The sound of torches, both of the cutting and welding variety, mingled with the cacophony of pounding hammers and cutting saws, and the shouts of men and women who were doing something they knew was a bad idea but were doing anyway, because they’d been given an order and they were going to fulfill it to the best of their abilities, no matter how stupid the order was, nor how stupid was the captain who had issued it. It was noisy as hell in the main port side weapons run, the air was hot and stale, overwhelming the ability of the scrubbers and fans to keep it clean, and it seemed like half the crew was shoved in the cramped, low space, power tools blazing away.
“How’s it looking?” shouted Maccabee over the racket, wondering if he could depressurize the bay and make everyone work in vacuum suits. Probably not a good plan.
The target of his question was Panya Azikwe, a tiny woman who spent most of her days crawling through engineering spaces, tinkering, fixing, rebuilding and generally making better the whole of the ship. She was one of Ashburn’s best people, with an encyclopedic knowledge of Hornet’s systems and astronautical engineering. Right now, her round face was scarred by a scowl deep enough to melt steel, and her eyes were blazing as she turned from two crewmen she’d just finished berating.
“Captain,” she said. He grimace turned into a moue of surprise at seeing him there—he’d snuck onto the weapons run after touring the all-too-similar bedlam on the starboard side. Panya stiffened and tried to throw a salute, a maneuver made somewhat awkward by the cutting torch she was still holding. Luckily, the thing didn’t come on as it banged into her chest. Maccabee suppressed a smile as she tossed the torch away and stilled herself to calm. Not used to dealing with the captain. It was amazing on a ship as small and intimate as Hornet that there were people Maccabee barely ever saw, but Panya certainly fell into that category.
“Sir, captain, we’re behind schedule,” she began, and then, as though getting out those first words overwhelmed whatever nervousness had bothered here, she continued. “It’s these damn idiots, they don’t know what they’re doing. We’ve got to disconnect five hundred lines, each one shut down manually, then put on safe, double checked, triple checked, then cut, or removed, or otherwise disconnected; then each one has to be sealed, on both ends, secured, and locked down, complete with authentication certificate, as you know, which means we’re looking at days yet before these idiots manage it. Each one fucks it up, every fucking time, sir.” She scowled again, and now Maccabee let himself smile freely. “It might be faster if I just did it myself.”
“Well, Panya, if it makes you feel better,” said Maccabee, “you’re ahead of all the other runs, by at least a third. Even Ashburn is behind you.”
Suppressing a satisfied smile at that news, Panya nodded and went on: “Well, we’ll finish it before the deadline, I think. This is a mess, captain, I don’t know how long it’ll take to put it all back together. Months, maybe, if we do it ourselves. Some of them, I don’t think we can do ourselves.” She turned, stepping back to him and pointing down the length of the cramped run. “See there? Where Mocci is standing? That’s Port Side Main, Graser Bank Four. Inside that bay is a cluster of four heavy grazers, two-hundred millimeter aperture, fifteen exawatts a piece. To say that’s a sensitive weapon is like saying space is big. Sure, it’s designed to take some hits—from the outside. What you’ve got us doing is ripping out its guts, disconnecting cables that I don’t even know what they’re doing there.
“This stuff might not ever go back together again, and we’re talking millions of dollars of weapons here; plus, there’s the rack mounts, I mean the weapons come built into the damn things, and we’ll have to pull ‘em, which definitely requires a working dock facility. I figure there’s a one in ten chance that any of it’ll still work, but I wouldn’t want to try it, because there’s a five in ten chance the whole thing will blow itself up.”
“Thank you, Panya,” said Maccabee, trying not to wince. “I know how much the guns cost; I bought them. I’d rather not have to replace them, but I don’t think it’s that bad, is it? Ashburn seemed pretty confident we wouldn’t be doing permanent damage.”
“All I’m saying is that this makes me nervous, captain,” she persisted stubbornly. “That’s all.”
“Duly noted.” Maccabee pointed towards Mocci. “You’d better get back to work before someone gets hurt.”
“Hey!” she roared, rushing away from Maccabee’s side. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing with that cutting torch?”
Chuckling, Maccabee turned and ducked out of the run, back into the somewhat quieter corridor. He was sweating profusely just from standing in the run, and now he mopped his forehead with the back of his hand and straightened his back from the hunch he’d adopted to stand in the cramped weapons run. Then he noticed Alger coming his way, and suppressed a moan. They’d only been working on this project for three days, and the big Scot was becoming insufferable. Maccabee sorely missed the days when taciturnity had been Alger’s forte.
