Episode 220: Questions and Answers

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Maccabee staggered out of the shuttle, tripped over his own feet, and fell face-first onto the deck of Hornet’s shuttle bay. There was something terribly wrong, that much he knew. It felt like he’d left part of himself behind somewhere over Angstrom; and it felt like someone was screwing their thumbs into his eyeballs, the kind of feeling he got when the ship went through a wormhole, which it certainly had. Only that feeling usually disappeared as soon as the ship reentered regular space. His agonized mind couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t this time.

“Samara?” he croaked, not willing to trust his legs. “You with me?”

“Can’t. . . .” she said. “Can’t walk too good, Maccabee.” He heard her clear her throat. “What the fuck just happened?”

“Don’t know,” he managed. He tried accessing his com implant, but either his mind was too garbled to interface with the unit properly, or the thing was blown. Whatever the reason, he got no signal. Gritting his teeth against the pain in his skull, which seemed to be migrating from his eyes to his frontal lobe, Maccabee started to crawl towards the main hatch, next to which was a hard-wired com. He got about two meters before he heard the system activate.

“Captain?” asked Ashburn’s shaking voice. “Are you on board?”

“Here,” said Maccabee, rolling over onto his back and closing his eyes. That seemed to make things worse, so he opened them again. “What’s going on?”

“I jumped thirty thousand klicks inside the gravity boundary,” Ashburn managed, rushing the sentence out in a single gasp. “God, my head hurts like hell!”

“Command override,” said Maccabee. The com was active; the ship should respond to his voice. He tried to make himself calm and in control. “Link to Doctor Monteux.” The com system sounded a short, dulcet tone to indicate the required link was established. “Doctor,” said Maccabee. “Lillie?”

“A moment, captain,” came the doctor’s voice, and Maccabee noted that she was actually calm and in control, not just faking. “May I suggest,” she continued after a moment’s pause, “that you notify me the next time you plan on jumping from inside a grav boundary.”

“No one plans to do that, doctor,” Maccabee managed. “Do you know what’s happening to us?”

“Severe jump sickness, captain,” she said, but despite the brusqueness of her words, her tone was soothing. “Normally, we’d feel this level of effect by, oh, I don’t know, jumping ten or twenty times in a row, with minimal time between jumps.”

“Explaining why no one does,” volunteered Samara from somewhere past Maccabee’s feet, which pointed towards the shuttle.

“Precisely,” replied Monteux. “I’ve given myself a high dose of a little cocktail I mixed up once we were out of the wormhole,” she went on. “I’m on my way to the bridge, now; once I’ve given this to the people there, we’ll have the ship back under control. Then I’ll come for you. Understand?”

“Clear,” he managed. “Wouldn’t mind too much if you hurried.”

“Oh, I’ll be running, captain,” she said, and he noticed now that she was breathing harder. “We’ve got about half an hour before people start dying.”

“What?” he asked, immediately regretting the outburst, as a fresh shock of pain exploded in his brain.

“Your brain is suffering from a lack of oxygen, captain, along with various other ailments that I don’t have the time to mention,” Monteux said, her tone perfectly business-like. “This is like drowning slowly. Just keep your eyes open and stay awake. Understand? Stay awake! I’m on my way.”

The com fell silent as she cut the signal.

“Well, that’s bloody awful,” groaned Alger. “I’m going to kick Ashburn’s bony little ass, I swear.”

Maccabee lay still on his back, staring at the deckhead above him.

Monteux managed to reach everyone in time; a few stragglers ended up in her sick bay, under observation, but she promised that they would all pull through, and without any significant brain damage. Maccabee wanted to ask her just what she considered insignificant in the way of brain damage, but thought better of it. His head still hurt—less now, but enough—and though Lillie promised him that this was simply an aftereffect to be expected, he secretly wondered if she hadn’t taken the liberty of deliberately causing him a bit of extra suffering, just to drive the point home.

