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Chapter Eleven: Lunch with an Empress

Hal walked through the bridge, doing a doubletake as she thought she saw her first officer exiting through the adjunct bay just as she reached the command dais in the center. Dave was supposed to be on his honeymoon, not checking up on ops, especially when Lieutenant Commander Kwion was on duty. Third in command of the station, Lieutenant Commander Ko Kwion was perfectly capable of handling anything that came up.

He was also capable of covering for the first officer, one of his closest friends, when necessary. Hal decided not to test him. She had other ways of finding out what Dave was up to, but she also had many more important things on her agenda.

“You look lovely today, sir,” Ko said, turning in the command chair, but not standing. He ran his gaze from her shoes up to her hair, which she was wearing down. “A not-exactly official occasion, I take it?”

Hal was dressed for formality, but not for duty. It was one convenience the Ekumen had over military and government structures; there was a certain degree of flexibility in the uniform code, depending on the occasion. Her dress was black and gray, as was her uniform, but it was of a cut that suited her personal taste. Her rank insignia was prominent, making it clear that she was The Captain even when not on duty.

“Thank you, Commander Kwion. I’m lunching with an Empress today,” Hal said. Then she wrinkled her eyebrows. “Supposedly it’s a casual occasion, as if we were the best of friends, sitting down to cucumber sandwiches and gossip, but I believe there’s an official aspect to it as well. She just doesn’t want to admit it.”

“Which Empress?” Commander Kwion asked.

“We only have one now,” Hal answered, placing a hand on the back of the command chair. “Empress Weichselbraun stepped down a few months ago. Her son is Emperor of Vianesse now.” Hal glanced back to the adjunct bay, hearing the door open, but it was only one of the security officers with a young cadet he was mentoring. “I’m lunching with Empress Yui of the Daegukawa Empire.”

Kwion cracked a slight smile that Hal recognized as a prelude to sarcasm. “Sounds important.”

Hal allowed herself a slight grin. “Yes, well, the Daegukawa Empire may consist of fewer than a hundred people, but they also account for nine percent of the Chʼil Awoshí’s overall economy.” Hal removed her hand from the chair and stepped down from the dais. “If she wants to call herself an empress, she can call herself an empress.”

Satisfied that all was well with the station, Hal settled into the captain’s yacht and instructed her yeoman to take them around the Chʼil Awoshí so she could see the new disc. Istanzia was spinning now, although it wasn’t up to the rate it needed to match the rest of Discworld. It was also still far from the station, relatively speaking, even though it was scheduled to join up in only a few days.

There were many questions in her mind. Although the incident with the cube had been determined to be the act of two misguided and frustrated individuals, one of whom was now dead and the other incarcerated, there were a number of suspiciously strange things about the new module that warranted inspection. Lieutenant Yuanhui and Commander Nayazov were handling that. She needn’t worry about it until they reported to her.

“Do I understand correctly that I’m not docking at the Epsilon Bay? That’s closest to Agatea,” Yeoman Abels asked.

Hal stretched. “That is correct. Although Agatea is technically the home of the Daegukawa Empire, Empress Yui does not actually live there.” Hal caught one last glance at Istanzia before they continued to Discworld. “Her family has an estate in Ankh-Morpork. We can dock there.”

Ankh-Morpork was the largest and oldest module in Discworld, and its naming established the convention for all the others. There were two docking bays, each capable of handling a few dozen shuttles. Hal relaxed as her yeoman performed the complicated maneuver of entering a bay on the edge of a spinning disk.

Once they docked in a VIP space and connected with an airlock, Hal stretched her limbs one at a time. On the outermost edge of one of the largest discs, simulated gravity was much higher than Earth-standard. She hated it, but it was unavoidable. The Earth-gee level of Ankh-Morpork was deeper inside. The outermost, AKA the “lowest” levels were for shielding, utility, and, by necessity, docking. Although most of the traffic in and out of the disc went through the hub, there was still a significant amount that needed to use the docking bays.

“Much better!” Ajaana said when they exited the transit system into the main shopping district. Hal nodded agreement. The simulated gravity was much more comfortable at that level. 

Ankh-Morpork’s shopping district had been redesigned when Hal was in her twenties. She remembered the early version, which was very bland and utilitarian. The new design, although she realized it wouldn’t seem new to youngsters like Ajaana, was a series of staggered vaults in various sizes. Although it was definitely an interior space, not attempting to fool people that they were planet-side, the irregularity of the vaults lent a more natural feel to the place. There were even several fountains and waterfalls that were both aesthetically pleasing and provided humidity to the air. Such water features were unheard of when Hal was young, and even now they were only seen in affluent or high-traffic areas, but the technology of water-handling had brought Tumbleweed to the point where every drop no longer had to be accounted for.

They were received at the entrance to Empress Yui’s mansion by a butler who escorted Hal to an elaborate arboretum while Ajaana disappeared elsewhere. Whether her yeoman was simply waiting out with the empress’ staff over lunch, or whether she had turned into a ninja and was sneaking around the mansion, Hal didn’t know. The latter was far more interesting, although it would be hard to explain if Ajaana was caught.

Hal caught herself before she laughed out loud at the thought.

The empress’ arboretum was glorious. Small spaces opened out to larger spaces, all surrounded with a lush artwork of flowering greenery. Above, the multi-faceted ceiling glowed evenly, as if the sun shone outside on a hot summer day.

She heard voices, and wondered who might be joining them. The invitation had implied that it was simply a friendly luncheon between the two of them, but there was definitely another voice, a woman, conversing and laughing with the empress.

