Episode 106: Creative Negotiations

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The lift came to a smooth halt just a moment after Maccabee asked his question, and Yakazuma dragged Devverin aside as the doors opened. Alger stepped forward, his shotgun up, while Ashburn took up position beside him. There was no one immediately visible in the foyer where the lifts opened, and Maccabee nodded for the other two to move forward. They slipped through the doors facing in opposite directions, their backs to each other as they covered the area. A quick spin showed them that there was nothing to be seen.

"Looks to be clear," said Alger.

"Clear this way," echoed Ashburn.

Maccabee stepped into the foyer area, and looked each direction. To the right, there was a small, hazy ceramaplast window that looked out into space. A corridor stretched out to the left, ending only about five meters away in a heavy blast door. Presumably that was the control deck of the station. No personnel were in evidence. Alger ducked quickly back into the lift and moved Samara's limp figure into the foyer.

"Let's go," said Maccabee, motioning to the others to follow him towards the control deck. "Sel, you cover Devverin. I want Amathea free to fire."

Sel nodded and took over the job of watching the supposed ensign, while the others moved together and started down the corridor. There was no sign of any sort of sensors, but that meant very little; they were easy to conceal from the naked eye, and Maccabee had no other scanning equipment with him.

The four of them moved forward cautiously, their guns up and ready to fire. Maccabee and Yakazuma were in the front, Alger and Ashburn bringing up the rear. Sel shifted so he could look down the corridor and still keep en eye on his charge. Devverin was looking on with an expression of fear mixed with anger. Maccabee couldn't guess just what he was thinking about, but he didn't much care.

They reached the blast door to the control deck, still without any sign of opposition. Maccabee glanced back at Ashburn. "Your turn, I think," he said, motioning for her to step forward to the controls on the door. Then the com unit in his head signaled.

"Captain, this is Russ."

"I'm here," replied Maccabee, trying to keep his voice calm. He moved quickly back down the corridor to join Sel, motioning for the others to stay where they were. "What is it?"

"The ship is closing in, sir." Russ sounded concerned, but not overly worried. "She'll be in weapons range in about five minutes, assuming we don't move to intercept. The read we're getting so far says she's a freighter, two megatons. Configuration matches the standard tanker that off-loads the collectors." Russ hesitated. "I'm not sure what that means."

"It probably means they were here a little while ago and started this whole ugly business," said Maccabee as the situation came together in his head. He turned to Devverin. "Who the hell's on that ship, ensign?"

"What ship?"

Maccabee stepped forward and slammed his clenched fist into Devverin's stomach. The ensign heaved a huge cough and doubled up, then toppled to the ground as Sel stepped back from him.

"Don't, Devverin," growled Maccabee as he hauled the man back up to his feet. "I've little reason to let you live, and one good reason to kill you. Talk."

Maccabee let go of the other man and Devverin staggered back against the bulkhead with a strangled gasp. "Wait," he said, holding up a hand. "It's. . . . The ship's called Alice, and she's captained by Martin Krupp. He's a bastard, captain. He organized the mutiny here with Sheffield. Had one on the Alice at the same time. There was some fighting, especially with her captain. But Krupp and Sheffield won. He's been shadowing us since then, waiting for the next supply ship."

The whole story came out in a rush. It confirmed most of Maccabee's guesses, and he immediately was suspicious of it; Devverin was no fool, and he knew how to play people, or so Maccabee guessed. There was ample reason to believe he'd lie, if only to protect himself.

"Captain," said Sel, his voice tight. "One of the lifts is coming up."

"Go," said Maccabee, shoving Devverin down the corridor. Sel followed, and Maccabee grabbed Samara and dragged her after him down the corridor a moment later. "Russ," he called, reopening the com link, "do what you have to. Be advised, that ship is definitely a pirate. Treat her as such."

"Understood, captain." Russ signed off.

