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What Distant Deeps: Chapter Eighteen

       Last updated: Tuesday, September 7, 2010 21:01 EDT



The Matrix, between Zenobia and Palmyra

    Daniel lived with enthusiasm and liked most of what life had brought him. What he felt on the hull of a ship in the Matrix was on an even higher plane than sex or a perfect piece of ship handling, however. It was –

    Well, Daniel believed in the gods — of course. One just did; and the fact that he was pretty sure that Adele did not — it wasn’t a matter they discussed, of course — was more disturbing to him than if she occasionally turned green and grew horns. He wasn’t what anyone would call a religious man, however, and he shared the normal RCN disquiet about the occasional captain who really was a temple-haunting zealot.

    But when he stood here on the hull, watching the infinity of separate universes dusted across his field of view, he truly felt that there were gods. And in the back of his mind was a thought that he had never spoken: that any human who saw and felt what Daniel Leary did in this moment was a god.

    But that wasn’t accomplishing the mission nor train Cory either one. We can hold a prayer service later, he thought with a rueful grin, though he half suspected that the lieutenant would join him if he suggested it.

    Daniel put the communications rod to the waiting Cory’s helmet and pointed with his left arm. “Follow the line R386, R377, P915. Got that?”

    Cory lifted his own left arm; he had reached around his helmet to hold the rod with his right hand, allowing him to mimic Daniel’s gesture. After a moment that proved he wasn’t just chattering, he said, “Yes, I have it.”

    “Now, do you see the distortion across the first two?”

    The bubble universes which Daniel had described by their four terminal digits were blotches of yellow-green in a fainter wash of the same color. An Academy scientist had told Daniel that the colors and relative brightness were artifacts of the viewer’s mind; they were tricks his consciousness played on itself to impose order on what was really chaos.

    And perhaps that was true, but Uncle Stacey had taught his nephew to see those variations, and Daniel in turn had taught others. Not, he had to admit, all others: apparently to Adele, “glowing chaos” was a sufficient description of what she saw from the hull.

    But what Daniel saw was real enough to refine his astrogation beyond what was possible for those who had only the Academy’s training. And in the present instance, it had permitted him to find the track of what he hoped was the Palmyrene convoy.

    “Yes, sir,” said Cory. “I do.”

    “The disruption is someone moving through the Matrix,” Daniel said, “and on the same course as we are.”

    He lowered his arm, but it was a moment before Cory mirrored the movement. He was desperately eager to succeed. The thing that amazed Daniel was that Cory was succeeding, to a degree that very few astrogators could equal.

    “Being on the correct course doesn’t prove that they’re the convoy we’re looking for,” Daniel said, “but it isn’t unlikely. There’s very little direct traffic between Palmyra and Zenobia.”

    They stood just astern of one of the hydro-mechanical semaphores by which the bridge transmitted orders to the hull when the ship was in the Matrix. Now the six arms clacked upright in an attention signal; then four vanished in line with the support pillar and the remaining two flared to starboard, informing the rigging crew of the new sail plan.

    A moment later the port and starboard antennas shook out their topgallants in a coordinated shudder. When Daniel was seven, Uncle Stacey had shown him the Matrix for the first time, from the hull of a freighter being rerigged by Bergen and Associates.

    Uncle Stacey could tell what the masts and yards were doing simply from the vibration through the soles of his magnetic boots. That had seemed like magic to the young Daniel . . . and maybe it was. But it was second nature to him as well by now.

    “Now, what I think . . . ,” Daniel said. “Is that the track is too diffuse to be that of a single ship. But I can’t swear to that. I may be inventing the, the blurriness, because that’s what I want it to be.”

    A Palmyrene cutter captain would know for sure, he thought. The Palmyrenes might be barbarians — blazes, they were barbarians! — but they were spacers also, like none in Daniel’s previous acquaintance.

    “Yessir,” said Cory, though if Daniel read his tone correctly through the vibrating brass rod, the lieutenant wasn’t really agreeing. “But sir? I don’t think you’re wrong.”

