|Episode 123: Finding the Back Door|
It was disconcerting to sit in the command dome of the giant harvester, watching the fury of Oudtshoorn’s storms crashing all around you, and yet barely feeling anything, hearing only a muted roar. The breathing of the men and women in the dome was louder than the sound of thunder outside it; only the sound of fist-sized hail really penetrated the sound damping, that and lightning actually striking the harvester, which it did about once every minute. Each time the hull would throb like a giant bell, not a loud noise, not compared to the thunder outside, but the sound was like something physical, hitting you in the chest and lifting you slightly off the deck plating.
Maccabee was very, very happy he wasn’t sitting through this storm in the company of Chotan and the monks in their cavernous shelter. If it meant flinching with each plasma-like burst of lightning, that was a price he was willing to pay.
“We don’t have any cargo,” growled Alice Valentine, who sat just across from Maccabee. She was the woman that Thet-zaw had disabled in the corridor just below the dome, and though her mother and father were currently being tended in the infirmary by Fia and Obu, she had not thought to moderate her opinions towards the people who had put them there. This was probably the fifth or sixth time she’d made this particular claim, as though she still couldn’t believe that they had not hijacked the harvester for its cargo, extant or not.
Valentine’s mother, Morne, was not seriously injured, surprisingly enough. The single rifle round that Maccabee had hit her with her done nothing worse than graze her leg. The elder Valentine was the captain of the harvester, which she owned and operated for the Gollnitz Combine. Technically, the combine still carried the debt on the machine, so it wasn’t as though she could pick up and leave, but Alice claimed that the family operation was in the free and clear.
Her father’s name was Theo Shaddock; the four bullet wounds in his chest probably spelled a quick end, but Fia was doing her level best to keep the man alive. Alice had refused Maccabee’s invitation to join her parents in the infirmary, insisting that she remain as their “hostage” in the command dome. Maccabee had made it clear to Fia that if Theo’s condition looked immediately terminal, his daughter was to be summoned to his side. It seemed the least he could do for ordering the man’s death. She wouldn’t want to face it—of course not, who would?—but it would be better for her later in life. At least Maccabee thought so. He’d said goodbye to his parents over their caskets, at about half Alice’s age. Maybe he wasn’t a good judge of these things.
The last of the harvester’s crew was one John Hines, a recent addition, and not a part of the family. Maccabee had had the shuttle look for him, but there’d been no sign of the man, despite the fact he’d been seriously injured in the fall from the harvester’s belly. Either he’d died in a gutter somewhere, or he’d decided that riding out the storms until the next harvester came along was preferable to being captured by the same people who’d made him jump out of his vehicle. Valentine—the younger one, that is—was obviously upset. Maccabee couldn’t blame the girl; living on this thing with just your parents for company would definitely be unbearable. Luckily for her, she now had eight new people to play with.
“Why are you doing this to us?” asked Valentine, now sounding less argumentative than plaintive. “Why?”
“For the last time,” said Samara, her voice tight, “and I do mean the last time, we are not picking on you. We had no idea who was on this thing. As soon as we’re done, we’ll give it back. But for now, please shut the hell up before I kill you!” Samara forced her lips into a smile. “Please?”
The girl recoiled under that horrible glare and Maccabee made a motion for Samara to back off. She did, though her lip was curled in disgust. Notoriously short anyway, Samara’s patience seemed almost non-existent these days. Alger stepped up between the two women and crouched in front of Alice Valentine.
“Look, lass, just sit quiet, OK? No one’s going tae hurt ya.”
“Fuck you,” spat the girl. Alger scowled and stood, walking to the other side of the room.
“Maccabee. . . .” Samara’s warning trailed off.
“Fine,” he growled. “Sandus, take her downstairs. Put her with the others.”
“Wait!” Alice tried to squirm away from Sandus, but the big man grabbed her easily and hauled her to her feet. “No! Wait! I’ll be good, honest!”
