WHEN THE TIDE RISES — snippet 12

 

WHEN THE TIDE RISES – snippet 12:

 

 

CHAPTER 5: En route to Diamondia

 

            Daniel went over his astrogational data one more time, comparing them with Vesey's solution, the computer's own solution, and–just for good measure–with the solutions offered by the two midshipmen. All were in close agreement, putting the Princess Cecile between forty-five and eighty light minutes out from Diamondia.

            Cory's solution was extremely similar to that of the computer. Well, there were worse things than trusting a machine when you realized that you'd blown your own computation.

            "Signals," he said, glancing toward Adele as he spoke. "Is the message to Diamondia Control ready to go as soon as we drop into normal space, over?"

            Adele didn't look up from her display, but he realized with a start–this was Adele, after all–that she was viewing his image coldly. "Yes, Captain Leary," she said, "it's ready to go. And I also put clothes on before I left my cabin this morning."

            Daniel grinned ruefully. She'd forgotten to say, "Out," but communications protocol had never been her strength. "Thank you, Signals," he said. "Break. Ship, prepare to extract from the Matrix in thirty, that is three-oh, seconds from mark."

            He pressed the virtual Execute button with three fingers together. The charge on the starship's hull began to shift; Daniel's skin quivered in sympathy. The hairs on the back of both his forearms stood up, then flattened again. For a moment he felt a rushing sound.

            Practical interstellar travel was possible because of varying physical constants among the bubble universes within the overarching Matrix of the cosmos. By slipping from the sidereal universe to others with different realities of space and time, a ship could adjust its position so that when it extracted again from the Matrix it was tens of thousands of light-years from the place where it entered.

            The process had costs. Insertion and extraction strained a ship's fabric and often strained the minds of those aboard. Other universes weren't meant for man or even for life. All spacers had stories of things they'd seen or felt during a transit. Many scientists dismissed the stories, but not the ones who'd themselves spent time in the Matrix.

            There were costs to everything, however. Most spacers had chosen this life, though that didn't mean they preferred service on an RCN warship to the higher wages and reduced danger of a merchant vessel. Even those who'd been pressed, however, would grant there'd be no safety for the merchant fleet unless the RCN was there to protect it.

            As for Daniel Oliver Leary–he'd joined the RCN in a fury, to spite his father. But regardless of the reason for what he'd done, it was the best decision he'd ever made in his life.

            The Princess Cecile extracted from the Matrix. Nothing actually moved, but objects looked sharper and more textured. When a ship left sidereal space, Daniel felt that it became a manifold of possibilities which didn't register perfectly as they overlay one another.

            His console brightened into a chart of the four light-hours volume surrounding the corvette. Carets indicated the sun Jewel and its inner planets including Diamondia.

            The console bleeped softly. A legend in green light announced Message Sent.

            "Daniel," said Adele. She was using a two-way link and apparently not in her own mind discussing RCN business, so she ignored formality. "The message will take sixty-two minutes to reach Diamondia; their response will take at least as long to reach us. May I go out on the hull?"

            "Ah…," said Daniel. "Why yes, of course, if you want to. Ah, would you like a companion?"

            He couldn't go out himself at the moment, but perhaps Vesey? Adele wouldn't certainly drift off if she went out without a keeper, but there was a bloody good chance of that happening. What in heaven was she thinking of?

            "I'll take an escort, yes," she said. In a slightly different timbre–she'd switched to the command channel common to all officers–she continued, "Mister Cory, I'd appreciate it if you'd suit up and accompany me onto the hull. Ah, out."

            Cory started at his console and turned with a startled expression. He looked first at Adele, then met Daniel's eyes.

            Daniel nodded minusculy. "Mister Cory," he said, "you're at the signal officer's disposal until I tell you otherwise. Six out."

            Adele and the midshipman stepped to the rotunda outside the bridge hatch to don suits before exiting through the airlock onto the dorsal hull. Daniel rotated his console toward the bow so that his face wouldn't be visible; he knew that a variety of emotions were playing across it.

