|Episode 118: Aftermath|
Even before the launch touched down, Maccabee was out the main hatch, jumping the two meters to the ground; he’d opened the hatch on the final approach. His heavy full combat suit bore the impact with hardly a noticeable jolt, and he started moving forwards, sweeping his firing field with the muzzle of the twin ten millimeter blasters mounted on the suit’s right forearm. The left arm was equipped with a twenty millimeter chain gun and linked into a suitcase-sized ammunition box on his back. He only had two of the suits on Hornet--they were ridiculously expensive--but he could think of no better time than now to use one.
He was actually using both. Pinzon was in the other, and right behind him, or should be. He didn’t bother checking, because he trusted the security chief with his life, no questions asked. She would be there.
The buildings of Norilsk hove quickly into view, and the launch roared up from behind Maccabee and circled the town twice, its twined plasma cannons locking onto possible targets. There was no indication--had been no indication--of any activity, other than the weak signal from the landing teams, but two enemy shuttles were still on the ground, with no sign of their troopers.
Moving at about fifteen kilometers an hour, Maccabee stormed past the first set of buildings. The transmission from his people had been pinpointed in one of the main restaurant/mess hall buildings in the complex, and the launch had dropped him only three hundred meters from that point. He covered the distance in just over a minute, and then had to rein himself in to keep from crashing right through the wall, so urgent was his need to get inside and see who was there, who had survived.
“Still no signal,” came Simon Tamil’s voice; he was a fair pilot, and most of the others had been on this joke of a mission. Simon was cruising the launch above Maccabee’s head, circling lazily, while two of Pinzon’s security people manned the guns. “You’re at the right building, cap.”
“Where’s the door?” asked Maccabee, turning left, catching a glimpse of Pinzon in his peripheral vision as she circled him to cover the other angles. The map he had in his head was slightly skewed, and he hadn’t had time to load anything into the suit’s own combat computers.
“Ten meters east,” came Sel’s quick reply from orbit. He was monitoring the whole show using Hornet’s remaining sensor suit as the ship hovered in orbit directly over Norilsk. No one in the system challenged her or made any attempt at communication. Unless and until something else showed up or Lion Star managed a miraculous repair, Hornet was in charge of this system, and everyone else was well served by staying out of her way. Maccabee was not in a mood to talk.
He was moving before Sel’s voice faded in his ears, and got to the door in five steps. The entrance was more of a hatch, an exterior airlock that did not look to be frequently used. Maccabee held out his pinkie to the door’s control panel and let the combat suit hack into the locking system. It took only a moment--this was not a secured facility, after all--and then the outer hatch slid open with a soft hiss of releasing air.
“Pinzon, you cover from here. I’ll call if I need you.” Maccabee ducked into the airlock and squeezed his armored bulk inside.
“Captain, I’m coming with you,” said Pinzon, stepping up almost from nowhere behind him. “This is not negotiable.”
Pinzon was right, and she was also a damned determined woman who’d seen too many of her friends die in the last few hours. Maccabee nodded. “You’ll have to wait until I cycle through, though, there’s only room for one.”
She nodded and he activated the outer hatch, sealing off the small airlock. Maneuvering the bulky suit inside the cramped space, Maccabee positioned himself with the twenty millimeter out in front. It would probably still punch holes in the thin walls of this place, but if he used the blasters, there wouldn’t be walls left at all. If anyone was still alive in here, he wasn’t planning on asphyxiating them.
The inner door cycled open and Maccabee burst out into the hallway. The corridor was too low for him to stand fully vertical, but the combat suit compensated automatically, sending him into a crouch. Immediate scans revealed nothing in the close vicinity, but the heavy metals in the various nearby garbage piles--outcroppings of the Heap--were throwing off the sensors.
Starting to move forward, Maccabee linked into the normal command channel for his troops, dimly aware of the airlock cycling again behind him as Pinzon entered it. “This is Maccabee,” he called on a general broadcast. “Anyone who can hear this signal, please respond.”
There was a full ten seconds of silence, and then a sudden crackling inside Maccabee’s helmet. He held his breath and the suit stopped with him. “About fucking time!” said Alger’s voice, then. “Where the bloody hell are you?”
