Episode 119: Storm World

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“Fire all weapons, maximum yield,” ordered Maccabee, without a hint of hesitation in his voice, though he was ordering the execution of at least two dozen men and women.

“Aye!” barked Alger.

Hornet’s best remaining broadside--the ravaged port side, still better off than the nearly-destroyed starboard--hammered out thousands of rounds at Lion Star’s unprotected flanks. The other ship was already battered into a hulk; her particle shielding had collapsed during the battle, and she’d streaked into deep space at high velocity, repeated impacts shattering her hull. Now, Hornet’s guns added to the mayhem. It wouldn’t be long before the other ship was reduced to a few bits of floating scrap, left to tumble through space for the next million years or so.

It had taken Maccabee and his crew a full day to track Lion Star down, and the captain was wondering if it was worth the effort. Still, as Samara had said, the side trip served two purposes: first, it eliminated a possible threat to the ship and its crew, by making sure Lion Star never fought again; second, it got everyone an extra measure of revenge for the death that this ship and Abslom had visited on them. Maccabee wondered if Monteux might not be right on that score, however; the doctor had said that sort of vengeance, so long after the fact, might sicken more than it would heal. Maccabee felt sick already.

He said nothing, however, until Lion Star was gone.

“Cease fire.” Fiddling with his controls, the captain switched the holo to a schematic, long-range navigational mode, blocking out the live video images of the pitiful remains of the other ship. No need to linger on it. “Bring us on course and ready for wormhole induction.”

“Yes, sir,” growled Russ. He, it seemed, was not bothered by their assassination. Hornet came onto her correct course, not that it made much difference to the wormhole. The only issue was which direction she’d be traveling when she emerged on the other end. “Course set, captain.” Russ looked up from his holo panels. “We’re ready for jump.”

“Ashburn?” asked Maccabee.

The engineer looked haggard--she was working double shifts, trying to pull together some semblance of order around the battered ship. It was only thanks to her Herculean efforts that they had an operational jump drive, not to mention functional slipstream drive and particle shielding again. Everyone had worked extra hours, Maccabee included, but Ahsburn’s expertise and her ability to link directly into the ship’s computer had proven invaluable.

“We’re as good as we’re going to be anytime soon, captain,” she replied to his question. “I hope you’re planning on getting to a repair yard soon.”

“Not just yet, Ashburn,” he answered with a small shake of the head. “Too much to do. We’d need half a year of refit time--”

“At least!” she interrupted.

“--and I don’t have that kind of time,” he finished. “We’ve got to move quickly, or they’ll find us and take us out.”

“Who, captain?” asked Sel. He shrugged apologetically. “Do you know any more?”

Maccabee kept himself from glancing in Samara’s direction and instead just nodded. “I may. Abslom may have given me the clues I needed. We’ll get these bastards yet.” He turned to Russ, ending the conversation. “Let’s jump.”

“Yes, sir!”

A moment later, Hornet fell through a wormhole and disappeared, leaving nothing but scattered bits of metal and ceramic in her wake.

Oudtshoorn. Land of Wind, it was sometimes called, or the Stormworld. From orbit, it looked exciting, a blue and green ball, tinged gray, but still brilliant where the sun hit. The white tops of clouds obscured most of the planet, however, probably sixty-five percent, and those clouds formed skyscapes of majestic grandeur. Over land areas, giant squall lines thousand of kilometers long plowed across the open fields, supercells trailing ahead and behind, some of them hundreds of kilometers in diameter. The oceans were blanketed with cyclones that could obscure an entire hemisphere. Only at the equator were there some clear skies, and then usually only over water.

The surface, Maccabee knew, was as exciting as the view from orbit suggested. Most of the colonies kept towards the polar regions--it was cooler there, and the storms were less intense. The vast, fertile plains that covered fully fifty percent of the planet’s surface area were barren of anything that stood higher than thirty centimeters. That was a massive tree on this world, where average winds were fifty to a hundred kilometers an hour and on some days howled to nearly six hundred kilometers per hour. Not conditions that invited tall vegetation, nor above-ground dwellings, be they animal or human.

