Episode 108: Suicide Mission

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Doctor Monteux was waiting for them in Hornet's vehicle bay. A dark, angry scowl was on her face, and Maccabee did not look forward to the discussion she would undoubtedly have with him at some point in the near future. For now, however, the confrontation would be put off by the need for immediate medical help for Samara, Yakazuma and Alger, despite his protestations that he was "bloody well fine." Maccabee, Sel and Ashburn were all suffering to various degrees, not only from injuries but from the effects of the sudden depressurization, and Monteux would be wanting them to come to the sickbay too, but Maccabee needed them, and he didn't have time to sit in the doctor's office all day.

Russ had brought Hornet back to the station to pick up Ming's shuttle. This was not against orders, since he'd crippled Alice with some well-placed laser fire. The pirate ship was drifting through space without any engines, and her weapons were mostly destroyed or disabled. She'd be a long way off by the time Hornet got back to her, but she wasn't going to be going to superluminal speeds anytime soon, so Maccabee was happy to just let her drift. And he was happy to be back on board his ship, no matter how much damage he'd seen on her exterior hull as the shuttle had pulled in close for docking.

"Alger, you're coming with me," said Monteux firmly as the team disembarked from the shuttle's main hatch. Alger rolled his eyes, but he knew better than to resist. Two of the doctor's technicians were now moving in to grab Samara and Yakazuma, taking them from Ming, Sel, Ashburn and Maccabee himself, who were too tired to carry much of anything anymore. Monteux gave Maccabee a withering stare, but said nothing more.

"Grab that idiot, too," said the captain to some more able bodies; he pointed at Gregor's limp form. "I'll need him awake as soon as possible, but he's a prisoner and a mutineer. Treat him as such." The men who grabbed Gregor and started off after the medical team were security personnel, and Maccabee did not need reassurance that they would do their job effectively. No one got out of line on board Hornet.

Maccabee got up to the Deck as quickly as his tired body would allow, Sel and Ashburn right behind him. None of them spoke on the lift as it took them up through the ship. Half the lights in the shaft were dead. There were a few other signs of systems damage around, at least to the careful eye, but few serious problems, at least not in the inner sections of the ship. Maccabee didn't let himself think about the repairs that would need to be done, about the expense, about any possible loss of life among his crew--other than Selkirk, of course. And that was assuming that Samara and Yakazuma lived.

Russ started out of the command chair almost as though he'd been hit by an electric shock as Maccabee strode onto the bridge, and the relief on his face was obvious. This was the first time Russ had commanded the ship in action. Maccabee assumed he'd acquitted himself well; he expected it. He would also check the ship's logs and watch the various bridge and other recordings before making a decision, but he trusted Russ to have performed at least adequately in a difficult situation.

Maccabee stepped forward, shook Russ's hand with a curt nod, and slid thankfully into his comfortable seat. Holographic displays flashed instantly to life as the chair recognized its rightful occupant and restored all his custom settings. The captain activated a few automatic programs, watched the results spill out on his screens and then turned to look at the main hologram display at the center of the Deck. On it was a full three-dimensional image of the supercollector. The former supercollector, Maccabee corrected himself as he stared at the image of destruction on the holo.

The collecting dish was ripped to shreds, its microscopic netting flapping in the stellar breeze. One of the tanks was ruptured, the explosion that Russ had reported to Maccabee earlier. It seemed like hours ago, but was only about twenty minutes. The blast from the tank had twisted the central axis of the station, and the whole thing was spinning awkwardly around its new center of gravity. Small ripples at the edges of the module showed where air and water were pouring out of sections now open to space. Maccabee didn't look long; he had no need to carry the image of people spilling out of those gashes.

"How long?" he asked, his voice quiet. It was a tangible relief to be inside the controlled calm of Hornet's bridge again.

"I can't say for sure, captain," said Sel from Samara's seat. Maccabee only then noticed where the man was sitting, but he said nothing. The exec's chair had greater functionality than the stations behind the front row where Sel normally sat.


