Episode 122: Boarding the Harvester

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Some people claimed that Oudtshoorn was a quite lovely place, if you happened to have a convenient way of either avoiding the storms or riding them out. In between the periods of bad weather, these people said--most of them were members of the Oudtshoorn Office of Tourism--the planet was a pleasant garden world, full of rich flora and the occasional hardy fauna, and possessed of a natural grandeur that was hard to find anywhere else off Earth and a handful of other terraformed worlds. Of course, they didn’t have in mind the back-country fields, but, they insisted, the place was enjoyable, a romantic retreat, a family getaway, whatever suited.

To the five men and two women crouched in those back-country fields, it was just hot, muddy, and annoying.

Maccabee spat out another bug that had flown into his mouth, then grimaced as mud seeped further into his clothing, soaking his chest in thick, oozing muck. He was squinting so that all the tiny insects that were not busy trying to insert themselves into his nose or mouth couldn’t try to land on his exposed eyeballs. The air was thick, and it seemed like every breath was an effort. Everyone was baking under the sun as it beat down mercilessly from high in the sky, and only a few drifting clouds offered any relief. It would be another four hours before the next line of storms reached them. Looking into the screen on his minicomp, Maccabee sighed: forty degrees. It was good he’d agreed to take the monks’ offer of water.

This sort of thing was not what Maccabee was used to, and it was starting to show. He was panting, he felt miserable, the bugs were nearly unbearable, and the sun felt like it was baking him alive. If the crew mutinied, he would understand perfectly. Everyone but him, however, seemed fine with the weather and the God-damned insects.

They were hidden in crop lines on either side of one of the two parallel tracks that made up the harvester road. Each of the tracks was built on an elevated dike or causeway, reinforced with ceramasteel foundation posts and paved with a ceramacrete layer at least half a meter thick. No cracks marred the smooth, reflective surface of the roadway. The heat up there was unbearable, well over fifty Celsius. The crop lines were lower mounds of dirt, roughly four meters wide and running arrow straight to the horizon, just like the roads. Between the mounds were runoffs, and buried drain pipes cut across the lines at regimented intervals to keep the whole thing from being flooded. During a rainstorm, of course, the water would be high, since no drainage system could really handle the amount of water Oudtshoorn’s storms dropped on the planet, but the microfloods passed away quickly when the storms ended.

There was no cover anywhere, except for the crops, which in this case were some sort of crossbred legume that stood about half a meter high. This meant that Maccabee and his team were lying in the drenched mud between the plants, waiting for any sign of the approaching harvester. It was already behind schedule.

Obu was closest to the road, basically out in the open, but draped with some greenery he’d liberated from the crop line. He was watching the approach from the east through the sights of a laser rifle he’d smuggled aboard the shuttle despite Samara’s warning about the effects of lightning on electronic equipment, and vice versa. He’d argued as the shuttle flew them up here--and wasn’t that a wonderful experience, with half of the shuttle’s thrusters clogged, jammed, or just broken from its beating during the storm--that he’d be sure to shut the thing off before the storms arrived, and that he’d be inside the harvester by then anyway; and the weapon was useful, especially now.

Samara was on the other side of the road, but Maccabee had seen her, smiling broadly as she burrowed down into the dirt, while next to her, Fia rubbed the damn stuff on her face as some sort of camouflage. Alger had sampled some of the crops and declared them “Bloody shit,” and the others seemed equally at ease in the crop fields, as though they’d all grown up on planets like this one, which Maccabee knew for a fact was not true. Their general behavior did little to lighten his mood. If the fucking harvester didn’t show up soon, he was going to call the whole thing off, and hope that the shuttle would make it back into orbit in one piece.

“Contact,” said Obu, suddenly, over the local com net. His voice was so soft that Maccabee couldn’t hear him speak from three meters away, but the com signal was loud and clear in his ear. “Range is two-zero-four-two-eight meters,” continued the other man. “Speed is . . .” Obu hesitated, letting the scope sight on the harvester for a moment. “Five meters per second.”

“Damn,” muttered Fia on the com. “That’s over an hour!”