    Daniel frowned, though his companion couldn’t see the expression since they stood side by side. He expected a great deal from his officers — but he didn’t expect flattery, and he wouldn’t have it.

    “Sir,” Cory continued, “My dad paves roads. It’s what he’s done all his life.”

    “I’d been told that, yes,” said Daniel guardedly. According to Adele, Cory’s father was the largest paving contractor on Florentine. That made the boy’s decision to join the RCN rather than, say, getting a suite in Xenos and chasing women, to be both puzzling and honorable.

    “Dad can look at a stretch of concrete once it’s had a little while to wear and tell you to a cupful how much cement was in the batch.”

    Daniel was still frowning. He pursed his lips, then said, “All right, I accept your word on that.”

    “And that’s you out here in the Matrix, sir,” Cory said earnestly. “I’ve watched you, believe me I have, ever since I was assigned to the Hermes when you were First Lieutenant. And I’ve never known you to be wrong about the Matrix. Maybe you can’t say how you know, and maybe you don’t even know how yourself — but you do know. Sir.”

    Daniel thought for a moment. At last he said, “Cory, I appreciate your confidence, but I think we’ll change the subject.”

    He coughed and continued, “We won’t know for certain whether we’re on the convoy’s track until it drops into normal space and we can join it. Or them, whatever we’re following. It would be quite possible to make the run from Palmyra to Zenobia in one stage, but I don’t expect freighters that’re saving on the pay bill by sailing short-crewed to do that. Especially not in convoy. But –”

    “Sir, the track stops in P915,” Cory interrupted, and a bloody good thing he had. “They’ve extracted into normal space.”

    Daniel snapped, “Good man, Cory!” He thrust the communication rod back into its belt sheath, then he lifted the cover from the head of the semaphore pillar, exposing the keyboard. There had to be a way to send messages from the hull to the ship’s interior, but Daniel didn’t recall having seen the apparatus used more than a half dozen times in his RCN career.

    Cory watched in awe as Daniel hammered the pad with his gauntleted fingers. The keys were stiff, as there couldn’t be any boost for the strokes for the same reason radios couldn’t be used on the hull: an electrical discharge would be trapped by the sails and induce oscillations from the intended course.

    That didn’t matter. Daniel always pounded when he typed. The fascia plate onto which his console projected its virtual keyboard sounded like a drum set when he was inputting data.

    Daniel closed the cover and started for the airlock, gesturing Cory to accompany him. With luck, Vesey would already have extracted the Sissie into sidereal space before he reached the bridge. Daniel usually found transition to be an unpleasant or occasionally very unpleasant process, but he didn’t think he would notice it this time.

    He would be far too busy.




   Adele was going over inventories of material unloaded at the Farm when, without warning, Cazelet said, “Ship, prepare to extract in thirty, repeat three-zero, seconds,” over both the PA system and the general push.

   Adele straightened in surprise. There must have been a –

   She checked: yes, Daniel had used the keypad on the hull to order Vesey to enter normal space to intercept another ship or ships. The hydraulic signal was converted into electrical impulses in the Sissie’s interior, but it had bypassed her normal oversight.

   Adele felt as though she had been slapped. She immediately bent to correcting her error.

   “Signals, this is Three,” said Vesey. “We’ll be extracting into what we believe to be the convoy we’re hunting. They may be hostile. Officer Mundy, I want you to handle the communications at your own discretion until Six returns to the bridge, over.”

   “Yes,” said Adele. “Out.”

   Well, Vesey’s orders gave her something to do other than to worry about getting instant awareness of messages sent through the hydraulic keypad. The first order of business would be to determine the structure of the convoy. If it was simply five freighters — or however many of the original five had navigated well enough to keep station — then there was no problem. If they were accompanied by Palmyrene warships, it became a question of deception or force depending on the strength of the escort.

   Adele suddenly understood why Vesey had passed the duty to her. No one could doubt Vesey’s competence as an astrogator or shiphandler, and when she inspected the stores you could trust her inventory to the last pulley.

