Episode 102: Hornet and her Crew

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Hornet was not at the Ascension SkyPort. Though it was a remarkable achievement in terms of engineering and orbital and gravitational mechanics, the floating port was not particularly popular. Suspended in the upper regions of the atmosphere, it required anyone who wished to dock there to actually undergo some form of reentry. Admittedly, this did not entail heat shields and maneuvering jets or landing thrusters of the kind that megaton freighters simply weren't equipped with--the station's own energy grapnels took care of any docking procedure--but the thought made most skippers extremely nervous. The advantage of the port was allowing transshipment of cargo within the atmosphere, which was a hell of a lot cheaper than actual ground to orbit shuttles.

Everything had tradeoffs, thought Maccabee. For example, the information he'd just received put him a lot closer to a group of pirates he'd been hunting for over a year, but it also made him very, very nervous. The more he learned about these pirates, the more he thought that they had to have some sort of backing, a company, a government, a private individual of extreme wealth, something that provided them with their advanced gear and coordinated intelligence. So, on the one hand, Maccabee felt confident he could track the bastards down to ground; on the other, he wasn't really sure he wanted to.

Ming rolled the shuttle and arced underneath a twenty million ton freighter lumbering through the lower orbitals. The thing was so massive it actually blocked out a good ninety percent of the view through the forward canopy. Only for the five seconds it took for Ming to throttle past it, however. On the other side, ships were mostly visible only as small circles of holographic light painted on the canopy by the heads-up display, each one picking out the location of a vessel too distant to see. Most people forgot just how big space was, even the intensely crowded space above a major starport on a populous planet of a main system; thousands of ships virtually disappeared into that volume of space.

"We're on approach, cap," said Ming, not taking her eyes off the screens in front of her. About five different holo displays were active, all focused on the pilot's position, and Ming's eyes flickered back and forth between them, looking at the broad navigational view, the position of Hornet ahead of them, San'a Orbital Control relays, the shuttle's own status readouts and who knew what else. Through all of it, she kept a fraction of her attention riveted on the view straight ahead. The shuttle's automatics would kick in if she flew too close to something too big, but it still made Maccabee nervous to watch her fly. She was pushing the limits of Orbital Control's Maneuvering Rules, specifically by quickly approaching the fifty kilometer per second velocity limit.

"Ease off a bit, Ming," said Maccabee from his position at the navigator's station. He thought he heard Simon chuckle from the other side of the cockpit, but he couldn't be sure. "Orbital Control's not going to be happy."

"You worry too much, cap," said Ming, her voice carefree as the shuttle passed forty-five kps.

"I don't like attracting attention," he replied. As though on cue, the com unit chimed with an incoming signal. "You see?"

"Yeah, yeah." Ming took a hand from the holographic controls she'd been manipulating and flicked a finger through another pickup to take the call. "Shuttle Hornet-one, orbital vector Charlie-bravo-seven-seven-two-four. What can I do for you, control?"

"You can slow the fuck down, hot shot," growled the woman on the other end of the line. "Bring it back to forty klicks."

"Limit's fifty, ain't it?" Maccabee glared at Ming. She shrugged; that was her way.

"You ever want to make landfall here again?" The controller did not wait for an answer. "Slow it down, now."

"Roger, control," replied Ming with an audible sigh. Thankfully, the controller cut the connection herself before the whole thing could go any further. Ming pulled the shuttle's speed back to forty-one kps.

"She said forty," Maccabee pointed out.

"She was just making a point," replied Ming. "They won't bother us again."

"You wanna make a bet on that?" asked Simon. "That woman sounded pretty damned mad at the world, honey." He laughed. "I'd like to see your little ass in a cell, Ming."

"Yeah, well, there's lots of things we'd all like to do. Get used to disappointment."

Maccabee ignored the byplay. He'd long since grown tired of it, and had found that the easiest solution was to ignore it altogether. On Hornet it was a little bit easier, with more space for time on his own, especially since he had his own cabin on board, but in situations like this, he liked to think of other things, like just what he was planning to do once he was back on board. On second thought, maybe it would be better to listen to Simon and Ming after all.