“Get comfortable,” said Samara cheerfully. Maccabee suppressed his urge to throw some select curses her way and stifled a groan. Another hour. This was not an auspicious start to his plan.

The harvester lumbered towards them, growing bigger and bigger, swallowing the horizon as it hove into view above the crop lines. The thing was basically a big square on wheels; its front stretched the full eighty-five meters between the two roadways, and the hull rose thirty or more meters above the ground. Everything was rounded and obviously aerodynamic, as much as something so large could be, built to withstand the terrific winds of the planet’s storms. Four towers rose above the main body, one at each corner of the vehicle, and suspension cables ran between them, supporting the massive weight of the main hull over the wheels that sat at the far edges. Those wheels were equally impressive, each one ten meters tall and with a tread-width of two meters. Built using some sort of ceramasteel mesh, the wheels were impervious to damage, could not be deflated, and were able to climb five meter cliffs, or so said Chotan. The truth remained to be seen.

The hour passed quickly, and suddenly the front of the harvester’s hull was looming up over them, blocking the morning sun with its vast bulk. Maccabee had seen spacecraft literally hundreds of times bigger than this machine, but to be standing below the harvester was a little bit frightening. It seemed too big to support itself between the widely-spaced sets of wheels.

“All right, everyone in positions,” said Maccabee over the com link. “Wait until we’re under it to make our move; otherwise they’ll probably spot us.” They might spot the team anyway, but there was no reason not to be cautious. “And remember: five meters per second seems pretty damn slow, but you’re on foot.” He grinned, though none of the others could see him. Somehow, the image of Alger running full tilt after the harvester made him want to laugh. “Let’s do it.”

Another few seconds passed in silence, and then, suddenly, the front of the harvester was passing over them, its wheels near enough that they could hear the slithery crunch of the metal treads on the ceramacrete roadway. Otherwise, the beast was remarkably silent; only the whir of its drive motors was audible, not even enough to blot out the sound of the light wind that was blowing underneath its hundred meter hull.

Maccabee stood immediately, and half-ran, half-slid down the side of the crop line. They had roughly twenty seconds before the giant vehicle passed them by; catching up was not going to be an option, even at these speeds, certainly not for more than one or two of the team. They’d scavenged some gear from the shuttle, and now two of them--Maccabee and Fia, who were the best at throwing--carried magnetic clamps, the kind used in spacewalks to keep things from floating away. Because they were meant as hard-points for tethers, it was a simple matter to attach some high-tensile line to each one of the clamps. As Maccabee ran forwards, he was already clipped on to a stop on the line, and the rest of it played out behind him, where Obu, Sandus, and Thet-zaw were similarly attached.

Maccabee hit the bottom of the slope running, stumbled slightly, but caught himself. Five seconds were already gone, and the vast hull of the harvester was moving by almost faster than he could follow. He spotted a hatch quickly enough, however, and started running again, the three other men on his side following suit; it was going to be better if they had some initial velocity when the clamp attached. Activating the magnetic charge on the device, Maccabee took careful aim, leaned backwards in his run, and threw. Then he tripped and flew face-first at the mud.

Luckily, or unluckily, the clamp was designed to tether several thousand pounds of equipment, if necessary, and to hold it there under light acceleration. Despite how it felt, going from zero to five meters per second was considered light acceleration, at least by the clamp’s designers. It slapped onto the harvester’s hull just a moment before Maccabee hit the ground, the line snapped tight, and suddenly the captain’s motion was reversed. He was yanked into the air. Behind him, Obu, Sandus and Thet-zaw were pulled forward by the rope, but they were still too low to be airborne, and were instead dragged through the mud. They’d been ready, but Maccabee still heard a string of curses through the haze of pain that threatened to knock him out. He’d actually gone from something like minus two meters per second to plus five, and his spine felt like a scrunched accordion.

“Reel it in!” shouted Obu from behind him, bringing Maccabee back to his senses. He caught the line above him with one hand and then started hauling himself upwards, towards the hull. His throw had been pretty good, but the clamp was attached about three meters to the left of the hatch he’d spotted. That was a concern for later, however. There was no way for Obu and the other two men at the end of the line to climb up it, not without losing their grips and possibly falling behind. Maccabee hauled himself up the last four, nearly-vertical meters, and clipped his harness onto the clamp itself. Then, making sure the line was still properly attached, he activated the clamp’s winching mechanism. The little motor whirred to life, and suddenly the line was winding around the handle, slowly by surely reeling in the men below.

