Episode 109: Waypoint

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"It's a courier boat, alright. Looks like General News Services."

Maccabee frowned as Ashburn fell silent. What was a GNS courier doing out here? "Try to raise them on the com."

The Sender's Destiny system was four days behind Hornet, and Maccabee was taking his ship on a swing through a sector of the PARC called the Outer Star Ridge, a region of dense stellar population that divided two relatively empty sections of the galaxy. The stars in the Outer Ridge were mostly ancient blue giants, bright and powerful still, though already nearly as old as the galaxy itself. They blazed with thundering glory on every habitable world around and consequently not that many people cared to live in the Outer Ridge; the human body was evolved in a much less intense area of space.

The remaining crew of the Sender's Destiny I supercollector had been deposited at their sister station, and Hornet had let the pirate ship Alice drift off into the long dark between the stars. If Krupp--assuming he was still alive--managed to get her running again, so be it; Maccabee had not wanted to spend the time necessary to chase her down and separate the innocent from the guilty. Let them stew in their own sauce. He was likely sentencing them all to a slow death, but that thought didn't linger on his conscious for very long at all.

Gerret had provided some interesting information for Maccabee, and he had decided now to act. He was unsettled, however. Samara was still in a coma, and Monteux said it might be a week before she could wake her safely. She would recover--that was a relief to Maccabee, such a powerful feeling that it had taken him by surprise. Similarly, the news that Yakazuma would also live to fight another day, after some painful and drawn-out regeneration processes, had heartened him significantly. The mutineer Gregor had not been so lucky: the blow that Maccabee had administered on board the station in the last moments of their flight had killed the man, not instantly but inevitably. He was beyond Monteux's ability to save. Maccabee did not consider Gregor a great loss, however.

Now, Hornet sat at a waypoint, a designated spot for spacecraft to stop and recharge their batteries for the next wormhole transition in their journey, wherever they were going. For the most part, waypoints had fallen out of fashion in the PARC as they provided a very convenient ambush spot for waiting pirate ships or other raiders. As a rule, the few that remained were now all guarded by a destroyer. There were a thousand such waypoints in PARC space, a vast drain on its military resources, but also a strange success story. The destroyers had caught quite a few daring pirates who ventured too close to the waypoints.

This waypoint, however, was completely deserted, except for the courier boat which was drifting a million kilometers off Hornet's bow. "No response on the com, sir," said Sel. He was not sitting in Samara's chair, but was performing many of her usual tasks. Maccabee liked Sel well enough, and the man was more than able to keep up with what he was doing, but the captain yearned to have his XO back on the Deck with him.

"Are we getting anything on the active scans?" Maccabee asked, turning now back to Ashburn.

"Not a damn thing," she muttered, staring into space at screens only she could see. "Boat's dead in the water. I'm picking up a bit of residual atmosphere, but most of that's gone too. She's got hull damage and I think a breach, which might explain the lack of air. Nothing to tell us what the hell happened, though."

"What about the damage to her hull?" asked Russ, stretching in his seat. He had little to do at the moment, the next wormhole induction already laid in and ready to go. "Is it from weapon's fire? A collision?"

"Uncertain at this range," answered Ashburn flatly. "That's all I got. Get me closer and I'll tell you more."

"OK," said Maccabee with a nod. "Next question: Where's the picket ship?"

"We can't find any other ships in the system, sir," replied Sel.

"I know that, Sel," said Maccabee, keeping his voice even so the words would not sound like a rebuke. "What I want to know is why not? Why would the picket leave? If she's here, why's she staying so quiet? Could she be destroyed?" He smiled and leaned back in his chair. "Give me some answers, people."

"Could be pirates," muttered Alger. He was fully recovered from his injuries, but he wasn't happy about having been hit. It was hardly his fault, but Alger took things like that personally. He'd been rather happier when he'd heard that the supercollector was completely destroyed, however.

"They could have taken out the destroyer," agreed Ming reluctantly. "But why? There's nothing worth having on a courier boat, at least not on a GNS boat." Other couriers carried valuable cargoes instead of news, but they would never dream of stopping at a waypoint, destroyer or no destroyer.

"There was another prize, then, captain" said Sel. "A cargo ship or something. The pirates took her, hit the courier, and left it for dead."

"Possible," said Maccabee, not agreeing with anything just yet. He'd formed his own opinion on the matter, but he didn't want it influencing his crew's ideas. "Tell me something that doesn't have pirates in it."

