“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ll be landing at Banar-Keckner Starport in another few minutes. Local time is fifteen-twenty-four, temperature is a moderate twenty-five degrees, under sunny skies. On behalf of everyone at Angstrom Airways and Interplanetary, thanks for flying with us today.”
Maccabee smiled. The young woman giving that well-rehearsed speech sounded bright and happy, and that made him oddly happy as well. He’d been so far away from civilization for so long, dealing with hostile inspections and suspicious authorities, not to mention pirates and raiders and aggressive so-called governments, that it was truly a pleasure to listen to the calm voice of a member of a well-oiled society. Of course, knowing what was happening in Halley, that society appeared peaceful only on the surface, but it was enough, for that moment.
He looked out the window as the sub-orbital transport—what an ungainly term; he preferred to think of the thing as an airplane—banked into a soft, leftward turn. Still ten thousand meters below, but coming up fast, he saw the city of Banar, a small cluster of gleaming new buildings surrounded by a tangle of tree-lined boulevards that quickly thinned into fields and wooded hills only a few kilometers from the city center. As the banking turn continued, Maccabee glimpsed the flash of sunlight glinting off the towers of Keckner, a nearby metropolis half the size of Banar. Halfway between them, soaring nearly two kilometers into the sky, stood the Starport launch ramp, and below it a wide expanse of ceramacrete, dissected by the long, straight lengths of a pair of runways. The pilot completed his turn, and the Starport disappeared from view.
“Place looks nice,” said Samara. She sat in the seat next to Maccabee, on the aisle. Sel claimed he’d spent hardly anything on the sub-orb tickets, but they were traveling in the first class cabin, on the top deck of the transport, comfortably ensconced in large, cozy chairs for the trip. The food had been excellent as well, better than any Maccabee’d tasted in weeks, at least since leaving Kuroishima, and certainly the quality of service had made the four hour ride much more comfortable, but Maccabee wondered just what charge he’d see on his credit account when he returned to Hornet.
“It should look nice,” he said to his XO. “Banar’s been rated the best place to live on the planet.” He pointed to the personal computer holo built into the armchair where he sat. “It said so on the magazine.”
“I hope we’re right,” Samara said, shifting in her seat. There was a small bump as the landing gear deployed under them, and a glance confirmed to Maccabee that the sub-orb was just moments from landing. “About this guy being here, I mean.”
“His secretary said he’d be here until the end of the month,” replied Maccabee. “That’s another ten days.”
“And he can’t change his plans?”
Maccabee shrugged. It was too late to worry about it now. Brief as their stop at the Gatehouse had been, Samara and Sel had managed to use that time to make some contacts in the Hisham Group. They’d had little trouble reaching the office of Region Four Director Issa Ndika; the problem was that Director Ndika was on an extended vacation, at his home on Angstrom. Maccabee had chosen the Gatehouse on the basis of a trip to Ushindi, but redirecting to Angstrom had added only three days to the trip. If this was a bust, Ushindi would still be there when they left, and probably more stable to boot.
The sub-orb landed smoothly and taxied to the terminal building. Maccabee saw a few private shuttles on the landing pad, and a heavy-lift ship, but there didn’t seem to be much traffic at the Starport. Certainly, this place was a backwater on Angstrom—the port probably existed solely for the benefit of the wealthy and famous residents of Banar, who didn’t want to fly in and out of Halley on the other side of the planet. Convenient, for those who were allowed to use it. Maccabee wished his skiff could have been parked amongst those shuttles.
They were all shocked to find, once off the sub-orb, that no train service connected the starport to the city of Banar. Apparently, the populace was simply too wealthy to even bother with a first-class train, using their own personal transportation instead. That made Maccabee wonder why they even bothered landing at the Starport instead of in their no-doubt ample back yards, but it probably had to do with the noise and pollution of shuttle landings and takeoffs. So, the four piled into a groundcar—there was no way Maccabee was springing for the exorbitant fees charged by the aircar operators—and started on the twenty minute drive.
“I canna fucking believe this,” muttered Alger. At least the car was comfy, well-appointed and quiet, with broad, tinted windows.