   Violence seemed to blind her. Vesey wasn’t in any sense a coward: she faced dangers without hesitation, and so long as she could consider battle a matter of moving electronic elements on a display, her attack plans were unexceptionable. Vesey would hesitate before opening fire, however, and her stomach would turn if she had to shout threats at a barbarian who understood no other language.

   Adele didn’t have that problem. She might balk if duty required her to destroy a Pre-Hiatus book, but as yet that situation hadn’t arisen.

   While Adele made her preparations, Vesey was alerting Sun and Chazanoff. Not that the Gunner and Chief Missileer wouldn’t have been alert: both men regularly set up attacks even when the Sissie transitioned into Xenos orbit, just in case.

   This time, however, Vesey had cleared Chazanoff to open the doors to the missile launching tubes and told Sun to unlock his guns. Though she would never be a “fighting captain” in the traditional sense, she was working hard to act the part.

   “Extracting . . . now!” a voice said. It was probably Cazelet, but Adele was busy checking her equipment. The Sissie had multi-lens laser communicators bow and stern. She made sure that the heads were set to target multiple ships . . . as of course they were, but she checked anyway.

   The Sissie dropped into sidereal space. The discomfort affected Adele only in that for a moment her right and left sides seemed reversed. She froze her hands on the wands: better to wait a fraction of a second than to make a mistake that her excellent mind couldn’t avoid because it was that mind which was being distorted.

   Adele’s smile was minute, but real. For an instant she’d felt a flash of resentment that the cosmos would do that to her. She had known Cinnabar nobles who generally reacted that way when things went wrong, but she preferred not to be one herself.

   Then the Princess Cecile was back in the sidereal universe, and Adele Mundy had new data to collect and collate. If the ship was vaporized in the next instant, she would die content. She told herself that her “content” was what other people meant when they said they were happy. Sometimes she was able to believe herself.

   Five transports with Cinnabar registry were grouped closely, the nearest about twelve thousand miles from where the corvette had extracted. The convoy was surprisingly tight for civilian vessels. Either they had been proceeding by very short stages with frequent positioning sights in normal space, or the skill of the Palmyrene astrogators had brought out the best in the Cinnabar officers who competed with them in the Qaboosh. And speaking of Palmyrenes –

   Two cutters flanked the convoy like dogs working a herd. In all likelihood both were units of the Horde, but Adele couldn’t see anything distinctively naval in their electronic signatures. The sloppiness of the data she’d gathered at the Farm was repeated in spades on vessels whose personnel had no reason even to pretend to be interested in recordkeeping.

   The visual imagery showed them to be more or less the same as the cutters Adele had seen in harbor on Stahl’s World. Both had an exterior pulpit from which to conn the ship; she knew to look for that because Daniel had spoken of the fittings with such enthusiasm.

   And each cutter had a basket of free-flight rockets on the dorsal hull, well ahead of the single ring of antennas. That wasn’t ominous in itself — ships were always armed, unless they sailed fixed routes between the most settled stars — but the bundles of external cargo these cutters carried on the after portions of their hulls appeared to be reloads for their launchers.

   Still, it would have been surprising if the transports didn’t have a Palmyrene escort, and a pair of cutters was a negligible concern. Apparently the Autocrator intended to keep her presence to the background until the troops were on the ground.

   What Adele hadn’t expected was the last ship present, the armed yacht RCS Philante. Because she was an RCN vessel, her particulars flashed onto the display unbidden: 1600 tons, armed with two four-inch plasma cannon on the dorsal bow and two organ guns on the stern quarters. The latter were aggregations of eight 1-inch plasma cannon, directed energy equivalents of the rockets which vessels on the fringes used against pirates — and for piracy.

   The Philante was configured for cruising at moderate speeds, escorting merchantmen against pirates. She had a crew of forty and only two mast rings, sufficient to keep up with her charges. She didn’t mount missiles and would be only a target if she tried to fight even small a true combat vessel like the Sissie.

   The problem was that the Sissie couldn’t fight the yacht. The Philante was a Cinnabar naval vessel like the Sissie, and to engage it would be treason.

   “RCS Philante, this is RCS Princess Cecile, Captain Leary commanding,” Adele said. “Put your commander . . . .”