Maccabee let out a long breath in a sigh of relief as Thet-zaw’s trailing feet finally cleared the ground. With all four of them dangling, there was barely room underneath the harvester for them, and Thet-zaw occasionally lifted his feet to clear an upthrust bit of soil or rock, but they were up and clear. Now they had to get inside. But first things first.

“Samara,” asked Maccabee, still catching his breath, “what’s your status?”

“We’re attached,” came Samara’s voice over the com. She sounded irritated. “Remind me not to listen to any more of your plans, OK?”

“Are you up on top yet?” he asked, ignoring her complaint, but grinning slightly.

“We are not,” she replied flatly, “on top yet. We’re dangling next to the fucking wheels, and trying not to get pancaked. So, unless you have something really vital to tell me, Maccabee, I’d like to get out of this position.”

“Right,” he said, knowing when to leave well enough alone. “Watch out for the crew.”

Not unexpectedly, Samara did not dignify his warning with a reply. The link was disconnected. Maccabee looked back down at the other three men. “Tired of hanging out down there?” he asked. For some reason, he was feeling light-hearted. No one else seemed to share his good humor, though. Obu just scowled, and Thet-zaw dodged another rock, walking his feet along the side of it.

“I’d rather be inside, sir!” he called up from below.

“Working on it, Thet-zaw, I’m working on it.”

Maccabee shifted his position slightly and looked across to the hatch he’d aimed for. It was actually only about two meters away, but that might as well have been two kilometers. He couldn’t think of any way to get there. If the hatch had been down-hull from him, he might have been able to detach the clamp for less than a second, switch it back on, and hope it had enough power to pull them back up in a better spot. Since that was an incredibly risky, even stupid, idea, it was probably a good thing that the hatch was instead up-hull from them, towards the front of the harvester. To make matters worse, the bottom of the hull was smooth, without any significant outcroppings to catch the blowing wind. If the thing had been in harvesting mode, instead of just passing through this area, all sorts of doors, hatches and bays would have been open for easy access, but as it was, everything was sealed up tight.

“Any ideas, gentlemen?” Maccabee asked, finally, completely at a loss and suddenly feeling a good deal less cheerful. If the defenses on board were tougher than anticipated, Samara and Alger were going to have a fight on their hands with half their team dangling on a rope under the damn harvester, waiting to be picked off.

“Blast it open!” barked Sandus.

“We’ve no heavy weapons, Sandus,” growled Obu. “Just the laser, and that ain’t going to scratch the hull. Probably just reflect off it, as smooth as this thing is.”

“Do we have any other gear, sir?” asked That-zaw, who was keeping a careful eye on the terrain ahead.

“Not that I can think of.” Maccabee bit off a curse. This plan was just getting better and better.

Then he heard a sound behind him, turned, and saw the hatch opening. Since Samara had not made any sound over the com net, this was a bad sign. Maccabee drew one of his pistols and took aim, trying to steady the shot as the rope swung sideways. A head--an unfamiliar head--poked down, looking the wrong way. Apparently some sensor had registered their presence. Maybe this wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

“Freeze, or I blow your head off,” growled Maccabee. He heard the sound of other weapons being readied below him. The head stopped moving.

“Who ze fuck are you?” asked the man sticking his head out of the harvester. He had blond hair, and a strong regional accent. “Vhat are you doinge?”

“We’re coming on board,” said Maccabee. “We just need a hand, is all. You got any line or anything in there?”

“Zure, I got line, but az zoon az I pull my ‘ead back up ‘ere, I’m closing zis door, right?” The man laughed nervously.

“Anyone with you, there?” asked Maccabee, still aiming his weapon, still not letting the man turn to look at him.

“No,” said the man, shaking his head. “Zay sent me alone.”

“Then I’m tempted to just shoot you now and try to get in the door on my own. You see how that would solve my problem, right?”

