Episode 104: Trouble

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Hornet's shuttle contacted the docking collar with a soft bump; this was followed immediately by sharp, metallic clicks as the locking clamps engaged; then a soft hiss as the collar filled with air. The hum of the engines faded slowly away, and the distinct noises of the station on the other side of the airlock began to filter into the shuttle's cabin, transmitted through the metal of the hull itself.

Maccabee unfastened his shock harness and stood up slowly, turning to look at the others in the shuttle's cramped compartment with him. Ming, of course, sat beside him, at the pilot's seat. She was busy checking over the shuttle's systems and did not spare him a glance. Alger, huge as ever, but with none of his weapons visible to the unaided eye, sat next to Samara, who had forgone her usual sidearm in favor of a less dangerous demeanor. She had not been happy about the decision, but she was hardly unarmed. Behind them were Massat Sel, looking distinctly uncomfortable at being in the first group to go aboard the supercollector, and Tangria Ashburn, who was concentrating hard on something inside her brain. Robbie Selkirk and Amathea Yakazuma, both sitting at ease and obviously working hard not to finger their concealed weapons, sat at the back.

"OK, people, this is it," said Maccabee in a low voice. He didn't doubt someone on the other side of that docking collar was listening as hard as they could. "Everyone stay cool."

They all nodded, but Selkirk and Yakazuma exchanged a glance and a grin. Maccabee wondered again just what he'd been thinking allowing them to come on this mission. They were definitely the best at what they did, however, and they'd spent their last few days doing hard labor as punishment for their antics in San'a. Maccabee was damned if he was going to let them get out of his sight, however. It was a sign of his obvious discomfort with the whole situation that he'd brought them along in addition to Alger.

"We're all set, cap," said Ming from her seat. She glanced over at Maccabee. "You want me to stay with the shuttle?"

"Absolutely. Keep the door shut, while you're at it. I don't want anyone but us on this ship."

"Gotcha." Ming grinned and reached under the main control panel. She pulled out a shotgun, a fully automatic model loaded with sixteen millimeter slugs. "This'll discourage visitors."

"Try to play nice, Ming," Maccabee cautioned. "We're guests here."

"Don't worry, cap." Ming stood and clamped the shotgun to a harness she wore strapped to her thigh. The clamps were designed for a quick release if she pulled the weapon in the right direction. "I'll keep things nice and happy here."

Ming stepped over to the hatch and cycled it open. Maccabee, standing behind her, looked down the dingy docking collar to the door at the other end, about two meters away. Someone down there was looking up through a small, circular window. Ming gave a thumbs-up signal, and the person at the inner hatch cycled it open. That was not the most secure arrangement; airlocks were designed to never have both doors open.

"You can't bring that in here," said the person--a woman--in the station, pointing to indicate Ming's shotgun. The woman was short and wore blue and red coveralls with some sort of insignia on the shoulder; no doubt she was one of the contractors who worked on the supercollector. The belt around her waist was festooned with well-worn tools, some of which Maccabee recognized.

"I'm not coming in," replied Ming. She turned to her captain, nodded, and stepped aside to let him pass. He walked by her, down the collar and through the hatch into the supercollector, followed by the rest of his team. Samara brought up the rear. When they were all out, Ming gave them another wave and then cycled her hatch shut again.

The woman who'd opened the interior hatch made no such move, but turned to Maccabee, a scowl on her face. "Who told you you could bring this many people on board? We've got limited oxygen, you know."

"Really?" said Maccabee. "Lieutenant Sheffield didn't mention that when he approved my group." He smiled at the woman politely. "I'm Captain Derrick, by the way. I didn't catch your name. . . ."

The woman gave Maccabee a cold glare, then turned to the whole group. "Listen up. Here's the rules on this station: no guns, no fighting, no drinking, no fraternizing. Everyone on this station outranks you, so do as you're told. Stay in the blue sectors only." She pointed at the blue stripe that was painted along the left wall of the corridor where they stood. "Every other color is off limits to you. Understood?"

"Perfectly clear," said Maccabee. "Thank you."

The woman grunted, then turned and stalked off to be grumpy elsewhere. They all watched her go, then looked around for someone else to come and greet them. No one did. In fact, the immediate corridors around them were nearly empty. A pair of crewmen in blue overalls were maneuvering some sort of storage container several bays up-station from them, and that was it. Apparently there were no other guests in the docking section.

