't think you can find your way to the second floor!"
"Ah," said Daniel. He reached into his pocket–an advantage of Grays over Dress Whites was that they had pockets–and dropped a florin on the attendant's desk. The coin rang clearly. "Thank you, my good man."
The attendant was still spluttering in amazed fury when Daniel reached the door at the back of the hall. He heard snorts of laughter from officers in the waiting area, and he himself was smiling.
There were two guards, RCN warrant officers whose lack of collar insignia meant they were from the provost marshal's division. They could probably handle themselves if push came to shove, but neither they nor anybody else expected trouble. When they retired in a few years, the white enamel on their sheathed batons would still be unmarked.
"I've been directed to 12B, Sauter," Daniel said, taking the name from the tag over the taller guard's breast pocket. He gestured toward the steps at the end of the corridor. The runner of blue carpeting was worn to the weft in the center of each tread, but the brass rods holding it in place were brightly polished. "Upstairs, I believe?"
"And to the right, Commander," Sauter agreed, "about midway down. That'll be the Liaison Office with Captain Britten."
Daniel pursed his lips as he dredged out a memory. "Britten," he repeated. "Was he perhaps in the Ten Star Cluster a few years ago?"
Sauter frowned. "The very man," said Leckie, his partner. "But promoted since then, I believe."
Daniel climbed the stairs two at a time. He wasn't in a particular hurry, but he was used to going up that way. Taking the treads normally would feel as awkward as mincing down the hallway instead of taking full strides.
The doors along the right-hand corridor were closed, though a clerk–an RCN rating, not a civilian–carried a file folder out of one as Daniel reached 12B. She seemed to look through him as she strode past in the direction he'd come from.
He knocked on the frame beside the panel of frosted glass. "Come in, dammit!" boomed a voice. Daniel swallowed his smile as he obeyed. Yes, this was the same officer whom he'd met on Todos Santos, all right.