“All in working order?”
“All in bloody well perfect order.”
Maccabee smiled and leaned back in the chair he’d occupied inside the base command center. “Beautiful,” he said over the com. “Start prepping them as soon as you can get a crew down here from Hornet. We’re going to need all of ‘em.”
“Captain?” asked Alger on the other end of the link. “There’s enough bloody room in these shuttles for nearly two hundred.” He didn’t need to add that Hornet’s current crew complement, including her officers, was about a hundred and twenty.
“All of them,” confirmed Maccabee. “Clear?”
“Bloody crystal,” muttered Alger; then he killed the link.
Maccabee rotated his chair and glanced over at Sel, who was still hacking through the command center computers. He’d linked them into Hornet’s mainframe, but the encryption was still good equipment, and that meant time. It was a delay that Maccabee hoped he could afford, but not one he could feasibly do without. He needed more information for his plan. If he was lucky, the data he was looking for would be on the base computers. Somewhere.
Instead of interrupting Sel’s work, Maccabee turned further and glanced back at Samara, who was looking through everything that Sel had managed to uncover so far. “Any luck?” he asked her.
“I’ll let you know,” she said, without looking up. He decided not to press the issue. His mind only had room for a single conflict right now, and it was not his current falling-out with Samara. Saying nothing, he stood and walked over to the floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out across the crater plain where the base had been built. Somewhere out there, too small for him to see at this range, was the hidden shuttle hanger where Alger was right now. That had been Sel’s first serendipitous find, a reinforced bunker built into the steep crater wall, completely invisible to the naked eye, and very difficult to find even with surface-penetrating radar. Two more shuttles had been lost on the landing field, but even with Alger’s shuttle down for repairs, this left Maccabee with nine operable ships, enough to form the beginnings of a plan in his head.
The most important part of the plan was Infinite Justice, the Commodore’s ship. Her name was just about the only thing they’d managed to find out about the little pirate cruiser, and that wasn’t going to be enough. Ideally, somewhere, they’d discover blueprints, armament listings, crew rosters, access codes, everything. But at this point, Maccabee would have settled for an indication of size in general, just enough to let him know if his nascent plan was even remotely feasible.
He saw Arturo Hulegu reflected in the ceramaplast windows before the other man spoke, but didn’t turn around to greet him. The revolutionary was starting to become an irritant, but he had an important role, somewhere in the plan that was slowly coalescing inside Maccabee’s brain.
“Captain,” said Hulegu.
“Colonel,” replied Maccabee. Hulegu had revealed that this was his rank in his nebulous revolutionary army, and Maccabee had taken to using it more because it seemed to annoy the man than out of any sign of respect. Which only served to annoy Hulegu even further. Their relationship was not going to be a lasting one, certainly, but they both saw the wisdom in prolonging it for the time being at least. This was all that kept Hulegu from strangling Maccabee whenever he called him “Colonel,” but a withering glare was usually warranted. Maccabee was surprised when the latter was not forthcoming in this particular instance. “What can I do for you?”
“I am having doubts, captain,” said Hulegu, joining Maccabee by the window and staring out into the dim Ngrono midday, “about the wisdom of your plan in this place.”
“I see,” said Maccabee, his voice flat. The plan started changing in his head almost immediately, as he wrote Hulegu and his little revolution out of the picture.
“Don’t misunderstand me,” Hulegu protested, reading Maccabee’s tone correctly. “I’m not backing out, and I’ll play my role, to the hilt.” He shrugged. “I just expect to die doing it. Your ship, captain, is a mess. Without it, you are powerless.”
“For a revolutionary, you don’t seem to understand guerilla warfare very well, colonel,” growled Maccabee, turning to look at the other man. “I may or may not be able to take Infinite Justice in a fair fight. I’ll even admit that it’s highly unlikely, if she’s anything like what I’m expecting.” He forced a thin smile onto his lips. “I do not intend to fight her toe to toe.”
