Episode 107: Feeling a Breeze

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For a moment, no one moved. Maccabee just stared at the three men in front of him. How many of their crew mates were dead at his hands, and at the hands of Hornet's men and women?

"Captain," said Sel in a low, urgent voice.

"Get Samara," ordered Maccabee, not moving his eyes from the men in front of him. "Alger and Ashburn will have to carry Yakazuma." He didn't have to add that this arrangement only left himself ready to respond to an attack. It would have to be enough.

Just a moment later he heard his crew coming up behind him. "Ready," growled Alger. Maccabee could hear the pain in the big man's voice; Alger refused steadfastly to use any sort of pain killers while on a mission, in case they interfered with his motor skills and higher brain functions. Some of them did just that, but Maccabee did not like hearing any of his people in pain. He gritted his teeth and motioned to the three men in front of him.

"Time to go. You lead the way." Maccabee smiled slightly, a cold, predatory grin. "Let's try to avoid any unfortunate misunderstandings."

"There'll be no trouble," said the apparent leader of the three, or at least the only one who had spoken to Maccabee so far. "This way."

He turned and led them all towards the lifts. Men and women armed with rifles backed hurriedly away as he stepped into the foyer where the doors opened; a good dozen bodies were stacked here like so much waste. The faces of the remaining fighters spoke volumes, but the man Maccabee had spoken to seemed to be an officer of some sort.

"Move back. They're taking us off this wreck," he said, motioning for the armed mutineers to keep moving into the lifts. One hesitated, but the leader's steady glare pushed her backwards, a deep scowl parting her full lips. Her hands squeezed the three millimeter railgun in her hands over and over, like she was wringing someone's neck. "No one fucking shoots," growled the leader as he turned slowly to face back to Maccabee. "No one."

Hornet's captain said nothing. Just the sound of his voice might spark sudden violence, and he was, for the first time on this damnable mission, heavily outgunned and outnumbered. There was a chance he'd be able to fight his way clear, but the unconscious and wounded members of the team did not have that option.

They followed the leader and the other two men into an empty lift, moving quickly past the leveled barrels of various rifles and pistols. Maccabee motioned for his crew to precede him and turned to watch the men and women who were covering him. Alger scowled as he walked by, while Ashburn kept her face carefully neutral and her hands well away from her gun. Sel's face was screwed up in a grimace of effort as he hauled Samara along. When his people were past, Maccabee stepped backwards into the lift, still watching.

The lift doors closed, and everyone, even the mutineers, breathed a sigh of relief, though not so loud as to be easily noticed. The lift sank quickly down to the lowest level, where the shuttle port waited. Maccabee activated his com link in silence.

Russ, he subvocalized to his ship as the station rocked again, what's the situation?

"I'm giving chase, captain," said Russ, his voice sounding strained. Irregular noises caught the edges of the signal, and Maccabee winced as he heard a bang that could only be the impact of a heavy beam weapon. "He's handing out a pounding, but nothing we can't take, sir." There was another pause as Russ shouted some orders on the command deck. "Those guns he's got are powerful, but they're not linked into any kind of fire control. He's shooting almost blind. We'll take him."

The situation has changed, Russ, said Maccabee quickly as the lift slid to a halt. We've negotiated a deal. We'll be leaving shortly. I'm contacting Ming now.

Russ paused again, this time to take in the new information, Maccabee was sure. "Right, captain. We'll make sure you're clear to debark."

Maccabee nodded as the lift doors slid open; the mutiny's current leader looked into the raised barrel of a three millimeter rifle. The man did not blink, just reached up slowly and pulled the weapon from the hands of the woman who'd been holding it; her face showed the sudden shock of discovering that she was not about to die after all.

The leader stepped into the narrow corridor and turned to face the people crowded in there. Maccabee immediately spotted another problem and motioned for his crew to stay in the lift as he stepped out behind the two other men.

"Calmly, people," said the leader, passing the rifle back to its owner and raising his hands. "We've struck a deal. These people are going to give us a lift off this station." He took his time speaking and enunciated each word carefully, sensing the panic about to break free of the two dozen or so armed men and women in the corridor. Maccabee could just make out a double blast door leading to what he presumed was the shuttle bay beyond.

