Episode 120: Landing

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Samara looked up at Maccabee and grinned slightly. That was a good sign. “Looks like we’re in,” she said.

Maccabee nodded. His XO had been using their probe to hack into the orbital data net for Oudtshoorn, leading its radar stations and sensor monitors to believe that Hornet’s shuttle in fact belonged to one of the large freighters in orbit above the planet. As soon as the shuttle intersected the path of the false echo, the probe would release those systems and return them to normal operation without anyone noticing that anything had happened. That was the goal, at any rate. It was all highly illegal and damned difficult, but Samara was good at what she was doing, at everything she did.

“Get ready,” Maccabee said over his shoulder to Alger and the rest of the team. The big Scot nodded and started making one last check of his weapons. He was carrying chem guns too, a pistol like the pair that his captain had, as well as a small, automatic rifle with 6.22mm ammunition. Samara swore that these were useful weapons, despite their ludicrously low rate of fire and muzzle velocities, and Alger apparently agreed, so Maccabee let the matter rest. If the two of them thought that these chem guns would work, they’d probably work.

The shuttle hit the programmed path in the computers, and Maccabee tweaked the controls, bringing his ship in line with the false echo, matching the generated information as exactly as he could. The computer would do the rest, moving the fake ship to match the real one before letting the orbital control systems go. Samara watched for a moment longer, then sighed and sat back. “Done,” she said. “We’re on the real grid, now. So nothing fancy.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Maccabee replied.

The shuttle’s glide path was programmed to take it from its polar orbit on an approach to one of the floating cities on Oudtshoorn’s equatorial oceans. They’d intersect the atmosphere about five thousand klicks north of the equator. A few minutes later, they’d be diving through a class five cyclone, and as far as orbital and ground control were concerned, they’d disappear for a long while. Somewhere inside the storm, Maccabee would have to correct his course, bring the shuttle back to a northerly heading, and travel back about ten thousand kilometers under the cloud cover, staying as close to storms as he dared to avoid tracking contact.

It was going to be a fun ride.

“Reentry in five minutes,” said Maccabee. Behind him, the rest of the team started strapping into the crash harnesses along the bulkheads of the shuttle’s main bay. They hardly looked like a freighter crew, but Maccabee planned on meeting the monks alone, with only Samara at his side. The two of them could pass for . . . something. He’d have to play it by ear. The monks might not be suspicious, or they might put their feelings aside, if they needed help.

“Don’t you think it’s funny,” said Samara, “that we say ‘reentry’ instead of ‘entry?’” She sometimes got this way, right before an engagement; Maccabee kept his attention on his controls, listening to her only peripherally. “I mean, it’s not like we left this atmosphere, and now we’re going back. This shuttle hasn’t been in atmosphere in years.”

“It’s a throwback,” muttered Alger from the main cabin. “From when all we had were orbital ships. They left, they reentered. Simple as that, lass.”

“OK, but we’re talking, what, a thousand years since then? And we can’t just say ‘entry?’ Seems stupid.”

“Aye, that it is,” replied Alger. “But it’s still ‘reentry,’ too, and that’s the way it’ll stay, I expect.”

“Four minutes,” said Maccabee, letting the computer steer the shuttle across the planet’s northern hemisphere. They were low enough now that the forward canopy showed a frightening array of storms and clouds. Passing under them now was a squall line that rippled with lightning--Maccabee could actually see the clouds moving, driven by incredible winds. Right there was about where the monastery was. All day, its location had been hammered by successive storm fronts, and at least two super cells.

Everyone quieted down, and the usual call came in a moment later from planetary ground control. “Shuttle Blue Dog Four, this is Oudtshoorn Planetary Control; you are cleared through to Balgrey City Regional Control. Please confirm.” The voice was an A.I., or a person who barely still had a pulse. Considering the job in question, either was a distinct possibility.

“Control, this is Blue Dog Four, itinerary confirmed,” said Maccabee, speaking in the calm, easy drawl of a freighter pilot. He’d been one long enough to know how that voice sounded. “When do we hand over control?”

“Planetary Control will keep you until you hit the storms, Blue Dog Four,” came the weary reply. “You’ll be com dead until you get out the other side and have line of sight with Balgrey City. Estimate four minutes of dead com.”

“Understood, Control. Blue Dog Four out.” Maccabee killed the com link. “Not a big window.”

“They’ll know we’re missing pretty soon,” agreed Samara. “Of course, that’s got to be a common thing, right?”