“Understood, captain, understood,” said Hulegu. “But what if you have no choice?”
“I don’t plan on being in that situation,” replied Maccabee, looking out the window again. “If I am, you can feel free to laugh as we both go to hell.”
That occasioned a silence that Hulegu seemed unwilling to break. Maccabee didn’t either, just kept staring out the window until the other man took the hint, nodded, and walked away. When Maccabee heard the door to the module shut behind the revolutionary, he sighed. “God, that man annoys me.”
“God already knows that,” said Samara, “and so do we. Tell someone who doesn’t know, someone who might be remotely interested.”
Maccabee turned to look at her, but she was still hunched over her minicomp. “Well, fuck you too,” he grumbled. “Is that any way to talk to your captain?”
The conversation might have gone further downhill, but Sel chose that moment to come out of his working reverie, and say, “Captain, I think I’ve got something.”
Samara and Maccabee both immediately headed for Sel’s terminal, their incipient duel forgotten. “What?” asked Maccabee, leaning over Sel’s chair on one side while Samara stood on the other.
“Looks like the main data file on Infinite Justice, sir,” said the small man, reaching up to adjust his dark glasses. “All her original builder’s specifications, her operating costs and maintenance schedules, all up to date, her crew rosters.” He glanced up at Maccabee, then at Samara. “Pretty much everything, sir.”
“Armaments?” asked Samara, trading a quick glance with Maccabee.
“Yes, ma’am,” said Sel, bringing up a document and pointing to the screen. “Her original builder’s blueprints include weapons mounts, and there’s a tracking file with all subsequent modifications.” He brought up another document, and arranged several more in a sequence, showing changes to the hull and weapons on board Infinite Justice. “She’s more than a hundred years old, captain, but well maintained for all that.”
“She wouldn’t have replaced her ship,” said Maccabee quietly, staring at the screen but not really seeing it. “She’d have loyalty to the old hull, spend whatever money it took to keep it up to date.” It was coming together now, the plan, moving through his mind like a video playback, each step becoming clear. And he had his answer, in these blueprints, these documents: the decision he didn’t want to make was being forced on him.
“Any codes?” asked Samara, ignoring Maccabee completely.
“Not yet, ma’am,” answered Sel. “I’ll keep looking.”
“Download the rest to my terminal,” she told him, giving him a friendly clap on the shoulder. Maccabee blinked and looked over at her. “The captain and I are going to step outside for a moment.”
“Yes, sir,” said Sel. “I’m close to breaking the whole thing wide open; it’ll only be a matter of time.”
“Good,” said Samara, motioning Maccabee towards the door with her head. He wondered just what it was she wanted now. Another argument, this time in private? Following her out, he let the door shut behind them before turning towards her.
“What is it?” he asked, keeping his voice level. No need to antagonize her.
“Are you going to follow this through?” she asked him. “To the end?”
He considered for a moment before answering. “I’m not sure what the end is.”
“Bullshit,” she said, but she wasn’t angry, just a bit sad. “Maccabee, you know what the end is going to be. There’s no other way.”
“I’m not decided on that,” he said, and he wasn’t. Would Josephine even understand why he’d come after her?
“Fine,” said Samara. “We can play it this way, Maccabee, if you want. But know this: I plan on following through. I always finish things.”
“Is that a threat?” he asked.
“Please,” she said. “You know what it is, as well as I do. I’ve been with you for what, ten years now? You know me as well as anyone ever has. So don’t ask me stupid questions. Let me ask you one instead. When the moment comes, when she’s standing there in front of you, are you going to look to her for some sort of validation?” She paused, the forced herself to add, “For love?”
Maccabee smiled at Samara. “Now you should know better,” he said. Then he shook his head. “No, I don’t love her anymore, Samara. And I don’t need much from her. Just an answer to my question.”
“And if she doesn’t give you one? Or if you don’t like the answer?”
“Oh,” he said, and suddenly his voice was grim, “I know I’m not going to like the answer. There’s no answer that she can give me anymore. Not now.”
