Episode 103: Sender's Destiny

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The sharp, sudden, horrible pain flooding Maccabee's body ceased abruptly as Hornet dropped out of the wormhole that had just taken the ship another two lightyears in the space of about a quarter of a second. He let a shudder pass through his body, then looked up as the holo display started scanning the sphere of space immediately around them in ever-widening radii, looking for any navigational hazards. Around Maccabee, the rest of the bridge crew recovered from the wormhole jump at their own pace, some slowly some quickly like him. No one could shrug off the effect, and it was actually the main limitation to manned space flight; no ship could make jumps with less than about an hour between them--not on a regular basis--and hope to maintain a sane crew.

"Status," croaked Maccabee. Then he grimaced and cleared his throat. No one would think less of him for the slip, not right after the jump, but still . . .

"Clear to two million kilometers," growled Russ from the navigator's seat. He sounded like he'd just swallowed something unpleasant. "Three million."

Ashburn cleared her throat before speaking. "Grav generators are secured; reactors nominal."

"We're free to navigate, boss," said Ming. She was one of the few people for whom the effects of a wormhole jump took only moments to dissipate. She sounded almost cheerful, and Maccabee briefly considered hating her for it. "Velocity is twenty- four klicks per second."

"All right." Maccabee paused another moment to collect his thoughts, then said, "Samara?"

"No signals yet," she answered. "It's only been thirty-five seconds."

For that half minute, they had been in the Sender's Destiny system, and now Maccabee looked over the main holo, watching as gravitational point sources blossomed across the view. Sender's Destiny was a binary system with a red giant primary and a white dwarf secondary that was slowly sucking away the giant's envelope and adding it to its own. Two gas giant planets orbited the red star at very close mean distances, their paths going through the glowing hydrogen cloud that flowed from one star to the other. The rocky planets that had been in the system had been destroyed by the supernova of the white dwarf, followed by the expansion of the red giant. Not much survived that kind of local stellar activity.

Considering its inhospitable nature, it might have been a surprise that Sender's Destiny was an inhabited system, but it was one of a few dozen places in this sector where hydrogen could be easily harvested in its raw form for fuel processing. The harvest was not from the superheated flow between the two stars--possible, but a very difficult process--but rather from the stream of hydrogen that was slowly escaping from the atmospheres of the two gas giants. Elemental H2 trailed in a long, invisible cloud off the backs of both the gaseous worlds. This was where the two supercollectors came into play.

The supercollectors were basically enormous disks, each a thousand kilometers in diameter, made of carbon nano-tubes woven together into an atoms-thick sheet that funneled the hydrogen down to the center of the collector, where an ever-narrowing throat accelerated the star-stuff into containment and storage tanks. The disk itself rotated slowly, just enough to keep it stretched open and tight. Long vanes made of reinforced bundles of heavier carbon tubes ran from the central hub to the rim, and at the end of each were reaction motors and small, pressurized control booths, should a human or robot presence be required.

Stretching in a thin line back from the containment units was the actual habitat for the supercollector's crew, a series of cramped pods and gantries that housed the thirty or forty peopled usually required to run one of the units. That was the original design, at least; heavy tankers stopped by on a regular basis to haul the hydrogen to a more useful location, and most supercollectors had evolved into small communities, heavily reliant on passing ships and particularly on the crews of those ships for their continued existence. Now, on a collector like Sender's Destiny I--the place wasn't much for original names-- there was a permanent, though unregistered, population of three to four hundred. Adding extra habitat units along the thin string stretching back from the main hub didn't affect the collector in any significant way, so the owners generally looked the other way.

Ross had dumped Hornet out of the wormhole a good four light minutes from the primary star's flux boundary, which meant they were about a five light minutes out from Sender I, which was the main station in the system. Sender's Destiny II was largely uninhabited, run by a skeleton crew and automated systems. It wasn't exactly unusual for a regular starship--as opposed to a hydrogen hauler--to stop by a supercollector to refuel, but it was enough to raise eyebrows. Maccabee checked the main chrono above the holo tank; in about another three minutes, Hornet would no doubt be receiving a message from the station.

"Ming," Maccabee said, "let's keep it right here for now. Set course for the station, but no accel at present." He smiled. "Let's play nice."

Ming nodded and slid her fingers through her holographic controls, turning Hornet sharply onto her correct course. The inertial drive eliminated all feeling of movement.