“Yeah. Then they’ll call the Blue Dog and find out we’re not even their shuttle.” Maccabee shrugged. They’d filtered that variable into the plan. “Oh well.”

A small, orange warning light suddenly flared into existence on the shuttle’s holographic heads-up display, and Maccabee gripped the controls just a little tighter. A moment later, the little ship skimmed into the planet’s upper atmosphere. They bounced once, and Maccabee cut down the shuttle’s velocity. Wisps of air tugged at the little ship, and it bellied down into the atmosphere, its nose immediately heating; fire erupted off the hull, and the forward canopy went opaque. In turn, the interior holo display showed the same exterior view, minus the flames.

The shuttle bucked and lunged as it dropped into thicker atmosphere and quickly lost speed. Maccabee and the others were jerked hard against their crash harnesses once, then twice, and then the canopy turned transparent again and they were in the stratosphere, still twenty klicks up, floating on smooth air in shockingly dark blue skies, while the grey and white clouds roiled beneath them, ten thousand meters away.

Still following his scheduled flight path, Maccabee turned the shuttle’s nose slightly to the east, bringing him on a straight-line course to Balgrey City, five hundred kilometers distant. That was a ten minute flight at the shuttle’s current speed, and Maccabee let some of that velocity bleed away until his ship was running at only fifteen hundred kph.

“There’s the cyclone,” said Samara, pointing ahead and to port. Maccabee turned to look and immediately reconsidered the plan.

“Shit,” he said.

He’d seen it from the orbital probe, of course, but it looked a lot different from his current vantage point. Less than a hundred kilometers distant, and nearly two thousand in diameter, the storm stretched far beyond the horizon, even from this altitude. Its spin was so fast as to be almost visible to the naked eye, and at the leading edge facing towards the shuttle, lightning flashed in the darkening gloom underneath the clouds. The thing looked vast and brutal, and very uncomfortable. Sighing, Maccabee steered his shuttle slightly off course, correcting for an unplanned slowdown in the storm’s progress. It should have been directly in front of them.

There was a soft warning tone from the com system. “Shuttle Blue Dog Four, Planetary Control. Be advised, you are two-point-four degrees off course. Your current track intersects Cyclone 4427, currently one-thousand-fifty kilometers from your location, bearing three-five-two. Come right to course one-eight-five.”

“Ever watchful for our safety,” muttered Maccabee, ignoring the request. The cyclone was now only about fifty kilometers distant. He toggled the com; only another two minutes of delay were necessary. “Control, we show course heading as one-eight-six, can you confirm?”

“Blue Dog Four, you are on heading one-eight-three. You should have visual confirmation of the cyclone, it’s right in front of you.” Maccabee noticed a hint of exasperation in the controllers voice--definitely a real human, probably wondering what sort of idiot was piloting this shuttle.

“Uh, forward visual’s kinda hazy, Control,” he said into the com. “You sure we’re off course?”

That stirred up some more emotion. “No, my billion dollar satellites are probably all broken, Blue Dog.” Maccabee grinned. “You want to fly through that cyclone, be my guest. Control out.”

“Well,” said Maccabee, feigning disgust. Then he grinned at Samara. “Hold on back there. We’re about to hit the storm.”

A moment later, they passed over the edge of the cyclone. It was still a thousand meters below them, but Maccabee reversed thrust and banked the shuttle hard a moment later. The little ship dropped like a stone, losing at least a thousand kph off its speed. A moment before hitting the clouds, Maccabee slowed still more and brought the nose back up. Then white nothing engulfed them.

The storm winds slammed into the rear of the shuttle like a wall traveling at five hundred kilometers an hour. Everyone was jerked towards the stern as the shuttle surged forwards on the gust of wind. Maccabee fought the controls and the shuttle’s engines whined slightly as it vectored thrust in a dozen directions, automatically trying to stabilize the little craft. The holo tried to display an unobstructed view forward, but the radar and other sensors were heavily degraded by the effects of the storm. Weird echoes and false images reared their heads at the edge of the fifty kilometer circle that was painted in front of Maccabee.

“Now comes the interesting part,” he said, nosing the shuttle downwards, following the general spin of the storm. The shear was not too terrible, and though the ride was bumpy, it was not at all dangerous, not to a modern shuttle like this one. Still, there was no way to know what debris might be in the clouds, not to mention other ships.

