Episode 112: Briefing

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Hornet was back in orbit, floating free of the space station about twenty thousand kilometers distant. Someone at docking control had tried to reach them as they broke the seal and left without clearance, but Maccabee wasn't in a listening mood. There was nothing at the Little Heap that had a chance in hell of hurting his ship. Let them clamor and fume and shake their fists at him. He didn't really care. He had other business to attend to, something he was not looking forward to, but had to do anyway. A briefing. For everyone.

In this case, everyone included Hornet's command staff, Russ, Ashburn, Alger, Ming, Sel, Monteux, and of course Samara, but also Pinzon, who would be deeply involved in the upcoming mission, and Amathea Yakazuma; the latter was fully recovered from her physical wounds, but Monteux had strenuously objected to Maccabee including her at this meeting and in this mission, whatever it might be. The doctor had called Yakazuma suicidal and unbalanced. In Maccabee's opinion it was a matter of some conjecture whether Yakazuma had ever been anything other than unbalanced, and she certainly had a tendency to throw herself into suicidal situations on a regular basis. He understood that the woman was on edge after Selkirk's death, but he thought he also understood Yakazuma a whole lot better than Monteux, who, after all, was in the business of helping people, not killing them.

The business of killing people requires a certain amount of mental flexibility. Call it insanity if you want to, or instability, but it is really just a disconnect, an ability to disassociate actions from certain higher brain functions. It is, of course, an unpleasant business, but it has its moments. No one can really deny that. Maccabee understood exactly what Yakazuma was feeling, and he felt it too. She wasn't insane; she just wanted very much to kill someone. If everything went according to plan, she would have ample opportunity to satisfy that dark, ugly urge.

Hornet's conference room was nearly full, twelve people being its maximum occupancy. The compartment was dominated by a long, oval table. Maccabee and Samara sat at the short ends, with the others arranged in roughly similar positions to those they assumed on the Deck, Yakazuma, Monteux and Pinzon being the notable exceptions. In front of each person was a small holo display, while another, larger unit dominated the center of the table. That display was currently showing an image of the planet below, rotating slowly on its axis. Occasionally, a bright, red spot would rotate into view in the midst of the undifferentiated mass of the Heap; each of these spots represented a surface settlement. The largest and brightest was more of an uneven stain than a spot: Severnaya, Makassar's premier and only city.

"Let's begin," said Maccabee, sitting forward suddenly in his chair and stilling the chatter that had been passing between the others at the table. His crew--my crew--turned towards him, more-or-less attentive looks on their faces. Only Samara frowned. She knew some of what was coming. Not all of it, but enough.

"First," continued Maccabee, "a little background. You all know that I've been pursuing this project for about a year now, off-and-on. We've gone on a few smaller jobs, but mostly we've been having a quiet time. That is about to change.

"For the last five years, a consortium of raiders has been attacking shipping in the Muk'uk sector. You know as well as I do how effective the usual PARC response to piracy is, but Muk'uk takes things to a new low. This consortium is actually being sponsored by the sector governor." That produced a few low growls at the table. "It took me a long time to find that connection, but it was the final piece that made me want to do this job. You know how I feel about that sort of thing. I haven't told any of you all of my history with this business, but you know enough.

"This consortium has been growing with its successes. Thanks to its government contacts, the consortium is able to avoid trouble by targeting certain `unprotected' shipping, by which I mean ships that haven't paid bribes to the local officials. Word's gotten around, however, and the number of ships operating without protection has diminished sharply in the last eighteen months. This is a supply and demand situation, as you know: the more pirates you employ, the more ships you're going to have to take out in order to keep everyone satisfied. The problem the consortium faces is that they're limited in just who they can attack.

"Their government contacts mean that they have an advantage, but if they start targeting everyone in sight, they lose that advantage. Actually, it turns into a disadvantage. The governor has a pretty good idea of how to find these pirates, and if he wanted to bring the navy to bear, he'd have no trouble dropping a few third rates into a system and cleaning it out. It would even be a publicity coup."

"So, what're they doing, then?" asked Alger. "The consortium, I mean? What's the solution?"

"They haven't found one yet," said Maccabee, steepling his fingers in front of his face and smiling slightly. "That's where our opportunity comes in: there's been a split inside the group. One of their members has gone renegade, or so say my sources. She's targeting protected shipping, doing whatever the hell she wants, pretty much. So far the rest of the consortium has kept the situation under control, vis-a-vi the governor, but it can't last. That's why I've chosen this one as our first target."