It wasn't entirely true, Maccabee knew. In a real pirate ship, the crew was volunteer, mainly. There was little chance that this was true on a mutinous ship. Most likely the majority of the crew were innocent bystanders, guilty only of not standing up for their original captain. If Russ treated Alice like a pirate, he'd show her no mercy. There was no time to think about that decision at the moment, however.

"Ashburn," said Maccabee as he reached the blast door again, letting Samara slump against the bulkhead. Hopefully her injuries were not too severe, but he had little choice. "How is it?"

"Not good, captain," she answered. She'd pulled out a jack cable and was now trying to access the security computer with her brain. The normal interface was wireless, but that required a special transmitter, the kind of thing there was no reason to install in a security door. Her voice sounded oddly . . . distant. "There's multiple redundant protocols. Looks like someone in the mutiny is good with coding. It'll take me a few minutes, at least."

"No good," growled Alger. He shoved Sel down and stepped forward. The lifts at the other end of the corridor were opening now. A man stepped out of one of them, a rifle in his hands, and Alger dropped him before he'd had time to turn. His body flew backwards and slammed into the far wall, leaving a bright smear of blood. Someone fired out of the lift doors, but the foyer was wider than the corridor, and there was no way to get an angle on the blast door from inside the lifts. The shots put a series of small, bright holes in the ceramaplast interior wall.

"Devverin!" shouted Maccabee. The ensign spun as though to run and Yakazuma grabbed him by the throat and slammed him against the bulkhead, then shot him in the arm. He screamed as the railpistol bullet tore through the muscle and out to embed itself in the wall.

Maccabee stepped up, shouldering Yakazuma aside. He heard Sel firing, and then the boom of Alger's shotgun. Then more rounds ricocheted in the direction of his team. A moment later Yakazuma joined the fray, and dozens of rounds rattled down the corridor. She was in no mood to take prisoners.

"You'd better tell me how to get in there, Devverin!" shouted Maccabee over the sounds of combat. "They're not going to bother trying to save you!"

"I don't know how!" yelled Devverin. He winced and ducked as a burst of automatic fire stitched the wall just over his head. Maccabee heard Alger curse, and then another boom from the shotgun the Scot carried. "Sheffield never gave out the new codes!"

"Bullshit!" Maccabee gripped Devverin's throat tightly. "I'll make sure that none of us live through this if you don't open that door," he growled in a low voice, his face just millimeters away from Devverin's.

Alger's hoarse shout of pain spun Maccabee around. The big Scot had fallen to the ground, clutching his side as blood leaked through his fingers. He still had enough fight in him to fire the shotgun again, hitting another man by the lifts in the shoulder. The man spun around like a top, and then Yakazuma finished him. Maccabee noted she was firing single rounds, and he knew that meant she was running dangerously low on ammo.

"Amathea!" he shouted. He tossed her his gun, then turned back on Devverin. The ensign shrank away as Maccabee loomed over him, then grabbed him by the shoulders, lifted him bodily from the ground and threw him at the door controls. "Now!" he roared.

Devverin took one look at Maccabee's face, then turned to the controls and started working. Ashburn kept at it too. Maccabee grabbed her gun from its holster and faced the other way. Two more mutineers leapt into the foyer by the lifts. Their guns were already up, but Maccabee was faster than any normal human. One died with a bullet between his eyes, the other with a shot through her throat. Both crumpled onto the pile of bodies that was slowly filling the foyer.

"Got it!" shouted Ashburn suddenly from behind them. Maccabee spun and leapt through the still-opening blast doors, Ashburn's gun in his hands. A man was standing by one of the control stations, his hands aiming a large-caliber pistol, but Maccabee was too fast for him. A single shot put him down, and then Hornet's captain did a slow spin, checking the control deck for any other threats. Besides another exit, there appeared to be no other security risks.

"Inside!" bellowed Maccabee as he stepped back out the door, shot another man by the lifts, and grabbed Alger's arm. He started hauling the big Scot backwards along the floor while Yakazuma stepped into the middle of the corridor and covered them. Sel was struggling to move Samara, but Ashburn stepped forward and grabbed an arm to help. Together they managed to pull the XO's dead weight into the control room. Then Devverin made his move.