When Maccabee finally got to the bridge, Ashburn looked like hell. Her face was pale, drawn and haggard, and it looked like she’d vomited over the side of her seat, and no one had had the time to clean it up. Instead of sitting down, Maccabee walked across the Deck, around the holo tank, and pulled her out of the chair, folding her into a brief hug and then giving her a push towards the blast doors. “Get some sleep,” he ordered.

She stopped and turned around. “I nearly killed all of us,” she said in a sort of dead tone that Maccabee had grown all too used to from his crew in the last year.

“Stop that right now,” he growled back at her. “You saved every life on this ship, not to mention pulling off the most incredible rescue I’ve ever even heard of, much less seen. You pulled me out of the fire, Ashburn; I owe you an apology, if any are necessary, for putting you in the position to risk so much.” Maccabee swallowed hard. “I had no right to ask that much of you.”

“You do have,” she said. The faintest hint of a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. “I need to sleep.” She grimaced. “Sorry about the mess.”

“I’ll get Alger to clean it up,” said Maccabee.

That actually elicited a chuckle from her, and she tossed off a salute, then headed off through the blast doors for her cabin. Maccabee watched her go, then moved over and took his seat. The rest of the Deck was quiet and empty. He’d sent everyone who wasn’t vital for running the ship to their quarters to rest. Monteux had ordered him not to transition through another wormhole for at least twenty-four hours, and he was in no way tempted to go against her recommendations. In fact, he was planning on staying in this particular bit of empty space for closer to double that.

It was time for a new plan. Ndika was going to spill the beans—or else he’d give him over to Samara, after all—and then they’d have something else to move on. The only question was what, exactly, and where that information would take them. Maccabee would never have admitted it to anyone, with the possible exception of Samara, but he was tired of this chase. It was time for the endgame, and he was past the point of even caring who won. He just wanted the whole thing finished.

The thought brought a chuckle to his lips. Who was he trying to kid in his own mind? If anyone won, it was damn well going to be him.

The next twenty-four hours were a grueling ordeal of repair and makeshift patching. The early jump hadn’t just hurt the crew, it had damaged most of Hornet’s systems. Their repaired fusion ring was down again, its new relays fully blown by a feedback through a poorly installed power conduit. The guns that they had managed to sneak through the inspection process at the Gatehouse were mostly gone as well; thankfully, the ones that had been unhooked from the power systems had survived intact, though only a shipyard could confirm that. If Hornet had to put up a fight, it would be with only two grasers on her port side and a single heavy particle cannon to starboard, hardly enough for anything other than pounding on unarmed freighters.

“What else?” asked Maccabee, leaning back in his chair in the conference room and staring up at the deck head.

“We’re down to forty percent nominal on the drive nodes,” said an exhausted Ashburn. It was good that Maccabee had ordered her to sleep while her guard was still down, because after six hours she’d gotten up again, and she’d been working like a demon since then, hopped up on Monteux’s usual special blend.

“We’re going to have to swap out the forward gravity projector, as well, sir,” said Sel, sounding equally tired. “The main projector is fused completely, captain, a total loss. I estimate we can do the job in about sixteen hours, assuming that we can work triple shifts.”

“No,” said Maccabee firmly, looking down at them again. “Regular shifts only. We’ve got some time on our hands, and no one around shooting at us. I want people rested when they do this, and I want it done right. If it takes seventy-two hours, that’s what it takes, clear?”

“Crystal, captain,” said Sel, echoing Chief Pinzon’s usual response.

“What else?” pressed Maccabee.

Samara sighed. “We lost the war computer,” she said. “Backups are loaded, so we can have the main nav A.I. take over, if necessary. It’s got the processing power, but we’ll miss having a dedicated system.”

“Lass, there’s no need for a dedicated system,” said Alger, “not with the shambles we’ve got on the gun decks.” He sounded like a dear friend had just died. Perhaps he was right.

“Good news?” asked Maccabee.

