“Who the fuck are you?” asked Samara, stepping up beside Maccabee. Her hand touched his shoulder for just a moment, reassuring him, and he took the time to release his crash harness.
“Not important,” said the man. His face was long, almost gaunt, his eyes somewhat feverish. “The shuttles are on the way. I don’t think you want to keep this up. We can get you out.”
“Come to the door,” said Maccabee, climbing out of his seat. He followed Samara into the passenger compartment, where Sel and Alger were busy unstrapping themselves, leaving Ndika and the SF Officer locked up for the moment. Standing to the side, her pistol in hand, Samara let Maccabee cycle open the door, which still folded back with perfect precision, as though the Caledonian hadn’t just been slapped by an explosion. The man stood there, waiting. He was wearing combat gear, and was festooned with weapons, all of them chemical guns. Nothing electronic.
“Whatever you decide,” he said to them, “do it now. I’m leaving in ten seconds.”
“He’s a revolutionary,” said Samara, her voice cold. “We’re better off on our own.”
She might be right, reflected Maccabee, but he was fresh out of ideas, and didn’t even know where to run. The revolution knew how to hide on this planet. Maybe they could get him up to Hornet. Whether they could or not, however, they were his best bet.
“Let’s move!” he ordered.
Samara didn’t hesitate, but turned, executed the Security officer with a single shot, grabbed Ndika from Alger and jumped out of the car, following the revolutionary, who was already moving. Maccabee came next, followed by Sel and Alger, none of them sparing the officer a moment’s notice. A quick death was likely a mercy to him, compared to what these revolutionaries might do.
Just ten meters from the crashed car was an open sewer entrance, into which the revolutionary jumped without any words. Why is it always sewers? Maccabee asked himself. He knew the answer, of course. They jumped in after their new guide, landing one after another in about ten centimeters of water. The stuff was clean enough; the passage appeared to be more of a storm drain, actually, rather than a sewer, which was a merciful relief.
The revolutionary jumped up and grabbed the edge of the opening, then triggered the cap mechanism, closing the entry hole behind them. “This way,” he said as he dropped down again, waving an arm to them and starting into the gloom. He didn’t bother lighting the way, if he even had a flashlight, and Maccabee and his crew had nothing to use either. They had no choice but to follow him into the tunnel.
Maccabee worked his way forwards, closer to the man. “Where are you taking us?” he asked, raising his voice to be heard over the splashing of their jogging feet.
“A safe house,” answered the man. “It’s not far. We can talk when we get there.”
It was more of an answer than Maccabee had expected, so he just nodded and fell silent. They came to a crossing tunnel a few minutes later, broader and deeper than the tunnel they’d started in. They followed the revolutionary down the side and into the new tunnel, heading upstream, towards, Maccabee guessed, the same shopping center he’d driven the Caledonian through. There was some light here, from fixtures spaced out every hundred meters or so, but it was more a distraction than anything useful, casting odd shadows off their limbs onto the walls and floor of the tunnel.
After another two hundred meters or so, they stopped at a ladder. The revolutionary turned to Maccabee, his face lost in the shadow of a light ten meters beyond them. “Up this way,” he said. “Follow me closely, and don’t make a sound.”
He started up the ladder, and the others followed, Samara keeping Ndika in front of her. Their prisoner wasn’t likely to start trouble at this point, or at least Maccabee hoped not. Samara would keep a close eye on him. At the top of the ladder, they emerged into a finished maintenance corridor. Immediately, the revolutionary turned right and moved in a quick, low run to a door. They followed him through, across a room filled with machinery Maccabee didn’t recognize, and through to another corridor. Again, a quick, silent run took them to a locked door. Their guide pressed his thumb on the knob, and the door slid open. He motioned them inside, then stepped in after them, letting the door close behind him.
They were in a simple, square room, painted white and without windows. There was a cot against the wall and a table with two chairs across from it. A rack mounted on one of the bare, ceramacrete walls held a handful of chem guns and a modern missile launcher hung off a peg next to that. Right by the missile launcher, a young woman was leaning against the wall, a small grin on her face as she watched them come into the room. Like the man, she was thin, but her eyes lacked the fervor in his. Her skin was darker, of stronger African stock, and her black hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail. In fact, the only way in which she resembled her fellow revolutionary was the combat gear she wore, which matched his.
“You made it,” she said, not to them, but to him, her comrade in arms. “I’m surprised they came with you.”
The man didn’t seem to like her casual attitude. “They didn’t have much choice,” he growled, striding to the rack and starting to divest himself of some of his personal arsenal. Glancing over his shoulder, he said, “They haven’t thanked me yet, either.”
