“I swear to fucking God, cap, one of these days you’re going to get me killed.”
Maccabee smiled at Czerney. “I can only hope.”
She laughed, but her heart didn’t seem in it. Of course, both her arms were broken, she had two fractured ribs, and various other internal injuries to distract her attention. Monteux had given Maccabee a very dirty look indeed when he’d dragged the lieutenant back to the medical bay, once again on the edge of death.
He wished her well and turned out of the bay, giving the doctor a brief nod on his way. Monteux just scowled at him, but he knew her heart wasn’t in it. She was far angrier at crewman Furugawa, dead though he might be, for the many others he’d killed in his attack. There were wounded aplenty for her to worry about, not just Czerney. And five new bodies in the morgue. Maccabee shook his head when he thought of that. Too many, by far.
Hornet was back in deep space, jump drive humming along as they headed towards the center of the Core Systems, to a world called Angstrom, where twenty billion humans lived packed into cities that put anything outside the Core to shame. They were following established paths of navigation now, and at every stop they were surrounded by other ships, sometimes just one or two, sometimes entire convoys, all waiting for their slowest number to finish the recharge process and activate the next jump sequence. These spots would have been rich pickings for pirates, had any dared; destroyers, frigates, cruisers, even battleships, lurked at every one, making sure that no pirate would ever risk an attack. Hornet—like every other ship that dropped out of a wormhole—was immediately challenged, and each time her key code was smartly and carefully checked and double checked before she was allowed into the out-bound traffic lanes.
So busy were the navigation waypoints that the anti-piracy patrols had to perform double duty as traffic control centers, directing ships onward to their destinations at carefully controlled intervals, ensuring that their wormhole gravitational flux didn’t interfere with someone else’s systems. Incoming ships had to aim their jumps several light-minutes from the staging areas and run in on sub-light drives for the same reason. To prevent two ships from dropping in at the same time, each incoming route had its own designated transit point. What this meant was that literally billions of cubic kilometers of space had to be monitored at all times; the busier waypoints had not just a picket ship, but a communications barge as well, staffed at all times and dealing with hundreds of ships a day.
There weren’t many nodes like that, however. Usually, the waypoint was simply a stop on a single-destination line between two systems. In this case, the transit line linked the Gatehouse that Hornet had departed three days ago with the Angstrom system, still five days ahead.
Climbing a few ladders, Maccabee made his way to the Deck by a circuitous route, then stepped in just as a holovid was starting up. One of the benefits of being back in civilized space was something approaching real-time news, and high-speed courier boats criss-crossed the Core Systems almost constantly, bringing communications of all sorts between worlds. At waypoints like these, those boats would sell news feeds and various other data to whoever wanted to buy. Some ships, those that sailed these routes frequently, had subscriptions, but Hornet certainly did not fall into that category. Maccabee had authorized one transfer per stop, trying to keep the expenses from rising too high.
“Dateline, May Eighteenth, Thirty-one-oh-six,” said the newshead on the holo, an attractive woman with teeth so perfect they could have been used as micrometers. Maccabee took his seat. This broadcast was five days old, and probably out of Angstrom. Across from him, Samara noticed his arrival, gave him a small wave, and turned back to the vid.
“Protests in Halley, Angstrom, continued for the tenth day today, leaving five people dead. Security forces dispersed crowds using stun rifles and push fields, though human rights watchers reported the use of concussion grenades, and claimed that police brutality was to blame for the deaths. This charge has not been confirmed, and system sources indicate the dead were trampled. Security forces estimate that thirty million people were in the streets for this day of demonstrations against System Leader Francesca Samillion. Samillion’s government has been accused of fraud and embezzlement, and protest groups allege that several opposition party members have been assassinated by the government. CSN’s local bureau could not confirm those allegations at the time of this recording.”
Core Systems News was one of perhaps two dozen major communications operations active in the Core, all of them serving its major worlds. Maccabee could hardly keep them straight in his head, but after a few downloads, the ship’s crew had settled on CSN as—apparently—the best of the news shows, though that might have something to do with the rather odd shipping report, recorded with nude reporters. A bit gimmicky for Maccabee’s taste, no matter how attractive.
