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What Distant Deeps: Chapter Seventeen

       Last updated: Wednesday, August 25, 2010 07:27 EDT



The Farm, Southeast of Calvary

    Tovera was slowing the aircar gradually in response to the commands from the ground, but her attempts to reduce altitude led to a series of bumps. Daniel felt as though he was riding a bicycle down a staircase.

    Gibbs glared across the cabin and said, “Blazes, Leary! You should have let me drive!”

    Daniel smiled mildly. “Oh, this isn’t so bad, Gibbs,” he said. “We’ve gotten here, after all.”

    If I’m ever tempted to take advice from a traitor, he thought, it won’t be advice to put my life and my associates’ lives in his hands. Daniel guessed that Gibbs was too great a coward to sacrifice himself while plunging his enemies into the ground, but there would be no benefit in taking that chance.

    “All right, you can land,” the controller from the Farm growled. “But keep right in the square between the barns or you’ll wish you had, over.”

    “Roger,” Tovera said, using a throat microphone linked to the aircar’s communications system. “I see the landing zone. I’m coming in now, over.”

    “The two apparent haystacks covered with black film at either end of the main house . . . ,” said Adele. The Resident’s limousine was so quiet that the passengers could talk comfortably without the need of intercom or shouting. “Are automatic impellers which are tracking us. The control station is in the cupola of the house.”

    Gibbs kneaded his fingers together and began to mutter under his breath. Adele looked at him and said, “Don’t worry, Gibbs: the guns can’t fire now, though I haven’t otherwise interfered with their operation. And they were doubtless aimed at you every time you visited here in the past. You did visit, didn’t you?”

    Gibbs nodded miserably, but he didn’t look up. His hands continued to writhe.

    Daniel looked through the windows with a cold expression. He was acting now, but the part — a disdainful RCN officer — wasn’t much of a stretch.

    The car slid over what looked like a rambling house with attached sheds on both wings, then down into a square formed by three high barns and the back of the house. Tovera landed, not hard but with too much throttle. The drive fans made the car hop its own length forward. Gibbs cursed.

    Tovera shut the fans off at the crest of the jump. This time the car did slam, but not as badly as it might’ve done.

    The dust Daniel had expected didn’t bloom up around them. Though the square looked like bare dirt, the surface had been plasticized into a hard mat.

    Daniel released his shock harness; Adele was sliding her data unit away. Sun and Tovera flung their doors open and stepped out. The gunner kept his left arm inside the cab, on the receiver of the impeller that he’d stuck upright between the separate front seats.

    A heavyset man in gray clothing and a floppy hat stalked to the aircar from the veranda of the house. The two men flanking him were also dressed as laborers, though with bandanas rather than straw hats; they carried mob guns openly.

    “Gibbs,” the leader said, bending to speak through the window, “what are you playing at?”

    He switched his glare across the cabin to Daniel; his ginger moustache fluttered. “And you, buddy!” he said. “Who the bloody hell are you?”

    Daniel got out of the car. Over the roof of the vehicle he said, “You’d be Colonel Nasrullah, I take it? As for what Gibbs is doing, he’s obeying the orders of his superior officer — me. And I’m Captain Daniel Leary, Admiral Mainwaring’s aide and commander of the troop convoy’s RCN escort. If there is a troop convoy. That’s what Admiral Mainwaring sent me and my staff to determine, don’t you know? Whether or not he allows the convoy to proceed.”

    “What?” said Nasrullah. He stepped back as though Daniel had spat in his face. “What do you mean, ‘if it proceeds?’ The convoy is proceeding!”

    “Only if you convince me,” Daniel said. Adele had slid across the cabin and gotten out on his side, but Gibbs remained in the car. “And I must say, all these threats and nonsense –”

    He gestured to the guards. One of them simply blinked stupidly, but the other quickly lifted the flaring muzzle of his weapon skyward.

    “– don’t impress me very positively. And impellers tracking us as we came in! That’s exactly the sort of thing the captains are worried about — and why they’re refusing to land.”

    “What?” said Nasrullah. “By Moses’ balls, man, we’ve got to take precautions, don’t we? Did you think we were going to let you just waltz in here as though we were running a tavern?”

    He broke off and waved his left arm at the limousine. “And where’s this car from?” he demanded. “How were we supposed to recognize it when we’ve never seen it before?”

    Daniel opened his mouth to reply, but the Palmyrene officer had just been taking a breath. “And what do you mean ‘the captains are worried?’ he said. “What captains, and who cares if they’re worried?”