“Thank you,” said Maccabee immediately. “Thank you both.” The woman raised an eyebrow. “I presume you were using the launcher,” he explained. She nodded. “Your timing was impeccable.”
“It wasn’t my intent to save you,” she said, her voice flat. “That was his idea.” She pointed at the man. “The tanker was our target, and you almost blew it in the wrong spot.”
“What’s the right spot?” asked Samara. The woman locked eyes with Maccabee’s XO for a moment, but said nothing
“Where the blast ripped through the Mid-North service conduit, shutting off the power in half the city,” the man volunteered, turning away from the weapons rack. He now carried only a single sidearm, holstered low on his hip. “We’re not spreading random destruction here, if that’s what you think.”
“You blew up a lot of Gavarnie,” countered Samara. “Was that the right spot?”
The woman scowled. “I could have told you they’d be trouble,” she said, her hand reaching for her own pistol. She froze in mid-motion as Samara took a single step across the room and pointed her laser pistol between the woman’s eyes from a meter away. The man had his gun halfway out of its holster before Maccabee had his clear of its concealment, but Hornet’s captain was still quicker, his two millimeter pointed right at the man’s face.
“More trouble than you know,” said Samara in a deadly quiet voice. “Drop your gun. Now.” The woman complied. Samara flicked a glance at the man, and he did the same. “Now step away from the rack, over to the bunk.” The two revolutionaries moved as they were told. “Sit,” Samara ordered.
“Sorry about that,” said Maccabee, holstering his weapon as Alger took over the job of helping Samara to cover the two. Sel watched Ndika, whose face was now just a mask. Who knew what he was making of all this? He had no love for Samillion, that was certain. “We really do appreciate your help,” Maccabee continued. “We’d like some more help, specifically in getting off this world.”
“Why should we help you?” said the man, sounding bitter. “I should have left you to die in that car.”
“Probably, yes,” said Maccabee, crossing his arms over his chest. “But you didn’t, and now here we are. I’m not asking for much. Just a way to get to the starport, and maybe a secure link to my ship in orbit.”
The woman rolled her eyes. “Not asking for much?” she said. “That’s asking for a lot, and more than we can provide.” She frowned. “What do you think this is? Some sort of game? We’re trying to overthrow the government, not smuggle assholes off the planet.”
“And yet, that’s your new goal in life,” said Maccabee with a broad smile. “I hate to impose on people who have been so generous, but I have to insist.”
“Look around you, bastard,” spat the woman. “This is all we have. We wait here, we get our orders, we do our job, we come back here.” She smiled with a sort of grim satisfaction. “That’s it. No shuttles, no uplinks, nothing. Unless you want me to fire you into orbit with the rocket launcher.”
“Cute,” said Maccabee. “Then just get us to the starport. You know how to move without being noticed. You can get us there. We haven’t been ID’d.” He motioned for Samara and Alger to lower their weapons. Alger dropped his aim immediately, but Maccabee had to motion again before Samara spat a curse under her breath and lowered her arm to her side. She did not holster her pistol.
Maccabee stepped up to the two revolutionaries, motioning for them to stand up. “We didn’t come her to start trouble. But we’ll gladly do so in exchange for your help.” He glanced at his people over his shoulder, then back at the revolutionaries. “We’re pretty damned good at causing trouble.”
The man and the woman exchanged a long look, obviously thinking about something, not just Maccabee’s offer. Then the woman nodded and turned back to Maccabee. “We have a job for you,” she said. “It’s at the starport. If we succeed, you’ll have a distraction to cover your escape.”
“How big a distraction?” asked Samara.
“Big enough,” said the man.
Public transport was still working. Maccabee and his crew sat with the two revolutionaries, who had changed clothes so they would blend in, if one didn’t look too closely at their faces. Those were grim, mouths pressed into a thin line. As soon as they’d detailed the plan to him, Maccabee had insisted that they carry it out that very day. They’d protested, claiming that security was too tight, but Maccabee knew it would only get tighter. He wanted off this rock right now.
The pair of revolutionaries had not given out real names, but instead insisted on being called by codenames, Max for the man, Alex for the woman. Samara had wondered out loud if all the codenames ended in the letter x, prompting Alger to start naming off as many examples as he could. Max and Alex had not been amused, and Maccabee had cut off that line of entertainment. It was an uncomfortable little alliance he’d forged here, but he was done playing games. These people were in a position to help him, and they were going to do it or suffer.
The train was heading out of the city of Banar, towards the starport, though they were getting off sooner than that. Security Forces had blocked off the port anyway, and no one was allowed in or out. That much was plain on the local news. Max hadn’t revealed much of the plan, but Maccabee was under the distinct impression that they were waiting for cover of darkness. Always a good start in his opinion.
