IN THE STORMY RED SKY – snippet 37:

Adele was in her element. She could even have described herself as happy, if the concept hadn’t seemed so foreign. She smiled into her display.

The Headman’s Palace was at Angouleme, in the mountains–well, the chain of moderate hills–twenty miles northeast of Port Hegemony and the commercial city sprawling around the docks. Adele was ready to use the Headman’s own apparatus to eavesdrop on the embassy, but at the moment Senator Forbes and her companions were waiting for clearance to land within the palace compound.
There was no lack of things to do for those who remained aboard the Milton. Everybody seemed cheerfully busy, rather like the pixies in the fairy tale who bustled to clean a house while its human occupants slept.
Siegel, the armorer, was issuing small arms to some hundreds of the crew. Inevitably there’d been accidental discharges, but there were no casualties more serious than burns from where an iridium slug hit a bulkhead and vaporized both itself and a divot of steel the size of a pie plate. Well, no serious casualties yet.
The forty Marines had their separate arms locker adjacent to the bridge. Their commander, Major Aran Mull, was running them through bayonet drill in a bulk storage hold on G Level, emptied of grain during the voyage from Cinnabar. Despite how deep in the ship they were, Adele occasionally heard the attenuated snarl, “…to kill! To kill!” through open the hatches.
She smiled again.
“Mistress?” said Midshipman Cory, who must’ve been watching. He was at the console siamesed at the back with hers, but he had a miniature of her face on his display and speaking through a two-way link.
“I was wondering if there are stories about pixies who carry out house clearing, Cory,” Adele said. “I was too serious a child to have a really solid grounding in fairy tales, I’m afraid.”
Cory’s image blinked at her. “Ah–pixies, as little people who sprinkle stardust, mistress?” he said.
“That sounds like the sort of thing they might do, yes,” she said, smiling minusculely broader. The fact that she could be whimsical was absolute proof that she was in a good mood. “But it isn’t a serious concern at present. Go back to your databases.”
Headman Terl had been a close ally of the Republic for many years, so Cinnabar had sold him information-handling systems as good as those in the major ministries of the Republic. If every clerk carried out proper security precautions, Adele would have found entering them by brute force to be very difficult and perhaps impossible.
Realistically, not every clerk was properly careful. While at home, Adele had browsed through the databases of finance, foreign affairs, and especially the navy as often for fun as for need. What was true in Xenos became true in spades the farther one got into the hinterlands. Karst was a wealthy, important world; but it was a very long way from Xenos or Pleasaunce.
The situation on Karst was simpler yet, however. Every data console sold to the Hegemony had a back door which allowed someone with the codes to enter it as quickly as the designated operators. Very few people even in Mistress Sand’s organization knew of this facility, but Adele was one of them.
Cory went back to the task she had set him, culling data from the Headman’s government. There was more than was useful even for cursory perusal, of course, but there was a rule of thumb that Adele had found worked very well when she didn’t have a particular object of search: start with the items which were protected at the highest levels of security and, as time permits, work down toward open files.
She trusted Cory–certainly he would never deliberately act to harm either her or the Republic. There was no need for him to know how she’d entered the Hegemony systems, however, so she hadn’t told him. She’d established the pathway and then handed it over to the midshipman to exploit.
At the console adjacent to Adele’s, Sun was setting up gunnery assignments. Initially he’d prioritized every target which the dorsal plasma cannon could hit while the Milton floated in her slip. The first target was the Merkur, though a freighter from Valladolid was berthed between the two warships. Sun calculated that three eight-inch bolts at this short range would remove the obstruction, permitting a fourth round to rip the destroyer in half.
A few years ago, Adele would’ve thought that Sun’s calculations were appalling. Now she merely found them interesting… which was also appalling, but only to a civilian. Adele Mundy was no longer a civilian.
Across the bridge from the gunnery console, Borries choosing missile targets. The word “target” really begged the question, because there was almost no possibility that a missile launched in an atmosphere would hit its aiming point.
High Drive motors inevitably sprayed antimatter into their exhaust. Missiles were intended for use in a vacuum, where that was of no consequence. In a bath of normal matter, however, the mutual annihilation devoured the missile and probably portions of the ship it was launched from. The chief missileer and his striker in the BDC made their calculations anyway, just in case the need justified the cost.
Adele had blocked the audio of most messages, including the command channel. The inevitable chatter appeared as text blocks on the right border of her display. She’d exempted a few officers, though: Vesey and Blantyre, because of long association; Woetjans, because anything the bosun had to say was important; Cory, because he seemed to look on Adele as an elder sister and she didn’t choose to treat him with the harshness that would be required to drive him away; and Cazelet, who was her protégé and therefore her responsibility.
This time the call was Woetjans. “Ma’am?” the bosun said. “We’re getting the boats ready for an assault, you know? Hogg said we ought to ask if you want a place in one of ’em and which one? There’s three, so it’ll be Blantyre, Cory and me doing the piloting, you see? Over.”
Adele thought, I really don’t imagine that an assault on the heavily defended Angouleme Palace would be useful or, for that matter, survivable. Aloud she said, “In the event I’ll remain with the Millie where the communications are better. But thank you for asking, over.”
“Yes ma’am,” said Woetjans. “Ah, ma’am? Hogg’ll be going, and you know Tovera’s already gone to the palace with Six, over?”
“Thank you,” Adele repeated, more sharply than before. “I was responsible for my own safety for many years, Woetjans. I think I remember how to go about it. Signals out.”
“Yes ma’am,” said Woetjans. “Sorry ma’am. Rig out.”