“I came in through the east airlock,” replied Maccabee, hoping that Sel was still monitoring. “What’s your location?”
“We’re right near the main hall, in the kitchens.”
“Take the next right, captain,” Sel said, his voice sounding tight with apprehension. “Then left after fifteen meters, and you’ll be in the mess.”
“I’m coming, Alger,” said Maccabee, getting the suit underway again. Behind him, he heard Pinzon coming through the lock and following.
It only took half a minute for Maccabee to reach the shattered remains of the mess hall. Bodies littered the floor, and though most belonged to unfamiliar troopers who must have been from Lion Star, several were from Ming and Alger’s teams. Maccabee recognized their armor and gear, and some faces. He slowed as he neared the kitchen and then spun towards a flicker of movement to his left.
“Don’t shoot!” shouted someone, not over a com, but in the open air, his helmet microphones picking up the sound. It was Samara’s voice, and the person he’d turned towards was Amathea, who apparently hadn’t gotten the message that help had finally arrived. Then again, maybe she had. She’d discarded her armor and was wearing nothing but her underwear and easily a dozen bandages, but her right hand held a 3mm railpistol that was pointed right at Maccabee’s head.
“Everyone calm down,” said Maccabee over the suit’s external speakers. Then he opened the faceplate on the armor and suddenly he could see again with his own eyes, and not just the cameras on the outside of the helmet. He turned, and saw Samara walking into view, still wearing her shattered and burnt armor, Alger behind her, and with them a handful of men and women. “Where--” he began, but he cut off at the look on Samara’s face.
“This is it,” she said, unnecessarily. Her voice sounded tired beyond words, and she was limping, and cradling one arm. Maccabee’s disorganized thoughts went to Monteux, who was standing by on another shuttle.
“Get down here, Monteux,” he called into his com unit. Pinzon came up beside him, and then he heard her sit down, hard. Too many. “Where’s Ming?” he asked, then, suddenly quite aware of what the answer must be, aware of the absence he subconsciously noted as he saw the bloodied remains of his team. Samara opened her mouth, but Maccabee shook his head and looked away. “Damn,” was all he could say, and that made him feel even worse.
He swallowed hard, forcing his feelings down. He was the captain, he could not have emotions, did not have emotions. They hated him, now, they couldn’t do anything but hate him, after what he’d done to them. His grief would only make them more bitter; it would seem false to them, like something said to sooth their own, much worse hurt. How could he possibly know what they’d endured? He did, of course, he’d endured far worse, more than once, but they could not understand that, not most of them. Maybe none of them. Maccabee could only hope that they’d forgive him soon, because he would need them, all of them, and he didn’t have much time for healing.
Taking another deep, steadying breath, Maccabee triggered the armor’s release mechanism. The big unit knelt and then the chest plate hinged open, allowing him to crawl out of the interior. He was wearing more than regular body armor would have allowed, but only shorts and a T-shirt of soft, absorbent synthetic material. He stepped carefully, aware of the thousands of spent rail casings on the floor, and the bits and pieces of debris, both manufactured and human.
Without any more words, he stepped over to Samara and enfolded her in a bear hug, squeezing gently, both to protect himself from the sharp edges on her armor and to keep from hurting her. Samara just stood there, neither trying to move away from him, nor returning the embrace. Maccabee didn’t care, didn’t care what anyone else around him thought; nothing mattered for that brief moment except that she was alive. She was alive.
“Let’s get moving,” he said, then, stepping back from Samara. “I’m sure you want off this rock, and we need to get you to Hornet.”
“Abslom?” asked Samara, her voice grating.
“Dead, I hope,” answered Maccabee, moving carefully back into his armor. “She gave us a beating, but we crippled her, blew up a third of the ship. If she’s still alive, she’ll be lucky not to drift into deep space and starve.”
“I hope she manages just that,” growled Alger. Then his eyes widened and he jerked his rifle off his shoulder, but too late.