The modules of the supercollector's habitat section had to be roughly balanced along the center of gravity of the station; this meant that most modules were simply cylinders, attached end to end in a long string. The end-most was the docking section, a half kilometer tube with a central cargo hold and four long corridors spotted with docking points every fifty meters. Up-station, towards the dish of the collector, the next module was similarly sized and contained the majority of the habitat's living spaces. The engineering unit was after that, a nearly spherical section that contained the fusion plants and life support systems for the habitat. Up-station of engineering was the main control unit; this was also where the quarters for the original crew were located. The habitat ended there--beyond were only the mechanics of the collector, giant particle decelerators, containment tanks, and transfer nodes where tankers could hook to the station to refuel.

Maccabee turned to his team. "Looks like no one's going to be holding our hands. Keep an eye out." He motioned for Ashburn to join him and lowered his voice. "Let me know if you see anything out of the ordinary."

"How about this?" she muttered. "No commander I know of wouldn't be down here to see us in person. It's not every day that ships drop by a supercollector for a visit."

"I was thinking that myself." Maccabee looked up the corridor to where the two crewmen were working. They'd taken a break and were unabashedly staring back at him. "I was expecting Sheffield at least."

"Excuse me, sir," said Massat Sel from the back of the group. Maccabee turned from Ashburn to look Sel's way. "Could you take a look at this, captain? Mister Brelloc too, I think."

The rest of the team looked on curiously as Maccabee and Alger moved back to Sel, who was standing by the bulkhead. When they came up, he motioned them closer and pointed at a section of ceramasteel. "Look at this, captain," Sel said, pointing at the bulkhead. More specifically he was indicating an area of fresh paint, some of which appeared to have chipped away.

"Crew's lax," grumbled Alger. "What of it?"

"Underneath the paint, Mister Brelloc," said Sel with a grimace. "It's been painted over recently. Why? Because there is some sort of energy weapons scarring here on the ceramasteel." Sel chipped away another bit of paint with his finger. Maccabee leaned in close and saw a pattern of tiny ripples in the metal.

"What do you think, Alger?" he asked, moving aside so the big Scot could get a closer look.

"Plasma," said Alger. He bent even closer and prodded a big finger against the metal. "A pistol; rifle'd leave a wider pattern."

"Captain," said Samara with perfect calm, "Ensign Devverin is coming down the hall our way."

"Thank you, Samara," said Maccabee, turning casually away from the wall and blocking Alger as best he could with his body. "We've got a job here, people. I don't really care what's going on, as long as I can get the information I'm looking for." He reached under his jacket and touched the grip of the two millimeter railpistol concealed there. "Stay close."

Devverin came to a stop in front of them, his ready smile on his face, though he cast a few more glances than usual in Alger's direction. The big Scot had stepped away from the bulkhead and was busily inspecting the overhead, trying to look at least marginally innocent.

"Welcome!" said the Ensign, holding out a hand for Maccabee. He took it and shook it firmly. "I've come to show you around. I hope that Alice wasn't too abrupt." Maccabee presumed he was referring to the woman who'd let them on board.

"Not too terrible," he answered easily.

"Good, good." Devverin rubbed his hands together. "Where to, then? What's your pleasure?"

"I was hoping to find a good bar. . . ." Maccabee shrugged. "My own cabinet is depleted at the moment."

"Of course! Just follow me." Devverin turned and motioned for them to come with him.

They started out up-station. The two crewmen were diligently at work again by the time Maccabee and his team passed them, but they stopped and stared again anyway. Samara greeted them, but they remained silent. Devverin laughed uncomfortably. Maccabee was feeling worse and worse about this whole thing, but he resisted the urge to go back to the shuttle. If there was something . . . wrong . . . on the supercollector, then he might as well take care of it while he was here. After all, that was what he did.

The decks in each cylindrical module were arranged parallel to the main axis of the station; the deck where each module connected to the next was designated Deck Zero. Higher decks were labeled in ascending numerical order, preceded by an H; lower decks were preceded by an L. Devverin led the group down a set of stairs from deck H2, past H1 to Zero. The next down was L1, then L2 and so on. They passed just one other person, a lone woman in a red coverall who was climbing up the same stairs. She stopped to let them by and traded a small smile with Maccabee, but there was something about the look in her eyes that made him nervous. Devverin nearly killed her with his glare, that much was certain.