Oudtshoorn was an experiment in accelerated terraforming gone wrong. Nearly twice the diameter of Earth, but with only about ten percent greater mass, the planet had been singled out as an ideal candidate for the fastforming process. Success would bring enormous inhabitable land areas; the primary star of the system was at a mean distance of roughly eight tenths of an AU, and though the climate would undoubtedly end up hot, it would certainly be livable.

The scientists had later figured out what had gone wrong. Phoenix FastForming Systems, the company chartered to terraform the planet, ignored safety precautions in order to speed up the process and beat a vesting deadline for most of the project’s investors. What resulted was too much energy flux and a higher density atmosphere than originally planned, an atmosphere given to extreme convection. The nearby star added its powerful rays, and storms started forming, even before the terraforming process was completed. The storms never stopped, and covered an average of sixty percent of the globe at any time from then forward. Phoenix nearly went bankrupt, but it managed to salvage the situation--somewhat.

Oudtshoorn was now almost entirely an agricultural world. Barley, spelt, root vegetables, rice, soybeans, various legumes, all of them engineered to grow even closer to the ground than their natural counterparts, these and more were raised on the planet’s ample surface, tended by low, broad robots capable of withstanding all but the strongest winds, which would drive the giant, lumbering machines to burrow down in the ground for protection. Some of the larger of these harvesters carried a human crew of five to ten, and each such regional machine served as the base and control center for perhaps two dozen smaller units, between them servicing several million acres. Sprawling, underground storage facilities processed and preserved the harvest for transport, working day and night, endless cycles churning out billions of tons of food for planets all over the sector and beyond.

Each of those processing plants--there were more than two hundred--were small cities in their own right, most with a few thousand people working and living there. They were connected to each other and to the real cities of the planet by underground train lines. The web of these lines converged through various northern and southern processing and transshipping plants and eventually came together at the poles, where Oudtshoorn’s two colonial cities and starports were, Robertson in the south and Ladismith in the north. Both were home to perhaps a half million people, and each was spread out across vast real estate, no building higher than ten or fifteen floors--here at the calm poles, the winds were still constant and brutal, and few bothered venturing outside, even on the calmer days.

Hornet was not actually in orbit over this active planet; the images that Maccabee was viewing on the main holo tank were being sent by a carefully-controlled directional antenna from a probe quietly inserted into orbit some hours earlier. Resting safely some twenty million kilometers away, Hornet was orbiting Oudtshoorn’s nearest neighboring world, a medium-sized gas giant with purple-blue clouds even more interesting than the view on the holo. Until Maccabee knew more about the situation on Oudtshoorn, this was as close as he was coming.

“I’m getting various ship-to-surface transmissions, Maccabee,” said Samara, sitting once again in her custom chair on the other side of the tank. “Nothing interesting. There’s at least three megaton-size transports in polar orbits, probably loading cargo.”

“Confirmed, captain,” said Sel. He was behind Samara, with all his instruments turned to scanning the planet. “I’m reading the three heavy transports, and another dozen smaller vessels. There are some shuttles that probably aren’t showing up on my scans.”

“Understood,” replied Maccabee.

Hornet was in a polar orbit herself, allowing her to look towards Oudtshoorn at all times, and letting the signal from the tiny probe reach back to her without interruption.

“Anything near the probe?” asked Alger.

“Nothing right now,” said Samara, checking her readouts. “The probe’s A.I. is pretty good, it should go quiet if anything gets near its broadcast field. It’ll show up on radar, but it’s small enough that it’ll look like a piece of orbital junk.”

Maccabee nodded. Even with strict policies against it, there were always skippers who dumped garbage in orbit over inhabited worlds. Just as much junk ended up there by accident, wrenches and other equipment knocked free and out of reach before anyone realized what was happening. Who was going to go collect a twenty dollar piece of equipment?

“I’m getting some command traffic now,” piped up Samara after a minute of silence. “Looks like one of the cargo tubs is ready to break orbit. She’s requesting clearance for immediate departure.” She paused a moment. “Her vector’s not likely to come this way, not if this departure schedule is right.”