"Ten, twenty minutes, sir." Sel shrugged. "It all depends on the safety features, on whether the tanks explode, on about fifty thousand independent variables. The place could last for days yet, sir, or for just a few more seconds."

"Damn," whispered Maccabee. There was no way to know who was left alive in the station, assuming anyone was at all. Certainly there had to be some survivors. The man that Maccabee was looking for, however, was quite likely not to be among them; perhaps he'd not even survived the mutiny. To risk anyone now on that thread of hope was foolish. Still, there were the others to think about. "Can we get anyone out?" he asked.

No one answered him for a full minute. Sel was frantically looking through files and pulling up charts and data sets. Ashburn was jacked into her station, her eyes closed as she communed with her ship and assessed the damage Hornet had sustained. Russ just shrugged.

"We don't have many shuttles," he said. "And not enough pilots. And if we go with the shuttles, there'll be a panic trying to get on board. It'll be a mad rush." He grimaced. "It's a suicide mission for anyone who tries it."

"What's that?" asked Ming as she strode into the command deck and slid into her chair. "Suicide mission? When do we start?"

"Not funny, Ming," said Maccabee. He pointed at the station. "There are still a lot of people on that thing. Russ doesn't think we can get them off with shuttles." Cocking his head to the side, Maccabee smiled grimly at her. "What do you think?"

"Not with the shuttles, no," Ming answered without hesitation. "The only way is to dock Hornet. We've got the capacity, we can shunt panicked people into safe sections, and we're better protected from any explosions."

"No way," growled Ashburn, her eyes snapping open. "We're holed in half a dozen sections, we're down to eighty percent on the reactors, and our armor is smashed to bits in twenty-five different places. We're not going anywhere near that station."

"Captain?" asked Ming. Ashburn scowled at her, but said nothing. It was Maccabee's ship, no matter how she felt about it personally.

"Where do we dock?" Maccabee asked. The whole idea was madness, but it was probably also the only way. He had enough security on board to quell any riot the crew of Sender's Destiny I thought to make.

"The main habitat module," replied Ming, confidence filling her voice. "It's where most of them will be." She didn't add that the rest would also be more likely to be guilty of mutiny. "I'll swing in underneath the module and park us against her main docking collar."

"She has one?" asked Maccabee.

"Yes, sir," said Sel, though he sounded reluctant to volunteer the information. "All the modules have their own docking facilities, for just this reason. But they aren't designed for ship-to-ship interface."

"We'll make do," said Ming.

"Look at the way that wreck is spinning!" said Ashburn, raising her voice. "There's no way in hell we can get Hornet close enough to dock her!"

"I can," Ming answered firmly. She looked at Maccabee, ignoring another withering glare from the engineer. "I can, captain. I know I can."

Maccabee looked back at the holo as the station rolled over onto its back, still venting atmosphere. He shuddered as he thought about the people trapped inside. If he let Ming carry out her plan, he'd be risking the lives of about a hundred people on board Hornet. On the other hand, he might be rescuing at least that many on the station, and the crew of his ship had signed on for a risky mission. After all, what was pirate hunting but a violent way of helping people in need?

"Do it," he growled. "Do it now."

"Yes sir!" barked Ming, reaching up her hands to the holographic controls hovering in front of her.

Maccabee frowned and switched to a computer rendering of the situation outside, an image that showed both the station and Hornet; the virtual camera rotated around the two vessels until it found the best angle to show Ming's maneuvers, then held steady. There was no way to distinguish the computer generated image from an actual outside view of the station and the ship, and Maccabee swallowed as vector lines and force graphs suddenly sprang into life on the display. Even with those visual aides, the image was too real. It made his stomach turn over, and he forced himself to sit back in his chair and put on the appearance of calm as he turned over his ship and his life to Ming's capable hands.