"You struck a deal?" said one of the women from about midway back. Her voice was shrill. "Who the fuck said you could strike a deal? Where's Semailien?"

"Semailien's dead," said the leader, keeping his tone deliberately calm. "He didn't negotiate fast enough." It was not a surprise that Anselm had not been the man's real name, but Maccabee couldn't help wonder what else he didn't know. For example, just who the hell was talking right now? He'd thought the three men were likely to be underlings who'd just followed the orders they were given, but this one obviously had at least some authority. Just how much was the question.

"They killed him?" shrieked the woman. "Fuck them, Gregor, and fuck you. We're going to fucking kill them, like it or not. Stand aside." There was a general growl of agreement from the crowd. Then another shock hit the station, and there was a sudden breeze that ruffled Maccabee's hair. He realized now that he wasn't feeling impacts from missiles anymore, just the grinding, pounding rhythm of the station pulling itself apart. The anger in the crowd flipped back to panic in an instant and they nearly surged forwards.

"Kill them?" roared the leader over the noise of the crowd. "Where the hell do you think you're going to go if you kill them?" He pointed at the bulkhead, and beyond it into the invisible void on the other side and to the pirate ship Alice. "You think Krupp is going to help you?" Then, moving nearly as fast as Maccabee could have done, the leader--Gregor--ripped a rifle from a nearby man, spun it around, and pointed it right at the face of the woman who had argued with him. The corridor was suddenly quite still. "I kinda like the way this captain here negotiates, Ilia," growled Gregor. His voice was barely above a whisper, but everyone heard him. "If you want to stay, find somewhere else to die. I'm leaving."

The stand-off didn't last long. Ilia muttered something more, spun on her heel and strode off down a crossing passage. Maccabee silently wished he could kill her right then, but the situation demanded something different. Killing anyone now would only invite retribution.

"Everyone stand aside," ordered Gregor, not lowering his rifle. The men and women moved back against the bulkheads and Maccabee and his crew moved forward through the honor-guard of hate and menace, right on the heels of the three men who'd agreed to let them go. Maccabee was feeling less and less happy about his decision as time passed.

"Ming," he said over the com unit, not bothering to hide his speech.

"Cap, long time no hear," came back his pilot's tinny voice in his ear. The connection was bad, probably due to the storm of weapons fire outside the station; charged particle density would be significantly higher in near proximity to the battle.

"How are you?" asked Maccabee as he stepped through the first set of blast doors leading to the bay. His back itched as he passed the last of the waiting mutineers, and he turned and started backing after his crew, his gun held low, but his eyes watching, scanning for the first move. The people in the corridor obviously wanted him dead, but they were holding back for now; the need to survive was overwhelming their other passions.

"I'm holding on, cap," said Ming, sounding quite happy about piloting a tiny shuttle through the fire of several capital-ship-sized gun batteries. "It's messy out here. Hope your hull integrity's still holding."

"I'm feeling a breeze, Ming," said Maccabee, smiling in spite of himself. Trust Ming to find any situation at least mildly humorous. "Ming, we need a lift, right now. The bay's located under the command module. We'll be opening the doors in a moment." Then, having hopefully lead the people around him into listening to him rather than watching his mouth and throat, Maccabee subvocalized, We've negotiated our way off of here. Watch out for anyone trying to stab us in the back.

"Roger that, cap," said Ming, her voice precisely as casual as it had been a moment ago. Only someone listening very carefully would have noticed the additional delay in her reply--assuming anyone had bothered to try and tap into Maccabee's communication network. "I'm on my way right now."

"Good." Maccabee killed the link, then turned to the leader. "My shuttle's on its way. We'll need to open the bay doors."

"We'll do it from the command bunker," said Gregor, pointing towards a low- slung building of ceramacrete and steel construction, its heavy walls pierced with tall, narrow windows.

The shuttle bay was circular, taking up the whole center of the lowest level of the command module. The main doors opened right at the module's bottom, and four docking platforms were arranged at even intervals around the exit. Ramps and stairs led down to the platforms from a ring that ran along the bulkheads. The ring was about ten meters across, and a small bit of cargo was secured at various points along it. A single shuttle, an old model and obviously ill-tended, sat on one of the platforms. The control bunker was at the up-station end of the bay, opposite the entrance Maccabee and his crew had just used.

