Episode 110: Garbage Planet

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Samara blinked several times in quick succession, then focused again on the screen in front of her with a small frown. Maccabee hid his own expression of worry from her; she was not happy with everyone treating her like a fragile ceramic figurine, and she was tending already towards blowing up at anyone who suggested she was pushing too hard. Monteux was the only one who had a measure of control over the stubborn first officer, and it was only on the doctor's orders that Samara took any breaks at all. She seemed to think that she had to make up for lost time as quickly as possible.

"Tell me again," she said, still staring at the screen. It showed the last minutes of the GNS courier's event log, on a repeating loop. This was at least the fourth time Samara had watched it.

She and Maccabee were alone in her cabin. Hornet was quiet, on her third watch and between wormhole jumps, her batteries charging while most of her crew slept. Samara had only been brought out of her coma twenty-eight hours ago, shortly after Hornet had left the waypoint system and the courier behind, on her way to her next destination. Only Maccabee and the woman across from whom he was sitting knew what that destination was, exactly.

"It's a consortium of sorts," said Maccabee. "They've obviously bought off the local authorities; they have free reign around Oudtshoorn and most of the Muk'ck Sector. I haven't got much on their leader, but he or she is charismatic and ruthless as hell. They've got five ships of various classes, ranging from modified freighters to a thirty thousand ton frigate. They've also got a base on some rock around Muk'ck, but no one seems to know where it is." Maccabee shrugged. "Frankly, I don't think it matters much if we can take out the five ships."

"Unless they've got more than five, and they just wait at the base," said Samara, still reading the screen in front of her. "Besides the obvious problem of taking out even five ships. Hornet might be able to take a frigate, depending on how old she is." Frigates were rarely built anymore; that class of ships had been abandoned for more mission-specific destroyers and cruisers. "But only one-on-one. You have a plan for that yet, William?"

"I'm working on it. Our next stop will shed some light on the matter, but we're going to be sticking out our necks now. If they want to slap us down, they'll be able to do it soon."

Samara shook her head. "I don't like it," she said softly, finally looking up at him. "What aren't you telling me?"

"Nothing," he replied

"Right. Then why the hell are we doing this?" She sighed and leaned back in her chair. "From what you've told me, these guys aren't even that disruptive to trade. They've got their system worked out, they take their cut, they avoid the protected shipping. Aside from this with the courier, they haven't done anything too terrible yet."

"You think this is the end of it?" asked Maccabee, his voice grim. "Do you honestly believe, after all these years, that there will only be one massacre?"

Her eyes flashed. "Do not patronize me, William," she said slowly. "I know what we do. What we don't do is this, not without a good reason, and even massacres aren't good enough. Now talk to me."

Maccabee said nothing for a long while. He stood, picking up the glass of scotch that sat on the table between them. He swirled the amber liquid in the bulbous glass, breathed in its thick, smoky aroma and then took a sip, feeling the liquor burn down his throat into his stomach. How much should he tell her?

"It's personal," he began, his back to Samara. "These aren't freebooters. They're not loners risking their necks to make a profit. They're sanctioned agents of the state, murderers who are encouraged--encouraged!--to attack civilians, to slaughter people, to steal and loot." He turned back to her, a fatal glow in his dark eyes. "I want to pull them down, Samara, all of them. Taking out the ships is one thing, but the people who let them do it, those are the people I want. They're the ones who should pay for this."

He stabbed a finger at the holo screen. On it, an internal monitoring camera was showing the slaughter of the crew of the courier. The image was mercifully grainy, and there was no audio, but Samara killed the playback and shut the screen down anyway. She's seen it one too many times, just like Maccabee.

"I'll buy it for now, William," she said. "I'll buy it. Hell, you're right. It makes my blood boil too. But you know what I am, Maccabee. I'm a mercenary. There'll be lots of loot on this job, sure, but that's assuming anyone lives to enjoy it, and I don't think we will." She smiled slowly. "What the fuck, huh? Everyone's gotta die sometime. I've been on borrowed time since Cerrulus White pulled my ass out of the fire on Desmond Five."

The smile faded, and she looked into his eyes. He nearly took a step away from her then. The look on her face was the sort of expression she saved for the people she was about to kill. It was the cold, dead gaze of a mercenary, a woman who cared for nothing but money, if that, who would snuff out a life for a handful of cash and feel nothing. Nothing at all.

"Just tell me," she said, "what this is really about." He opened his mouth to protest, but she stopped him with an upraised hand. "Just tell me sometime, before we both die. That's all I want. Just tell me why."

