Episode 206: Arriving at the Gatehouse

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“Independent Registry Vessel Hornet, you are now cleared to proceed to holding sector Alpha-Six-Eight; come to heading two-six-oh, mark seven-oh, and reduce speed to one-hundred meters per second. Acknowledge.”

There was no visual to the signal from the Gatehouse, nor did Maccabee expect one. “Course and speed acknowledged,” he said, keeping his voice cool and professional.

“Very well. Gatehouse Control clear.”

“Bring us onto the new heading, Russ, speed one-zero-zero meters per second,” said Maccabee, leaning back in his chair. The first hurdle was past—they were going to get an inspection team.

“Aye, sir,” said Russ, and a moment later Hornet was one her new course, creeping along at barely noticeable speed and subtending a circle around the Gatehouse, which was still over a half a million kilometers distant. They didn’t let anyone come too close, not without a careful inspection.

“Now we wait,” muttered Samara.

“They’re not going to like what they see,” muttered Ashburn. Maccabee scowled in her direction. “Well, they’re not,” she insisted.

“We’ll see,” he said, sitting back with a sigh.

The main holo tank was dominated by a three-dimensional, real-time image of Core Systems Gatehouse Fifteen, known as Numidia, and Maccabee caught his breath as he looked at it again. This was not the first time he’d seen a Gatehouse—he’d passed through them many times—but it was twenty years at least since he’d been near one, twenty years he’d spent in the outer frontiers of the PARC, hunting pirates and other scum through the festering underbelly of space, on garbage worlds and makeshift space stations, on backwater planets and mining colonies and in the rat-infested spacecraft that plied the verges of inhabited space. The Gatehouses were the entrance to civilization, beyond which were worlds populated by billions of humans, skies filled with sleek, modern ships, vacation planets with blue beaches and white mountains, and gleaming, massive orbital stations like nothing he’d seen in all that time.

“I’m showing twenty-five docked ships,” said Samara, playing with the controls at her station. “No way to know how many are inside her, though. Another five in parking orbits.” She shook her head. “Damn. It’s huge.”

“That it is, lass,” said a subdued Alger.

The fifty Gatehouses were all roughly the same, each a sphere twenty kilometers in diameter, dotted with exactly forty-eight spines. Each of these was a tower four klicks high that served as a docking slip for two vessels. Attached at the equator of the sphere was a massive ring that spun around the main body of the station, big enough to be a space station in its own right, two kilometers wide and sixty-two long, bigger than Kuroishima and yet just a fraction of the size of the station it encircled. All of it was powered from within, where a core filled with super-massive reactors pumped out more energy than two dozen ships of the line. The towers continued inside the station, providing cargo storage conveniently linked to the docks. The rest of the internal volume was simply empty space.

That was the part that Maccabee longed to see, paradoxically enough. He spent his entire life surrounded by nothingness, by a void too vast for humans to comprehend even its tiniest fraction. Four doors on the surface of the sphere led inside, four massive doors each opening to a square five kilometers on a side. Big enough so that even the largest spacecraft could fly inside, right into the station. For hundreds of years, companies and governments had tangled with the problem of mothballing spacecraft. Though it seemed empty, space quickly ravaged ships left unprotected. Powering enough shielding to protect the vessel required a skeleton crew and lots of money, for a ship that was sitting there doing nothing.

Inside the Gatehouses, dozens of ships languished in disuse, protected from radiation, from microscopic impactors, and from the large majority of possible dangers a mothballed ship might face. The idea had proved so successful that pseudo-gatehouses had been built in some systems, just big spheres with minimal facilities able to protect twice as many ships, and at a lower cost. That was what Maccabee wanted to see, though he doubted he’d get the opportunity. To see a spacecraft inside another structure. . . . It was both unnatural and compelling.

“The inspection cutter is on its way,” reported Sel, interrupting Maccabee’s thoughts. He looked up, really focusing on the display, and saw navigational data in the lower right side of the holo showing a small ship headed their way. Only two other vessels were in the inspection holding area; all the others already had their clearance and key, and were either in close parking orbits next to the Gatehouse or actually docked with it.