"The idea being," offered Ming, "to off the one ship the other pirates would like to see offed." She cocked her head to the side. "By the way, what sort of ship are we talking about?"

"In this case, a frigate," answered Maccabee. He flicked a finger through a pick- up, and the spinning planet was replaced by a ship schematic; the Lion Star was an old ship, built over two hundred years ago from a three-hundred-year-old design. She was long and slender, mounted medium-sized broadsides, almost no bow or stern chasers, and light armor.

"Where did you manage to dig up schematics?" asked Ashburn quietly as she stared at the slowly rotating image.

"Easier than it might seem," answered Maccabee, leaning back in his chair. "Some ships have outrun her, but not without getting detailed scans. The consortium wasn't too concerned with operational security at first, not with the governor in their pocket."

"Even a governor has to answer to the Central Authority," Russ said. "Why hasn't anyone sent down an order for him to take care of these people, or just bypassed him completely and sent in a hunting fleet?"

"There have been orders," said Maccabee. "Central Authority is slow to respond to this sort of thing. I imagine they'll taking serious steps against the governor in another few months, though--a year at the outside--which is why we need to move quickly. When the governor goes down, he'll take the consortium with him." Maccabee spread his hands out, palms up. "Nothing for us. Or the consortium will go underground, wait it out, and come back in as regular pirates, operating without limits and without outside connections. Either way, we lose them."

"Now," he continued, sitting up in his chair and rubbing his hands together briskly, "down to details. First, names. You'll have to forgive me, because I don't have many. I don't know the name of the leader of the consortium, nor of three of the captains. The other captains are Epalla Mummaad and Greta Abslom. The former was an officer of Alba's Royal Navy before being dishonorably discharged--and nearly executed--for dereliction of duty." Maccabee smiled thinly. "I believe he killed twenty people on a crippled freighter under the logic that they couldn't be saved anyway.

"The latter is the captain of the Lion Star, which is currently two days out from this system. She is our target.

"The governor's name, by the way, is Arthur Pendross, and a more useless idiot I have never heard of. On the other hand, he has managed to work out this system, though I wonder how much of it is the doing of the mysterious consortium leader."

"You don't have anything on him?" asked Ming.

"Or her," agreed Maccabee with a small shake of his head. "I have some very wild guesses." His tone indicated that he would not be sharing those guesses, at least not yet. "All I know for certain is that the leader is about sixty years of age, and white, whatever that means anymore." It was a matter of a few hours' genetic treatments to change skin tones.

"What's the plan?" asked Yakazuma. There was a kind of dreadful anticipation in her voice, and Monteux looked sharply her way, then shook her head and cast a rather significant look in Maccabee's direction. Maccabee ignored the doctor.

"The plan," he said, "is to cut off the head of the beast."

"Abslon," said Alger with a weighty sigh.

"Correct. She spends her time on the planet. Apparently, she's of Russian decent, and she has some sympathy with this Federation we've run into here. I think they may be protecting her from the other members of the consortium; I'm not sure. At any rate, she has apparently given the others the slip, because if I were in charge of this group, I'd be sure to take out any renegades at my earliest convenience."

"Unless you had a good reason for leaving her out there," said Samara, speaking for the first time.

"Unless I had a good reason," echoed Maccabee, unsure of where Samara was leading. His XO didn't add anything further, however. He cleared his throat, then cursed himself silently for doing so. "I have obtained detailed information on Abslon's exact location when she is planetside. I also know where she leaves her ship, and have devised a plan to avoid alerting her officers."

"We're not taking the ship, then?" asked Alger, sounding distinctly disappointed.

"Oh, we'll be taking her," said Maccabee, "but we're going to take out Abslon first." He shrugged. "That's all part of the plan, which I was going to get to. May as well be now.

"We'll be going down in assault shuttles. I've obtained IFF codes so that we'll be able to sneak down through the planetary command net. The shuttles will be dropped off at the station today, with their crews. Those crews will then have to wait it out until Lion Star arrives, unfortunately. Hornet has to leave the system today, and make sure that everyone sees her leave. The shuttles will slip in, attach to the station's main truss, and stay dark for the next twenty-four hours."

"I am not looking forward to this," muttered Ming.

"Who said you were going on the shuttles?" asked Maccabee. Ming gave him a look that made it clear that she knew damn well she was going on the shuttles, and he chuckled. "Sorry. Yes, it's not going to be fun. The shuttles aren't designed for this sort of thing, but I have an engineering crew fitting in some necessary equipment right now. It's not going to be comfortable, but it'll work.