Maccabee closed his mouth again. Then he nodded.

"OK," she said, her face normal again, her eyes light, full of life again. Maccabee still felt ice cold. "I'm going to bed. I'll see you in the morning."

"Sleep well," he managed as he turned and walked to the hatch. He turned back as the door opened. "Samara." She looked up. "I'm glad you're back."

"Me too, Maccabee," she said, and her smile this time was honest and warm. "Don't feel bad, not on my account. I'm behind you, all the way."

For a long time, he just stood there, and they stared at each other. Then he nodded and ducked out of her room, letting the hatch slide shut behind him.

Makassar was a garbage planet. For hundreds of years, dumping refuse into space had been outlawed in the PARC. Environmental groups had won repeated victories based less on scientific fact and more on memories of old Earth, where all life had been very nearly extinguished by pollution about a thousand years earlier, and had argued that every place humans inhabited seemed limitless and vast, until they filled it up with junk. So, the PARC and most other political entities in the First Colonial Sphere had ratified the Damascus Protocol, and had allowed the Interstellar Federation of Environmental Scientists to designate certain worlds in certain systems that were to be the dumping grounds for billions of humans on thousands of other planets. It was a vastly expensive enterprise, but it worked admirably well. What was not recycled--and most things were, these days--ended up far from civilization, carefully contained, carefully regulated. And then the vultures came.

Nothing is wasted by human society. It seems that way on the surface, but there is always a strata of the population that can benefit from what others find useless. Makassar was designed to be an automated facility, the only human presence on a small monitoring station in orbit where a handful of unlucky souls made sure that everything was running smoothly, and made the few decisions--perhaps one every month or so--that the A.I.s were not designed to make. But these were not the only people who lived on Makassar now. The first to arrive had been the poorest of the poor, people with no hope and no future; they lived on the surface, in small, pressurized cargo containers, venturing out in centuries-old vacuum suits to clamber over the piles of garbage looking for something, anything, that they could sell.

The more business-minded turned a profit, and soon there was money in the garbage. Not a lot, but enough to attract all that goes with money. Criminal organizations moved in and staked out territory. Enterprising venture capitalists--if you could really call them that--started automated sorting of the piles of waste. In theory, nothing worth even the slightest bit was thrown away, but that was only theory. In a garbage heap the size of a planet, where the cast-off refuse of a thousand worlds came to its final resting place, there was always something to be found. The poorest of the poor still did the looking. They just got to keep fewer profits.

The immigrants were illegal, but the authorities turned a blind eye. No one complained when a few dozen men and women and children died, crushed under twenty million tons of garbage as it was dumped on top of their tiny, pathetic village, and no one spoke out when orbiting stations were built as transshipment stations for the rescued treasures. Each side pretended the other did not exist and so arrived at a working arrangement. Once in a while, a new governor in Muk'ck would raise a public outcry at the terrible living conditions of Makassar, and thousands of people would be uprooted. The governor would be voted out of office soon enough, and the people would filter back, some quickly, some more slowly.

From orbit, Makassar looked like a great ball of dung, grey and brown and dull, and probably not smelling very well, though at least Hornet's crew was spared that. The planet had no indigenous atmosphere, but had inherited a thin film of noxious gases from the decomposing matter of the Heap. That was what the locals called the garbage; the Heap was everywhere. It was everything. Only a few tiny islands of solid ground remained on Makassar's rocky, barren surface, surrounded by seas of garbage. One of those islands held the only sizable surface settlement on the planet, a city of ten thousand called Severnaya. As everywhere in the galaxy, the Russians were at the bottom of the heap, even here, in the PARC.

"No," said the beautiful female colonel whose face was on the holo display on the Deck. Maccabee had no idea what her rank was supposed to mean. As far as he was aware, there was no organized government in Severnaya, much less a military requiring colonels. She seemed very firm, however.

"Why not?" he asked, trying to keep his tone reasonable.

"Because we have rules here," the colonel replied, "and one of them is that we don't let unknowns land on the surface. You can dock at the station and register there." Her tone implied that this was the only possible arrangement.

"Very well," Maccabee said. He had expected this, but it would make things more difficult.

"Let me route you to station command," said the colonel, a sweet smile sliding easily onto her stunning face.

"Wait, colonel," said Maccabee, holding up a hand. "I have a question, if I may?"

"What is it?" she said, some of her shortness returning.

"Just what military are you in?"

