There is a certain awkwardness to making love in zero g. Thrusting movements tend to send a body careening into walls or ceiling, and any rapid, repetitive motion is similarly difficult. The advantages are often spectacular, however, and well worth the effort for those who are willing to practice just a little bit. Almost infinite variety is possible, as bodies intertwine in a weightless embrace. Time seems to slow down, replaced by pure sensation, with nothing touching but skin on skin. Turn off the lights, and the experience is even more stimulating.
The lights were off in the room William Maccabee had rented. That wasn’t completely accurate, actually, because he’d turned on the active lighting in the ceiling and walls, and it was currently replicating the exterior star field with a high degree of accuracy. Opening his eyes and raising his head from where he’d nestled it against the neck of his companion, Hornet’s captain looked around him and was nearly dizzy with the effect. He gasped for breath, so real did it seem.
“Oh, yesss,” breathed Tabitha, misinterpreting his body language. She squeezed her muscles around him, holding him inside her, letting her head fall back and starting a slow spin that would eventually take them down to the bed.
Maccabee closed his eyes again and concentrated on the moment, sliding out of her and then back in, flexing his legs to partially counteract the movement of his hips. She felt good, very good, like he remembered. Only he’d just met Tabitha, had known her for only a day. Ming. She felt like Ming.
The thought crashed in on him, and he slipped out of Tabitha, moving suddenly awkwardly, like a zero-g novice. She squeaked and reached for him, pulling on his penis and guiding him back to her, but gently warded her off.
“What?” she moaned. “What are you doing?”
He had no answer. At the least, he owed her a satisfying end to the evening. Wordless, he pulled her to him again, settled her onto himself, and went through the motions. She never knew the difference.
Outside the brothel, Maccabee stood for a moment on the streets of Kuroishima and breathed the “night” air. The station was bustling around him, men and women moving through the dark, half-lit space, some in groups, some alone. Most were here for what Maccabee had just enjoyed—not the right word, but he didn’t want to think of any others—though many couldn’t afford that particular level of service. Tabitha was more than a simple prostitute; she was an excellent prostitute. At least she enjoyed her work, he thought, which was more than he could say.
The image of Ming—naked, sprawled under him, glowing from her orgasm as he was from his—was burned in his mind. Aside from a drinking binge, he doubted he would get the picture out of his mind that night, nor did he want to. Images were all he had left to hold on to.
He shook himself, smiling without any humor. Still caught up in the moping; a few years back he’d never have let it distract him from a woman as beautiful as Tabitha. It was time to shake this feeling. Yes, terrible things had happened, and he missed Ming and all the others who had died, felt like something inside him had been ripped out, but there was work to be done. Or at least there was killing, and that was probably just as good.
Maccabee stepped out into the crowded streets, moving through the pack like a battleship through a sky full of freighters. Even the kind of people who frequented these parts of Kuroishima knew to give this tall, imposing black man some space, not least because of the manic, not-quite-sane smile that painted his face at that moment. Though impeccably dressed in black and bright yellow, something about Maccabee exuded a clear threat. He was only half aware of the reactions of these people as they moved surreptitiously out of his path; the others, the ones who did not react in this fashion, were the ones his instincts were looking for.
Two hundred meters along the main drag, he turned left, heading towards a less-frequented part of this little city. He had a meeting to attend, though he wasn’t sure that he was ready for it. Still, Hornet and her crew had been here for two months for repair and refit, and not only were they running out of money, the sort of hedonistic dissolution that always seemed to afflict a crew in port was starting to set in. Not quickly, not with a crew this good, but eventually it would be a problem. Better to nip that in the bud, no matter what Maccabee’s personal feelings.
The bar was nameless, as far as Maccabee knew; it was crafted of gleaming metal and glass, laced through with filaments of light that seemed to come from nowhere and actually came from millimeter-thin optical fibers embedded in the various transparent and semi-transparent materials that lined the walls, floors and ceilings. The place was big, and not even half full, and the men taking money at the doors were not amused. By anything. They checked Maccabee over with a quick glance, gave him the nod they reserved for rough equals, and took his money. Then they let him inside ahead of a small line of other, less fortunate souls. It was the least they could do: he’d spent a lot of money here already.