The shuttle bucked wildly as it passed through various regions of the giant storm, but it was handling well enough. Maccabee eased them down to two thousand meters, then turned north. Now, the violence of the storm was truly apparent as the shuttle struggled to fight its way north, no longer riding the wind but clawing across it. Thrusters howled, but the sound of the storm was even more terrifying, hammering against the shuttle’s hull with voracious force. Low pressure pockets suddenly let the shuttle drop fifty or a hundred meters, wind gusts thrust it back up two hundred meters or more, or shunted the little ship off course by several degrees. The control sticks in Maccabee’s hands did not shudder or buck—they weren’t physically tied in to the controls of the shuttle—but he held on to them with all his strength, his knuckles white with exertion.

Then, suddenly, they were through and out into clear air. Communications and satellite linkups were immediately restored, but Samara had taken the liberty of killing the shuttle’s transponder, so the little ship was effectively silent, only sucking up what data it wanted.

“Looks like were a few klicks off course,” said Samara with profound understatement. The cyclone had deposited them at least a hundred kilometers to the west of where Maccabee had hoped to come out, and now they faced a two hundred kilometer run of open ground to the first squall line that would cover their approach to the monastery. Brilliant sunshine scattered off the outside of the forward canopy, and verdant fields unrolled under them, while the upper reaches of the cyclone still formed a roof over their heads and its dark side wall loomed behind. They were only nineteen hundred meters above the ground, and Maccabee could easily see at least two harvesting machines on the ground below, their polished hulls glinting in the sun; the shuttle was likely showing up in the same fashion, even if the harvesters hadn’t been equipped with radar and various other sensors.

“Let’s get going, then,” he said, turning the shuttle’s nose to the north and east. Pushing the ship’s velocity up to about a thousand kilometers an hour, Maccabee dropped another thousand meters, going low enough that only very local radar would have a hope of distinguishing him from the ground noise clutter. On a planet this flat, there was little risk of hitting anything, but he turned the forward scanning radar to its maximum output. No doubt EM sensors all over the place were going wild with all this radar noise in their vicinity, but it couldn’t be helped. Hopefully it would be a while before anyone guessed exactly what was going on.

The sky grew darker as they raced to catch up with the storm front. Directly to the north, to Maccabee’s left, a supercell trailed after the squall line, its massive anvil cloud thrusting up to at least fifteen thousand meters. They were close enough now that he could make out individual tornados, both on the leading and trailing edges of the solitary storm. The ground over which he was now passing also bore mute evidence of similar severe weather: great, kilometer-wide swaths of destruction carved at random angles across the neat, geometrical rows of crops. They even passed a harvesting unit that had obviously been heavily damaged by a tornado--it was off the service roads, tilted at a low angle, its low, broad nose buried in the fertile soil.

In less than fifteen minutes, they were hitting rain from the back of the storm line, and gusts were beginning to buffet the little ship. Maccabee slowed, cutting his speed in half, and then pulled up to put a little more room between him and the ground. Despite the close proximity of the storms, the satellite feed was still steady, and Samara locked in their position, hoping to use ground-tracking scans with the ship’s own navigational systems to make sure they did not miss their target, even when they lost contact with the overhead satellites.

They turned north and started moving, staying as close to the storms as Maccabee dared. As each front moved too far east to be useful, they jumped across the open fields, speeding up to as high as two thousand kilometers per hour, cutting west to another storm line. Each one was usually between one and two thousand klicks long, and they were on their sixth by the time they came into the vicinity of their target. The sun was starting to set, and the views amongst the many storm clouds were spectacularly tinged with orange and reds.

“Where’s the monastery?” asked Maccabee.

Samara put up a new image on the holo display. “The last squall line is still twenty klicks west of the monastery,” she said, highlighting a three-dimensional map showing the location of the small cluster of buildings and of the massive line of deadly storms bearing down on it. “The storms’ speed is about forty kilometers an hour, so we’ve got about thirty minutes to get there, set down, and find cover. Less, really, because the gust front will hit about five minutes before the main storm.”

“And our location, relative to all this?” he asked.

“Here,” she replied, shifting the display, zooming out slightly and highlighting another point. The shuttle was about a hundred kilometers south-southeast of the monastery, on the other side of the line and about fifteen klicks or so behind it. The previous storm line had left them further west than they’d intended. Including the time to cut through the storms, it was going to be a tight race.

“What do you think?” Maccabee asked. “Cut through and then run north, or head at an angle, straight there?”

