Epsiode 113: Gearing Up

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Samara walked down the corridor, away from the conference room, her mind nearly empty of thought. She heard the door shut behind her, cutting off Maccabee's view, and wasn't sure whether she should be relieved or disappointed. Pausing for a moment, she decided on indifference. There was a mission ahead, a dangerous mission that could quite possibly lead to her premature death. She'd faced that kind of thing before, on more than one occasion, but something felt different this time. The only problem was that she had no idea what it was, no idea just what was different.

She turned a corner and nearly ran into Yakazuma. The smaller woman did not flinch or move as Samara slid to a stop just centimeters from her face.

"He did not mention me," Yakazuma said in a tone best described as dead.

"You're on my team list," said Samara, though she had no idea if that was the case. She assumed it was, however, based on her knowledge of Maccabee's command style and also on simple logic, which dictated that hers would be the most difficult of the three ground missions. Yakazuma was one of the best warriors on the ship; ergo. . . .

"Ah," said Yakazuma. "Thank you."

"I need to get to the vehicle bay," said Samara pointedly. "Are you coming?"

"Oh, yes." A kind of dreadful anticipation filled Yakazuma's voice, and Samara wondered if Monteux might not be right about the woman's state of mind. The decision was made, however.

"Well come on," Samara said, stepping around the other woman and not waiting to see if she fell in step behind her.

The mission was taking over now, becoming the only thing in Samara's view. Other considerations, confusions and dilutions were quickly being shoved aside as the mission bubbled up through her brain. She'd known part of it, but now the picture was complete, and her mind was already planning details, working every angle, every nuance of the situation, looking for maximum advantage. Variables surfaced out of the soup of thought: men and women, always dangerously unpredictable; equipment, prone to failure in the best of conditions; time, always slipping away without any consideration for the people it was leaving in its wake.

As the plan began to take form in Samara's mind, errors started to crop up. What could go wrong? Anything. The IFF codes were unreliable; there was no way to predict Lion Star's exact time of arrival, nor that of Hornet in her wake. Abslom might decide to spend time somewhere else, or might be out to dinner at a friend's house. She might be anywhere, or she might be on her ship. That would be the worst possible situation. And the shuttles? It was a matter of some debate if they could even stay hidden for twenty-seven hours or more. More variables, plopping into the stew from above with little splashes, sending out ripples.

Samara walked through the corridors and took abrupt turnings without seeming to notice where she was going, and Yakazuma followed steadily in her wake, equally unaware of her surroundings, though thoughts of a much different nature set her mind awhirl. They passed a few people in the corridors, and everyone gave them a wide berth. It was common knowledge, of course, that Samara was crazy, and the Yakazuma woman was even worse, a hot-blooded killer just looking for an excuse to spill some blood. Everyone was glad that she was on their side, and just as queasy that she might not be.

Five minutes later, the two women emerged into the vehicle bay where the three assault teams were assembling around their shuttles. Ming and Alger were already there, and their teams were well on their way to gearing up for the mission. Ming's group was in light body armor and was relatively lightly armed; they were correspondingly weighted down with explosives and demolition charges, along with virus boxes, small computers that would interface with the power plant and bypass its usual command routines to shut it down. Ming had two of her favored shotguns, one on her back and another clamped to her thigh, and her team carried a mix of pistols and small-caliber long arms. One man was busy shouldering a tripod-mounted plasma cannon.

The men and women in Alger's group looked like they were going to fight a war on their own, and since there were only ten of them, they were armed to the teeth. None of them carried a weapon lighter than a plasma rifle, several had large-bore blaster rifles, all carried multiple grenades, several backup weapons, and a half-ton of ammunition. Their body armor was heavier than Ming's team's, and all wore military-grade helmets with heads-up capability. Alger was directing two diminutive women--Sands and Koi, Samara thought--as they maneuvered a two meter case up the shuttle's ramp. "K4-700" was stenciled on the side of the case: Samara recognized this as the designation for the Warpath Defense Systems Compact Area Suppressive Fire System, CASFiS for short. The system consisted of four independent, A.I.-guided personnel suppression guns, 3mm railguns firing at super-high rates for short-timed bursts. Nothing that moved within the targeted area could avoid a bullet.