"There's someone in the bunker," said Sel a moment later, letting Samara slip from his grasp and reaching for his weapon.

Maccabee spun and caught Alger, Ashburn and Yakazuma between them in a barreling bear hug, pushing them with all his might backwards, back to the doors, only the outer doors were suddenly closing. A man on the other side of those doors raised his rifle, aiming at Maccabee and his people through the slim crack that was still open, and Maccabee jumped, throwing his weight down on the three people he was pushing. They all toppled forwards and three millimeter rifle rounds cracked over their heads.

The outer doors of the lock snapped shut a moment later. The inner set was still open. Maccabee pushed himself up, heard a dull thud behind him, and spun, his pistol in his hand. One of the two men with Gregor was dead, a look of mild surprise on his face and ten or fifteen rifle wounds bleeding in his chest. The others stood next to their companion, looking down at him with expressions of shock.

"Snap out of it!" shouted Maccabee. He reached down and yanked Ashburn to her feet, then noticed Sel. He was prone, his pistol covering the hatch that opened into the command bunker. Maccabee thought he could see a few bullet scars around that entry. Whoever was in there was trying to leave. "Is there another way to open the main doors?" he asked, looking back at Gregor.

"The override controls are inside the lock," he said, pointing at the still-open inner doors behind Maccabee. "But we don't want to be in there." He sounded suddenly very angry. "They can evacuate the atmosphere from the other side."

"What about the shuttle?" asked Ashburn. "We can fit inside that and wait for Ming. Hell, we can just fly it out of here." She snorted.

"And who'll open the doors?" gasped Alger from where he sat on the deck plating, clutching at his side. A fair bit of blood was seeping past his fingers. "I dinna want to stay behind."

"I say we let them do it," snarled Ashburn, pointing her pistol at the two men. The leader, who still carried a rifle, looked up at her with an equal anger. The situation was rapidly deteriorating.

"Gotcha!" The familiar voice echoing over the bay's speakers stopped the argument in its tracks. The speaker controls could presumably only be operated from the command deck and from the bunker, and Maccabee didn't have to guess which of those it was in this case. Ilia had taken matters into her own hands.

"What the hell are you doing, Ilia?" bellowed Gregor, spinning back to look at the bunker and raising the rifle to his shoulder. Ashburn was already moving, running along the ring flat out, heading for the entrance to the bunker. A moment later, Sel started after her.

Ilia just laughed. "Go ahead and shoot, Gregor. I'll just be a moment here. Someone left the main door locks encrypted." She tutted as though scolding a reticent child, and Maccabee could almost see her shaking her head sadly.

Ming, he subvocalized urgently. We have a situation. The doors are about to be opened, and we're out in the dead zone. Spacers routinely refer to areas of the ship that are meant to be depressurized as "dead zones," as in, if you're in one when the air goes out, you'll be dead.

"I'll be inside thirty seconds after the doors are open, cap," said Ming immediately in Maccabee's ear, but she sounded suddenly grim. It was obvious why. Thirty seconds in vacuum is about twenty-five too many for a normal human to survive.

The lights in the bay suddenly turned from bright white to deep blue, and two short, sharp alarm klaxons shrilled through the open space. "Ah," said Ilia on the speaker system, sounding quite satisfied, "that's it. Good to know you, Gregor."

Gregor howled in wordless rage and fired three long bursts at the bunker. The bullets strayed dangerously close to Ashburn and Sel, but as Maccabee raised his gun to take Gregor down, the other man spat and tossed the rifle aside. Then he turned on his remaining companion and pointed at the airlock behind Maccabee. "Go!" barked Gregor. The man spun and ran for the lock.

"How long do we have?" asked Maccabee as Sel and Ashburn reached the bunker. He could see Ashburn pull out her jack cable and plug into the port on the door lock while Sel stood a few meters back, feet planted, his railpistol aimed chest-high at the hatch to the bunker.

"The doors cycle in sixty seconds," growled Gregor. "That gives us about thirty before they start opening in earnest." Maccabee heard a seal lock snap open a moment later, lending credence to the man's words. The station shuddered and shimmied again, and a sharp, loud vibration slammed through the deck a moment later. Something else on board had just blown up.