   She paused to check internal communications aboard the yacht, to make sure that the Navy List was correct. It was.

   ” . . . Lieutenant Caplan on, over.”

   The laser communicator would have allowed Adele to call the Philante without letting the others eavesdrop on the conversation — well, unless they were a great deal more skilled and technologically sophisticated that Adele thought they were. In this case, however, she wanted the Palmyrenes and the civilians alike to know what was going on.



    The outer airlock doors released, the cling and whirr had grown familiar to Adele from frequent repetition. She also heard the rumble of the gun turrets.

    Vesey had ordered Sun to unlock his guns from the axial, zero elevation setting in which they travelled, but the gunner was going beyond orders to lay his cannon on the Palmyrene cutters. Adele would have predicted Sun’s decision — and under the circumstances, she was in whole-hearted agreement with him.

    “This is Caplan,” replied the worried voice of Lieutenant Terry Caplan, who surprised Adele by being female. “Princess Cecile, we are on orders of RCN Station Palmyra. What are you doing here, over?”

    According to Navy House files, RCN Station Palmyra was a room in the Admiralty in Tadmor, the planetary capital. It was simply a liaison office granted by the Autocrator as a courtesy. The Philante or a similar ship of the Qaboosh Squadron was usually based in Tadmor Harbor to provide an RCN escort to Cinnabar-flag vessels which requested it.

    In the particular instance, the request had probably come — perhaps indirectly — from the Autocrator herself. The Philante’s presence was intended as further proof of Cinnabar support for Irene’s capture of Zenobia.

    We’ll see about that.

    “Lieutenant Caplan,” Adele said in her usual tone of cold dispassion, “Captain Leary has been sent by Navy House to take charge of this convoy in order to avoid an international incident. You will –”

    “Ma’am, the wogs are slewing on us!” Sun shouted on the command channel.

    “Open fire!” Adele said with as little hesitation as she showed when a target filled the sights of her pocket pistol.

    She would apologize to Vesey as soon as she had an opportunity, but Daniel and a rigging watch were still outside. The corvette’s hull could shrug off even the direct hit of an 8-inch rocket, but fragmentation warheads intended to shred sails would turn human beings into catsmeat, even if the victims had been wearing hard suits. Adele wasn’t going to let the chain of command lead to that result.

    The bow turret fired instantly, a Clang! Clang! from just back of the forward rotunda. The guns themselves were a danger to spacers out on the hull; but not a great danger when firing at high elevation as they were now to track the nearer cutter. Side-scatter from the Sissie’s 4-inch weapons was unlikely to injure a spacer who wasn’t almost in line with the bore.

    The massive 8-inch guns of the Milton, the cruiser which Daniel had commanded in the Montserrat Stars, had had a much wider cone of danger. Regardless, this was war and war had risks.

    The image of the nearer Palmyrene cutter blurred. The plasma bolts may not have breached the hull, but they detonated the nose fuse of at least one of the rockets. When that warhead exploded, it set off all the others — including the bundles of reloads. The cutter’s bow section stayed more or less together, but the stern was reduced to sheet metal with occasional larger chunks, all drifting away in a cloud of the ship’s atmosphere.

    A half-second after Sun fired, the Sissie rang again as Rocker, the technician in the BDC striking for Gunner’s Mate, fired the ventral guns at the other cutter. He may initially have been waiting for Vesey to confirm the order, but he followed suit when his chief began shooting.

    The second cutter was over 200,000 miles distant, too far for bolts from 4-inch weapons to affect even so lightly built a target. Nonetheless Rocker — joined by Sun as soon as the bow turret could swing onto the new target — continued to fire until the cutter escaped into the Matrix.

    The Philante disappeared into the Matrix as well. Adele had expected the yacht’s captain to demand an explanation, but she must have begun insertion procedures as soon as the shooting started. That showed Lieutenant Caplan to be decisive and furthermore to have good judgment — the Philante had no place in a fight against a warship with a full missile armament.

    Nonetheless, Adele didn’t think Daniel would have decided to run if the positions had been reversed. Nor would any officer serving under Daniel, at least if they hoped to be serving under him in the future.

