“This is fucking ridiculous,” spat Maccabee as Samara, Czerney, Pinzon, and he rushed along the ship’s corridors. The crewman in the hold had somehow managed to bypass the lock’s security and was even now pulling herself through the zero-gee causeway that connected ship to docking bay. “Why the fuck did I pay for security systems this terrible?”
No one answered him, because they all knew better. Alger might have had something to say, but he was heading towards the bridge to meet Sel and Russ; Ashburn was on her way to the reactor room, to check on the damage Furugawa had done. The ship was at full alert, her crew at battle stations, but her remaining weapons safed for the moment. It wouldn’t do to show their hand just yet, when they hadn’t even made it into the Core Systems. No doubt someone had already detected the weapons fire on board, not to mention the highly-unorthodox severing of the umbilicals, but those questions would wait. Besides, Maccabee had a good answer for them, at this point.
They moved into the starboard hold with guns at the ready, but only one of Pinzon’s security teams was there, and they would not have been in the open if the area wasn’t secure.
“Status!” barked Pinzon as the security team rushed over to meet the small group of officers.
“Sir!” said one of them, a tall man whose name Maccabee didn’t know. “The bay is secure, but we got here just after crewman Loods made her escape, sir.” He glanced Maccabee’s way. “Sorry, captain, but we were heading to intercept Furugawa when your call came in.”
“Not your fault, ensign,” said Maccabee. “You and one of your men are coming with me. Pinzon, you’re staying here. I want you to comb this ship from bow to stern and make sure nothing else has slipped past us. All the new crew are to be confined to quarters until I say otherwise.” As he spoke, Maccabee was leading them to a special storage locker at the end of the hold. It opened automatically in front of him, triggered by the A.I. that was still controlling most aspects of Hornet’s internal functions. “Czerney and Samara, you’re with me too.”
“Good,” said Czerney. Then, as the locker finished opening and she saw what was inside, she said, “Wait, can I back out now?”
The aircar rocketed down the cargo tube at eighty kilometers per hour, jumping up to speed the moment it cleared Hornet’s hold and just clearing the sides of the narrow shaft. Maccabee’d seen no reason to spring for full cargo transfer facilities, considering he had no real cargo to transfer, and so the tube they were in was only three meters in diameter. All of it was zero-gee as well, which presented some interesting piloting challenges in a vehicle designed for travel in a gravity well, and Maccabee had cut the lift power almost as soon as they were out of the hold, just using the various thrusters to steer the aircar. To make matters worse, the thing was open at the top, more of a low-speed skiff than a modern city transport; if he banged the overhead, they’d all be killed.
The interface with the station flashed by, and the tunnel widened considerably, delving deep into the center of the tower, where it would connect with the cargo shaft that dominated the central half of the tower’s diameter. Since at least two multi-megaton freighters were docked at this tower, that shaft would be crowded with slow-moving cargo lifts, stacks of ten-ten-two cargo containers, larger bulk items, and untold chaos.
“There!” shouted Samara, who was sitting next to Maccabee. She was pointing to the end of the tunnel, where it intersected the main shaft at right angles. Crewman Loods was at this edge, pushing off into the vast open space beyond, reaching out and grabbing on to a cargo skiff with one hand. She spun around, locked her legs around a protruding bit of the machine, and drew a pistol out of a fold in her clothing. Pointing it back at Maccabee and his skiff, she opened fire from a good hundred meters or more, but Maccabee was already maneuvering, ducking his head down as he rolled the skiff over and towards the top of the tunnel. Bullets flashed by below him, not arcing as they would in a gravity field, but striking out in perfectly straight lines.
“She’ll never outrun us on that thing!” Czerney said, simultaneously checking the straps that connected her with the rocketing aircar.
Loods was moving over the cargo skiff now, and it was almost out of sight, heading up-tower. That would doubtless not suit the traitorous crewman, since only two kilometers of shaft led that way, while a good ten sank in the other direction, deep into the sphere of the Gatehouse. If Maccabee could manage to cut her off, there wouldn’t be that much room for her to maneuver.