“Shipping coming into the Angstrom System is advised that mandatory inspections have been instituted for all ships bound for orbital and ground destinations, both at Angstrom and Jeremy,” continued the newshead. Jeremy was the other settled world in the system, a small inhospitable mining colony in the outer reaches. “All arms shipments are suspended to the Angstrom system. The small arms embargo also prohibits non-affiliated persons from carrying small arms outside of their vessels. Security forces are fully authorized to enforce the regulations. CSN has learned of at least two impounded ships in the Angstrom system, and Interstellar Shipping Consortium has issued a travel advisory for Angstrom, advising those with flexible travel schedules to change their plans to avoid this system.”
“Speaking of the ISC,” said another newshead, a man, “let’s switch over to the shipping report, and—”
Maccabee cut off the holo. Samara said nothing about missing the nude shipping report, which seemed a wise decision on her end. Alger, who was also on the Deck, muttered something under his breath and activated the rest of the vid at his personal station.
“Looks like we might get a warm welcome,” Samara said.
“Don’t we always,” complained Maccabee. “Just once, I’d like a plan to work out like I planned it.”
“No plan survives contact with the enemy,” she replied. “We’ll just have to play along. With this much unrest, it might be easier to move around unnoticed, or at least without constantly being watched.”
“You think?” Maccabee shook his head. “Samillion sounds like a hard-ass; I’d bet her security is crawling all over everything that moves.”
“We won’t know until we’re there,” she said. “Let’s not give up before we’re beat.”
“What are you, a dictionary of quotes?” he replied. Samara just chuckled.
“Everything’s ready, whatever we find when we get there,” she went on. “This one’s good, Maccabee, as plans go. Better than lately.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” he muttered. Alger laughed quietly at the antics of the shipping report, probably joining the rest of the crew, though the silent Deck didn’t let in noises like that.
Maccabee just hoped that the new plan would stand up to the test.
Angstrom was unlike any world outside the Core, even San-a, that bustling metropolis that shone like a beacon for travelers in the deep night of the outer systems. Fully a third of the planet’s land area was city, a lively, disordered congregation of buildings that had sprung up over half a millennium. No design had shaped the overall picture below, and from orbit, the whole thing looked like a gleaming hodge-podge, bits of carefully-reserved green resembling microscopic specks amongst the metal, though each of those parks was hundreds of square kilometers in size. In some places, the cityscape was low, valleys of short buildings and streets where you could still see the sky. Then, suddenly, a cluster of towers would spring up, jutting tens of kilometers into the sky.
The biggest of these mountainous areas was known as Halley, and this place alone was many times the size of San-a, a massive pile of building atop building, stretching improbably far into the sky, so the top-most floors of the tallest towers touched the bottom of space, and looked down from heights so vertiginous that no amount of engineering seemed likely to keep them there. Of course, there was enough engineering to accomplish the impossible, though the power of a small star rested kilometers below the surface, giant reactor cores like the ones that powered the distant Gatehouses. The place was a living monument to humanity’s power and—though it pained Maccabee to make such a trite comparison—to humanity’s hubris.
Well, it hadn’t fallen yet, at least.
The orbital ship inspection passed without incident, though the security team was thorough and not exactly friendly. They asked many questions about Hornet’s business in Angstrom space, and the answers didn’t seem to satisfy them. Still, there was nothing for them to complain about, as Maccabee obviously wasn’t shipping arms on board, nor carrying more than a handful—apparently—of personal arms. “Just for repelling boarders,” he explained as they looked into the weapons locker. The one he’d allowed them to find. “Outside the Core, things are a bit more hairy.”
“Things are, uh, hairy, here too,” volunteered the Security Force captain. Maccabee had almost laughed when he’d heard the security forces on Angstrom were actually named the Security Forces. Not a stunning display of creativity, but he was smart enough to keep his thoughts to himself on that score.
“We’ll keep that in mind. The person we’re here to see lives on the other side of the planet from Halley. I’m sure everything will be calm there.” Maccabee smiled what he hoped was his best, See, I’m nice, now go fuck off, smile.
“We’ll submit your landing request,” said the captain. “Shouldn’t take more than a day or two, even with this mess.”