She smiled again, then laughed. "You really haven't been here before, have you?" Then her tone hardened. "I'm a colonel in the IRF, captain. I suggest you look it up before you dock. Ground control out."

The colonel's face vanished, and was replaced a moment later by a busy signal from the station's traffic control office. Maccabee dimmed the holo and looked through it at Samara.

"I'm on it," she said in her slow drawl. Her fingers were flying through various controls as she accessed data and flipped through windows and menus. "Here. IRF is the Interstellar Russian Federation. It's a semi-terrorist group, operates in most of the Sphere, limited resources but lots of members." She glanced up at him. "Nice guys."

"Just what constitutes a `semi-terrorist' group?" asked Russ. "Do they only blow up parts of things?"

"Most of their activity is non-violent," Samara expounded. "They've got some more militant splinter groups, though. Which we may be dealing with, considering our `colonel's' rank."

"Agreed," said Maccabee with a small frown. Another unknown situation. It was the standard, of course, but no less frustrating for it.

"This is orbital traffic control," growled a man's voice a moment later, and Maccabee turned back to the holo. A heavy-set, broad-shouldered bear of a man was on the screen, his broad, pale face festooned with enough facial hair to constitute a small animal. His eyes were bloodshot, and Maccabee could almost smell the waves of alcohol coming off him, though he was still a few thousand kilometers away. "What'd'ya want?"

"Docking permission," answered Maccabee. "How soon can we come in?"

"Depends on whatcha want `ere," rumbled the big man. "Whatcha want `ere?"

"Trade. We've got some stuff we want to get rid of, thought someone here might be interested. Assuming the price is right." He shrugged. Makassar would be an ideal place to unload stolen goods.

"Right. OK then." The big man glanced at a screen below the camera, squinted, belched and then looked off somewhere else. A minute passed, then another. Maccabee finally decided that the man had forgotten them.

"Excuse me," he said, keeping his voice polite. The big man jumped and looked back at the screen.

"Oh, right, docking, weren't you?" He nodded, stabbed a few controls with his thick, hairy fingers, then nodded as though satisfied. "Bay eighteen. Give `er twenty minutes." He squinted again, then shook his head. "Nah, Looder's a lazy bastard, better give `er thirty minutes. I'll rouse him outta bed for you." Then the big man cut the signal, mercifully sparing them all whatever he planned to say to Looder. Whoever that was.

"On the whole," offered Alger, "I preferred the lass."

"Aye," said Ming, putting on a terrible Scottish accent. Maccabee smiled, but Ming's humor dissolved when she looked his way. It had only been five days since the courier boat, and she had not yet forgiven him. The autopsy had turned up nothing of interest.

"Move us in towards the station, Ming," Maccabee heard himself order, though he felt like he was a long way away from everything for a moment. "Take your time."

"Yep," she said simply, executing the commands. Maccabee stifled a sigh and looked across at Samara. She just shrugged so minutely that no one else noticed, then turned back to her screen.

Forty-five minutes later, Hornet was docked at the orbital station. The place had no real name, but the locals called it the Little Heap. It was a forty-kilometer- long latticework beam, two hundred meters square, to which various units and modules had been attached, seemingly at random. Vast solar arrays stretched off in odd directions, requiring some careful docking maneuvers, and the rough schematic that was downloaded to Hornet on her arrival showed no logic in the layout of various systems and public spaces. Bay eighteen consisted of a narrow, windowless arrival hall and a cavernous cargo hold, neither of which connected directly to any other part of the station. A pair of transit trains snaked along exposed tracks that wound in, out and around the lattice, however, connecting every bit of the station to every other bit.

The Little Heap was one of the most haphazard places Maccabee had ever seen, and he wondered how it managed to stay in orbit. Certainly, its continued existence was nothing short of a miracle.

Maccabee, Samara, and Alger stepped through Hornet's main docking collar and into the arrival hall with a group of three ship's security officers, accompanied by Sergeant Pinzon. They were all armed, plainly so, and Maccabee intended to make it clear that they were going to remain armed as long as they were on the station. Unfortunately, there was no one to tell about his determination: the arrival hall was empty, except for an ancient service robot that trundled over to them with agonizing slowness on its single, broad, rubber tread.