Her own team was standing around by the third shuttle. A few had personal weapons, but Samara noted that Pinzon and Tanner Braun, Hornet's armorer, were hovering nearby, looking anxious for a weapons load to be chosen as quickly as possible. She nodded their way, then turned to face her team.

She'd had no chance to look at Maccabee's team assignments, but she had faith in the captain's choices. As she scanned the three women and six men in front of her, smoothing her face to perfect impassivity, she mentally nodded; her trust was well placed. All nine were excellent choices, calm, clear-headed people who could be called upon to make the right decisions in tight situations given very little time. She smiled and nodded to Obu Lobengula and Katrina Czerney, with whom she'd worked in the past, and then to Alan Tsang, who was one of her recruits. The rest she knew less well, but she made it her job to know everyone as well as she could. There was no way she could sacrifice their lives if she did not know them.

For their part, the men and women on the team straightened up and stood almost to attention at Samara's approach. An appropriate response. She could read from their faces that they didn't yet know all the details of the mission; they now expected those gaps to be filled in, but it wasn't yet time for all the details. The plan was still forming in Samara's mind anyway, now churning away at the new variables represented by the unique personalities of these nine men and women, of Yakazuma, and of Samara herself.

"Shock sticks for everyone," said Samara, catching one or two of them off guard. Tanner--everyone called the small man by his first name, and no one really knew why-- nodded, jotting a note on his computer pad. "I want the heaviest armor load we can get away with." She glanced at Tanner who paused his writing and looked up expectantly. "Say P-Eight?" Tanner nodded and Samara returned the nod; P-8 body armor would block 3mm railpistol fire and at least dampen the effect of heavier munitions. "Lethal weapons are your choice; but include a sidearm and a rifle. I need one person to handle demo, and another to pick up a heavy weapon, just in case."

"I'll take the demo, boss," growled Obu Lobengula in his rich baritone drawl. He was a tall, lean man with black skin flecked with bits of gold. His teeth gleamed an unnatural shade of white, and his eyes were almost completely black, like a cat's. He was from Regellus, a world on the far side of the PARC that had long encouraged subtle genetic manipulations.

"I'll take the heavy if I can have the Thresher," said Luma Panir. A grin opened the big woman's mouth, revealing a row of sharpened teeth. Her skin was a shade of blue so close to white she only looked like the sky next to Obu's teeth. Panir was built like a tank, and spent most of her time in the ship's training center, lugging around actual free weights and casting challenging stares at anyone who she thought might like to take her on in a bout of wrestling. Few were foolish enough to try, and only Alger had ever pinned Panir to the mat; he'd done it once in twenty matches.

"Fine," said Samara with another nod. Tanner spun and ran off, followed at a more leisurely pace by Pinzon. Samara waited for them to get out of earshot, then took a breath. "Listen up. Here's the deal.

"We're going to be hanging out in this bucket for twenty-seven hours or so." She drove onward over the groans. "This will be the prelude to a combat drop disguised as friendly shuttles. Once on the ground, we will let the other teams establish their positions, then move in for the primary target." Samara held up her small computer and activated a holo that popped up and showed a fuzzy likeness of Greta Abslom. "Our mission is to take her alive. If our mission fails, we must make sure that she is dead before we are."

Turning off the holo, Samara favored her team with a tight, predatory smile. "It's that simple. Next order of business: does anyone want out?" She paused for only five seconds. "Good. Next order of business: do you have any questions?" Again, a five second pause. No one raised a hand or spoke out. "Good. You're in my team because you're the best. I'm leading you because I'm the best." She nodded. "Let's gear up."

As though released from a spell, the team took their eyes off Samara and were surprised to see Tanner and Pinzon returning with the equipment the XO had ordered. There was something about Samara's intensity, about the way she spoke that riveted their attention to her. Now they were released, and it was time to claim their due: if they were being asked to risk their lives, at least they'd got to play with some big guns.