Static crackled in Maccabee's ear and he winced, mentally turning down the gain on his receiver. "Captain!" shouted Russ again.

"Here!" "Captain, one of the tanks just blew, sir!" Russ sounded very, very unhappy. "I can be back there in under five minutes, captain, but you have to get off now! The other tanks aren't far behind, sir!"

"Roger. We're working on it. Stay on the pirate." Maccabee heard Russ start to protest. "That's an order, damn it! Do as I say! Keep Hornet the hell away from here!" He cut the link with a savage mental command and called up Ming again. "Any ideas, hot shot?"

"I will not bury you on that thing, cap," growled Ming, rage coloring her voice. Meaning that she would pick up their frozen corpses.

Maccabee turned in a slow circle. Ashburn was still jacked into the control bunker, Gregor's friend was working frantically at a control panel inside the airlock, and Alger was dragging Samara towards the bunker, his face locked in a fierce scowl as he blocked out the pain of the blood spilling freely from his side and worked his damnedest to save his friend. It was time for a decision.

The last lock snapped open on the outer doors and Maccabee started moving. Air suddenly howled into a rushing wind, and he felt its force trying to suck him towards the widening gap, but he planted his feet and hauled Yakazuma onto his shoulder. "Gregor!" he bellowed at the top of his lungs. He pointed to Alger and Samara. "Help them!" Gregor turned and ran back to the airlock. Maccabee howled, but he didn't have time to shoot the bastard. He barreled forwards through the rushing wind, picked Samara up off the ground and started off with Alger half helping him, half being helped. They were both far, far too slow to make it to the bunker in time. The bay was a good hundred meters across.

Ashburn was still by the door to the control bunker, her hands locked onto a grab bar by the hatch, her jack still connected to the panel. Sel was sliding across the deck towards the edge of the outer ring, his hands scrabbling to find purchase on the smooth plating. Maccabee was making less forward progress than sideways now, and the tugging of the air on the two unconscious women he was carrying was nearly more than he could resist. Breathing was becoming more difficult, much more difficult, and he felt himself slowing, inexorably grinding to a halt. Sel slid to the very edge of the ring deck, slipped over the edge, and barely caught himself with an outstretched hand, but the force of the suction was weakening quickly. The air was nearly gone.

Maccabee barely heard Ashburn's triumphant whoop! as the bunker door slid open a moment later. The blast of fresh air knocked the engineer backwards, which was the only thing that saved her from the first shot of the rifle Ilia was carrying. Ashburn, however, was a professional soldier, and she bounced off the bulkhead, swung back and kicked Ilia in the face as the woman staggered out of the bunker, the rush of air carrying her forwards as well. She spun head over heels through the air and landed hard on the deck.

Maccabee collapsed to his knees, Yakazuma and Samara tumbling to the deck beside him. He struggled to fill his lungs one more time; his chest burned, his eyes felt like they were about to pop, and his ears were ringing with some silent, glorious noise. He was dimly aware of the sensation of his skin freezing as he stared ahead of himself. Ashburn was pulling her way into the control bunker, barely moving at all. She toppled through the doorway, and the hatch slid shut behind her.

A moment later the bay doors started sliding shut again, moving, but so slowly it seemed as though they would never seal again. The cold was devastating, like an icy fist clenched on his heart. Maccabee wanted to cry out, wanted to struggle and fight and hold on for a moment longer, but there was no air left now, none at all. It was over. Everything started to go dark . . .

. . . and then a blast of air hit him so hard that it knocked him backwards. His lungs screamed in protest, and blood erupted from his mouth and nose and even from his eyes as he gasped in the first delicious breath of air, air, pure air, beautiful air. Then he screamed as the pain hit him like a ceramacrete wall and he passed out.

Pain was what brought Maccabee to consciousness again and he groaned as he tried to open his eyes. He had no idea how long he'd been out, but tremors were running through the hard deck under his back, so he guessed that he was still on Sender's Destiny I. His eyes were gummed shut by the blood that had poured out of them. Possibly they had ruptured and he would be unable to see at all. Certainly he would be suffering some internal bleeding and hemorrhaging all over his body from the rapid depressurization, and the equally speedy return of the air to the bay. He could only whisper a small prayer to whatever god might be listening that the station's designers had built in the emergency pressure system that had saved him.

