Episode 111: Informant

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A circle opened almost immediately for Maccabee and the six people accompanying him as they stepped off the train. It widened for a moment, then contracted again, leveling off at an acceptable equilibrium that allowed both for the continued flow of the mass of humanity around them while at the same time guaranteeing that none of those people had to get too close to such an obviously well-armed group. There were stares, but few of them. Most people shifted their gaze somewhere else. It was apparent that the only men and women who wandered around the station armed to the teeth and dressed in fresh, new clothes were the kind of people better avoided entirely.

"Where were you thinking of looking?" said Samara in Maccabee's ear as she stepped up right behind him. "Do you have anything else?"

"The name of a place," he replied, his eyes out on the crowd. He met a woman's gaze, but she turned away quickly. That wouldn't last. Word was already spreading to . . . somewhere. The Interstellar Russian Federation would certainly be curious about these new visitors.

"Shall we, then?" asked Maccabee's XO.

They started to move, following Maccabee, who was heading along the main axis of the old station; he had no real idea of his destination, but he was hoping he'd spot something that would give him a hint. As he'd told Samara, he had precious little to go on. Just the name of a place, and instructions to be there at a certain time on a certain day. The day was this one, and the time was approaching rapidly. He'd hoped to avoid this whole process by a quick trip to the surface, but that had been denied. Now, they'd have to do it the hard way.

A moment later, Samara cleared her throat. Maccabee looked over and saw her nod in the direction of a large, active-matrix map board. Part of its display was flickering, but it still showed a schematic of the station. Maccabee shifted his course and plowed a path across the steady flow of traffic along the floor of the old cylinder. People were still avoiding contact with them, still looking away and dodging to the side or simply standing still and waiting for them to pass. Stores and other businesses were packed into narrow, ramshackle buildings all along the wide street, and twisting alleys climbed up the ever- steepening curve of the station's walls to the buildings at higher elevations. A few of those looked more habitable, at least from this distance.

They reached the map board and Maccabee opened his mouth to speak to the thing, then blinked in surprise. There was a keyboard attached to the small console in front of the map. He shrugged, wondering if this was the original design or some retrofit to repair a broken voice system, then reached down and typed in the name of his destination: Consignment Destination Specialties Corp. It was a joke, of course; nothing on this station was a corporation. But that was the place.

The map flashed once, went dark, then came back on with a different angle on the station and a flashing cursor over their destination. Lettering next to the cursor spelled out, "Grand Concourse, Section Five, Level Three." Then the image zoomed out until another cursor appeared, this one labeled, "You Are Here." A small, red arrow drew a path repeatedly between the two points. It seemed that Maccabee and his crew were still in Section One, while Section Five was nearly at the other end of the station. The directions seemed plain enough, however.

"Let's go," said Maccabee, clearing the query and turning from the sign. A moment later, he saw one of his security people stiffen.

She turned as he stepped up to her. "Someone's coming this way, captain," she said, her voice low, her hand straying towards her holstered railpistol. "Definitely spotted us."

"Stay calm," said Maccabee, pitching his voice so everyone in his little group heard him. The space around them was quickly widening again, and now Maccabee caught sight of a cohesive group approaching from further up the station, probably six at least, all dressed in some sort of uniform. It seemed unlikely they were anyone but the IRF. Maccabee stepped back to Samara. "Keep a lid on things," he whispered to her.

"Oh yes," she said, a half smile tugging at her lips as she glanced at him and then back at the approaching people. "I think that's a good plan. I don't like blasting my way out of space stations."

"I'm tired of it myself," said Maccabee with a chuckle.

Then the group was up to them and the crowd around them thinned out even more. Maccabee's security team placed themselves squarely between him and the newcomers, while Pinzon positioned herself slightly to the side, aiming for a better angle. Alger had managed to sidle around to the other side of the sign and was doing his best to look unobtrusive, failing miserably.

There were ten men, all dressed in black and gold uniforms stitched with a gold five-pointed star crossed with a single, angled sword. The uniforms were well made, but of cheap materials. All of the men were white, most with dark hair and dark eyes. Possibly native Russians, but there was no way to tell. The five millimeter railguns the men carried slung over their shoulders were not cheap, and appeared to be well-cared for. Shock clubs completed the outfits, one hanging at each man's waist; two men were already holding the handles of the clubs, though the things were still looped to their belts.