“Captain, this just is’na gonna work,” muttered Alger. He thrust a microcomp in Maccabee’s direction. “The bloody idiots are ripping apart everything, and I haven’t had a chance to look at a single gun still mounted. How the fuck am I supposed to keep any of ‘em working when I can’t see one working to begin with? I’m not a damned expert!”
“You’re not?” asked Maccabee, starting to walk, trusting that Alger would fall into step beside him. He did. “Look, Alger, there’s not much I can do about it. This is they way it has to be.”
“All of it?” The man looked honestly pained. Without the ship’s guns and with most of the small arms stowed, he was going to have precious little to do.
“Get back in there,” said Maccabee, pointing behind them to the run he’d just left, “and dig Panya out of the mess. Let her know what you’re up to, she’s as unhappy as you are. The two of you together should have enough brain matter to invent time travel, much less keep some of the guns operating.”
“Right. Thanks, cap.” Alger grinned and spun around to go back to the run.
“And get with me on the small arms!” shouted Maccabee after him. “We’re going to need as many hidden as we can!”
“Aye, that we will!” roared Alger, with a hearty laugh.
Maccabee shook his head and continued on. His next stop was the Deck, and then his cabin. The end of another wonderful working day was fast approaching. Everywhere he looked, parts of Hornet were being torn down, cut up, and slapped back together in a hurried, messy fashion that made him hurt inside whenever he saw it. He was literally gutting his own ship, and no matter what Ashburn thought or said, the results would not be good. Even if he found the information he was searching for, he’d have to wait months to act on it while the ship was repaired. It was a mess, but it was the plan, and he was going to stick with it as best he could.
The jump siren rang out, two short, sharp alarm tones. Without even thinking about it, Maccabee stepped to the wall and grabbed a bar placed there expressly for this purpose. Five seconds later, the ship fell through her next wormhole, and pain burst behind Maccabee’s eyes like needles driving into his brain. And then the sensation was gone, leaving only a slightly queasy unease in his stomach. How many times had he gone through a wormhole jump? Thousands, hundreds of thousands even. It never got any better.
“Maccabee,” said Samara, startling him. She’d dropped down from a crawlspace above him, once again demonstrating her uncanny ability to move wherever she wished, without being seen or heard. “We need to talk.”
“Does it have to be now?” he asked, despite the fact that he knew he was whining, and hated to hear it. “I’m awfully tired, Samara.”
She grinned. “It won’t take long. I’ll walk with you.” She motioned, and he started walking again, heading for the main lift up to the Deck.
“Well, what’s on your mind?” he asked. Best to get it out in the open.
“Pinzon’s worried about the new crew,” she said. “They’re learning quickly enough, I suppose, though I wish they’d had a bit more experience to start out with.” Shrugging, she stepped over a piece of missing deck, while below someone worked on something. Who knew? Maccabee cleared the gap behind her. “That’s not the problem, anyway. Pinzon’s worried that some of them might be plants. We were on Kuroishima for a long time, long enough for someone to get word to someone else, if you know what I mean.”
“How many of them volunteered?” he asked.
“All of them,” she said as though he’d asked how many had heads.
“I mean, how many came to us, as opposed to how many we recruited.”
“Right.” She grimaced slightly. “I’d say about half and half. We ran the ads early on, though, so it’s hard to say how many had heard about it and just waited until we approached them. We can check on it, anyway.”
“Does Pinzon have any suggestions?” asked Maccabee as the neared the lift and stopped to wait for it to appear.
Samara shook her head. “Not really. She mentioned something about a loyalty test, but wasn’t sure what form it was supposed to take.” Samara smiled. “Probably being asked to eat a bullet for the greater good, knowing Pinzon, but that might not accomplish exactly what we’re looking for.”
“Not really,” said Maccabee with a smile of his own. “And your thoughts?”
“I say we wait and see. I’ve got each of the recruits paired off with someone I know and trust.” Her smile faded. “These are good people, Maccabee; they’ll let us know if something’s wrong.”
“And if they don’t?” he asked her.