            The only reason for anybody but a rigger or an astrogator to go onto the hull was to discuss something in a privacy that the strait hull of a corvette didn't permit. What does Adele have to discuss with Cory?

***

            RCN midshipmen were expected to scramble up and down the antennas and to traverse the yards with the same swift certainty as enlisted riggers. Because they were young enough to think about adventure instead of danger, they generally took to the business.

            Cory certainly had. He was quickly into his hard suit, then helped Adele don her much lighter, simpler airsuit. Daniel and Woetjans had once pieced together a hard suit which fitted Adele as well as could be done. They'd thought that the rigid panels and reinforced joints would be safer for her than the flimsier suits which hull-side crewmen wore when they had to go out in vacuum.

            It hadn't worked. Adele had bruised and scraped herself on the inside of the suit, and its stiffness made her even more awkward than she usually was. Because it was probably more dangerous and certainly less comfortable than an airsuit, she'd refused to wear it again. She wasn't afraid to die, but she found nothing romantic in aches and pains.

            Cory locked down her faceplate, then placed a hand on her shoulder to guide her into the airlock. While hydraulic rams drew the hatch closed, he clipped a safety line to the staple on her chest stiffener; the other end was already attached to his equipment belt.

            It embarrassed Adele to be treated like a child, particularly by Cory who wasn't notably competent by RCN standards. On the other hand, she was as helpless as a child; Cory was certainly more competent than she.

            The pumps in the floor whirred, voiding the lock. The light flattened with the reduced number of air molecules to scatter it. In an emergency the outer hatch could be opened as soon as the inner hatch locked shut, but air was at a premium on a spaceship. The crew could always electrolyze reaction mass to free oxygen, but nitrogen migrated through the hull itself and was much harder to replace.

            The telltale on the outer hatch went green. Cory looked at Adele, waiting for direction. She gave a curt nod; they could talk here in the lock, but there was enough traffic to and from the hull that they'd be in the way.

            The hatch cycled open with a spill of tiny crystals frozen from remaining wisps of air; starlight caught them as they danced away. Adele led onto the outer hull, shuffling her magnetized boots in a fashion that marked her instantly as a landsman. Well, better that than to drift into vacuum and have Cory tug her back like a puppy on a leash.

            Once they were out of the way, there was no need to go far. The dorsal antenna nearest the bow was only a few steps–well, shuffles–away. Adele set her back to it and waited while Cory transferred her safety line to the turnbuckle of a shroud.

            The scene was of no particular interest to her. Stars were bright points on a background that was a negation of existence rather than a color. Adele wondered whether Jewel was visible from this angle–a light hour shrank a normal sized star into the galactic background–but then regretted the question. She'd reflexively reached for her data unit–which of course was unavailable beneath the airsuit.

            Adele smiled ruefully. She suddenly felt completely alone, cut off from the information that was her life… but she was on the hull by her own choice.

            Cory leaned his helmet into contact with hers. "Mistress?" he said. "You wanted something?"

            "Yes, Midshipman," Adele said, looking out toward stars glinting like the points of colored needles. "Why did you sell imagery from the Princess Cecile's files to the producer of The Conquest of Dunbar's World? A Master Evrian Stanlas, though you may have worked through intermediaries."

            Cory jerked upright, snatching his helmet away from hers. He wasn't deliberately breaking contact; he was simply stiffening in shock.

            While a vessel was in the Matrix, the electrical potential of its sails controlled its course. The balances were so precise that any extraneous charge, no matter how minute, would throw the vessel unpredictably into the void.

            A starship's rigging was set and lowered by hydraulic rather than electrical motors. Riggers communicated by hand signals and took orders from the bridge through hydromechanical semaphores; a radio signal, even from a half-watt intercom, might send a ship into uncharted nothingness forever.

            The only reason to avoid radios in sidereal space was that you might then use one by accident in the Matrix. That was reason enough: spacers faced enough risks without adding an avoidable one. RCN suits were only fitted with radios by the agreement of both the captain and the signal officer.