"Catastrophic failure of some kind could have done it," said Ashburn. "That could blow out their hull, if it was bad enough. If someone was seriously injured, the destroyer would probably go ahead and take them to the next major medical facility."

"No beacon, then?" asked Alger.

"You mean a signal buoy?" asked Maccabee. Alger nodded.

"What'd be the point?" Ashburn answered. "By the time anyone could pick up the warning, they'd already be inside the system with two hours before they could leave and pirates ready to pick them off. Assuming there are any pirates." She smiled slightly.

"I think that's a safe assumption," said Ming. "Any pirate would jump at the chance to sit on an undefended waypoint."

"But the destroyer can't have been gone long," Sel protested. "A few days, maybe a week. Could a pirate even find out about this that quickly?"

"Sure," said Russ, chiming in again. "If I wanted to, I could fly in and out of here on a regular schedule, say every two or three weeks. Come in from the opposite direction each time. If the destroyer's ever gone, I just stop, shut down, and wait for whatever comes my way." He shrugged. "It'd be pretty easy, actually."

"Yes it would," said Maccabee, his voice grim as he realized just how easy it would be. "OK, people, we need more information, but there could be a pirate out there. Let's go to battle stations." He flicked a finger through a holo pickup and a sharp, short klaxon sounded twice throughout the ship. There was no other sound inside the Deck, but Maccabee knew that the ship would be alive with activity as men and women rushed to their combat stations.

The captain waited for his crew to get into place, watching the main holo as it showed various sections passing from yellow stand-by to green ready. One by one, then two at a time, then in large groups, all the stations reported ready, and after ninety seconds there were green lights across the board. Maccabee nodded, satisfied for the moment. Hornet was not a military ship, but her survival depended on military drill.

"All right. Ming, let's move in a little."

"Whatever you say, cap," she answered. A moment later the ship surged forwards again, creeping up on the crippled courier at about three thousand kilometers per second. It would take them just under six minutes to reach the courier boat.

Maccabee sat and stewed. Whatever had happened here, it was definitely the act of raiders. He'd brought Hornet to the Outer Ridge for the very purpose of hunting those raiders down. The last bit of information had come from Gerret, who had formerly been a member of this particular pirate organization. Hornet and her crew had faced down several dozen pirate ships, but this was different. These raiders operated in large, coordinated groups, and they had clear and strong leadership. They would not be easy pickings. Not at all. This time it was going to be hard, and Maccabee wished for about the thousandth time in the last four days that he had Samara at his side and her advice in his ear. Would she think his whole plan was insane?

Unbidden, but as expected as a steady backache, memories rose into Maccabee's brain, fighting to get out, to take him over and make him slink off to his cabin in guilt and fear. Images of the death of Persephone, the death of her captain, Errol Abber, flitted through Maccabee's mind eye. He tried not to see them, tried to flinch away from the fatal image, the one that always made him sick with anger, horrified at himself, at what he was capable of; then it came anyway and he watched Abber's brains splatter the deck as he pulled the trigger on his pistol, only this time it wasn't Abber, it was Selkirk, like some sort of waking nightmare intruding on his memories. The image played over and over, Selkirk's surprised face, the sharp click of the trigger, no sound of the shot, but then red and grey exploding outwards. . . .

Maccabee gave himself a sharp shake and then hid the motion with a stretch. He cautiously surveyed his crew. None of them appeared to have noticed anything amiss. Neither had the men and women who'd served with him on his previous ship, Wasp, but they were all dead now, all hunted down by the masters Maccabee had once served. He'd thought these sort of flashbacks had died with them, and with Wasp, carried away in a wash of nuclear fire, but apparently he'd been wrong.

It was wrong, to take these people with him on this mission, to risk their lives for a personal pursuit. He loved them all, devoted men and women who fought for him, fought for a cause, for an idea, so that other people wouldn't have to be afraid so often. They deserved a lot better, Maccabee knew, but they had him. They'd signed up for this. If he told them the details, they might think the odds long, but they'd all take them, down to the last woman and man. They were hard, fighters trained in schools that would have killed lesser people. No, there was no need to worry for them. They would fight and die when their time came and be happy giving their all. The only question was if that would be enough.

"Five thousand kilometers, cap," said Ming, bringing Maccabee out of his memories and Hornet to a stop.

"Good," said the captain, his attention fully back to the matter at hand. "Ashburn?"