At the head of the group was a taller man, and he, at least, looked Russian, perhaps descended from aristocracy. His dark eyes flashed as he swept his gaze across Maccabee and the others from Hornet and then returned to Maccabee. His uniform was not cheap, and he wore it with a pride approaching religious fervor. The two millimeter railpistol strapped to his waist was no showpiece, but a weapon of superb craftsmanship. The grip of the gun was worn to a polished sheen.

"Who is in charge here?" said the tall man. His voice was short and abrupt, and he spoke Standard English as though it was not his native tongue. Definitely Russian, Maccabee thought. Very few people kept tradition alive to the point of teaching their children a different language before they learned S-E. What was the point?

"Captain William Maccabee," said Maccabee, stepping forward so he was even with the three security people guarding him. "Of the ship Hornet, docked within the hour."

"Why are you here?" the tall man asked. His tone brooked no argument, which made Maccabee's fingertips tingle with anticipation.

"I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name," he said instead of answering the man. Samara hissed softly behind him.

Maccabee watched the threat of violence pass across the tall man's face, but he did not seem in a mood to pick a fight. "I am Kutusov. Marshal Kutusov." His tone seemed to imply that everyone should know that name, but all Maccabee thought was that the IRF seemed to have a rather top-heavy officer staff.

"What can I do for you, marshal?" he asked, a ready smile on his lips.

"You can state your business here," growled Kutusov. "Immediately."

"We are here to conduct a business transaction," offered Maccabee, putting on an studiously casual tone. "The details are not public."

"I am not," said Kutusov, his voice icy cold, "the public." He smiled thinly. "In fact, I am in charge of security on this station. As such, I demand an answer to my question." By the end of his sentence, Kutusov was almost hissing.

Maccabee took the briefest of moments to think through the next few seconds. Either he could refuse to say anything further to Kutusov, thus provoking the man into doing something stupid, or he could feed him some more detailed story and hope for the best. He glanced at Samara. She shrugged.

"Very well, marshal," said Maccabee, his tone now equally irritated. "We are meeting with a man who calls himself Braddock to discuss terms for a transaction involving salvage from the surface."

"What salvage?" asked Kutusov immediately.

Maccabee smiled and spread his arms. "Surely, marshal, you can't expect us to tell you everything? You know as well as I do that these sort of deals fall apart for the smallest of reasons, and this Braddock is not a patient sort of man, from what I've heard." He casually rubbed his first two fingers against his thumb, drawing no attention to the gesture--plausible deniability was the key--but making it plain nonetheless. "I hope that is satisfactory?"

The big Russian frowned slightly, his eyes lingering on Maccabee's hand, though the captain was gesturing no longer. Then he looked up at Maccabee and waved a hand in the air dismissively. "My duty is fulfilled, captain," he said. "Allow me to escort you to your engagement."

"Not necessary," said Maccabee, the smile on his face now hardly forced. "I know the way." He gestured at Samara. "My first officer here will take care of any docking fees."

"Yes," said Kutusov. "Yes, that will be satisfactory. Thank you for your cooperation."

"My pleasure, marshal," said Maccabee.

He stepped aside and Samara passed him, throwing him a look that was equal parts irritation and amusement. They'd brought some money and Samara was carrying it, but there was no way to know what the marshal would think an appropriate bribe. Maccabee gathered his other people around him and moved slightly away from Samara and the officer, letting them bargain out of earshot.

"Is this a good idea?" asked Alger in a low growl. "What if bribes're illegal?"

Maccabee looked over at him with a raised eyebrow. "Illegal?"

"Ah, hell, I guess you're right," muttered the big Scot. Bribes were illegal, and were just as obviously standard practice.

A few moments later, Samara started walking back towards them. Maccabee opened his mouth to ask her what had happened, but she shook her head just slightly. He glanced past her and saw Kutusov watching them, a gluttonous gleam in his eyes. Bribes were nice, but impounding a ship would be much better, and it was obvious the marshal was looking for something, anything, suspicious. Better that he find nothing for now. There'd be more soon enough. Maccabee turned and started leading his people away, waiting for the shot or the shout that never came.