The interior space of the bar was huge, but broken into sections by partitions and walls. Blues and greens dominated the colors shifting and moving through every flat surface, punctuated by the occasional reds and shocking violets. Bass-heavy music assaulted the ears, but wasn’t quite loud enough to cause pain. Windows and gaps highlighted the walls, showing tantalizing views into other parts of the warren. There were no unattractive people here, just sculpted bodies dancing, laughing, talking, and sometimes doing a bit more than any of those. The air was cool and comfortable and carried the tangy sweet smell of Mist and a mélange of other, innocuous drugs.
A man and a woman stepped up to Maccabee almost the moment he came through the door; both were gorgeous and clearly dressed to catch the unwary. The woman was tall and lean, though her breasts were full and heavy—and very noticeable, fully exposed as her outfit left them. Obviously an enhancement, though skillfully done. At her side, the man looked a bit short, but he was well-muscled, and wore no shirt, allowing his glistening upper torso to shine in the multihued lights.
“Welcome,” said the woman. “I’m Moye, and this is Salle.” She draped herself onto Maccabee’s arm, letting her breasts rub softly against him. “Can we show you a good time?”
The man—Maccabee had already forgotten the names—slid up on his other side and ran a hand lightly across his chest. They were both worth a second look, but Maccabee had more pressing matters on his mind. Not to mention the lack of success that had met his efforts with Tabitha.
He shook his head slightly. “Thank you, no.” Before they could say anything more, he smoothly extricated himself and moved on. A few other women gave him appraising looks, but they weren’t professionals, and a glance at his face assured them that they could find other catches tonight.
Towards the back of the bar, Maccabee mounted a short flight of stairs to a higher level that was somewhat insulated both from the sound of the other guests and from their sight as well. As he moved into the small room that took up this area, several heads turned towards him sharply, and conversation stilled. Then two of the revealed faces smiled at him; not all of them, just two.
Samara kar Deffin was one, Maccabee’s first officer and closest friend; Alger Brelloc was the other, the big black Scotsman with an almost laughable grin on his broad face. Amathea Yakazuma had no expression, only the face she wore when killing—her return to sanity had been all too brief. She was matched—at least in lack of smile—by chief engineer Tangria Ashburn and the usually-jovial Doctor Lillie Monteux. Maccabee felt all of his hesitations come crashing back in on him, but he simply smiled in return and moved to the last free seat. A drink was already there, a martini with a sliver of pickled ginger.
“Am I late?” asked Hornet’s captain as he sat and picked up the delicate, filigreed martini glass. A sip assured him that the bartender had not forgotten how to make the real thing, sake, vodka and a hint of sharp ginger. He savored the taste on his tongue for a moment before swallowing.
“We’re early,” said Samara, putting down a tall, thin glass of deep-golden beer. The bar produced its own brew, a tangy, malty ale that almost seemed to tickle the nose.
“Ya didn’a miss anything,” Alger added, still grinning. He shifted in his cushy chair, tried again, then grimaced and pulled out a massive pistol from behind him. “Bloody hell, this thing’s uncomfortable.” He tossed the weapon on the table.
“Isn’t that technically illegal?” asked Maccabee mildly. He smiled and took another sip of his drink.
“No more than your own!” growled the other man.
“Are we going to get to business?” Ashburn asked, her voice almost too soft to hear. “When are we leaving? Where are we going?” She glanced at the others. “That’s what I’m here for, not drinking.”
“Calmly, Ashburn,” said Maccabee, his smile fading away. He leaned forward and put down the martini. “That’s what we’re all here for. You won’t be disappointed.” Glancing Samara’s way, he repeated, “You won’t be disappointed.”
“Good,” Monteux said. “I’ve a book to read, and it’s not getting done while I sit here.” She smiled slightly to take the sting from her words, but she was obviously still troubled. Perhaps by Yakazuma, who remained silent.
“Then let’s get to it,” agreed Maccabee, clearing his throat, then cursing himself for doing so, as always. No signs of weakness, especially not now. “We are leaving. Tomorrow, specifically at twenty-hundred hours, local. The permits are in place and the docking authority has already been notified. I’m giving the crew the rest of the night, and then I’m issuing the recall signal. Report time will be oh-nine-hundred; Pinzon”—Ducila Pinzon was Maccabee’s security chief—“will be ready at that time to round up stragglers. Everyone is to be on board by oh-ten-hundred, including ourselves. No exceptions.”