    The inner door of the airlock opened; Daniel stamped from it onto the bridge with Cory behind him. Riggers followed.

    Both officers had taken off their helmets before the ship’s systems thought the pressure was equalized with that of the interior, but even an experienced spacer required several minutes to get out of a rigging suit. No matter: the control consoles could be adjusted to deal with that eventuality.

    Adele added the 20-meter emergency frequency to the Sissie’s output. Civilian vessels, especially in a place as distant as the Qaboosh, might not have working laser or microwave suites, but they had to have at least shortwave if they were to receive landing instructions.

    “All Cinnabar vessels receiving this message . . . ,” she said. Her proper business was communications, not space battles. “Hold your course and do not attempt to enter the Matrix. I repeat, hold your present course and do not attempt to avoid the directions of the duly authorized agent of Admiral Hartsfeld, Chief of the Navy Board.”

    That was stretching the truth well beyond its breaking point, but the underlying implication was correct: if the civilians tried to flee, they would regret it. Very likely the Princess Cecile would open fire, and three or four of the freighters were close enough that plasma bolts would damage their rigging.

    Daniel sat down, the plates of his suit clattering against frame of his console. Before Adele handed off to him, she added, “All Cinnabar ships, respond immediately, over.”

    “Unidentified vessel, don’t shoot!” responded the nearest vessel. “This is Mary Ann, cleared from Palmyra to Zenobia. Do not shoot, we are lying to, over!”

    “Adele, keep going!” Daniel said, bellowing to be heard over the piercing buzz of the High Drive. His commo helmet hung from one short arm of the wheel that adjusted his console’s relief, but he hadn’t taken the time to don it. “I’ve got course calculations to make!”

    The Birdsong 312 and Maid of Brancusi were responding on 15.5 MegaHertz, the emergency frequency; their communications ran as text on a sidebar to Adele’s display. Both captains were falling all over themselves in their public obedience to whatever the corvette ordered.

    The cutter’s destruction had been spectacular, particularly since most of the civilians would never have seen anything like it. For Adele, as for the other Sissies, it had been a familiar sight. And all the present crew were survivors of the Milton when a missile had ripped the cruiser’s stern off . . . .

    On tight-beam microwave the Sarah H. Gerdis replied crisply, “Princess Cecile, we are lying to as ordered. The ships you have attacked are Palmyrene navy vessels which were escorting this convoy, over.”



    The fifth freighter was the most distant of the lot, straggling a good hundred thousand miles behind the next ahead. It was sending also, but Adele didn’t have time to determine the content by an optical enlargement of the vessel’s laser head.

    “Freighter Bonaventure,” she said tartly, “switch to short wave immediately or correct the alignment of your laser communicator. All ships, hold for revised course data which will we transmit to you shortly. Acknowledge this communication, over.”

    Daniel hadn’t exactly said he was refiguring courses for the transports, but that seemed likely. Rather than give fuzzy information, Adele was adding concrete details which would make what she said believable. The civilian captains were certainly confused and probably terrified, but they had to be made to obey the Princess Cecile implicitly. Otherwise –

    Firing on Palmyrene cutters was an act of war against a nation which was officially a Cinnabar ally. Still, Daniel would get away with that if a court martial resulted — as it might — so long as he could provide proof of Palmyrene intentions. They were, after all, foreigners; and uppity foreigners at that.

    Firing on Cinnabar transports was a different matter; especially if one or more of the ships were owned by Senators, as was often the case. There was a great deal of money to be made on the fringes of civilization. The fact attracted investors with the power and connections to get away with cutting corners.

    Speaker Leary almost certainly invested in that sort of operation. Adele smiled like a crack in an ice floe. Well, they could probably square him through Deirdre.

    “I’m ready!” Daniel shouted, leaning forward to grab his commo helmet. He settled it on his head and, doing so, for the first time adjusted the console so that the bulk of his rigging suit didn’t crush him against the virtual keyboard.

    “Cinnabar vessels,” said Adele, “hold for Captain Leary. Captain Leary, go ahead.”