Samara already carried her simple, custom-built laser pistol, but it wasn't really an appropriate weapon for this mission, so she took it off and handed it in. Then she glanced over the cart that Tanner had wheeled up, not even really aware that everyone else was waiting for her to take the first pick-not that there was any chance of her not getting whatever she wanted, even if Tanner had to scour the ship to find it. After a moment's consideration, she picked up a light, short-barreled 3mm rifle--a Michener R- 30--and an Archelon Dreamreiver--a 5mm aperture blaster pistol. Then she stepped over to Pinzon to be strapped into her armor, shaking her head at the names that the Archelon Gun Company thought appropriate for its products.

"What do you think?" asked the security chief as Samara placed her weapons carefully aside and started undressing. Armor of this level couldn't be strapped on over clothing and had its own interior lining and insulating properties. In a pinch, and with a sealed helmet, the armor could serve as a pressure suit, assuming it hadn't already been riddled with bullets.

"About what?" replied Samara, tossing her pants into a growing pile that already included her vest and shirt. The armor was not plumbed, so she kept her panties on, but anything else would only chafe. Two of her team were already stripping nearby, armor piled at their feet. It wasn't impossible to put the stuff on alone, just hard.

"About the mission," clarified Pinzon, unnecessarily.And about me not going, was the unspoken addendum. She held the main section of the armor steady while Samara stepped into it; this one, jointed piece would cover her entire body except from the chin up and from the elbows and knees down.

"It's not my job to think about the mission," said Samara, staring ahead over Pinzon's shoulder and feeling the slightly slick interior of the armor tighten down over her bare skin. "It's my job to make sure it works."

"Well then, you think it'll work?" asked Pinzon with a grin. She tugged the last strap tight, then reached for the first leg/boot piece. The armor was self-sealing, and it continued to adjust to the contours of Samara's body.

"My job is to make sure it works," the XO answered. "Therefor, it will work." Samara caught Pinzon's eye and the security chief hesitated in grabbing the second leg/boot. Samara grinned. "The captain might need you here, you know."

"He probably will," predicted Pinzon gloomily, tugging the boot onto Samara's foot. "You really want all this shit?"

"I like armor," was Samara's only answer. The P-8 stuff was heavy--probably about five kilos--but it didn't impair mobility significantly, and in a fire-fight in unfamiliar terrain against unknown enemies, she'd rather have that extra level of protection. Watching Ming's team don their much lighter armor--probably a P-3--Samara had been somewhat surprised, but Ming was a different type of fighter than the XO, with more of a sting-and-retreat philosophy, compared to Samara's wade-in-and-slug-it-out style. To each their own. Ten minutes later, the team was assembled outside their shuttle. With all their armor and gear, they looked positively fearsome, though no more so than Alger's people. Samara walked slowly past each of them, inspecting their load-out, checking straps and harnesses and generally just killing time, showing the troops that she cared. She did care, of course, but she also knew the chance that any of these ten would make a mistake was exceedingly slight. Reaching Yakazuma at the end of the line, Samara stopped and traded a long look with the other woman.

Yakazuma was dead inside. It showed in her eyes, not to mention her voice and even the way she moved. Samara was surprised; she'd known that Yakazuma and Selkirk were close, but had never suspected they shared a bond this deep. God only knew how long the pair had been together: they'd joined the ship as a team, and one had never left without the other. Perhaps the rage that was fueling her would keep her alive; maybe. For the moment, however, she was ready to kill. Samara would have to watch her closely, make sure she didn't get to close to Abslom; Yakazuma wasn't even carrying a shock stick, just an even four Solomon & Meyer Type C 3mm railpistols and a backpack full of extra ammunition. Yakazuma believed in neither rifles nor the concept of overkill.

Satisfied, Samara turned and marched off towards the center of the bay, where Alger and Ming were waiting for her. Alger nodded as she approached, while Ming just watched impassively. Just like their fighting styles, the two women had very different personalities. They'd learned to stay out of each other's way when off duty. Samara returned Alger's nod.

"All ready?" she asked.

"Fine," was all that Ming had to say, though to her credit she said it in an even tone.