“Good.” Maccabee had chosen this particular spot for his spying not only because it was convenient, but because few ships came or went from Oudtshoorn this way. Nylstroom, the gas giant, exerted too much gravitational influence, and generally got in the way of wormhole induction; there was nothing there of interest, and thus no reason to pass nearby. So he hoped, anyway.

“Just what are we waiting for?” asked Alger. “There’re no ships in orbit that can hurt us. I’d bloody well like some shore leave.” He grinned, knowing that it was unlikely Hornet had come this way to grant him a liberty.

“Last time I rushed into a system,” said Maccabee quietly, “it didn’t work out too well.”

No one had anything to say after that.

Hours trickled by, and Maccabee and Samara started to build a good picture of local activity. It seemed that, in addition to the polar cities, enterprising entrepreneurs had built floating colonies in the equatorial ocean waters, where storms rarely formed. The massive constructions still had to survive the towering rollers that the distant cyclones continually produced, but many people had started to relocate to these water cities, undeterred by a more-than-gentle rocking motion. Three of them clustered in the western hemisphere, and another in the eastern, where the ocean was larger and the waves more severe.

“There’s something else I picked up, captain,” muttered Samara, finishing up her detailed description of the planet. “Just a passing reference, but I had the probe tap into the data satellite net and confirm it for me.”

“That was risky,” said Ashburn, a small scowl on her face.

“Not really,” replied Samara absently. Ahsburn’s scowl deepened. “Anyway, it seems there’s a monastery on the surface.”

“A monastery?” asked Russ, while Alger said, “Where is it?”

“Yes . . . right here.” Samara put up a global map on the holo and then brought up a glowing icon in red, somewhere deep in the vast tract of the northern continent. The red icon was at least five hundred kilometers from the nearest settlement, which was an underground processing plant. The monastery was in the heart of some of the worst storm country on the whole planet.

“It gets better,” said Samara, reading everyone’s silence correctly. “The monastery is above ground.” She grinned at their reactions. “That’s right, and built out of stone. Apparently, they have five to ten weather-related deaths a year, on average. Of course, that’s just average. There’ve been years when the whole place has been wiped away; tabula rasa, you might say. They just keep rebuilding it.”

“Who’s they?” asked Ashburn, intrigued in spite of herself.

“Lillie?” said Samara, passing the question to Doctor Monteux, who had been assisting her by researching some of the things Samara was hearing.

“Nyingma Buddhists.” The rest of the crew looked at her with expressions ranging from blank to irritated, and she smiled. “It’s an ancient sect, from Tibet. I’m not quite sure what they think they’re looking for here, in this place, but it would be fascinating to find out.”

“Tibet?” asked Alger. “Someplace on Earth, I take it?”

“Yes, that’s right,” said Monteux, not a hint of impatience in her voice. People who grew up thousands of lightyears from the homeworld were likely to be a little shaky on its history and geography. “It’s a mountain country that still exists today, actually. For many centuries it has been the home of several Buddhist sects, and of the Dalai Lama.”

That name seemed to ring a bell. The Dalai Lama was mentioned every month or two on the major newsfeeds; she traveled throughout the Sphere, trying to resolve conflicts and help people in poverty or other need. Maccabee wasn’t convinced she was having any success, but he couldn’t fault her motives. Most everyone else was trying to start wars, not end them.

“So who mentioned the Buddhists?” asked the captain.

“It was a scattered bit of traffic, Maccabee,” answered Samara. “I just caught a few words, but it sounded like they were calling for a medi-shuttle. Maybe someone’s been hurt; there’s been intense storm activity there since we arrived.”

“Any sign of a shuttle launch?” asked Alger. “Or something heading their way?”

“Not that I’ve seen, but my coverage is pretty limited, and the probe’s on the other side of the planet now.” Samara shrugged. “Could be they have to wait until the storms subside a bit. I wouldn’t pilot a shuttle through them.”

