|Episode 101: The Fabulous City of San'a|
Ten billion people is a lot for a single city. Too many, some would say, but they had probably never lived in San'a. It was a vibrant place, a place where every culture in the human galaxy came together. Forty thousand square kilometers of skyscrapers reaching for the sky, wide parks filled with amusements and entertainment, tunnels stretching twenty kilometers below the surface, trains, roads, lighter-than-air transports and buildings, lakes, rivers, and above it all, suspended half-way between ground and vacuum, the only sub-orbital spaceport in all of the First Colonial Sphere; all of it together made a city unlike any other, a place where anything was possible, good or bad, a world all its own, a microcosm of the galactic culture. All of it summed up in one name: San'a.
William Maccabee Derrick liked to visit this place, whenever he could. There were three reasons why he particularly enjoyed San'a above the dozens of other cities on other worlds that he had visited. First, it was an easy place to get lost in, despite the information-gathering trend of the modern age. Second, he liked the food. Third, every time he came, he hoped to find a particular person there, a friend he'd misplaced a long time before. If he'd had no luck so far on the third, the first two were satisfied on each visit.
Maccabee--all but his closest friends referred to him by this name--was a tall man, powerfully built and leanly muscled. He had a barrel chest and short, thick, black hair that curled on top of his head if he let it grow longer than half a centimeter. Though his body had aged only some twenty-five years, he had lived thirty more than that. This was not the only modification to the original birth product he had been. He was faster and stronger than normal men. Selective biological and genetic engineering had altered his muscular and skeletal structure just slightly, almost imperceptibly, but enough. His healthy, dark brown skin rippled over the powerful muscles underneath, and his bright, yellow-brown eyes were shadowed under heavy brows.
He strode through a narrow, bustling street wearing an ankle-length vest over his bare chest; the muted purple color of the vest was not very daring by current style trends in San'a, but it looked good. The pants he wore were simply but excellently tailored. Only the heavy, spacer's boots gave away any hint of his profession, and with a few million crewmen in the city at any time, they hardly marked him out as special. He wore no weapons, nor any insignia. The former would have attracted too much attention, while the latter was just plain dumb. No need to announce who he was, not even here where he felt safer than anywhere other than his ship, Hornet.
This part of the city was three hundred years old, and the buildings were more widely spaced than the recent construction. City planners had had a hand in the design of this neighborhood. The towering buildings were light, even feathery, fluted and twisted into odd shapes and geometric patterns. Sometimes two buildings leaned out over the street and briefly met each other before veering off and back. Others sloped away from the street, like crazy drunks staggering down an alleyway. All told, it was a disconcerting, but somehow also comforting effect. The lower tiers were given over to shops, restaurants, boutiques, hotels, parlors, malls, theaters, and every imaginable sort of commercial enterprise. The street was called Raleigh Way, and the district was Kumasi.
Maccabee was looking for someone here, someone who had information that he wanted. San'a, by its very nature, attracted the darker elements of society, and it was to these that Maccabee was drawn by virtue of his current business: he was a pirate hunter, an independent who operated by his own rules, and followed his own path. He'd done the same job before, for a company called Mercur and Watson, but they had tried to kill him and had nearly succeeded. That sort of experience tended to change a man's outlook on life in general, and on Mercur and Watson in particular.
Sliding through the thick crowd with practiced ease, Maccabee turned off of Raliegh Way onto a small alley that had no name that he knew. The press of people here was a bit less tight, and he relaxed slightly. His credit chip was sewn into a secret pocket on the inside of the vest, just above his chest, but it paid to be careful. In the last ten minutes, he'd felt at least two light-fingered hands brush his visible pockets, coming up empty. He'd let the thieves pass, however. Stopping them would only have created a scene, and Maccabee was not a big fan of scenes. Anonymity was his friend: there was always the chance of an M&W goon showing up with a long memory for faces.
The further he walked, the sparser the crowd became. Finally, he turned right again and started down Asemme Street, heading south. This was a residential district, and the traffic, though still dense by some standards, was quiet by comparison to Raleigh Way. A few wheeled cars slid by on nearly-silent motors, and every thirty seconds or so a train whooshed past, traveling at high speed on the elevated monorail lines above the street. Maccabee garnered a few curious looks--there were plenty of sailors in the city, but few of them ventured too far from the bars and brothels--but mostly the other pedestrians ignored him.
Finally, he reached his destination, and stepped inside the foyer of a mid-sized tower, something in the range of a thousand floors high, but with a small footprint, perhaps a hundred meters square, making the whole look like a tapered needle stabbing at the clouds that ringed its tip. Inside, there was a station for visitors to sign in, manned by a small, four-wheeled robot with a cylindrical body bristling with probes and pointy bits. The machine was a security model, equipped with various scanning tools, yet another reason why Maccabee had declined to bring any weapons on this particular trip.