"We're being followed," muttered Pinzon a few moments later. Her gray eyes were narrow slits, but she did not turn to look at their pursuer. Maccabee didn't question for a moment how she knew that someone was following them, but just nodded.

"That's to be expected," he said. Then, turning to Samara, he asked, "What happened?"

"He took the bribe," she said, keeping her eyes forward, watching the crowd. "He told us to check with him before we left the station."

"That'll happen," grumbled Alger.

"It might," said Maccabee, "if this man has the kind of influence he claims." He shook his head. "I hate walking into this without knowing anything more."

Samara smiled slightly at her captain's discomfort. "You said yourself we don't have any more time. We have to meet this guy, or give up." Her smile faded. "We don't give up, so this is what we do."

"Was that a pep-talk?" asked Maccabee.

"Call it what you like," she replied. "I'll be back in a second."

She turned suddenly and plunged into the crowd. Maccabee nearly stopped moving, but then kept his feet going, forcing the others to follow him. He had a good enough idea of what Samara was doing, and if he gave any sign of noticing, the game would be up. As it was, he doubted that their shadow would somehow have missed Samara's movement; still, playing back the moment in his head, he saw that she'd carefully positioned herself to be invisible from a certain angle. He hadn't managed to spot the tail yet, but he knew that Samara was better at that sort of thing then he. She was a hunter.

No more than five minutes passed before Samara returned, but Maccabee's fast- beating heart seemed to count off ten times that amount. Samara strode up to the group without bothering to disguise her movements, a grim little smile on her lips. "Tail's gone," she said simply.

"I trust he won't be missed too soon," said Maccabee, letting himself relax just slightly.

"Oh, they won't be able to reach him on his com," she said with a shrug. "But I played with it a little bit, so with any luck they'll think it's just not working right. Then they'll send out a search team of some sort. It'll be a long while before they look where I put him, though."

"I won't ask," Maccabee said. Samara was very thorough. "Let's pick up the pace."

It was another twenty minutes before they reached Section Five, Level Three, and another five minutes before they found the medium-sized, windowless building that was identified only by a small plaque by its sealed doors: "Consignment Destination Specialties Corporation, Appointment Only."

"We don't have an appointment," said Alger, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

"Yes, we do," said Maccabee. He glanced at the watch on his wrist: they were five minutes early. "We've just made it."

"Do we go in, then?" Pinzon asked.

"I think we'll be let in," replied Maccabee. "We just need to wait for the appropriate time."

They stood there, trying to look casual. There were far fewer pedestrians on this narrow alleyway, some hundred meters above the main street, but the sound of voices was readily audible, echoing off all the hard surfaces of the cylinder's interior. Maccabee looked up towards the "roof" of the station, and blinked in surprise. There was a building there, one of the original structures of the station, perhaps a hundred floors high, narrow and pyramidal in shape, jutting "downwards" towards the more recent construction on the floor of the spinless cylinder. There were lights on in the windows, shining in the relative darkness of the upper half of the station; apparently the building was still in use, though how one got up there was beyond Maccabee's knowledge.

A moment later, he heard the sound of the door behind him opening, and he spun around, his hand straying towards the railpistol at his hip. Pinzon and her security people were already watching closely. A lean, pale woman stuck her head out of the darkness of the interior of the building and glanced unconcernedly at the seven heavily-armed men and women outside her door, her gaze finally coming to rest on Maccabee.

"You come in alone," she said. Her voice had a curious lilt to it, not quite an accent but something similar.

"Not possible," said Pinzon calmly. "The rest can stay, but I go with him, no matter what."

Maccabee repressed an urge to correct his security chief. She was right, and she was also the right choice, though Maccabee's heart wished for Samara at his side. His XO was deadlier than Pinzon, but the security boss would make sure that they both lived through whatever happened. Samara might content herself with killing as many of their enemies as possible, dying in a blaze of bloody glory.

The pale woman stared at Pinzon for so long that Maccabee was sure something violent was about to happen, but then she just nodded and disappeared into the darkness, motioning for them to follow her.

Samara stared hard at Maccabee with a stubborn look he knew only too well, but he just shook his head, nodded to Pinzon, and stepped through the doorway, his security chief on his heels, waiting for the first blow, the first shot, or whatever else these people had planned for him.

