SOME GOLDEN HARBOR – snippet 49:

CHAPTER 13: Dunbar’s World

Adele wasn’t too lost in her world of data to notice that the buffeting was worse than usual as the Princess Cecile dropped through the atmosphere of Dunbar’s World, but she didn’t care very much. It was very unlikely that something had gone so badly wrong that Daniel wouldn’t be able to save them from a crash. If it did, well, it wouldn’t have happened because Signals Officer Mundy had failed.

Carrying out her duties in an accurate and efficient manner was one of Adele’s highest priorities; personal survival was not. She’d seen death too often to doubt that it would come for her also, later if not sooner; and she’d meted it out so frequently that her death would only be delayed justice.

“Adele?” said Daniel through the intercom. “There’s an anti-ship missile battery at the Pellegrinian base on Mandelfarne Island. It’s point-defense, but they might try something as we slant past to Ollarville. If you get anything before the ordinary threat-warning alarm sounds, it could be a lifesaver. Over.”

“Yes, I’ll try,” said Adele, her wands sorting before she’d given them conscious orders. Any craft carried to the level of art–and Adele’s ability at information retrieval was art–required more than intellect and training. “Oh. Oh. The ventral turret’s extended; that’s why I’m smelling ozone!”

“That’s correct,” Daniel said. She heard the smile in his voice even without looking at the image on her display. “Sun is looking forward to shooting down missiles. I’m much more interested in avoiding a situation in which he has to try. We may be able to do that with a little forewarning, over.”

“I’ve copied the inputs from the installation’s targeting computer to you,” Adele said. I should’ve said, “Over,” when I spoke before, but I forgot. Again. “I didn’t see anything of concern, but you may… that is, I’m not competent to judge. Over.”

“Right,” said Daniel. “Excellent. The battery’s default is to track only objects on a course approaching within one degree and to launch at thirty klicks unless countermanded. Since the computer is in default mode, we’re safe. And so, I presume, are Corius and his force. Over.”

That explained the severe buffeting also. Starships, even with their antennas telescoped and folded, were nothing like streamlined. Turrets, particularly belly turrets, were normally retracted into the hull during reentry since they were offset–toward the stern in the case of the Sissie–and the gun barrels acted as lever arms on the leading edge besides.

Adele pursed her lips and glanced at Sun hunched over the gunnery console beside her. His lips were spread in a smile of bright anticipation.

“Daniel?” she said. “Would he actually be able to hit missiles at such short range? Over.”

The plasma cannon were intended to deflect incoming missiles at ranges of hundreds of thousands of miles in vacuum. Plasma bolts were extremely effective against nearby ground targets even in an atmosphere, but the chances of destroying hypervelocity missiles launched from a few thousand miles away seemed remote to Adele.

“He thinks he can,” Daniel said. The smile was back. “I think the possibility that he’s right is worth a little extra turbulence–and perhaps some water leaking in when we land.”

He paused, then added, “There, we’re below the missiles’ horizon. Break.”

He’d switched to the command push.

“Captain, this is Six. We’re clear of the battery on Mandelfarne Island. Over.”

Adele felt rather than heard–she couldn’t hear anything over the wind noise and the thrusters blasting at high output–the turret begin to retract. Though the turret race rode on a magnetic suspension, a gear train raised and lowered the barbette. The regularity of the vibration made it noticeable through more violent but arrhythmic noises.

She nodded to herself in understanding. Daniel couldn’t–well, chose not to–give Sun orders, but the gunner was sharp enough to understand what Six said on the command channel. If Daniel’d given the information to Vesey alone for relay through the formal chain of command it would’ve been delayed too long to be of any use.

The Princess Cecile flared to a hover, suspended on thrust in a pillow of steam ten feet above the surface of Eastern Harbor. Adele glanced at a topographic display for an instant, though in a manner of speaking it didn’t matter to her where they landed.

The jaws of the shallow bay were open, and there were no moles to extend them. According to the Sailing Directions, before the war the harbor’d served only the immediate region and hadn’t been important enough to rate expensive improvements. Now it was too late: the ships carrying military supplies and entrepreneurs drawn by the chance of quick profits in a war had to take their chances with the southeast storms that sometimes wracked this coast.

Until recently Ollarville, the city which spread halfway around the bay’s curve, had a population of ten thousand. The federal authorities now estimated it was double that. Adele had also entered the data banks of the Eastern Provinces League, a political party before the invasion and now the self-proclaimed government of the East Coast. The EPL claimed Ollarville was over a hundred thousand, half again as big as Port Dunbar, but even party activists seemed to treat that figure as a pious wish rather than a fact.

The Sissie settled in tiny jerks, the minuscule overcorrections of a landing using the automatic system. The computer never made a huge error that’d splash waves over the neighboring quays, but neither did it anticipate conditions the way a really skilled human pilot seemed to do.

“Adele?” said Daniel. “Do you see what Vesey’s doing?”

Probably realizing the answer would either, “No,” or more likely, “Yes, but it doesn’t mean anything to me,” he continued without waiting, “She’s doing a dummy manual landing while the ship lands itself. She’ll go over the recordings later to see where she could improve. It’s an exercise I set my junior midshipmen, and she’s still doing it. Out.”

“Ship, touchdown in ten seconds,” announced Midshipman Blantyre from the Battle Direction Center.

Adele heard and understood the sadness in Daniel’s voice. Vesey was through study and practice doing everything possible to make herself an accomplished officer. What both Adele and Daniel knew was that machines would always be better at the mechanical aspects of command.

The things that machines couldn’t do were the really important ones. These required humanity, and Vesey was determinedly walling herself off from all that’d been human in her.

Adele smiled without even a hint of humor. The core of being human was the ability to feel pain. She’d had too much personal experience of that to want to call it a virtue, but perhaps she was wrong.

The Princess Cecile settled into her slip with the usual deafening roar. The sound of steam cut off the way fabric tears, quickly but not quite instantaneously, when the buzz of the thrusters stopped.

“Ship, this is damage Control,” said Midshipman Cory, trying to sound magisterial from the BDC. Vesey’d instituted more formal procedures than Daniel had thought necessary. “All compartments report green, over.”

“Pasternak, you may open the main hatch,” ordered Vesey. The chief engineer was Chief of Ship as the bosun was Chief of Rig, though Pasternak was of course busy in the Power Room with shut-down procedures and damage assessments. A pair of techs would cycle the hatch with a few off-duty riggers present for extra muscle in case something’d warped enough to stick.