IN THE STORMY RED SKY – snippet 10:
CHAPTER 4: Xenos on Cinnabar
After the Battle of the Jewel System, Captain Stickel of the Lao-tze had invited Daniel to dinner at his club when they next were on Cinnabar together. Stickel was an able officer and far too senior to snub with impunity, so Daniel had sent in his card when the old battleship arrived on Xenos for refitting in Harbor Three.
Daniel had assumed “my club” meant Harbor House or the RCN Club; or just possibly the Land and Stars Institute, though that catered more to retired generals and admirals. In the event, Stickel’s invitation turned out to be to the Sunset, a club for Western landowners.
As they relaxed over brandy, Daniel looked around the dark-paneled dining room. The fourteen occupied tables were each lighted by a wick floating in a saucer of stone-shark oil, the traditional source of illumination in the huts of West Coast fisherman.
That hadn’t been true for hundreds of years, of course; the club must now have to render its own sharks to get the oil. That wasn’t sufficient reason to drop the tradition, of course, and no other expense had been spared over the delicious dinner, either.
“Looking for your father, Leary?” said Stickel, a big, craggy man. “He’s a member, but I haven’t seen him here but the once. I’m not a regular myself, of course, between the RCN and preferring to spend my time at Three Piers when I’m on Xenos.”
“No sir,” said Daniel. “Though I do see one of the Tausigs; their holdings are on the Bantry Peninsula with ours. I was looking at the fishing gear above the paneling.”
He gestured carefully with his snifter. “Back when I was ten, I put a pole gaff like that one into a sand sucker bigger than the boat I was in.”
“Did you indeed?” said Stickel with interest. “Land him?”
Daniel laughed. “Bloody hell, no!” he said. “Hogg–my man–clouted me over the ear and kicked the gaff away from the boat before the sucker connected us with what was happening in his right gill slit. He told me the next time I did something so daft, I’d go into the water and he’d keep the gaff.”
Stickel guffawed, then smothered further laughter in his napkin. The elderly gentleman at the next table glared, but no one else remarked on the outburst.
“Well, it really was stupid,” Daniel said ruefully. “Sucker sprats roasted on a bed of ocean cress are delicious, at least if you’re camping out, but an adult sucker, especially a big one, isn’t good for anything but fertilizer.”
Stickel took a sip of brandy; he eyed Daniel with the snifter still half raised. Another diner’s knife clicked against his plate in the general silence.
“You haven’t changed, though, Leary,” he said. “Have you? I hear you took a corvette close enough to an Alliance battleship to dock with her.”
Daniel grimaced. They hadn’t discussed the RCN during dinner. Stickel’s estate, Three Piers, was a hundred miles down the coast from Bantry. The similar culture allowed them to chat easily about home, which had appeared to be what the senior man wanted.
It now seemed that Stickel had waited for the brandy. Well, he was the host, so the subjects were his to choose.
“Let’s say that I’ve learned to choose my occasions better,” Daniel said. “There wasn’t a great deal of choice during that action in the Strymon System, not if our squadron was to survive. I knew our rig would absorb the first salvo, and….”
He paused, wondering if he should explain that Adele was decrypting Alliance signals and providing him with their gist. He decided he wouldn’t.
“And we were very lucky,” he concluded.
“I’m generally luckiest after I’ve done the most planning,” Stickel said, finishing his brandy and setting the goblet down. “I shouldn’t wonder if it didn’t work that way for you too, Leary.”
Daniel noticed to his surprise that his own snifter was empty also. Stickel was friendly, but there was always the risk of putting a foot wrong when talking with a senior officer you didn’t know very well.
“Yessir,” he said, “it’s generally that way. Off Strymon, though, there wasn’t time to do more than act and pray. We were bloody lucky.”
He grinned toward his hands on the bowl of the snifter. At least in a battle you knew that the other party was out to get you.
“I haven’t seen your Milton yet,” Stickel said. “The imagery makes her look something of a pig, though.”