None of the expected things happened. The door slid shut behind them, closing them into total darkness. Then low, blue lights came to life, glowing with a sharp light that quickly grew brighter and brighter. The lights revealed a low-ceilinged room about ten meters square. There was a table in the center of the room, a desk, and behind it sat the pale woman. A neural shunt was conspicuously jacked into a port behind her ear, connecting her to a small computer terminal on the desk. Other than this computer, the top of the desk had only a single sheet of paper--an oddity in itself--next to which lay a writing tool of some kind.

The one advantage of keeping paper records was that destroying them guaranteed finality to any operation. There was no way to retrieve the data.

"You are Maccabee," said the woman. Her voice sounded exactly the same, of course, but there was something strange about her eyes now that she was jacked into the computer.

"I am." Maccabee took a few steps forward, then stopped, gripping his wrist with the opposite hand behind his back, well away from any visible weapons. "To whom am I speaking?"

"I'm the one you arranged to meet, captain," said someone through the woman. "This interface is the most secure; the line cannot be tapped or back-traced without Lisa's knowledge; suffice it to say that she would not allow that to happen."

Maccabee felt his blood chill. He had no doubt how the connection would be severed.

"You have questions for me?" asked Maccabee's contact. "I can only be here for ten minutes. Ask."

"You know where I can find Greta Abslon," said Maccabee. It was not a question. This was the reason he was here. "I need to know the exact coordinates."

"Within ten meters," said the woman. She picked up the writing implement and wrote down a string of numbers without looking at the piece of paper. "Done. What else?"

"When will she be at those coordinates?" asked Maccabee.

The woman's hand moved again, writing down another answer. "Done. What else?"

"Where does she leave her ship when she's on the planet?"

"Done. What else?"

"What are the IFF codes for shuttles coming from the station to the planet?"

"Done. What else?"

"What is Abslon's relationship with the Russians?"

"Done. What else?"

"Where are Abslon's superiors based?"

The woman put down the pen, her eyes still staring at Maccabee. "I don't know that," she said finally. "This meeting is over. Agreed?"

Maccabee didn't have much choice. "Agreed. You have your payment information."

"Yes I do, captain," said the woman. A smile spread her thin lips. "Yes."

A moment later, the distant look in the woman's eyes faded and she pulled the plug gently from the port behind her ear. "You must leave now. The Russians will be tracing this meeting."

"I thought the connection couldn't be traced," said Pinzon, a weary tone in her voice as she pulled out her railpistol.

"The other end cannot be traced, except through me," said the woman, packing up the computer. "Here." She reached out the piece of paper. Maccabee crossed to the desk in two long strides, grabbed the paper from her and shoved it inside his jacket. "Now," she continued, "get out of here."

"Thank you," said Maccabee.

"Don't. You've paid for the privilege, believe me." She smiled thinly again. "Besides, you won't like some of those answers." She pressed a button on the desk and the lights turned off; a moment later, the door opened.

"That's for me to decide," he said, turning to leave.

Pinzon kept her eyes on the other woman until Maccabee was out the door, then followed quickly behind him. The others were scattered around the street, but they collected around their captain quickly. Samara caught the look in Maccabee's eyes and motioned for everyone to start moving before he had a chance to say anything. They started back down the street, and Samara quickly fell into step beside Maccabee.

"Did you get what you need?" she asked.

"I'm not entirely certain," he replied, his eyes scanning the street ahead of them. "I'll take a look when were back on Hornet." Then he connected his com link, calling to the ship. "Russ, this is Maccabee."

"Russ here, captain," came the ready reply. The man sounded a little concerned, probably worried for his crew, but otherwise at ease.

"Status, Russ."

"We're fine here, captain." A pause. "There's no trouble, is there?"

"I hope not," answered Maccabee. He grinned at Samara, who was listening on the same channel. "Not like last time, anyway."

"Well, thank God for that," muttered Russ with a heartfelt sigh. "Want me to monitor?"

"Yes," said Maccabee. "We're on our way."

They passed quickly back down to the main street of the station. The crowd was starting to thin out a bit, which somehow made Maccabee feel more exposed, though it allowed his security people to keep a better eye on the strangers around them. Pinzon in particular was on edge. It wasn't an obvious change in her behavior so much as a sense of danger that suddenly surrounded her, a palpable threat kept just barely in control. She was not happy, that was certain, and Maccabee knew the contact's cryptic warnings were to blame.