“Ten hours is scant time to work back up to departure, captain,” said Alger in all seriousness. Considering the Herculean nature of the crew’s efforts at relaxation, he was probably right.
“That’s for us to resolve. We’ll have time underway to bring the crew back up to standards.” Maccabee smiled. “It’s going to be a long haul.”
“Where?” asked Ashburn
“Into the Core Systems,” replied Maccabee. “I’ll know more specifically in a short while.”
“The Core Systems?” Monteux sounded confused. Alger and Ashburn looked similarly flummoxed, but Samara just nodded. Yakazuma’s expression did not change. Maccabee was worried about her, now. He’d thought that she’d recovered, at least somewhat.
“Captain?” asked Ashburn, suddenly using his title again. Perhaps she wasn’t as angry as she was trying to appear. “Aren’t the pirates active in this area of space?”
“We tried the direct approach, Ashburn,” said Maccabee, sitting back in his chair. “It didn’t work. You know that. I’m now exploring a different avenue.”
“Care to explain that a bit more?” asked Monteux, raising an eyebrow. Her own drink appeared to be nothing more than water, though it was impossible to tell for sure.
“The people we are after,” said Maccabee, “are not pirates in the traditional sense. They are more of a crime syndicate. Their main income is from protection money, gleaned from merchant corporations operating in this part of the PARC. Now, there must be some connection there, some link. We are going to follow that link.”
“Follow the money,” added Alger, now nodding his head. “Classic.”
“Exactly,” Maccabee agreed. “I have contact information for a half dozen companies that operate in the Muk’uk Sector; between them, at least one must be paying something, probably more. Once we find out where and when and how the transfers take place, then we’ll be able to track them, hopefully back to the source itself.”
“They won’t be cooperative,” said Ashburn. “The companies, I mean. What they’re doing is illegal; they won’t want it to be public knowledge.”
“Understood,” Maccabee replied. “We’ll have to approach the situation very carefully. These people are going to have a lot of influence in the Core Systems. These are big corporations, Sphere-wide operations, trillions in net worth, that sort of thing. Most of ‘em probably have more pull than the Central Government.”
That last comment elicited a few chuckles. The Pan-African Regional Cooperative was the largest and wealthiest of the interstellar governments in the First Colonial Sphere, matched only by Earth itself for sheer commercial power; politically and militarily, however, the PARC was almost a non-entity. The Central Government did what it could and relied on the Sector Authorities to keep the peace, and on the balance of trade to hold off aggressive neighbors. Excepting a few frontier worlds that jumped back and forth across various borders, the system worked well enough.
“Unless there’s anything else,” continued Maccabee, “I’m going to call this meeting over. You know your duties.” They all nodded, all except Yakazuma. “I’ll be meeting with Sel in another hour, and Samara will be tracking down Russ.” Massat Sel served as a sort of jack of all trades on board Hornet, good at everything, bad at nothing, but not specialized enough for a particular post; he was a vital part of the crew. Damien Russ was the ship’s navigation officer and her pilot, now that Ming was dead. “I wish Samara luck in her endeavors.”
“I’ll find him,” she replied with her usual calm confidence. “I know right where he is.”
“There is something else,” said Yakazuma suddenly, and her voice sounded almost normal. Her face, too, had come alive again, and Maccabee breathed a sigh of relief.
“I think this is a bad idea,” she said. She was looking only at Maccabee, meeting his eyes, not even acknowledging the others around them. “We’ll lose the trail; we might never find them again.”
“We’ve already lost the trail, lass,” rumbled Alger, but Yakazuma ignored him.
“You’re suggesting we stay in Sector?” asked Maccabee. “That we keep tracking them this way, despite the costs?”
“Don’t patronize me, Maccabee,” she said with a small frown. “We don’t all have to stay; just a few, or even one.”
There was silence after that. Maccabee felt his heart beating harder. How had this happened? How had he become so attached to this woman, who for the last years he’d merely dismissed as a “grunt,” as a mercenary of questionable ethical restraint?
Turning to the others, Maccabee said softly, “Will you all please excuse me? I’ll see you on board.” They left without any words. Only Samara hesitated, exchanging a long glance with her captain. Then she nodded and stepped out of the little room.
“I thought you said you weren’t leaving me,” Maccabee said after another moment of silence.
