Samara and Maccabee were alone on the last shuttle to Hornet. The crew was accounted for—thanks to some strenuous words and a few bruises courtesy of Pinzon—and on board the ship, preparations were well underway for departure, and everything seemed to be in remarkably good shape, thanks to two weeks worth of dockyard repairs. Maccabee felt the familiar thrill of adrenaline run through him, a surge that was with him whenever he began a new mission, though this was technically just a continuation of what had come before. Still, it was a fresh start, a new direction, and he hoped that it would be better than the last.
The only thing that dampened his mood—aside from the doubts that continued to plague him and the fear that he would kill more of his friends and crew, two thoughts that were just trifles, really—was the absence of Simon Tamil and Amathea Yakazuma, who were now together on Kuroishima, dropping quickly behind the shuttle. He could still, technically, turn back, but he knew that he wouldn’t; the decision was made, and he would stand by it, even if he wasn’t truly happy with that fact. Besides, before long there’d be plenty of other things to worry about, new people trying to kill him.
“What attracts you to her?” asked Samara suddenly, as though reading his thoughts. Not a hard feat at the moment, of course. Samara looked over from her console at Maccabee and grinned. “Is it the homicidal rage?”
“Stow it,” he growled, but his heart wasn’t in the reprimand. Samara smiled again, and then the smile faded.
“Do you think she’ll find something?” she asked, tweaking a control on her holographic panel. The shuttle increased velocity by a slight margin, shifting its course to intersect Hornet’s orbit. “These people are going to be pretty damned careful.”
“I’d rather have her with us,” replied Maccabee.
“That’s obvious; but it’s not what I asked.”
“I’m getting there.” He scowled in her direction, and was ignored. It was possible that she didn’t see him. Possible. “She’s got as good a chance as we do.”
“That confident in the plan, eh?”
“Is there a problem?”
“Yeah, there’s a problem,” Samara answered, and her words came with uncharacteristic speed. “When I signed on to this crew, you were a legend, William Maccabee, the unstoppable pirate hunter; two ships shot out from under him, and still going strong.” She still did not look at him, as though all her attention was focused on the shuttle’s controls, though they needed virtually no input from her. “We went out, we tracked the bastards down, we killed them, and we went home to party. But not anymore. Now we’re chasing ghosts, and suddenly it’s all about self-pity and remorse and a whole bunch of bullshit that, frankly, I don’t care about.”
He opened his mouth to reply, but she lifted a hand and cut him off. “Not finished, Maccabee, not yet. Hear me out. I love you, and that hasn’t changed; I don’t want to ditch you, I don’t want off your ship, and I don’t want to drag you ass through the fire.”
“Nice way to go about it, whatever the hell you do want,” he growled.
“Don’t start whining,” she spat back at him. “What I do want is for you to get it together. We are going to follow this plan through, and it will work. It’s worked before, and I can guarantee you that these corporate types will talk. They’ll talk to me, or I will kill them in unpleasant ways. I’m through with fucking around here, and it’s time you got through it too.
“Maccabee,” she said, more softly and finally turning his way, “I know you love this job. It’s in your blood, you were born to do it. I know there’s more to it than before, but it doesn’t matter. We will succeed.”
He stared at her, speechless. The com chirped, and Sel’s voice came over the speakers: “Shuttle one, this is Hornet, you’re cleared for main bay. Welcome back, captain.”
Not taking his eyes off Samara, Maccabee reached out and switched the transmitter on. “Thank you, Sel. We’ll be docking momentarily. Maccabee out.” Then he switched off the com. “Samara, you are damned lucky that XOs don’t qualify for KP. But I thank you. And I’m glad that you’re still here, no matter who else is gone.”
“Damn right, Maccabee,” she answered, her usual slow drawl back in place as though it had never left. “That girl is an unholy terror with a gun, but she’ll never be my equal.”
He thought it best not to say anything to that, and instead say back to watch her dock the shuttle with smooth, assured movements that left him momentarily envious. Besides, Samara was right.
The hum of the gravity generators faded into the ship’s regular background noise, and Maccabee pulled himself upright in his chair on Hornet’s command deck, swallowing a mouthful of bile. The wormhole jump had been particularly awful this time, but the effects were brief as always. The navigation display was already fixing their position, but there was nothing here, nothing but empty space, the vastness that separated the worlds of the First Colonial Sphere like infinitesimal motes floating in an unimaginable void. Faster-than-light travel shrank the distances only in the mind of the beholder; take away the wormhole drive, and civilization on a thousand worlds would shrivel, perhaps even die away. Not that that was a likely eventuality.