Maccabee reached up a hand as a more violent tremor shook the deck under him. It hurt, but he was able to wipe away enough of the congealing blood to let him open his right eye. White lighting stared down at him from the bay's overhead. Then a shadow blocked out the light and a moment later Maccabee was able to make out Gregor standing over him; the prone captain's own pistol was aimed down at his face.

"Time to renegotiate," growled Gregor, an unpleasant smile on his face.

"Back off," said Ashburn over the same speaker system Ilia had used. "Now!"

"What're you going to do?" shouted Gregor, not for a moment taking his eyes from Maccabee's face. "You going to kill all of us?"

"If I have to," she answered, sounding calm.

"Captain," said Ming's voice in Maccabee's ear. He nearly blinked in surprise. Gun barrels have a remarkable way of focusing your attention when they are pointed at your face. "Captain, I'm linking up to an exterior airlock. I'll be inside in less than five minutes."

That was too long. If Ashburn had been listening on the com channel, she might have been able to open the lock of whatever hatch Ming had found from the control bunker, but she was not linked into the command circuit automatically. Samara would have been, but she was unconscious, or dead. Maccabee didn't dare even subvocalize a command; Gregor knew he had a com implant, and he would recognize its use. There might be another way, however. . . .

"We have control of the bay, Gregor," Maccabee growled, leaving the com link open so that Ming would hear him, and whatever reply the mutineer chose to make. "If we can't get off the station, Ashburn will make sure you don't either."

Maccabee knew that even the slightest emphasis on Ashburn's name would give the game away, but Gregor's face registered no recognition of what was happening under his nose. "Understood, cap," said Ming, sounding much relieved. Maccabee almost sighed in relief as he heard his pilot linking to his engineer's com and asking for help. Now, he just needed to buy a little more time.

"I have you," said Gregor. "You think your crew'll let you die here, rather than let me come along?" He sneered.

"Just you?" asked Maccabee, carefully pushing himself up into a sitting position, moving slowly to avoid being shot and to spend some time cataloging his injuries. They appeared not to be fatal, though he felt light-headed from loss of blood.

"Me and Parish here." Gregor nodded his head to Maccabee's left, and the captain turned his head to look. Parish was holding Alger's shotgun and standing over the Scotsman's prone body. Samara and Yakazuma lay where they'd fallen. Ilia's body was also still, a few meters from the door to the bunker. There was no sign of Sel. Gregor was perhaps speculating that the missing man had lost his grip and been sucked out into space. Maccabee dearly hoped it was not so.

"And my crew?" he asked the mutineer. "And what about your crew? Aren't they coming in here soon? Won't they want to come too?"

"Parish sealed the lock." Gregor smiled. "The only other way in is in the bunker, and I bet your woman isn't going to let anyone in that way." He raised his voice. "Isn't that right, sweetheart?"

"Maybe I can work out another deal," growled Ashburn over the speakers. "I'm sure someone else out here would like to kill you."

"Nice thought," answered Gregor. "Now shut up." He focused back on Maccabee. The station was shuddering this way and that now, and Gregor swayed as he stood, his legs absorbing the movement. Dozens of sections must already have lost integrity, and Maccabee was sure that the shuttle bay would follow eventually. Especially if another of the tanks exploded.

"Call your shuttle," said Gregor. "We'll go inside the airlock until she's docked and the doors are closed again. No tricks, understand?" He motioned with the pistol to Maccabee's throat. "I'm watching you, and I know you've got an implant. Now, get up."

"I'm not leaving my friends in here when you open that door," said Maccabee, not moving an inch. Come on, Ming.

"They're already dead," Gregor said with a derisive snort. "I can't believe you really care about them anyway. What's the point?"

"The point, you stupid fuck," said Ming from somewhere out of Maccabee's view to the left, across the bay, "is that friends back you up when you're in trouble. Now drop it."

Maccabee watched the confusion, anger and hatred play across Gregor's face in the space of a second, but then he tossed down the gun. Survival was his biggest priority, even if avoiding death now only meant a trip to the executioner later. Better to put it off.