“You’d better stow that language,” warned Maccabee. “There’s likely to be some delicate souls in this place.” He grinned.
“Aye, captain,” grumbled Alger. “Delicate my ass. Just rich, that’s all, and tisn’t anything special about being rich.”
“When you’re this rich,” said Samara, leaning back in her comfortable seat, “it’s special.” She glanced at Maccabee. “Where are we going?”
“I asked to dropped in the neighborhood, but not at the house,” he answered. “Best leave the rest of it for later,” he added, nodding his head towards the driver, who was in a separate compartment but could no doubt listen to anything they said. Samara nodded.
In twenty-five minutes, they climbed out of the car and watched it drive off, nearly silent on its soft wheels and electric motors. The street where they stood was a broad boulevard, lined with trees Maccabee didn’t recognize, each one towering a good twenty or thirty meters high. Another row ran down the center of the broad median at the middle of the road, and the shade they cast was cool and welcoming. He could hear birds and insects, and the sounds of a planet, a real, living, breathing planet, where animals still lived free and the air was clean and crisp and smelled of earth and plants. It was special to be rich, all right.
“Now where?” asked Alger. There were no homes in evidence from the street.
“Sel?” said Maccabee, looking at the man in the sunglasses.
“This way, captain,” answered Sel, leading them east. He was looking at his minicomp, where he’d downloaded some orbital pictures Hornet had managed to grab, matching them to government records on land ownership, taxes and that sort of thing. It wasn’t hard to track down Ndika and match his home to the photos. They’d managed precious little in the way of scans of the compound however, not wanting to alert anyone to the surveillance, which was naturally very illegal.
They walked the curving street to an intersection, turned left, and headed up a slight hill. Here, the road narrowed, losing the median, though the tall trees continued to line either side. Occasionally, a drive branched off left or right, sometimes gated, sometimes not, leading to one of the homes. Gates or not, Maccabee was sure that these places were heavily guarded against intruders. Finally, Sel stopped in front of one of these drives—no gate here—and double-checked his comp.
“This is it, sir,” he said. Tapping the minicomp’s screen, he accessed its unobtrusive scanners. “I read wave-front scanners all around the complex, along with cameras. We’re probably being monitored now, hopefully just by A.I.”
“That’s better than humans?” asked Samara.
“Send the signal, Sel,” ordered Maccabee, ignoring Samara. Sel nodded and tapped a command on his minicomp. A simple program activated and dove into the city network, which was well-secured, but not nearly as fortress-like as the systems in the individual homes. That was a careless oversight, because that little program now allowed Hornet to link into the city com bands, mimicking normal traffic telemetry, basically hiding the fact that the core computers on board the ship—massively more powerful than even the best household systems—were now busy hacking into Ndika’s home. Not even Sel could have managed the hack locally, but using the ship’s computer was like opening an egg with a mallet. Risky, but certain to succeed.
“I’ve got Hornet’s feed, captain,” Sel noted. “Estimate system control in ten seconds.”
“Very well.” Maccabee stood and counted as he waited, trying to look calm. At least Alger was pacing, but of course Samara showed no sign of nerves. An alarm at one of these homes would bring a rapid response force from Banar’s city center in under two minutes, armed to the teeth and ready to shoot first and not even bother with questions.
“We’re in, sir,” reported Sel, after what seemed far longer than ten seconds. “Hornet is passing local control to me.” He paused. “I have control, captain. Hornet is clear of the network.”
Maccabee breathed out a long sigh of relief, not really caring if these three heard him. In many ways, this had been the most touchy part of the plan, and it had either just gone off without a hitch, or they were in the kind of serious trouble that waited a while to show itself.
“If you’d be so kind as to let us in, Sel,” he said, motioning expansively with his hand.
“Certainly, sir.” Sel tapped a few commands. “You may proceed.”