“Well,” she said, turning as the lift arrived, “I’ve taken some other liberties.” They boarded and Maccabee started the lift heading up, towards the Deck. “I’ve got all the video monitors linked up with a new security AI. I gave it some pretty strict protocols, which are supposed to activate a link to me and me alone. Then I can check out the suspicious recording and make the necessary . . . arrangements.”
That last word sounded awfully final. Maccabee said, “I’d like you to bring any suspicious bits to me before you take action, unless it’s something that can’t wait. Otherwise, it’s an excellent idea. If you’re being woken all the time, split the load; we can trust the command staff, and I’ll lend a hand if you like.”
The lift stopped and Maccabee stepped out into the short corridor that led to the Deck. He turned to look back at Samara.
“I’ve got some more work to do,” she said by way of explanation. “Sleep well, William.”
“I will, Samara,” he said, smiling broadly. She returned the smile, slightly less wide but still with feeling. Then the lift slid up and out of sight, but Maccabee watched her go until he couldn’t see her anymore. Sighing to himself, he turned and headed for the Deck.
Hornet continued along her path, transiting through wormholes every two hours, while the frantic work inside her went on. Maccabee slept only when necessary, and not well, but the job was nearing completion; guns were disabled, small arms were stowed and sealed, and the ship was as close to being innocuous as possible, considering the people who crewed her. The only thing missing was a viable strategy to keep the last few weapons working without having them look like they were working. Alger and Ashburn were still struggling to find a solution to that particular problem.
As the work wound down, Maccabee and the other command staff turned their attention to the mission ahead. It was another twenty days to the Gatehouse they’d chosen as their entry point into the Core Systems, but that time would pass quickly enough just with the day to day duties of keeping the ship running. The details were not exciting—not at all the sort of thing that a ship full of pirate hunters usually wanted to spend time on—but they were necessary.
“There’s no way we can pull it off,” Ashburn said, finally, at the latest of the seemingly endless meetings on the topic. “Hornet doesn’t have any cargo bays big enough.”
Maccabee rubbed his temples with the tips of his fingers, letting his eyes close. It was already 18:00 hours, and the meeting, as usual, had dragged on for too long. They were going in circles.
He cut off Sel with a raised hand, not a sharp gesture, but noticeable. “That’s enough for one day, I think.” Maccabee smiled to take any sting out of his words. “Think about it tonight and then we’ll reconvene tomorrow morning.”
“Better make it afternoon, captain,” said Ashburn, standing and running a hand through her unkempt hair. She looked frazzled, worn out and nearly exhausted, and Maccabee made a mental note to adjust her schedule to move a few responsibilities off her shoulders for a while. “I’ve got some work with Alger in the morning.”
“Right,” he said, nodding. “Let me know how it goes.”
“I’m sure one of us will,” she growled, turning to leave the conference room. Alger was growing more intolerable with each passing day, so worried was he that Hornet would pass into the Core Systems without any defenses. Maccabee suppressed a chuckle of shadenfreude—after all, he didn’t have to work with the intransigent Scot.
As usual, the meeting broke up quickly, and as usual, Samara stayed behind with Maccabee while the others left. Whether they thought anything of this behavior Maccabee didn’t know; it was entirely appropriate in his mind, since Samara was his first officer, and his friend.
“I wish there was a quiet bar on this thing,” Samara said after a moment of comfortable silence between them. “Someplace not filled with the same damn people all the time.”
“You had too much shore leave,” said Maccabee, grinning. “You’ve been on ships long enough to know that there’s no such thing as privacy.”
“Ah, that’s where you’re wrong, Maccabee,” she said. “There’s a few places on this ship that are private, if you know where to look for them.” Now it was her turn to grin, but he couldn’t quite read the expression.
“Name one,” he challenged. “I had this ship wired from stem to stern.”
“Well, that’s true,” she admitted. “To a point.” Her smile broadened. “You want me to name a place? I’ll name two. The first is the observation dome.” She ticked off one finger of her right hand. “It’s outside the hull, and there’s certainly cameras right outside the door, but not inside.”
“I’ll have to check that one,” he said. “How do you know there aren’t any cameras?”
“Trust me.” She ticked off a second finger. “Secondly, there are now various damaged sections of the ship that have not had their full sensors refitted, mostly because we’re out of units. All non-vital areas, but a few out-of-the-way places.”
Maccabee actually frowned now. “You’re not worried about this? The computer can’t track anyone into those places.”