“Governor Odwalla, how nice to see you again!” Hal said, putting on an appropriate smile and breezing through the vine-covered archway leading to a circular patio with a small table and several chairs. There was an array of finger foods artfully displayed on the table, and both women had plates in front of them with half-eaten sandwiches and crumbs. They had started without her, although she was exactly on time. She wondered what they had discussed and why they had felt the need to do it without her.

 “Welcome, Haleola!” Empress Yui beamed, gesturing widely with her arm, but not standing up. Hal winced inwardly at the lack of title, but decided not to correct her. The two of them had met on numerous occasions over the last few years and, although she certainly didn’t consider the empress a personal friend, they were on a first name basis when in casual company.

The empress, the governor, and the captain didn’t strike Hal as being casual company. The empress definitely wanted something.

“We’ve just been discussing the new module that’s due to join up in a few days,” Yui said, her tone light and conversational. “Please, please, sit down and help yourself to some refreshment. We don’t stand on formality here.”

The empress might claim to eschew formality, but Hal knew better. This was a delicate situation. The Daegukawa Empire was a powerful entity. Most of that power lay in their financial reach, which involved hundreds of Earth Nations as well as most of the off-Earth governments in existence. Perhaps the empress was attempting to establish a casual, friendly relationship with her for the sake of harmony or future wants and needs. But the presence of the governor suggested there was something more immediate on her mind.

“Thank you,” Hal said, sitting down and putting a few tasty bits on her plate. More than a few of the selections were expensive items that had to be imported from Earth. Showing off was definitely an integral part of Yui’s style.

“That business with the pod that tried to ram the station was just terrible,” Yui said, her facial features perfectly composed to convey both seriousness and just the right amount of concern. “One of our largest solar collectors was damaged when the bomb went off in the cloud. We had to cut back our consumption for hours and hours.”

“I’m sorry you had to endure that,” Hal said, trying to sound sincere. Agatea probably just had to dim the lights and cut off a few luxury items for a few hours. That was such a minor inconvenience, although Hal was sure the empress didn’t see it that way. In Hal’s youth, the loss of a few solar collectors might mean that their energy was rationed for days, not hours. And rationing meant the loss of all but essential systems, not just the dimming of a few lights.

“Oh, it was cleared up quickly,” the empress said. “I am so pleased with the efficiency of your repair teams.”

It was a direct compliment. Hal suspected it was the kind intended to soften her up and put her in a generous state of mind. She wished Yui would simply get to the point, but apparently they would have to do a little dance first.

The empress led the conversation in a circle from tidbits of news from Earth, to the latest developments on Luna and Mars, back around to the diversity represented by the many factions that called Tumbleweed home.

“This new module does seem to have its quirks,” Odwalla said. “It’s almost as big as Ankh-Morpork.”

“But from what I’ve read in the public record, they seem like they intend to be very self-sufficient,” the empress replied. “One wonders why they are bothering to join up at all.”

Hal waved her hand in the air. “Oh, the usual reasons, I suppose. Emergency systems are more efficient when they’re shared. The same with utilities such as water. I expect they will also take advantage of the station’s entertainments and other services once they join up.”

“Speaking of water,” Yui said, taking a sip from a delicate teacup then placing it on the table, “I understand Discworld is going to do a separation check when Istanzia joins up? Is that really necessary?”

Hal considered the question carefully. So this is what the empress wanted to talk about… “Chʼil Awoshí regulations specify that every module must be capable of shutting itself from the station as a whole within eight minutes, and if necessary, separate within fifteen.” Hal took a sip, wondering whether one of the other women would take the opportunity to speak up. They didn’t. “Regulations also state that Ringworld, Discworld, and any other areas where multiple modules are closely connected be tested no less frequently than every eighteen months.” Hal looked at her lunch companions, keeping her face a mask of simple politeness. This was what the empress wanted to bring up. But why? Separating was inconvenient, but it was only a temporary one, like a fire drill. “It has been fourteen months since Discworld had a separation drill. The joining of a new module is the ideal time to do it.”

Odwalla leaned forward, resting the fingers of one hand lightly on the table, as if she was playing a piano. They weren’t far from Hal’s own fingers. Hal felt as if the governor might reach out and grasp her hand at any moment. She desperately hoped she wouldn’t; personal space was something she prized, and being touched by someone who was not an intimate friend was extremely uncomfortable. “Yui and I were talking about the separation. It would certainly save time and energy if the modules were separated in small groups or pairs. That would still serve the purpose of the drill, and be much less of an inconvenience.”

So that was it. A seemingly small favor, just a suggestion, really. But to have the governor condone the idea was…distasteful. Station drills were firmly in Hal’s sphere of control. Odwalla could shower her blessing on the idea, but it didn’t matter. It was Hal’s decision.

“That certainly would take less time,” Hal said, with fake cheerfulness. “However it defeats the purpose of ensuring that each module remains independent. I wouldn’t even consider skipping a module or two for the sake of mere convenience.” She took a sip then smiled confidently at her companions. “The separation will go on as planned.”

The cloud that passed over Yui’s face was barely noticeable; the empress covered it well. The governor took over the conversation, guiding it completely away from Tumbleweed by mentioning the latest news from the Mars colonies and Luna’s recent declaration of the unification of its cities.

Hal pretended she hadn’t noticed anything. Maybe the empress was simply attempting to establish herself as an important influence in station affairs. Maybe she honestly thought the idea of separating in small groups instead of every single module really was helpful, but Hal doubted it.

Maybe there was a real reason she didn’t want Agatea to separate from Discworld.


Chapter Twelve: Give and Take

Chapter Ten: The Open Door Policy