"We're set, lass," rumbled Alger. "You goin' tae war?"

"You're plasma calling the bullet deadly," Samara replied with a slight smile. "Let's load up and ship out." She glanced at the large chrono on the bulkhead. "We'll launch in ten minutes. Any last minute details I've forgotten?"

"Common sense," muttered Ming. "Do you actually like this mission?"

"It's not mine to like, it's mine to do." It was Samara's mantra, the mercenary code. "We'll make it work."

"Aye," said Alger. He smiled at Ming. "What're you afraid of? Your ship'll have the best pilot!"

Ming just grunted.

"Luck," said Samara, reaching out her hand. Alger took it.

"Luck," he said, squeezing Samara's hand. Then he released and she turned to Ming.

"Luck," said Ming, taking the proffered hand for a moment. Her eyes met Samara's, and she nodded. Maybe she was coming around. Then she spun and jogged off to her ship, waving a hand at her team. Maybe not.

Samara watched her go, wondering. Then she gave Alger another curt nod and walked back to her own shuttle.

"Let's go!" she barked as she reached her team. With a deafening shout, they piled into the shuttle and she brought up the rear, letting the little ship's A.I. shut the hatch behind her.

Thirty minutes later, Samara watched from her shuttle's pilot chair as Hornet's plot on her navigational display flashed bright for less than a second and then disappeared, leaving a gravitational ripple in her wake as she dropped through a wormhole and left the system. That left the thirty-three men and women in the three assault ships all on their own. Samara couldn't see the other shuttles on visual, but she knew where they were. Bringing the nose of the little ship around, she increased thrust minutely and angled for the station. Each shuttle had its own designated spot to attach to the rambling Little Heap, so that if one was found, the other two would remain hidden. As though anyone who found a hidden assault shuttle on the station wouldn't search it down to the subatomic level looking for other ones.

Alan Tsang looked on over Samara's shoulders. He had his helmet racked on his back, and his large, brown eyes looked worried. He was Samara's second for this mission, and commanded one of the squads; Obu commanded the other. Both were experienced, but raiding pirate ships was different work than this.

"Relax, Alan," Samara said, looking at the holo in front of her that showed an exterior view of the station. There were no windows in the shuttle, no weak spots in her armor. "There's no need to worry yet."

"Not worried, boss," he answered. He spoke, as always, in a soft voice, quiet but confident. "Concerned. Agitated, aggravated and generally ready to go, but not worried."

"Oh. Good to know." She smiled, though he couldn't see her face. "I've been plotting our descent path." She put up another holo, showing a floating chunk of Makassar's surface and atmosphere, a bright red path sloping in from orbit and circling down to a landing at the town of Norilsk. "Or, if we're identified, this. . . ." Another descent path lit up in red while the other faded to blue. This one was steep as hell and involved no circling, just a straight, stone-like drop until a thousand meters, then a pull- out that would leave most of the team unconscious on the floor.

"Ah," said Tsang, shrugging his shoulders under the armor. "That looks unpleasant. Shouldn't there be evasive maneuvers involved as well?"

Samara rotated the display ninety degrees, revealing that the shuttle's programmed flight path had it kinking wildly from side to side as it plummeted downwards. "I thought of spiraling," said the XO modestly, "but that'd be more predictable for any targeting computers."

"You think they'll have good ones?" Tsang asked.

Samara looked up at him. "Good ones?" He nodded. "No," she said, "not good, but good enough, if they have anyone competent running the show. And those Russians looked competent if nothing else."

"The IFF codes?" he asked.

"They're crap, Alan," she replied without hesitation. "No one who sells those kind of things is trustworthy. I give it two minutes before they figure it out." She punched another control and the emergency flight path moderated slightly at the top of its slope while simultaneously growing even more steep at its lower end. "We'll be under fire for ten minutes. Any faster than that, and we'll burn up."

"Good to know," said Tsang in the tone of a man who wished he did not, in fact, know. "I'm going to sit down for a bit."

"Hey, Alan," said Samara, turning as Tsang moved to leave the small cockpit area. He turned back. "No one likes combat drops. You'll be fine when we're on the ground." Tsang opened his mouth, but said nothing. Samara grinned. "Yes, I'll make sure we reach the ground." He nodded, then smiled and left.