“There’s nothing in them. The computer tracks how long a person is there, checks it against known movement patterns, and raises a flag if there’s a problem.” Samara shrugged. “I’m not concerned about that.”
“If you’re not, then I’m not,” Maccabee conceded. “I don’t like it, but I don’t know what I can do about it.”
“There’s scanners all over this ship, William,” she said, all seriousness now. “That includes weapons and bomb scans. No one can get to these places without being seen, and anything they’re carrying would show on the scans. It’s a minimal risk.”
“So what are you worried about?” he asked her.
“The fact that there’s no place quiet for a drink on this ship,” she answered, smiling again.
They sat in silence again, still at opposite ends of the conference table. Maccabee was thinking hard about what he was doing here, and about what he might end up doing later, elsewhere. He had no rules on the ship about fraternization; people needed to blow off steam, especially people in tight quarters on dangerous missions, who were never sure if they’d live to see another morning. Still, he’d made it a point to avoid any involvement with the command staff—he needed a different sort of loyalty from them, something that had nothing to do with sex.
And why would you think Samara would want anything like that from you?
“I could probably arrange something,” he offered. “A drink, certainly. I’d offer my quarters, but they’re monitored too. Damaged corridors don’t sound too relaxing, but the observation dome might do.”
“When’s the next jump?” she asked, sitting forward in her chair.
“Not for another ninety minutes.”
“Time enough.” Samara stood up suddenly, a small smile on her lips. “You bring the booze, I’ll secure the facilities. No need to make a fuss about it, right?”
“Absolutely,” he agreed.
She hesitated for another moment, then spun and trotted out the door. Maccabee watched her go, wondering briefly again if he really wanted to start anything like this. Then he shrugged—there was little enough to lose. Leaving the conference room, he turned to his quarters and went to get the drinks.
Ten minutes later, Samara and he were sitting on small chairs she’d procured from somewhere, sipping Czerney’s prized scotch from crystal tumblers and staring out into the vast emptiness of space. They said nothing for the moment, just taking comfort in each other’s company. Try as he might, Maccabee couldn’t remember another time he’d been in the tiny observation dome while the ship was in deep space. It was dark, and the feeling of immensity, of uncaring cold, was stronger than ever. The brightest stars were faint pinpricks, and the ship behind them loomed like a black thing on the edge of reason.
“I’m not sure this is relaxing,” said Samara finally, in a small voice that seemed to be swallowed up by the silence.
Maccabee took a sip of the scotch, concentrating hard on the feeling of it sliding down his throat. “Not really,” he managed. Then he looked at her. “I like this view a lot more.”
“Which?” she asked, turning. Then she stopped and just stared at him for a moment.
Maccabee’s heart was thudding in his chest like he was some schoolboy, looking at his first crush. First Yakazuma, now Samara. It was as though he was losing what sense of professionalism he might ever had had.
Moving without hesitation, she suddenly reached out and ran a hand through his short, bristled hair. Then she leaned forward and rested her head on his chest; instinctively, he put an arm around her and pulled her closer.
“Does the desire ever go away, William?” she asked, her voice so soft her could barely hear her.
“The desire for revenge,” she said. “Does it fade?” She trembled under his arm—Samara, trembling?—and sucked in a deep breath. “I’ve felt it for as long as I can remember.”
“I’ve felt it for a long time,” he said, not sure of where she was going, not sure of what he wanted to tell her. “It’s not. . . . I don’t really feel it that much, now. I think about other things, mostly.”
“I don’t,” she whispered. “I just think about killing, all the time. When I’m doing it, that’s all there is. When I’m not, I’m thinking about the last time, what I did wrong, how I can do better, and I’m thinking about the next time, and when it’ll come and how I’ll deal with it.” She cut off the rush of words suddenly. Maccabee could feel her breathing hard.
“What are you taking revenge for, Samara?” he asked her, eventually, after enough time had passed in silence.
“Not what,” she said, and now he had to bend his head down slightly to understand her hushed words. “Who.”
“Who?” He didn’t understand what she was saying. “You’re taking revenge for something someone did to you?”
“No, William.” She pushed away from him, sitting up slightly so she could look him in the eye from just a few centimeters away, so close that he could feel her breath on his face. “I’m taking revenge for the universe. For everything.”