"Welcome," the robot said in a mellifluous male voice quite at odds with its shabby exterior. "This station has been built to cater to your needs. I am programmed to help you with any inquiries you may have. Please note that weapons fire is strictly prohibited in all sections of the station. Explosives of any kind are not allowed on the station. All business transactions should be carried out under Interstellar Trade Craft Union rules, Standard Edition, Abridged, Version Seven-point-One-Three. All violations of these rules will result in removal from the station. Also, the IRF reserves the right to exclude any and all persons from this station as it sees fit."

The robot stopped talking and waited with the stolid patience that only a robot can muster. Maccabee glanced at Samara, who shrugged, then at Alger, who merely frowned. Then he looked back at the robot. "We'd like directions to wherever business deals are made around here," he said.

"Business is generally conducted in the Grand Concourse, Section Five, Level One," said the robot immediately. "Do you have an appointment?"

"No, we're looking for buyers."

"May I suggest that you visit Grand Concourse, Section Five, Level Three. There are several entertainment facilities on this level that may be suited to finding business partners." The robot paused, then turned on its tread, trundling awkwardly across the ragged, ancient carpeting. "If you will follow me, I will show you to the transit line."

They followed the robot across the arrival hall, past the faded, faux-leather chairs and the non-functional wall screens. A kiosk built into the wall still had signs advertising various refreshments; the hall was big enough for perhaps five hundred people, and stretched nearly two hundred meters long. A spilled cup of coffee had congealed on the floor and turned into a small forest of ten centimeter mushrooms. Obviously the hall had once been part of a real spaceport, something like a hundred years ago. Maccabee wondered how it had ended up here, at the end of its useful life.

Two sets of doors led out of the hall, and the robot led them to the far one. Here, the arrival hall had been crudely attached to a much smaller piece of corridor; the interface between the two different pieces was plated over and roughly melted together into a jagged, crazy mess. Maccabee and his crew stepped carefully over the joint and into the corridor, which looked to be salvaged from a utilitarian space station; the walls were bare, exposing conduits and piping that no longer led anywhere. Fading light sheets had been tacked to the overhead, casting a barely-tolerable illumination over the deck. Twenty meters in, the corridor meshed somewhat more smoothly with another hall, a small, custom-built unit with a few more waiting chairs and a single pressure door that presumably interfaced with the passing transit train.

The robot rolled up to the pressure door and slid a small wire out of its body and into the control panel. A moment later it retracted the cable and turned back to them. "I have summoned the transit train. It should arrive in ten minutes. Please make yourselves comfortable." Apparently having spoken all it needed to say, the robot fell silent, just standing there like another discarded piece of furniture. All its motors and servos were silent, and for a brief moment Maccabee thought it might have shut itself down completely.

"Nice place," muttered Samara.

"Plenty of ambiance," Alger agreed, turning to look at the small compartment.

The hall was decorated in greens and oranges, all long since faded into almost a uniform brown. There was a sickly sweet smell in the air that Maccabee couldn't--didn't want to--identify, and the air scrubbers seemed to be offline. It was almost difficult to breathe. Strange and colorful stains marred the carpet, which in any case was uniformly ugly, a mottled gray on gray checkerboard, frayed and tattered and even ripped up. Maccabee felt like he was standing in some lost, abandoned city, rather than an active space station. The lack of any other people certainly added to the impression. He had to fight down a strong urge to get the hell out while the getting was still good.

A few moments later, the transit train arrived, grinding to a halt with a good deal of shuddering and shaking in the little waiting compartment. The hiss of compressed gas was followed a moment later by the sharp snick! of locks disengaging, and then both sets of doors opened and Maccabee and his companions stared into the transit train. The robot suddenly came back to life and trundled forward.

"This way, please," it said in its friendly voice. "The train has already been told your destination. Please get off at the fourth stop."

"Thank you," said Maccabee. The robot said nothing, but turned and moved off, heading back towards the main arrival hall.

"Odd place, this," growled Alger. Then he stepped into the train, followed by the others. The car was perhaps five meters long, two wide, and connected both ahead and behind to more cars. The walls were nearly all transparent, constructed of ceramaplast; the exception were the spots where various impacts had starred the ceramic and forced its matrix into a more solid state. These were apparently quite common events. Maccabee guessed that the train had originally been designed for interior use.

They took seats, moving gingerly, as though the slightest bump might rip the fragile-looking train apart. Then, with an unsettling lurch, the thing started forward, moving quickly away from the waiting room at Bay Eighteen. It was connected to track above, and rocked from side to side as the line dove, then twisted through a hundred degrees to the right. Watching the station turn around them while gravity remained firmly oriented in the "down" direction made their stomachs turn over, and Maccabee watched two of Pinzon's security people turn their eyes inward to stare fixedly at the deck.