The muzzle of Amathea Yakazuma’s pistol was pressed to the back of Maccabee’s head. Pinzon was aiming her twenty millimeter at Yakazuma’s chest from point blank range, and Samara was even closer, her Dreamreaver clenched in her fist, pointing right into Amathea’s face. The nearly-naked woman was not looking at her potential victim, Maccabee, who was frozen awkwardly half-way into his armor, but instead at Samara.
“I should kill him,” Yakazuma said, and her voice was awful, not emotionless, like before, but something else, cold, hard, like the sound of stone rubbing against stone. Like she’d been screaming for days.
“Put the gun down, Amathea,” said Samara, her own voice a harsh croak. Maccabee said nothing. He had the distinct feeling that a single word would result in his brains splattered on the interior of his combat suit. “I’ll discuss the situation with him. Trust me.”
That promise was almost more frightening than the gun held to his head, but Maccabee still kept his mouth shut as the seconds slid slowly by. Then he felt the gun move from his head, and somehow knew, by instinct, what was happening. He spun and grabbed Yakazuma’s wrist, moving faster than she could ever hope to react, much less now when she was tired and hurt and crushed. Nor was she strong enough to move Maccabee’s hand once he stopped her. The pistol hovered inches from her own head, its muzzle pointing just clear of a killing shot.
“Let go,” growled Yakazuma as Samara tossed her gun aside and lunged forwards, grabbing the other woman’s body so she wouldn’t be able to throw herself into the path of the gun.
“Drop the gun,” said Maccabee, keeping his voice calm while he watched everything he’d built over the last five years disintegrate around him. “Just let it go, Amathea.”
She snarled at him and tried again to move into the path of her gun’s bullets, jerking against Maccabee’s iron grip and twisting in Samara’s hands. “Let me go!” she shouted.
“Amathea,” said Samara, forcibly turning Yakazuma to face her. “Look at me!”
“Fuck you, bitch!” spat Yakazuma. “Don’t talk to me, don’t reason with me, don’t try to explain why it’ll all be better soon. Just let . . . me . . . go.”
“What’s so awful about your life, Amathea?” snarled Samara back at her. “You think you’re the only one with problems, the only one who hurts? You think you’ve got some kind of fucking monopoly on pain?” She shook her head. “Christ! I just watched a dozen friends die today. So did you. We all did! You think any of us want to go on with this shit? So you lost your friend, your lover, whatever. I’ve been there already. So has he.” Samara pointed a sharp finger at Maccabee. “Today, he fucked up and people died because of it, his friends died because of it. You think he feels any better about this than you? You have to get over yourself, Amathea, grow up a little bit. You’re a killer, a mercenary; that kind of job means this kind of shit happens to you. If you don’t like it, then quit, but don’t burden us with your fucking metaphysical emotional turmoil.”
“In short,” said Samara, letting go of Yakazuma and stepping back from her, “if you’re going to shoot yourself, get on with it.” Then she turned her back on the scene and walked into the kitchen.
“I’d rather ya didn’t, lass,” said Alger with a heavy sigh. “I’ve seen enough good people die.”
Yakazuma looked up at Maccabee, and he let her wrist go, hoping that she wouldn’t shoot herself, hoping that she wouldn’t shoot him. She did neither. Instead, she carefully ejected the magazine from her gun, laid it on the floor, and then hurled the pistol across the room, letting out an animal shriek. Maccabee flinched in spite of himself at the pure rage in that sound. Then Amathea sat on the floor and started to cry while the men and women around watched in silence, waiting for someone else to arrive to break the stillness.
“Czerney will live, captain, as will all the other survivors, but I can’t speak for their mental health as yet.”
“You mean Amathea,” said Maccabee as he sat down in an armchair across from Lilly Monteux. He took a sip of Czerney’s own stock--he’d made her tithe it when she’d brought it on board several months ago--and crossed his legs, relishing the calm quiet of his personal quarters, trying to shut out the world that waited on the other side of the bulkhead.
