Episode 121: The Price of Information

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“But,” continued the monk, “leaving such matters aside for the moment, I suggest we get under cover.” He turned, and the flickering torchlight illuminated a section of the heavy stone wall of the building. Maccabee noticed a tremor run through the structure, and thin streams of dust trickled off the rock and mortar.

“This isn’t cover enough?” he asked, following, leading the rest of his team and letting Samara bring up the rear.

The monk with the torch chuckled, while the younger one, the one who’d let them inside, stared at Maccabee like he was an idiot. “No,” said the older one, “this is not enough. This storm is bad, perhaps the worst so far this year. The shrine will likely not survive its fury, especially if a tornado touches down.”

As if to underscore his point, the raging sounds of the storm outside grew distinctly louder, and the groan of some overstressed structural member echoed through the windowless chamber. Maccabee forced himself to stay back, to not crowd the monk like some frightened little boy. The nearly continuous crashing of thunder had him more unnerved than he cared to admit.

“How often does that happen?” he asked, raising his voice to be heard as they reached the back of the building and the monk started down an open stairway hewn into the rock that apparently formed the foundation of the shrine. “The shrine being destroyed, I mean.”

“Most of the years I have lived here, the shrine has been destroyed,” answered the monk. He paused and looked over his shoulder with a small smile. “It is part of our test, but I confess that it is a trial. I’m too old now for moving rocks.”

They trooped down the stairs, and the thunder faded to a muffled roar behind them. Maccabee didn’t think to count how many steps down they took, but the stair descended at least twenty meters, deep into the ground. Finally, it ended in a short corridor blocked off by another heavy, iron door. The old monk walked up to the door and knocked twice with his bare fist. The hollow thud was audible over the muted storm sounds.

A sudden, sharp and loud crack from above made Maccabee turn, looking back up past his team, up towards Samara and the shrine above them, all plunged into inky blackness. His heart was racing. The air in the corridor was thick, hot and humid, and full of the smell of sweat and nervous fear, and it nearly made him run back up the stairs. “Is there another way out?” he asked, steadying his voice only by a conscious effort. “If the shrine collapses and blocks this way?”

“The door opens inwards,” said the older monk. The younger one, the one with the heavy accent, seemed content to slip into the background and remain silent. “If the shrine collapses and blocks the stair, we dig our way out.”

“What?” asked Maccabee, more sharply than he’d intended. Dig out? “What about air? Water? Food? How long does it take?” He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself, trying to sound just a little bit less hysterical.

“We have food and water in plenty for all,” said the monk, smiling calmly. The sound of locks being opened came through the door behind him. “Air comes down several narrow shafts.”

“Why not bloody well build bigger ones?” asked Alger, his eyes looking a little wild. Clearly, the thought of being stuck down here didn’t appeal to him either.

“That is part of our test as well.” The monk shrugged. “As I said, it is a trial.” He looked back to Maccabee. “Last year, it took us two weeks to free the stairs. With your strong men, I’ve no doubt we could do it in half that time.”

Maccabee swallowed an angry retort, and instead turned and exchanged a long look with Samara. She was nearly invisible in the dark at the back of the group, only her eyes twinkling slightly in the light of the single torch. He felt an overwhelming urge to link into their spy satellite in orbit, to communicate with Russ on board Hornet, but even had the storms allowed it, he didn’t dare brake the com silence.

The heavy door opened, swinging easily on its perfectly balanced hinges, just like the one in the gate on the surface. Another torch poked out, followed by another monk, similar in age and appearance to the younger one who had first greeted Maccabee and Samara. He glanced briefly at the group in the corridor, then at his leader’s hidden face, then pulled the door all the way open. Maccabee was beginning to wonder why all this security was necessary, here, so far away from anywhere else.

They all went in, and found themselves in another dark corridor. The air here was actually cleaner, and a little cooler, if significantly more damp as well. The sound of dripping water was audible somewhere, but after the monk closed the door the storm was almost blocked away. Only the loudest crash of thunder could be heard, just a dim grumbling that sounded like it was coming from deep in the ground.

With the older monk in the lead and the other torch-bearing one bringing up the rear--much to Samara’s obvious displeasure--they delved deeper into the tomb. That was how Maccabee had started to think of it. He was used to being in small, enclosed places, had spent his whole life in them, essentially, but this was different. He was aware of thousands of tons of dirt and rock above him, kept from crushing him by the fragile, stone arch of the tunnel. It seemed to press down on him, an invisible weight threatening to flatten him. His breathing was coming faster than normal, and his heart was pounding.