There was no sign of Marshal Kutusov nor any of his people the whole way back to the train. At the station, however, a man and a woman in similar uniforms were checking IDs as a long line of people filed into the boarding zone, which was cordoned off by a chain at about waist height. The man carried the same five millimeter rifle that Kutusov's people had, but the woman wore only a sidearm, a plasma pistol of some sort. Her features were dark, and she spent a fair bit of time examining each person as they passed. Neither she nor the man had been there when Maccabee and his people had arrived eighty minutes ago.

"Damn," muttered Samara. She flexed a hand and softly stroked the grip of her three millimeter railpistol.

"No need for that," said Maccabee. The line moved forward two steps as another pair of people passed through the checkpoint. "This might have nothing to do with us."

Samara looked up at him with a look that said he was foolish to think that, but she kept any words to herself. They waited. Maccabee tried to remain calm, but his heart was beating quickly. Pinzon's head kept scanning from side to side, searching out escape routes, and she and her security people had formed a nearly-solid ring around the captain. Alger brought up the rear, a sour look on his face, his arms crossed over his broad chest. Perhaps he intended to glower his way through any obstacle.

Ten minutes later, the last people in front of Maccabee passed the checkpoint, and he stepped up to the two uniformed people; rather, a member of his security team stepped up to them. Maccabee was behind her.

"Identification?" asked the uniformed woman.

Maccabee pulled out a small data chip and passed it to his guard, who passed it to the uniformed woman. The woman slipped the chip into her small hand-held computer, glanced briefly at the screen, then back up at Maccabee, and then cleared her throat.

"You've completed your business here, Captain Derrick?" she asked.

"Yes, I have," said Maccabee calmly, clasping his hands behind his back again.

"And you've checked with Marshal Kutusov, have you?" The woman's face was hard and expressionless. "There's no record of that, captain."

"I'm not in the habit of asking permission to return to my ship," answered Maccabee. "If you see him, you may extend my regrets to the marshal."

"Why not do it yourself?" said the woman, a small smirk lifting one corner of her mouth.

"Miss--" began Maccabee.

"Colonel," corrected the woman sharply.

"Colonel," he said, inclining his head towards her slightly. "Colonel, I would like to leave here now. I have no business with your superiors, nor they with me." She opened her mouth, but he held up a hand. "I will not take no for an answer, colonel."

There was a definite finality in Maccabee's voice, and for the first time the so- called colonel looked carefully at the men and women surrounding the captain, all of whom looked distinctly as though they were looking forward to the opportunity to kill someone. They were all better armed than her and her subordinate, and there were seven of them, too. Not the sort of odds she was being paid to face. But she would make a report about this; she would definitely make a report.

"Very well, captain," the colonel said at last, stepping aside. Maccabee started forwards immediately. As he passed, the colonel spoke again: "You'd best stay docked, captain; in case the marshal needs to speak to you." Her voice promised that Kutusov would do just that.

"I'll keep it in mind, colonel," said Maccabee without looking at her.

Hornet's crew filed onto the waiting train. It pulled away a minute later. For that entire time, they stood in silence, and the colonel outside watched them with an ugly glare full of hatred and a good bit of fear. The latter only fed back into the woman's resentment; she was not used to peremptory treatment.

As the train rushed and rattled into the dark tunnel, then waited for the airlock to do its business, Maccabee let out a long sigh. "I'm starting to hate this whole business," he breathed.

Samara was the only one who heard him. She glanced up at him and smiled. "Too late for cold feet, William," she said softly. "Too late for that." Then she chuckled and looked away, out the side of the train as the car passed out into space again. "It's been too late for a long time, really. For me, since I left my parents' house. For you, I don't know. But it's been a long time, either way." She shook her head, then whispered, "Too late."

Maccabee wondered just what it was that had put Samara in this mood, but only very briefly. All that could wait. His hand was itching to grab the paper stuffed in his pocket and read the answers his contact had scrawled there with another person's hand. It was time for the hunt to begin in earnest. Whatever she was thinking, Samara was right. It was too late to worry now, too late to back out. High time for the hunt to begin.