“Ah . . . yes, I am zeeing zis situation now,” said the man, nodding his head. “Perhapz I could zurrender?”

This was taking too damn long. Maccabee gritted his teeth in frustration. Too damn long.

“You have two choices,” he said, suddenly coming up with a workable solution. “One is to have me shoot you. The other is to jump.”

“Jump?” the man said with a catch. “It’z ten meterz!”

“Your choice. Do it now, or I shoot.”

The man grabbed on tight with his hands on the lip of the hatch, and swung his feet over his head, falling out of the opening to swing there facing Maccabee. His eyes widened as he saw first Maccabee’s gun, then the three other men hanging below him.

“We’ll pick you up later,” said Maccabee, motioning with the gun. The man looked down, grimaced, then back up at the gun; then he dropped.

Shouting as he fell, legs pumping and arms windmilling, the man plummeted down the ten meters and hit the soft dirt below, bouncing once and then rolling to a stop. Maccabee was pleased to see him raise a fist a shout a curse at them as he receded, and even more pleased to see the man nursing at least a badly twisted ankle.

“Let’s get moving,” he said to his team.

Though still too far away to reach, the open hatch presented Maccabee with a few more options, and he quickly let go of the rope, letting his weight dangle on the harness he was wearing. Reaching into his small pack, he extracted a five meter length of line, just a small extra bit he’d kept when they were preparing the magnetic clamps. That kind of thing always comes in handy. He pulled out one of his bulky chemical pistols, tied the heavy-duty line to it, and then attached the other end to his harness. Then he moved a half meter down the rope, so his rear was just above Obu’s head, his legs dangling in front of the other man’s face.

“Sorry, Obu,” he said. Obu just nodded and motioned for him to get on with it, continuing to sight the door with his oversized laser rifle. Maccabee gathered the line in a loose bundle, leaving enough for a good swing, and then started to spin the pistol. The angle wasn’t good--Obu would have been a better choice--but there was no time to readjust, and Maccabee knew he could make the throw. He took a try, and the gun hit twenty centimeters to the left, bouncing off the hull and falling along the whole length of the line, swinging down to nearly hit Thet-zaw. All four men were now concentrating on this task, though, and the small man at the bottom of the line ducked out of the way.

Maccabee reeled the line back in and threw again. This time his aim was dead on, and the pistol sailed through the opening into the darkened interior of the harvester. Maccabee heard two clanks, and then a muffled sound. He pulled slowly on the line, and the gun slid easily. It didn’t catch on anything, and a moment later it slid out the hatch. There was less slack, and Maccabee collected it quickly, cursing softly under his breath. Then he tried again. It was another good toss, and again he heard a series of impact noises. This time, when he pulled the rope, it slid about a half meter, then caught. He pulled again, harder, and it gave another centimeter. A third pull yielded no movement.

“Just because it’s stuck, doesn’t mean it’ll support your weight,” said Obu quietly from just below Maccabee.

“I know, damn it. We’re out of time.” Maccabee looked down. “Sandus, That-zaw, get ready to catch me.” He was only half joking. This was nearly as stupid as moving the clamp, but they really were out of time. The crew of the harvester would be sending someone to check up on the other man very soon—assuming he didn’t have a com unit and wasn’t currently already vectoring in a highly-armed party to repel boarders.

His heart beating a good bit faster, Maccabee climbed up to his original position, reeled in the slack on the new line, and attached its near end to the clamp, allowing enough to hang down so that they could get a good hold on it. He pulled on it again, and again it held tight. The pistol was made of ceramic alloys, easily strong enough to carry his weight; the question was what it was hung up on. There was only one way to test it, and at least now the new line was linked into the old, so Maccabee was actually not likely to tumble to the ground.

Moving slowly, he put some, then all of his weight on the new line. Then he unclipped from the main line and started moving, quickly, hand over hand. One meter, and the line was still holding. He kept moving, and then suddenly he was falling, the line had slipped, the gun was clattering across the floor inside the harvester. Then it caught again, on something, some tiny outcropping. Maccabee jerked to a stop, lost his grip with one hand and dangled for a moment, still eight meters above the ground, the harvester still rolling along at five meters per second. For a moment, he was unable to breathe.