"Please sign the guest book, sir," said the robot in a pleasant, female voice. Maccabee reached out and pressed his finger against the tiny DNA probe proffered by the robot. This was not high security, as DNA codes were easy to fake with a little prep work, but good enough for the purposes of this place. "Thank you, Mister Derrick. May I call your party?"
"Please. It's Elva Massai." Maccabee's voice was a low baritone, with a comforting quality to its timbre.
"One moment please," replied the robot. A holographic video feed flashed on above its main body, displaying a wait pattern. Two seconds later, the image switched to the familiar face of Elva Massai. The image quality was good, good enough that Maccabee saw she wasn't happy to see him. Well, she never was, come to think of it.
"What do you want?" Her high, nasal voice was irritating as always. Long, thin cheekbones highlighted her face, but it was not an attractive view. The eyes were too close together, and the hair was pulled back so tight it stretched the skin over the bones like an image of death. At least she was mildly competent.
"Just stopped by to say hello, Elva." Maccabee put on what he hoped was a genuine-looking smile. "Can I come up?"
"Oh, you're going to anyway. Yes, get up here. This had better be quick, I have company." She turned and cut the link.
"Ah," said Maccabee as the holo image faded away. That might be a problem. Elva's boyfriends tended to be the surly type, easily offended and likely to resort to violence to prove that theirs was the bigger cock. Wonderful.
"Please use lift five, Mister Derrick," said the robot, interrupting Maccabee's train of thought.
"Thanks," he muttered. He walked back to the bay of lifts and picked out number five. As he stood in the call area, another lift at his back opened, and an elderly man emerged, dressed in carefully pressed clothes and a brimmed hat that was centuries out of fashion. He carried a walking stick that came just two centimeters short of touching the floor, but he swung it anyway, and it almost looked as though he was supporting himself on it. He glanced at Maccabee, gave him a curt nod, and then shuffled out to the foyer, the stick swinging, stopping, swinging, stopping.
The lift arrived and Maccabee stepped inside. Apparently the robot had already sent instructions to the lift, because it closed its doors without waiting for other passengers and then swept upwards without a word from the man inside it. No acceleration was apparent past the influence of the gravity plating in the floor, but the numbers on the counter above the door spun away at about fifty floors per second. Four and half second later, the lift slid to a stop at floor 214, and the doors opened soundlessly. Maccabee stepped out, and immediately arrows glowed behind the walls, reacting to his presence and guiding him towards his destination. Every wall and ceiling surface in the building had computer-controlled luminescent properties, and the central station of the network that ran the building obviously was keeping track of him. It took him just about a minute to walk to Elva's door.
He didn't bother to knock, and a moment later the door swung open. Elva glared at him, the pink robe that she wore just barely long enough to cover to the middle of her thighs and also open a little too low at the throat and chest for Maccabee's comfort. Her bare foot was tapping on the carpeted floor of her flat.
"Well, come in then," she said, stepping backwards and making a grand, sweeping gesture with her free hand. "I don't have all day."
"Thank you." Maccabee stepped inside and then stopped, waiting for her to close the door. When she did, he asked, "Is there a place we can speak alone?"
"Sure." She squeezed past him in the narrow hallway and he followed her past the two meter by one meter kitchen unit and into the main room that took up ninety percent of the rest of the flat. The bath facilities were integrated into the kitchen; the sink and counter simply rotated back into the wall as the shower and toilet flipped out.
The main room was a mess, cluttered with piles of clothes and stuffed with far more furniture than could comfortably fit in the space. The couch was currently folded out into a bed, and a man was lying on it, naked, slowly playing with himself as he watched a porno on the holo display floating above him. He flicked a glance towards Elva and Maccabee as they entered the room, and then ignored them, staring with fascination at the holo. It was a good set, and the resolution was high enough that it looked like actual people floating over the bed, rocking back and forth violently and moaning loudly.
"Hey!" shouted Elva. "Turon!" She picked up a wadded skirt from a pile at her feet and threw it at the man. He stoically ignored it as it landed on his face. Elva scowled and pushed her way through the mess to the side of the bed, grabbed Turon's penis and jabbed her fingernails into it. Maccabee winced as the man howled in pain and threw Elva off the bed with a flailing arm. She landed on a pile of clothes and the robe fell open. Maccabee sighed and closed his eyes, hoping that this would all go away before any of it was burned permanently onto his retinas.