Supercollectors were often targeted by pirates, particularly in this neck of the PARC, where raiders were an ongoing problem. Maccabee had been to Sender's Destiny once before on a pirate hunt, in his old ship Wasp, before she had been destroyed; he doubted anything had changed for the better. The station would be heavily armed and generally suspicious of a small, weapons-filled starship appearing unannounced.

Everyone waited in silence, neither tense nor relaxed, but ready. They'd all been through this sort of thing a dozen times or more, and it was unlikely there'd be any shooting here. Still, Alger was running through weapons lists and gun loading options, picking the optimal ammo for the first, devastating salvo at the station, if it became necessary. It was the kind of thing paranoid people did, which suited Alger Brelloc just fine. Next, he would load firing solutions into the computers and tweak the approaches, looking for every possible advantage in the event of a surprise attack. Maccabee glanced back at Samara and they exchanged a slow smile.

"Incoming com pick," said Samara a moment later as one of her holo displays flashed briefly red.

"Put it on the main," replied Maccabee, referring to the central holo tank.

Samara nodded, and a moment later a man's face popped up in the center of the bridge, the computer flashing four images of him up, one facing in each direction; the broadcast transmission was only available in 2D. The man was thick: Thick shouldered, thick necked, with a thick brow. Maccabee hoped he wasn't thick-skulled too, but only time would tell. Only the man's shoulders were visible in the transmission, but they showed a hint of uniform, which meant he was either the station commander or one of the other four company representatives on board; the rest of the crew would be contracted workers.

"Unidentified vessel," began the man, his voice low and gruff, "this is Lieutenant Sheffield of the Universal Fusion Fuel Conglomerate, the operating holders of this facility. You are not on our arrival schedule. Please transmit identification and the nature of your business here immediately. Sender's Destiny One clear."

The image of Sheffield's face faded away and then morphed back into the main navigational display. Maccabee checked again, but there was no sign of any other vessel in the system. The two stations would have shuttles, and most likely a small cruiser or lifeboat, but none of them had an active reactor signature.

"Not too unfriendly, considering," said Russ. He shrugged his big, green shoulders, letting the tattoos on his pectorals ripple. "Wonder what they'll say when we reply."

"Excuse me, captain," said Massat Sel from somewhere in the second row of seats behind Samara. Maccabee nodded for him to continue. "Sir, I've been running some secondary scans on the station, and it appears they have opened the disk vents."

"Why the hell would they do that?" asked Ming. The disk vents were slots that could be opened in the supercollector's main disk to allow hydrogen to escape rather than being scooped into the collectors.

"Their tanks must be full," said Ashburn. Everyone looked her way. "If the tanks are full, they have to vent the hydrogen or risk a breech."

"Sounds right," muttered Alger.

"Only," said Ashburn, "I've never heard of a supercollector filling its tanks. I worked on one for a little while, and we had a ship suck us dry every two weeks. We barely had the tanks half full."

"OK, so one of their ships went missing," said Maccabee. "Not impossible out here. If they don't have a courier boat, no one would know that the pickup was late."

"Someone would know," argued Russ. "I mean, the tanker's got to be going somewhere."

"Beside the point. We'll figure it out when we're on board." Maccabee met everyone's eyes and no one bothered to continue the conversation. "Samara, please record for transmission." Maccabee schooled his face to impassivity.

"On," she said, pointing his way.

"This is the licensed armed merchant cruiser Hornet, eighteen days out of Tarramin. We are requesting a berth for refueling and supply. This transmission is encoded with our vessel IDs. Hornet out." Samara cut off the recording system and Maccabee nodded her way. "Send it."

"On its way."

A bit less than five minutes later, they had their reply. Lieutenant Sheffield's face looked just slightly less grim than before. "Hornet, we've cleared you to come in, but you'll have to submit to an inspection crew. Just so we know you are who you say you are. Heave to at two million kilometers and wait for our shuttle. These terms are non- negotiable, so don't bother arguing." He flashed a quick, humorless smile. "Sender One clear."

"Touchy bastard," rumbled Alger. Maccabee turned his way, but the Scot had said all he wished to.

"We'll play it his way," Maccabee said. "If there has been some sort of attack, then they have a right to be paranoid." He grinned at Alger. "Besides, some of us are paranoid all the time."

"With good reason," put in Samara.