“Move!” shouted Obu from slightly below him. The shout snapped Maccabee back into the present, and he grabbed the line with his other hand, then started again, pulling himself upwards, willing the line to hold. His hands were sweaty, but he was wearing gloves, they stuck to the line well enough. All his muscles were bunched into knots, pumped with adrenaline, moments from seizing up and refusing to work at all. The ground below seemed like a blur, as slowly as they were moving, and so far away. The shining, smooth hull seemed even further away, somehow.

Then Maccabee reached out a hand and slapped it on the lip of the hatch. His fingers found a grip, and he hauled himself upwards, his arms filled with pain. He dropped the line with his other hand, and grabbed the lip, then swung his legs up in front of him, letting them catch the opposite edge of the opening. It was narrow enough that his calves were on the inside as well, and then it was just a matter of setting his shoulders on the opposite edge and carefully shuffling to the side. In another five seconds, Maccabee rolled onto his stomach, gasping for air, his arms dead tired from hauling his whole body up; but he was inside.

There wasn’t time for him to lie here. That thought fluttering through his head, Maccabee rolled over and sat up, then drew his other pistol. He was in some sort of mechanical equipment room, perhaps a spot where technicians came on board to service the harvester. The space was large, probably ten meters deep and running the whole width of the vehicle, disappearing into the distance; lighting was almost non-existent at the moment, probably to save power. There was no obvious sign of other people, but Maccabee took another moment to check again.

Satisfied for now, he holstered his pistol and moved quickly to the still-open hatch. The gun attached to the line had caught some sort of locking mechanism on the edge of the hatch, just barely. Maccabee shook his head as he worked it free and then walked over to a piece of ceramasteel obviously employed as a structural member of the hull. Strong enough for this job. He tied the line to it, freeing his gun. Then, still holding out the weapon, not trusting that his presence here was unknown, he moved back to the hatch. Ducking his head out, he called down to the others. “Come on up! Move!”

Obu was already at the top of the line, the others close in behind him, Thet-zaw looking relieved to be high above the ground at last. Before Maccabee had even said, “Move!” Obu was on the line, swinging hand over hand. Maccabee holstered the other pistol, reluctantly, then reached down to grab Obu’s hands and haul him inside as he reached the hatch. The other man spun, unlimbered his own sidearm—a pistol virtually identical to the one Maccabee carried—and started covering the area. Satisfied that he was not about to be attacked, Maccabee reached down and hauled up Thet-zaw.

“Where’s Sandus?” he asked as the small man climbed gracefully to his feet.

“Working up his courage,” replied Thet-zaw with a grin. “He’ll be along.”

Maccabee knelt again, dimly aware of Thet-zaw unlimbering his own weapon, a compact machinepistol. Leaning his head out the hatch, Maccabee looked over at Sandus, who was now at the top of the main line. “What’s the problem, Sandus?”

“Sorry, sir,” replied the other man, his face slightly green. “Afraid of heights, sir!”

“Damn it, Thomas,” growled Maccabee. The other man started at his captain’s use of his first name--he’d probably thought that Maccabee hadn’t even known his first name, which was why Maccabee made damn sure he did know it, and everyone else’s. “We don’t have time for this. Get over here. Now!”

It seemed enough. Sandus unclipped from the main line and started moving, hand over hand, Maccabee reached out his own hand as far as he dared, trying not to look down at the ground far below him. It was meaningless. He couldn’t grab Sandus from that position; but at least it gave the man something to aim for.

“Hines,” said a very irritated voice over the intercom system, nearly startling Maccabee into a fall to his death. “I don’t know what the fuck you’re doing down there,” continued the pissed-off female voice, “but I’m tired of your shit. I’m closing the hatch. Now.”

Sandus had heard. “Captain!”

“Move it!” barked Maccabee. Sandus did move, swinging wildly, but his effort was not translated into greater forward speed. The hatch started to slide shut a moment later, and he was still outside. “Hang on, Sandus!” shouted Maccabee. Then the hatch snapped shut and the tight line sprang back into the compartment, severed cleanly. It was a strong hatch.