When the train slid to a smooth halt at the next station, Alex stood up, giving them a little jerk of the head to indicate they should follow her off the train. Max remained seated, and Maccabee didn’t ask why, didn’t even make eye-contact with the man. Better no one remembered them being together. Out on the platform, Alex moved with easy familiarity to one of the station exits, down a flight of stairs to street level. They were in an area of farmland, though given the wealth of the surrounding communities, Maccabee guessed these farms were more for show than actually for feeding people. Some were vineyards, climbing up terraced slopes on elegantly manicured hillsides, topped with villas in creams and browns with red tile roofs, and turreted battlements. All stylized, but bewitching in their way.
Alex turned and started walking away from the station. Maccabee and the others followed, exchanging curious glances. Ndika had made no move to escape or notify the authorities of his capture. Somewhere along the way, Samara had pointed out to him that he would certainly be viewed by the authorities as a fellow revolutionary, a supposition that Max had happily affirmed. Maccabee had no illusion that Ndika would miss any opportunity to escape or kill his captors, but the businessman was smart enough to bide his time, and until then, he was relatively safe. The trick was anticipating his move. Maccabee was trusting Sel and Samara to do that; he had other things on his mind.
They walked about an hour, taking several turns on unmarked roads that got progressively smaller until they were strolling along a driveway or some other private road, that wound its way along the skirts of a hill towards a large copse of trees ahead of them. The fields here were wild, overgrown with grass and even young trees, and though Maccabee had little feel for how long living plants in the free air took to grow, he guessed it had been years since anyone tended this estate. When they entered the trees and saw the house tucked away amongst them, his guess was confirmed.
The house, of course, built of modern materials, was unmarked. It could have been one year old or two hundred, and would have looked the same either way. No owner would have let the grass around it grow hid-high, though, not ivy and other plants to climb in profusion over every part of the south wall, covering windows and doors. And they probably wouldn’t have left a fallen tree leaning drunkenly against the roof, or weeds growing in the—well, Maccabee didn’t know the word for the channels along the edge of the roof, but they looked like they’d funnel water during a rainfall.
“What’s this about?” asked Samara. Alex kept walking, circling the house. “I asked you a question!” said Samara, stopping dead and reaching a hand for her gun. The revolutionaries had been impressed with the anti-scan boxes Maccabee and his crew carried, and he’d promised to hand them over once he was off-planet. He had more, as expensive as they were. The fact that Alex and Max had none, however, meant they’d ridden the train unarmed.
Now, Alex looked over her shoulder. “It’s a safe house. Or it will be until you fire that pistol.” Samara scowled and dropped her hand. “Our vehicle is here, for tonight.”
They followed her around the back of the house and to an equipment shed, a basic, metal structure that looked too non-descript to have been built with the house, but which had also been here for a long time. Alex stopped at the doors, placed her hand on a scanning pad for a moment, then stepped back as the doors rolled open revealing a shadowy space inside. The moment Alex stepped over the threshold, however, lights blinked on, revealing a squat, massive, ugly machine: a tank.
“You have a tank?” asked Alger. “Why’d you never buy me a tank, captain?” he said, looking at Maccabee. “Bloody hell.”
“And where do you think I’d put it?” said Maccabee with a grin.
“I’d damn well sleep on the Deck and put it in my quarters,” said Alger reverently as he stepped up to the thing and ran a hand over its heavy, ceramasteel plating, “if I could have one.”
“You don’t want this one,” said Alex, looking amused at Alger’s infatuation. “It’s an old model. No hover mode, just tracks. It’s slow, it’s dumb, it’s got nothing heavier than a pair of twenty millimeter plasma cannons, and a medium ground force suppression system.”
“Aye, lass,” said Alger, his voice still soft. “I know. She’s a Grendel L-T-four-aught-five.” He was walking around the tank, now, crouching down to look at the treads, then standing on tiptoe to glance at the ground suppression system. “Mark Three, by the look of her tracks. Body design dates to Twenty-eight-fifty-two, but this model was built a hundred years later, give or take a decade. Quarter million horsepower liquid hydrogen turbines, top speed two hundred kilometers per hour across open ground.”
“What the hell’s the tank got to do with horses?” asked Samara. Maccabee was wondering the same thing.
“Not horses, lass,” corrected Alger, “horsepower. It’s an old energy unit.” He glanced their way. “Used it back in the old English system.”
“Never heard of that, either,” muttered Samara. “You’re just full of useful information, aren’t you Alger?”