They did not have far to go. Just about twenty meters from the first door, they reached another. This one was not locked, and made of wood, and the leading monk simply pushed it open. Light spilled out into the corridor, warm, cheerful light, and Maccabee immediately felt better. They were ushered inside.

The monks caught Maccabee’s eye first. There were at least twenty, not counting the three that accompanied his party; all were dressed identically, and all looked remarkably similar, as though they had a similar ethnic heritage or had undergone some sort of gene enhancement to meet some code of appearance, though that smacked of the illegal. The only exception was still the old monk, the one who had done nearly all the talking so far. He had no similarities to the others, and he kept smiling, while they did not.

The room they were in was lit by oil lamps attached to the stone walls. The roof was vaulted, but at least four meters high at the top of the vaults, which gave it an open feeling despite the thick pillars that dotted the space. Through the forest of pillars—the room was at least thirty meters on a side—Maccabee could just make out another group of monks at a series of long, simple tables, apparently made of wood, though where they found wood on this planet was beyond him. A small shrine with a gilded Buddha figure dominated the wall to the left; that was to the north, he thought. The southern quadrant of the space was given over to a series of haphazard bunks and sleeping mats, showing some of the temporary nature of this shelter. Two doors led off on that wall, presumably to private rooms, or perhaps a storehouse for the promised food and water. It wasn’t cozy, but it wasn’t bad.

“Brothers, I bid you welcome our guests,” said the old monk, raising a hand towards Maccabee and his crew. “Their shuttle, I believe, is damaged?”

“Yes,” said Maccabee, his mind clawing back the bits of the story that he and Samara had hastily constructed. The whole enterprise was going to be a lot harder now that Alger and the others were inside the compound as well. “We were headed for the Gollnitz Combine, but our shuttle was hit by lightning.” Maccabee shrugged. “Must have penetrated into the electrical system, because we lost our navigation equipment. I knew we’d never make it through the storm front, and I spotted this place from ten thousand meters. Thought it was a settlement.”

“It is, of sorts.” The monk smiled again. “We are a community of brothers, seeking enlightenment in this world and the next. It is not our custom to welcome guests, but neither do we leave people stranded in the storms. With luck, our work will stand this test, and the shrine will not collapse. The storm will pass in three or four hours.”

“My name is Maccabee,” volunteered the captain. There seemed nothing else to say. He got the distinct impression that hand shakes were not welcome here, and he did not extend one.

“I am Chotan,” replied the monk with a shallow bow. “Tell me, Maccabee, was your plan to attack the Gollnitz Combine, or is it your custom to carry so many weapons with you?”

So much for subtlety. The other monks were drifting away, apparently uninterested in the uninvited guests. That seemed odd too. Maccabee paused as long as he dared, marshalling his arguments. Then, he said, “We had no plans to attack Gollnitz. But we’re not exactly welcome on this planet, either, so we took some precautions. I can have everyone leave their weapons in a safe place while we’re here, if it’s necessary.” He certainly hoped that it wouldn’t be.

Chotan shook his head. “No, Maccabee,” he said, “that is not necessary. Sacred bonds dictate that we take in anyone who requests shelter of us. The same bonds apply to those who accept that shelter. I have no worry for the safety of my brothers, nor myself.” The monk was perfectly calm, perfectly confident.

Maccabee just nodded. At least they weren’t going to get kicked out. He waited for Chotan to say anything more, but the monk just nodded, turned, and walked away without another word. The captain watched him go, then turned to his team and motioned for them to gather in close.

“OK, you heard the man. We’re stuck here for a while. Let’s hope it’s not a week.” No one laughed or even cracked a smile. The monks’ shelter had them all a little nervous, not to mention the rather odd way the monks acted. Around them, there was only silence. None of the monks were speaking.

“I’m sure these guys are on the level, even if they are a bit weird,” continued Maccabee. That produced a snort from Alger. “Let’s keep to ourselves, no one go wander off, no one bother them unless they bother you first, understand?” Nods from everyone as Maccabee looked at each of them in turn. Samara didn’t nod, but he trusted that she would do the right thing. “Good. Samara and I will try to get the information we came for. Alger, you’re in charge.”

“Bloody right. My first order is to get out of this place.” He grimaced, and he was obviously not serious, but the big Scot didn’t like it here underground any more than Maccabee.

“I’d rather be stuck here than in that storm,” said one of the team, a stocky, brown-haired woman named Fiammetta Fazzino.