Taking a sip from the small bottle of water he kept at his side, Maccabee swallowed again, cleaning out his mouth, then stood and cleared his throat. He scowled, regretting the noise as he always did. “Staff officers, let’s meet in five in the conference room,” he said, his voice carrying clearly across the nearly-silent, darkened womb of the Deck. Those who qualified for that moniker nodded or gave a thumbs up of agreement. Taking one last look at the nav display to confirm that there was nothing of note within a billion kilometers, Maccabee turned and exited the compartment.
The command staff gathered quickly, Samara and Alger first, then Damien Russ; Massat Sel was next, followed by Ashburn. Last to enter was Lillie Monteux, the good doctor who’d saved the life of nearly everyone present at one time or another. She smiled briefly at Maccabee before taking her seat, down the table to his right. One chair was noticeably empty: Ming’s seat, just two to the captain’s left. It was time to leave that behind.
Remaining in his chair, Maccabee began: “Our first destination, ladies and gentlemen, is Ushindi. The headquarters of the Hisham Group is located on this world, specifically in the city of Oseye, in the northern hemisphere. You may or may not be aware that this is the first time I will be taking Hornet into the Core Systems. I consider it a high risk, but one that’s worth taking. We will not be able to follow our usual procedures, and it’s likely that we will be subject to frequent inspections.”
Alger nodded in agreement; no one else gave much acknowledgement. The Core Systems were the heart of the PARC, twenty worlds gathered within a few lightyears of each other, nestled inside the Bhramini Star Cluster. It was said the sun never set in the Core Systems, and to some extent this was true: the sky was never darker than a glimmering twilight, and hundreds of blue stars were visible even at the brightest time of day, no matter which of the twenty worlds you visited. Oglazzo was the seat of the PARC’s Central Government, and the most populace world in the entire Colonial Sphere, twenty billion people living on one planet.
If there was a place in the trillions of cubic kilometers of the Pan-African Regional Cooperative where the government actually had a measure of real power, it was in the Core Systems.
“I estimate we will reach Ushindi in about thirty-two days,” continued Maccabee, tapping a control at his seat; a holographic image of the planet sprang up in the center of the table. “During that time, we need to convert this ship into the closest approximation of a merchant vessel that we can possibly manage. Weapons bays are going to be sealed, both inside and outside. Personal arms are going to be locked away, with a few exceptions. We will be vulnerable, but we will be in the safest place in the PARC. Just another gamble.” He gave them a tight smile. “I know you’re not going to like this. I don’t like it either. Unfortunately, it’s the choice we have to make.” Finished, he leaned back in his seat. “Anything?”
“We need to keep some of the ship’s guns free to fire,” rumbled Alger. “I don’t bloody trust anything about the PARC, especially not them keeping us safe. Either we keep guns fire-free, or we come up with some other thing that lets us use ‘em in a minimum time span, just in case.”
“Even with those bays sealed off, they won’t be immune to scans,” Ashburn pointed out. “We’ll need to have some explanation, particularly if it’s obvious that they’re just sealed away, not decommissioned.”
“In response to that, Ashburn,” said Samara, “we do have a license for operations outside the Core Systems. This seems the best way of proving that we aren’t going to use the guns illegally within the Core.” She turned slightly. “Alger, this is why we have to lock them all down, and why we have to put some effort into showing that we can’t get them running again in a few minutes. Otherwise, we’ll be turned back, best case scenario.”
“Why won’t they just turn us back anyway?” asked Monteux. “We’ve precious little reason to be operating in that part of space, and no legal basis either, as I understand it. Wouldn’t it perhaps be better to hire on a different ship, leave Hornet outside the Core altogether?”
“Ideally, that might work,” conceded Maccabee. “Unfortunately, even if I was comfortable with the idea—and I’m not—I don’t have that kind of money right at the moment. And unless you’re sitting on a bigger fortune than I’m aware of, Lillie. . . .” She grimaced slightly. “Even if I did have the money, I’d take Hornet,” Maccabee added. “She’s fast and heavily shielded, and I know her, know her limits and her capabilities. That’s worth the risk to me.”
“She has a point, though, lad,” said Alger, speaking reluctantly. “They’re going to want to know why we’re there. Ya canna just waltz into the place whenever you feel like it. You have to stop at one of the Gatehouses for clearance.”
“True,” answered Samara. “That’s all the more reason for following our course. We’ll have to convince them not only that our intentions are non-violent, but that even if they aren’t, we won’t be a serious threat.” She leaned back and tapped a long finger on the table. “That is why we need to turn Hornet into a harmless vessel. Harmless in their eyes, anyway.”
“Give me a plan, Alger,” said Maccabee, “and I’ll work on it. That goes for all of you. I don’t want to go in there without our guns; I just don’t see a way out of it. If you can come up with a workable plan to keep something in commission, something the inspectors won’t find—and they’ll be looking damn hard—then we’ll use it. Otherwise, the mission comes first.”