The connection between the modules was sealed off by a double set of heavy pressure doors at either end of the ten meter corridor that ran between them. That corridor was surrounded by thick layers of conduits that moved water, air, power, and data between the modules. This whole was then surrounded by heavy structural members wrapped in thin sheets of ceramasteel armor designed to protect the station from micrometeor impacts. The connecting corridor was the only way between modules, and though it was a good four meters broad it was still a bottleneck.

Two men who could only be described as guards stood at the open pressure door at the up-station end of the module as Maccabee and his crew walked off the stairs with Devverin and into the broad foyer that fronted the access. Neither man carried an obvious weapon, but they were flanking the entrance and just standing there, so their purpose seemed plain. Maccabee walked up and made to pass between them.

"Hold on, there," said one of them, stepping in front of Maccabee with a raised hand. He reached behind his back and pulled out a shock stick, an electrified club usually used by police for crowd control. Maccabee stopped.

"Is there a problem?" he asked the guard. The other of the pair had also stepped forward and pulled out his own shock stick, which he was casually twirling with one hand as he eyed Maccabee's team. Maccabee couldn't see any of his people, but he hoped they were hiding their amusement at this display.

"What business do you have in the next module?" asked the guard who'd spoken.

Maccabee frowned. "I'm getting a little tired of all the rude people I'm meeting on this station," he said. "What's going on here, Devverin?" Maccabee looked over at the ensign.

"I'm not sure," growled the officer, scowling at the two guards. "Get the hell out of our way, you two idiots. Can't you see they're official guests?"

Maccabee frowned. That seemed like an odd way to address crewmen ostensibly under Ensign Devverin's command.

"Right. Sorry about that. Must have been a miscommunication somewhere along the line," said the guard, looking suddenly very uncomfortable. He stepped out of the way and hid the shock stick behind his back. "Carry on." He glared at Devverin.

"Thank you," said Devverin. He turned to Maccabee. "Sorry. If you'll follow me?"

"Certainly," said Maccabee, pleased that violence had not erupted but even more confused by the behavior around him than before. He glanced back at his team, shrugged, and followed Devverin between the two guards down the twenty meter connecting corridor to the open pressure door of the next module.

As they stepped through into the habitat, Sel came close to Maccabee and leaned in to whisper, "Those two guards dispersed after we passed through, captain."

Maccabee just nodded. Obviously the two men had only been there for his benefit. What was the purpose? Just random harassment, or something deeper? He wondered again just where the other officers might be hiding, and why.

From the pressure door, the habitat module's Deck Zero opened out into a three- deck-high atrium of sorts that was a good twenty meters wide and looked to stretch the whole length of the module. Stores, homes, theaters and brothels lined the five-hundred- meter stretch on either side, and here, finally, was some sign of the crew. Men and women in all sorts of work clothes milled about. It looked like just about everyone was off-duty, but with the collector essentially off-line, that made a certain kind of sense. Still, from Ashburn's worried frown, it was plain that this was not a normal state of affairs.

As Devverin led Maccabee and his team forward, conversation died in a spreading ripple. People stopped what they were doing and looked up to stared silently at the newcomers. The flickering lights overhead--they were not adaptive, and gave only a monochromatic hard white light--cast shadows into doorways, and men and women seemed to fade back into those shadows as Hornet's crewmen moved by. Some people gave them looks of obvious hostility, while others seemed to be almost frightened. The whole situation made no sense, and Maccabee felt increasingly like someone was about to shoot him in the back.

He brought the group to a halt about a hundred meters down the atrium. "Sorry, ensign," he said in reply to Devverin's confused look, "but I think my fellows here might like some time on their own." He grinned. "You know, away from the captain."

"Uh, of course, captain, but--"

"Good man, Devverin." Maccabee clapped a hand on the ensign's shoulder, then motioned for his people to gather around him. "I don't want any trouble here, so be sure to follow all the rules, people." He tapped the side of his head in a gesture that could have indicated keeping a straight head; in this case, however, it signaled his crew to stay in touch via the implanted com net they all possessed. "Samara? I think you had the list."