"Granted." Maccabee turned to Ming. "Let's do it. Least-time course to a spot two million klicks from the habitat."

She nodded. "What about our accel, cap?"

"Let's not show them all of it, Ming. Keep us at fifty percent."


On the holographic display, Hornet's icon suddenly shot forward at over four hundred gravities, nearly four and half kilometers per second squared. Maccabee sat back and smiled; he felt absolutely nothing through the protective bubble of the ship's inertial drive. This was a good thing, since the acceleration forces would otherwise have mashed him into a thin paste. The ship moved through normal space by essentially using an intertial sump to overcome the ship's dead weight. Acceleration could be applied in any direction at any time, allowing for fast changes of direction, though the rules of momentum still applied; no ship was going to turn on a dime.

Even with the massive acceleration a ship like Hornet could achieve, it would still be over two hours before they reached the rendezvous point. Plenty of time to get restless. "Okay, people," said Maccabee, "let's get some things worked out. First, we'll need to designate groups to go over to the station. This is a very small environment- -there's no room for any kind of bullshit. Samara, please start on the crew list."

"On it."

"Alger," the captain continued, "the command staff will be armed, but we don't want to look armed."

"Not a problem," answered the big Scot at the weapons station.

"Good," said Maccabee with a nod. He turned to his pilot. "Ming, you'll be flying all the shuttle trips; I think we'll opt for a stand-off position. I don't care to have Hornet right up next to this thing, if there is any trouble."

"All the trips?" asked Ming. "You know that'll keep me up through every watch."

"We'll work it out," answered Maccabee with a tight smile. Ming took the hint and shut up. "Anything else?"

"Captain," began Sel.

"Sorry, Sel," said Maccabee. "Please continue your scans. Let me know whatever you find, if anything. The more information we have, the better I'll feel." He looked around once more. "Right. Let's get to it."

The command crew started moving, some staying at their stations, others getting up to go elsewhere. Maccabee watched them with quiet satisfaction. Then he turned back to the holo display. Hornet was already well on her way in-system. It was possible there was trouble at Sender's Destiny I, but there was more information there as well. This would be Maccabee's last stop before he had to make a decision on the pirates, to hunt or not. He could have gone ahead already, based solely on the information he'd gotten in San'a, but that was not his way. One more confirmation: That was all that was necessary.

He sat back in his chair to wait.

The atmospheric status light on the airlock's panel went from red to yellow to green in the space of about a second. The seal was good and the compartment was at standard atmosphere. Maccabee looked over at Samara and nodded. She swiped a finger through the small holo panel and activated the internal com.

"Sender's Destiny One Shuttle, this is Hornet. We have a green light. Come on in."

At the other end of the compartment, just visible through the small, ovoid window in the airlock's inner hatch, the outer door opened. Beyond it, Maccabee could make out the dim interior of the shuttle that was latched on to his ship. The view was partially obscured by the two men who stepped out of the shuttle, one of them turning immediately to reseal the outer door of the lock. Presumably, whoever was left on board the shuttle had sealed its hatch as well. The two men stepped up to the inner hatch and Maccabee signaled for Samara to open it.

The thick ceramasteel door slid sideways into the bulkhead and Maccabee stepped forwards. "Greetings," he said with a broad smile. "I'm Captain Derrick, the master of this ship."

The two men were both in uniform, which was a bit of a surprise. With only five officers on board the supercollector, it didn't seem to make sense to send more than one over for the inspection. Both men were powerfully muscled and just a bit short of the usual standard of cleanliness exhibited by corporate officer-types. Maccabee cut them some slack, since they worked in an industrial facility where everyone, even the officers, had to lend a hand working and maintaining the machinery. Neither was the Lieutenant Sheffield who'd spoken to Hornet on the com.

"Ensign Devverin," said the taller of the two, a broad-shouldered man with light chocolate skin that looked natural and bright red-and-gold hair that was obviously not. His grey eyes seemed very closed. He held out a hand and Maccabee took it, shaking it briefly.

"And this is?" Maccabee asked, turning to the other man, who was much darker- skinned, though a barely-noticeable checkerboard of vertical and horizontal stripes of a lighter color climbed out from his collar and halfway up his neck. It looked as though the man was in the process of having treatments to remove the pattern. His brown eyes were definitely unfriendly. He did not take Maccabee's hand.