“I’m gonna hate doing this,” muttered Alger.
“You are?” asked Ashburn. “It’s my crews that’ll be under the gun. Maccabee, I’m not even sure we can do this with the materials on board. I wish you’d mentioned it when we were still near Kuroishima, I might have been able to make some purchases. . . .”
“Taken care of,” said Maccabee. He gestured with one hand: “Sel?”
“The stores were taken on board as requested, captain,” said the small man. His eyes were perpetually hidden behind black glasses, but Maccabee could almost see the gleam in them now. “I admit I was wondering what we were going to need it for.” He tossed a microcomp across the table, where Ashburn caught it.
“Sufficient?” asked Maccabee as she scrolled through the manifest.
“Maybe.” Ashburn was not one to jump to conclusions, especially when she didn’t like them “Probably. I’ll do my best.”
“That’s all I can ask,” Maccabee said with a nod in her direction. “Now, on to the rest of it.
“The Hisham Group is a conglomerate. They have operations in every part of the Sphere, but their main focus in here, in the PARC. Food services, transport, genetics, heavy industry, pharmaceuticals, hydrogen, you name it; Hisham Group is in it. In the part of space we just left, they are the dominant supplier of reactor-ready hydrogen fuel; they also sell power cells and other hydrogen-based energy supplies. Now, when I say ‘dominant,’ I mean it: Hisham has no competitors in this industry, not in the Muk’ck Sector. Naturally they would like to keep this situation static, while their competitors would very much like to change it.
“According to public records, Ezeoha Mwatiwa is both President and Primary Executive of the Hisham Group.” Maccabee touched another control and the holographic image of Ushindi was replaced by a smiling 3-D photo of the man in question. His gleaming white teeth stood out in modest contrast to his light-brown skin, and his hair was rolled into dreadlocks that reached almost to his shoulders. Startling blue eyes looked out from the face. “I won’t bore you with the background on this man, it’s in the information I downloaded to your seats; suffice to say he is a self-made man, climbed up from the bottom, etcetera, etcetera. I don’t have any direct evidence, but my guess is he’d be unwilling to pay protection money to any pirates in the Muk’ck Sector.
“Why is his group our first target?” asked Maccabee. “Because it is also unlikely in the extreme that his operation would be running so smoothly in this sector without some sort of arrangement with the pirates. You’ll see in your briefing documents the latest piracy figures for this sector. Hisham Group is at the very low end of the group, as far as both number and rate of attacks. Surprisingly enough, however, their cargos are generally considered some of the most valuable in the sector. Plus, liquid hydrogen is simple enough to transport, and essentially untraceable. Yes, additives can be put in it, but those can be removed through very simple processing techniques, removing any sort of normally-detected tracers.”
“They don’t use subatomic tags on the hydrogen?” asked Ashburn. She was the one of them with the most working knowledge of hydrogen supply, considering her job also included procuring fuel for Hornet’s fusion reactors.
“A single tank of compressed liquid hydrogen contains how many H-two molecules?” asked Maccabee with a grin.
Ashburn closed her eyes for a second. “A hundred by twenty meter cylinder contains about four times ten to the thirty-fourth power.” She opened her eyes again. “Roughly.”
“A little much to tag every one of them,” pointed out Maccabee.
“They usually tag one in a billion or so,” admitted Ashburn. “It’s damned hard to separate them out, though.”
“We’re getting a bit sidetracked, boys and girls,” rumbled Alger.
“True,” said Maccabee. “With apologies to Ashburn, I think our intrepid pirates would be able to steal the hydrogen, if they wanted to, turn it around, and sell it at cut rates to some of the more shady operations in the sector. Which, I think we can agree, there are lots of, particularly with Hisham having a monopoly on legal shipments. It wouldn’t be hard to undercut them. But it’s not happening.”
“Why not go to their regional offices, then?” probed Russ. “I mean, if you don’t think its this Mwatiwa guy, then wouldn’t the regional boss be the likeliest candidate?”
“It may be that he is,” said Samara. Everyone turned to look her way. “He’d still have to have access in the central headquarters, for the financial side to even be possible. This is a tightly run business; Mwatiwa is going to notice if a few million dollars go missing.” She smiled. “Besides, the regional boss in questions happens to work out of the central office.”
“It wasn’t hard to find any of this information,” continued Maccabee with a nod towards Samara. “It’s all public record, as befitting a publicly traded company. As to how to contact any of these people, or even which people will be best to contact. . . .” He shook his head. “That’ll be a bit more difficult. I’m going to task Samara, Sel, and Lillie to dig into what data we managed to collect in Kuroishima. I downloaded the entire database entry for Hisham Group, all files related to them for the last five years. Your job will be to formulate a plan for once we get to Ushindi.