In three minutes, the train passed by two stops, then slid to a halt alongside a larger module. The view was mostly blocked by a huge cargo warehouse on the other side, and corridors ran at odd angles between this warehouse and the module, as well as to three more modules below the train, where Maccabee could just make out two small, docked ships, probably designed to travel to the surface. Again they heard the hiss of gas and then the sound of the seals unlocking, and again the doors slid aside.

A heavily-scarred woman with only one arm stepped into the train, followed by two men. All were dressed similarly, in gray and brown clothes that seemed less fashioned than placed randomly and stapled together. Fasteners ran at odd angles across chests and legs and arms, and the only thing that looked prefabricated were the heavy, space-rated boots each of the three wore on their feet. They paused a moment to look at Maccabee and his crew, and the captain nodded a wordless greeting to the one-armed woman. She regarded him without blinking for a moment longer, then led the two men down and through two doors into the next cars. The curving ceramaplast at the front and back of the train cars distorted the view, but Maccabee watched as the three newcomers sat down by each other and leaned their heads together to talk.

"Nice people here," said Alger. The others turned to him. "No, really. They seem very friendly like."

"I didn't see any weapons," said Pinzon, more usefully. "They could have hidden all sorts of pistols under those clothes, though, maybe even a shotgun." Her eyes narrowed, emphasizing the crows feet that ringed them. "I should have brought a hand- held."

Maccabee shook his head. "I don't think anyone would appreciate us scanning them for weapons."

"I wouldn't do it so they could watch, captain," said the sergeant with a tight- lipped smile. Her hand was touching the plasma pistol she wore at her belt. The weapon was exquisite, a custom-fitted hand-built model with a wide-field aperture and rechargeable, high-capacity power cells. The only person in Hornet's crew who knew more about guns than Alger was Ducila Pinzon.

The train started moving again with another lurch, and Maccabee watched as they twisted and spiraled some more, passing by a section of small, cylindrical modules connected by dozens of corridors at all angles. Then the train stopped again at a ring of polygonal units, probably specialized cargo compartments refurbished for garbage storage. A few more people got on, but Maccabee couldn't see them clearly, as they boarded through the car in front of his, where the one-armed woman had taken a seat. He could see that she and her two male companions moved apart and fell silent when the others climbed on.

The next two stops were connected to several docking points, most for small ships but one that had managed to accommodate a megaton freighter that loomed menacingly above the latticework truss. More people boarded the train, and this time they seemed a little more welcoming, keeping to themselves, but finding seats in the same car as Maccabee and his crew. All of them looked rough, traders that were barely hanging on at the bottom of the game, and some of them took more than two glances at the better- dressed members of Hornet crew, no doubt wondering just what such obviously wealthy types were doing on the Little Heap. Those wealthy folk were equally well armed, however, so no one thought to ask them just who they were.

Now, the little train rolled over completely and picked up more speed. A kilometer flashed by, essentially empty space except for a handful of small modules that were not connected to the transit line. After another klick and two bypassed stops, the train flashed into a tunnel and slid to a stop. As far as Maccabee could tell, they were nowhere, sealed inside a metal tube. Then he saw a hint of movement at the rear of the train, blurred almost to invisibility by the intervening cars. Doors were closing. A moment later sounds from outside the train began to filter into the car, and Maccabee knew that they were in an airlock, a cavernous space that had just been filled with atmosphere.

He looked forwards just in time to see doors opening there, and light pouring through from whatever was beyond those doors. The train rolled slowly forwards and out into a vast open space that could only be the Grand Concourse. It took Maccabee only a moment to realize that he was looking at an ancient, cylindrical habitat, roughly half a kilometer in diameter, a good three kilometers long, and at least half a millenium old and scavenged who knew how long ago. There was no rotation to the cylinder anymore and rough buildings had been constructed up the slope until it became too steep. At that point, towers climbed up the walls until the latter curved back towards the top of the cylinder.

Right overhead was the only place were a few remains of the original design were visible, streetlights that hung precariously from the ceiling, a few small roads connected to the broken foundations of buildings long since torn down. Unless the lower portion of the cylinder where the train had halted had exceptionally powerful gravity plating--and Maccabee guessed that this was not likely to be the case--the top of the open space would be in gentle free fall. That at least would keep the remaining bits of old design from crashing down into the multitude.

The train doors opened and Maccabee stepped out into the crowds at street level, followed closely by his crew.