“Much appreciated,” replied Samara.
The inspection force left the ship and Samara’s attitude changed remarkably. “Two fucking days! For a landing request!” Growling, she slapped a palm against the bulkhead. “That’s fucking ridiculous. I thought this was supposed to be civilization!”
“Civilization is just a nice word for hopeless bureaucracy,” Maccabee countered. “Besides, they do have a low-scale civil war on their hands.”
“Demonstrations, Maccabee,” said Samara, “hardly a civil war. Samillion is a idiot, from what I can see, but she’s got a firm hold of the special interests and the courts. Not to mention the Security Forces.” She shrugged. “What it really comes down to is influence with the PARC Colonial Authority. In my experience, if the Authority stands by a government, then there’s not much anyone’s going to be able to do.”
“Yeah, sure, if the CA could ever get its collective head out of its ass,” growled Maccabee. “You think Samillion has the Authority’s backing?”
“Let’s see,” she said, and Maccabee could already hear the stinging sarcasm. “On one side, we’ve got a mildly corrupt, stable government on one of the wealthiest and most important worlds in the Core; and on the other, a few hundred million rabble rousers who’d rather set fire to stationary objects than try to bring the right forces to bear for change. Yeah, that’s a tough choice there.”
“I’ll be glad when we’re gone from here,” said Maccabee. Samara nodded, but she still looked grumpy. Unlike Maccabee, she was deeply interested in politics and governments. A hold-over from her mercenary days, perhaps, when knowing which factions were on which side could mean the difference between a successful op and ugly death. “You seen the Spire yet?” he asked her, trying to change the subject.
“You mean from the observation deck?” she asked. He nodded. “No, but there’s an even better option.”
“What’s that?” he asked her, a few ideas flitting through his head.
“Auxiliary ventral cargo hold,” she said with a small grin. “Just open the belly doors, and get ready for the show.”
“Only if we’re belly-down at the moment,” Maccabee pointed out.
“You see,” Samara replied, taking his arm and leading him down the corridor towards the lifts, “that’s where being captain of your own ship—this ship, in fact—comes in handy.” She grinned. “I’ve been told that there’s an internal com system that may be able to connect you to the Command Deck.”
“You’re well informed,” he said, his grin matching hers. “You wouldn’t happen to know how long it is until the next pass over?”
Samara glanced at a chrono on a nearby bulkhead. “Ten minutes. Just about right.”
Nine and a half minutes later, they were standing side-by-side in the darkened ventral cargo hold. The compartment had been sealed and decompressed, and then the outer doors had opened. Samara and Maccabee wore thin, low-weight vacuum suits, just enough to protect them in the airless environment. Though the hold’s gravity was still active, both of them also wore tethers, just in case. Now, they were able to use them to lean forwards, over the edge of the opening, and look down out of Hornet’s belly.
“How long?” asked Maccabee over their helmet communicators.
“Just a few more seconds,” Samara replied, her voice tight with anticipation.
It was madness, Maccabee decided. There was nothing—literally nothing—between him and the upper atmosphere of Angstrom except for the millimeter-thick ceramaplast of the helmet’s screen. The metal surface of the world rolled out below them, starting to build into higher and higher peaks of engineering, as Halley approached, and the Spire drew nearer.
And then, suddenly, it was there, so much closer that Maccabee shouted out in surprise. Raised on anti-gravity plates so powerful that the whole tower simply levitated in place, supplied with energy from enough reactors to power a fleet of ships, a fleet of fleets, the Spire pierced the heavens, just a few hundred meters across and ninety kilometers tall, the highest free-standing structure in the known galaxy, though calling it free standing was pushing the matter a bit far, considering the gravitic generators that had to operate constantly to keep the whole thing from crashing down onto the city below. Yet the Spire had stood the test of time, reaching into space for a hundred and twenty years.