They walked up the drive, and no alarms sounded, putting Maccabee’s fears mostly to rest. Someone clever might still be arranging an ambush, but he doubted it. There was no way anyone knew he was coming here. The drive was more than a kilometer long, but eventually it left the trees and opened out onto a broad, green field, filled with tall grass that gave way to an immaculately groomed lawn nearer the house. The building was huge, easily two hundred meters wide and four floors high, built in a sort of retro-modern style, all clean lines and no adornments or flash to be seen. Walls met at odd, yet pleasing angles, and glass, polished metal and bright white stucco created a combination that highlighted the unique choreography of structural elements.
“I’ve taken the liberty of looking in on our hosts, captain,” offered Sel, “and they seem to be at the pool at the moment. That’s around the back of the building.”
“Let me know if they move,” Maccabee ordered. Then he led his little team along the drive to the house. An aircar was parked on a pad near the front of the building, obviously an elevator that could take the sleek little vehicle down into an underground garage. Maccabee strode past it, ignoring Alger’s little noises of appreciation for the top-of-the-line ship, and went to the front door. It was unlocked. Glancing at Sel, Maccabee got a nod, and stepped inside.
The house was cool, complementing the materials used inside. The interior architecture mirrored the outside, with clean angles and sharp lines, all in muted colors, or just white and shining metal. Active lighting was embedded in every surface, and it responded now to their presence, brightening just a bit to fill the foyer with a calm glowing bath. A six-legged hunting cat, perhaps a meter long, lifted its head off its paws and regarded the intruders with a cold, steady stare, then decided they were not of interest and rolled over onto its side, tail flicking lazily against a piece of artfully crafted wooden furniture that looked to Maccabee like a cross between a desk and a cabinet.
“Lead on,” Maccabee said to Sel, keeping his voice low. The other man nodded and steered a path away from the cat, down a broad hallway and into a large dining room, simply decorated, but with pieces that Maccabee suddenly realized were artifacts, ancient enough that they had to be from Earth. He’d seen replicas like them, but these were originals, and that was almost frightening. Without noticing, he was tiptoeing across the room, afraid the slightest noise would disturb the priceless objects. The four meter table handcrafted out of real wood—worth more in some places than the skiff that had brought them here—got barely a glance from any of them.
From the dining room, they passed into a huge entertainment room, where soft music was playing, something equally ancient, with stringed instruments and what sounded like real drums, the kind people played. As they came into the room, the music got a little louder, which was Sel’s work, covering any sound of their approach until the last second. The five-meter tall glass wall ahead of them looked out over the broad patio and the blue-green waters of no less than three separate pools, connected by waterfalls and slides and shimmering stairs that seemed to be made of liquid, held in place by energy fields cleverly concealed. Fountains jetted into the air in impossible patterns, freezing into sculptures, works of art that glimmered in the sun.
Two women and a man lay on a lounge that looked more like a bed, broad and soft, shaded by a living umbrella, a modified palm that carefully held its leaves together over the bathers, using a few of them to create gentle breezes. All three people were naked, and Maccabee could see no reason why they’d bother with bathing suits in the immaculate privacy of this place. Even the pictures from space had been blurred by a localized shimmer field, preventing paparazzi from getting shots of the rich and famous in their homes.
“That is Ndika,” said Sel, his voice barely above a whisper.
Maccabee nodded and walked out through the door, which opened silently for him. He didn’t bother with his weapon for now, because he doubted very much that these three would be any threat to him or his crew. Besides, he knew that Samara would watch his back. Stopping about five meters from the lounge, still unobserved, Maccabee tucked his hands behind him and took a deep breath.
“There’s no good way to do this, I’m afraid,” he said, speaking loudly and clearly.
The woman on Ndika’s right shrieked and nearly leapt halfway out of the lounge, while the other one jumped up onto hands and knees from where she’d been lying on her stomach. Issa Ndika sat up with a start, his eyes wide. Wordlessly taking in the four intruders, he snatched a towel and tossed it to the more frightened of the two women, who wrapped it around herself and ducked behind the lounge. The other woman—she looked a bit older, quite pleasing to look at, only slightly enhanced from her natural beauty—recovered from her initial shock and grabbed a robe, wrapping it around her shoulders, Ndika seemed content to remain naked.
“Who are you?” he said at last.