"When Lion Star comes into the system, Abslon will head for the surface. We'll give her some time to settle in, then the shuttles will activate their IFF codes, and head in. In plain sight. They'd pick up a normal assault drop too early, and give Abslon time to make a break for it, but this way I'm hoping she won't know what's happening until it's too late." Maccabee fiddled with the holo controls again, and the planet reappeared; then a wedge separated from the whole and expanded to fill the view. Severnaya was at the edge of the wedge, and a string of perhaps a dozen smaller settlements stretched out to the north and west, following a rift in the Heap, a long, thin clear area. One of the towns glowed a sullen blue.

"This is our target, Norilsk, population two thousand," said Maccabee. He adjusted the view again, and the image zoomed in on the town, showing a haphazard collection of buildings. Most were interconnected by a disorganized web of tunnels and enclosed walkways. "This is a real-time image from our own multi-spectral cameras," said Maccabee as everyone leaned in for a better look or brought up the image on their own holos. "The building on the upper left with the big heat bloom is their power station. They're running a fifty megawatt fission plant there, no backup."

"But we're not going to hit a fission plant," said Ashburn. It was clear that it was not a question in her mind.

"No," said Maccabee, firmly. "One team will land at the plant, however, and shut it down. Not even permanently," he added, seeing Alger's wicked grin. The big Scot looked briefly crestfallen. "We'll just shut off the power to the local grid, that's all. Team two will put down at the main meeting hall, here." Maccabee highlighted a building towards the center of the town, a half-cylinder structure about two hundred meters long and fifty across. "This is where most of the connecting passages meet, and the team here will block reinforcements. The simplest route is to depressurize the building. Automatic doors will block of the rest of the town." These were now also highlighted on the screen.

"What about those passages?" asked Russ. He pointed, and the pickups around his seat caught the movement and translated it into a small circle on the holo. He tracked the circle up to one of several unprotected passages. "No pressure doors."

"Those passages lead mostly to uninhabited sections, businesses and places like that," said Maccabee. "Our timing means we'll be landing at night, so those areas should be empty. One of them goes to the power plant, and it has its own doors."

"That's a lot of volume to decompress, sir," said Sel, speaking up for the first time. "How long will that take? What sort of damage will the town suffer?"

"We don't need to finish the decompression on a time schedule," answered the captain. "We'll start the process; people won't want to be around, whether there's still some air or not." Maccabee highlighted another building. "My sources indicate that this is where Abslon stays when she's in town. Team three will land here, enter the building, and take her. Alive if possible, but certainly dead if necessary. She's a valuable source of information, though, so we'll want to make an effort to capture her.

"Now, a generous estimate puts wormhole transition detection from the station at about twelve light hours; this is the minimum distance that Hornet will have to travel to make sure no one sees her when she comes out of the wormhole. Just to be completely safe, we're going to actually take her out fourteen hours. Given our acceleration rate and our maximum sustainable speed, it'll take twenty-eight hours or so for us to come back that distance at sublight velocities." Eyes around the table widened at that. No one with much love for life spent twenty-eight hours at anything approaching maximum sublight speeds; a single shield failure could lead to complete destruction at those kinds of speeds, or at least serious damage. "By the time we're close enough to be sure to catch Lion Star, we'll probably only have an hour or two of deceleration time, which will only bleed off about half our speed, so we'll have to be on the ball to bat her down. Engagement time will be limited." Russ and Ashburn chuckled. They had the most experience with planning and executing ship-to-ship battles; with Lion Star still accelerating and Hornet screaming through the system at fifty thousand kilometers per second, engagement time would be very short indeed. "Still, we should be able to deal her a pretty good blow, then come back around and race her to the flux boundary. My hope is that she'll be confused enough to not even start accelerating until we attack; they will likely be looking for advise from their captain, which she will no longer be in a position to give."

Maccabee took a deep breath and leaned back with a sigh. "Any questions?"

"About a thousand," muttered Monteux. "Do you really think something this desperate and hodge-podge can succeed? And do you trust your sources this much? Where's the catch, captain? Someone, somewhere, has got to know as much as we do, and they are going to be watching, too." She shook her head. "I do not want any more casualties in my hospital, captain."

"Then you're on the wrong ship, doctor," said Maccabee matter-of-factly.