Maccabee sighed in relief when she was gone from the room and the hatch in the floor sealed shut, blocking out the girl’s protests. Let Fia and Obu deal with her for a while.
“Makes me glad I’m not ever having children,” muttered Kenyetta Mitei, the crewmember who had piloted Hornet’s shuttle up to the harvester once it was in hand. She was a tall, lean woman, with ebony skin and pearly-white teeth. Just seeing her face might have inspired a sense of comfort, but she was festooned with guns and explosives. Maccabee could only wish now he’d brought her along for the attack on the harvester—the grenades would have been very useful.
“Tell me about it,” agreed Samara.
“They’re not bad, kids,” countered Alger, sounding reluctant to enter this particular fray. “My two are all right.”
“And when was the last time you saw them?” asked Kenyetta. Alger shrugged. “The mother is the one who has to put up with their shit. That’s the way it’s always been, friend.”
“Actually,” began Samara, but Maccabee cut her off.
“Enough.” He raised a hand to forestall any other comebacks. No one else spoke. Around them lightning flashed, and a few more hailstones hammered down onto the dome. Water poured down the sides of the ceramaplast shelter, but a tornado was clearly visible off the port bow, only a kilometer or so distant. “We have other things to discuss.” He turned to Samara. “How long until we need to turn?”
“Well,” she answered, scratching her head and leaning up against a panel, “this thing isn’t exactly maneuverable. I figure to make a ninety degree turn will take twenty kilometers and an hour or more.”
“That long?” asked Alger. “Christ.”
“And that’s assuming we can even override the lockouts,” pointed out Samara. “It’d be an easy job for Ashburn, if she was here.”
“We’ll muddle through without her,” said Maccabee, just a hint of impatience in his voice. “I can hack the lockouts.”
“You’d better start soon, then,” said Samara. “We’re going to need to start turning in another hour, maybe less.” She looked out into the storm, a placid expression on her face. It was not a beautiful face, thought Maccabee. Attractive enough, but harder than most, and the high cheekbones gave her an almost mechanical look, as though she’d been constructed rather than born.
“Depends on how long this storm lasts,” Samara finished, her voice so soft it was barely audible.
Maccabee felt the hull shudder again under another lightning strike. Some instrument recorded each one, carefully measuring its intensity and impact location, so that engineers and repair crews could make sure that the harvester had sustained no lasting damage, fix whatever minor breakages had occurred and send the beast back out again.
“Any word on Thet-zaw?” he asked, breaking the sudden silence that had fallen on the command dome.
“His leg will need treatment on Hornet,” answered Kenyetta, “that’s for damn sure.” She smiled one of her brilliant smiles. “He’ll survive, though, despite all his bitching.”
“Good.” Maccabee shook his head. “Still. . . .” He looked up. “Could you excuse us for a moment, Kenyetta?” The tall woman nodded, paused a moment as though she had something to add, then departed, climbing down through the hatch into the harvester’s main hull.
“What is it, lad?” asked Alger when they were alone. “Somewhat on your mind?”
“He’s probably wondering,” said Samara, “just how many of us are going to die on this little adventure of his. Wondering if Thet-zaw is just the beginning, and if seven of us are enough for this job. Basically the same things you’re thinking about, Alger, only he’s the one who gets to make the decision.”
“Thanks,” muttered Maccabee. Damn the woman anyway. “I want to ask you what you think, both of you. Though Samara may have made her point already.”
“Not by a long shot,” she replied smoothly. “Mac, I say we blow the fuckers to hell, as many as we can. I say we take this war back to them and keep going until we’re knee-deep in blood, be it theirs or ours; I don’t care which. People die all the time, most of them for no good reason.”
“Most of them for no reason at all,” said Alger. “Is a bad reason worse than that?”
“You don’t think we should go on?” asked Maccabee.
“Ah, bloody fuckin’ hell,” muttered the big Scot. “We should go on with it, sure, but can we? That’s another question.”