“We’re people of business, Mister Ndika,” said Maccabee, keeping his voice calm, trying to calm them by force of will. He didn’t want any violence, not here. “We want to make a deal with you.”
“I’m on vacation,” said Ndika, his voice cold. Maccabee smiled without warmth. This man was used to money and the power that it brought him, used to bullying people with the sheer force of his will. Most likely, he’d never met anyone like Maccabee, much less the people with him.
“I won’t insult your intelligence, Mister Ndika,” said Maccabee, “but I would think it’s plain that normal corporate types don’t walk into houses like this one uninvited.” He glanced around him. “And may I say, you have excellent taste in homes.”
“If you’re terrorists, or part of that idiotic resistance movement,” growled Ndika, not intimidated, “you’d best give yourselves up now. You’ve got no hope of ransoming me, or whatever it is you’re after.”
“We’re not terrorists,” Maccabee said, starting to lose patience. “We’re here to talk about pirates, Ndika. A certain group that I believe you’ve made a deal with, you or someone under your wing.”
“Pirates?” asked Ndika, sounding genuinely confused. “I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about.”
“The Muk’ck Sector is in your region, Ndika,” said Maccabee, all hint of politeness gone from his voice. “The pirates in that sector are very active, yet Hisham Group consistently comes in at the very bottom of the casualty list, despite carrying the most valuable cargos. Let’s not play games.”
“I’ve instituted some very effective anti-piracy measures,” said Ndika, trying to keep his voice level. “Now, you will leave now, or I will make you leave.”
“How’s about putting on some clothes?” said Alger. “Yer an attractive man, Ndika, but this isn’t a conversation to be havin’ in the altogether.”
“Who gave you permission to speak?” spat back the director. Maccabee caught Alger’s arm as the big Scot tried to pass him.
“That’s a pretty foolish thing to say,” he said, his voice low. He didn’t need to raise it for the color in even the dark-black Ndika’s skin to drain away. “Stand up now, and put on your robe. You women.” Maccabee pointed at Samara. “Go with her and stay quiet.”
Samara stepped up to him. “Where to, oh captain mine?” she asked in a whisper.
“Somewhere they’ll stay out of trouble,” he replied. “I’d suggest a closet, preferably one with a lock.”
Samara grinned viciously as she escorted the two women away.
“You’re not going to hurt them, are you?” asked Ndika, suddenly less sure of himself. Maccabee had just demonstrated that he was in control of the situation, not Ndika.
“The only person who might get hurt is you, Mister Ndika,” said Maccabee, his voice even, as they went back indoors and adjourned to the dining room. “I don’t mean that in a physical sense, not unless you do something stupid.” He motioned to a chair and Ndika sat, Alger looming behind him. Sel stood unobtrusively in the corner, letting Maccabee handle this. The captain sat across from Ndika.
“What do you mean?” asked the director.
“President Mwatiwa strikes me as the kind of man who holds honesty in high regard,” said Maccabee. That was all the explanation needed, but he went on, enjoying for the moment the extreme discomfort on Ndika’s face. “I won’t hurt you, but I will find out what’s going on with these pirates, with or without your help, and when I do, Mwatiwa’s going to get a nice big download on his personal computer, with all the juicy details, backed up, of course, with stringent evidence.” Maccabee smiled coldly. “I won’t kill you, Ndika, I’ll just destroy you. Entertaining for me, and surprisingly more legal than anything, ah, involving guns.”
“Aye,” muttered Alger, “but we’ve guns, if they’re necessary, too.”
“Why not torture me?” asked Ndika, ignoring Alger admirably well, slowly regaining his footing. “Isn’t that what people like you do?”
“No, Mister Ndika,” said Maccabee, his voice cold with disgust, “that’s what your pirates do. I’ve got some instructive video, if you’d like to see it.”
“I don’t think so,” replied Ndika. “I’ll say it one last time: I don’t know any pirates. I’ve never had any dealings with pirates, present company excepted.” He smiled thinly. “I don’t know what you’re trying to achieve here, but I assure you, you will fail.”
Maccabee stared at Ndika in silence for a moment, then looked up as Samara came into the room. “They’re in one of the bedrooms,” she said. “I disconnected anything electronic up there, so they don’t play around. Door’s locked.”