The Spire came into view, and Maccabee—who was, after all, still a few hundred kilometers higher up—thought he caught sight of a glimmering shuttle or skiff docking at the tip, where passengers could board massive, high-speed lifts that would transport them to the surface. Lower down, he could just make out broad, disk-shaped levels that jutted from the tower, further landing pads for atmospheric and sub-orbital craft. Glittering lights rippled up and down the Spire in a constant display, and traffic around it seemed the most dense that Maccabee had seen on Angstrom, so thick that, from here, it looked as though a person could have walked ten kilometers by stepping from vehicle to vehicle. Hardly true, of course; hundreds of kilometers shortened the distances.
They watched for two more minutes, and then the Spire disappeared as suddenly as it had arrived, passing out below the artificial horizon of the cargo hold’s doors. Maccabee watched it go, letting a long sigh escape his lips. Then he reeled himself back in.
“That was better than the observation deck,” Samara said, walking beside him to the hold’s control panel. She touched a stud, and the cargo doors slid shut in the silence of vacuum. A moment later, the hold was repressurized.
“Unbelievable,” said Maccabee, breaking his helmet seal and pulling the bowl-shaped glass off his head. He took a deep breath of the cleaner air from the ship’s recyclers. “Too bad we’re headed the other way.”
“The other way?” asked Samara, taking off her own helmet. “Didn’t you hear that Security captain?”
“What now?” groaned Maccabee. He thought he’d been paying attention.
“All orbital traffic is landing in Halley,” said Samara, with a grin more of Schadenfreude than mirth. “We’ll have to take a sub-orb . . . or a train.”
“Hell.” Maccabee shook his head. “I told you this plan wouldn’t be any better than the others.”
“Small impactors, Maccabee,” she said with a more easy grin. Slapping a hand on his shoulder, she opened the hatch into the corridor. “We’ll barrel right through this stuff. Wait until we hit a real meteor shower.”
The new skiff that Maccabee had bought in Kuroishima was not actually new in the traditional sense. It was, in fact, a good fifty years old, but certainly in better shape than the one that had died on Oudtshoorn. Samara had no idea why her captain had an affinity for ships of this type, since they were barely capable of orbital flight, and hardly more useful in an atmosphere, but Maccabee liked to tinker, almost as much as Simon, and the little skiff certainly allowed many opportunities for tinkering. Such as this one, half-way between space and the ground, traveling at nearly a thousand kilometers an hour, diving towards traffic lanes filled with literally thousands of vehicles.
“Ground control, this is Registered Support Craft Stingray, come in please.” Maccabee’s voice was tight, as were his hands on the controls. Everything was manually operated on this bare-bones design, and his muscles were straining against the pressure exerted by the skiff’s control surfaces.
“RSC Stingray, this is Control,” came the irritated reply, a woman’s voice, though it could easily have been a computer. “You are out of your assigned entry corridor. Please correct your trajectory.”
“I understand, Control,” said Maccabee, “but I have minimal control. I’m requesting an emergency corridor.”
“What kind of crap are you flying up there, Stingray?” barked the controller. “Get into the damn pipe!”
Samara looked out the window, and Maccabee briefly followed her gaze. The Spire was much bigger from this angle, and coming closer at a frightening pace. The skiff was determined to take them as close to the improbable tower as possible. More worrying, however, were the traffic lanes, still about ten kilometers below them, but coming up fast. The Spire was only a five hundred meter target, but the traffic was everywhere they looked, aircars and other vehicles flitting this way and that, almost without any noticeable pattern or logic, though something surely had to control the flight paths to prevent horrible collisions.
“Believe me,” muttered Maccabee, without activating the com, “I’d like to be in the fucking pipe.” He toggled the transmitter. “Understood, Control. Stingray out.”
“Not to gripe, but this would be a good time to get back under control,” said Samara, her voice quite calm. She’d been through much worse on many occasions, and wasn’t particularly worried, but she didn’t want Ground Control to order a military intercept and have the skiff shot out from under her either.
“Working on it,” growled Maccabee through gritted teeth. Lifting a hand off the control sticks for a moment, he fed more power into the main thrusters, then pushed forward on the sticks. The skiff’s nose dipped down, and suddenly they were headed almost straight at the ground. As he’d expected, the controls loosened up, and he watched the two-dimensional display as it plotted his position relative to the twisting pipe that indicated his approach vector. A flick of the wrists sent Stingray into a roll, and the status display went from red to a sudden green as they careened back into the assigned corridor. Maccabee cut back the engines with a savage pull, yanked back on the sticks with one hand, and leveled out so quickly that he and Samara both were pushed hard back into their seats; the little skiff didn’t carry inertial compensation.
