What Distant Deeps — Snippet 31

CHAPTER 10: Calvary Harbor on Zenobia

Adele was contentedly engaged with her duties as the Princess Cecile roared down toward the surface of Zenobia. Occasionally she wondered if her “contentment” was what other people referred to as happiness. There wasn’t any way to test the hypothesis, however, so she generally ignored the question.

Landing a starship from orbit was a matter of lengthy, thunderous buffeting. Though the antennas had been retracted and clamped as firmly as possible to the hull, every section rattled at a different frequency. The atmosphere howled and whistled; the thrusters pulsed deafeningly as they ionized reaction mass, spewing the plasma out at high velocity to brake the corvette’s approach.

Adele was more or less aware of what was going on around her, but she ignored it. The cacophony was familiar from long repetition; and besides, nothing that didn’t physically interfere with her work was of great importance when she had something to do. She was quite good at finding things, but first landing on a new planet was always an embarrassment of riches.

She had set Cory at the astrogation console and Cazelet in the BDC to various tasks that she had broken out for them. The Sissie’s internal operations would have astounded — appalled — any RCN officer who wasn’t already familiar with them: during a landing, all officers should be at their posts, prepared to deal with crises — not harvesting electronic data under the direction of a junior warrant officer.

Daniel — who had the conn — or Vesey either one could have landed the Princess Cecile and dealt with anything untoward that happened. If both of them — if every watch-standing officer — aboard the corvette suddenly dropped dead, there were a dozen ratings who could have brought the ship in safely. And if Captain Daniel Leary chose to give his signals officer a free hand in directing the crew as she saw fit, then surely the results justified his decision.

Adele grinned slightly while she examined data from the Founder’s Palace: regular officers would still be appalled. Which was in part why an irregular officer like Daniel had proved so successful.

The thruster output increased in a smooth curve rather than a series of jolts, showing that a human hand rather than a computerized landing program was in charge of the process. Even so the perceived increase in the weight of Adele’s control wands made her pause until the ship sank finger’s-breadth by finger’s-breadth into the steam which her exhaust boiled from the harbor.

The Palace’s electronic security was conspicuous by its absence: Adele had seen local shops which did a better job of safeguarding their data. Security was so bad, in fact, that her first thought was that the Founder’s important files had been concealed so skillfully that she couldn’t locate, let alone penetrate, them.

That was paranoia on her part. Founder Hergo had no important files. The lack of security was actually a reasonable allocation of resources, since the only risk was that someone would divert the monthly household expense allowance.

When on Zenobia — the Z 46 hadn’t yet returned from the Qaboosh Assembly — Posy Belisande lived within the Palace, as indicated by those household expenses. She had no electronic files whatever. As Adele had expected, if she was to learn anything from Posy, it would have to be a result of personal contact.

She managed a wan smile. The risk of embarrassment shouldn’t deter her. She could have spent her whole life without being more than vaguely aware of the Qaboosh and the residents thereof, so it could hardly matter to her if in future years somebody here felt that she had behaved in a self-important or otherwise foolish fashion.

Well, it wouldn’t deter her. Nothing would. But she feared embarrassment as she had never feared death.

Daniel brought the Sissie in so gently that the first sign that they were down was the relative silence as the thrusters shut down rather than the outriggers splashing into the harbor. The ship gave a long drawn-out sigh; then hatches rang open all over the hull.

It would be some minutes before the entry ramp could be lowered, but the Sissie’s veterans weren’t concerned about a little steam or ozone from the exhaust. A pump began to chug, hauling harbor water through twin hoses to replace the reaction mass expended in landing.

Adele went back to work. Her first priority had been military installations, since she put her duty to the RCN — or at any rate, to her fellow Sissies — ahead of Mistress Sand in the present circumstances. Very likely she would say the same in any circumstances, but she tended to disregard questions in the abstract.

There were no warships in Calvary Harbor or elsewhere on Zenobia as far as she could tell. The Z 46 was either still on Stahl’s World or more likely en route to Zenobia, and her sister ship — the other vessel in the Zenobia Detachment, the Z 42 — was in powered orbit as it had been since von Gleuck lifted off. A Water Buffalo — basically a tanker with enough thrusters to reach orbit — had replenished the destroyer twice, according to her log.

Von Gleuck was clearly taking the Palmyrene threat seriously. Having met the Autocrator, Adele couldn’t imagine the woman launching at attack without herself being present to watch, but von Gleuck had no intention of returning to Zenobia and finding that Irene had stolen a march on him and was in control.

There were no Alliance ground troops on Zenobia, and the security presence controlled by the Resident was only about 20 personnel, fewer than Adele had learned to expect. Apparently Zenobia’s independence was less nominal than it had seemed from Xenos.

The Founder’s Regiment had a present strength of 319 effectives, with an average of about ten percent over the past six months absent for illness or on leave. They were light infantry trained for urban combat — but they were trained: they weren’t simply thugs and torturers like the troops of many fringe-world leaders.

The commander was Major Aubrey Flecker, a Norstrilian who had left the Grand Army of the Stars to avoid a prison sentence. Though the regiment’s equipment was to Alliance standards, none of the personnel were from Pleasaunce or Blythe. Or from Cinnabar, of course; but again, Adele got an impression of Zenobian independence.

A company of forty-four men was on duty at the Palace now. They appeared to be primarily a reaction force to deal with trouble of a serious nature anywhere on Zenobia, but they also guarded the building itself with a surprising amount of enthusiasm. Instead of fixed guard posts, several four-man teams patrolled at intervals set by a randomizing timer. After checking the surveillance imagery for several days running, Adele was impressed by the way the system appeared to keep the troops on edge.

There was also a battery of anti-starship missiles under three soldiers and a lieutenant; the installation squatted in the middle of what had been a Palace courtyard. Adele’s quick check of the records showed that the whole regiment had been cross-trained in missile control; personnel rotated through the installation on the regular duty rota. The battery had links variously across the planet, but the missile controls were only accessible from within the command post.

Adele recalled her discussion on Stahl’s World about the problem of capturing Cavalry Harbor. She wouldn’t be willing to bet against the troops on duty being alert enough to spike the first three enemy vessels attempting an assault landing

“Ma’am?” said Cory; not in any sense proper communications protocol — or RCN procedure more generally — but sufficient on a two-way link with Adele. “Would you like me to go down and help the Browns, like before?”

Adele awoke to her immediate surroundings. She brought up a panorama of the harbor, then shrank the imagery to the quay where the Sissie had landed. The large aircar waiting there was military in all respects but one: the identification numbers on the front had been painted over, and on the door the seal of the Representational Affairs section had been appliquéd over what was almost certainly the stenciled legend Land Forces of the Republic.

A tall, neatly dressed, man stood beside the vehicle. The caret Cory had thoughtfully added above him read Comm M Gibbs/Acting Commissioner.