    “Let’s get inside,” Daniel said curtly, gesturing toward the house. “It’s unlikely that anybody will notice, but there’s no reason to risk that a ship landing in Calvary Harbor will pick up imagery of RCN officers in uniform visiting what’s supposed to be a civilian agricultural establishment.”

    “That’s impossible!” said Nasrullah. “Is this a joke?”

    “If I thought it was worthwhile arguing with people from the Qaboosh Region,” Adele said in a thin, disdainful tone, “I would demonstrate that it’s quite possible. Perhaps not for a barbarian, of course.”

    “What?” Nasrullah said.

    “Come along, Colonel,” Daniel said, cupping his hand behind the Palmyrene’s elbow in friendly fashion and starting toward the house. The guards followed, continuing to look puzzled. “We’ll talk better inside.”

    For a moment Daniel had wondered if Adele had overplayed her part. Still, Nasrullah had to respect and fear them if this bluff was to work. By behaving as a Cinnabar aristocrat with enormous technical skills — which she was in fact — Adele would achieve that.

    If Nasrullah didn’t shoot them out of hand. Well, try to: the Colonel himself certainly wouldn’t survive the first exchange of shots.

    Half a dozen people, all men, waited within the building; their expressions ranged from cautious to worried. None appeared to be guards, but Daniel suspected they all — like Nasrullah himself — were military personnel.

    The central hall was open but unadorned, a place to gather but not to impress or entertain; the ceiling was normal height instead of encroaching into the second story. Sliding partitions closed off the wing to the left, but the right-hand side was open. Within was what seemed to be a command center, though the electronics appeared to have been pieced together from salvage.



    The bridges of their cutters are probably the same, Daniel reminded himself. It doesn’t prevent them from doing things in the Matrix that I couldn’t match.

    As the two groups took stock of one another, Daniel glanced at Nasrullah and said, “You mentioned the previous aircar, Colonel. It’s at the bottom of a swamp in the Green Ocean. You’re welcome to it if you want to dredge it out. And as for why Admiral Mainwaring sent me –”

    Daniel’s reversion to an unimportant earlier question had thrown Nasrullah off-stride as he intended it should. Nonetheless, the Colonel broke in with, “Your Admiral Mainwaring has nothing to do with this. The Autocrator has ordered it, and we take only her orders.”

    “Perhaps you do,” said Daniel, giving his surroundings a disdainful look, “but the ships on which your troops are travelling are Cinnabar registry, and their captains have their own opinions on what they’re willing to do. You knew that, didn’t you? That the ships are ours?”

    Nasrullah looked over his shoulder to his staff, his expression worried. The oldest man of the group, easily sixty and badly overweight, stood by the slid-back partition. He shrugged massively and said, “Well, sure, that’s right, Albay. They were the biggest ships in the region. For hell’s sake, it’d have taken a fleet of cutters for two thousand troops! And anyway, it seemed, you know, good to be using Cinnabar hulls.”

    Daniel nodded curtly. Adele had established the fact from the data she’d gathered, but the reasons had been speculative until now. The Palmyrenes had decided it would be good to involve the Republic in an attack on the Alliance. These barbarians had no conception of what they were dealing with.

    Adele walked into the “control room” and dragged a stool over to a table spread with tools and components. She took out her personal data unit and cleared a small space for it.

    Tovera stood behind her with an empty expression, letting her eyes search in all directions through tiny movements of her head. Her attaché case was unlatched but closed. The fat Palmyrene by the partition — probably a non-combat member of the Horde’s staff, knowledgeable but low-status compared to the fighters — watched them with silent concern.

    “Cinnabar hulls come with Cinnabar officers,” Daniel said. That wasn’t necessarily true, but he was pretty sure that nobody here at the Farm could disprove it. “And those officers aren’t willing to land their ships out in the middle of nowhere with –”

    He gave Nasrullah a patronizing smile.

    “– shall we say, the local talent aiming missiles at them. My staff and I are here on orders from Admiral Mainwaring to view your weapon control arrangements. Unless and until I report to him that the arrangements are satisfactory, the convoy will not be landing.”

    “Now look, you bugger!” Nasrullah shouted. “You don’t give me orders! You get your poncing asses back to Calvary or wherever the hell till you can show me authorization from the Autocrator! Those’re the only orders I’ll accept!”

    Daniel lifted an eyebrow. “Very well,” he said calmly. “You can discuss the matter with the Autocrator yourself, then. She’s not in my chain of command, you see.”