“If this little history lesson is done,” said Alex, “you might want to consider familiarizing yourself with the tank.”
“That will ‘na be necessary, lass,” Alger said with a laugh.
“Yeah,” said Samara, “well some of us haven’t made love to the tank yet, Alger, so maybe she’s got a point.”
“You’re not coming with us in the tank?” asked Maccabee, stepping over to where Alex was opening a wall-mounted case. Inside were weapons, both chem guns and modern railguns.
“I’m part of the distraction,” she said with a tight grin, hefting a three millimeter rifle. “If you fuck this up, you’ll get the satisfaction of knowing I’m dead, at least.”
“I don’t intend to fuck up,” Maccabee said, keeping his voice even. “We’ll stick to the plan.”
“Alger’s starting his tour, cap,” said Samara from where she was standing, on top of the tank. “Better hurry. Next tour isn’t for another hour.”
Maccabee looked back at Alex, saw her staring at the rifle, or maybe past it into the distance. He knew that look. She wasn’t planning on coming back from this mission.
Shortly after dark, a plain, old-model ground car pulled up to the shed, running on nearly silent tires that crunched slightly on many years’ deposits of gravel and dirt. Max got out of the car. Maccabee had actually hoped to see someone else. He was starting to wonder if these two were really revolutionaries, or just freelance anarchists, stirring up trouble in the already troubled world. The equipment tended to argue against the latter hypothesis, but it would have been nice to see something more, a captain, or another member of this little cell. Either way, he supposed, they would serve his purpose. He’d had Sel check out the transmitter on the tank. A little surreptitious repair work had rendered it capable again, and when the time came, he was sure that Hornet would receive his message. Unless she was on the other side of the planet.
“I hate being in the dark,” he muttered to Samara as Alex walked up to Max and the pair started talking in low voices, their heads close together.
“We could kill them, take the tank, bust our way in,” she suggested, keeping her voice as low as they were theirs. “This plan stinks of a setup.”
“I know.” He sighed. “But if it works, it’ll be a better distraction than anything we can manage on our own.”
Samara said nothing, as Alex and Max were coming towards them. Maccabee stood and dusted off his rear. “Well?”
“The plan’s on,” said Max, his fervent eyes glowing in the dim light from the shed. “We’ll leave here in two minutes. Have you synched your chono with ours?”
“Already done,” said Maccabee. “We’ll be in the right place at the right time. Map’s loaded into the tank, we all know how to drive the thing.” He chuckled. “Although, if I don’t let Alger drive it, I’m pretty sure he’ll turn us in to the cops.”
Max’s eyes slid over to Alger, then back to Maccabee, no hint of amusement in them. “Make sure that doesn’t happen.”
“Right,” he said. What was the point in explaining humor to a man without the faintest dose of it? “Good luck.” He held out his hand. Max looked at it, then back at Maccabee, then turned and walked back to the car.
Alex stepped forward, took Maccabee’s hand, and shook it firmly. “Thank you,” she said, and he thought she might actually mean it. “I know you’re not doing this for us, but you’re doing the right thing.”
“Am I?” he asked her. “Why are you doing this, anyway?” He hadn’t thought to ask before.
“There comes a time when things don’t make sense anymore,” she said, still holding his hand. “When everything seems wrong, and when those who should be making it right are the ones who want it to keep on being wrong. Comes a time when you either have to let them grind you into the mud, or you have to fight back.” She grinned. “I choose to fight, captain. I think you would too.”
She dropped his hand and turned and walked to the car without a glance back at him, climbing into the passenger compartment. Max gunned the engine and the car spun its wheels as it skidded backwards down the drive, turned around, and then roared out through the trees, headed. . . . Well, who knew exactly where it was headed?
Two hours later, Alger brought the tank online. The turbines rumbled to life, their sound lifting to a high-pitched scream, then up beyond the range of human hearing, replaced by a dull, bone-numbing roar. Maccabee heard Alger chuckling. The big Scot was seated at the tank’s driver station, Samara was at the articulated gunner’s seat, and Maccabee was at the back of the cabin in the command chair. Sel and Ndika had squeezed themselves into a pair of jumpseats behind Maccabee, uncomfortable, but inside the tank at least.
“Looks like we forgot to open the doors,” said Alger gleefully.
“Do what you do best, Alger,” said Maccabee. They hadn’t forgotten about the doors, but had thought it better to leave them closed while they ran the final tests on the tank. No doubt Max and Alex would be upset about the damage; Maccabee didn’t really care.