"It's coming in," she answered, looking at the invisible displays in her mind. "Definitely combat damage, probably from a low-to-mid-range laser. It doesn't take much to take out a courier boat. Not many shots, maybe two. Life support is off-line, all systems are down. Her reactors went into emergency shutdown, they're as good as dead. No apparent sign of life, captain. I'd say she's dead."

"Anything on her sensors, her computers?" asked Maccabee intently. If the electronic systems of the little ship had survived, perhaps she'd have a record of the raider that had attacked her. It would be easy enough to compare that to the records he'd obtained on his quarry.

"Hard to say, captain," muttered Ashburn. "Her bridge didn't suffer any major damage in the attack; there's a little residual power bleeding out of her batteries through the circuits and into the computers. Might be enough to maintain her volatile memory banks."

Maccabee nodded. Any record of the attack would not have been written into hard storage, as a ship's A.I. evaluated all of its various sensory inputs for relevancy and importance before committing them to a permanent memory sector in its system hardware. A ship A.I.'s volatile memory is not nearly as transient as it sounds, but without a power supply, degradation is usually quick and final.

"Still no sign of other ships in the system, sir," volunteered Sel.

"I don't like it, cap," Ming growled. "Smells too much like a trap."

It seemed that way to Maccabee too, but if there was any useful information in the courier's memory, he needed to have it.

"Ming," he said, making up his mind, wishing quietly that Samara was there, "take a team over in the shuttle and see what you can find. Full vacuum combat gear, heavy weapons." He smiled grimly. "No need to worry about puncturing the hull."

"Remind me again," she answered with a scowl, "why it is that I work for you." She stood without waiting for an answer and walked out of the bridge.

As she reached the heavy blast door, Maccabee called out to her, "Ming!" She turned. "If you smell anything bad at all, get out. Your safety is my priority, understood?"

"Gotcha, cap," she said, snapping off a jaunty salute and then giving him a wink before turning and jogging off down the corridor.

"Captain," Sel said a moment later. Maccabee turned, but his thoughts stayed with Ming. It almost had to be a trap, but he couldn't ignore it either, and Ashburn hadn't found anything too out of the ordinary yet.


"I've run a scan on the courier as well. It appears that the remains of the crew are all in the same location." Sel's eyes were dark shadows behind his black glasses, but Maccabee thought he sensed something wrong.


"They're in the mess, sir."

"All of them?" asked Alger.

"No one's on the bridge," Russ said, echoing Alger's thoughts.

"No one," confirmed Sel. "Not that I can see, sir."

"Ashburn?" Maccabee asked quickly.

"He's right, as far as I can tell," she answered, and Maccabee could tell she wasn't happy about it.

"Let Ming know," he said simply, keeping his thoughts to himself. If the courier had been trying to run, her crew would have died at their stations. Even if they'd been caught unawares, it seemed passing unlikely that every member of the crew would have been sitting down for lunch in the mess. That left only one option: the bodies had been moved. Why?

"Cap," said Ming's voice on an audio feed into the Deck five minutes later. "We're just about ready down here. You can monitor on channel six." Instead of trying to remember what frequency was currently in use by Hornet's communications gear, the crew simply used channels, as many as a hundred of them if necessary. The computers in the ship's com room and all its remote units cycled through two million frequencies every tenth of a second, automatically, to cut down on the chances of a signal being intercepted. This was true of laser communications as well as radio. Even a slight disruption in frequency renders a laser signal difficult to receive.

"Thank you, Ming," said Maccabee, putting up the channel six feed on the main holo. A three dimensional image of startling realism snapped into focus inside the holo grid, showing Ming and a security team gearing up for the mission to the courier. They were in one of the smaller boat bays, where Maccabee kept a handful of fast assault shuttles; the five-meter craft were bullet-shaped and had stubby wings towards the rear that could extend for atmospheric flight, though they were notorious for handling like falling rocks inside a gravity well. In space, however, they were incredibly nimble and perfect for forced boarding actions. They even carried short-range, high-yield slipstream drives that allowed them to make a quick hop over to an enemy ship traveling at high velocities.

The team and Ming were suiting up in armored, powered environmental suits; the suits carried hardened armor plates at various strategic locations, and the ceramic-fiber mesh of the pressure suit itself could resist high-kinetic impacts with moderate success. Fighting in vacuum was always a hellish business, but the suits would protect the team against all but the heaviest small arms. This armor also allowed for weapons to be mounted on the exoskeleton, freeing the team's hands for other tasks.