    He gave the colonel a smile that would have frozen a lighted furnace, then glanced toward Adele. “Come along, Mundy,” he said. “We have to get back to Stahl’s World soonest to inform the Admiral that the Zenobia operation has been cancelled.”

    He turned. Sun waited near the front door, standing between the Palmyrene guards. He’d left the heavy impeller in the cab of the aircar, but he cradled his right fist in his left palm in front of him: that meant he was wearing a knuckleduster. If trouble started, Daniel was pretty sure that Sun would shortly be using a mob gun.

    “Wait!” said Nasrullah.

    Daniel turned, raising an eyebrow again. Adele had risen from the stool, but she wasn’t really planning to move: her data unit was still live.

    “Look,” said Nasrullah. He had begun to sweat. “I’ve got orders from the Autocrator, you see? If I violate them, she’s likely to have me impaled — even if I’m right!”

    Daniel shrugged. “I’m afraid that’s not my problem,” he said with a dismissive smile. “I report to Admiral Mainwaring. And unfortunately for you, so do the captains of the troop transports.”

    He paused, then said, “So, which is it? Do my Gunner and Signals Officer check out your operation here? Or do we go back to Stahl’s World and tell the Admiral that the operation has been cancelled?”

    Nasrullah twisted his hat in both hands, then ripped it across. “All right, all right,” he said in a guttural voice. “Get on with it and get it over with.”



    The Farm’s electronic security was every bit as bad as Adele had expected it to be, but she was finding it remarkably difficult to navigate through Palmyrene disorganization. A good code was a completely random arrangement of symbols, and the staff here at the Farm had through sheer incompetence made a better stab at bewildering Adele than some very sophisticated systems had done.

    In the background of her awareness, Colonel Nasrullah plaintively said, “What’s she doing, then? It looks like she’s knitting.”

    Daniel said, “Sorry, chappie, but that’s not really my line of territory. Technical folderol, don’t you know? I’m a fighting officer.”

    Adele smiled faintly as she worked. Daniel did a flawless job of acting like a bluff, brainless RCN officer. She herself could don the persona of Lady Adele Mundy, upper-class virago, but it wasn’t the same thing. She really was that other person if someone scratched her the wrong way.

    The smile faded. Adele’s mother would be pleased and surprised to learn that Lady Mundy still existed. Esme Rolfe Mundy had been disappointed in her bookish elder daughter, though she was too courteous ever to have expressed that feeling.

    Adele wasn’t interested in the Rights of Man — or in dancing, fashion, or polite conversation. She might have been a tradesman’s daughter; and while tradesmen were quite all right in their place, Adele was a Rolfe and a Mundy with responsibilities to her class.

    More of Esme’s teaching had stuck than either mother or daughter would have guessed. Perhaps Esme now nodded with heavenly approbation every time Adele led the dancing at a rout on a distant world, executing the estampes and sarabandes and gigues with as much precision as she fired her pistol.

    Logically there must be a heaven. Certainly there was a hell, because Adele entered it every time she dreamed.

    She smiled again as she worked. The expression was as grim as her silent joke had been.

    The Farm’s personnel records were a subdirectory of the supply inventory. Perhaps that had made sense to someone, but it was equally probable that it was a mistake made when the database was set up and that nobody had bothered to correct it.



    According to the records, the Farm had cadre of eighty-two personnel, but Adele didn’t trust the figure. She had never seen a military organization on the fringes of civilization where the officers weren’t inflating their personnel strength and pocketing the excess pay themselves. It was even more common than cheating subordinates on their food.

    The defenses included four batteries of anti-ship missiles emplaced on high points within the two-hundred acre tract. Adele plotted the locations on the Princess Cecile’s orbital imagery but found nothing until she compared them with images from a freighter which had landed in Calvary Harbor five months earlier. The missiles were covered — she couldn’t tell whether by netting or film — so skillfully that only the slight increase in the hills’ elevation was noticeable even when Adele knew what to look for.

    Adele kept the interaction in the main hall in a corner of her display, in case something occurred that required her attention; something for her pistol rather than her data unit, likely enough. She glanced at the image of Colonel Nasrullah.

    He and Daniel were now seated on opposite ends of a simple bench. It appeared that Nasrullah knew his business as a construction supervisor, or at any rate his staff did and he didn’t get in their way. Adele had to assume that every member of the cadre was as skilled as the people who had emplaced the missiles clearly were.