“The rest of you are on building detail. We need to rework the ship, and we need to do it fast. I’ll be supervising both groups, coordinating our activities, helping out wherever and whenever I can. Any other questions?”
No one spoke.
“Then let’s get to it. We’ve got ninety minutes before the next jump.”
They filed out, Sel and Monteux already with heads together and microcomps in hand. Alger was frowning, probably already working on ways to smuggle active weapons inside the Core Systems. Ashburn was quietly arguing something with Russ. Samara just sat, waiting with Maccabee for the others to leave.
The trick wasn’t getting into the Core Systems. It is by definition impossible to blockade a star system, at least in the sense of keeping ships from even entering that system. Faster-than-light travel means that there are no walls, no barriers, no blockades that can prevent a ship from entering a system. It is a lot easier, however, to prevent one from leaving. Every ship that wanted to travel through the Core Systems unmolested—and that was the real trick, Maccabee reflected—had to stop at a Gatehouse. Set up at the perimeter of the Systems, the Gatehouses were space stations where incoming ships were scanned, inspected, and taxed, as the case might be. If they were deemed admissible, they received a Systems Authorization Key. Any ship entering one of the Core Systems immediately broadcast the SAK on all frequencies. Any which did not were intercepted, and guaranteed a much more thorough and far less friendly inspection and interrogation.
With the exception of vessels owned and operated by the Central Government itself, all ships were required to make at least a brief stop at a Gatehouse. This wasn’t usually a chore, since the stations had ample facilities for repair, refuel and resupply, along with some amusements for incoming crews. SAKs carried encoded messages that indicated ship name, vessel type and other information for scanners. Attempts to transfer Keys to other ships were usually failures, though some no doubt managed the trick. Identical vessels would make the process a lot easier.
No matter how you looked at it, the only way—the only easy way—in to the Core Systems was through a Gatehouse, and without a lot of changes, not one of those stations was going to pass Hornet through. It was that simple.
Samara waited for the door to close, then leaned back in her chair and put her booted feet up on the long conference table. She sat at the opposite end of the table from Maccabee. “You don’t think it necessary to tell them about the rest of our . . . legal problems?”
“Eventually. Right now I want them focusing on these problems, not any other ones.” He grimaced and found another water bottle, taking a sip from it. “What’s the crew’s status?”
“Fair, I’d say.” She shrugged. “They’ve mostly gotten over the various encounters we had. We lost people, but not really that many. This is a tough crew, they’ll get over it. A month of shore leave helps a lot. As for the new recruits. . . .” She sighed. “They’re rough. Pinzon is running them hard, and I think by the time we get where we’re going we’ll lose half of them. But they seem to be legitimate, at least.”
Maccabee nodded. He’d been reluctant to take on any new crew, especially in Kuroishima, but there’d been little choice. Hornet’s men and women had sacrificed many of their number in the last few months, and the staffing shortage had begun to be serious. “Any particular problems?”
Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes. “Remember when I’d always have a report about Robbie and Amathea?” Robbie Selkirk had been Yakazuma’s partner in every way imaginable for many years, even before they signed up with Maccabee. Now he was dead.
“I do, thanks for mentioning it,” he said.
“Well, nothing quite so interesting is happening now, I’m relieved to say,” Samara continued. “I did have Czerney in the brig for the last two days. She had a little bit too much fun.”
“I can well imagine.” Maccabee smiled. Katrina Czerney didn’t cause the sort of permanent trouble that Yakazuma and Selkirk had been famous for; she just had a sense of humor that very few people nearby tended to appreciate. “What about the ship?”
“You know the worst of it. We’re still down twenty percent on the port broadside, and starboard is down by half. We replaced about a third of our losses, weapons-wise, but the supply was limited.” She smiled.
“To say the least,” agreed Maccabee. It was difficult to purchase semi-legal weapons in most places in the PARC. Outfitting Hornet had cost Maccabee many headaches and lots and lots of money. Kuroishima just wasn’t the sort of place to look for that kind of thing.
“On the armor side, and non-weapons systems,” continued Samara, “we’re looking a lot better. That place had good yard hands. I’d say were at about ninety-five percent of where we were before we got into this mess. Fusion One is running pretty smoothly, but it’s still a chop-job; I’d like to have a new reactor.”
“And when we get somewhere where we can buy one good enough and take the time to put it in, we’ll get it,” said Maccabee. “Until then, we make do. You’ve shunted One to non-vital systems?”
“Absolutely.” She scratched her head. “Slipstream drive’s working like a charm, too. Like I said, they do good work.”
“And they charge a pretty penny for it,” added Maccabee. “Anything else?”
“I’m hungry,” said Samara, patting her stomach and then pulling her feet off the table. “I’m going to get something to eat before the next jump. You coming?”
He stood with her and they went out the door together.