2950-06-28 – Tales from the Service: The Professor’s Landfall
As Rubicelle Randy sailed past the huge doors of the enemy transport’s launch hangar, Rachel Aldershoff shut off the ion drive and kicked on the standard gravitics. She’d watched several shuttles do this, so it was fairly easy to mimic the acceleration profile of these larger, lumbering transports. At first, she was tense, worried that a particularly attentive sensor-watching spacer aboard the transport would raise the alarm, but as the seconds ticked by, she was increasingly certain that none of the various members of the Incarnation crew had noticed anything amiss or started to ask questions.
As the huge transport moved out of view behind Randy, Jarvis Courtenay drummed his fingers on the back of Rachel’s chair. “This is the fastest we can go, yes?”
“This is as fast as we can go without being really suspicious, Professor.” Rachel tightened her grip on the controls. “You’d better go below and get strapped in. Re-entry tends to get bumpy, even through the A-grav.”
Courtenay made a grumbling sound but hurried down the passage all the same. Rachel switched one of her screens over to show the bearing to his landing coordinates, then focused on trying to fly an atmospheric insertion as much like a lumbering cargo shuttle as she possibly could.
It was only as the controls started to vibrate and jump that Rachel put two of the things at the forefront of her mind together and found that they did not match. The shuttles were going down to various places on the surface of Adimari Valis with their gravitic drives indicating lighter loads, and they were coming back with their drives straining and clawing for every meter of climb. On a world like Margaux, an industrial powerhouse by Frontier standards, that would make perfect sense – the invaders would have co-opted the planet’s industry for their war machine. Adimari Valis, however, had nowhere near the industrial base or the agricultural output to fill so many shuttles or the cavernous holds of as many transport ships as had just departed.
In fact, other than a few minor deposits of rare earths, Adimari Valis had virtually no resources worth extracting. What, then, was the Incarnation dragging away in such quantities?
The increasingly violent attempts by the planet’s upper atmosphere to hurl her craft off course forced Rachel to sideline this thought for a little while to wrestle with the controls. When Rubicelle Randy leveled off at ten thousand meters and flew level to let its hull cool off, she turned toward their destination and flicked on the ship’s intercom. Shadows cast by the planet’s bright blue-white primary lengthened and traveled across her consoles as Randy performed a wide, sweeping turn.
“Welcome to Adimari Valis, Professor Courtenay. Altitude is ten klicks, pursuit is negative. You may now walk about the vessel, and if you would be so kind, could you come up here?”
“On my way.”
Courtenay stumped up the passage a moment later. Rachel switched the controls to automatic and spun her big chair toward the passenger. “Something’s been bugging me here. You’re an analytical sort, and you know Valis reasonably well, but you didn’t ask the obvious question.”
Courtenay bowed his head. “I fear I’ve asked many obvious questions with obvious answers since you’ve had me aboard. Which did I miss?”
“You saw all those transports same as I did. Shouldn’t that much traffic be odd? What are they moving around that has to come from Adimari Valis?”
Courtenay raised his head, and one eyebrow. “Mathematically, yes, it is odd. I might have asked, had I not already been aware of the level of activity.”
“You know what they’re moving.”
“So do you, Captain Aldershoff. At least, you do now.” Courtenay looked out at the blue-gray sky beyond the canopy. “There really is only one possibility, isn’t there?”
Rachel scowled. “That’s damned insane. Even for Nate. What do they want with all of it? Where will they take it?”
“That, I neither know nor care.” Courtenay’s face suddenly took on a hard-edged look that Rachel didn’t like. “They are taking it from here, knowing as well as I do how much knowledge is lost in the very moving. Knowing, and still doing it... It is worse than sacrilege.”
Rachel wouldn’t take it quite that far, but given her passenger’s academic specialization, she could hardly blame him for his anger. “You can’t do a damned thing to stop it, though.”
“No.” Courtenay shook his head, his eyes still focused on the distant sky. “I cannot.”
The console behind Rachel beeped, and she spun her chair back around to find that they were approaching the top of their long spiraling arc toward the ground. As Rubicelle Randy overflew the landing site, she used the ventral cameras to spy out the place. It looked like just another stretch of rocky Adimari Valis uplands, far from the nearest of the lush valleys where most of the population lived. There was no sign of life, not even the crumbled foundations of a Xenarch ruin. “You said your son was at a dig site? I sure don’t see anything like that here.”
“Much work has been done to conceal it from the invaders.” Courtenay leaned over the side of the controls to point at the images. “Can you put this ship on that open ground there?”
Rachel chuckled. “Old man, I could park this ship on a lighter’s tailplane.”
As the ship looped around on its programmed course, she cut the automatics and took control back personally, adopting a low and fast approach that would leave plenty of speed for an escape climb if there was trouble. Fortunately, as the last knob of rock fell away to reveal the landing site, she saw no sign of Incarnation presence in the air or on the ground. With one graceful motion, she flipped the nose up, deployed the landing skids, then brought Rubicelle Randy down lightly onto the bone-white Adimari Valis gravel.
“Job’s done, Professor.” Rachel held up a hand. “Hand over the chits.”
Courtenay chuckled, then fished in his pocket for the ring of credit chits he’d showed her prior to departure from Maribel. “You still need to get out alive.”
“I’ll figure that out when I get to it.” She had already shown the man far more of her secrets than she cared to. “I’ll wait an hour for a welcoming party, then you’re either getting off my ship or paying for the return flight.”
Courtenay dropped the chits into Rachel’s hand. As she counted her fee, Rachel put the ship’s perimeter security system on high alert. She had no interest in being highjacked by a bunch of desperate mercenaries.
“Aren’t you curious?”
Rachel, who had forgotten her passenger’s presence, nearly jumped out of her chair. “Eh? About what?”
“About what’s down here. What’s right under your nose, that is worth all this money and danger.”
Rachel looked over her shoulder at the man. “Curiosity gets you killed in my business, Professor. Even when it isn’t lethal, it sure doesn’t pay.”
Courtenay nodded, his eyes twinkling with mirth that hadn’t managed to tug the corners of his mouth into a smile. “As you prefer.”
The console shrieked an alarm, and Rachel turned back to see several figures cowled in cloth as bone-white as the rocks coming over a nearby ridge-line. The weapons slung over their backs were similarly wrapped in fabric, but their outlines were unmistakable all the same.
“That would be my welcoming party.” Jarvis Courtenay extended a hand. “It has been a pleasure flying with you, Captain Aldershoff.”
Rachel eyed the tall man’s hand suspiciously before shaking it. “It’s been interesting, Professor. Try to be safe out there.”
“I shall make no promises.” Courtenay turned to head below and collect his effects.
Things are still in flux here at Maribel, but I am hopeful that next week’s episode will include a transcribed interview with someone in Admiral Venturi’s headquarters. This has been challenging to arrange because about half of the members of Fifth Fleet senior staff have been officially transferred to other commands, but most of them are still in-system and their replacements have yet to arrive.
[N.T.B.: Before our Maribel readers get worried or Nate gets any ideas, the command shake-up doesn’t extend below the level of the senior staff. Captain Liao and all of his peers remain in their posts. Small-scale operations are continuing, and Maribel will be a tough nut to crack.]