It didn’t make any sense, but the conviction in her words was unmistakable. Maccabee had always known—and Monteux took every opportunity to remind him—that the one truly crazy person on his ship was Samara. She didn’t act crazy in any stereotypical ways—what crazy person did?—but she was not sane. Something drove her to be what she was, to devote herself to the art and science of death, something more than money. It was a deep desire inside her, something he had only dimly been aware of, and couldn’t understand.
“Why?” he asked.
“Someone has to, William,” she said, as though that explained it all, as though the universe had asked her to be its judge and executioner.
“Why you, then?”
She shook her head and sat up straight, taking a sip from her glass. “I don’t know why me, Maccabee. If I knew that, it would be a lot easier.” Taking another sip, she let her eyes close. “A lot easier.”
He let out a long sigh. “What’s easy for us? Nothing.” Then he turned and smiled at her, although she wasn’t looking and couldn’t see him. “Almost nothing,” he corrected himself, reaching out and cupping her cheek in his hand.
Samara turned towards him, her eyes opening. “I’m. . . .” Sucking in a breath, she tried again. “I’m fucked up, Maccabee. William. I’m all fucked up.”
“Yeah?” he said with a chuckle. “And I’m not? Who’s on his third ship hunting pirates? Who’s sacrificed dozens of his friends and crew for a cause that will never be fixed in his lifetime? You’re not the only one around here who’s fucked up, Samara.” Putting down his glass, he reached out with both arms and folded her into a tight hug.
When she started to cry, he almost pushed her away in surprise. He’d never seen Samara cry, never seen her even upset. Emotions were unnecessary distractions for her, enemies to be gunned down as mercilessly as any with a flesh and blood body. He couldn’t even imagine her crying, couldn’t understand it, couldn’t fathom it; but he knew that he needed her, needed to hold her and to comfort her, more than anything else, more than breathing. He did just that, feeling the deep sobs that wracked her body as though they were his own.
After several minutes, Samara stopped weeping. A few snuffles, and the control had been restored as quickly as it had disappeared. She let go of him, sitting up and wiping her face. Then she paused, and looked into Maccabee’s eyes. For minutes, they just sat there, staring into each other’s souls, feeding on their own strength reflected in the other. Finally, Samara smiled, just slightly, but enough.
“Thank you,” she said. “You’re the best friend I’ve ever known, Maccabee.”
“I’m your only friend,” he pointed out, half-joking. “I love you, Samara. I know that word is loaded with all sorts of shit, but it’s the truth, no matter what else there is between us. I’ll always be there for you.”
“And I for you, William Maccabee,” she said, and the smile on her face now was one of deep satisfaction. “We’d better finish our drinks before the next jump.”
“Has anyone ever ridden it out in here?” he asked, picking up his glass. No one he knew had ever watched a wormhole jump from outside any ship; it was said that the view was enough to drive a man mad, or kill him, but there were stories of people surviving to tell the tale. It didn’t sound like a pleasant experience.
“I’ve done it,” Samara said, taking Maccabee aback.
“Not on this ship. On a warship, years ago. Not in an observation dome, just through a porthole.” Samara sounded suddenly subdued again. “It was colors like you’ve never seen, Maccabee, unholy colors. And there was something there, in the wormhole, something watching us. I could almost see it, almost, like it was just outside the universe, peeking in.” She shuddered. “I took a dozen showers a day for the next two weeks, and I only slept when the doc put me under. I’ve never been more afraid in my life, William. There’s something out there, between worlds, between realities, and it’s very, very hungry.”
She fell silent and said nothing more as they quickly finished their drinks and then wordlessly left the observation dome. Maccabee walked Samara back up to her cabin, which was just a few doors down from his. Stopping in front of the door, she turned back to him and stepped close, sliding her arms around his waist.
“Sorry I got all creepy there,” she said, pulling him closer. “I don’t ever want to look outside again.”
“Nor I,” he said, though a part of him wanted just that, wanted to share in the experience that Samara had described. He pushed that part aside, for the moment.
“Well?” she said, grinning slightly.
Maccabee leaned over and kissed her gently on the lips, and a tingling shiver ran through him from head to toe and about halfway back again. Pulling away, he saw Samara slowly open her eyes again, her smile small but . . . different.
“Goodnight, William,” she said. Then she leaned up and kissed him again, just for a moment, before letting him go and opening her door. Her parting grin was positively wicked, and then the door shut behind her.
“Bloody hell,” muttered Maccabee.