“The crew is healing up well,” said Monteux. “I like your idea of keeping them on regular shifts, though.”

“I’ve checked the small arms,” said Alger, sounding a bit happier. “Nothing wrong with those. Everything came through fine. Shuttles are OK too, as far as I can tell. I’ve got some techs looking them over a bit closer right now.”

“Good. We’ll need those ships, and the crew.” Maccabee sighed. “Another clusterfuck,” he said, “but we got what we came for. Samara and I are going to start talking to Ndika in the morning. Assuming a best-case, we’ll have coordinates out of him in a day or two. I need Alger to work up an assault plan for a small base. Maximum utilization of resources, Alger. I want to take this place out.”

Alger nodded, then sucked on his teeth, as though reluctant to say something. Maccabee prompted him. “I want to put some of the nukes back together,” he said, not meeting Maccabee’s gaze.

There was a moment’s silence around the table. Then Maccabee nodded. “Do it,” he said. He saw surprise on some faces, but just a grim smile on Samara’s. That was the face that mattered. It was time to start fighting this her way. “Four, for now,” he added. “How long will it take you?”

“If I start now,” said Alger, already standing up, “I’ll be done by the time we’re ready to go.”

“Then you’d better get going,” ordered Maccabee, and Alger was out of the compartment before the sentence had left the captain’s lips. “The rest of you,” he said, turning to the others, “keep doing what you’re doing. We need Hornet as ship-shape as you can make her.”

“Ah, sir,” said Sel, obviously reluctant to raise another point. “There’s something else.”

“What is it, Sel?”

“Mister Hulegu, sir,” said Sel, sounding very apologetic. “He’s still insistent on seeing you, speaking to you privately. I told him you’re very busy, but. . . .” Sel shrugged. “Shall I put him in the brig, sir? He’s bothering the crew.”

Maccabee let out a long sigh. “No,” he said, finally. “He doesn’t deserve that. I’ll talk to him. Have him meet me here in half an hour.”

“Yes, sir.”

Maccabee swept his gaze over the assembled crew, then nodded. “See to it, people.”

Arturo Hugelu was not a big man, but he had a certain presence that was hard to ignore. Maccabee was meeting him alone in the conference room, while Samara prepared for their interview with Ndika. Sel ushered Hugelu in and then left at a nod from his captain. The revolutionary—that’s what he’d said he was, when they’d arrived together on Hornet—stood, almost at attention, at the far end of the table from Maccabee.

“Sit,” ordered the captain. Hugelu’s eyes sought out Maccabee’s for the first time since entering the room, evaluated the command, and took a seat in the chair furthest from him. “This is your show, Mister Hugelu,” said Maccabee. “What do you want to say to me?”

The other man nodded, to show that he’d heard without saying anything just yet. He was gathering his thoughts, marshalling his arguments. A cautious approach for the sort of man he appeared to be, but Maccabee didn’t like to put too much faith into his own first impressions. The man was clearly capable of swift, decisive action, as he’d shown during the escape from Angstrom.

“Captain,” Hugelu began, “I know that you are not a part of my revolution. I know that you took part in the attack on the Banar spaceport for your own reasons. But you saved my life; I have saved yours, in turn, so perhaps we are even on that count. Perhaps.” Hugelu smiled slightly. “I do not expect you to believe in my cause, but I believe in it. I believe in it so strongly that I know I must return to Angstrom, as soon as I can, no matter the danger to me. Let me convince you that it is in your best interest to help me return there.”

“I won’t insult your intelligence by telling you what a big request you’re making, Hugelu,” Maccabee said after a moment’s pause. “I can’t imagine anything that would send me back to Angstrom, not after we blasted out of there being chased by two fleet ships. I’ll be lucky if I keep my Letter of Marquee, lucky if I can operate at all in the PARC after this, much less in the Core Systems. If I had my way, I’d just set a course for the outer systems and be on my merry way, and leave all this behind us.”