"Fuck that!" barked Parish, spinning, his hands bringing up the short-barreled shotgun. The blast of Ming's own combat shotgun filled the bay with sound and the nineteen millimeter slug threw Parish across the deck and slammed him into the bulkhead. The body fell, leaving behind a lot of red splashed on the ceramasteel.

"Anyone else not listening to me?" asked Ming rhetorically. There was no one left to resist her.

Maccabee scrambled stiffly to his feet and picked up his pistol, turning to point it at Gregor. "You're getting your wish, Gregor. I'm taking you with us," he said to the mutineer. Then he breathed a sigh of relief as he saw Sel emerging from behind a stanchion where he'd been trying to get a clean shot at Gregor.

"Why not just kill me now?" asked the mutineer, glaring at Maccabee.

"I came here for a reason, and it wasn't killing you." Maccabee let himself relax a little more as Ming rushed over to her three fallen friends, a medkit in her hands, her shotgun caught in the clamps attached to her thigh. Ashburn was emerging from the bunker, her railpistol in her hand. "I need you to find someone for me," continued Maccabee.

"You've killed just about everyone," sneered Gregor. "The rest are as good as dead." The station was vibrating almost continually now, and Maccabee knew as well as Gregor that its time was coming quickly to an end.

"We'll find out," said Maccabee. "Ming. We need to go."

"Yakazuma's stable, cap, and Alger's fine," she said, not turning away from Samara.

"Fine," muttered Alger, pushing himself up. "I'll show you fine."

"Samara?" asked Maccabee.

"She's not good, captain." Ming turned and looked up at him.

"Like I said, we need to go."

Ashburn and Sel rejoined them and between them they were able to lift Samara. Maccabee hoisted Yakazuma onto his shoulder, leaving Ming free to hold her shotgun while Alger cradled his, having wiped it clean of the remaining bits of Parish, a deep scowl on his face. They all moved quickly around the ring deck to the small hatch through which Ming had come. The vertical passage inside was difficult, and Ming waited, covering Gregor, while the others slowly passed the injured crew down into the waiting shuttle. The tremors underfoot grew progressively worse. Depressurization alarms were sounding in other parts of the station. Despite his confident words, Maccabee did not think that he'd extract anyone else from this place alive.

After five minutes, everyone but Maccabee, Ming and Gregor was in the shuttle. Then the airlock doors started to open.

"Go!" shouted Maccabee, shoving Ming forward. She didn't resist this time, but jumped through the hatch and fell through the two meter passage into the shuttle.

"Clear!" she shouted back up. Maccabee backed towards the hatch as the first of the desperate crew came through the airlock.

"Over here!" yelled Gregor. "He's got a shuttle!" Then he lunged for Maccabee's gun. The captain dodged aside, then brought the butt of the weapon down on the back of Gregor's head. The man dropped like a dead body to the deck. The crew coming through the airlock were running now, coming towards Maccabee. They were not even raising the weapons they still carried, not yet; for now they were forgotten in the mad rush to get off the station. Some were turning aside, heading for the decrepit shuttle on the pad.

Maccabee leaned down, grabbed Gregor by the back of his neck, levered him into the air and tossed him through the hatch. The unconscious man hit the far bulkhead, then fell the four meters to the shuttle's deck with a solid thump. The first bullets started hitting the bulkhead near the hatch as Maccabee turned and followed, jumping through the hatch and holding his arms tight to his body as the short vertical passage flashed by. He landed, hard inside his shuttle and toppled forwards.

Before Maccabee had slid to a stop, Ming was already closing the exterior hatch, pulling it shut manually. A moment later they heard a sharp clang as someone landed on the hatch. Ming dropped down, leapt for the shuttle's controls and waved her hand through a holographic panel. The inner hatch snapped shut with a soft snick! and a moment later the seal released. Maccabee rolled over onto his stomach, hoping that the people inside the station would have enough sense left to check for something on the other side before they opened the hatch.

The shuttle rocked slightly as it moved away from the station on thrusters. Then Ming throttled up the main drive, and Maccabee was suddenly glad he wasn't standing as the little ship surged forwards.