“We need a way to evaluate our options,” Maccabee agreed. “It’s possible we’ll have enough time when we get there, but they’re going to know we’re coming; there’s no way this thing is sneaking up on anyone.”
“These are all points that might have been better thought of before we hijacked this harvester,” Samara pointed out. She raised a quick hand to stop any replies. “I could have raised them then too, and I didn’t. That’s not my point. What I’m saying is, we are out of time. We have two options now: one, we go through with the original plan, hit them fast and hard, and hope for the best; two, we launch the shuttle, or better yet one of the harvester’s support craft, fly out there, drop in under their radar, and scope the place out.” She leaned back again. “If we’re going to do that, we’ll have to leave now, I might add.”
As if to punctuate the lack of wisdom in such a policy, another lightning strike hammered the hull; there were tornadoes on two sides of the harvester now, and the rain had dissipated almost completely. As the curtains of precipitation lifted, more and more tornadoes appeared, first four, then ten, then at least twenty. In the silence of the command dome the view was horrifying.
“Option three,” said Alger, “we get the hell off this planet and find a beach somewhere.” He grinned. “That’s my vote.”
“I’m taking Obu and his fucking laser rifle,” said Maccabee, getting to his feet. “Everyone else stays here. So does the shuttle. Alger, what do they have on board?”
“V/STOLs, two of them,” answered the other man, sliding into the command chair Maccabee had just vacated. “I’d recommend the jet. She looks pretty sturdy. You’ll. . . .” He trailed off, looking out the dome. “Fucking hell,” he whispered.
Maccabee spun, just in time to see one of the tornadoes finally intersect the path of the harvester. The hull jerked sideways, nearly sending him to the floor. Staggering to the side, he watched in fascinated horror as the kilometer-wide twister engulfed the after section of the harvester. The interior was filled with a howling sound, and the scratching, banging and crashing of debris being dragged across the outside of the harvester by four hundred kilometer per hour winds. Nearly half the machine was engulfed, and still the thing was coming on.
“Should we move?” suggested Alger, raising his voice to be heard. The sound dampening couldn’t possibly keep up with this much noise; it was the sound of a thousand rocket engines running at once, a terrible fury like nothing Maccabee had ever imagined. He was rooted to the spot, watching as meter after meter of hull disappeared into the storm. Then it was at the dome, and suddenly, shockingly, they were inside it. Dirt and debris hammered the ceramaplast, and the noise was indescribable, but Maccabee stood rooted to the spot, watching.
A moment later, after what seemed an eternity of cacophonous noise, there was a sudden, frightening stillness. They were at the storm’s center, and looking up, Maccabee saw a column of brown and grey, stretching upwards for thousands of meters into the heart of the storms above. The spinning walls of the open space were moving so quickly they seemed almost solid.
The stillness lasted only an instant, a single breath, two beats of his heart, and then the madness of the storm returned. The harvester shuddered again, and seemed to slip sideways, and less than a minute after it had arrived, the tornado passed on.
Maccabee breathed again. The harvester was still moving; its normal sounds had returned. The only signs of the tornado were the deep gouges in the hull and the sparkling scratches in the ceramaplast dome. One part of the dome had actually cracked, not badly, but enough that the whole thing would probably have to be replaced. The tornado had unleashed incredible force to do that sort of damage.
“My God,” breathed Alger. The others couldn’t say anything for a moment. Then the hatch opened and Fia stuck her head inside.
“Was that a fucking tornado? Are you OK?” Her green eyes were wide with a mixture of awe and fear.
“Get Obu,” ordered Maccabee, snapping out of his incredulous daze. “Tell him I’ll be waiting for him in the hanger.” Fia nodded and dropped down the ladder. “And make sure he brings that damn rifle!” barked Maccabee after her.
Turning, he motioned to Samara. “Make the turn when you can. We’ll be back in two hours or so.”
“Understood,” she replied with a nod.