"Yakazuma!" shouted Sel as Devverin launched himself at the small woman. Yakazuma moved like a snake, spinning and ducking at the same time, but the people in the lift area seemed ready for Devverin's move. They opened fire with a coordinated assault, and bullets ripped through Yakazuma's leg. She screamed and toppled backwards, but her finger still tightened on the trigger of her gun. Devverin's head was pierced by two high-velocity rounds and he hit the floor lifeless.

"Shotgun," shouted Maccabee. He caught Alger's tossed gun out of midair and charged forward, yelling at the top of his lungs. The two people at the end of the corridor shied backwards, and that was all the time he needed, more than he needed. One's head exploded a moment later as an eighteen millimeter slug tore through it, and then the other died with a shot in her chest, throwing her backwards against the side walls.

Maccabee slid to a stop by Yakazuma, who was panting as she tried to lift her gun up and aim downrange at the lifts. Maccabee didn't say anything, just grabbed her under the arms, the empty shotgun abandoned, and hauled her backwards as fast as he could. Something in her training kicked in then, because her free hand whipped out and snatched the shotgun, and then she fired her own gun with nearly-deadly accuracy as another person stumbled into the hallway from the lifts. Then Maccabee was through the blast doors and Ashburn was shutting them. Another half dozen rounds hit the doors, and then they were sealed and the sounds of the corridor were suddenly dampened almost to nothing.

The moment Maccabee lowered her to the floor, Yakazuma passed out. He scrambled around her to her legs and inspected the wound. At least a dozen rounds had hit her right thigh and torn it to ribbons. White bone was exposed through the grisly wound, but it seemed that none of the shots had actually hit the skeleton, which was extremely lucky indeed. With quick, measured movements, Maccabee wrapped a torn strip of Yakazuma's shirt tightly around her leg, then pulled off his belt and strapped it down across her femoral artery, shutting off the blood flow to the leg. Doctor Monteux would lecture him about tourniquets again, he was sure, but better losing a leg than dying. Legs could be grown back.

Ashburn was already over by the control stations, seeing what she could access and looking for a direct jack where she could plug into the system. Maccabee stood, wiping the blood on his hands onto his pants, then turned back to Alger and Sel. Massat was bandaging the Scot's side, where a round had apparently caught the flesh of Alger's belly and ripped out the other side.

"How is it?" Maccabee asked.

"Bloody fuckin' hurts!" roared Alger with uncharacteristic overstatement. Sel looked up and rolled his eyes.

"Mister Brelloc will survive, captain. If he lets me bandage this." The humor faded quickly from Sel's eyes a moment later. "How is Miss Yakazuma?"

Maccabee shook his head. "Don't know. She's bad, but I think she'll live. If we can get off this dump!" He turned to look Ashburn's way. "Got anything yet, Ashburn?"

"Not yet," she said, her voice impatient. "I'll tell as soon as I do."

The whole station rocked slightly a moment later, and a tremor ran through the deck plating from up-station down, then echoed back up much more faintly.

"Uh-oh," muttered Alger, his face nearly white, his hand clenched tightly against Sel's bandage.

"Russ," said Maccabee, jacking quickly into the com link. "What the hell was that?"

"It's the other ship, sir," said Russ's voice after a moment's wait. "She's opened fire on the collector itself, sir! That was a missile impact. It took out about a hundred square klicks!" There was another sharp vibration through the deck. "Shit! Sir, he's just opening up on you! Those missiles aren't even guided, but there's dozens of them, he's going to hit you no matter what!"

"Go get him, Russ!" barked Maccabee. The others looked his way, worry etched on their faces. They couldn't hear the other side of the conversation, but they knew something was very, very wrong. "Get that son of a bitch off me, now!"