“I hope all this was worth it,” muttered Alger.

“A little optimism, if you please,” said Maccabee. “The mock inspections have gone well. I don’t think they’ll turn us away.”

No one replied, meaning that they all disagreed, but were just too polite to say so. They were probably right, but there was no time left to think about it.

“IRV Hornet,” said a woman’s voice on the external com, “this is Inspection Cutter One-one-seven, request permission for docking.” At least they were polite about it.

“Cutter, this is Hornet, please proceed to the main port side lock,” said Maccabee. “I’ll meet you there.”

“Roger that, Hornet. See you shortly.”

Maccabee stood and surreptitiously stretched. He’d been sitting in his chair for nearly eight hours waiting for this, slogging through endless conversations with second-string bureaucrats. “Samara, you stay on the Deck and monitor for me,” he instructed. She nodded. “Alger, Sel, you’re with me. The rest of you stay cool.”

“Permission to be in engineering for the inspection, Captain,” said Ashburn. Maccabee turned and met her stare. “Please.”

“No, sorry. The fewer of us meet these inspectors, the better.” Maccabee raised a hand. “I trust you completely, Ashburn, but the decision stands.” She hesitated, then nodded. “Thank you.”

He turned and left the Deck, followed by Sel and Alger. It wasn’t a long walk to the airlock, but it was long enough for the silence to become pregnant with anticipation. By the time he stopped at the airlock doors, Maccabee’s heart was thumping in his chest. Hopefully, the inspectors wouldn’t be carrying medical scanners. That sort of heartbeat was a sure sign of guilt. Actually, the more he thought about it, the more it seemed likely to Maccabee that they would, in fact, have medical scanners. The thought made his heart beat even harder, but then the status lights were flashing green and the doors were opening, and the time for introspection was finished.

“Captain William Maccabee, at your service,” he said, stepping forward and extending a hand to the first person through the lock. The woman took the offered hand, shook it shortly, and shot a glance over her shoulder to indicate the big cheese. This was a man, short, well-muscled, but oddly pale and unhealthy looking otherwise. His eyes seemed abnormally narrow, darting this way and that with a prying glance before settling on Maccabee and his proffered hand.

“Captain,” said the short man, taking the hand and shaking firmly. His voice didn’t match his face at all. “Good to see you here. Most commanders try to hide from me.” The inspector grinned. “I’ve pulled ‘em out of storage lockers.”

“No reason to hide,” managed Maccabee, thrown off balance by the inspector’s cheerful, friendly demeanor. “Inspector. . . ?”

“Douglas,” said the short man, “Arthur Douglas.”

“William Maccabee,” reiterated Maccabee, not sure of exactly how to proceed with this fellow. As normal, he supposed. “This is Alger Brelloc, my chief of security, and Massat Sel, my secretary.” He pointed at them in turn. Sel didn’t have that title, of course, but they’d agreed it would be better if he had a clear role.

“Carol Sandford,” offered Douglas, pointing at his assistant. She smiled briefly.

“Where would you like to begin?” asked Maccabee, his small talk exhausted.

“Well, we normally start somewhere we can go over the download you gave us, captain,” said Douglas. “See if there’s anything there that needs clarification.”

Again, this was unexpected. Of course, thought Maccabee, why should he know? It had been years since he’d passed one of these inspections, and then it had been with approval from higher powers. “This way,” he said.

Maccabee lead them back up, almost to the Deck, and into the main Briefing Room. He took his usual seat, motioning the others to sit as they wished. Douglas and Sandford sat at the opposite end of the long table, while Alger and Sel hovered near their captain. Typical, thought Maccabee.

“Your download was remarkably complete, captain,” began Sandford at a sign from Douglas. She pulled a minicomp out of her silver-sided case and scanned a file there. “We don’t normally get this kind of detail.” She managed to turn that statement into an accusation, but Maccabee was determined not to rise to her bait.

“Just trying to be thorough,” he said with a cheerful smile.