"That would be Engineer Anselm," said Devverin with a slight, apologetic smile. "He doesn't care for outsiders, but he's most qualified for this inspection, so there it is."

"I see," said Maccabee, though he did not. Just how detailed an inspection did they think he would allow? "Let me introduce you to Samara Kar Deffin, my first officer." He turned and indicated Samara, who stepped forward from the bulkhead and held out a hand with a smile. Devverin took it and shook. Anselm's hostility did not seem to modulate in any significant way. "Shall we?"

"Please," said Devverin.

Maccabee motioned for the two guests to proceed him, then exchanged a quick glance with Samara. She nodded. There was definitely something odd about this pair, more so than Devverin's explanation would justify. Maccabee had never dealt with the Universal Fusion Fuel Conglomerate before, but company men did not, as a rule, act quite this way. He touched a hand to his gun, a two millimeter railpistol tucked in an unobtrusive holster under the light, synthetic-fiber jacket he wore.

"I thought we might visit the bridge first," Maccabee said then, moving a touch more quickly to overhaul his guests. Devverin looked blankly at him. "You can get a good read on the keel plate from there." The keel plate was not a physical plaque, but a dedicated, isolated computer installed by the ship's builder; it had no function except to provide data in response to a certain type of query scan. The builder's codes in the keel plate were the ultimate ship identification; there was no way to tamper with the information in the keel plate that would not cause a notable alteration to its return signal. Builder code identification was considered the most sacrosanct security feature of any ship.

"Ah, yes, the keel plate." Devverin came to a halt in the corridor, he and Anselm between Samara and Maccabee. "Frankly, captain, we're not interested in that. We have no doubt Hornet is the ship you say she is. Or was. We're curious what you've tinkered with since."

"Tinkered?" asked Maccabee, his voice deceptively mild. His mind was racing. How much could he afford to show to these people? He was licensed as a privateer, but the letter of marquee was only good to a point. Much of the equipment on board the ship was not covered by that document.

"Mainly weapons, naturally." Devverin smiled disarmingly. "It's not a serious matter, captain. You're letter of marquee is in good order. We'd just like to see your main armaments."

"Of course." Maccabee forced his own smile and gestured down the corridor. "If you'll follow me."

He started off towards the main lift, which was aft of their current location. The compartments around them were mostly given over to excess battery capacity for the wormhole drive. Maccabee did not intend to let the visitors view his main weapons bays, but the secondary broadside armaments would pass muster. They were on decks twelve and thirty, with the main broadsides on deck twenty-four. There was no way the supercollector's sensor scans would have detected all of Hornet's weapons bays, so there was little worry in that regard. Still, Maccabee felt the familiar tension in the pit of his stomach that always accompanied these inspections.

"How long have you been out of port, captain?" asked Devverin as they reached the lift and waited for it to come to their deck.

"Eighteen days, as I told your Lieutenant Sheffield, I believe," answered Maccabee easily. He rocked back on his heels. "Not a long time."

"Not really," said the Ensign. "When I was in the navy, we did deep-space cruises that lasted ten months."

"You were in the navy?" asked Samara. "Which?"

"CNR, of course." The Cooperative Naval Reserve was the PARC's "navy" in the same sense that a pistol was a useful weapon in a capital ship engagement. "We ran anti-piracy patrols."

Oh, very clever, thought Maccabee. Devverin seemed to be dropping hints about something. "Ever find any?" he asked.

Behind Devverin's head, Maccabee saw Samara's face: It held the watchful, mask-like expression he'd come to recognize as the face she wore when she went into combat. It was a sort of detachment she achieved, a separation from the norms of the civilized world. Samara Kar Deffin was a ruthless killer when need required her to be.

"Only once," Devverin replied to Maccabee's question.

The lift arrived and the small bridge reached out to join it to the corridor. They stepped onboard, and Maccabee keyed in deck twelve.

"Seems a little low for a broadside," muttered Anselm. Maccabee looked at the man in surprise. The odd checkered pattern of his skin stood out sharply in the non- directional bright white light that filled the lift shaft.

"We've two gun decks," said Maccabee in answer to the unspoken question. "By spreading them out, we can achieve a greater z-axis firing arc."

Devverin, whose face was looking just a little pale, tried to put on his smile again and said, "I see." Something about Anselm obviously bothered him. The engineer might be a superior officer, but in that case why wasn't he doing the talking? What sort of company officer had a pathological dislike for outsiders? On the other hand, Maccabee was forced to admit that if someone like that ever did manage to make it in a company, a place like Sender's Destiny would be a good location to deposit him.

