What Distant Deeps — Snippet 21

“Are those the Palmyrene cutters?” Daniel said suddenly as the car continued its circle. “There, the slip alongside the cruiser, the six of them?”

“Ah, you noticed, did you?” Milch said in a pleased tone. “I wondered if you would. Yes, they are — and it’s just what it looks like. There’s a full set of hydraulic linkages for the sails and yards in the dorsal bow, not just a semaphore keypad. The ships can be conned from the hull while they’re in the Matrix.”

“I’ll be buggered,” Daniel said. “I’ve never seen that, though my Uncle Stacy said that it could be done. Some of the little clusters he’d found had people who did it.”

He looked from the cutters below to Milch. “Pirates,” he said. “It’s not good for much except piracy, is it?”

“And anti-pirate operations,” Milch said, nodding. “Which is what the Palmyrenes do now. But that’s a reason we don’t get shirty about the unique glory of Cinnabar here in the Qaboosh Region. An RCN battlegroup could take care of the Piri Reis without blinking, but a couple hundred cutters like that — the Horde and private ventures — would pretty much shut down trade in the region for as long as they wanted to.”

His face suddenly blank, Daniel glanced at the commander. He’d been mildly contemptuous of the Qaboosh Region and the Cinnabar officials here. Oh, it was natural enough — inevitable, he supposed, for an officer who’d been in the thick of things and had done very well for himself and for the Republic.

But Commander Milch’s strategic appraisal was completely valid — and would have been beyond the imagination of most RCN officers whose service had been limited to big ships and important regions. And those Palmyrene cutters were remarkable by any standards, even Daniel’s own.

They were small, displacing five hundred tons or even less. They were armed with clusters of unguided rockets whose only purpose was to damage the rigging of other ships in sidereal space. The more sophisticated rockets had proximity fuses, though pirates often made do with contact fuses and simply got close enough that one or more rockets hit the hull or rigging.

When that happened, a 20-pound bursting charge blew a cloud of shrapnel in all directions, cutting cables and clawing sails to rags whether they were spread or furled against the yards. The hull — even of a lightly built merchantman — was unlikely to sustain any damage worse than scars and perhaps a sprung seam. Pirates didn’t want to damage cargos, and the ships might also be of value if only for spare parts.

For the rockets to hit, they had to be launched at knife range. Pirates achieved that by tracking their prey in the Matrix dropping into sidereal space on top of them. Spacers who’d soaked themselves in the feel of the Matrix could pick up the linear anomalies of other ships passing close to their own. Daniel could do that, and he’d taught the art — it wasn’t a skill — to some of his midshipmen.

But to actually conn a ship from the hull instead of depending on computed solutions — that would have been beyond even Uncle Stacy’s abilities. All six of the Horde cutters were fitted to do that, and a quick survey of similar cutters in the harbor showed that at least half of them had similar installations. Ordinary warships would be as useless against such enemies as cannon would be to deal with flies.

Daniel pursed his lips and nodded in understanding. “I take your point, Commander,” he said. “I surely do. Now I suppose I’m ready to go be a performing monkey for Admiral Mainwaring.”

“Take us down, Simmons,” Milch said in obvious satisfaction. As the aircar curved toward a parking area near where the Piri Reis floated at the west end of the harbor, he added, “The Qaboosh isn’t like Cinnabar, not by a long run, I’ll admit. But it has its interesting points.”

Daniel nodded. Milch was right about that.

* * *

Adele was busy and therefore content. Thirty-two separate worlds had sent delegations to the Qaboosh Assembly. Dakota had sent two, from the East Continent and the West Continent respectively, both of which had spent the event in their hotel rooms with liquor and prostitutes. Adele was gathering information on everyone attending, using payment records, imagery, and security logs as well as the Assembly minutes.

Her console whirred softly. She dipped into what blurred past, but for the most part this was a job for machinery. The data couldn’t really be digested until there was a use for it. Was it significant that Mortonsonia’s President of the Conference was having an affair with the Hereditary Queen of Isis? Perhaps, but not until at least one of those worlds became important — which certainly wasn’t the present case.

Adele smiled. In a perfect universe, her data banks would contain all the information there was on every subject. As soon as someone had a use for the information, she would provide it to them.

Information wasn’t of any intrinsic use to her, of course. She just wanted to have it available.

Tovera was at the console’s training station, viewing feeds from the security cameras recording the Autocrator’s gala. Adele had unlocked the station for her, of course, but Tovera could have used another console if she had wished to — the two of them were alone on the bridge. Apparently she found the jump-seat adequately comfortable. Besides, like her mistress, Tovera considered comfort to be a matter of small importance.

Adele would view the imagery later, after the rout had broken up. She wanted to watch Lady Posthuma Belisande conducting herself in public: with whom she interacted, how much she drank, what her expression was in the moments she wasn’t talking to another guest. All of those things had bearing on how Adele might best get close to her target.

Her display registered an incoming call via microwave, from RCN Qaboosh Regional Headquarters to CS—not RCS, because the Sissie was a private charter — Princess Cecile, Attention Signals Officer. Adele would have fielded the call anyway, though she supposed she was technically off-duty. The routing had piqued her interest.

“Qaboosh, this is Princess Cecile,” she said. Tovera had shut down her display and was listening intently to the conversation. “Go ahead, over.”

“Princess Cecile, I’m Technician Runkle,” said the female voice on the other end of the signal. “The Communications Section here has a problem, and we’ve heard that your Signals Officer is a wizard. Adele Mundy is your Signals Officer, is she not, over?”

“Qaboosh, that is correct,” Adele said. Her wands flickered as she spoke; the data stream now in the center of her display told her what she had expected. “What sort of assistance are you requesting, over?”

“We would appreciate it if Officer Mundy would come to the Headquarters Annex 6, that’s the white temporary building to the left of the main building, as soon as she can be spared from her regular duties,” Runkle said. “She’ll be met at the door. Ah — I’m sorry, but we don’t have a car to send, over.”

“One moment, Qaboosh,” Adele said. “Break. Mundy for officer-in-charge, over.”

“Vesey here,” the acting captain responded almost instantly. She had remained in the BDC rather than coming forward to take the command console. Either decision would have been proper, but Vesey was extremely punctilious about not seeming to covet the captain’s prerogatives. “Go ahead, over.”

“Sir,” said Adele, “Tech 8 Runkle has requested that I join her in the Headquarters Annex 6. She stated that the communications section is having a problem which they would like my help with. Do you have any objection to my going to the Annex as requested, over?”

“Permission granted,” Vesey said crisply. “Do you want any support, Mundy? Or a vehicle? We’re supposed to have the use of a pair of motor pool trucks while we’re here, over?”

“Thank you, sir, but that won’t be necessary,” Adele said, rising from her console. “It’s only half a mile. Mundy out.”