"Already on an intercept, sir, as soon as he fired the first missile." Maccabee could almost see Russ shaking his head in frustration. "We've got no intercept velocity, though, captain. He'll be able to outrun us if he makes for the flux boundary." If the pirate made it to the boundary, he would be able to activate his wormhole drive and disappear into the depths of empty, interstellar space.

"Don't let him get there, Russ." Maccabee's lips split in an angry grin. "That's an order."


Maccabee signed off and then the station lurched sideways and a thunderous roar echoed through the open spaces, transmitted from an explosion somewhere through the bulkheads to the air around them. Staggering across the open deck, Maccabee slammed sideways into the holo tank in the center of the control room while Sel fell over backwards. Ashburn let herself fall into the chair by the station where she'd been standing.

"What the hell is happening?" she shouted a moment later.

"Whoever's ship that is out there," said Maccabee, pulling himself to his feet and wincing at the sharp pain in his side where he'd struck the holo tank, "it's shooting missiles at us. At the station."

"Oh damn," whispered Ashburn. Sel's face was deathly pale, and not because of his wound.

"The tanks?" asked Maccabee, his heart sinking again. Sel nodded.

"Sir," he said, "there's enough hydrogen in those tanks to blow up a battleship, much less this heap." He shrugged. "Of course, most of the force of the blast wouldn't be directed towards us, but I think it'd be enough. It'd be bad, anyway."

"That's an understatement, laddie," said Alger from the floor where he'd propped himself up against a bulkhead. "We're fucked."

"Damn." Maccabee clenched a fist. "We've got to get off of this thing." He turned to Ashburn. "See if you can at least access the weapons. Maybe we can use them against this guy."

"He'll just shoot us from stand-off, then," said Alger.

"Point defense, then!" shouted Maccabee. "I'll take a fucking laser pistol at this point, as long as it's mounted on the external hull!"

No one spoke in the following silence. Another blast, less loud but just as powerful, shook the station, but everyone was holding on to something now, or sitting down. Then there were some odd noises from the blast doors.

"Ashburn," said Maccabee.

"It's sealed, damn it! They'll have to cut through, or blast it, but I don't think they have enough room for that. Probably don't have the explosives either."

"Which means--" began Maccabee, but he was cut off as a cutting torch howled to life at the door. Bright sparks burned through to the inside and began falling to the deck. It was a slow process, but it was sure to work.

"Which means they cut through," said Alger. He shook his head and pulled his shotgun close, then started reloading it, pushing shells into the revolving magazine. "I'd like to leave now."

"I've got a schematic up, now," said Ashburn, and a moment later the holo tank came alive, displaying a three-dimensional rendering of the command module.

The module was spherical, roughly, and had five decks. Maccabee and his crew were on deck three, one above the foyer which connected to the previous module. The deck above housed the officer's quarters and mess, while the three below were given over to reactors, storage, crew quarters for the original staff of the station, a small shuttle bay and various access ports and corridors leading to the main workings of the collector, further up-station.

"A shuttle bay." Sel's voice sounded suddenly very tired. "Can we get there, sir?"

Maccabee studied the schematic. The other door out of the control deck led to a short corridor to the commander's office and cabin. There was another lift on that side, a small unit which seemed to run down to the control accesses, opposite the location of the bay. The four main lifts ran directly to the shuttles.

"They'll be in there already," said Ashburn. "There's no way, not carrying Yakazuma and Samara, and with Alger injured."

"I can still carry someone other than me," growled Alger. He pushed himself up along the wall, nearly fell, and then managed to get to his feet. "Damn me if I can't."

"Maybe there's another way," said Maccabee, looking more closely at the schematic. "Ashburn, zoom this out." The image shrank and other parts of the station came into view, all of it to the down-station side. "No, the other way."

Ashburn gave Maccabee a puzzled look, but she complied. The image shifted, showing the storage tanks, each larger than the whole habitat sections of the station combined. The tanks were clustered in sets of four around the central axis of the station, where the supercollector's particle decelerators and magnetic collectors were located, along with the equipment that shunted the hydrogen into the tanks from the dish. The carbon nanotube cables that supported the dish fanned out from that central axis as well, stretching five hundred kilometers into space in every direction. The schematic didn't represent that distance to scale, but instead showed the points along the outer circumference of the dish where small stations were attached to regulate thrust and rotation as disconnected bits of the station that slowly rotated around the central axis.