Samara gave Maccabee an unhappy look; then she turned to the others. "Selkirk and Yakazuma, you're with the captain. Ashburn, you're with me. Sel, go with Alger." She glanced back at Maccabee and he nodded his approval of her choices. "Have fun." She sounded distinctly unhappy about it.

Maccabee watched the two pairs of his crew move off with a nervous flutter in his stomach. They were as well-armed as they could have been, given the situation: Only small arms, concealed by anti-scan boxes from any electronic surveillance this station might be able to muster. If the few hundred men and women here decided to make an issue of it, however, Maccabee was sure they would have the final say. Those odds tended to be overwhelming.

"Maybe this isn't the best idea, captain," said Devverin with a queasy smile. "Your crew probably, uh, isn't used to this sort of place, and the people here can be a little, um, rough, so you see, it might be best if you just asked them to come back here and stay with the group, really." The ensign looked off after the departing crew members with a pained expression.

"I assure you, ensign," said Maccabee easily, "no one from my ship will start any trouble. If there is any, it will be your responsibility to deal with it."

Devverin stared open mouthed. Maccabee smiled at him again, then motioned for Selkirk and Yakazuma to follow him, turned, and led the way into a saloon behind him. The place was named the Hydrogen Belt, and featured a picture of a buxom blond and a muscle-enhanced brown-haired man happily fondling each other over the door. The rest of the place was unremarkable, just another metal and plastic storefront along the atrium. Two broad-shouldered men in red coveralls pushed their way out of the open doorway, stopped as they spotted Maccabee and the two people with him, then moved aside and stared as they passed. Maccabee felt that uncomfortable feeling between his shoulderblades again, but ignored it. Selkirk and Yakazuma would watch his back.

Conversation tapered off as Maccabee walked up to the bar, but a small background hum remained, which immediately made him feel more comfortable. As he took a seat and leaned against the dingy, plastic bar, one of the barmaids caught his eye and smiled. He returned the gesture, feeling considerably relieved. Devverin scurried into the bar, apparently deciding his best bet was to stay with Maccabee, and sat down next to the captain. Selkirk and Yakazuma did not sit, but took up positions flanking the other two, their backs to the bar, bodies arranged in positions of studied casual ease that fooled no one: They were two very dangerous people.

"What can I get you, sailor?" asked the barmaid as she stepped up opposite Maccabee and took a futile swipe at the dirty bar with an equally dirty rag. She gave a quick, sideways glance at Devverin, who nodded to her almost imperceptibly.

"Whiskey and soda," Maccabee answered, keeping his voice easy and casual. Conversation was slowly returning to normal, but he had the impression most of it concerned him.

"And for the other two?" The barmaid indicated Selkirk and Yakazuma with a nod of her head. She seemed to be ignoring Devverin as best she could. "They don't seem too friendly."

"Oh, we are," said Selkirk. The woman looked briefly surprised that he'd been listening. "We just like the view this way."

"OK. Then what do you want to drink?"

"Red wine," said Selkirk. "And she'll have water."

Yakazuma shot him a dirty look, but said nothing. The barmaid turned to collect their drinks.

They sat in uncomfortable silence. Maccabee listened to the voices of Samara and Ashburn in his head as they told him their first stop was a bust. He subvocalized a quick response for them to keep moving, hiding the tiny sound under a cough.

The barmaid returned and put the drinks on the bar, sliding them in front of their respective drinkers. Maccabee slid his credit chip into the slot on the bar and paid for all three. Then he smiled at the barmaid again.

"Thanks," he said. "You wouldn't happen to work here often, would you?"

"Every damn day," she answered. Her smile was attractive, splitting her dark face with white teeth. Her hair was a deep, dark red color, almost purple, that washed down over her shoulders and half-way down her back.

"I'm looking for someone. Maybe you know him." Maccabee smiled.

"Doubt it," she replied. Her face had closed down as soon as the words were out of his mouth. She was looking more closely at Devverin as well, and he was scowling at her.

"Where do you think I might find out?" Maccabee pressed.

"If he works here, the commander will know," she said. Then her eyes widened suddenly. Maccabee tried not to frown. What had she said? He noticed that Devverin's face had gone completely white. Maccabee realized the ensign was actually afraid of something. The barmaid suddenly stepped away from them, going down to the other end of the bar and badgering someone into buying a drink.