"Three, this is One," said Ming's voice a moment later over the tight laser com that linked the three shuttles. "We are at separation point. Radio silence from now on." There was a pause, and Samara thought that the silence had already begun, but then Ming added, "I'll see you dirtside."

"Yes, you will," murmured Samara with a slight grin as the com went dark. She adjusted a few more settings on the ship's controls and then activated a pre-programmed maneuver set that would take the shuttle in, ever so slowly, to the station, where they would dock. And wait.

The shuttle's A.I. took over and started moving along a deliberately random path, in hopes of hiding any coherent plot of leaking emission points. Samara watched for a moment, then toggled the little ship's intercom. "Listen up." Her voice sounded through a few dozen speakers, and she heard the chatter in the main hold quiet. "We're under com silence now. Don't even use your helmet units, or implants if you've got `em, stray signals have a nasty habit of propagating through the hull. We'll be in blackout until the next phase of the mission, so don't ask. ETA to station is fifty-two minutes. Sit back and enjoy the ride."

Killing the intercom with a flick of her finger, Samara sat back in the pilot's chair and watched the navigational plot as it tracked the shuttle's path towards the Little Heap.

The docking was surprisingly easy. A megaton freighter was trying to dock in the near vicinity, and its clumsy maneuvering masked any hints of the shuttle's existence. When they were securely clamped onto the underside of a small, out-of-the-way cargo module, Samara kept the main holo active and chuckled as the freighter fired another set of massive thrusters, knocking her off course yet again. A few others along a perpendicular axis fired for a moment before those opposite the original set came on. Too long, it turned out. The freighter loomed alarmingly close, and Samara wondered for a moment if the whole plan might go down with the shattered station after this lumbering beast crashed into it.

Then, firing with a kind of beautiful synchronicity that only a computer or a highly skilled pilot could achieve, thrusters all over the roughly spherical ship fired in quick succession, bringing her to a full stop relative to the station. Presumably the captain wanted to start all over again. Confident that some automatic system was watching out over fools and idiots and her as well, Samara shut down the holo and stood up, stretching muscles that had been coiled tight during the shuttle's run in to the station. Those few moments had been the assault teams' most vulnerable before the mission itself, with no help in reach if they were spotted.

She floated in zero gravity into the main compartment, a two meter-by-six meter space that was the only living area in the vessel. The team was making itself comfortable, stripping off bits of armor, racking weapons in the loading bins embedded in the shuttle's bulkheads, and generally making a mess of the place. The toilet just recently installed at the back of the ship--and its comfortable, if small, gravity field--was already in use. A few heads looked around at her when she arrived, but no one really paid her much attention. This was down time. There was nothing to do, no one to kill. Just time.

Samara pushed a bit of floating armor towards the wall, where it stuck to the webbing there, then glidded gently over to a seat and pulled herself down. Yakazuma was across from her, sitting still, strapped into a shock harness as though there would not be need to leave it again until they reached the planet's surface, though that would not be for a good twenty-six hours or so. Obu was asleep, while Tsang sat next to him, poring over a small, hand-held computer, studying something or other. Probably small unit assault tactics, knowing Alan. Most of the rest were sleeping, except for Luma, who was stripping and cleaning her Thresher with almost perverse loving care.

The Thresher was a multi-barreled light anti-armor weapon, or M-LAW for short, firing a standard 5mm railgun round, though at velocities about twenty percent higher than a normal rifle. Rate of fire was increased with the six barrels, ranging up to eighty thousand rounds a minute, and though the bullets were small and the operator usually only fired short bursts, the ammunition was carried in a huge pack and pumped into the gun through a hardened feed ramp. The pack also contained a battery unit, since the six barrels made the gun a power hog. In all, the Thresher was an extremely complex weapon, but it had unparalleled firepower for a single-person heavy weapon. Luma was an expert, and unlike many who used the weapon, she always seemed to bring it back with ammo left over.