“Shit,” muttered Obu. “Hope he held on.”

“Sandus!” called Maccabee over the com. There was only silence for a long moment.

Then he heard the other man reply, “Here, cap. Still hanging on.”

“Good,” said Maccabee, feeling a surge of relief that his insane plan hadn’t gotten anyone killed. Yet. He thought quickly. “Sandus, we don’t have time to go through this again. I’m going to leave you there until we take the thing over. You OK with that?”

“Roger that, cap,” said Sandus, sounding relieved. “I’ll be waiting.”

“Let’s get up top,” Maccabee said to the others, getting to his feet and pulling both his guns. “Samara,” he called, switching com channels. “I have three inside, one still stuck on the hull. What’s your status?”

“We’re on top,” came her reply. “I don’t think we’ve been spotted yet, but we haven’t found a way in either.” She sounded like she was keeping her voice down. “Storms look closer than we thought, too, by the way. I can see someone in the control dome. She looks pissed.”

“Yeah.” Maccabee thought quickly for a moment. “I’m taking Thet-zaw with me; we’ll take the dome. Obu will find his way out to you and let you in. Understood? If Thet and I get bogged down, you’ll have to clean up for us.”

“Got it.”

“OK. We’re moving.”

Maccabee motioned to Obu, who nodded and ducked into the tangle of machinery. Then he turned to Thet-zaw. The other man gave him a quick nod, and then turned to lead the way. The control dome was at the top of the harvester, slightly forward of the center line; they just needed to go up, and they’d probably find it.

Thet-zaw was a natural-born navigator, and he found the exit from the machine room in under thirty seconds. The interiors of man-made vehicles were his specialty, and he had the door open in less than another minute. Maccabee motioned for him to stand aside, then ducked through the door. Beyond was a transverse corridor and an intersection with what looked like the keel passage on this deck, heading straight aft from where Maccabee stood. Nothing moved, but there was a much greater chance of security systems in these corridors.

Thet-zaw came out behind Maccabee, and glanced his way. The captain shrugged, then motioned for the keel passage. The smaller man nodded, then led the way again, Maccabee covering behind them. Less than five meters along the passage, they came to a doorway marked with a small set of stairs.

“Bingo,” muttered Maccabee.

“Huh?” whispered Thet-zaw without looking his way, still covering down the length of the passage.

“An old saying. Let’s go up.”

Thet-zaw pushed open the door, ran through and fetched up against the far wall, covering up the stairwell with his machinepistol. Maccabee followed, carefully shutting the door so it made no appreciable noise. There was still no sign of resistance, or even that they’d been noticed, but he was taking no chances. He let Thet-zaw cover him as he ran quickly and silently up the first flight of metal stairs. The steps backed the other way at a small landing, then opened onto a larger one at the next level. Here, Maccabee stopped, and Thet-zaw followed him up. There was no point in exiting before they reached the top.

They leap-frogged up two more levels, but that was as high as the stairs went. As slowly as he could, Maccabee toed open the door and tried to peek out. He saw a man with a huge rifle pointed his way a moment before he jerked his head back. There was a loud BANG!--chemical-powered weapon--followed immediately by the sound of a high-velocity round drilling through the door and burying itself deep into the opposite wall, just twenty centimeters clear of where Thet-zaw was standing. The small man hardly seemed to notice, just shifted himself out of the way.

“Whoever the fuck you are,” shouted the man in the corridor, “I want you off!” He fired again--BANG!--CLANG!--THUD!--to emphasize his point. “What the fuck did you do to Hines?”

Maccabee ignored the question and looked back towards Thet-zaw. The other man shrugged: the rifle the man in the hall was toting was slow; even if it had a higher rate of fire, just moving the thing to aim it was going to be a problem. Someone who moved quickly enough . . .

Maccabee spun, kicked the door open, and kept moving out of the line of fire as the door slammed to its stops, the man in the hallway fired his rifle again, and Thet-zaw ducked under the bullet and out into the hall. There was a shout, then the chattering roar of Thet-zaw’s machinepistol. Maccabee charged into the door a moment later, plowing it aside.