“But you obviously have a reason for being here, captain,” replied Hugelu. “You are not heading on your merry way, because you have something yet to do here, I think. Tell me what it is—not the details, just the outline—and I will help you.”

“What can you possibly offer me?” countered Maccabee. The conversation was starting to pique his curiosity. What could a rebel, even from a world as important as Angstrom, offer to a starship captain on the run?

Hugelu was silent for a solid minute, pondering Maccabee’s question at length. Finally, he said, “Captain, I have just said that I don’t want the details of your situation. Nor am I going to give you the details of my situation. But let me ask you a question: Do you really think we’d start a revolution on a single planet, a lone piece of a political entity which boasts hundreds of inhabited worlds? Do you believe that we do not have a plan? That we are an isolated group of nuke-toting madmen, bent on destroying Angstrom’s cities and fading away into the scrapheap of history?”

This was exactly what Maccabee had thought until that moment, and the change in his thinking that Hugelu’s words wrought was both quick and frightening. It suddenly occurred to him that something far more important than his personal vendetta was going on around him, something that he might want to stop ignoring, something that could swallow him and Hornet and his crew and not even notice that they were gone.

“OK,” he said. He leaned forward on the table. “Here’s my story, Mister Hugelu.”

Samara and Maccabee entered the interrogation compartment together. Ndika was already there, sitting at ease in an small, uncomfortable chair in front of a plain table. Both were bolted to the deck. On the table was a minicomp, and Ndika was paging through some text on its screen, scrolling with the index finger of his right hand, holding a cup of hot tea with his other. He took a sip as his interrogators entered, then placed the mug carefully on the table in front of him, let the minicomp drop down, and leaned back in his seat.

There was only one other chair in the room, identical to Ndika’s, and right across from him. Samara sat there and Maccabee folded his arms and leaned against the bulkhead next to the hatch, which slid shut silently, sealing them off from the ship. The little compartment was brightly lit, and painted all in white, so that it seemed almost blindingly bright compared to the muted corridors of the rest of the ship. Samara and Maccabee said nothing, and Ndika kept his cool for at least ten minutes. Finally, however, he let out a frustrated sigh.

“Can we get started?” he asked.

“Certainly,” said Maccabee. “You already know the questions we want answered. What you have to decide is what those answers are worth to us, and what they are worth to you. Then, you’ll have to decide if those values mean you’ll tell us what we want to know, or stay silent.” He smiled. “So, ask away.”

“Ask?” repeated Ndika, sounding confused.

“Ask us anything you want to know,” explained Samara. She didn’t sound happy. This was not her preferred method of interrogation, as she’d made clear to Maccabee. “Ask us what we’re doing, what we want, why we want the information you have.” She let slip a predatory smile. “What we’re going to do with you.”

“What are you going to do with me?” Ndika asked, unable to keep a hint of concern from his voice as he stared down Samara’s horrible smile.

“That depends on what you tell us,” said Maccabee. “I don’t think it necessary to kill you,” he added, though he knew that was hardly encouraging. “Most likely, we’ll deposit you back on the planet of your choosing; not Angstrom, I’m afraid.”

“Fuck Angstrom,” said Ndika. He sat for a moment, thinking. Then, he asked, “What are you after, anyway?”

“We. . . .” Maccabee stopped for a moment, then smiled slightly. “I have a personal matter to resolve. The leader of the pirates you claim not to know is . . . a person from my past. I have a few things I need to settle with her.”

Ndika raised an eyebrow. “I take it these are not the kind of things settled over a cozy glass of brandy?”


“What about you?” asked Ndika, looking at Samara. “What do you get out of pursuing his personal vendetta?”

“I get paid,” she answered. “I like causing bad people discomfort. And I get to shoot guns.”

“You might want to ask me the questions,” suggested Maccabee, “unless you like Samara’s particular breed of disturbing answers.”

“Why’d you bring her, then?” Ndika asked.

“To make you uncomfortable,” Maccabee replied.

