Death’s Bright Day – Snippet 14
“Ship, prepare for lift-off!” Vesey said.
“Ma’am,” Hale said. “Thank you. And thank you for getting me this opportunity to serve with Captain Leary.”
Vesey sphinctered the thruster apertures to minimum diameter. The mass flow was already at full, so the concentrated jets began to lift the corvette in a bubble of steam and free ions.
Adele settled onto her couch. Plasma thrusters didn’t crush people down, but the Sissie could exceed two gravities once it had overcome inertia. She was thinking about Hale’s words.
Adele had met Hale, an out of work midshipman, and had suggested to Cory that he tell his former classmate that Captain Leary was hiring crew to take a freighter to Corcyra. Hale had applied and signed on as a common spacer. She had been an asset for that voyage, and she was aboard the Princess Cecile now as a midshipman.
That had certainly been what Hale wanted, but Adele wasn’t sure it had been a favor to the young woman. Service on a warship was dangerous even in peacetime, and there was rarely peace where Daniel Leary took the Princess Cecile.
Everyone dies, Adele thought as the ship roared and trembled into the sky. Which means that we’re all racing on the way to our deaths.
The Matrix: between Cinnabar and Jardin
Daniel walked out on the hull of the Princess Cecile ahead of Miranda. He wore a rigging suit, armored against knife-edged fractures and hawsers worn into bristles of spearpoints; Miranda was in an air suit of tough fabric.
The Matrix, a panorama not of stars but of universes, flared above them. The Sissie was in a bubble universe of her own. The sails stretched on her four rings of antennas blocked Casimir energy and shoved her from one bubble to another. It was impossible to exceed the speed of light, but constants of velocity and distance varied among universes. By using those variations a starship could travel great distances in the sidereal universe, making a series of relatively short voyages in other universes.
Getting used to a stiffened hard suit required practice; until then the user was both uncomfortable and clumsy, which increased her danger. An air suit was safe for any regular use except running up and down the rigging to clear jams or to splice cables, and even for those tasks it was sufficient for anyone who was careful. A rigger in a crisis couldn’t be careful, not and do his job.
Daniel worried about Miranda, but — he grinned within his helmet — he was going to do that anyway. He didn’t hold Miranda directly, but he gripped the safety line which connected their suits. So long as one of Miranda’s magnetic sandals was planted on the steel hull, she should be fine; but it was her first experience outside a starship, let alone a starship in the Matrix.
The Sissie would continue on her present course for the next seventeen minutes, so the antennas and yards were motionless; there was no chance of a broken sheet whipping anyone off the hull. The riggers on duty — the starboard watch under Dasi — were at their scattered stations.
When hydro-mechanical equipment changed the area and aspect of the sails, the riggers watched to be sure that the result was what the semaphores indicated that the astrogational computer had intended. If a cable jammed or a gear didn’t rotate by the right number teeth or if any of a myriad of other possible things went wrong, the riggers corrected the problem with whatever tool was required.
Daniel stopped ahead of the Dorsal A Ring antenna on the Sissie’s bow. He waited until Miranda halted beside him, then took out the thirty-six inch brass communication rod which the tool shop of the Bantry Estate had manufactured to his specifications. He placed one end against Miranda’s helmet, then moved his own helmet against the other end and said, “This is all existence.”
He swept his free arm across the pulsing ambiance. The dense liquid filling the sealed rod vibrated to carry his words to Miranda without the awkwardness of touching helmets. An electrical impulse impinging on the sails, even a low-powered radio wave, could send a ship in the Matrix wildly off course. Riggers used hand signals — and experience — when a problem required coordination.
“These are every universe which has ever existed. This is the cosmos,” Daniel said. He took a deep breath and added, “This is paradise.”
He smiled, though Miranda couldn’t see his expression while he was facing forward. Perhaps she could hear the flush of contentment in his voice.
Miranda took her end of the rod to connect them firmly. “I can’t take it in,” she said. “I suppose that’s as it should be, since it’s well, everything. Each of those dots is a universe?”
The Matrix was a wash of pastels, the color of each bead varying according to its energy state relative to that of the universe in which the corvette was travelling at present. The astrogation computer of a starship could plot a practical course between any pair of points entered into it.