“Be bloody careful out there, cap,” said Alger, his voice still a little shaky.
Maccabee gave them a last wave, then dropped through the hatch into the corridor below. It was a short walk to the hanger, which was on the port side of the harvester, nestled between the main port grain store and a smaller hold for vegetables. It had taken some effort to get Hornet’s shuttle inside, and Maccabee was pleased to see that Alger had blocked in the smaller, prop-driven V/STOL, leaving the jet bird free for a take-off if necessary. Wondering if his aerofoil piloting skills were still up to snuff, he walked over to the jet, ducking under one swept-back wing and letting his hand trail on the smooth control surface.
The jet was an ugly thing—most V/STOLs are—and sported an ungainly-looking air ram at the front, right underneath the cockpit. A delta wing started just aft of the good-sized canopy, and twin control fins sprouted just above the main engine exhaust, one to either side of the main fuselage. By the time Maccabee had circled the thing once, Obu was coming into the hanger, and the interior door was closing silently behind him.
“What’s going on, boss?” asked Obu as he came to a halt next to Maccabee and the jet. “We taking that for a spin?”
Maccabee couldn’t quite tell if Obu was apprehensive or thrilled. “Yup,” he said. “You’ve got the rifle?”
“Right here,” said Obu, hefting the weapon. “Care to explain what we’re doing?”
“In the air.”
Maccabee climbed the three-step ladder attached to the side of the little jet, and pulled on the canopy. It was not locked and opened smoothly, speaking to some efforts on the part of the harvester’s crew to keep the thing in working order. That was a smart move, considering they might need the jet to escape or go for help. Either way. Maccabee levered himself into the pilot’s seat, which was forward. Obu was right behind him, and a moment later the other man was pulling the canopy back down and locking it. A telltale on Maccabee’s console turned from a muted red to green. As the ship was still turned off, it was the only active display.
“OK,” said Maccabee, more to himself than to Obu. Reaching a tentative hand out—the controls were labeled in Afrikaans—he touched a stud that looked like a starter button. Almost immediately, there was a soft cough from underneath their seats, followed by a full-throated roar as the heavy turbines fired up. Maccabee was suddenly sitting on a few thousand pounds of thrust, the seat vibrating ever so slightly. Somewhat belatedly, he reached over his shoulders and pulled down the crash harness, clipping its various parts securely together in the four-way joint centered on his chest; then he tugged the straps tight.
Everything looked good on the various readouts in front of him. They were all graphical, but none of them were three dimensional. Still, it was a similar layout to a shuttle. The only trick was the flying dynamic, which would be completely different for an aerofoil like this. Not to mention that V/STOLs are notoriously hard to pilot. . . .
“Samara, this is Maccabee,” said the captain, not bothering with the jet’s radio, instead using his own com. “You read?”
“I hear you. Ready to go?” Her voice sounded . . . disturbed. She didn’t get frightened, not Samara Kar Deffin.
“Open her up.”
The vehicle bay had twin overhead doors, and they opened now, splitting in the middle, sinking slightly, and rolling out of sight into the reinforced hull. Immediately, debris and rain started to fall into the tight space, and Maccabee fought to remember to breathe as he eased forward the throttle on the little jet. The thing nearly jumped into the air, so powerful were its engines, and they missed one of the doors by mere centimeters. Then they were in the clear, relatively speaking, and the doors were already rolling shut under them. Maccabee banked, giving the control dome a quick wave—it was all that he could spare, possibly more—then shifted the vectored thrust from down to aft and went to full power.
Like a missile from a silo, the little jet surged forward, hammering Maccabee back into his seat. He remembered just then that there was no gravity compensation on this craft, eased back on the throttle, and then jerked the stick hard left, dodging out of the way of a massive, nearly-black tornado. Rocks and worse dinged off the canopy, but the hardened plastic—it wasn’t even ceramaplast—held firm. Warning lights flickered and Maccabee fought against sudden darkness as the hard turn threatened to black him out completely. Easing up on the control stick, he took a deep breath, then turned as far as he could to see Obu. The other man’s eyes looked wild, but he was still conscious.
