Shadow Of Freedom – Snippet 04

Chapter Two

“How much longer do you expect this crap to go on?” Captain Francine Venelli’s tone was harsh. “I’ve got better things to do with my time than sit here in orbit killing a bunch of backwoods ground-grubbers, and my people don’t like it.” She glowered at the neatly dressed civilian on the other side of the briefing room table. “They don’t like it at all. For that matter, neither do I. And it’s not like there aren’t enough wheels coming off at the moment that I can’t find plenty of other more worthwhile things to worry about!”

“I don’t know how much longer, Captain,” Frinkelo Osborne replied as calmly and reasonably as he could. “I wish I did. And, while we’re being so frank with each other, I wish you weren’t here doing this, either.” He shook his head, his expression even more disgusted than Venelli’s. “It’s like using a hammer to crack an egg. Or maybe more like spanking a baby with an ax!”

Venelli’s blue eyes narrowed and she sat back in her chair. She’d dealt with more Office of Frontier Security personnel in her career than she could have counted — certainly a lot more of them than she could have wished! Too many of them, in her experience, were entirely in favor of using hammers on eggs, if only to discourage the next chicken from getting out of line. Of course, as a mere advisor to President Ailsa MacMinn’s Loomis Prosperity Party administration, not a full-fledged system or sector commissioner, Osborne might still be far enough down the food chain to believe there were more important things in the universe than his own bank balance.

Or maybe he’s just smart enough to realize what KEWs are likely to do to the source of his bank balance, she reminded herself. I wonder how many hectares of silver oak we’ve turned into cinders so far?

She kept her mental grimace from reaching her expression and glanced at the spectacular live feed from the exterior view projected on the briefing room’s smart wall while she considered that depressing question.

Her “squadron” — the battlecruiser Hoplite, the light cruiser Yenta MacIlvenna, and the destroyers Abatis and Lunette — had been improvised on very little notice when Loomis’ request for assistance came in. Now her ships orbited the planet Halkirk, the Loomis System’s primary inhabited planet, and the direct visual of the smart wall was magnificent. Indeed, under other circumstances, the captain, who was something of a connoisseur of planetary oddities, would probably have enjoyed her visit to the star system. Unlike the majority of systems, Loomis had two planets smack in the middle of the G7 primary’s liquid water zone. In fact, Halkirk and its sister planet, Thurso, were not only in the liquid water zone but orbited a common center of mass seven light-minutes from the star as they made their way around it. Yet while they might be sisters, they were far from twins.

Halkirk was all greens and browns — especially browns — with far less blue than Venelli was accustomed to seeing, since sixty percent of its surface was dry land. Some of it, like the continental interiors, was very dry land, as a matter of fact, although the smaller, mountainous continents of Stroma and Stronsay were quite pleasant. In fact, they were actually on the damp side, thanks to ocean currents and prevailing wind patterns, and even “small” continents were very large pieces of real estate. Hoy and Westray, which between them accounted for better than seventy percent of Halkirk’s total land area, were another story entirely, of course. Venelli understood exactly why the LPP had established its reeducation camps on Westray.

Thurso was a very different proposition — a gleaming, gorgeous sapphire of a world. Over ninety percent of its surface was water, and the widely scattered archipelagoes which were nominally dry land had to cope with tidal surges that reminded the captain more of tsunamis than anything most planets would have called tides. Not too surprising, she supposed, when Thurso’s “moon” was three percent more massive than Old Earth herself. Weather was…interesting on Thurso, as well, and it wasn’t too surprising that the planet’s population was tiny compared to Halkirk’s. On the other hand, Thurso’s gargantuan fisheries produced a startling tonnage of gourmet seafood which commanded extraordinary prices from Core World epicures. Probably not extraordinary enough to have attracted Star Enterprise Initiatives Unlimited’s attention to Loomis by itself, but enough to have made the star system a worthwhile trading stop even without Halkirk. The asteroid resource extraction industries and the gas mining operations centered on the star system’s trio of gas giants undoubtedly helped cover SEIU’s operating expenses, too, but the real treasure of the Loomis System lay in Halkirk’s groves of silver oak.

Francine Venelli was a professional spacer, accustomed to compact living quarters aboard ship or orbital habitats. She didn’t think in terms of planetary housing, or the kinds of huge, sprawling domiciles wealthy dirtsiders seemed to think were necessary. For that matter, she didn’t really understand the fascination “natural” materials exercised on some people’s minds. Durability, practicality, and appearance were far more important to her than where the materials in question came from, and wood was a pretty piss-poor construction material where starships were concerned.

Despite that, even she had been struck by the sheer beauty of Halkirk silver oak. The dense-grained, beautifully colored, beautifully patterned wood was like a somatic holo sculpture, deliberately designed to soothe and stroke the edges of a frayed temperament. Something about its texture — about the half-seen, half-imagined highlights that gleamed against its dark cherry wood color, like true silver deep inside the grain — was almost like the visual equivalent of barely heard woodwinds playing softly at the back of one’s mind or a gentle, relaxing massage. Just sitting in a room paneled with it was almost enough to make a woman forget why she was so pissed off with people like the Loomis System government. She supposed she shouldn’t be surprised that the price it commanded in Core World markets, as a medium for sculptors and furniture designers as well as a building material, was truly astronomical.