"There," said Maccabee. The station shuddered again, and now there were other sounds being transmitted through the bulkheads, sounds of tearing metal and sheering supports. The cutting torch was finished with the top of the rough square it was tracing through the blast door, and was now starting on the bottom.

"Where?" asked Sel.

"The stations on the disk. Ming can pick us up there." Maccabee smiled slightly. "There's docking points all arranged."

"I'd like to point out," said Ashburn as though she were talking to a crazy person, "that those docking points are the only access to those stations. You can't get there from here without a shuttle, which would solve our problem to begin with. So. . . ."

"You missed part of that diagram, Ashburn," said Maccabee, his smile widening. "Whoever built this collector apparently thought that shuttles made the whole operation too complex." He stepped up to the holo and pointed. "Zoom in here."

Ashburn did so, and everyone just stared for a moment while Maccabee chuckled happily.

"I'll be damned," muttered Ashburn. "Why would anyone do that?"

She was referring to the small transit tubes that ran through the main spines of the dish, one in each of the six heavier cables that ran to the six outer stations. The cars in the tubes were designed for two men, but they would probably fit six with a tight squeeze. A very tight squeeze.

"I've seen it before," said Sel, suddenly sounding excited again. "It's an old design." He shook his head. "Docking with one of those stations is still hellish hard, the way that disk is spinning. And its got virtually no internal strength. Hit it too hard when you connect, and the whole thing will collapse. That's always been a problem, even for computer guidance systems." He turned to Maccabee. "Did you know this was here, sir?"

"Actually, no," said Maccabee, studying the schematic, "but it was worth a try."

Again, the station shook with an impact, and again the standing people held on to keep from being tossed around. Maccabee linked into the com again. "Russ, what the hell's happening out there?"

"We're engaged, sir," said Russ. A loud explosion thundered in the background of his signal and Maccabee winced. "I don't know where the hell they got the weapons, but that ship is packing a mean punch. Nothing we can't handle." There was another blast. "Not yet. We're scoring some hits, but he's using the station's collection disk as cover. He doesn't seem to care about hitting it."

"He wouldn't," growled Maccabee. He turned to Ashburn. "Where are those weapons?"

"I was getting schematics," she snapped back at him, but her eyes had that glazed look that said she was linking with the station's computers. Then her eyes focused on Maccabee again and they widened considerably. "Oh shit."


"He's got them. He's got the weapons." Ashburn shook her head and unplugged her jack. "He's got all of them."

"Must have stripped them out," muttered Alger, leaning heavily against the bulkhead, his shotgun in his hand as he watched the progress of the cutting torch across the bottom of the square. Just one side remained.

"Russ," said Maccabee. How much more could go wrong? "Be advised. We think that freighter stripped the weapons out of the station. There's nothing left here." He glanced at Ashburn and she shook her head. "Nothing at all."

"Mother. . . !" There was another pause, and another explosion. "That explains a lot. I'm on it, captain. Just stay cool. We'll take care of it on this end."

"We've got to move again, Russ," said Maccabee, taking another glance at the blast door and then stepping over to haul Yakazuma off the ground. He hefted her onto his shoulder. "Uninvited guests."

"Understood, captain," replied Russ. For just a moment, Maccabee heard him shouting orders in the background, and then he cut the channel.

"Let's get moving," he said to the others as he steadied Yakazuma's limp form on his shoulders. Then he noticed the sudden silence and turned around.

The cutting torch had stopped cutting, but it hadn't finished its job yet. The door was still attached on the left side. It might be pushed open, but bending that metal would be a hellishly difficult task compared to just cutting the last side.

"What're they doing?" muttered Alger.

Maccabee turned to Ashburn. "Check the scanning gear. Get me a view of that hallway."