A really skilled astrogator, however, could shave hours or days off a course by studying the Matrix and choosing subtle gradations which better suited the ship’s purposes than the one-size-fits-all course which the computer provided. Daniel had been trained by his uncle, Commander Stacy Bergen, who had opened more routes than any other single explorer since the Hiatus in star travel had ended a millennium before.
Daniel had heard himself described as his uncle’s equal as an astrogator, which he knew was not true. He liked to think that Uncle Stacy wouldn’t be embarrassed by his nephew’s abilities, however.
“Daniel?” Miranda said. “You know you’re famous. Do you think about that?”
Daniel felt his stomach tighten. Does she know what I’ve been thinking?
But of course she didn’t, and anyway she hadn’t asked whether he was proud of his skills. She’d asked how famous he wanted to be.
“I don’t think about fame at all,” he said. “Well, that’s not really true — I’m human, I like to be praised, I like to be able to get seats when we go out no matter where we go. But I’ve never done anything because I thought, ‘People will praise me for this.’ Never. I’ve done things because I thought they were the right things to do.”
Or maybe because they were in front of me and I thought I’d try them. Much the way I used to pick up women at parties… Daniel didn’t say that, though it wouldn’t have surprised Miranda to hear.
He turned his head so that he was looking out his right sidelight toward Miranda. Hardsuit helmets were fixed to the torso piece and did not rotate with the wearer’s neck.
“Love,” Daniel said, “it’s like money. I like it and I like to spend it; but I spent money when I didn’t have it, so nothing much has changed there. As for power, I never wanted any except the power to run my own life.”
He grinned again, broadly. “I actually have less of that now than I did when I was a cadet,” he said. “There’s thousands of people that want a piece of me; at the Academy I only had to worry about my instructors and the cadre.”
The void before them was gradually turning green though the shade was barely bright enough to be called a color. The Princess Cecile would shortly transition into another universe. Since there was only a slight energy gradient, even a complete newbie like Miranda would be safe on the hull. Daniel intended to get her inside nonetheless.
“What about friends?” Miranda asked.
Daniel had been about to suggest they return to the forward airlock, but the question stopped him. “I…” he said. “Miranda, yes of course friends matter, more than anything else, I guess.”
He wasn’t sure that was true: a lot of things mattered to him, duty and Cinnabar and Miranda and the Leary name and a score of other things that were now fluttering around in his mind. But certainly friends.
“Having, well, being famous,” he said, “hasn’t brought me more friends, not real ones. It doesn’t work that way, you know that. The only real peer I have now is Adele. She doesn’t care what I’ve done for her or what I might do for her. None of the things that other people look at matter to her.”
“But at the reception…?” Miranda said.
The yellow-green ambiance was becoming more saturated, though it was still so faint as to be almost subliminal. Daniel shrugged mentally and said, “Vondrian and Ames and Pennyroyal, you mean? We knew each other at the Academy and knocked around together afterwards whenever we were all in Xenos — sitting in Navy House waiting for an assignment, often enough. We didn’t really spend a lot of time together.”
He felt a tingling as the corvette neared the boundary layer. “There in the kitchen,” Daniel said, “when we tied one on…that’s the closest I’ve come to carefree friendship since I was promoted. It’s not exactly that we were carefree at the Academy. We worried about grades and promotion and money, all that sort of thing. But we were mates, and getting drunk with mates is…there’s no strings on it. And it’ll never be that way except maybe once in a while, like at the reception.”
“Let’s go inside,” Miranda said, her voice very soft. She released her end of the commo rod and hugged him carefully.
Daniel led the way back to the hatch. The Sissie was already pulsing as they began the transition, but they would be inside before real discontinuity.
He closed the airlock behind them. Air pressure began to build, but before the light indicated it was safe to open the inner lock he leaned his helmet against Miranda’s. He said, “I keep thinking of Lord Anston, darling. An old man, frail and alone. But he was the greatest fighting captain the RCN ever had, in his day.”
“You won’t go that way, Daniel,” Miranda said. “You won’t be a lonely old man.”
Then she said, “One way or the other, my love, you won’t be that.”