“Right.” Ndika sat up in his chair and rested his hands on the table, palms down. “I’m a businessman, captain. Let’s talk business. You want me to give you information. You know as well as I that information is the most valuable commodity in the galaxy. But you want it for . . . what? Nothing? What’s in this for me, assuming I have the information you want?”

“Now there’s a good question,” said Samara.

“There’s the obvious answer, of course,” Maccabee offered.

“You’ll let me live,” supplied Ndika. Maccabee nodded. “I’ll admit, that’s a persuasive argument. But hard to guarantee.”

“There’s nothing that we can guarantee, Ndika,” said Maccabee, “not in a way that would satisfy you. I could offer you anything in the universe, even something insignificant, and you’d have no way of knowing if I’d be likely to actually give it to you.”

“Bringing us back to point A,” Ndika said, crossing his arms over his chest. “What’s in it for me?”

“Let me ask you something,” Maccabee replied. “What do you think would happen if you came to President Mwatiwa with evidence not only of a pirate infiltration of his business, but your clever plan to thwart these pirates?”

“He’d ask me why I’d done it all in secret,” said Ndika. “He’d wonder just what part of his business was being infiltrated, and, since these pirates you claim I’m helping appear to operating in the Muk’ck Sector, the whole thing would naturally fall into my lap. Where does the blame lie, if not on me?”

“Wherever we want it to, assuming we succeed,” said Maccabee. “Pick a fall-guy, someone in the organization who helped you, who’d be in the position to mislead you. Tell Mwatiwa that you wanted to deal with the situation yourself, quickly and efficiently, as soon as you discovered it. Don’t you have some degree of independence in your sector? Seems like a powerful fait accompli.”

“You’ve never met Mwatiwa, captain,” said Ndika. “He’s a suspicious man. He’d probe too deeply. Find the truth.” He smiled. “Assuming, of course, that anything you’ve been saying was remotely true.”

“I think you owe me, Maccabee,” said Samara, leaning back in her chair with another grim smile. Ndika’s own smile faded.

“What does that mean?” he asked.

“It was a bet, Ndika,” she explained, as though talking to a child. “Maccabee here thought he’d crack you by playing nice; I told him he was full of shit.” She raised her hands in the air, palms up. “I win.”

“There’s nothing to crack,” Ndika pointed out, trying to sound casual. Something in his face gave the game away, however, the slightest hint of a tick at the corner of his mouth, a faint narrowing of his eyes.

“You haven’t heard the bad part yet,” said Maccabee helpfully. “Of the bet, I mean.”

“Oh really?” Ndika said, his nonchalance showing signs of severe strain.

“Maccabee here’s a bit on the squeamish side,” explained Samara. She threw a fond smile at her captain; he felt momentarily queasy. “He didn’t want to give you to me. But I made him bet on that too. He’s pretty confident. Too bad he’s not better at psychology.” Samara’s smile slid off her face like a façade crumbling away to reveal the ugly interior of her heart. “I win, Ndika,” she said, her voice hardly more than a whisper.

“You’re not serious, are you captain?” asked Ndika. All hint of calm was gone. He was forcing himself to stay seated by force of will, though Samara was leaning forwards over the table, her face not more than a meter from his. “You’re going to. . . . What are you doing?”

Ndika’s last outcry was almost a yelp, as Maccabee had opened the hatch, talking to the ship through his com implant. He stepped out into the corridor. “Sorry, Ndika,” he said, and he truly was. “The bet’s not really the important thing here, you know. That’s just a bit of. . . . Well, something. But I want that information. I tried my way. It didn’t work. I don’t have any other options left.” He shrugged. “Just so you know that we’re not trying to game you; Samara’s going to do . . . whatever it is she does.” Maccabee fixed a merciless stare on Ndika’s ever-paler face. “And you’re going to talk. Eventually.”

