IN THE STORMY RED SKY – snippet 29:
The bridge was roomy and well appointed for a merchant vessel, with two full-function consoles. A Hydriote without the sash of office sat at the one on the port side; he didn’t get up when Kelly led in the visitors.
“Get out of Captain Leary’s way, Baskert,” Kelly said, jerking a thumb toward the crewman. “Go on, Leary. The chip the colonel there gave me’s already loaded in the system. Take a look at it and tell him!”
The crewman got up without response; indeed, his face showed no expression. Daniel slid into the bucket seat and brought the console live. It was an Emerson 3, built on Cinnabar some sixty years ago; he found it quite familiar. The short-haul traders whose refits were the bread and butter of Bergen and Associates during peacetime used exactly this sort of unit.
Daniel ejected the chip and looked it over before he accessed it. It appeared to be a standard route pack, ordinarily used by vessels with less capable computers. Preset routes between fixed points could save hours of computation time.
Reinserting it, Daniel said, “Colonel Stockheim, you provided the chip, then?”
“My orders are to hand in the old course chip to a trading house at each planetfall,” the colonel said. “The factor there gives me the course for the next stage and I give it to the captain of the ship we transfer to. The phratry was carried on two vessels coming here to Paton, so I was given two chips on Raulston, the previous stage.”
He cleared his throat and added, “The factor on Brightsky told me that the chip was delivered to her months ago by the courier who brought the manifests from her central office. Amberly here said the same thing.”
The console purred. The data appeared to be loading normally. Without looking away from the holographic display–though for the moment that was still a pearly blur–Daniel said, “Were all the factors employed by Cone Transport, then?”
“What?” said Stockheim. “Oh, I see what you mean. No, on Welwych it was Interstellar Master Traders. And Hartman and something on Brightsky, I think. I could check the unit diary to make sure, if you like?”
“That won’t be necessary, thank you,” Daniel said. IMT as well as Hartman and James were owned by William Beckford, just as Cone was. There was nothing surprising about that–or even improper, really. A man as wealthy as Beckford used his influence to get contracts which made him even wealthier.
The console indicated it was ready. Daniel slid the cursor over the RUN button and banged the virtual keyboard with his usual enthusiasm. Instead of the expected course projections, the screen dissolved into pastel snow.
“You see?” crowed Captain Kelly. “It does the same thing for him! This is garbage, Colonel, garbage. You go back to your factor and tell him so.”
“Six?” said Cory, making it clear who he was speaking to while keeping the exchange informal. He’d seated himself at the other console. “Might I look at the course pack, please?”
“You think we didn’t try both consoles, boy?” Kelly said. His angry history with Stockheim heightened his tone. “It’s the chip, I tell you!”
“Yes sir,” said Cory, calmly. “That’s why I’d like to look at it.”
Daniel ejected the chip again and stood to hand it directly to Cory instead of passing it through Kelly. He felt more comfortable standing anyway, given the hostile atmosphere. No, Stockheim and Kelly weren’t going to start swinging at one another, but their bristling body language spun Daniel’s subconscious back into the many past fights he’d been involved with.
Cory inserted the chip; he’d already warmed up the second console. Using a light pen, a much cruder version of the control wands Adele preferred, he began what Daniel thought must be a search of the chip at the physical level.
Watching a computer run was if anything slightly less interesting than the more traditional watching paint dry. “Colonel, Captain?” Daniel said, as much as anything a way to prevent the two men from glaring at one another. “Were you given any explanation for these movement orders? That is, a preset route instead of a destination? A ship as capable as the Spezza–”
He nodded to Kelly with a friendly smile.
“–could certainly have computed her own course, and I’d expect that to be true of any vessel big enough to carry your regiment. Or even half of it.”
Stockheim shrugged. He seemed to appreciate the reduced emotional temperature. “We’re soldiers,” he said. “We’re used to not being told very much. Usually I’d have heard something, though, but not on this mission.”
He offered Captain Kelly a half-smile. “Every ship’s captain that carried us asked me the same thing,” he said. “Kelly here did. I couldn’t tell them anything. Not wouldn’t, couldn’t.”
“Think Amberly could tell us something if we asked in the right way?” said Kelly, quirking an eyebrow.
“No,” said Stockheim with a quick shake of his head. “The only solution he sees is to request further instructions from his home office in Xenos, and he’s more afraid of doing that than he is of me. Unless you can fix this, Captain Leary–”
A glance and nod.
“–he is going to make that request. But that will take a month, I’m sure.”
Daniel nodded pleasantly. Interesting to see that Kelly’s “the right way” didn’t suggest bribery to Stockheim. On the other hand, Kelly may not have been thinking of bribery either; the dagger in his sash wasn’t a gilded showpiece.
“All right!” said Cory. He turned at the console, beaming. “Six–sirs, I mean. I found it. The chip’s been encrypted, that’s all.”
“Why in buggering hell is that?” said Kelly.
“You can fix it, then, Midshipman?” said Stockheim simultaneously.
“Six, may I…?” Cory said.
“Go ahead, Cory,” Daniel said. The boy was bursting to explain, but he didn’t want to put a foot wrong. “I’m well out of my depth.”
“Sirs, there are two folders on the chip,” Cory said.
“Two courses?” Kelly said. “Did they tell you that, Stockheim?”
“Sir, I don’t know if they’re two courses,” Cory said, determinedly getting the explanation in before his seniors went off on a pointless tangent. “I don’t know whether either is really course data. And the why is that I think one of them was supposed to be encrypted–”
He gestured toward the colonel.
“–maybe for the factor on the other end who’d receive it. But whoever did it was sloppy, and part of the other folder’s encrypted also. I can get some of the data out of it, but not the basic parameters. It wouldn’t be garbage, but it wouldn’t be useful anyway.”
“You can fix it, though?” repeated Stockheim. “Decrypt it?”
“No sir,” said Cory. He sounded triumphant, and he looked as happy as Daniel had ever seen him. “But Signals Officer Mundy can. She’s on the Milton now.”
“Ah!” said Daniel brightly. Everyone on the bridge looked at him.