    A vehicle with a small two-stroke engine drew up behind the building, popping and ringing. A moment later Sun reappeared beside the Palmyrene officer he’d gone off with some while before. Hours before, now that Adele happened to think about it.

    Sun was beaming. Adele let her data unit continue to mine information — she had found the claimed inventories of the twenty-seven ships which had landed at the Farm since its purchase by “Commissioner Brassey”. Instead of turning her head, she expanded the real-time image of what was going on in the main hall.

    “All right, Six!” the gunner said exuberantly. “This is a lot better than I thought it was going to be. Captain Farouk here –”

    He jerked his thumb toward the Palmyrene who’d been escorting him. Farouk, young and noticeably sharper than his fellows — even though they all wore the same loose work clothes — flushed with pleasure.

    “– went to the Sector Academy on Knollys –”

    Knollys was Cinnabar’s administrative and naval headquarters for the Thirty Suns, the region closest to the Qaboosh which one could describe as “developed” or “civilized,” depending on your frame of reference.

    “– and they’re using an RCN gunnery console for the director. Okay, it’s older than any of us here –”

    The console had been built on Cinnabar fifty-seven standard years before and had been partially gutted, though Sun probably didn’t know that.

    “– but it’ll handle ground-to-orbit missiles with no trouble. I wouldn’t worry one bit about the missiles on director control.”

    Adele always worried about deadly weapons which someone else might be pointing at her, because she — based on experience — doubted the competence and judgment of all but a few of the people she had met over the years. With that general proviso accepted, she agreed with the gunner’s assessment.

    Colonel Nasrullah wiped his forehead with a sleeve. “All right,” he said, “all right. You will bring the troops here and all is well. There is no need to inform the Autocrator of our visit, that is so?”

    “Not so fast, fellow!” Sun said. “Don’t get ahead of yourself.”

    He was obviously relishing he opportunity to lord it over a foreign officer. His terminology would probably have been “stick it to a jumped-up wog,” however.

    “Sir,” he continued to Daniel, “they got individual controls on each battery and a two-man crew. Farouk took me around to three of them, but the fourth was way the hell out and anyway, I didn’t need to see it after I’d seen the others.”

    He took a deep breath and made a theatrical gesture back the way he’d come. Farouk looked worried; Nasrullah got to his feet and snatched up half the hat that he’d torn.

    “Sir,” Sun said forcefully, “those site crews, I wouldn’t trust them to pour piss out of a boot! Not that they’d bother to. You know what they’re doing, sir? They’re crapping right there in the battery pits, and from the number of empty wine bottles all around they’re mostly drunk besides.”

    “That’s not true!” said Farouk. “Not nearly so much do we drink!”

    “You’re a bloody liar!” Nasrullah bellowed. He stepped toward Sun and cocked his fist.

    Adele shifted on the stool for the first time. She’d set down the wand in her left hand. She sensed Tovera moving behind her.

    Daniel caught Nasrullah’s wrist. The Palmyrene tried to jerk loose — but couldn’t.

    “Careful, Colonel,” Daniel drawled. His voice perfectly mimicked that of a well-born twit to anyone familiar with Cinnabar accents. “You wouldn’t want your clumsiness to be mistaken for an attack on one of my officers, would you?”

    “He’s a liar,” Nasrullah repeated, but this time he muttered it as he stepped back.

    “And it’s not a problem anyway,” Daniel said in a cheerful tone. “Mundy, lock the batteries onto director control, if you’ll be so good. That takes care of the matter.”

    “Yes,” said Adele, picking up the wand again. She had already deleted the firing command from both the director and individual instruction sets. All she was doing now was preventing the battery crews from slewing the missiles.

    “Wait,” said Nasrullah. “Can’t you let us use them against surface targets? The director can’t observe all the ground that the individual batteries can.”

    Of course I could, Adele thought. Aloud she said, “No, that’s impossible.”

    It amused her — grimly — to realize that she felt more uncomfortable about lying to the man than she would have been if she’d shot him in the head. On the other hand, his face wasn’t likely to reappear at 3 am, muttering, “You lied to me.”

    “Very good, Mundy,” Daniel said. “When you’re ready, we can return to Calvary and lift to meet the convoy.”

    “I’m ready,” said Adele, putting away the data unit before she got to her feet. She joined Daniel and they strode, side by side, out the front door. Tovera and Sun followed.

    “And we can join the convoy,” she said very quietly to Daniel as they arrived at the aircar. “Because I now have its course and its expected time of arrival on Zenobia.”

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