“Neither.” Samara shook her head. “I think we should run north, then cut through when were on a line with them. It’ll be a straight shot, then. We won’t have to worry about always staying ahead of the gust front.”

“Agreed,” said Maccabee with a nod, already sending the shuttle in that direction. They had never stopped moving, but now he poured on the speed again; he couldn’t go quite as fast, as close as they now were to the storms, and it would be a good ten minutes before they’d covered the north-south distance. The shuttle bucked hard as new gusts hit it, some from the bow or stern, but most along the starboard side. At least one tornado loomed in their path, veering erratically behind the storm line, but Maccabee avoided them easily, slipping the shuttle east or west and putting on a bit more speed to make up for the lost time. To the west, the setting sun glowed red, highlighting the towering clouds of the trailing supercells. The light seemed engulfed by the shadow to the east, where the air was already nearly night-black, and lightning flashed with continual regularity, dozens, even hundreds of strikes a second along the thousand kilometer line of storms.

Samara put up a countdown on the holo, big red numbers showing the time left until the storm hit the monastery compound. There were fifteen minutes to go when Maccabee turned the shuttle and filled their entire view with the nearly-black clouds of the massive squall line.

“OK, everyone,” Maccabee said, steadying the shuttle and cutting his speed to about two hundred kilometers an hour. “There’s not going to be a lot of time for talking once we hit those storms, so listen up.” They’d already been over this plan, but hours had passed since then, and Maccabee was a firm believer in repetition.

“We’re all ears boss,” said Alger as the shuttle started its advance towards the darkness.

“Good. We hit the storms, we punch our way through the line. That’s easy. Then we find the monastery, set down, and try to get them to let us in before the storms hit. Most of you are staying in the shuttle, but if it gets bad, we’ll have to bring you inside no matter what. When we hit the dirt, we’re going to have five minutes, ten tops, to get in cover. If there’s trouble, we’re staying anyway, understood. Trying to take off in the middle of one of these things is going to be suicide.”

The shuttle’s cabin was now nearly completely dark, only lit by the ever-closer flashes of lightning. Thunder rumbled loud enough to heard through the hull.

“Hold on tight, ladies,” muttered Alger.

Maccabee took a deep breath, then shoved the throttle forwards, taking the shuttle back up to about four hundred kph, hoping that speed would provide a measure of smoothness inside the storm. There was a flash of reddish-orange light as the clouds ahead momentarily reflected the setting sun, and then they plunged inside.

Immediately, the storm slapped the shuttle downwards. Maccabee felt his stomach fly up into his throat and rose slightly off his seat, restrained by his crash harness from slamming head-first into the overhead. Reacting faster than he could, the shuttle’s automatic systems stabilized the ship and more engines fired on to bring it back upright and stop its precipitous descent. They succeeded in the former, but the ground was rapidly coming closer. Maccabee tilted the nose slightly up, then more, then increased his speed again, accelerating up from the ground. Wind slammed into the ship sideways, rolling it over onto its back, and again they fell, but the automatic systems responded properly, bringing them back to an even keel.

“Fuckin’ hell!” roared Alger from the back, but Maccabee had no time to spare for commentary. Fist-sized hail stones rang the hull like a bell, hitting hard enough to scratch the paint, but not a threat to the armor, not even on a small shuttle like this. Lighting was striking the little ship about once a second, but they were in the air, and the shielded systems shrugged off the charge. Then the winds reversed.

A sudden updraft tumbled the shuttle into the air, shoving it higher and higher, spinning it nose over tail like a stick. Emergency systems wailed in alarm and thrusters lit off in frantic succession, the computers calculating sub-second microthrusts to try and bring the shuttle back into alignment. Maccabee heard a moan from behind him, hoped no one was throwing up yet, and pushed hard on the sticks, going to maximum forward thrust. The shuttle’s spin turned into a widening circle, and then he pulled back, and with the automatics still firing away, hauled the shuttle back on its belly, then nosed to the ground. They were five thousand meters up, in the middle of the storm.

“How much farther?” shouted Maccabee over the insane howling of the wind and the constant sound of rain and hail trying to beat the ship from the sky and thrusters fighting to keep it up. Red lights flashed on two separate thruster sets, indicating they’d overheated, or perhaps been knocked out by the storm. He had enough to maneuver, for now.

“Hard to say!” she yelled back. “Gyros aren’t responding right, and the ground-track’s fucked! But we’re heading the right way!”