"Yeah, but I can have any woman, Ming," Simon was saying with a broad smile. "Just pick one. Go on."

"Fine," said the pilot with a small grin of her own. "Me."

Simon's face fell for a moment, but then the smile returned, only it was a lot nastier. "You're on. By the end of the week."

Ming actually took her eyes off of all the controls to turn around in her chair and fix Simon with a steady glare. "You know you're going to lose."

"Yeah, well, I get bored."

"Fine, you're on." She turned back to the controls, shaking her head. "You're a crazy bastard, Simon."

"See, you're falling for me already!"

"Enough!" said Maccabee, though he turned and smiled over his shoulder at the other two. "Ming, ETA?"

"Five minutes, give or take a few seconds." She wheeled around another lumbering freighter, again passing far closer than necessary given the vast open spaces between ships. The captain of the freighter flashed his com channel at the shuttle, but Ming ignored it--a breach of protocol, but not technically against navigational rules.

"Good," said Maccabee.

Maccabee turned and watched out the front canopy as the shuttle came onto its final approach. One of the ships in the distance was circled in blue; it was the only such designation in the system, and indicated Hornet. She grew slowly in the visible spectrum, a tapered cylinder of gunmetal grey that bristled with various attachments and equipment. The two ends were a flat planes, and various sensors and weapons clusters sheltered in the slightly concave bow. A twin row of ports down the ship's flank hid her main weapons, while a raised, ridge-like structure that ran along nearly her whole dorsal length concealed more weapons, opening up firing arcs that ships were not normally designed for.

Someone who didn't know her would have classified Hornet as a fast, armed merchantman, and her basic hull design was, if not common, certainly not unique. Anyone with a basic knowledge of ship construction would have immediately noted the increased weapons load in the broadsides, as well as the heavier and more versatile sensor suites, not to mention the rather obvious point defense laser emplacements. Luckily, that same anyone would not have been able to see past the weapons bays' hatches; inside lurked high-caliber particle cannons, and--in each broadside--three medium gamma-lasers. The dorsal spine carried still heavier g-lasers, as well as electronic countermeasure systems that were highly illegal and quite effective.

The engines were enhanced too, of course. Hornet carried two full jump battery loads, effectively reducing her cargo capacity to nil, but allowing staged sequence wormhole inductions. She also carried a ventrally mounted spare grav generator. In the case of loss of either the bow or stern generator, the third one could be used for jumps, provided they were short. Inside, deep under the heavy outer armor and behind the layers of batteries and storage compartments, Hornet's fast-beating heart consisted of no less than six fusion reactors, double the normal for such a ship. Four were dedicated to charging the jump batteries, though their power could be rerouted elsewhere at need. One of the other two ran the rest of the ship's functions, while the last was a backup. Each reactor lived in its own shielded compartment, and all were separately ejectable in emergencies.

Maccabee winced at that thought. The Bosun Systems Engineering LL-428 reactors were both small and efficient, producing the same power output as fusion rings twice their size using seventy percent of the fuel load, but they were hideously expensive. Losing even one would set his whole operation back for a good year, assuming he bothered to replace it immediately. Six reactors was a lot of redundancy; for good measure, Hornet actually had a seventh reactor, a dirty fission beast that was generally shut down. Still, ramped up to full capacity--a good six hour process--the atom splitter handled twice the load of the LL-428's; then again, it was three times as large and Maccabee also had no wish to ever refuel the fission reactor. Uranium was horribly expensive, especially compared to the hydrogen fuel the fusion rings used.

All the extra mass packed into Hornet's small hull--she was only about three hundred meters long and from eighty to a hundred and fifty in the beam--meant that Maccabee had spent a veritable fortune on her inertial drive, but the added maneuverability was very well worth it in knife-and-dagger fights with pirate ships, which tended also to be quick and fast. Hornet packed a punch for her size, but she was still outgunned by about ten percent of the pirates she met, not including the ones that traveled in groups. Those were the most dangerous. Hunting packs trained in coordinated combat, the best groups could take down a fully-armed destroyer or even a cruiser.