Kren Millman emerged a moment later from the toilet, stepping gingerly from its gravity field into the zero gee of the shuttle's hold. At the same moment, the people that Samara had thought were sleeping or otherwise engaged leapt up and shouted out, "Surprise!" Even Yakazuma jumped slightly, and her hands actually grabbed two of her pistols before she stilled the movement, but Millman was stunned. He floated backwards through the open door of the toilet and then fell in an awkward spin, his legs still outside the gravity field, so that his head bounced off the lid of the toilet and spun him forwards again. The team dissolved into laughter.

Obu fired off a streamer into the air--Samara suppressed the urge to shout at him; the stuff would be sucked into the ventilators and give the tech crews hours of delightful work--and everyone yelled again, this time, "Happy Birthday!"

"It's not my fucking birthday!" roared Millman, struggling to get to his feet with his upper half inside the toilet's gravity field, his lower half outside.

"Ah, but if it's not your birthday," said Katrina Czerney reasonably while the others howled with laughter, "then what are we going to do with this bottle of--"

"What?" said Samara. Her voice was not loud, nor sharp, but there was a sudden silence in the small compartment. The team turned to look at her, all except Yakazuma, who was staring at nothing at all. "A bottle of what, Czerney?"

"That would be a bottle of nothing, boss," said Czerney, schooling her face to impassivity. "There is no bottle."

"Oh, don't get yourself all fired up," said Samara, letting herself out of her chair and floating up to the overhead. She braced a hand there over her and grinned. "What's in the bottle?"

"Uh, it's scotch, boss," mumbled Czerney. She was a drinker, that one, always smuggling booze into places where it shouldn't be. But at least she had good taste.

"What is it, James's Best?" asked Samara, grinning more broadly as she saw Czerney's face light up with disgust. James's Best was hardly better than rubbing alcohol to anyone who still had taste buds. Luckily for Best drinkers, those were destroyed by the foul stuff quickly enough.

"Hell no, boss," barked Czerney. "This is genuine single malt, right off the boat from Fife. Aged twenty years."

"Good choice," said Samara with a small laugh. The rest of the team was relaxing again, now, and a few of them chuckled as well. Czerney's taste in alcohol was nearly legendary, as was her ability to somehow find the best stuff, no matter where she was or how little money she had. A twenty-year-old Fife single malt--distilled on one of the longest-inhabited planets in New Alba--cost more per bottle than Czerney made in a year, out here in the PARC anyway.

"Well?" prompted Obu as he glared at Czerney. "Are you going to get it?"

Czerney shot a guilty look in Samara's direction, but the XO gave her an indulgent nod and watched as she floated expertly to a small compartment at the back of the ship, almost hidden by the newly-installed toilet. It took Czerney a moment to open the hatch--presumably she'd added some safeguards to prevent anyone from stumbling across the incredibly expensive stuff. Then she turned, holding up a green bottle filled to the top with scotch.

"Don't you dare open that in zero gee," growled Tsang. "Hook it up to the dispenser." He pointed to another recent addition to the shuttle's equipment list, a wall- mounted drink dispenser that automatically filled small, plastic drinking balls fitted with one-way straws. Czerney gave Tsang a dire look for pointing out the obvious to her, then went and carefully connected the bottle to the dispenser's feed tube, removing the water feed in the process. Oh well, thought Samara.

In another minute, everyone had a ball of scotch, and there was a brief silence as they all sampled a first sip of the golden-brown liquid floating inside the containers. Samara savored the rich, smoky flavor as it trickled over her tongue and down her throat. Obu let a mouthful escape and watched the floating blob of booze as it tumbled wildly through the air. With a laugh, Czerney launched herself for the scotch, but Obu was too quick. He gulped the blob down and then planted a wet kiss on Czerney's mouth as she careened past him.

That opened the flood gates, and in a moment everyone was talking and laughing and spinning wildly through the air. They were too experienced, too much warriors, to throw all caution to the winds; Samara didn't worry too much about sprained ankles and broken wrists. She just watched and laughed, taking an occasional sip from her own ball. They'd have plenty of time to metabolize the alcohol. Let them have some fun before the killing started.