“Yeah,” agreed Maccabee. Fiammetta graced him with her winning smile, which he did his best to ignore. Better not to get into any arguments.

Fiammetta--known among the crew simply as “Fia”--was a firebrand, yet another reckless, ruthless commando with an uncommon moral compass that had led her to Maccabee and Hornet. She claimed to be descended in a direct line from ancestors who had lived in Sicily, a part of Italy back on Earth. It wasn’t until he had met her that Maccabee had realized Sicilian pizza actually had a historical background. He’d thought the word was invented, an Italian-sounding name to sell the pie.

Alger led the team over to an unoccupied corner of the large room while Maccabee and Samara started heading after Chotan. The old monk had moved over to the shrine area, and was now kneeling in front of the Buddha figure, bowing repeatedly and muttering some sort of prayer under his breath. The two outsiders paused at the edge of the space, which was marked out by an old, threadbare rug, the only protection the supplicants had when kneeling on the hard, stone floor.

The Buddha figure being worshipped was sitting upright, his legs crossed in a seemingly impossible pose, hands folded in his lap. He was seated on some sort of flower, and a seven-headed snake rose up over his head from behind his body. The snake looked particularly fearsome, but the image of the Buddha was as supremely unconcerned as his monks. Two torches were set in the alcove over the figure, and a ceramic urn filled with sand supported two dozen or so sticks of incense, several of which were burning. The odor was not strong and strangely pleasant. Maccabee wondered that he’d not noticed it immediately on entering the room.

“The serpent is a naga,” said Chotan, without warning. He had not stopped his bowing, and Maccabee didn’t know quite how he’d noticed them standing there. “It is a guardian spirit. This one is called Mujarin. He protected the Buddha from a rainstorm.”

“Seems appropriate,” muttered Samara. Maccabee nodded.

“You have come here seeking something,” said Chotan, now stopping his bowing, and turning slightly so he could look at them. He did not invite them to join him, and they made no moves towards him, instead remaining by the nearest pillar.

“Yes,” said Maccabee, reluctantly. He didn’t want to tell this monk anything more than he had to, but these were the basics. Chotan seemed to know more than he let on, or maybe he was just a good judge of character, good at reading faces.

“Yes,” he echoed the captain. “And you think that we brothers might have what you seek.” Chotan nodded, as though this revealed something to him. “We have very little here.”

“You may not have what we want at all,” said Samara, obviously impatient with this conversation. “We need information.”

“Ah,” said the monk. He nodded again. “That is the one thing we do have here, though in limited quantity. Of some things, we know much; of others, little. So. Ask.”

“We,” said Maccabee, sending a pointed glance in Samara’s direction, warning her that he was doing the talking from now on, “are looking for a place. A secret place on this world. Somewhere on this continent, we think.”

“There are such places here,” said the monk. “We know of several; do you know anything else?”

“The place we are looking for is used by smugglers,” said Maccabee, trying not to give everything away. How many secret camps could possibly be sitting around on this damn planet? “They store goods there, and sometimes people, hiding them from the authorities.”

“Ah, yes, them.” Chotan smiled. “We know of the place you seek.”

“You. . . .” Maccabee cut himself off. “Will you tell us where they are?”

“We know of the place,” continued the monk, “but we are uncertain of its exact location.”

“Damn,” muttered Samara.

“Do not despair,” said Chotan, rising to his feet. “With your technology and our knowledge, we should be able to find the place.” He walked over to join them at the edge of the holy space. “First we must negotiate; then we will pinpoint the location.”

“Negotiate?” asked Maccabee warily. “There’s a cost?”

“Information, my honored guest, is the most expensive of all commodities. Did you not know that?”

“I was hoping you didn’t,” said Samara. Maccabee scowled in her direction, but Chotan’s smile seemed to widen.

“Do you know,” he asked, “why I am the only one who speaks to you here?”

“The monk at the gate spoke,” pointed out Maccabee.

“Under duress,” agreed the monk. He waved a hand dismissively. “My brothers do not speak because they seek enlightenment.”

“Seems like it’d be hard to find without being able to ask questions,” said Samara.

“Exactly!” exclaimed Chotan. Maccabee frowned. What the hell was this about? “The problem is exactly as you have put it. I am the teacher, they the learners.”

“You lead them to enlightenment?” asked Maccabee.

“Found it already?” added Samara.

“Not yet,” Chotan replied with a small smile. “Not yet. No. I teach them to find enlightenment on their own. Their silence is because they learn directly from the Buddha. They have no need of human conversation.”