She scowled at him. "I know perfectly well that there will be casualties, captain. I just don't want any more of them. It would please me to no end if you would do your best to minimize them."

"I am, Lilly," Maccabee said, softening his tone. "I devised this plan--and it is difficult and dangerous--precisely to avoid casualties. If everything works, we should barely have a bloody nose."

"If everything works," said Alger. "That's the rub. Especially for the shuttles. Hornet will be safe enough, either way, but the shuttles could just be blown away like that!" He slapped a palm on the table and shook his head. "You'd have to be a bloody idiot to be on one of them."

"I was hoping you'd volunteer," said Maccabee with a slight smile.

"Oh, aye, I'll volunteer, lad, no worries there. I'm just saying, is all." He shook his head again. "Bloody stupid."

"What else?" asked Maccabee.

"The Russians, sir," said Sel. "You mentioned that Abslon had some connections with them. What can they do to stop us, sir? If they've been protecting her, they must have a means to do so."

"I think their means is secrecy. Lion Star is disguised as a light freighter, and her lines have apparently been significantly altered from the schematic I showed you. Anyone who didn't know her wouldn't think her a pirate."

"That wouldn't stop the pirates who do know her, captain," pressed Sel. "It wouldn't be that difficult to track her here, not if we've managed it. There must be something else."

"It wasn't easy to track her here, Sel," said Maccabee, but he smiled slightly to take any reprimand out of the words. "You're right, however. The Russians may have another trick up their sleeve; we'll have to watch for it. Frankly, they're an unknown. I did not expect to find them here, not in charge like this. My sources haven't given me much on them either, so we're flying blind in that regard, but if we wait until we have more answers, the rest of the plan is scrapped.

"Nevertheless. . . ." Maccabee paused and took a deep breath. "One of the reasons I am giving you this briefing, giving you most of the information I have, is so you know what you're getting into. This ship is going on this mission. You do not have to do so. I haven't offered before, but if any of you would like to resign from your posts, you are welcome to do so."

He gazed around the table in the complete silence that followed. Sel was aghast, Alger only slightly less so. Ming was shaking her head, and Russ had a firm frown on his face, matched only by Ashburn's grimace of disgust. Yakazuma wasn't even paying attention, Pinzon was clearly uninterested and Monteux just sighed and shook her head. Samara stared Maccabee's way, a grim expression on her face. She did not like this plan, but she was determined to see it through. The only question in her mind was who would be left standing at the end.

"Good," said Maccabee, after what he thought was an appropriate interval. "I have assignments uploaded on each of your systems, but to make things brief. . . ." He looked down at his own display for a moment. "Ming, Alger, and Samara will be leading the assault teams: Ming, you'll be heading Team One at the power plant; Alger, you'll be Team Two, the meeting hall; that leaves Team Three and the primary objective for Samara." Maccabee looked at each of them in turn as he spoke. Ming nodded, her face subdued, her mind obviously already on the mission. Alger grinned mightily. Samara schooled her face to impassivity and simply returned Maccabee's stare with one of her own.

"The rest of you," he continued, "will remain on Hornet with me. This battle won't be easy, and I want as many of you at my side as possible."

Maccabee stood and there was a general sound of scraping as the others followed suit. "We'll be getting underway in two hours. I've made team assignments, but they can be changed by the team leaders. Otherwise, do what you do best." He gave them a nod. "Thank you."

The meeting broke up. Alger and Ming rushed from the room, probably already working on changes for their teams, not to mention what gear and weapons each would bring. The others left more slowly, but a minute later, Samara stood alone by the door, while Maccabee stood right at his seat, across the table from her. Between them, the holo of Norilsk rotated slowly. Small heat traces showed people moving around inside the town, melding into blooms of color and then separating again, going about their daily business.

"Still worried, Samara?" asked Maccabee, his voice soft in the hushed room.

"Not worried, William, no," she answered. "I think your plan will work, if that's what you mean. But I am . . . concerned about the rest of it. About what comes next."

"Trust me," he said. "I know what I'm doing."

"I know, I know." She waved a dismissive hand in his direction. "You know I trust you." A small smile crept onto her lips. "You know me, Maccabee, I'm paranoid. I've had a tough life, and I've been around when intel was bad and the mission fell into the crapper. I'd rather not repeat the process."

"You won't." He walked around the table to her. "I can't guarantee anything, Samara, but I'll pull you out of the fire, if it comes to that. I can promise that much."