“Good,” said Maccabee. “We were just about to get to the interesting bits here. It seems Mister Ndika can’t remember talking to any pirates.” He smiled. “He’s got the impression that we’re going to torture him.”
“I’d hate to disappoint anyone of his standing,” said Samara, rubbing her hands together with evident relish, enthusiasm that Maccabee was sure she did not have to fake.
“Sir,” said Sel, cutting Maccabee off. “The house computer is trying to bring up some vid programming. It’s pretty insistent.”
“What’s this, Ndika?” asked Maccabee, turning back to the director.
“News, I’d guess. I have a search set up for anything on the demonstrations.” He shrugged. “Good to keep up with that sort of thing.”
“Well, that’s something we agree on,” muttered Alger.
“Put it on, Sel,” ordered Maccabee with a wave of his hand.
A moment later, holo emitters in the ceiling and built into the massive dining table itself came to life and the news program came on. The house computer started playback from the beginning of the segment in question. A female reporter was on the screen, milling crowds behind her, the Spire towering in the distance. The woman wore a flak vest and helmet, and sported a worried frown, the sort of expressions that reporters saved for truly dire circumstances. Maccabee felt a flutter in his stomach.
“This is Susan Mwana, reporting from Halley. Demonstrations are continuing here, and we are getting reports that something has happened at the Spire. Camera drones have spotted Security Forces assault shuttles around the tower, and a military ground column has started moving towards the base from the east.” The view changed to video shot by the news company’s various camera drones. Dizzying zooms brought the images of the Spire in close, close enough that smoke could be seen escaping from windows just above the massive base section that supported the impossible spindle of the main tower. Clearly-marked Security Forces shuttles were circling the tower, but not approaching it, or trying to land on any access platforms. Other traffic had obviously been routed away from the area.
The image switched to a vertiginous overhead shot of a narrow city canyon, where mobile infantry were moving heavy equipment down a broad boulevard. Protestors or other civilians were scattering in front of the heavily armed troopers, and Maccabee caught the flare of weapons fire in several places, definitely not the non-lethal variety. The drone zoomed in on the street and caught a young woman as she fell forward onto the street, then lay still as the hovertanks and other equipment bore down on her. A dark stain spread out from under her prone form before the shot cut away, back to the reporter.
“What we’re seeing,” said the reporter, her face grim, “is live ammunition being used to disperse the crowds here.”
The shot cut into a studio setting, where a large man in a fashionable suit sat behind a desk, a worried frown creasing his brow. “Susan, we’re getting word that use of deadly force has been authorized by the central government. They’re saying that terrorists have taken over the Spire, have taken hostages there. Can you confirm that?”
Back to the reporter: “Ahmad, we’ve just seen several, perhaps a dozen or more, protestors shot as they fled from Security Forces ground troops. I can’t say anything about the Spire, we haven’t had any information on—”
Maccabee raised his eyes and caught Samara’s gaze. She just shook her head, perhaps surprised that her dismissal of the demonstrations had turned out to be dead wrong. All Maccabee was worried about now was getting back to Hornet, but this mess would make that damned hard.
“Susan, I’m sorry to cut you off,” said Ahmad, the suit in the studio, “but we’re getting reports now from . . . from seven . . . ten cities around the planet. . . . There’ve been more takeovers, I’m hearing this just now. Turkana, Cabinda, Gavarnie; they’re . . . what we’re hearing is that buildings are being taken over, as yet we don’t know by whom this is . . . OK, we’re going to Gavarnie, now, live, where. . . .” The reporter’s face paled. “Yes, I understand,” he said, obviously talking to someone else in the studio. Then he looked straight into the camera.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, his voice taking on that unnatural gravitas that always seemed to infect news reporters when the shit really hit the fan, “we are taking you now to recorded footage from Gavarnie, where I understand now there has been a low-yield nuclear blast, what they’re calling a pocket bomb. We’re going to show you footage from our camera drones that were on the scene when this happened.”