            An unintended good result of this was that conversations on the hull required direct contact between the helmets of the two people speaking. They couldn't possibly be overheard.

            Cory bent to touch her again. "How did you learn that?" he said. Even vibrating through his helmet and hers, she could hear the fear and anger.

            The answer was that Adele had examined the bank records of everyone connected with the production until she found sums of money–about thirty-seven thousand florins; she had no idea how the figure'd been arrived at–being transferred to a familiar name. Cory wasn't who she'd expected to find, but she'd never been a person to let preconceptions overrule facts.

            "Answer the question, Midshipman!" she said harshly.

            The software that permitted Adele to enter bank records–and to transfer money, if she'd chosen to do so; which of course she did not–was part of the package with which Mistress Sand had equipped her. She didn't care whether an observer would agree that she was using the tools properly: she was Mundy of Chatsworth, and if others' perceptions conflicted with her own sense of right, so much the worse for the others.

            "Yes, mistress," whispered Cory. Adele had to know what the words must be to recognize them. "Mistress, I thought you and Captain Leary should get credit for what you did. I knew that with the new Chief of the Navy Board, well, nothing good would come from that direction. So I found a producer who made that sort of documentary and then I went into the logs."

            His helmet shifted away from hers, then clicked back. Adele smiled faintly; Cory must've turned to face her, forgetting that they could either see one another or speak–unless they wanted to be nose to nose. She certainly didn't want that.

            "It wasn't hard, really," he said. "They wanted to bring something out right away while the story was still hot in the news, and this let them show the real thing. Well, it could've done. It did, sort of."

            That's one way to describe the "documentary," Adele thought, but she supposed that judging by the standards of the entertainment industry, it was unusually accurate.

            Which led to the next question. "So, you gave Stanlas the material free to help me and Captain Leary?" she said mildly.

            "Oh, goodness, mistress, no!" Cory said unexpectedly. "They paid for it and paid well–I charged them ten florins a minute for what I transferred!"

            Adele heard a rasp as the boy cleared his throat. "Look, mistress, I know you think… well, people think and maybe they're right, that I'm not very sharp. But my father's the biggest paving contractor on Florentine and I know how to negotiate a contract."

            Before Adele could follow up on that, Cory went on, "Hoskins and Bladel were killed on Mandelfarne Island, you remember? And Dorsey lost a foot and can't walk any more. They gave her a mechanical one but it doesn't work. So I split the money between Dorsey and the two families. That seemed right."

            Yes, it certainly does, Adele thought. Aloud she said, "There were others injured in the attack. I believe you were yourself, Cory?"

            "Well, sort of but that doesn't matter," he said earnestly. "I mean, mistress, that's just the job, isn't it? We're RCN, nobody minds about a few scrapes. But dead–and that happens too, sure, but since I had the money. And Dorsey was different, she's on crutches now, I guess till she dies. It wouldn't help having a wheelchair and her living up on the fourth floor where it's cheap."

            Neither of them spoke for a moment. Cory cleared his throat again and said, "Ah, mistress? I didn't ask Six because, you know, he might not agree. Or you, because, well, I was afraid to. I never thought you'd learn, mistress. I should've asked."

            But you didn't, because I'm Mistress Mundy, who's killed more people than you can count, Adele thought. And you weren't sure how angry I might get if you told me what you planned.

            "All right, Cory," she said. "I don't suppose there's any reason for Captain Leary to learn what happened. But you must never do that again, do you understand?"

            "Yes, mistress!" Cory said in relief. "Mistress, I swear I won't!"

            The dorsal semaphore had six arms. They all suddenly stuck out from the post at equal intervals. Cory gasped and pointed, then touched helmets again.

            "Mistress!" he said. "That's an emergency recall. What do you think Six wants us for?"

            "I think we'll go in and learn," said Adele. She shuffled toward the airlock, but Cory held her by the shoulder for a moment to unclip her safety line from the antenna.

            Like a baby, she thought. But that's all right. I have a family to take care of me.

 

About Eric Flint

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