“You’re leaving, not me,” she pointed out with a self-mocking smile. “Look, Maccabee,” she continued immediately, not giving him time to answer that, “this isn’t about revenge, or not just. These people are professionals, just like we are, and they’re going to cover their trail. I think we should follow any lead we can, as hard as we can. Your idea is good, it’ll probably work, but if it doesn’t there needs to be a backup, some sort of . . . something else.” She grimaced in frustration. “I’m sounding like an idiot.”
“No,” he countered. “You’re not, not at all. I think you’re right, but I don’t want anyone staying behind, Amathea; no one.”
“Especially not me?” she asked him, genuinely curious.
“Yes,” he nodded. “But that’s not the point. It’s too dangerous.”
“Bullshit.” Yakazuma leaned back and took a swig of her drink, some yellow-gold concoction that was steaming ever so slightly. “I know what I’m doing. I’ve been doing this for a long time. You know I can handle it.”
“I want you with me,” Maccabee said after a short pause. It was out now, in the open, not that it had been a big secret.
“I’m not going to be much use in the Core Systems, Maccabee,” Yakazuma replied with another grin. “Subtlety is not my strong suit.”
“But you’ll need it here, too,” he pointed out.
“Stop it,” she said firmly. “The decision is made. I need to help you in my own way; this is how it’s going to get done.”
Maccabee sighed and leaned back in his chair. Downing the rest of the martini, he shot an angry glare at Yakazuma, but the woman blithely ignored him, as women are sometimes wont to do. She was right, on every count, except that he was going to feel naked without her. And who did he send with her? There was no way that he was leaving her to this alone.
“Who are you taking with you?” he asked. “Have you thought about it?”
“Of course not,” she said, “I just made up my mind five minutes ago.” She cocked her head to the side. “Any suggestions?”
“Not off hand,” he muttered. Bad enough to be losing one person without suggesting another. There were people on board Hornet he’d be happy to lose, but that wasn’t exactly the kind of person he wanted to stick with Yakazuma for a mission like this. So, faced with no easy choice, he made a hard one. “How about Simon?”
Simon Tamil was Hornet’s other remaining pilot, a specialist with old and outdated hardware and possibly the most brilliant mechanical engineer Maccabee had ever known. He was also a drug addict, but that sort of thing was pretty standard for Maccabee’s crew.
Yakazuma nodded slowly. “You’re sending him to watch over me?”
“It’s not the perfect choice, but he knows what he’s doing. Most of the time.” Maccabee smiled. “Honestly, I don’t want to send anyone. My decisions have been . . . less than perfect in the last few months.”
“Give it a rest, Maccabee,” said Yakazuma. “You’ve been wallowing in guilt for long enough. Yeah, we took hits, and yes, people died, but you’ve been busy for a month cheapening those deaths.” He blinked, momentarily too surprised to respond. “Every enemy we’ve faced is in the ground, Maccabee. We took out one of their ships, we nuked one of their bases, we made it highly unlikely that they’ll ever be able to use Makassar as a hide again, and no one has survived to tell about it except one frightened merchant ship that turned tail and ran as soon as it saw us.”
“I forgot you were a mercenary,” he said, finally; then he held up a hand to forestall her response. “I don’t mean that in a negative way, either, Amathea. You’re seeing what we’ve done right, and I’ve only been seeing what I did wrong.” Maccabee grimaced. “Not that I care to have it pointed out to me quite so directly.”
“It’s about time someone did,” Yakazuma replied, starting to smile again. “Look, we may be at an impasse, but the other side is worse off. They don’t know what they’re up against, and they’re running scared, I promise it. Add me and Simon into the equation and they’re going to be in a lot more trouble than they ever thought possible.” The smile was turning downright nasty. “If I can’t take out one more ship before you get back, I’ll agree to fuck Simon, that lecherous bastard.”
Maccabee threw his head back and roared with laughter. There was nothing that funny, not really—though he was sure that nothing would ever convince Yakazuma to accede to Simon Tamil’s advances—but he had the choice between laughing and thinking about the real outcome of Amathea’s failure, and he chose to laugh.
Then it was time to get down to business. “What’s your plan?” he asked her, and they started to speak in earnest.
Two hours later, Maccabee left the bar, his head slightly fuzzy from emotion and from the three martini’s he’d consumed. Yakazuma was gone already. She’d cited the need to start blending in, to begin to conceal her ties to Hornet. That would be easier once Maccabee’s ship was gone, of course, and only a few more short hours remained before he would be immersed in that activity. Before that, he needed to find Simon.