The aircar rushed out into the cargo shaft, and immediately had a string of twenty cargo containers in front of it, end to end up the shaft, pushed along by a simple, robotic tug somewhere above them. Maccabee slewed the car around to the side, skidding across empty space in the three-hundred meter diameter of the shaft. One of Pinzon’s people was aiming up above them, towards where Loods no doubt was, but Maccabee couldn’t look away for a second. Another length of containers was shuttling up out of the depths of the shaft, rushing towards them like a high-speed train, though Maccabee knew intellectually that it had to be going slower than that. He boosted the aircar up, then spun its axis so that the shaft suddenly stretched out in front and behind them, rather than above and below.
Feeling better in this frame of reference, Maccabee looked up just in time to see Loods leaping across from the skiff she’d commandeered to another one, this one obviously meant to transport people and quickly as well. Someone else was in that skiff, though Maccabee was looking at the bottom of it. He touched another few controls, shifting his aircar out of the way of another cargo tug. “Everyone ready! They’re going to try and make it past us!”
The other skiff was two hundred meters up, and Samara calmly unlimbered her pistol, took careful aim, and fired a burst. The bullets flew just wide, stitching the side of a cargo container that then started to vent gobs of some liquid, brownish balls forming in the zero gravity shaft. Then the skiff nosed down and rocketed ahead.
Maccabee’d been expecting this move, and he already had his aircar ready. Now, he ran the thrusters to full reverse, and the aircar accelerated backwards with dizzying speed. Twisting in his seat, Maccabee looked past the terrified face of Czerney and started steering, his eyes not on the controls but on the literally hundreds of moving bits of cargo behind them. Just by the sight of the shaft flying by, he knew he was moving close to a hundred kph. Samara’s gun chirped again, then Czerney stood up in her seat, one hand locked in a deathgrip on the safety belt, the other steadying her blaster. Just as she was about to shoot, Maccabee jerked the aircar sideways.
“Hang on!” he roared as Czerney’s legs flew out of the ‘car and she spun out on the end of the belt. Instinct tightened her grip on the blaster’s trigger, and a shot went just wide of Maccabee’s head, flying off into the dim interior of the shaft to impact one of the walls with a flaring explosion. Taking his eyes off the path behind them, Maccabee rolled the aircar, and one of Pinzon’s men grabbed Czerney and hauled her back into her seat.
The skiff carrying Loods was only a few dozen meters behind them, catching up quickly. Two men were in the skiff with Loods, one piloting, the other wrestling with a high-caliber rifle, trying to aim its long barrel past the windscreens on the front of the skiff. Maccabee ducked his car lower in the shaft, looking back around to the rear. Just in time, as it turned out, to see a massive, fifty-meter-wide reactor ring being maneuvered up the shaft. There was no time to go around, so he touched the controls just slightly, ignoring Czerney’s scream of fear, and the aircar shot right through the center of the ring, one edge banging off the inside of the ring’s containment arms with a sharp TING! and a shower of sparks.
“He’s got the rifle out!” shouted Samara, and a moment later, the sound of the thing firing filled the air around them. The shot missed—if it had hit, the aircar would have gained some sort of momentum, and Maccabee felt nothing but his own desperate controls—but the next one connected somewhere towards the front of the ‘car. Its back end jerked upwards, towards the walls of the shaft, only a hundred meters away. Maccabee rolled them over onto the ‘car’s belly and pulled up as hard as they could, but the bottom still slid twenty meters across the shaft walls, sparks flying, metal screaming in protest. Loods’ skiff flew by them as they decelerated, and then they bounced back into the center of the shaft, right at a cargo container that was spinning out of control, its tug smoking from the impact of another high-vee rifle round.
“Duck!” roared Maccabee, making good on his words, taking his eyes completely off the scene behind him and steering only from the memory of the scene imprinted on his retinas, made sharper through sheer terror. The aircar rolled under his direction, braking wildly, one side spinning faster than the other in a complicated, three-dimensional maneuver that slid them just underneath the careening container. The windscreen was torn away, and Maccabee felt the rush of air as the container passed within centimeters of his back, and then they were clear.