“You list here exactly how each of your ship’s weapons have been decommissioned,” Sandford continued. “Including details on how long it would take to bring them up to functional status again. As though you think we might expect you to do that, captain?”

“Not at all,” replied Maccabee, letting just a hint of irritation seep into his voice. “We have a commission for anti-piracy patrol in the Outer Territories; that authority doesn’t extend into the Core Systems. We thought it would be good to demonstrate our intention to follow the letter of the law. Is there a problem with that?”

“No, captain,” said Sandford with a small smile. “Thank you.” She glanced at Douglas. He nodded. “There’s the matter of various pieces of cargo as well, captain. Can we go over the list in detail?”

That list took an hour, and the next one—ship-board personal arms—took another thirty minutes. Maccabee grew more and more frustrated. Why didn’t these idiots just walk around and be done with it? His irritation must have showed on the ship’s internal monitors, because he got a call from Samara after an hour, reminding him to keep his cool. It was good to know that she was watching out for him from two bulkheads away. Finally, Sandford placed her minicomp back in her case and Douglas clapped his palms down on the table.

“Well!” the inspector said. “Sorry about that, captain, but you understand why we’re so thorough. For the same reasons you are.”

“Absolutely, Mister Douglas,” replied Maccabee with equal insincerity. He stood, surreptitiously stretching sore muscles. “Shall we proceed?”

“That’s it, captain,” said Douglas, looking insufferably smug.

“I’m sorry, inspector?” protested Maccabee, at a loss. “Do you mean you’ve rejected our application?”

“You really haven’t done this in a while, have you?” Douglas said with a shake of his head. Sandford was smiling, tucking her chin down and pretending to look through her case to hide it. “You’ll have our decision in a few hours. The scan, captain, was completed while we spoke. My associate’s case here is a calibration tool for my vessel. You’ll find your ship’s sensors have probably monitored some unusual activity in my cutter’s main reactor. That, captain, was the scan. The case lets us recalibrate to evade a ship’s various electronic countermeasures.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” growled Maccabee, knowing that Samara would be checking the inspectors story as he spoke.

“Ah, well, as to that, captain,” said Douglas, sounding a bit more uncomfortable, “we’ve run into trouble with other ships, other commanders. Now we just proceed with the scan; there’s implied consent, since you already agreed to the inspection.”

Maccabee grunted. Samara was speaking in his head. “Looks like he’s telling the truth . . . now.”

“I don’t like it, inspector,” he said. “I gave permission for a manual inspection, not a detailed EM scan. I have nothing to hide, but that seems unnecessarily intrusive.”

“Believe me, captain, if everyone we dealt with was as forthcoming as you, we wouldn’t have to go through with this charade.” Douglas now seemed genuinely contrite, though obviously firmly in favor of the policy. “You know as well as I how easy it would be to conceal nukes or other high explosives from a manual search. The scan is the only option. I’d encourage you to make a complaint with the Inspector General’s Office.” He grinned. “I’d also recommend you wait until after we process your application before you do so.”

“Noted,” replied Maccabee, somewhat mollified. He just hoped that the scan hadn’t picked up anything Hornet wanted to hide. They’d anticipated some sort of sensor sweep, but nothing this in-depth, nor secret. “I’ll escort you back to your shuttle.”

“Thank you, captain.”

As he passed, Douglas reached out and grabbed Maccabee’s hand. They shook again. In spite of himself, Maccabee smiled. At least some people in this galaxy were polite and did their jobs right. It had been so long that the feeling was almost euphoric.

“This way,” he said, leading them back to the airlock. Time to wait again.

“I still can’t believe it worked,” said Ashburn. This was the fifth time she’d said it, and Maccabee was planning on killing her after another two times. Not that he didn’t secretly share her disbelief, but he’d learned long ago that owning up to doubts only weakened a leader’s perceived abilities. Better to let everyone think he’d had perfect, utter confidence in the plan from the beginning. Which, in some ways, he had.

Having circled his thoughts completely, Maccabee sighed and turned to look at the main holo tank.