Thet-zaw was standing in the cross corridor, pointing his gun at a tall, young-looking woman who was pointing a modern railpistol back at him. Behind them, the man with the big rifle lay in the middle of the main corridor, blood seeping out from several wounds in his chest. No one else was visible. Maccabee pointed his gun at the young woman. Somehow, he didn’t think she was the angry one in the control room.

“This is not a stand-off,” he said slowly and clearly. “Put your gun down, or I shoot you.”

She dropped the gun. Thet-zaw darted forward, pocketed the gun, and then grabbed the girl, spinning her around and slamming her face-first to the floor. He jabbed a knee into the small of her back and yanked her arms around so that she let out a cry of pain, then pulled out a set of quick-binders and jerked them tight around her crossed wrists. With the woman thus disabled, he looked up at Maccabee and gave him a thumbs-up.

Maccabee returned the signal, then paused as he heard his com come to life. “We’re inside, Maccabee,” said Samara. “Moving your way.”

“Roger,” he replied. “I think we’ve got this under control.”

“Zhink again,” said the pissed-off voice from his right. Somehow another woman had gotten around them, and now she was covering Maccabee and Thet-zaw both with an automatic shotgun the size of Maccabee’s leg, the sort of weapon designed to hold back crowds of rioters, and not in a nice way. Unfortunately, she was behind Maccabee, and he didn’t have his weapons pointed her way. Thet-zaw’s machinepistol was slung over his shoulder, and he wasn’t moving his hand to grab it, wasn’t moving at all, his eyes locked on the woman with the shotgun.

“Put zem down, zlowly,” the woman instructed, her accent not as strong as the departed Hines’s. Maccabee crouched, put his guns on the floor, and stood again. “Good,” said the woman. “Now kick zem avay.” He did; one hit the wall close to the face of the other woman, still under Thet-zaw’s knee. The other skittered down to fetch up under the boot of the bleeding man in the hallway. “Now, turn around.”

Maccabee turned, keeping his hands at his sides and clearly in view. “Now what?” he asked.

“Now, you call off zis little raid, or I kill you,” she said.

Maccabee stood silently, calculating the odds. It wasn’t likely she was calling his bluff, considering that the usual raiders on these harvesters were little better than pirates. On the other hand, the ballistic material of his clothing was probably strong enough to let him survive a shot from the gun she held. If, that is, she didn’t shoot him in the head, hardly a difficult shot at this range. If he could buy time until Samara arrived . . .

“Three,” said the woman, obviously starting a count. “Two.”

Moving faster than the woman expected, Maccabee leapt sideways, into the other corridor, rolling across his shoulders and fetching up at the side of the downed rifleman. The sound of the firing shotgun was thunderous in the small space. Maccabee was already picking up the rifle, swinging its long, heavy barrel around. He heard Thet-zaw shout, a battlecry he hoped, and then the shotgun fired again; then it went to fully automatic fire, and a moment later, Thet-zaw fell heavily into the hallway where Maccabee was crouched. Blood streamed from the man’s leg, and his face was twisted in pain as he hauled himself into the corridor. Maccabee took an aiming point, and fired.

The rifle’s massive, high-powered round tunneled through the corner and blasted out into the crossing passage, where the woman with the shotgun was, thinking herself still covered from Maccabee’s fire. He heard a curse: a miss. The rifle was semi-automatic, and the curse gave him a better lock on where to fire. He pulled the trigger and sent another round crashing through the thin walls. This time he heard a scream, and before the sound had died, he was tossing the rifle aside, his other hand picking up his discarded pistol. Jumping to his feet, Maccabee rounded the corner at full speed. A shotgun bullet fell just behind him as the woman fired from her prone position, but he was just ahead of her. A moment later he was inside her weapon and pointing his own at her head.

“Drop it. Now.”

She did. Maccabee straightened, then heard a noise in the corridor he’d just left. He picked up the shotgun, ready to fire it one-handed. Then he heard Samara’s voice. “Maccabee?”

“Here,” he said. She came around the corner, took in the sights, and shook her head.

“Looks like we missed all the fun.”