He turned and let the door slide shut behind him, then stood silently in the corridor, not looking back, not moving forward, just breathing. His heart was pounding. Give it time. But this was wrong, wrong in so many ways. Samara would do exactly what Ndika feared, and probably worse, and, whatever the plan, she’d take a measure of satisfaction in it. Maccabee was suddenly desperately afraid of her, afraid of how he felt about her. Afraid she’d do things that he couldn’t forgive, things she’d do for him, just to make it worse. He’d be just as guilty as her, only he’d feel that guilt. What would she feel? Just pleasure?

Maccabee’s breath was coming in short, sharp gasps now. He forced himself to stop breathing for a moment, to calm down, concentrated on slowing his heart rate before he hyperventilated. This was a choice. Ndika had made his choice. He’d sided with pirates who had killed thousands, slaughtered innocents. They were the enemy here, and Ndika was one of them, his hands stained with their crimes as surely as though he’d pulled the trigger. Only, that didn’t justify stooping to his level. Maccabee hadn’t come to that, not yet.

He turned around, about to barge in to the interrogation room, and the com in his head turned on: “He cracked.” Samara sounded happy. He’d almost expected her to be disappointed that the plan had worked. “You can come in.”

The door slid aside and Maccabee walked in. Samara saw his face, and hers closed off immediately, as though she’d read his mind. Ndika was too desperately relieved to notice anything pass between them.

“I’ll tell you everything I know, captain,” he said, standing on shaking legs. He scowled. “You play this game pretty well.”

“Don’t crucify yourself, Ndika,” said Maccabee, though his eyes stayed locked on Samara. “Why don’t you head back to your quarters.” There was no need to guard the man beyond having the ship’s A.I. monitor him. Where was he going to go?

“Thank you, captain,” said Ndika. He squeezed past Maccabee and out the door, which shut behind him.

“I guess you win, Maccabee,” said Samara, and there was something gone from her voice, a familiarity he hadn’t noticed until just now, when it had disappeared. “What did you think?” she asked, after a moment’s pause. “That I’d torture him? That I’d enjoy it?”

“Maybe you played your part too well,” he said, not sure just what he was thinking.

“Bastard,” she spat, standing up and taking a step towards him, so that they were less than half a meter apart. “I thought you, of all people, would understand.” Her voice was low, hard, unrelenting, and each word was a punch in Maccabee’s gut. “I opened doors for you, Maccabee, that I’ve never opened for anyone! Not a single person. But you still thought I was capable of this. You still thought I would torture a man and take pleasure in it.”

“I’ve seen you take pleasure in killing men,” he said, suddenly angry now that she was throwing this back at him. If she wanted to play the psychopath all the time, she had to expect people to believe her, didn’t she?

“And I’ve seen the same in you,” she retorted. “That makes neither you nor me a monster, Maccabee.”

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“No you’re not,” she replied. “Maybe you will be, but you’re not sorry now. You’re happy that you’ve got what you came for, your precious fucking information. No, Maccabee, you’re never sorry.” She shook her head and drew back from him. “You always plunge that knife of self-doubt into your breast, always give the speech about how you fucked this up, or that, about how bad you feel. But it’s about you, isn’t it? ‘Look at how bad I feel!’” An ugly grin turned up the corners of her mouth. “Fuck, Maccabee, we all feel bad. Some of us even feel bad for other people.”

“That’s not fair,” he managed, though he suddenly found it hard to speak, hard to breathe, hard to even keep his heart beating in his chest.

“Of course it’s not fucking fair, Maccabee.” She snorted and shook her head. “None of this shit is fair. But it’s the shit we’ve got to live with. I thought you could see me for something other than the psycho bitch who stalks the ship, scaring new recruits.”

“I do,” said Maccabee. “I love you, Samara.”

“You think you do,” she replied. Then she pushed past him before he could say anything more, the hatch sliding open in front of her, and then closing again behind her as she disappeared into the ship.

Maccabee didn’t watch her go. He stood there, stock still for a long time.