Hornet moved forwards slowly, nosing in towards the station. The whole supercollector was rotating roughly along her long axis, but the kink in her main keel meant that she was wobbling as well. With carefully-timed vector changes, Ming moved Hornet into a rough orbit around the station, matching its rotational velocity. She input a simple program to keep the ship in a synchronous orbit with the docking port on the habitat module, then started edging in closer. The station loomed larger and larger in the holo display until most of it was lost from view and only the habitat module was still on screen with the accompanying image of Hornet. The ship was almost turning circles in place now, orbiting along a path less than a kilometer long, only a hundred meters from the station.

The Deck was deathly quiet as Ming prepared for her final approach. A computer could have done it, but AIs didn't have instincts, the kind of gut feeling that helped keep a human pilot alive. Ming jerked Hornet ten meters back from the station a moment before the thing shuddered under another breach somewhere and the wobbling motion turned into a secondary spin. Even with lightning fast reactions, a computer would have crashed the ship then, but Ming was already moving away before the station even started to roll, and she input another set of calculations to the autopilot working with her. Hornet slid into a new orbit, this one less a circle and more a distorted oblong. Then Ming tried again.

The range ticked down to just five meters, spitting distance. Maccabee switched the main holo view to an exterior camera and the only thing they could see was the scarred and bleeding outer hull of the habitat module, completely blocking the view from the dorsal camera. Then Ming spun the ship with a flick of her right hand and the camera's view whirled dizzyingly through a hundred and eighty degrees. Now it was staring into space, and Maccabee switched to a ventral camera instead. It was time to get ready.

He activated the internal com system with a finger-flick. "Sergeant Pinzon," he called. A moment later the head of security answered.

"Captain." Ducila Pinzon always sounded calm, no matter what the situation.

"Sergeant, we are about to receive some panicked visitors at the main ventral airlock. Some of our guests may have weapons; please do not kill more of them than absolutely necessary." Maccabee looked up and saw that Ming was on her final approach, only a meter from the station's hull. "Clear, Sergeant?"

"Crystal, captain," said Pinzon. Maccabee could almost see the smile on her face. "My teams will be ready in ninety seconds, sir."

Maccabee smiled. "Thank you, sergeant." What that meant was that Pinzon had had her teams ready to repel boarders during the battle. Despite the apparent end of hostilities, she had not stood down; for Ducila Pinzon, a battle was only over when someone entered a wormhole. Maybe not even then.

A soft bump that vibrated the chair under Maccabee was the only sign of their successful docking. Ming watched for a moment, checking to make sure every vector was matched to the stations collar, then sat back with a loud sigh. "Yikes. That was harder than I thought."

"Great," snorted Ashburn, but Maccabee smiled.

"Nicely done, Ming," he said to her. "OK, people, let's let them know we're here. Ashburn, energize her hull." He glanced at the timer that had started ticking as soon as Ming made contact. "Tell them where we're attached, and tell them they've got ten minutes to get here. Then we're closing the door."

Ashburn scowled, but she got that distant look in her eyes as she accessed the controls that would turn the whole of the station's hull into a speaker system. "Attention!" she said a moment later. "This is Hornet. We are attached to your emergency docking collar, habitat module. We will be here for ten minutes. Anyone wishing to leave the station should get here before then. Anyone carrying a weapon will be dealt with. Repeat, we are docked at the habitat module. You have ten minutes to get here. Hornet out."

"Well, that ought to get them moving," said Ming.

"Get me a view of that bay, Ashburn," Maccabee said, ignoring the byplay. He stretched out his legs ahead of him and tried to ignore the pain all through his body. "If anything changes, we're gone, understand Ming? Don't wait for any orders from me."

"Crystal, captain," she answered in imitation of Sergeant Pinzon. A moment later, the view on the holo changed.