Kuroishima was a warren of roads and passages, but it was difficult to get too lost. The Main Axis Corridor—known locally simply as the Axis—ran down the middle of the long, narrow station, and was never more than a few hundred meters away. The hub of all the station’s activity, the Axis stretched uninterrupted for the full length of the station, end to end, two hundred kilometers. There was no horizon, just an endless run of passageway that faded to a pinpoint, or was washed out in smoke and steam and thick air before that.
A cross-section of the Axis would show an inverted equilateral triangle, one tip pointing straight down. Walkways and shops lined the sides towards the other two tips, in the top ten meters of the space. Sunken below the walkways, in the lower tip, was the RAT, the RApid Transit, two sets of parallel tracks with trains running each way at two or three minute intervals. Every two kilometers, the tracks rose up to the level of the pedestrian walkways at a station; even with a hundred of these stations, a trip from end to end on the RAT took only about ninety minutes, a hell of a lot less time than walking.
Wide bridges lined with shops crossed the RAT tracks every hundred meters between stations, connecting the two sides of the Axis with enough frequency to keep pedestrian traffic moving. In many ways, the Axis was Kuroishima, taking up nearly ten percent of its internal volume; subtract the warehousing units and docking bays from the total, and the Axis was about fifty percent of the inhabitable space of the station. People lived there, worked there, shopped there and played there, and likely they would be cremated there as well, though Maccabee had yet to see a funeral parlor on his travels. Maybe they were isolated in one section of the station.
Sitting at one of the RAT stations, Maccabee jacked into his personal communications transceiver, a microchip implanted in his ear and accessible via direct neural command; all of Hornet’s crew were equipped with similar units, though none were as sophisticated as the captain’s. Interpreting his desire to speak to Simon Tamil, the little unit amplified its signal through Maccabee’s body and sent out a single short inquiry burst. The corresponding reply was nearly instantaneous, and a moment later Maccabee heard a crackle of static in his ear, then a voice.
“Captain?” Simon sounded . . . unhappy. His own com unit would have played a soft chime in his ear, its tone indicating the identity of the caller. Maccabee’s unit informed him that it was shifting to the local air-net to boost the signal, which was a good sign that Simon was a long way off, more than a hundred klicks along the Axis from Maccabee’s current position.
“Simon, we need to talk. Immediately.” Maccabee kept any trace of the humor he was feeling out of his voice. He’d promised the crew a few more hours of peace, and what he was doing to Simon wasn’t exactly fair, but he couldn’t help feeling somewhat amused at his crewman’s discomfort.
“I’m kinda busy, cap,” said Simon, his voice more confident now. Surely this wasn’t a matter that someone else couldn’t deal with. “If you like I can look you up on Hornet, soon’s I get on board.”
“You’re not getting back on Hornet, Simon,” said Maccabee. “Now put it away and get your clothes on.”
“Hey!” he said. “First off, I’ve got my clothes on, and second, if you’re firing me, why the hell should I come when you call? And why the fuck are you firing me?”
“Relax, Simon,” said Maccabee. “You’re not being fired; you’re being promoted.”
“Shit,” the other man muttered. “I know what that means.” Finally, he gave in: “Where are we meeting?”
“Nakato Plaza,” answered Maccabee. “How long do you need to get there?”
“Give me an hour,” said the other man. “You know that noodle place they have there, on the Tosaka side?” Maccabee nodded and agreed. “We’ll meet there, fifty-eight minutes.”
“Thank you, Simon,” said the captain, a small smile on his face.
“This had better be good, cap.” Maccabee could almost see the grin on Simon’s face. “I still had my clothes on, but she had hers off!”
The signal cut off, leaving Maccabee laughing softly to himself. It would take him a good thirty minutes or more to reach Nakato Plaza, the circular midpoint of the Axis. He stood as a RAT train pulled into the station on silent cushions of air, its doors snapping open as soon as it was stopped. Men and women rushed out, and then those who’d waited patiently to board rushed on. The doors were open for twenty-five seconds exactly, with the train stopped another five seconds for people to grab a hand bar or sit down. Then it was on to the next stop.
Maccabee stood in the center of the narrow train as it accelerated out of the station, all but the slightest hint of movement erased by the gravity plating in the floor. This was turning out to be a more interesting stop than he had envisioned.