"Damn you, woman, what in the Unholy's name are you doing!" shouted Turon as he stood up on the bed, one hand carefully probing his injured manhood. He had very broad shoulders and well-muscled arms, but proportionally scrawny legs, and his hair was shaped into a careful dome and dyed or genetically stained a bright blue color. The tattoos on his chest were active matrix jobs, and apparently linked to his moods or some neuroreceptors, because they were going crazy, flashing around and changing colors and shapes so quickly that Maccabee's eyes couldn't follow what the stuff was trying to display. Probably just as well.
"Just get in the kitchen, Turon," grumbled Elva as she pushed herself to her feet and mercifully tied the robe shut again. If only Turon had been similarly covered, Maccabee thought he would retain his sanity for a little while longer.
"And who the fuck are you?" asked Turon of the other man with a jerk of his head, as though to say, "Tell me now, so I know what name to write on your memorial plaque."
"Maccabee," said Maccabee.
"What? What the fuck is that?"
"That's my name." Maccabee sighed; he knew where this was leading. "Will you please get into the kitchen now?"
"Fuck you, and you too, bitch." Turon hopped down from the bed. "I think I'm gonna--"
He broke off as Maccabee took two quick steps forward and slammed a fist into his stomach. Turon doubled over in pain, his breath exploding out of him in a big whoosh, and then Maccabbe hammered his elbow down on the back of Turon's head and the big man fell like a slab of meat, landing softly on a pile of clothes.
"Fuck," said Elva. "You killed him."
"I hope not," muttered Maccabee. He stooped and checked for vital signs: the other man's pulse was weak, but steady. Good enough. "He'll make it." Straightening, he turned to the woman, who took a step backwards from him. "Now, I have some questions that I think you know the answer to, Elva. Listen carefully, and I'll be gone in a few minutes."
She nodded, and he started talking.
"Time to go!" said Maccabee in a loud voice as he strode up the ramp of his shuttle and into the main hold. "Simon?"
"Here, boss." Simon Tamil stepped through the bulkhead hatch leading to the aft engineering crawl spaces, wiping his hands with a grubby cloth. It was always the same cloth, and the mechanic never cleaned it, but it always seemed to have a fresh white spot on it somewhere. Simon was a short, wiry man, with long blond hair pulled back into a ponytail and tucked under a decaying cap that seemed even less-often cleaned than the rag. The sleeve of his shirt was rolled back, and a small injector was strapped to Simon's upper arm.
"What's that?" asked Maccabee, pointing at the injector.
"Ah, that's nothing, boss, that's just a little cocktail to help pass the time." Simon smiled weakly and shrugged. "No big."
"You'd better not be zoning while you're working on my engines, Simon," said Maccabee as he crossed the open hold and headed forward to the cockpit. "Now take that shit off and warm up the engines. I've got what we need."
"Yeah, okay boss, no worries." Simon winced as he yanked the injector off his arm and a little drop of blood rolled down his biceps. "She'll be hot in five."
Maccabee stepped into the bridge and pulled the hatch shut behind him. The shuttle was a stripped-down hauler, twenty-five ton capacity. Other than the hold, there was only the bridge and the engineering spaces, though no one could be back there during flight. The bridge was a simple layout too, just three chairs, one forward for the pilot and one to each side of it for the navigator and for the mechtech. Two jump seats could be folded out of the rear bulkhead, in case there were more passengers, and the hold had a few similar seats built into it as well, enough for ten people, so long as they didn't mind being uncomfortable. This was not an issue at the moment, however, because Maccabee had brought only two of his crew with him.
"We're leaving," he said as he stepped forward and leaned over the main holo display for the pilot's station.
The small woman in the seat looked up at him and grinned. "That was quick," she said in a husky contralto. Ming Sen's black hair was cut to about two centimeters, and her short frame was heavily muscled but still very female. Sparkling, raven-black eyes lent her face an exotic look, as did the delicate bone structure under her pale skin. Even dressed in a jumpsuit, she exuded a sort of animal attractiveness that many men found irresistible. "Have fun?"
"I did not have any fun, Ming, you know that." Maccabee smiled down at her, then looked back at the controls. "How soon can we get an exit vector?"
She glanced at the same display he was looking at, moved her incongruously delicate fingers through the control pickups, and looked at another data set. "Looks like about fifty minutes." Leaning back in the chair, she graced her captain with another winning smile. "So, plenty of time to tell me how it went. Is Elva as beautiful as ever?"
Maccabee scowled at his pilot, who blithely ignored him, then kicked back the navigator's chair and fell into it. "I saw more of that woman than I ever want to see again," he muttered.
"Oh ho," said Ming with a laugh. "Did she offer up her wares for your examination, then?"