Maccabee tried not to think about a person who would certainly have tried to do just that, given the opportunity. He had about as much success blocking Ming from his mind as the others, judging from their grim expressions.

“Just what are we looking for here, captain?” asked Sel. Maccabee turned his way. “It might help us devise a plan if we had some sort of goal in mind.”

Maccabee thought about it for a moment. He’d told Samara exactly what the plan was--he was not going to keep anything from her again, not until this was over--but so far he’d only minimally briefed the others. Partly that was because his ideas were still forming; he couldn’t explain the other impediments that had kept him silent.

“Right.” He looked at the rest of them. “I think there’s a base on Oudtshoorn, a secure storage facility and hideout. Nothing that could hold a ship, nothing major, but an important link in their chain.”

“How do you know?” asked Alger. “You’ll forgive a Scot a little skepticism, after. . . .”

“I did a little more research on the Little Heap before we left,” revealed Maccabee. He’d kept his trips quiet from the crew, and had passed in and out of the station virtually unnoticed. His negotiating position with the Russians had been strong: give me what I want, or I’ll blow your station out of the sky. “I’ve shared the details with Samara; she can back up the validity of my sources.”

“Well?” asked Alger, turning to look at the XO.

Samara nodded. “It’s good. Better than before, that’s certain. We’re being careful, coming in slowly. The pirates don’t come here any more than they need to, and only when storm activity is most intense. They don’t bring their own ships, either; they come on stolen vessels, cargo ships and transports, so no one knows they’re here.”

“They pick up real cargo, or drop something off,” continued Maccabee, “but they also drop a shuttle or two down to the surface. In the storms, the shuttles veer off course and find this hiding place, then return as though nothing had happened, like they just had to put down until the storms passed over.” He shook his head. “They must have modified those shuttles, though. I had no idea how violent this weather was.”

“Someone has to be able to pick them up,” argued Russ. “Radar should.”

“Those storms are all you can pick up down there,” replied Samara. “The rain’s heavy enough to block most radar signals, and even Doppler signals will just show you a few blobs. By the time you sweep back over, the shuttle’ll be gone.”

“Laser scans?”

“Impossible over the surface. Too much scattering. We’re not talking vacuum here, boys.” Samara grinned. “You’ve all been in space too long.”

“So, how do we find this place?” asked Ashburn, trying to move the conversation back on topic.

“I’m not sure,” said Maccabee. “I was hoping to listen in for a while and get some ideas.” He pointed at the red dot. “This may be a good one, though. If we go down to the monastery posing as medics, maybe we could be, ah, ‘grounded’ there for a while, and do some digging. If anyone knows something, it’ll be the monks, or the nearest processing plant.”

“And you think the place is on this continent?” asked Ashburn. “The southern continent is almost as big, and there’s no settlements there--not other than the processing plants. Why wouldn’t the pirates choose that?”

“My sources are almost certain it’s the north,” he replied firmly. “We’ll find out soon enough. Someone does have to be in on this, no matter what the storms. There are agricultural robots crawling all over that rock down there, and they have some pretty sophisticated sensors. Apparently, crop poachers are a problem. And the fields are rented out by Phoenix to various combines who run them--it’s not uncommon for them to infringe on each other’s plots.”

“The universe never ceases to amaze,” murmured Monteux with a small smile.

“What’re the winds like in there?” asked Maccabee as he tightened a strap on his jumpsuit. The heavy vest and pants would be hot on Oudtshoorn, but they were made out of high-tensile fabric--they’d protect him from flying debris driven by high winds. Even dust and small twigs would be painful, potentially dangerous, to uncovered skin.

“Shear inside the clouds is something like two-hundred-fifty k-p-h, sir,” said Sel, handing Maccabee a helmet. The captain slid the metal bowl onto his head and fastened the straps under his chin, then linked his personal com into the helmet’s systems. A small chime sounded in his ear to confirm the connection.


Sel shrugged. “Hard to say, sir. There’s serious, sustained winds at all times. There are also microbursts that we’ve clocked at five hundred kilometers an hour, easy. And whatever you do, don’t try to negotiate a storm’s gust front.”