“You all right?” asked Maccabee.
“Fuck! Yeah, I’m fine.” Obu didn’t sound particularly fine, but this wasn’t the time for a discussion about it. Maccabee looked back front.
The storm here was subsiding, ever so slightly. Lightning still hit the little jet twice, but its electronics—and its cockpit—were hardened against that certainty on this planet, and the jet shrugged off the impacts with hardly a shudder. Maccabee drove her around another tornado at a more leisurely pace, then glanced down at the navigation panel, trying to get a fix on his location.
Unlike Hornet’s shuttle, the V/STOL was linked directly into the planetary network, which included many ground-based relays and markers, expressly for help in this sort of situation. The harvester roadway was a particularly large landmark, and the little jet honed in on it immediately, using buried transceivers in the ceramacrete to pinpoint its location. A map flashed up on the navigation panel, and Maccabee nodded. He flashed the image back to Obu’s repeaters.
“I’m watching the road, Obu,” he said, ducking and weaving the plane around various pockets of bad weather. “Navigate for me.”
“On it,” said the other man. “Can’t read any of this, though,” he added, grunting a moment later as Maccabee threw the jet into a short dive and then banked hard right before pulling up. “Easy, cap.”
They turned north ten minutes later, and then headed in the rough direction of the compound. Maccabee had a few landmarks in his head, two of which appeared on the map on board the jet, and he used them to hone in on their destination. It was an inexact process to say the least, but it would probably work. Hopefully. The further north they proceeded, the more Maccabee dropped the plane’s altitude, until they were skimming the fields. The generally flat topography of the planet made this task mercifully easier, though it gave them little room for maneuver. Luckily, the storms were finally passing.
“I give it another twenty klicks, cap,” said Obu as the first glimmers of sun broke through the heavy clouds. Rain was still spattering the windscreen, hitting pretty hard at several hundred kilometers per hour, but the outlook was much better. “As flat as this ground is, it’s going to be easy to pick us up soon.”
“Not if we stay low enough,” muttered Maccabee, letting them slip to twenty meters. The green and brown of the fields blurred below them into an orange glow, lit by the sun as it started to shine again.
“Not to argue with you, sir,” Obu argued, “but we’re coming in pretty damn close.”
“Not to worry,” replied the captain. He shifted some of the thrust to the vertical axis, immediately losing speed and a bit of altitude. Bumping up the throttle returned them to an even keel, and then Maccabee took them down to just five meters. Pools of standing water left by the storm rippled under them, and their forward speed dropped to just fifty kph. “Tell me when we’re inside two klicks.”
“At two klicks, they’ll see us. Hell, they’ll see us at ten, even this low.” Obu was clearly unhappy.
“The storm just passed, Obu. They’ll still have their heads down.” He didn’t add I hope, not out loud. He would rather risk blowing the whole mission than killing everyone with an ill-considered attack.
“Five kilometers,” said the other man a moment later. Maccabee’s hands tightened on the controls. If he had owned this facility, he’d be damn sure to equip it with anti-air defenses. Most of them would also be automatic, no matter what he’d told Obu.
Two seconds later warning lights flashed on the heads-up display, a tone screamed in their ears, and they knew that an EM emitter had hit them. The only question was how long it would be until the missiles fired.
Maccabbe dropped the jet onto its belly, releasing the landing gear just in time to catch their fall. The jet hit hard, but stayed upright and on its wheels. “Out!” he roared, opening the hatch with one hand while triggering the quick-release catch on his harness with the other. The canopy popped open just as it was supposed to, and Maccabee levered himself out and over the lip of the plane’s fuselage, dropping the meter and a half to the ground. He landed in knee deep mud, nearly twisting his ankle, then rolled forward. Mud splashed as Obu landed beside him, and the two of them slogged away from the jet, both tensed, waiting for the inevitable missile.