Daniel set the snifter aside. “Ah, not at all, sir,” he said, making an effort not to sound as sharp as his first instinct was.
He cleared his throat into his balled fist, then resumed, “She won’t be as handy as the Princess Cecile–not as handy as a corvette, that is–but I think with her sparring and a full suit of sails we’ll be able to jump gradients that I wouldn’t have dared in the Sissie. We’ll learn on the run to Paton, but with the present crew I hope to better the normal time by quite a lot.”
Stickel grinned; Daniel realized the senior captain had been testing him. “We’ll have another brandy, Leary,” he said. “If you think your head’s up to it, of course.”
Daniel matched the other’s grin. “Hogg’s in the servants’ parlor, sir,” he said. “If he has to carry me to the tram, well, it won’t be the first time.”
The ball-shaped brandy bottle was on the table. As Stickel reached for it, however, a waiter with lapel flashes in the club colors, orange and burnt umber, appeared. He poured precisely, then vanished back into an alcove like a piece of statuary in formal attire.
“I’ve heard comments about your crew,” Stickel said. “Heard complaints, I should say. To hear other captains tell it, you’ve cherry-picked a crew from the best spacers on Cinnabar.”
“And beyond,” Daniel said with a full smile. He could afford to show pride in his crew; any captain would be proud. “I’ve got Pellegrinians, Bennarians, and some from the Gods alone know where. But sir, they picked me. I put out a call for volunteers, and they came. There wasn’t anything underhanded going on.”
Stickel looked for a moment as if he was on the verge of another guffaw, but instead he just chuckled. “I believe you, Leary,” he said. “But I think that’s what makes them angriest.”
His angular face fell back into serious lines. “As I say, you’ve no worries about your crew,” he resumed. “What about your officers, though?”
Daniel tilted his head toward the ceiling of textured glass panels thirty feet above. The night sky wasn’t bright enough to bring out the details of the central roundel in the stained glass. It seemed to be a landscape or more likely seascape, given the Sunset’s membership roll.
“The warrant officers are largely people who sailed with me in the Princess Cecile,” he said, avoiding the real point of the question while he mulled how to respond to it. “That means a considerable promotion for most of them, though my Chief of Ship, Pasternak, served on a heavy cruiser in the past. He took the lower base pay of a corvette because he hoped to lay away more for his retirement from prize money.”
“Which he did?” said Stickel.
“Which he most certainly did,” Daniel said, nodding in satisfaction. “I’ve warned him that there won’t be anything like the same opportunities in a cruiser, but he seems satisfied.”
“I should say he must be satisfied,” said Stickel. “A Chief Engineer would’ve made enough out of the Milton’s capture alone to retire to anything short of a palace, wouldn’t he?”
“I dare say you’re right, sir,” said Daniel. “I’ve been very lucky to have Mister Pasternak in the Power Room.”
He cleared his throat. “I have five midshipmen,” he went on. “Two I’ve sailed with in the past and am very satisfied with. Cory has already qualified for lieutenant; Cazelet, the other, comes from the merchant service but he’s shaping up very well.”
Cazelet came from the Alliance merchant service, which wasn’t precisely a bar to his appointment in the RCN but wasn’t something Daniel wanted to advertise either. He’d hedged a few facts in what he’d told the Personnel Bureau, just to avoid questions. If Adele trusted the boy, that was enough for him.
“Else, Fink, and Triplett, the other middies, are new to me,” he said, “but they come recommended by colleagues whom I trust. Fink was second in his class at the Academy, as a matter of fact.”
“Five midshipmen?” Stickel said. “The establishment’s eight for a heavy cruiser, isn’t it?”
Daniel turned up his palms. “I’m carrying three early entrants for friends of the RCN,” he explained. “Frankly, with a new ship to work up on the voyage, I’d rather limit the number of middies I have to train as well.”
Stickel nodded approvingly. “Very wise,” he said, “since you’ve got such solid warrant officers. As you say, you’re not likely to need many trained astrogators for prize crews on a jaunt like this.”