What Distant Deeps — Snippet 56

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.”