That thought brought Maccabee back to the present, and to the information he'd just gotten. He still hadn't decided if he wanted to act on it. The rewards, even aside from those merely spiritual and moral, would be incredible. The risks were equally impressive. He knew where Samara would stand on the issue, but perhaps it would be a good idea to get input from the rest of the crew as well. They were no navy, and he did not expect slavish devotion to either him or his orders.

"Docking, cap," said Ming. She sounded uneasy. Perhaps she'd picked up on Maccabee's sudden shift in mood.

He focused ahead and out the forward canopy. Hornet loomed above them like a black insect. The docking bay doors were open in her belly, waiting to take in the shuttle. The little ship shuddered slightly around Maccabee as Hornet's energy grapnels locked on to its hull and started reeling it inside. The darkness of space was replaced with the bright blue light of the interior of the ship. Maccabee watched as the shuttle was maneuvered inside, clear of the doors and over to its berth. The doors were already sliding closed again, and by the time the shuttle bumped down on its pad, they had sealed shut. Maccabee counted the seconds until the lights switched from blue to white, indicating that a breathable atmosphere had been restored: five exactly.

"All set, boss," said Simon. He unstrapped from his seat and went out through the hatch while Ming started the shutdown procedures for the shuttle. The whine of thrusters started to fade as she manipulated various holographic controls with practiced ease.

Maccabee rose and went towards the hatch. Then he turned back to his pilot. "I'd like to break orbit as soon as possible, Ming," he said.

"Roger, cap," she said, smiling over her shoulder at him. "I'll be on the Deck in five."

"Good. Thanks."

Maccabee ducked out through the hatch. Simon was lowering the ramp off the side of the shuttle already. The "Deck" was the control deck, Hornet's bridge and nerve center. For some reason all of the crew had adopted that name soon after Hornet's launch. Maccabee thought it might be something that Alger Brelloc had come up with; the man was taciturn as hell, in addition to being Maccabee's gunner and general "trouble-shooter" and it would be like him to shorten things to their minimum required length.

Only one person was waiting for them in the vehicle bay, a man of average height and build, a bit shorter than Maccabee, lean and fit but not heavily muscled: Massat Sel. His black hair was straight and hung to just above his shoulders, his skin was a dark, burnished copper color, and his eyes were hidden behind glasses that were absolutely black. Even when they were back-lit, nothing shone through, and they were equally dark if you put them on; Maccabee had tried. They were linked directly into Sel's visual cortex when they were on his head, but he had never explained just what they could see. Maccabee secretly thought they were just for show. Sel wore bright colors, as usual, a canary yellow shirt than hung loose on his frame and fought for attention with the burnt orange pants below. Perhaps the black leather spacer's vest was for balance.

"Captain Derrick," said Sel. Sel and Alger routinely held contests to see who could get by with the fewest words spoken over a certain period of time, and Sel had won more than once. The odd part was that he was quite garrulous otherwise.

"Is it one of those weeks, Sel?" asked the captain as he strode down the ramp into the bay.

"No, actually it's not. Just a short greeting, captain." The smaller man fell into step next to Maccabee as they headed for the hatch leading to the rest of the ship. "Miss Kar Deffin said we were in a bit of a hurry, so I took the liberty of coming down here to meet you. I can brief you on our way to the Deck."

"Sounds good, Sel," said Maccabee with a smile. Sel was a terribly formal person. Casual modes of address bothered him, at least when it came to those he viewed as superior officers. Most people fell into that category as far as Sel was concerned; he was an able technician, and a decent pilot, not to mention his skills with various light arms, but he was not particularly talented in any one area, nor had he been enhanced in any way like some of the crew. Despite Maccabee's best efforts, Sel had developed a bit of an inferiority complex, and he deferred almost automatically to anything anyone else said. He was a useful man to have around, though: He knew a little bit of everything, and he was a lot smarter than he thought.