He looked up again, spun the car around, and went to maximum forward thrust. Only half a kilometer ahead of them, he could see the skiff with Loods and the two other men, dodging the thinning cargo traffic. They were out of the tower now and inside the massive shaft that delved into the center of the Gatehouse. This place was devoted to cargo storage, and where the shaft in the tower was only a few hundred meters wide, this was over a kilometer in diameter, most of it given over to long and short-term cargo storage, the central four hundred meters or so left empty so that cargo could be shifted and moved up or down with minimal effort. Somewhere, still five klicks ahead of them or so, brilliant floods illuminated the end of the shaft, marked out with bright red and yellow warning paint.
Moving in the right direction now, as far as the aircar was concerned, Maccabee was gaining on Loods and her skiff, passing a hundred and fifty kilometers an hour, mostly freed from the need to dodge traffic. A carefully aimed shot from Czerney whizzed over his head and just missed the skiff, tumbling all the way down the shaft and fading into the distance. The range closed to three hundred, then two hundred meters, and now Maccabbe could make out the man with the rifle, turning around in his seat to get a shot at them.
“Samara!” he shouted, not even bothering to point. She knew what he wanted. With no windscreen to block her shot, she raised her two millimeter pistol, took careful aim, and squeezed off just three shots. Two of them connected with the rifleman’s head, snapping it backwards and spraying blood across the back of Loods’ head. She spun, snarled something in their direction—no possible way to hear it, not from here—then turned back forwards and leaned in to speak to the man driving the skiff.
Maccabee was now only fifty meters away, closing in a little more slowly, half the distance to the end of the shaft already covered and the bright wall at that end coming up with frightening speed. Czerney leaned over to take another shot, but Samara stopped her with a sharp gesture. “No!” she shouted over the rush of wind. “You’ll take out the whole skiff with that thing!” Samara turned to Maccabee. “What’s the plan?”
“Care to board her?” he asked. She smiled recklessly.
Maccabee gunned the aircar’s motor, surging ahead with a sudden burst of speed, overtaking the other skiff in just a moment’s time, rolling the ‘car over onto its back, relative to the other skiff. The other driver knew what was coming, though, or guessed it, and he zigged wildly aside, putting on some more speed; Maccabee looked up, his whole frame of reference spinning with the two cars, trying not to glance at the walls of the shaft around them rotating with dizzying speed. Samara was unbuckling her safety harness, her pistol holstered. She looked over at him and nodded. Ready.
He pushed the aircar to its limits, locked its autopilot in on the rapidly maneuvering skiff, then edged the ‘car in as close as he could. Loods looked up and then brought her pistol to bear, firing a couple of shots that banged into the ‘car, somewhere, but missed any people. They were moving too wildly for anyone to connect. Pinzon’s men returned fire, carefully aiming clear of Loods, trying to pin her without hurting her. Three meters, two meters.
Samara jumped. There was no gravity, but the pressure of the air rushing past the two vehicles pushed her backwards, and she barely caught the back of the skiff with one outstretched hand. Maccabee kept his hands on the controls, waiting to see if she fell behind. They were in the center of the shaft, heading fairly straight, and he’d have time to pick her up, if he reacted immediately. Otherwise she’d hit the wall, either to the side or straight ahead three klicks.
Loods turned and fired at Samara, but Pinzon’s men were getting more accurate, and they fired two bursts into the seat where she was strapped down, forcing her to duck down. Samara was now climbing onto the skiff, both hands hanging on. Maccabee kept the aircar right up by the skiff, knowing that she’d need more cover to complete her maneuver.
Then the skiff flipped. It didn’t rotate, or so it seemed, just flipped so fast that it almost blurred, and its right side clipped the aircar’s fender, hard enough to send Maccabee off towards the side of the shaft. He fought to keep the ‘car from slamming into the stacked racks of cargo containers, balanced out his flight, and turned sharply when he heard Czerney scream.
Samara had slipped off, or let go, and the wild maneuver of the skiff had sent her into a ballistic trajectory, heading at an angle for the cargo containers at over a hundred kilometers per hour. She was trying to stabilize her path, flexing her arms and legs, but there was nothing she could do to slow down, nothing at all. Maccabee gunned the aircar’s engines back to maximum thrust and jumped vertically away from the wall of cargo containers, heading right for her while the skiff with Loods aboard rocketed off towards the end of the shaft.