Ashburn nodded and linked into the station's computer again. A moment later a video image of the hallway came up on the holo display. Three large men were arguing with a much shorter man whose back was to the camera. Maccabee recognized him before Ashburn put another angle up that showed his face: it was Anselm, the taciturn engineer. There was no audio feed yet, but Anselm was obviously shouting loudly, because now that the torch had stopped cutting, Maccabee could almost make out the words through the damaged blast door's thickness. Though they weren't talking, the other men seemed adamant about their position, despite, Maccabee noted, the plasma pistol that Anselm held in his right fist.

"Looks like they might be calling it quits, captain," said Sel, sudden hope in his voice. Another blast shook the station. "Maybe that's why."

"This place is going to get blown away any minute now," agreed Ashburn. "I certainly don't want to stay."

"I think it might be time for some creative negotiation," muttered Maccabee. "Ashburn, can you still open that door?"

"I can't open it," she said, rolling her eyes, "but if I deactivate the locking mechanism, it should just fall apart." Glancing back at the video feeds in the holo display, she added, "It might crush that little bastard too, depending on which way it falls."

"That can be arranged," said Maccabee, smiling grimly. He checked his two millimeter; it was down to thirty shots, so he set it to single fire. "Do it now," he ordered as he strode towards the door. He heard the locking mechanisms unfastening as he picked up speed, and then the door tried to open itself, failed, and started to come apart. Maccabee slammed into the free slab with his shoulder, and it started to fall. Raising his gun, he grabbed onto a piece of the door and rode it down.

Anselm scrambled out of the way of the falling slab of ceramasteel, stumbling and falling to the floor in his haste to avoid being crushed to death. The other three men jumped backwards, though they were already clear. The door slammed down into and partway through the deck plating, and Maccabee rolled forward in a single somersault, coming up on one knee with his pistol pointed at Anselm's face. He heard one of his crew moving behind him, but he did not look away.

"Put it down, now," he ordered.

Anselm scowled and spat on the floor. "Fuck--"

Maccabee shot him in the face just once and he stared for a moment in shock before sliding down to the deck. Maccabee stood. "I have no use for idiots," he said as he turned to the other three men. "I think you had a disagreement with this man." Another shock hit the station, and Maccabee wondered just how much the fragile assemblage could withstand. "I'm guessing you want off this station as much as we do. Unfortunately, there's only two ships in this system that can take everyone on board. One of them is mine, and the other one is shooting at this station."

"I'm with you, captain," growled one of the men as he stepped forward over Anselm's body and held out a hand. "I've had enough of these bastards. I'll take my chances with you." He glanced down at the body behind him. "You seem to be on the winning side."

Maccabee did not take the man's hand. "You're wrong if you think you're on my side. I do want a bargain. I do not want you." He glanced at the other two. "Are you in or out? This station is probably going to shake itself apart, even if that idiot stops shooting at it. You need to get off. Either you let me off first, or we all die here."

"What are the terms?" asked the first man. He looked angry now, perhaps at Maccabee's rebuff. Did he expect a warm welcome for a mutineer who so quickly jumped ship again?

"No terms. You let me go, I'll get you off the station. Assuming my ship manages to beat his, which is a pretty safe assumption."

"Anselm here seems . . . seemed to think otherwise," said one of the other two men. "He said your ship would be easy pickings. He also said your ship was the one firing at the station."

"Fine." Maccabee took a step backwards. "I'd hoped to avoid any more bloodshed. I'm leaving, whether you want me to or not. Don't think you're going to stop me." He backed up into the bridge again, Sel standing beside him. "Last chance. Do we have a deal?"

The station shook again, and this time the shock was violent again, and slightly different from the others. Something had come loose. The station lurched and Maccabee suddenly felt a slight, barely-noticeable rotational acceleration. That was very bad news.

"You have a deal," said the man who'd spoken first. He looked at the others and they nodded. "You have a deal."

"Then let's get the hell off this thing," said Maccabee.