Ming had mated one of Hornet's ventral cargo bays with the module's emergency airlock, putting the two vehicles belly to belly, and panicked station crew were already climbing down from the module and flipping over as they passed through the gravity interface and then up into the ship. Heavily armed security personnel lined the upper catwalk around the edge of the bay, their weapons in hand and pointed down into the crowd. Sergeant Pinzon was right down on the floor, however, inside a light armor suit, a sort of plated exo-skeleton with weapons-mounts on its arms and shoulders. Pinzon had the necessary gear to jack directly into the machine, and it walked and moved naturally, responding to electrical impulses from her brain. None of the escaping crew thought to question anything she told them to do.

"Don't run!" she said, her voice amplified by the suit's speakers. "You will not be harmed. If you have any weapons, drop them at my feet immediately. Move calmly to the far wall of the bay, away from the airlock." She kept talking, repeating the same information over and over like a soothing mantra, and the people around her seemed to respond to it. Either that or they were intimidated by her hulking presence and the security team pointing ready weapons down at them, knowing they could fire with impunity and not injure their boss. One or two people stepped forward and dropped their guns down, but Maccabee knew that each would have to be carefully searched before being allowed to leave that bay.

"Captain," said Sel urgently as a shudder ran through the deck. "Another breach, sir. It's the command module." He looked up at Maccabee. "I think one of the reactors is going critical."

"Show me," said the captain, trying to keep his voice calm. The timer above the holo display showed five minutes and fifteen seconds.

The holo switched to a schematic view of the crippled station, then zoomed in quickly on the energy signatures of the four reactors in the command module. Three of them blinked green, and small data readouts near them showed normal particle densities and power flux levels. The fourth ring, however, was flashing red, and its readouts were climbing steadily towards critical levels. The computer displayed the most likely failure scenario to explain the reactor's overpressure, probably a jammed feed valve and a runaway reaction. Normally, the automatic systems on the reactor would restrict or shut the feed valves to control the hydrogen fuel flow into the reaction chamber, but if one of them was no longer functional. . . . The computer estimated less than five minutes until critical failure.

"How long do we need to get clear, Ming?" asked Maccabee, keeping his eyes on the holo.

"No more than two minutes, captain," she replied soberly. She obviously meant to activate the inertial drive as soon as they were undocked, and in ninety seconds they would be well outside the blast range.

"I'd rather leave now, captain," said Ashburn. "The computer estimate has a thirty second margin of error."

"Good point." Maccabee glanced at the clock above the holo. "We're gone in two minutes," he said to Ming. She just nodded. Then Maccabee activated the ship-wide com, making sure to cut the cargo bay out of the loop and keeping Pinzon's company included on their personal com units. "Attention all hands. Critical reactor failure on the station is estimated in"--he glanced at the clock again--"four minutes. We will be leaving in ninety seconds. All hands to battle stations. Secure the cargo bay in . . . seventy seconds from my mark." He paused long enough to take a breath. "Mark."

The scene on the holo did not change. Pinzon was too professional to let any hint of tension show, and the men and women on the upper catwalk already looked on edge. More people were still coming across the interface, and Maccabee felt his stomach turn, knowing that some would be left behind. How many would die because he'd cut off the extra thirty seconds' margin of error? Less, he then firmly reminded himself, than if Hornet was destroyed with the station.

He watched the clock tick down. Ming flexed her fingers, readying herself for some fast maneuvers. Maccabee hoped that Pinzon would be equally quick, but he knew she would be. She would have nearly fifteen seconds to seal the hatch and break the seal. Plenty of time.

Activating the com again, Maccabee took a deep breath. "Separation in five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one . . . mark!"

Pinzon moved with inhuman speed in the suit. She leapt forward and slammed into a group of people climbing out of the hatch. Four of them toppled into the ship, the others fell back into the station. They tried to scramble back up, but she shoved them down, and then the doors started to close. Chaos erupted in the cargo bay as the crowd already on Hornet surged forwards. Pinzon ignored them as they hammered on her armored figure. One of them pulled out a pistol, but before he could even fire, a bullet from the gallery took him down with pinpoint precision. Then the airlock doors snapped shut, Pinzon turned and looked right at the camera Maccabee was watching, her thumb raised above her clenched, armored fist.