Maccabee didn’t say anything, just nodded and poured on the power, hoping to punch out of the storm. In all the raging maelstrom, the red numbers of the countdown clock never wavered or flickered; the seconds just kept ticking away. Only ten minutes remained until the gust front hit the monastery.

They broke free of the storm line a moment later, their heading just about right; the ground tracking radar finally found a target and showed their location, about ten klicks further north than they wanted to be, but not too bad, all told. Rain was still falling hard from the clouds above them, and winds buffeted the shuttle, but at least now Maccabee could see something ahead of him, and he accelerated, moving the shuttle back down to two thousand meters, scanning the ground with his eyes. The squall line was less than ten klicks from the compound, and the gust front was even closer.

“Do we have a lock on it yet?” he asked as they dropped through two thousand meters and kept descending. Another gust hammered into them from above, shoving them through a thousand meters and down to only five hundred. Maccabee adjusted, bouncing them back up to fifteen hundred. That left virtually no margin of error.

“There it is!” said Samara, putting the tracking up on the holo. The image superimposed itself over the outside view, creating a somewhat dizzying effect, but keeping a tight lock on the monastery so that Maccabee could vector in on it.

It was a simple enough bit of piloting, now, not without any challenge, but nothing compared to getting through the storm line, and within two minutes they were circling the monastery, looking for any kind of landing site. There appeared to be none, which was surprising to Maccabee, since the monks presumably needed some resupply from the outside world, at least occasionally. He settled on an open stretch of grass in front of the compound’s gates, just beyond the eastern wall. Hopefully the structure would provide some shelter for the shuttle. The small craft was tough, but there was no reason to hammer on it needlessly.

The landing was hard, but no worse than any of the combat drops Maccabee had been through. The shuttle hit, bounced once, then came back down, plowing a furrow in the wet earth and grinding to a quick halt. In less than thirty seconds, the main drive was off and he was out of his seat. The countdown showed less than two minutes until the arrival of the gust front, and winds were already ripping across the plains, rocking the shuttle from side to side. The approaching squall line looked truly horrible, towering over the monastery like some enormous beast, its topmost clouds already over the area, closing above them like the top of some massive mouth.

Maccabee stumbled to the aft door, where Alger already stood, working the manual mechanism and cracking the hatch open a few centimeters. Wind whistled through the gap, bringing with it damp heat, the smell of wet earth and grass, and an odd metallic tang that Maccabee couldn’t identify.

These were wild odors to men and women who spent their lives in small, enclosed, climate-controlled spacecraft, occasionally venturing out on equally controlled planets, people who had essentially never seen weather like this, not even close to this. A visceral surge of adrenaline filled all of them, triggered by smells and tastes that spoke of dangers that only the primitive parts of their brains could recognize. Maccabee hesitated for a full five seconds before nodding to Alger; he felt his heart beating faster, as though he were about to enter combat. The Scot triggered the automatic release and the hatch swung wide open.

They were greeted by a world of grey and green twilight. Grass stretched a good kilometer in front of them before the fields began, and the long blades were bent over double under the pressure of the wind, waving in sharp, short motions. Fat raindrops were already starting to fall. The storm front stretched out to the left, dwindling into the north, so close now that it seemed like they could feel its presence.

“No time for sightseeing!” barked Samara as she shoved Maccabee out the hatch and jumped down behind him. She turned. “Shut this hatch and strap in!” she ordered the others. Alger looked for a moment like he was going to protest, but no one else in the shuttle wanted to climb out into this unknown, alien environment. He nodded, and the hatch slid shut a moment later.

Maccabee, cursing himself for his hesitation and under control again, gave Samara a quick nod of thanks and then turned to run for the compound’s gate.

The monastery’s walls were about three meters high, made of heavy stone that had been almost carelessly stacked, held together by some kind of modern mortar, by the look of it. The individual stones were huge, probably half a ton each, presumably to make them less likely to fly around in a storm. Sandwiched into a meter-wide gap in the wall was the gate itself, a heavy, iron door, wrapped with bands of iron and riveted together into a bulk that had to weigh at least two thousand kilos.

Maccabee ran up to the gate, which was set back into the wall by a meter, and hammered on the iron door with the butt of one of his pistols; he carefully holstered the weapon as soon as the knock was done. No need to give the wrong impression.