    Her job wasn’t over, of course: she simply reverted to the data collection which was ordinarily her first priority in a potentially hostile situation. Her equipment was copying information from the transports’ databases — mostly logs and course data and not important. It was good to have it against necessity if it were available, however.

    Adele frowned, then felt her lips move into a smile of sorts. She assumed anything unfamiliar was potentially hostile. She liked to believe that she was less paranoid than Tovera, who always considered who to kill first — if necessary — when she met a group of people, but in truth mistress and servant shared a similar mindset.

    Neither of them were going to change. They were very useful to their associates the way they were; and anyway, they probably couldn’t change if they’d wanted to.

    “Fellow spacers,” said Daniel in a formally friendly tone, “I regret this inconvenience, but the security of Cinnabar demands it. You were being used by unscrupulous foreigners in a fashion which would certainly have led to your execution as traitors to the Republic.”

    He paused to breathe, but he wasn’t giving up his virtual podium. The captain of the Bonaventure had adjusted the freighter’s sending head, but its packets of coherent light were still missing the Sissie’s receptors.

    No matter: the civilians had nothing important to say except, “Yes sir!” The combination of dire threats coupled with unmistakably lethal force should be sufficient to frighten them into doing just that.

    “I am transmitting course calculations to you,” Daniel continued, “now.”

    He hit a virtual key, dispatching the material he’d queued before taking over the communication duties. Adele wondered if the Bonaventure would be able to handle the change — any change. In fairness to the captain, the freighter hadn’t been so terribly out of position when it arrived at this present stage of the voyage.

    “This will take you to your planned destination, Zenobia,” Daniel said, “but in a single transit. The Princess Cecile will wait till you’re under way, then meet you in Zenobia orbit and give you further instructions. Under no circumstances are you to land on Zenobia or to do any other thing than what I have told you. Please acknowledge your receipt and acceptance of my orders ASAP, over.”

    Three ships responded instantly with versions of “Received and accepted.” The Bonaventure’s reply was so curt that it could scarcely have been anything else — though the actual message would have to wait for Adele to run the visual imagery through a conversion program.

    The captain of the Gerdis said, “Captain Leary, you have no authority over my vessel.”

    “Break!” said Daniel. “Sun, one round and don’t hit them, over.”

    The freighter captain was saying, “My orders come from –”

    “Roger, Six!”

    “– the agent from whom I received my contract. It seems to me you’re acting more like a pirate than –”


    “Bloody hell, Leary!” The civilian’s hectoring tone of an instant before had risen to a bleat.

    “Gerdis, I don’t have time to argue,” Daniel said in a voice like an avalanche, “and neither do you. Either you will accept my orders, or I will launch missiles, and if by some chance you escape them, I will infallibly hunt you down and hang you. I’m a Leary of Bantry, and you have my word on it! Over!”

    “Received and understood,” the civilian said. “Preparing to execute the course change. Gerdis out.”

    Daniel gripped the fascia plate of his console for a moment, his eyes closed. When he opened them, he looked toward Adele and grinned. She acknowledged with a nod, but as usual she was watching her friend’s image inset onto her display.

    “Ship, this is Six,” Daniel said over the general push. “We’ll wait till all the transports have gotten under way, then proceed to Zenobia to meet them.”

    He cleared his throat, then continued, “Now — I won’t pretend that it’s going to be simple after we extract in the Zenobia System. I expect the Palmyrene forces to keep their distance for the present because the transports won’t be able to land if the planetary defenses are alerted. If I’m wrong, we may find the whole Horde waiting for us. We’ll deal with the situation as it arises. Up Cinnabar, Sissies!”

    “Up Cinnabar! rang through the ship. Adele shouted also. This sort of display no longer embarrassed her. Yes, of course it was a tribal bonding ritual — but she was no longer Esme Rolfe Mundy’s daughter, she was a valued warrior of her tribe.

    She couldn’t imagine how Daniel would go about fighting the entire Palmyrene fleet if that was what they found above Zenobia, but she was sure he would try.

    And Signals Officer Adele Mundy would be fighting beside him.

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