“I mean, captain, all of them.” Monteux put down her glass of water and leaned forward on the small couch on which she sat. “They’re all tough, and they’ve all seen this sort of thing before, but this crew is a tight, cohesive unit. You’ve made it that way, captain, and credit is due you for forging such a deep bond. It cuts both ways, however. We’ve just lost nearly a quarter of the crew and have another two dozen wounded. Their physical wounds will heal soon, but the psychological injuries are far deeper.”
“I know what they’re like, Lilly. I’ve been through this myself, more than once.” He set down his glass and leaned back in the chair with a sigh. “I need them functioning.”
“Then you should be more careful, Maccabee,” she replied.
From anyone else, that comment would have elicited anger, even rage, in Maccabee, but instead, from Lilly, it just made him feel old and tired. In the dark of night, when he lay awake, he wondered if it was just poor luck that had caused him to loose so many of his people, or if it truly was his fault, if all their bodies lay at his door. The answer depended on the night.
“Look,” said Monteux, “they’ll be functional again, soon. You’ll need to be careful, though, far more careful than you were this time. Amathea should never have gone on this mission. Now, she may never go on another one.” Maccabee looked up sharply and Monteux nodded. “She’s in terrible trouble, Maccabee. Samara said about the best thing to her that anyone could have, and maybe snapped her out of the worst of it, but the problem’s more than just grief, or anger. There’s something deeper there, and it’ll take me a long time to work it out with her.”
“The gun, you mean?” Maccabee shook his head. “I’ve never seen her throw away a weapon like that.”
“That’s part of it,” agreed Monteux. “It’s been too short a time for me to say anything more.” She grimaced and took another sip of water. “I’ll keep you informed. On everyone.”
Maccabee knew when an interview was over. He stood and offered her a hand, helping her to her feet. “Thank you, Lilly.”
“There’s nothing that you need to tell me, is there, Maccabee?” she asked him as he walked her to the door. “What this is all about?”
“No, Lilly,” he answered with a small smile. “I’m sure that Samara will take good care of me in that regard.”
Monteux did not smile. “Samara isn’t exactly a stable person, Maccabee. I know what she means to you, but you need to remember that. Yakazuma tried to be a cold-blooded killer for a day and it nearly destroyed her. Samara has been a cold-blooded killer for most of her life, and she’s never been bothered by it. Do you have any idea what that means?”
“It means she’s a good killer,” Maccabee replied, opening the door to his quarters. “Thanks again, Lilly.”
“Good night,” she said. They stared in silence at each other for a moment, and then she turned and walked away. Maccabee watched her go.
“About time,” said Samara.
He jumped and spun around to find her leaning against the bulkhead by his door. There was nowhere to hide, really, but she’d managed somehow, as usual. She was wearing workout clothes, as though she’d just been for a run, but there was no sign of sweat on her forehead.
“You want to come in?” asked Maccabee, motioning to his cabin. She nodded and stepped through ahead of him. “Is this the talk you promised Amathea?” He closed the door behind him.
“Something like that,” she answered, stepping to his bar and helping herself to some of Czerney’s whiskey. “This looks familiar. Steal it from Czerney, did you?”
“That was the price she paid,” he agreed. “I like to remind them once in a while that I know what’s going on around here.” Maccabee returned to his seat and picked up his own glass, then motioned for her to use the couch. “Sit.”
“Rather not.” She winced. “The ribs are still a little sore; it’s worse when I sit.”
Samara waved that away. “Don’t be silly, that’s the territory. Are you going to find your source?”
The abrupt change of topic did not surprise Maccabee. This was Samara’s usual mode of conversation. “I thought of it. Word will get back, though. It might be better if we leave the system as soon as we can, which is what I plan on doing.”
Hornet had been in orbit around Makassar for ten days, now, and repairs were proceeding quickly, helped by the generous “donations” to the cause from the Little Heap. The Russian consortium seemed more than happy to do whatever it took to get Maccabee out of the system and Hornet’s guns away from their space station. Lion Star had disappeared from their sensors days ago, and had not returned.
“Seems best,” she said with a nod. “The doctor tell you anything new?”
“About the same.” Maccabee shrugged. “It’ll take time.”