"Our orbital exit is already arranged, captain," Sel continued, automatically and unconsciously slipping into his lecture tone. "We can leave any time, and Miss Kar Deffin estimates twenty-five minutes from departure to Wormhole Transfer Node Alpha." Sel never abbreviated anything. "The Tarramin General System Customs Service has cleared us for departure as well, and the authorities have not insisted on any sort of inspection of the ship."

"That's good news."

"Yes it is, captain."

They had already moved out of the vehicle bay and into the main ventral corridor. This provided interior access mainly to the other cargo bays along the belly of the ship, as well as various maintenance hatches, airlocks, and general service nodes. Basically, it was useful for repairs and reaching the shuttles. At the forward end of the passage was the main lift, which was just forward of the midpoint of the ship and traversed its vertical axis from top to bottom. The hatch cycled open and they stepped through onto the lift. It was a simple affair, essentially just an antigrav sled anchored by a few energy mounts to the walls of the shaft; there was no other attachment and the three-meter diameter of the lift left ten centimeters around its edge, and ladders climbed the walls on four sides. If the power failed, the lift would drop to the bottom of the shaft, but the crew would still be able to climb up and down.

"How's the ship?" asked Maccabee as he flicked a finger through a floating holographic panel and started the lift moving. It was also slow.

"All batteries are charged, captain. We don't have a jump calculated yet, but that's just a few moment's notice." Any decent jump computer could throw together a stable wormhole pattern in five minutes or less. "Reactors One through Six are nominal. Seven is in full shut-down mode, but we can bring it active in just under six hours." Only Sel would have bothered to report on the fission reactor. "Fuel status is eighty percent. Unfortunately, your call came in before the last loader could make rendezvous, and orbital navigation regulations state that no ship making ready for departure may take on fuel. Nevertheless, captain, eighty percent capacity gives us an effective range of roughly a thousand lightyears, assuming no major combat operations."

The lift jerked to a halt at Deck Twenty-Five, just about exactly half-way up the ship. The aft hatch cycled open--another one was behind Maccabee and Sel, leading to the forward corridor--and a small bridge slid out to briefly anchor the lift to the corridor. The two men stepped out and walked ahead and the hatch closed behind them with a barely-audible whir. This passage was short, only about twenty meters long. Three hatches on either side, all of them manually operated, opened out into compartments. Maccabee's cabin and office were here, as were Samara's. There was also a conference room and a chart room. The passage ended in a heavily reinforced blast door. Beyond it was the Deck.

"And if we do get into major combat ops?" asked Maccabee as he touched his hand to the security panel. The system read his handprint, scanned his DNA, queried a nanochip embedded deep in Maccabee's brain and analyzed the return signal, and compared various vital signs from his body to norms stored in the system, all in less than a second. A soft chime sounded and the heavy door unsealed with a sharp, mechanical thump, then slid back into the bulkhead with a soft hiss.

"All combat systems are fully functional, captain," said Sel. "Ammunition bays are fully loaded, and we have all available shot options in the banks." They stepped into the bridge. "We're ready to rumble."

"An' a bloody good thing, too," growled Alger Brelloc as he turned and threw Maccabee a jaunty salute. He was a huge man, over two meters in height and broad shouldered. His wide face was a dark brown, nearly black color, and his red hair almost seemed on fire as it cascaded in a long tail down his back to his waist. Alger wore a loosely-fitted black shirt and a heavy, leather kilt below which he'd clamped polyceramic armor onto his shins above heavy, black boots. As always, he wore his weapons at his hip, a three millimeter machine pistol and a ten millimeter blaster, both constructed of jet- black metal that seemed to defy light rather than reflect it. He undoubtedly carried other weapons as well, but no more were visible. "Aboot time ya showed up."

"It's a damned speech!" Maccabee said with a grin as he strode into the round bridge. He clasped Alger's hand as he passed and gave it a quick shake. "Did somebody record it?"

