What Distant Deeps — Snippet 52

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.