What Distant Deeps — Snippet 55

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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.