“Oof,” grunted Samara. “Did you have to do that?”
“Now you’re complaining because I’m in the lane?” he asked, taking a moment to look at her with a broad grin. “No compliments for that bit of flying?”
“No, thanks,” she replied. Then, she glanced back over her shoulder at their passengers. “Everyone still got their lunch back there?”
“Bloody right I do,” said Alger. “It takes more than a bad pilot to make a Scot loose his lunch.”
“Right.” Samara smiled. “Sel?”
“Still here,” replied the small man, using a single finger to straighten his black glasses. “I think I’ve managed to get us seats on a convenient sub-orb to Banar,” he added, glancing down at the small computer he held in his lap. “We have three hours to catch the flight.”
“Not a problem!” said Maccabee. “Despite the doubting voices of my crew, my so-called ‘pilot error’ shaved a good half hour off this approach path.”
“It’s sad,” remarked Alger, in his best clinical voice, “how some people’s delusions seem almost rational to them.”
Everyone chuckled, even Maccabee. Then Alger took a look out the window by his jump seat. “Starboard side, everyone,” he said, and something in his voice made Maccabee very nervous. The little skiff was down to just five thousand meters, and he was navigating between towers much smaller than the Spire that still managed to rise so high above them that he couldn’t see their tips. Now, he activated one of the few modern systems Stingray had and trained a camera out to the right of the skiff.
It wasn’t hard to guess what Alger had seen, and the high-powered camera brought the scene up close and personal in a way that made Maccabee grimace. Smoke was rising between the buildings, and the camera showed low-hover tanks cruising above thousands and thousands of close-packed protestors. The tanks weren’t firing, but their anti-grav blanketed the crowd wherever they went, shoving people down onto the pavement. Tightly-knit bands of Security Forces moved through the crowd, sectioning it up into more manageable bits. The camera picked up high-intensity flashes as stun rifles discharged, but all the smoke they could see was from burning ground vehicles, almost certainly ignited by unruly elements in the crowd. The people just looked like ants, scurrying about, veering away from one threat and stumbling into another.
“This looks like it could get out of hand,” said Sel, voicing everyone’s thought. All it would take was one over-anxious tank commander.
The scene faded behind them as they passed another set of towers, blocking the camera’s view. Maccabee switched off the system.
Landing was routine, at a small facility some eighty or more kilometers from the Spire and the troubled city center of Halley. Maccabee brought the skiff in for a smooth touchdown on the short runway, ramping up the engines to full force and reversing thrust to bring the little craft to a halt. There were only two other vehicles in sight requiring any kind of landing strip, both of them bare-bones training airplanes, not even capable of sub-orbital flight. The skiff had a leg up on those, at least.
They’d cleared a customs inspection in space, but another one waited for them here, two women and a man in uniforms who boarded the skiff before her engines had even cooled. Their inspection was cursory, and they didn’t bother with anything other than hand-held scanners, which meant that the cleverly concealed weapons that everyone but Sel carried remained hidden for the moment behind the cloak of highly illegal anti-scan boxes. Maccabee breathed a sigh of relief when the inspectors ran their entry permits and ID chips through their scanners and cleared them for entry into the city.
“The Center District is closed to non-residents,” added one of the women, the officer of the little group. “No access is allowed under any circumstances.”
“Not to worry,” said Samara, putting on her best fake smile. “We’re headed for the sub-orb terminal.”
“I am required to give the warning, ma’am.” The inspector gave them all another hard look. “Welcome to Angstrom,” she finally said; then she turned and left the skiff, followed by her two subordinates.
“Friendly folk here,” Alger muttered.
“Tense times, my friend,” said Maccabee, moving for the exit. “Tense times.” He turned back to the other three. “You all know where we’re going and why. Let’s keep our heads level. I want to get off this planet with a minimum of fuss.”
“Amen to that, lad,” Alger replied. “Amen to that.”
They stepped out of the skiff and into the hot, humid air of Angstrom.