“What’s that?”

“The leading edge, sir. It’ll hit you like a million ton hammer if you come straight at it, so I’d suggest heading higher. Actually, I’d suggest not flying through the things at all, captain.” Sel smiled, but his eyes, as usual, were hidden behind his glasses, so Maccabee couldn’t tell if the smile was genuine or not. He thought not.

“Not much choice on that,” said Samara, walking over to join them. She was dressed in a similar jumpsuit to Maccabee’s, but already had two pistols strapped, one each, to her upper thighs. She passed a pair of similar holsters to Maccabee. “Here.”

“What the hell are these?” he asked, tucking one under his shoulder and then using his free hand to unholster a compact black pistol. “Chem guns?”

“They’re Solomon and Meyer CP-4s,” Samara answered calmly. “Top of the line, brand new. Fires ten millimeter slugs from caseless ammunition, muzzle velocity is nine-hundred-seventy-five meters per second, even, holds ten rounds in the magazine, one in the barrel. It can be set to fire single shot semi-automatic, three round bursts, and fully automatic. Wouldn’t recommend that last, though, you’ll burn through a clip in under a second. Oh. . . .” She handed him a small satchel. “Here’s your extra ammo. Any other questions?”

“Yeah,” he grumbled. “Why do I need this? Ten rounds?” That was a joke.

Samara looked at Sel. “It’s a good thing I’m here.”

“Samara. . . .” warned Maccabee.

“Have you ever been in a lightning storm, Maccabee?” she asked. “Do you know what would happen if you fired an electromagnetic railpistol inside one?” She poked him in the forehead with a stiff finger. “Zap! You’re dead.”

He wanted to have some witty reply, but didn’t. “You couldn’t find anything else?”

“These’ll be just fine. They’re modern firearms, Maccabee, not antiques. They have limits, but they pack serious punch. One bullet from these puppies will put down anyone who isn’t wearing heavy body armor. Their penetration and stopping power is fucking unbelievable.”

“You’ve been playing with them already?”

“Well, I had to make sure they were right for the job,” she protested. Then she laughed and turned to walk away.

“Right.” He strapped the holsters onto his thighs, ignoring Sel’s smile, which was definitely real now. “She’s going to get me killed.”

“Here, sir,” said Sel, pulling a pistol out from a pile of gear he’d been collecting. The weapon was a 2mm railpistol. “It might come in handy when you’re inside. This base of yours is going to be underground, right?”

Maccabee smiled. “Good thinking, Sel.” He tucked the pistol into a pocket on his vest, making sure it was fully loaded and the safety was on. Then he silently nodded his thanks as Sel passed over a handful of reloads for the gun.

Thirty minutes later, Maccabee’s team was climbing into the shuttle. Ashburn had hurriedly put together a team to repaint the shuttle, and it now appeared to be an innocuous transport pod. They’d decided against a medi-shuttle, figuring that might attract too much attention. Anyone who looked closely would notice the nose-mounted plasma cannons, but Maccabee wasn’t going without them. He’d lost three shuttles already, and he was not planning on losing a fourth.

“Everyone here?” he asked as he reached the front of the little ship and turned around.

Samara was at his left hand, Alger across from her. Five other crewmen and women made up the rest of the team, none of the others from the previous, abortive mission to Massakar, except for Obu Lobengula. He’d insisted he be allowed to come along--to exorcise the demons of the previous mission, he’d said. “We’re here, captain,” growled Alger.

“You’ve all been briefed by Samara and Alger. This is a covert insertion.” Maccabee looked carefully at each of them in turn. “I know you’re thinking about the last time we sent assault shuttles out. This is different. I fucked up, and a lot of people paid for it. I won’t make the same mistakes again.”

“Just don’t make any new ones, either,” growled Alger, but it was obviously meant as a joke, and almost everyone laughed. Obu did not.

“Let’s do it, then,” said Maccabee, turning away and sliding into the pilot’s seat. He might let Samara take over for the landing, but for now, he wanted to be alone. “Close her up!”