She took a long drink of the whiskey, and then paced towards the back of the cabin, where hung a painting of an ancient ship, her sails bellied out with a strong, following wind, sea foam frothing at her bow as she clove through the water, and a flag--a red-and-white cross over an “X” of the same color, all on a dark blue background--snapping in the wind above her mainmast. “Nice picture,” said Samara.
“A Napoleonic warship,” Maccabee explained. “I’m not sure of the details, actually, if she was French or British. The original painting dates to the nineteenth century.”
Samara just nodded. After another moment of silence, she said, “Look, we can do this the long way, drag it out of you bit by bit, or I can just ask you flat out. I’m leaning towards the latter, because I’m tired as hell and I hurt and I’m thinking of going to bed, but it’s up to you.” Then she turned around and looked at him, taking another drink from her glass. “What do you think?”
“Short,” he answered.
“Thanks.” She took a deep breath. “Tell me why we’re doing this, why I just lost a dozen friends and why I, or anyone else on this crew, should keep going.”
He’d known it was coming, of course; there wasn’t much chance of her asking any other questions. Still, now that he was here, staring at her across his cabin, with her words hanging in the air between them, he knew that this was going to be one of the hardest things he ever did. He put down his drink, uncrossed his legs and took a deep breath.
“I’m going to tell you everything, Samara. Some of it you might already know, but listen anyway, and don’t interrupt until I’m done.” She nodded. “It started when I was a kid, on my first ship. I was twelve, I’d just run away from school, and my parents were long dead, killed by pirates. The ship was called Andiron, and we. . . .” He trailed off. He hadn’t said anything about a “we” yet; but Samara just let him sit in silence, true to her word not to interrupt.
“It was a good ship, a good home. I wasn’t alone. My friend, Josephine, had run away with me. We did everything together, really. I was pretty sure I was in love with her. Kind of a silly thing for a twelve-year-old to think. She was beautiful. A year older than me, too. Whatever there was between us, we were close.
“Anyway, the skipper of the ship took us on, even though it was illegal, as young as we were. Her name was Annabelle; she was the first person who taught me anything useful. During the day, we’d sit and learn stellar navigation, and about all the ship’s systems, from the bottom to the top. We learned about business, about the cargo, about anything that Annabelle knew, and she knew a lot of things. It was almost like heaven, in its own way.”
Maccabee sighed and leaned back in his seat again. The memories that were flooding back into his mind were catching him with his guard down, and now he took a moment to carefully reconstruct those interior walls; what was coming up was worse, and he was going to need all his defenses in place.
“Almost perfect,” he continued. “Josephine and I realized pretty fast that we weren’t in love. That was okay, really, we’d found other people to latch on to--I was in love with Annabelle, and Jo with someone in the crew, I can’t remember his name. Neither was anything that was going anywhere, we were just kids, but still. . . . We drifted apart, even though we spent almost all our time together. We still had fun, but things just weren’t the same. Different interests, I guess it was.” Maccabee glanced up at Samara. “I didn’t like guns much, and Jo had a knack for them.”
She raised an eyebrow in surprise and Maccabee grunted a short laugh. “Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to learn about them, about everything involved with hurting people. I’d seen enough things happen, seen enough people die, that I knew I wanted to be able to defend myself against anything that came my way. I just didn’t enjoy it, not then. It was a chore, one I was willing to do, but one I didn’t care for.
“So, things went along pretty well, until finally I decided to leave. I’d grown up on that ship, and now I was ready to see something else, anything else. Just to go and do. I think you know the feeling.” Samara nodded slowly. “So I went and got mixed up with smugglers, and eventually had to kill one of them. The captain. I would’ve bought it right then, but we got picked up by a privateer the next day, a ship called the Persephone. That ship was my home for ten years.
“I’m keeping this short, so I’ll skip all the details. I loved being a pirate hunter, but at the end of those ten years, the pirates took our Persephone, and everyone aboard her but me. I escaped again. Barely. Then I went looking for Josephine. I found her soon enough. She wasn’t happy to see me, but she took me in, and I tried to make it work for two years, but that time was over. She’d never forgiven me for running out on her, and I knew that life as a merchant swab just wasn’t for me, not now, not anymore. I needed vengeance, more than anything else.