The shot cut away to a view of Gavarnie—Maccabee knew only from the label at the bottom of the holo—where a nighttime demonstration was being filmed by two camera drones. The close one caught a glimpse of two shuttles suddenly dropping into the crowd out of the dark skies, and signaled its companion, which zoomed in with a wide shot as the two shuttles disgorged men and women in combat gear, obviously not Security Forces, however. The crowd of demonstrators dispersed quickly, apparently on cue, and now the armed party was heading towards the nearest building, some sort of municipal hall, all built of stone and glass.
Security Forces troops appeared a moment later, and again the wide shot showed them piling out of a handful of groundcars. They did not seek to negotiate, but immediately opened fire on the unknown gunmen and whatever civilians were still in the area. The soundtrack was filled with the sound of gunfire and screaming. The assault team was caught off guard, apparently thinking that surprise would get then inside the building. They had no cover, though they tried to fight back against the Security Forces. Maccabee noticed now that one of the attackers was staying back, out of harm’s way, trying to move towards the building. A moment later, they were cut off by another group of SF troops.
The close-in camera drone, its A.I. programmed to pick up on this sort of thing, swiveled its image to pick up the attacker who stood out from the rest. He raised his fist and shouted something, but the words were lost in the mayhem of battle. Then the screen went bright white, and the shot switched immediately to the other camera drone, which caught the miniature nuke’s bright explosion, then was knocked out of the sky by the shockwave.
Again, the shot changed, and now the holo had a “Live” tag in the corner, and central Gavarnie was a burning, splintered wreak, surrounded by the flashing lights of emergency vehicles that lit up the night.
“We’re leaving,” said Maccabee. Sel shut off the video feed and as the holo faded, Maccabee caught sight again of Ndika. The man’s face was slack with horror. Apparently nuclear weapons were serious enough to penetrate his defenses, even if the micronuke probably only packed a hundred ton fusion warhead. Maccabee, however, had seen his share of nuclear ground wars—though fewer than Samara, no doubt—and did not plan on staying to see if anyone hit mega tonnage in a few days. A sick feeling of dread was sitting the bottom of his stomach.
Alger was already hauling Ndika out of his chair, twisting one arm behind the man’s back and pushing him towards the door. Sel and Samara fell in next to Maccabee as he followed in the big Scot’s wake. “It’ll be tough getting off-planet now that this has happened, captain,” said Sel, paying only small attention to where he was going, the rest of his focus on his minicomp, which was still linked into the house systems. “Security Forces have already stopped all flights, in or out.”
“They’ll let us leave,” Maccabee said flatly. Sel glanced past him at Samara as they followed Alger out of the front door. Ndika’s shouted protests didn’t even penetrate into the captain’s brain as he tried to think of how to get off this world. “We’ve got no connection to this business.”
“Like that’s going to matter,” said Samara. “Maccabee, people are setting off nukes.”
“Just small ones,” he countered, sounding desperate even to himself, as they walked past the parked aircar.
A black dart flew overhead so fast it was out of view before the crushing shockwave hit them a half second later. The sonic boom hammered them to the ground and windows all through the house exploded as though hit by cannon fire. For a second, they all lay still, stunned into insensibility by the shocking sound. Then Maccabee staggered to his feet. All he could hear was a roaring in his ears, so he accessed his com and called Samara. “What the fuck was that?”
“Rapid response force,” she said, climbing to her knees but no further for the present. Maccabee saw blood trickling from her ears, touched his own and felt sticky, warm stuff flowing from them as well. “Maybe there’s an attack in Banar.”
“Shit,” was all Maccabee could muster in response. “Pick him up, Alger,” he ordered, still using the com system, which was wired directly into their brains and didn’t need their shattered eardrums. Ndika was curled up in a fetal position on the ground, his hands covering his ears as he whimpered. Silently, to all appearances. Maccabee reached out and pulled Samara to her feet, then turned for Sel, but the small man was already standing.
They started towards the outer gates, and Maccabee turned to Samara, a sour expression on his face. “Still think these are small impactors?” he asked her.
“We’re up to medium,” she replied with a grin. Then she laughed, but there was little humor in the sound.
Maccabee sighed. “Shit,” he muttered.