Hornet was creeping towards the Gatehouse at a barely-perceptible meter per second. Maximum maneuvering speed within fifty kilometers of the massive sphere was twenty meters per second, but they’d only just gotten the clearance signal; it would be another thirty minutes before the ship currently docked at Hornet’s assigned slip would be clear. Why they hadn’t been routed to one of the dozens of empty slips was not clear to Maccabee, but it probably had to do with staffing and manpower. Just opening one of the four-kilometer towers would require hundreds of crew, all of whom had to be fed and housed and paid. Better to keep some lowly captain waiting for half an hour.

This close—only five kilometers from their docking tower—the Gatehouse’s surface features were coming into focus. A web of nearly-geometrically-perfect train lines criss-crossed the bare metal hull, radiating out from each tower, connecting them all to each other and to the equatorial belt. The belt itself and the spinning station where most of the Gatehouse’s population resided was hidden from view under the limb of the station’s curving, all-too-close horizon. Hornet’s docking tower was almost directly at the pole.

Everything about the station was disorienting. Gravity in the towers was perpendicular to their main axes, parallel to the sphere’s surface. The Gatehouse wasn’t massive enough to exert much gravitation of its own, and the spinning belt at the equator actually created the sensation of gravity pushing away from the station’s surface. The trains had their own artificial gravity fields, perpendicular to the surface plane. It all led to a dizzying array of gravity interfaces, and seemed like a hopelessly complex construction, but Maccabee wasn’t about to doubt the engineering skill of someone who’d built a two billion ton spacecraft.

“I’ve finished my analysis, captain,” said Sel from the other side of the Deck. Maccabee looked up, gave the other man a quick nod, and then settled back in his chair.

“The scan was very powerful, but somewhat myopic,” continued Sel. “It was definitely an active scanning technology, something built around a gravitic array, I think. That was why we monitored increased reactor output—it was actually a different gravitational signature, but the computer didn’t flag it as anything more than an abnormal fusion cycle. I had to dig the particulars out of the log file.” Sel adjusted his dark glasses with one hand.

“So, how much could they see with it?” asked Samara. “What do you mean by ‘myopic?’”

“The resolution of the scan, Ma’am,” said Sel. “They actually scanned the ship on a molecular scale. Considering their objectives, that makes sense. It’s also why we didn’t show a significant gravitic surge in our own equipment, though that’s also partially due to their own countermeasures, and whatever Inspector Sandford’s case was doing. I still haven’t figured that out.” He shook his head. “That’s not to say they didn’t have any macro-level scanning active. They piggy-backed several of our own EM signatures, again using whatever was in that case. That limited their ability to really probe everywhere, but they would have been able to look at anything out of place that registered on the detail scan.”

“Like what?” wondered Alger.

“Like a nuclear warhead,” replied Sel. “Or a gravitic mine, an antimatter weapon, a particle lance, anti-ship missiles, or any number of other weapons that would pose a serious threat to the station or other places inside the Core Systems.” He smiled slightly. “In other words, it is not likely they picked up any of your small-arms caches, Mister Brelloc, not is there a great chance they spotted any of the weapons systems that we left intact. Frankly, I imagine if they had, they wouldn’t have been too concerned.

“However, sir,” he said, turning back to Maccabee, “I doubt they would have granted the pass code if we had been found to be directly misleading them, so I assume that the scan missed any of our hidden surprises.”

“Excellent work, Sel,” said Maccabee. He’d guessed as much, simply because of the outcome of the inspection process, but it was good to hear it confirmed. Despite his best efforts, he’d had an uncomfortable, nagging fear that Hornet had been given a pass for some ulterior motive, some shadowy hand behind the scenes moving pieces on a board that Maccabee couldn’t see. It wasn’t impossible that this was still the case, but it seemed a lot less likely.

“This is going to be a short stop, people,” said Samara, taking a small cue from Maccabee. “We are resupplying and picking up some parts we need to get this heap ship-shape again. There will be no leave distributed, and all work parties will be supervised by security staff assigned by Chief Pinzon.”

“You’re kidding,” muttered Russ. “I’m sending all complaints to you, Samara.”