"You be careful," she whispered. "I don't want to have to pull your ass out of it."

"Fat chance of that," he said. The two of them just stood there for a moment; Maccabee was memorizing every feature of her face, carefully storing the image away in a small part of his mind that he hated, a place he never wanted to look into but had to have. He couldn't guess what was passing through Samara's mind. Then he cleared his throat. "You'd better get your team assembled."

"Yes, sir," she said. She did not salute, but nodded to him as to an equal, then turned on her heel and walked out the door. Maccabee let it slide shut behind her.

Less than two hours later, Maccabee watched on the Deck's main holo as the three assault shuttles slipped away from Hornet and disappeared into the night. As long as they moved slowly and kept power emissions to a minimum, no sensors in this system would pick them out. That sort of stealth was impossible to maintain on an atmospheric entry; hence the IFF codes Maccabee had bought for the three little ships. Alger, Ming and Samara had gathered their teams with quick, quiet efficiency, making only those changes they deemed necessary. All were heavily armed, lightly armored, and ready for an extended stay on board the cramped shuttles. Maccabee wanted to be with them, wanted it very much, actually, but he knew that he couldn't have Russ commanding Hornet on this mission, nor could he afford to have Samara stay behind; she was the expert at ground assault.

"Bring us around," he ordered, pulling his mind back to the matter at hand. "Best possible time for the flux boundary."

"Yes, sir!" said Russ, steering the ship in Ming's absence. Hornet turned smoothly and suddenly rushed forward under maximum normal acceleration. Makassar and the Little Heap--and the three shuttles--dwindled with frightening speed behind them. Five minutes later, the navigational plot showed them clear of the planet's flux boundary and free to navigate at superluminal speeds.

"Ready for wormhole induction, captain," said Ashburn.

"At your discretion, Ashburn," Maccabee said almost absently.

Immediately, the jump siren sounded throughout the ship, a sharp, short wail that repeated itself three times. Only seconds later, the ship dropped through the wormhole. Maccabee felt as though something was ripping him apart, turning him inside out by brute force. Pain seared his temples, and then vanished as suddenly as it had come. They were through.

"Position," Maccabee managed, though his voice sounded tight. The aftereffects of the transition were still lingering. Something felt wrong, different.

"Position is. . . ." began Russ. "Shit."


"Multivalence, captain," said Russ. A multivalence was rare, but not uncommon; it was a side effect of the Kellerman Variables used by the jump computer to calculate the wormhole's exact dimensions. Faced with a single variable with multiple real values that were essentially indistinguishable, the computer chose the one it thought the best fit. Sometimes it made the wrong choice, resulting in a variance that was usually minute, but over long distances. . . .

"How bad?" asked Maccabee, trying to keep the horror he felt growing inside him from seeping into his voice.

"We're two light hours further out than we planned, captain," said Russ. He grimaced. "I'm sorry, captain." Russ had programmed the jump.

Maccabee, however, shook his head. "Not your fault." Only the computer made multivalences; they weren't really errors, actually, just artifacts of imperfect equations. It didn't matter anyway; the thing was done. Maccabee looked down at his hands for a moment, then back up at the holo. "Calculate another jump," he said quietly. "Back to where we should have been." He glanced at Ashburn. "How long to charge the batteries for that short a jump?"

"We can cut it to an hour, captain," she said, "but not much less. I wouldn't recommend any less."

"What's the minimum!" barked Maccabee. He bit back anything more and silently cursed himself for shouting.

"Forty minutes," said Ashburn reluctantly. "You can't go any lower than that, captain, the batteries weren't designed for that, neither was the shunt, the whole system will over--"

Maccabee cut her off with a raised hand. "Forty minutes." He looked at Russ. "Double check the calculations; run them through a hand unit."

"That'll take a long time, sir," Russ said, obviously uncomfortable with Maccabee's mood, just as obviously trying to hide it.

"Less than forty minutes. Get on it."

"Yes, sir."

"And get this heap moving! Let's at least have a high transit velocity."

"Yes, sir!"

Maccabee sat back in his chair. Around him, the crew moved with their usual efficiency, trying to buy him back enough time to make up for his mistake. Forty minutes. Hornet would be at least forty minutes late. How bad would that be? There was no way to communicate with the shuttles, short of heading back to Makassar and calling off the mission entirely. Maccabee wasn't ready to do that yet. Not yet. He'd consider it in the coming day.

Hornet raced on through the empty reaches of space in silence, matching her captain's mood.