"I haven't yet talked to the commander," Maccabee said to Devverin. "Do you think you might arrange a meeting, ensign?"

"Ah, probably not, captain," said Devverin, sounding a bit hoarse. Selkirk was not even leaning against the bar at this point, but was standing up, holding his red wine in one hand, his other hovering dangerously near his concealed gun. Yakazuma had her back to Maccabee and was picking out targets in the crowd, prioritizing the customers by their possible threat level.

"Why not?" asked Maccabee.

"The commander. . . ." Devverin cleared his throat. "He's been ill for some time now. Lieutenant Sheffield's taken over the day-to-day operations. We've sent for a doctor." He was warming up to his story now; Maccabee was convinced it was a lie, but he didn't yet grasp the reason for it. "Our own doctor isn't that good with, um, with rare diseases like this."

"What is it?" asked Maccabee. "It must be in the medical database. Why not have the autodoc synthesize a serum or something?"

"Ah, well, the autodoc's a pretty old model," said Devverin, shrugging. "Thing's not up to snuff anymore. Mixes bad doses."

"That's no laughing matter, ensign." Maccabee frowned, then smiled. "You know, I have a highly-qualified physician on board my ship. And an autodoc unit not more than two years old. We're fully equipped. Why not bring the commander over? No need for him to suffer until the next tanker arrives."

"Um." That was all Devverin said. He was trapped by his own story now, and he didn't see a way out. Then the reason for it all finally dawned on Maccabee.

Samara, we're in trouble, he said over the com link.

This is news?, she answered. What's happening?

Mutiny. Devverin claims the commander's ill, but he won't let me see him. Maccabee kept his face expressionless.

You're sure? asked Samara. He could almost hear the emotion leeching out of her voice as his words went home and she prepared for violent action.

"Definitely," said Maccabee out loud.

Devverin looked up in surprise. "What?"

"We're leaving," said Maccabee to Selkirk and Yakazuma; he simultaneously sent his words to everyone in the com net, including Ming and Russ, who was in command back on Hornet. "Now."

All three started moving at once towards the doorway of the saloon, leaving Devverin stammering behind them. The place was completely silent now, and about forty sets of eyes watched them stride across the room. A strange quiet had descended in the atrium as well. Alger and Sel stood across the way from Maccabee. Samara and Ashburn were not immediately visible. The center of the open space was dominated by a twenty- person security team, in front of which stood Lieutenant Sheffield, his thick arms folded across his thick chest. There was a deep frown on his face. He wore a three millimeter railpistol at his hip, and each of his security team carried rifles of a similar caliber. There was no sign of any plasma weapons.

"Ah, Lieutenant," said Maccabee, coming to a halt with Selkirk and Yakazuma spreading out to his sides, putting space between them and him so that no more than one of them would be caught in a single burst of fire. "Good to meet you face to face. Maybe you can help me. I'm looking for someone, and since Ensign Devverin assures me the station commander is feeling quite ill, I think you're the man to help me."

"Not exactly, captain," said Sheffield, his voice smooth and quiet. "You and I have some other things to discuss."

"Your mutiny? Or the murder of your commander, perhaps?" Maccabee smiled tightly. "Don't press me, Sheffield, if that's really your name. I'm leaving. That's all there is to it. Now stand aside."

"I don't think so. I think you'd better turn over your ship to me."

Maccabee tensed his body. His hand crept ever so slowly towards his weapon. Sheffield was the primary target; the whole mutiny might collapse if he died. Unless Hornet and her crew were in even more trouble than Maccabee thought. "Why should I do that?" he asked.

"I have you and your crew here. If you don't give me the ship, I'll kill you." He smiled, but it was a cold expression, the smile of a murderer who liked his job. "You don't have a choice."

"You do, Sheffield," said Maccabee. "Either let us go, or die right here."

"And how do you plan on killing me?"

"Now!" Maccabee shouted over the com link. As one, Hornet's crew pulled their weapons. Sheffield's eyes widened as Maccabee's gun appeared in his hand as though by magic, the captain moving almost faster than they eye could follow. Sheffield clawed for his gun and the men and women around him started to aim, and then a stream of thirty two millimeter bullets blew Sheffield's head apart.