“Why do they all look alike?” asked Maccabee, against his better instincts.

Chotan smiled. “The price is this: when you find this place, this secret place, you must destroy it, utterly. You must wipe it away completely. That is the price of our cooperation.” He pointed at the team. “You are obviously prepared for this eventuality. Make it a reality, and I will show you how to find what you seek.”

“That doesn’t sound very Buddhist,” Samara pointed out. “Isn’t your religion all about peace and understanding?”

“Buddhism is a path, not a religion,” said Chotan, his smile slipping slightly. “The other reason I speak is that I am the voice of this place. I am the one who is charged with tending it, with seeing that it grows and thrives. I am its defender, if you will. Buddhism is a path of peace, but peace is achieved through many different means.”

“Your reasons are your own,” said Maccabee, cutting off another question from Samara. “We came here to do just what you ask, or something like it. If you have the information we need, we can do it.”

Chotan smiled, and this time there was something disturbingly sinister in that expression. Maccabee felt slightly sick to his stomach. There was something wrong with all this, with this place, this monastery, these people. He’d make the deal, he’d do the deed--it was why he’d come here, to strike back at his friend, at Josephine--but he didn’t like it. He didn’t like it at all.

“We will offer what help we can,” said the monk. “Come with me.”

The pirate compound was two hundred kilometers northeast of the monastery. Like the monks, Josephine and her people had chosen this part of the planet because it was sparsely cultivated and thus about as empty as any place on Oudtshoorn ever got. It was not, however, completely empty, and this presented an opportunity to Maccabee and his team. The only question that remained was whether this opportunity was worth exploiting, or if they’d be better off scrapping the whole thing and returning to orbit, no matter what the monks said. After all, all the firepower in this basement was in the hands of Hornet’s crew.

“This is how it’s going to go down, assuming we do it at all,” said Maccabee to the men and women gathered around him. None of the monks were there, not even Chotan, with whom Samara and Maccabee had spent the last two hours. A map was spread out on the table, with Samara’s minicomp next to it, projecting a hologram across the paper surface. They’d been surprised--maybe shocked was the better word--to find that the monastery had paper maps, but everything in the compound was decidedly low-tech. The map was clear, and that was what mattered.

“This road,” Maccabee continued, pointing to the map and a divided roadway running north-south about a hundred klicks north of the monastery, “is used by the nearest combines for their heavy harvesting units. The few fields in this area are tended by smaller robots, but the big guys use this road to pass through. It cuts just twenty klicks south of the target.” He shifted his finger on the map, and the hologram illuminated a point on the map. “These harvesting units are huge, and they’re not meant to go cross-country, but our friendly monks are sure they’ll be able to manage it. Chotan also has the schedule of passing vehicles. It’s all tightly regulated, because the road’s one-way. It looks like a divided highway, but these things are a hundred meters across, and instead of building a hundred-meter-wide roadway, they just build a lane for each set of wheels.”

“Bloody hell,” growled Alger.

“Yes. It’s big. But the crew’s usually only five, maybe less. The thing’ll be defended, because there’s some inter-combine rivalries around here, but Chotan says there hasn’t been much violence lately in these parts. Maybe that’s because Gollnitz has this area pretty well secured. We’ll ambush from the ground; there’s lots of air defenses on these things. Once we have control, we keep driving like nothing’s happened, until we reach the closest approach to the pirate bunker.

“Now comes the tricky part. We leave the roadway and head north. The combine’s going to know as soon as we deviate from our normal path. So not only are we going to be cutting cross country in a multi-thousand-ton vehicle, we’ll probably have somebody chasing us. And there’s the storms. Chotan reckons that there’ll be about ten hours of clear air before the next line rolls in. That gives us a small margin. Alternately, we can wait through another set of storms, then try to move in at night.”

“The problem,” interjected Samara, “is that we don’t know what shape the shuttle’s going to be in. If it’s damaged, but still operable, we’ll probably want to make the strike as soon as we can. A second storm might be too much for it. Plus, if we’re holed up here and the place does collapse, then we’re stuck. And I think we’re all keen on not being stuck here.”

There was a general noise of assent to that statement. Maccabee nodded.

“When we ambush the harvester,” he went on, “we’ll have someone on standby to bring the shuttle up to us. Once it’s inside the harvester, it’ll be fine. These things are built to survive direct tornado hits, multiple times. Worst case scenario is that we are disabled. That would be bad, but we always have the shuttle for a retreat. The harvester should be carrying some sort of aircraft of its own, for much the same reason. Sub-orbital as a rule.