“That’s where it went wrong, Samara. I should have stayed with Jo. She and I would have had a happy life--by the end of those two years, she was ready to forgive me, ready to take me back in, ready to love me. I could have loved her too, I did love her, intensely. But something else burned stronger inside me, something she didn’t really understand, I think; maybe she did, and I just couldn’t see it. Doesn’t matter. I left her again.
“I should probably have seen the signs when I was there. Jo was a smuggler, and not just contraband booze. She was running guns, drugs. The profit margin must have been pretty enticing; I only found out the details a year later, when I stumbled across an old crewmate who’d left Andiron for safer ground. He spilled the details. I wanted to find Jo, try to get her to stop, but by then I had another ship, and I wasn’t in a position to hunt her down half-way across the Sphere.” Maccabee shook his head. “I guess I should have.”
“Ever since I got Hornet, I’ve been on the lookout for Josephine. I’ve been tracking her, but it’s gotten very, very hard. Almost as though she’d disappeared, or died, but I know that she’s still alive. There are hints, clues, if you’re looking in the right places. One of those clues pointed at this place, at these pirates, the people we’re after right now. I didn’t want to believe it, but Abslom’s message to me just before the battle confirmed it. That, and the ambush itself. Jo knows me well enough to anticipate me, and she must know I’ve been looking for her.”
“All of this over a woman,” muttered Samara. “Maybe I should have guessed. I almost did. Damn.”
Maccabee swallowed an angry retort. She was entitled to her anger with him. “It’s not just about her. What I told you before was true, these are people who need to be stopped, and we’re the ones who can do it.”
“Bullshit, Maccabee.” Samara said. “Look at this ship. Look at it! We’re fucked, half the crew is dead or injured, Hornet’s a wreck, and this was just the smallest of their ships!” She shook her head. “We can’t do it, not like this.”
“Then we’ll find another way,” he growled, looking away from her. “I am doing this, Samara.”
“Why? Who fucking cares, at this point? All this over a woman you haven’t seen in twenty years. A woman who you left. What do you want from her now?”
“Nothing. I want nothing from her,” he said, so softly she had to strain to hear. “I just want to ask her why she’s doing this, why she’s hurting people like this.”
“She’s trying to kill you,” said Samara, her voice flat with a different anger. Maccabee felt a surge of feeling at her fierce loyalty, but his emotions were clouded and confused, his mind picturing Josephine as he’d seen her last, nearly twenty years before.
“I don’t know that she is. She’s trying to send me a message.”
“Lion Star was not a message, William,” Samara said softly, “She was a weapon with a purpose.”
He just nodded, sat back in the chair and took another drink, emptying the glass. Before he could move, Samara was by his side, filling up the glass again.
“This doesn’t mean I forgive you, William,” she said, stepping back and looking down at him with an unreadable expression. “I knew when I took this job that people would get hurt, that some of them would die. The reason I’m angry with you is that you lied to me--a lie of omission, but a big one.”
“I’m sorry, Samara. You understand why, at least, even if you would have done differently.” Maccabee shook his head and took another drink. “I’m sorry I didn’t trust you with everything.”
“Who says I wouldn’t have done the same?” she replied, sitting gingerly in the chair across from him. “I probably would never have told you, Maccabee.” She smiled, a sort of enigmatic grin that triggered another, different surge of emotion inside him. “But as far as I’m concerned, I’m allowed to do that sort of thing.”
“Whereas I am not,” he finished for her, a smile of his own creeping onto his face.
“Exactly.” She took a long swallow of scotch.
For a long moment, then, they just looked at each other, carefully cataloging the small changes that had taken place since last they’d done so, just before the mission to the garbage planet. Maccabee thought then that this was enough for him, enough that he might just look at this woman, and have her look back at him, that mysterious smile still on her lips.
“I,” she said, finally breaking the silence, “do not take well to being ambushed, Maccabee. I want to take it out on someone. I hope you have a person in mind.”
“Several,” he answered. “We’ll get our revenge, Samara. I can promise you that much.”
He raised his glass and she did hers and they toasted each other silently in the cabin.