“My pleasure,” she replied, a predatory smile spreading on her lips. “This is not meant to piss people off, though I know it will.” She glanced at Maccabee, clearly unhappy at sharing their thoughts with the rest of the command staff, but the decision was already made. “We know there are some plants on board.”

“Plants?” Monteux sounded confused. “I take it we’re not talking about the hydroponics section?”

“Infiltrators, doctor,” explained Samara. “We were on Kuroishima long enough, and we’re sure our enemies have the resources necessary for the task.”

“You have suspects?” asked Ashburn, sounding horrified that an enemy agent might be near her engines. As well she should have been.

“No,” said Samara, with a small shake of her head. “We’ve got an A.I. tracking the crew. No one’s going to surprise us, I promise. But if they get off the ship and contact someone locally, the damage they might be able to do increases exponentially.”

“They’ll realize that you’re on to them,” said Alger. “Soon as you bloody lock down the ship, they’ll know.”

“Unavoidable,” said Maccabee, rejoining the conversation. “That’s a risk we’ll take. It’s better than the alternative.”

“We’re hoping that this will limit any ship-to-shore communications, too,” added Samara, “though that’s obviously harder to contain. We’ll have to allow the crew use of communications gear.” That was one of the most basic spacer rights: a call in port meant an opportunity to send a letter home, and, rarely, a chance to get communication that was always one step behind the ship, following her from port to port. Especially of late, Hornet had been on the move too much for any mail to catch her up, but the crew would still want to send it out.

“Will we keep the new crew off the work crew roster?” asked Ashburn.

“If we can,” Maccabee answered. “We want to minimize their suspicions, so some of them will probably go out, but as I said, only under supervision from Pinzon and her teams.”

“And that won’t raise its own flags?”

“It will, and no, there’s no way around it,” said Maccabee, ending the conversation. No one tried to restart it. “I’ll download what we have to each of you. As Samara said, we’ve no suspects yet, but you’ll get a look at everything we’ve seen.”

“Bloody hell,” grumbled Alger.

The next fifteen minutes passed in near silence, broken only by the chatter of traffic control communications from station to ship, and by Maccabee’s quiet orders to his crew. Their responses were equally muted. Finally, they were in the docking avenue, approaching the tower straight-on, stern-first. Pairs of red lights flashed in sequence down the side of the tower, highlighting their approach to the actual docking points, about half a kilometer from the tower’s tip. Not that any sort of manual navigation was taking place, of course. Computers on both sides were talking back and forth faster than their human counterparts could ever hope to, making minute but vital adjustments to Russ’s piloting commands.

“Slow to point-five meters,” ordered Maccabee when they were a kilometer out. Russ complied, and Hornet came to nearly a stop, or so it felt from inside her. They were watching a live external view, showing both the ship’s ventral hull and the approaching tower. Green lights marked out the docking points, heavily-reinforced airways that snaked out from the tower to join up with a ship’s locks.

Half a kilometer, and windows across the top of the tower were clearly visible, even people looking out them, watching the ship dock. It was likely a spectacular view. Maccabee’s heart was pounding, though. Docking a ship Hornet’s size was never easy, and this was a particularly strange arrangement, placing his vessel much closer to a massive piece of metal than he liked.

Hornet, this is Gatehouse control,” said a woman’s voice over the com link. “Please relinquish control for final approach.”

“Transferring now,” replied Russ. He activated several controls, allowing the station’s computers to link with Hornet’s. The change was imperceptible. The ship slowed some more, drifting in at mere centimeters per second. The jolt when she came against the airways was hardly even noticeable.

“Touchdown,” said Russ, and then, “Lock. Helm at zero-zero, relative.” He glanced up at Maccabee for the first time in ten minutes. “Docking complete, captain. All locks are showing green.”

“Thank you, Russ. Ashburn, secure main drive and put reactors in port mode.” Maccabee stood. “I want to be gone in twenty-four hours, everyone. Let’s make it happen.”

They started to disperse immediately, some moving with clear purpose, others a bit more hesitant, but everyone with a job to do. Maccabee sighed. One more leap behind him, and another one ahead.