“Once the harvester’s in hand and we reach the pirates, we’ll assault with the shuttle, if possible. Chotan’s given us all the information he has on the place. It seems like there’s an auxiliary entrance, so the shuttle attack will be a diversion while the team enters through the back door.”

“How many people are we talking about?” asked Alger. “In the bunker, I mean.”

“No idea. I’m guessing no more than ten, since Chotan says there hasn’t been a delivery there in some time.”

“And how the hell would he know?” growled Obu. “This place is built of rocks! What’s he doing, asking the fucking Buddha?”

“He’s the protector of this place,” answered Samara, her voice quiet, but hard. “He has sources all around here; they’re the ones who’ve told him about the pirates, and they’ve kept him informed on what’s going on there. And I suggest that you keep your fucking voice down before I do something permanent, Obu. We’ve got the guns, but we’re outnumbered here.”

Maccbee let the message sink in for a moment before breaking the silence. Obu’s face was stony, but he knew better than to mess with Samara. She kept her promises, no matter what the outcome, no matter who got hurt.

“OK, people, we’ve got the outline of a plan here, but the details are tougher,” the captain said, lightening the mood just by turning the conversation away from the confrontation. “First off, we don’t know any details on these harvesters. I’m not sure what kind of weapons they carry, what sort of people man them, or how closely they’re monitored.” He ticked off a finger on his raised hand. “Second, we don’t know if these things can really get us where we want to go. Yeah, they’re big, but they’re engineered for a specific purpose.” A second finger. “Third, we know nothing about the base. Nothing at all. Nothing about the defenses, about automatics, about sensors, about the people there, about their schedules.” Third finger. “We’re in the dark, for the most part. And there’s eight of us.”

“Any other pros you want to discuss, lad,” said Alger, “before we move on to the cons?”

Maccabee smiled. The rest of the team just nodded, agreeing with Alger’s implied consent for the mission. Even Obu, though his face was still split by a deep scowl, and his eyes never left Samara’s face. For her part, the XO ignored the man’s glare. Instead, she paused for a moment, as though weighing the options, then nodded at Maccabee.

“I know we’ve had a run of bad luck and worse decisions,” said Maccabee, turning to face all of them. “That ends here. We’ve got information--not a lot, but enough--we’ve got the means, and we’ve got surprise on our side. I wish we had a few more people down here, but there’s no time and no secure way to signal Hornet. We’re it. And we’re going to hit back at these people, so they know they’ve been hit. This base may not seem like much, but it’s a step.”

“Aye,” growled Alger. “We’ll bloody well get their attention this time.”

Maccabee grinned. He felt his luck changing. Turning to Samara, he saw that she was not smiling. Her face was an emotionless mask, hiding . . . something. Maccabee’s smile slipped.

Ashburn, Russ, and Massat Sel sat in silence on the otherwise empty Command Deck of the Hornet. On the holo display, their spy satellite fed them real-time video from orbit over Oudtshoorn. A new ship was coming in, a large cargo vessel. There was nothing unusual about the ship, except that something about it seemed wrong.

“Nothing on the scans?” asked Ashburn quietly.

Sel, running the long-range, passive sensors on the spy satellite, shook his head. “Just a regular cargo ship, sir. Five megatons, Pegasus Class, Myrmidian Shipyards. Keel plate says she’s registered as Allied Universal Shipping Company Theta, out of Mellick.”

“Exactly the sort of ship that the pirates would use,” muttered Russ. “Damn.”

“Beg pardon, sir,” said Sel, lifting a finger to adjust his black glasses, “but there’s no evidence to say she’s anything other than a freighter.”

“The captain should know about it,” persisted Russ.

“He’s under com silence,” pointed out Sel. “Even if he weren’t, the storms are too bad for communications to his location. There’s no way to send him the message.”

“If they launch a shuttle, we’ll try,” said Ashburn. Maccabee had given her final authority to make that decision. Russ and Sel both frowned, for different reasons. “If they just sit in orbit, there’s nothing to worry about anyway.”

“I hope to God this isn’t another fuck-up,” said Russ, leaning back in his chair. “I’m getting some coffee.”

He stood, stretched his blue frame, and left the Deck.

Sel glanced over at Ashburn, and she raised an eyebrow, then settled back in her chair and assumed the strange, empty stare that she always wore when she was communicating with the computer directly. Sel watched her for a moment, then turned back to his scanning. The captain would be fine. He was always fine.