"You have an odd way of saying things, Ming," he growled. "She did not offer anything. She had a boyfriend with her." Maccabee knew he should leave well enough alone, but he always enjoyed talking with Ming. That, and other things, sometimes.
Ming clapped her hands together and pulled her legs up onto the seat, crossing them under her and leaning forward, her elbows on her knees, her chin cupped in her hands, and a broad smile on her lips. "Ah, now it's really fun. A boyfriend! Was he cute?"
"He was watching a skin vid when I came in," Maccabee said and grinned. "Naked."
Ming stuck out her tongue. "Ew!
"For someone who likes sex as much as you, you don't like to watch it much." Maccabee watched for her reaction, and noticed just a hint of flaring at her nostrils.
"I like to participate, Maccabee. Where's the fun in watching other people have fun?" She winked at him and leaned back in the pilot chair.
"Well, this boyfriend of hers seemed to be having a good time," said Maccabee.
"Ah, what delirious fun." She put on a fake frown. "Let me get this straight, you were complaining about seeing Elva naked, but not about watching her boyfriend stroking his thing? I didn't think you went in for the gents Macc."
Maccabee winced. "Please don't call me that."
He sighed. She was hopeless. She was also the best pilot he'd ever met. It was a routine practice of hers to try and scare the shit out of him, in a very literal sense, and she'd nearly succeeded on several occasions. Not all her skill was natural, however; she'd been one of the small group of men and women that Maccabee had augmented. Her reflexes were more on the level of a cat than a human. In every sense of the word, Ming was a thrill seeker, which was one of the reasons she was on Hornet. Few thrills compared with private pirate hunting. Unfortunately, she had a tendency to push things too far. There'd only been a handful of times he'd had to rein her in, but they'd been pretty spectacular.
"Get me Samara," Maccabee said. Ming flashed him a pouty frown. "Save it. Maybe I'll tell you later. If you're nice to me."
"Oh, I can be nice." She winked at him. "Very nice, captain, sir."
"Christ." Maccabee shook his head and turned to the holo that had just turned on in front of him. A moment later, a face appeared in the display. It was Samara Kar Deffin, his exec. The holo showed her round, pretty face, her golden-brown hair, and her dark green eyes, as well as her bare shoulders. "Sorry, Sam, did I interrupt?"
"No," she said. She had a slow way of talking; some people thought it meant she thought slowly too, which was a bad mistake. Samara had volunteered for the most risky of Maccabee's enhancement programs, and her mind was like a honed, ceramasteel trap, ready to spring at a moment's notice. Her speech patters were a result of growing up in the Cerulean Expansionate. Maybe living inside a giant nebula did that sort of thing to you. "I was just taking a shower," she finished.
"We'll be up in an hour," said Maccabee. "I got what we needed."
"Really?" said Samara, arching an eyebrow. "And how is Elva?"
"I wish you'd all stop asking," growled her boss. "She's the same as always, annoying, smarmy, and full of interesting information." He shook his head. "I swear, I will never understand how she gets all of that."
"Sex," said Samara with a straight face.
Maccabee scowled. "My point exactly. I don't know who would want to have sex with her!"
Ming laughed in the background, but Samara only smiled a slow smile. Then she nodded. "We'll be ready, captain."
Samara killed the connection and Maccabee turned back to his laughing pilot. "Why don't you shut up and do something useful," he said to her.
"I got nothing to do until we take off, sir," she said, turning another laugh into a cough.
Ming's face fell as she suddenly realized that she'd opened herself up for additional work. "Uh, now that you mention it, Cap, I've got some . . . things . . . that I need to do." Maccabee nodded. "Things I should probably be doing now." He nodded again. "I'll just go do those things, okay?" Another nod. Ming sighed and climbed out of the pilot's chair, then left through the hatch. "Hey Simon! What the hell're you doing back there?" she called as she exited the cockpit. "Sounds like you're rearranging the plumbing!"
Simon's reply--assuming there was one--was cut off as the hatch closed behind Ming with a hollow clunk. Maccabee sighed and leaned back in his chair. After all the years he'd spent building and training this crew, they still seemed like a bunch of misfits. Of course, Hornet was in no navy, and Maccabee was not a real officer, at least not as far as any government was concerned. Hell, the PARC--the Post-African Regional Cooperative, in whose space Hornet operated almost exclusively--would probably have impounded the ship on the basis of its various weapons systems, most of which were at least on the shady side of the law for private ownership. There was no helping that, however. Anyone who hunted pirates in a ship as small as Hornet needed a lot of guns, and that was what Maccabee had.
And now, he had something else as well, the final piece of a puzzle that he had been working on for the better part of half a year. He just hoped that the final picture would be one he wanted to see.