They were now slightly sheltered, but wind still tugged at their clothes, and the rain was pelting them in big, fat drops that were increasing in frequency. Thunder blasted above them in almost continuous peals, beating on their eardrums. Lightning arced across the sky, and Maccabee could hear it tearing through the air, like a piece of cloth being ripped, but a million times louder. Underneath it all was a deeper rumbling, the approaching gust front, only a minute or two away.

A hatch in the door, set at about eye level, slid open suddenly. “Who are you?” shouted a man’s voice from inside, heavily accented so that it was difficult to understand his words over the wind and rain.

“Our shuttle’s damaged!” shouted Maccabee, pointing back through the sheet of rain behind them. “Storm’s too close! We need shelter!”

There was a sound of locks behind thrown open, and then the door opened, swinging smoothly outwards on perfectly balanced hinges. Behind, a diminutive man in a simple, light-brown robe with dark, red accents stood revealed. He wore thong sandals, his head was shaved, and a pair of glasses sat on the bridge of his nose. Though obviously of European stock, the man had no clear heritage. Maccabee couldn’t place his accent either.

“Everyone out of shuttle?” he asked, motioning for them to come inside.

Maccabee didn’t move, but glanced at Samara. “Why?” he asked.

“No time!” said the small monk. “Shuttle won’t survive!” He gestured frantically across the compound, where a larger building stood, its door open. Above it, the storm line was coming on like a hurtling asteroid, ready to smash anything in its path. “Must get inside!”

Maccabee made the decision without hesitation. “Alger!” he roared, activating his com link. “Everyone goes inside now! Move!” He turned to Samara. “Go inside. Make sure everything’s OK!”

She knew what he meant and nodded, then broke into a run across the compound, making for the large building the monk had indicated. The monk started to run, noticed Maccabee not moving, then hesitated. Maccabee motioned for the building. “Go!” he barked.

“Must close door!” answered the monk.

The rumbling was closer now, and Maccabee felt stronger winds tug at him, even in the shelter of the gate. Alger and the others were climbing out of the shuttle now, and the small craft was rocking in the wind. One man slipped, but Alger hauled him to his feet, and then they were pounding through the wet grass, moving as fast as they could, but so slowly. Obu tripped, nearly fell, found his footing, then ran on. Lightning lanced down and hit the shuttle, smaller arcs leaping for the ground. Two of the team stumbled, fell forwards. “RUN!” shouted Maccabee at the top of his lungs, but the wind made his voice disappear.

Then they were there, finally, stumbling through the door, gasping for breath, terror on their faces. The gust front was there, nearly, almost. Macccabee shoved them towards the still-open door of the other building, while the monk scrambled, hauling the door shut, Alger reaching over and lending his weight to pull against the wind that roared through the gateway like a duct vent. Finally it slammed to, and the monk threw the locks. They turned and ran.

They were half-way across the compound when the gust front hit. A whirling bit of debris, some sort of small vehicle, perhaps three meters long, maybe more, spun lazily over the far wall, slammed into another building, broke off chunks that were caught in the wind. Maccabee and Alger and the monk were in the shadow of the building; it was only five meters away, Samara was standing in the doorway, waving frantically for them to hurry, not even realizing that they were too late. Stones the size of people whistled through the air, knocked free and like missiles. One of them clipped Alger, spun him around and threw him backwards into Maccabee. The blow had to be enough to shatter his shoulder, but the Scot kept moving, clawing at the ground to keep the wind from hauling him into the air. Maccabee grabbed him, reeled him in and pushed him towards the door.

The monk was there already, bent double. Maccabee and Alger struggled after him. There was no way to resist the wind, not for much longer, and it was getting stronger. The people in the building were forming a human chain, reaching out to them. Maccabee grabbed the hand in front of him, not one he recognized, then reached back and grabbed Alger by the waist. And then they were being hauled inside, and finally, finally, the door shut behind them with a solid bang, and surprising quiet enclosed them.

It was completely dark for a moment, and all around him, Maccabee heard the sound of heavy breathing, panting. The air smelled of sweat and fear. Then a small torch was suddenly kindled, an actual burning flame kind of torch, and right behind it were the sad, wise eyes of another monk. This one was old, and his skin was weathered, beaten by the wind, and by at least one heavy blow that had left his nose squashed flat and one eye half shut. His teeth were crooked, but his smile looked heart-felt.

“Welcome to Khandro Yeshe Tsogyal Monastery. If I may say so, you picked a poor time for your arrival.”