Ming had chosen an up-close-and-personal weapons mix for the load out. Each suit had a shotgun mounted on one forearm, a heavy plasma rifle on the other, and a single, long-bladed power knife that rested inside a mount on whatever arm each man or woman found more comfortable. One man had a demolition package installed on his suit; he would mainly be carrying small cutting charges to open hatches and doorways sealed shut by the courier's automatic systems, but Maccabee knew there would be some heavier explosives mixed in for good measure. Ming had the standard load, plus her own shotgun strapped to the leg of the suit in a quick-release catch and a five millimeter railpistol in a wrist holster.

In another moment, the team was ready and they bundled into the assault shuttle. The monitoring A.I. switched to an interior view as the men and women locked their suits down on hard points built into the shuttle's bare bench seats. Ming moved between them to the front of the shuttle, then turned around.

"Right," she said, her tone cool and professional. "There's some funny shit going on here, and we're going to find out what it is. We've got a courier boat out there that's been hit by pirates. We think. The bodies of the crew have apparently been moved to the mess. I don't know why. The captain wants to know." Ming scowled; her face was hidden inside the armor-plated helmet of the suit, but another video feed from inside the helmet gave Maccabee a close view. "Be prepared to lose your lunch. If anything moves, you have my express permission to shoot first and ask questions later. Scans show there's nothing alive on board; you know what that means."

One or two of the team chuckled. Scanning for life signs was a notoriously difficult process when ship's hulls were in the way.

"Questions?" asked Ming. No one had any. "Right."

She turned and locked her suit down on the stool that rose from the deck by the control station, then activated the little ship. The boat deck's A.I., having ascertained that the bay was empty, evacuated the air and slid open the door, and Ming powered the shuttle out on a small thruster flame. She kept the velocity low for about fifty meters, then throttled up with the shuttle's regular engines; there was no reason to burn down the little ship's batteries in a high-gee acceleration with the slipstream drive, not at this range.

Minutes ticked by as Maccabee watched the range close on the navigational display one of his own screens was showing. Five thousand kilometers was a goodly distance for a shuttle without a slipstream drive, but Ming was wringing all the speed that she could out of the assault ship; she moved to a matched velocity in ten minutes, bringing the shuttle alongside the drifting courier and standing off about five hundred meters from the courier's starboard bow.

The shuttle's video feeds now showed the damage to the courier up close and personal, and Maccabee frowned as he looked at the blackened, battered hull. Even from five hundred meters it was difficult to see any small details in the dim light of space this far out from the system's primary star, but it did not look good. Ming was running a few more close scans on the shuttle's limited systems.

"Still looks completely dead, cap," she said. "I'm scanning the interior right now, looking for the best docking point."

"Understood," said Maccabee, keeping his voice as calm as Ming's. The courier shape was oddly similar to that of the shuttle, a stubby bullet, but on a much larger scale, at least a hundred meters long. Still tiny for an interstellar craft, but couriers had no need of large cargo or crew capacity. Sel had said that only ten bodies showed up on his scan. Maybe it was possible they'd all been in the mess, letting their A.I. run the show. Possible.

"OK, moving in now," said Ming. She fired up the shuttle's maneuvering thrusters and moved up and over to the top of the courier, then latched on to the other ship's hull. The assault shuttle was designed with attachment points at all angles to better facilitate an attack, and Ming grappled on to the courier boat with the belly lock of her shuttle. "Last suit check, boys and girls," she said a moment later, setting the shuttle's engines to standby mode. She wasn't one to shut down the ship when she didn't know if a hasty exit would be required. Maccabee saw her load a program into the shuttle's A.I. as well, but he had no idea what it might be.

The team checked their telltales and each gave her a thumbs up on their suit atmosphere. After double-checking each one, Ming nodded and pumped the atmosphere out of the shuttle. Then she cycled open the little ship's belly hatch and knelt down by it.

The holo changed to Ming's own suit camera, built into the helmet roughly over her eyes. This was the same view that she would have inside the helmet from the small holo emitters built into the space in front of her eyes. Beyond the shuttle's hatch was the black hull of the courier boat. Right where it was supposed to be, there was a smooth hatch, slightly larger than the shuttle's but still contained within the narrow docking collar. A handle was built into the hatch, flush with the hull, and a small placard above it read, "EMERGENCY USE ONLY." That was all.