Samara spun the command chair around and rose from it with fluid grace. She was tall, nearly as tall as Maccabee, lean and lithe. Her body seemed more sculpted than grown. The deep green of her eyes was captivating. She wore a sidearm as well, a custom she'd acquired in another ship under another captain, a man she'd shot with that very gun. A specially-made laser pistol, it was the kind of weapon that required pinpoint targeting, something Samara had no problem supplying. Since few people bothered to make personal body armor proofed against lasers--who used such notoriously difficult weapons?--the pistol gave her a distinct advantage in some crowds.

"I record everything that happens on the bridge, Maccabee," Samara said in her slow drawl.

"Of course you do," he answered. He stopped by her and they exchanged a silent greeting; they had been together the longest of this outfit, and there was a bond between them that sometimes seemed unnaturally strong to Maccabee. Finally, he turned from her and stepped down to his chair, sliding into its comfortable and familiar embrace.

Hornet's bridge was another retrofitted component that was most definitely not standard to the hull design. Buried essentially at the heart of the ship, the Deck was a circular compartment ten meters across. From a central height of about five meters the deck rose and the overhead dropped, so that at the bulkheads the distance between them was only about two-point-five meters. Dominating the center three meters was the main holographic display, which reached nearly from floor to ceiling and bowed out to about four meters across at its midpoint. Six heavy chairs, fixed to the deck and outfitted with very expensive shock restraints, circled the main holo at about two meters from its edge and a meter higher than the bottom of the deck. Each of the chairs was surrounded by a whole array of smaller holographic projectors and light pickups, combining in a series of infinitely variable virtual control surfaces and readouts.

The captain's chair, slightly larger than the others and raised about six centimeters above them, was situated right on the keel line facing aft. In a design like this, heading was irrelevant. The first officer--Samara, in this case--sat directly opposite. To her left was the weapons station, where Alger normallysat, and to her right the systems chair. Simon occasionally sat there, but it was more often occupied by Tangria Ashburn, who was more of a theoretical engineer than he. To Maccabee's right was the seat for the navigator, Damien Russ, and to his left was where Ming sat in the helmsman's chair. From those seats, these six people could control any and every aspect of Hornet's function, safely cocooned deep in her belly.

There were more chairs behind that first row of six, eight of them arranged in a half-circle behind the first officer's chair. These seats were more easily reconfigurable, and anyone could take one of them and modify its controls and readouts to specifically target one area of ship's systems. The good majority of the rest of Maccabee's crew sat in those chairs during operations. Among them was one woman who was there now, scrolling through quantities of text and graphics on two different screens, her eyes flicking back and forth between them. Lillie Monteux was the only member of Hornet's crew who looked her age, all ninety-four years of it, though by early modern standards she might only have appeared in her forties. Her hair was short and spiked in a style from her youth, and still a soft, golden brown color. The ruby red outfit she wore fitted perfectly and was obviously tailored, from the knee-length skirt to the matching jacket and blouse.

"Doctor Monteux," Maccabee greeted his ship's physician. Lillie held a practicing license as well as doctoral degrees in biology, neuroscience and particle physics. "Good to see you. Enjoy your leave?" While Maccabee had searched San'a for information, Lillie had taken another shuttle--and Alger, just in case--to the far side of the planet to Tennyson-Rice University, which housed one of the largest library collections in the galaxy. A hundred and seventy-five million volumes, if Maccabee remembered correctly, not including duplicates.

"It was an edifying trip, captain," answered Lillie. Her speech was precise, fast, and clipped. She expected people to keep up with her and had little time for those who didn't, unless they happened to be students; she was an excellent teacher. "I may have infringed upon a few minor copyright laws, in order to obtain a copy of one or two unimportant texts, but the rules at Tennyson are very strict." She paused the scrolling text and looked up. "You would hardly believe me if I told you what I had to go through to get a pass just to get into the place." Then she smiled. "Having Alger along helped, however."

"We're starting to rub off on you, doctor," said Maccabee with a chuckle. "Stealing books is the first step towards a career of infamy."

"I plan on returning them at the next opportunity, captain," Lillie replied tartly. "Carry on." She turned back to her reading.