The lift stopped on deck twelve and they disembarked, Maccabee in the lead, Samara bringing up the rear, her face still disturbingly blank of emotion. Obviously she felt these men were a direct and immediate threat to Hornet's safety, though she had to be going on gut instinct. Alger was monitoring them from the Deck, and a security team was shadowing them nearby, but that was Alger for you: Always planning for the worst. There was no way these two men--both of whom were unarmed, according to the ship's internal sensors--were going to be a threat to Maccabee and Samara.

A crewman was on duty at the entrance to the weapons run. The run was a low, corridor-like compartment that ran the length of the gun deck, providing control and maintenance access to the various guns. The weapons themselves were nearly independent modules that slotted into the ports connecting to the run. By their very nature, a ship's weapons were weak points in her armor, so most vessels, including Hornet, were designed to have those weapons actually outside the main armor. They were connected to the interior of the ship only by a small number of umbilicals providing power and, if necessary, ammunition. Though it increased the defensive ability of the ship in question, the modular weapon design did make repairs difficult: Crewmen had to either negotiate an extra-vehicular maintenance trip, or send tiny robots through the umbilicals.

"Captain." The crewman at the door threw Maccabee a jaunty salute. His name was Kren Millman; he was a tall, lean boy of about twenty, dark black and an imposing presence with a chiseled chin and sculpted muscles.

"Open her up, Kren," said Maccabee, keeping up his facade of easy-going comfort.

Kren gave a suspicious look at the two visitors, but it wasn't his place to question what his captain was doing, especially with the XO was looking murder at the two guests in question anyway. Everyone knew that Samara was crazy; Maccabee had spread some of the stories around himself. The crewman hunched over the security panel--an unnecessary move, since the security protocols were all ID scans, not codes--and opened the hatch. It slid aside soundlessly, and Maccabee motioned for the two visitors to precede him.

Devverin did not enter the run, but instead looked at Anselm. Anselm ducked his head inside the dimly-lit space which stretched off into the distance, bay after bay of lasers and cannons fading into obscurity. The run was over two hundred meters long. Then the engineer pulled back out and nodded.

"That's good enough, captain," said Devverin.

"What's good enough?" asked Maccabee, genuinely confused. Why the hell had they asked to inspect the guns if they weren't going to?

"We don't need to see anything more. If you'll escort us back to our shuttle, we'll clear you to come in to the station." Devverin smiled broadly as though this explanation made any sense at all.

"No offense to you or Engineer Anselm here, Ensign," said Maccabee with a tight smile, "but that's no inspection that you superiors are going to be happy with. I could have anything down there, and you wouldn't see it from here."

"Very well, captain. If you think we should have reason not to trust you. . . ." Devverin shrugged.

"You obviously do have reason," said Samara. Her voice was not pleasant. "Otherwise you would not have asked for this inspection."

"Nevertheless, it is over," Devverin said, his smile fading. "Unless you insist?"

Maccabee stared at the man for a moment, then shook his head. "No. If that's good enough for you, it's good enough for me." He nodded at Kren. "Close it."

"Thank you, captain." Devverin's smile returned. Maccabee was beginning to think of it as disconcerting.

"Don't mention it," he growled. "Samara, if you'd be so kind as to escort our guests off the ship now."

"Absolutely, captain," she replied. Then she turned and walked off, letting the two visitors follow in her wake. They did so without saying anything. Maccabee felt an itch between his shoulder blades as he watched his first officer put her back to those two, but he knew she was well able to defend herself. He watched until they were out of sight.

"What the hell was that about, captain?" asked Kren. He gestured with his jutting chin at the departed visitors. "What's their story?"

"I don't know, Kren."

"They seemed more interested in seeing that we had a gun deck at all than seeing what was in it," ventured the crewman.

Maccabee looked at him over his shoulder. "You might be right, Kren." He shook his head. "Whatever they were after, they seem to have found it."

"I hope not, sir," answered Kren.

Maccabee only nodded agreement. Then, sensing that his continued presence was a bit uncomfortable for Kren, he turned and walked down the corridor, heading back towards the bow of the ship. He'd cut up through one of the side ladders and meet up with Samara at the airlock. They'd have a lot to talk about.