Samara had both her pistols out now, and was trying to use the recoil of the guns to move herself. If she’d had time, she could have overridden the guns’ built-in inertial dumps, given herself some real recoil to work with, but as it was the pitiful force of the railpistols was hardly enough to shift her course a bit further from the stacked cargo. Maccabee was coming in from under her, the aircar skimming along just to the side of the cargo containers, accelerating madly for the end of the shaft, but there was no way he was going to make it. He’d lost too much speed separating from the other skiff.
“Cap!” shouted Czerney. Maccabee spared a glance over his shoulder, saw her toss aside the recoil limiter from her blaster.
“Go!” he shouted. She climbed over the seat, steadied herself on the front of the aircar, and pushed off, her back to the shaft wall. Maccabee jerked the ‘car out of the way and she fired the pistol at maximum yield, right between her feet. The shattering force of the high-energy particle shots pushed her backwards so fast she almost blurred, and Maccabee knew her arms would probably be broken. She’d timed the jump just right, though, and she flew upwards, slammed into Samara, and started to tumble away. The XO had enough presence of mind to snag the tumbling lieutenant, and the pair started to spin awkwardly through the shaft, ahead of the aircar, but no longer angled towards the wall.
Maccabee pushed the ‘car forward, closing in below them. Only one kilometer left before the end of the shaft, which now loomed ahead of them, red and yellow warning them off from its solid mass. Pinzon’s men were already preparing to collect the two tumbling women, and as they neared, Maccabee saw that Czerney was unconscious. Samara didn’t look much better, her mouth pressed into a thin line, her eyes closed to keep herself from getting sick watching the shaft spin around her.
“Samara!” shouted Maccabee as he pulled within ten meters. “We’re coming up on you!”
She opened her eyes, saw him, gave him a quick nod. Then she gathered Czerney into her arms, making them spin faster but making them a smaller, easier target to snag. Maccabee glanced at the security men. “You strapped in tight?” he asked them.
“Snug, sir!” responded the ensign. “Ready when you are.”
Maccabee nodded, then eased the ‘car up underneath Samara. Letting them fall a little behind the vehicle, he angled the bow upwards slightly, keeping the main forward momentum. Then he slowed just a bit, and suddenly the two spinning women were in the ‘car, hitting hard. The security men pounced on them and held them in, and immediately, Maccabee put the aircar’s belly to the floor of the shaft and started a quick deceleration. They stopped two hundred meters or so from the brightly-lit wall.
He was unstrapped in a moment, clambering over the front row of seats to get to the back. Samara was pushing herself up, sitting back, while the two security men kept a grip on Czerney. She was regaining consciousness, and when she tried to move her arms, her eyes snapped open and she managed a ragged scream.
“Don’t move, Katrina,” said Maccabee gently pressing against her arms.
“Holy fucking shit,” she spat, panting. “Why’d you let me do that, cap?”
“I shouldn’t have let Samara jump,” he replied, looking at the other woman.
“Please,” said his XO. “My decision, enough said. Where’d the bastards go?”
“I spotted ‘em, captain,” volunteered one of Pinzon’s men. “They hit an airlock, half a klick back. The skiff was empty when we passed.”
“Quick eyes,” said Samara. She looked up at Maccabee. “That airlock leads to the interior?”
He nodded. Though the cargo tubes remained pressurized in zero gee, the main interior volume of the Gatehouse was used to store spacecraft. There was no need to pressurize such a vast space, even if it could have been done, and plenty of reasons not to. Those spacecraft were in long-term storage, mothballed for decades. Air would only speed up their eventual decay, negating the benefits of storing them in the Gatehouse’s managed environment.
“We lost them,” Maccabee said.
“And they sure as hell know we’re here,” added Samara.
They shared a long, knowing glance, and then Maccabee went back to the controls of the aircar. Ten thousand meters above them, flashing lights and sirens announced the much-delayed arrival of Gatehouse security.