Maccabee kept his laughter low and quiet as he turned the chair to Samara, who was standing right nearby. Alger had left the bridge, apparently satisfied that his captain was back, and Sel stood near the main hatch, trying to look unobtrusive, but ready to jump at an order from Maccabee "What's the word on the rest of the crew?" he asked his first officer.

"All on board and checked out clean," she answered. "No real trouble, except for the usual."

"Let me guess." Maccabee scowled. "Selkirk and Yakazuma." Samara nodded. "Did they get arrested this time?"

"No, just detained and sent up here with strict orders not to come back." Samara sighed and scratched the back of her neck. "I don't know what to do about it."

"I know what I'll do if it happens again," growled Maccabee. Robbie Selkirk and Amathea Yakazuma were grunts; they were on Hornet to do the dirty work, mainly shooting pirates who got out of line. Maccabee did not think it belittling them to call them grunts, because they were very good at what they did. As a pair they were violent, rude, boisterous and generally crazy, properties that served them well enough on boarding actions but less so during shore leave. "I'll talk to them once we're underway."

"Fair enough." Samara shrugged. "I can't decide myself if we should dump them out an airlock or confine them to quarters, but if you want to talk to them, be my guest." She smiled to take any sting out of the words, then turned and walked towards the back of the bridge.

Maccabee swung his chair back to its central position and activated the ship's intercom. "All right all you criminals," he said, his voice echoing through every compartment and passageway in the vessel. "Duty stations. We're pulling out in five minutes. That's three hundred seconds for those of you who are keeping score. Maccabee clear." He flicked a finger through the com switch and the system shut down. Then he sat back to wait.

Just a minute later, Ming came through the main hatch and walked down to her chair, then slid into it and "pulled" the holo displays close around her. Her hands started moving immediately, typing commands and activating various systems. "You don't give a girl much notice to fly a fifty thousand ton ship, cap," she said, never taking her eyes from the controls.

"Yeah, I'm a bastard, I know." Maccabee grinned. "I thought you'd be used to it by now."

She stopped for a moment and glanced up at him. "Be careful, captain. You'll pay for any wisecracks." Her grin was positively vicious.

"I certainly hope so," he replied, spinning the chair back the other way as Tangria Ashburn strode into the bridge. Ashburn--no one used her first name in her presence--was of about average height, with a slender, almost willowy build. Her skin was a creamy chocolate color, her eyes bright orange, and her hair copper. The combination created a startling effect when she looked right at you. She was not a stunning beauty, but had a captivating smile. A gifted engineer, Ashburn had asked Maccabee for a direct, biomechanical computer interface into her brain. It still sometimes frightened Maccabee in a strange, anachronistic way to watch her plug herself into the chair where she sat. Visible holo displays activated around her, but she ignored them as always; the real controls were projected by the computer directly into her mind.

Ashburn and Maccabee exchanged a nod of greeting, and then the captain heard a jovial cry to his left: "Captain! Good to see you!"

Maccabee turned his chair again and saw Damien Russ sliding into his own seat. Damien was a broad-shouldered bulldog of a man, as dangerous in close combat as he was skilled with navigational and sensor systems. His deep blue hair was arranged in an almost fan shape over his head, and contrasted sharply with the almost green tint of his skin. The genmods were inherited from his parents, and Damien had not chosen to have them changed back to something more "normal." After all, what was normal these days anyway? He was bare-chested, as usual, showing off elaborate tatooing that covered his attractively muscled upper body in color and forms.

"All set, Damien?" asked Maccabee with a smile.

"'Course, captain. What else would I be doing?" The man nodded and grinned. "I live for this stuff."

"Good thing, too," said his captain.

Samara and Alger had taken their seats, the latter having come back to the bridge at some point without Maccabee noticing. The displays at his fingertips told the captain that the five minutes was up. All of his main bridge staff were on hand, and a few others had joined Lillie in the back. It was time. He pressed another switch and a general alarm siren sounded through the ship. Then he nodded to Samara.

"Take her out."