Ming reached down and yanked up with her suit's strength on the handle. It popped open, almost making her overbalance. Underneath was a small computer access. Ming scowled again and yanked a small cable out of a port in her suit, snaking it down and into the courier boat's access. She let the shuttle's A.I. go to work on breaking in; that was what it was designed to do.

A moment later, the hatch locks snapped open. Ming reached down, snapped the handle back into place, and pushed. The hatch sank four centimeters, then swiveled aside and out of view. Below it was small, emergency airlock. Ming jumped down into the cramped space, followed immediately by two members of her team. She pointed to the interior hatch and one of them got to work bypassing its security. In ten seconds, they were inside and moving.

Ming led her team down darkened corridors and through several hatchways while Maccabee watched through various people's helmet cameras. Two people had been left to guard the airlock and the shuttle, and the remaining eight were with Ming. Interior damage seemed limited, but the power systems were obviously offline. Only emergency lighting was on, and most of it was slowly dying, its own battery reserves dwindling away. The gravity plating had also lost its charge, a process which usually took at least twelve hours after a power failure. The ship had been attacked some time ago, apparently.

The control deck was quiet and undamaged. Ming pointed two of her team over to a database interface, and they pulled out some retrieval systems that would go to work powering back up the volatile memory and breaking down any barriers that remained to get at the data Maccabee wanted. She herself pulled a small charger unit out of her suit's built-in satchel and hooked it up to the command chair. Power slowly fed back into the chair, and a holo display flickered to life above the right armrest. Ming studied it, and Maccabee looked as well, as though through her eyes.

"Nothing," she said, echoing his own thoughts. The holo screen showed only a course track for the courier. It had come from Tellarien, a system on the other side of the Ridge, and was bound towards Muk'ck, the regional capital of one of the PARC's outer sectors. Hardly a fascinating itinerary.

"Keep looking," the captain said.

Ming sighed and stowed the charger back in her suit, letting the hologram flicker and fade away. Then she motioned for two more of her team to stay with the pair working on the databanks. The other four she led back out of the Deck and towards the ship's mess.

The trip didn't take long. As though in invitation, the doors to the mess were open. Ming and two of her team dashed across the opening, while the others took the opposite side. Then Ming rolled a camera drone into the mess, ducking back behind the bulkhead immediately after, waiting for some sort of enemy fire. Nothing came. She shrugged slightly, the movement exaggerated by the suit, and then linked into the drone's signal.

Maccabee did not flinch as he looked at what had been done to the courier's crew, though he knew that this memory would take its place next to all the other horrors he'd witnessed over the years, burned into his mind to reappear with depressing regularity as his happy memories never seemed to do. It appeared that someone had a dark and rather vivid imagination. Ming shut off the feed a moment later, but the flayed bodies and severed limbs and silent screams remained anyway. Dimly audible in the background, Maccabee could hear someone retching, but he couldn't tell if the person was on the Deck or with Ming on the courier.

"Need anything else?" growled Ming, her voice harsh with suppressed fury and raw with the effort of swallowing the bile that had risen in her throat, that she had forced back down, teeth clenched.

Maccabee hated to say it, but he did anyway: "Bring one of the bodies back. We'll need to have Monteux autopsy one of them."

"Yes, sir," hissed Ming. Maccabee knew her anger wasn't directed at him, but he forced himself to watch the feed from her helmet camera as she went in and did the job herself. Each suit came equipped with a self-sealing body bag. Ming stuffed one of the terribly mutilated crewmen into the bag and let it shut, then turned away, mercifully, and walked back out of the hall of horrors. She made no sound at all, just motioned for the others to follow her as she led the way back to the control deck.

"They're done here, captain," she said woodenly a moment later, after talking one-on-one with her team. "There wasn't much left, but we got what we could."

"Come on back, Ming," said Maccabee.

"Yes, sir."

Maccabee sighed at the emotionless voice of his pilot. He'd have to have Monteux talk to her. The good doctor did fine work as a psychologist in addition to her physical healing, and this sort of thing took some getting over. He would add some words of encouragement of his own, once Ming reached the point where she'd talk to him again. Knowing that they were going to kill everyone responsible for this massacre would make the whole crew feel better. It certainly made Maccabee feel good.

He sighed and leaned back in his seat again and switched the holo image to a simple navigational display again and waited for his crew to return to him.