Alger laughed and gunned the tank’s engines, sending power flowing to the meter-wide treads. The massive machine surged forward as though it had rocket boosters, smashed through the shed door like the ceramasteel wasn’t even there, and narrowly missed the corner of the house as Alger fought the controls for a moment. He let back on the throttle, and they skidded through a sharp turn, sending dirt and plants flying, then crushed a tree, again without appreciable impact.
“Bring us on course, Alger!” shouted Maccabee over the sounds of destruction. The big Scot let out another hearty laugh, then slowed the tank slightly, steadying the vehicle onto a north-easterly track, away from the house and roads they’d followed to it, and across country.
Alex had assured Maccabee that the tank could not be tracked by Security Forces, as it had no transponder ID, minimal and heavily shielded EM signature, and didn’t fly, thus making it much more difficult to spot on scans. The planetary lockdown initiated by the SF was tight, much tighter than Maccabee would have guessed. Aircars and other vehicles capable of flight were immediately spotted and flagged by the satellite and ground-based scanning systems; anyone using the roads might be similarly spotted, or stopped at one of the many roadblocks. Cross-country seemed the only option, and this old tank design offered several advantages in regards to stealth.
Many modern hovertanks used fusion generators or high-discharge powercells to function, both of which gave off strong energy emissions; the hydrogen turbines in the Grendel were quiet in the relevant spectrums, which meant that only minimal shielding was necessary to disguise the tank. Maccabee guessed that was why it had been built, because even several hundred years ago, this machinery had been outdated.
The ride was bumpy, but less uncomfortable than Maccabee had expected. Taking his eyes off the two-dimensional holo screen at his station, he rotated his seat to look back at Sel and Ndika. “Still time to change your mind, Ndika,” he said, raising his voice to be heard over the sound of the turbines. “Sure you don’t have an escape route waiting somewhere?”
“Aren’t you tired of asking that question?” replied Ndika. His mood had not improved, especially once he learned what they planned to do with this tank. Apparently, he felt he’d be better suited to sitting the whole thing out, which was certainly true. Unfortunately, for the other part of Maccabee’s plan to function, Ndika and Sel would have to be close by, ready to go at a moment’s notice. That meant right where they were.
“Just thought I’d offer an alternative,” said Maccabee with a small smile. He turned his seat back and came face-to-face with Samara. She was in the gunner’s station, which was right under the turret, mounted slightly forward of the center line on this tank. Depending on if she had it slaved to her controls, the turret would turn with her seat, giving her a feel for the target environment around her. Right now, however, the weapons system was on standby.
“What happens if Hornet’s on the other side of the planet?” she asked him, keeping her voice at a low volume that carried no further than his seat.
“Most likely, we die,” he answered.
“This is just a suggestion,” she prefaced, “and I’m not saying it’s necessarily what I think we should do, but wouldn’t it be smarter to just sit tight until we get official approval to leave the planet? Like you said, we haven’t been ID’d yet, we aren’t wanted by anyone. Seems like we could have a quiet holiday here.” She grinned at him, her mouth slightly open, and his heart skipped a beat.
Beating back his lecherous thoughts, Maccabee shook his head. “Normally, I’d agree, but I have a bad feeling about this. It’s like you said, the Fleet will be here soon, and even if they aren’t, the place will be crawling with Security Forces for months. And our holiday might be interrupted by Max setting off a nuke in our hotel lobby.” He frowned. “And there’s something else. I can’t really place it, but I have a real need to keep moving here. Like there’s some reason we shouldn’t sit still.”
Samara nodded as thought that all made sense. “I was thinking a lot of the same things,” she admitted. “Just thought I’d throw out the other options before it was too late to back out.”
“Much appreciated, Samara,” Maccabee replied with a smile. Then the expression faded from his face. “What do you suppose Yakazuma and Simon are doing?”
Samara smiled, now, and her expression seemed a little sad. “They’re doing what they do, Maccabee. Every time I think about how stupid this whole thing is, I think about them, you know?” She shook her head. “I don’t feel like I’m going to see them again.”
Having her say it out loud hit Maccabee like a blow in the chest. But it was the same feeling that he’d been having. “I hope we’re wrong,” he said.
“Me too,” Samara replied. Then she turned her chair back to face forward, locked in the turret, and brought her systems online. “We’re five minutes out, people,” she said in a loud voice that carried through the whole interior of the tank. “Get ready.”
The tank rumbled on into the night, and suddenly rose over a ridgeline, exposing the gleaming starport, its launch tower picked out in gold and silver lights, its runways bathed in a blue glow, and the tarmac lit up to show off a mere handful of shuttles, all parked and shuttered, their running lights dark. To the side, separated by a brightly lit line of security fences from the rest of the complex, was their target: the barracks of the Third Armored Interceptor Wing of the Security Forces Space Command.