"Go!" shouted Maccabee, but Ming already had the ship moving. Thrusters for the first forty meters, moving the ship far enough away from the station to allow its inertial drive to engage safely. Then, as Maccabee switched the view to an exterior camera, the station suddenly leapt away from them as Ming went to full acceleration, well over seven kilometers per second squared.

The supercollector dwindled with frightening speed, and when it exploded, exactly 125 seconds after separation, only computer enhanced magnification allowed Maccabee and his command staff a close-up view of the nuclear explosion that ripped the various habitation modules into scrap metal. The hydrogen tanks went up at almost the same instant, then underwent a chain fission reaction, uncontrolled and completely open. For a moment, the space station turned into a tiny, brilliant star and then it burned out a moment later, nearly forty thousand kilometers away from Hornet.

The holo image brightened again, after automatically dimming to protect the crew's eyes, and there was nothing left. Nothing at all. Maccabee sighed and prepared himself for one last effort.

The bay was pandemonium. No one fired for fear of being picked off by the watchful security team above them, but they were shouting and pounding at the exits and generally going out of control. Maccabee stepped out onto the catwalk and flinched as someone took a shot at him. Pinzon spun casually in her heavy armor--even she had decided to move up to the catwalk--and popped off a shot from her three millimeter railgun. A man died in a splash of blood. The situation was getting rapidly out of control.

Jacking in to the cargo bay's speaker system with his com implant, Maccabee stepped forward, held up his arms and shouted, "Calm down!"

For a moment, it worked. Maccabee moved on quickly before anyone could fill the silence. "You are safe! You are on board Hornet, my ship. I am not the one who attacked the station. I was on it myself. I am sorry that so many had to be left behind." Only fifty-two men and women had escaped onto his ship. "The station destroyed itself just two minutes after we left."

"Liar!" shrieked a man in the crowd. "You killed them! You left them to die!"

"Believe what you want to believe," roared Maccabee, and the speakers easily drowned out the man on the floor. "I saved you. I didn't have to do it. I put my crew at great risk to do it. You were all involved, directly or indirectly, in a mutiny. This disaster rests on your shoulders." That actually brought a measure of silence. Most of the people gathered here had probably been unwilling participants in the mutiny, the type who would feel guilt at having gone along with it. "I could turn you in to the authorities, and you would probably hang. But I'm not going to do that. I came here for information, and I'm going to get it, one way or another."

Maccabee let that hang in the air for a moment, a possible threat. The man who had shouted earlier was arguing with two more men, but Maccabee couldn't overhear them. "I want you all to wait here calmly while we prepare better quarters for you. You'll be allowed to leave here, but you'll have to let us search you for weapons. Feel free to give them up now instead, and you may get better treatment." Now he paused, taking a deep breath and steadying himself against the railing surreptitiously. He was weakening quickly. Time to get the last bit over with. "Is there anyone here named Isaac Gerret?" he asked, not bothering to disguise his inquiry.

A man in the crowd stepped out from behind two other people and raised his hand. "I'm Gerret," he said. He was not a tall man, but well-muscled, and dressed in a blue coverall. "What do you want with me?"

"I want to talk to you." Maccabee nodded to Pinzon and she lowered a ladder from the upper level and waved for Gerret to move forwards. He did so, moving slowly. A few others made a move towards the ladder, but Pinzon's glare was enough to keep them from even touching it. In another moment, Gerret was up with Maccabee, one of Pinzon's team quickly checking him for weapons while she pulled up the ladder again. All the while, Gerret never took his eyes from Maccabee's.

"What do you really want with me?" he asked as he was allowed to approach the captain under the sergeant's watchful eye.

"I do want to talk to you," said Maccabee, after turning off his com unit. "About Oudtshoorn."

Gerret's face went pale, and Maccabee had to order Pinzon to bring him along as he left the cargo bay and headed for his cabin. It was time to find out if all this had been worth the blood he had paid.