They rolled over the next row of crops and hit the dirt, breathing hard. Obu’d had the presence of mind to grab his rifle, and he used it now to sight in the rough direction of the compound they sought, the telescopic sight cutting through the intervening twenty-eight-hundred meters or so.
“I got nothing,” he whispered. Maccabee nodded, still watching the jet. Its engines had shut down the moment he’d left the controls, but steam was still rising from various hot surfaces. Thanks to the uneven ground and the rough landing, the V/STOL was canted at a sharp angle, its left wing nearly touching the mud. It might never fly again.
When five minutes passed without a missile, Maccabee pushed himself up to a crouch and slid back down into the crop row. “Let’s go,” he said.
“We’re not flying the hell out of here?” asked Obu, sliding down with Maccabee.
“Obu, this is not a democracy,” answered Maccabee. This bickering had gone on long enough. It was time to remind everyone just who was in charge. “You follow orders, or you walk home, understood?”
“Yes, sir!” barked the other man, a trifle too loudly. He shook his head. “Sorry.”
“Now, let’s go.”
They moved off, trying to keep a balance between speed and stealth. After five hundred meters, they intersected a transverse drainage culvert. It was chest-deep in muddy water, but it would keep them well out of sight, and Maccabee thought he’d seen one running in the direction they needed from the air. He jumped in, followed by Obu, though the man grimaced in disgust. Fifty meters in this culvert, and they crossed another one, running the way they wanted to go, and only waist-deep in water. Luckily, the current was not terribly strong.
After two thousand meters and fifteen minutes, both of them were so wet and muddy they barely looked human. It would be a miracle if their weapons still functioned, but Maccabee hoped they wouldn’t need them anyway. They crawled out of the ditch and up to the crest of a crop row that sported tall plants—at least fifty centimeters high.
And there it was. Just a hundred meters or so away, across a small stretch of fallow land, there was a low, ceramacrete bunker, perhaps a meter high, and five square. No openings were visible from their position, but a trio of antennas, all low and heavily reinforced, jutted about a meter above the roof. No people were in evidence.
“Is this the front, or the back?” asked Obu, keeping his voice just below a whisper. There was no way of knowing what sort of listening tech was employed here, so using their comm links was a bad plan.
“My guess is this is the front,” answered Maccabee. “It’s pretty large.”
“Then where’s the other door?”
Maccabee raised his head just slightly and looked left and right. There was no other evidence of man-made structures, but a small entrance would be easy to conceal between the crop rows. There was no way to tell where from the top of their little ridge. “We’ll need to be closer,” he said.
Wriggling forward, Maccabee slid into the next depression, then waited as Obu followed. They moved up and down over another two rows, until they were one row away from the fallow area where the main entrance stood. Maccabee glanced at the chrono on his wrist and swore. They were running out of time. If things were moving as planned, Samara would be about ready to start her turn, and then all hell would break loose. He needed to get back to the harvester.
“Shit,” muttered Obu a moment later. He was still in the gully between the crop rows. “I think I found the door, captain.”
Something in his voice made Maccabee roll over and reach for his pistols; as he did so, he saw the two men coming down the gully towards them, both obviously armed.
“They haven’t spotted us yet,” said Obu, not moving a muscle, but already drawing a bead on the two men with his rifle. At this range, the pair would be easy kills.
“No!” hissed Maccabee. He shifted, keeping his head towards the men, but moving his legs over the ridge of the crop row and back down the other side. Pushing backwards, he slid down until only his head was above the top. “Move!”
Obu didn’t hesitate, just crawled, keeping as low and as slow as he dared. He rolled quickly over the top and Maccabee saw a head turn their way a moment before he ducked down. “Move it!” he whispered.
They started running in a crouch down the gully between the crop lines, only a single, meter-high ridge separating them from the bunker on one side and the patrol on the other. It was just a matter of time.