There was a long silence between them. Then Samara reached out and caught his shoulder in a painfully tight grip. “That’s what I wanted to hear, Maccabee.” She smiled, but there was no humor left in the expression, no compassion, just a cold determination.
“There’s something else you need to hear, though you might not like it as much,” said Maccabee, deciding then to tell her. “I made the mistake of not trusting you. Twice now.” She just nodded. “This time, I’m going to need you there with me, all the way. And you’re going to have to know what’s coming, or you won’t keep up.”
“This is the part I don’t want to hear?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “This is.” And he told her his plan.
Hornet’s shuttle bay was filled to capacity and well beyond; every member of her crew and five shuttles were crammed into the narrow space, and the air was getting stale. The recyclers weren’t designed to handle this kind of load in such a contained space. But this was the way Maccabee wanted it. No one quite understood why, except for Samara, who stood behind everyone else, facing, as they were, towards her captain. Maccabee was watching her watch him, trying to draw confidence from her relaxed attitude. She really was at peace, in a strange way entirely her own. Now that he’d brought her in on all the dark corners of his mind, she was acting almost as though she’d forgiven him. He didn’t think she had, yet.
The rest of the command crew were gathered at the head of their assault teams, or, in the case of Sel, in front of the crew that would be remaining behind on the ship. Lillie Monteux was the only exception: she stood alone, to the side of the bay, a worried frown on her face. She would be leaving Hornet as well, and with it her sickbay and her equipment. She was very unhappy.
Maccabee raised a hand to signal for quiet, and the soft hum that had filled the shuttle bay died away, replaced by an expectant silence. For a moment, he reconsidered what he was about to do, but there was no other way. Sel was already making the necessary arrangements; nothing of importance would be lost, except. . . .
“Sometime soon,” he began, his voice easily carrying to his entire audience, “we’re going into battle again. I expect this to be our last battle against this foe. We will be victorious against them. There is no doubt of that in my mind. None at all. You are the best crew I could possibly have assembled. You were the best when I hired you, and you’ve only gotten better. Not all of you have done the kind of thing I’m going to be asking you to do, but I know that you will do what needs to be done.
“We’re leaving Hornet out of this fight. She’s been through too much in the last year, and the last blow was what we did to her, on my orders, to get her into the Core. I don’t regret that decision. It was the right decision to make. But now we all have to live with the consequences of that decision. Hornet can’t face the ship that’s going to come to this system. Even if she were fully repaired, with her full complement of weapons, it would be a close fight. In her current state, it’s unthinkable.”
A stir went through the assembly. Hornet was their home, for most of them the only home they’d known for years. The thought of abandoning her was as painful to them as it was to Maccabee.
“We’re not going to scuttle her,” he said, “if that’s what you’re thinking. Sel and his skeleton crew will take Hornet out of orbit and hide her nearby, so she doesn’t become a target. Of course, if we fail, she’d eventually be found, so Sel has orders to leave the system if we are not successful. If that’s the case, he and those with him can do whatever they think is best with the ship and all that’s in her.”
“Safe to say, that’s not going to happen,” said Samara from behind everyone. She smiled at Maccabee.
“Absolutely not,” he added. “Because the rest of us will be planet-side, waiting for our prey to stumble into the trap. We have nine shuttles. I intend to fill those shuttles with all of you, and take Infinite Justice by force. Any of you on the combat teams who don’t think you’re cut out for that work, step forward now. You can go with Sel. He’ll have need of you.”
No one moved, though faces in the crowd looked grim now, preparing for an attack that probably seemed almost suicidal to them. That was the impression that Maccabee wanted to give. If anyone had the slightest doubt about their ability to accomplish this mission, he needed to know. He waited. Still, no one came forward.
“Good,” he said, finally. “I was hoping that would be the case. But, just in case you feel embarrassed about coming out in front of the crew—which you should—you can come to me or to Samara when this meeting is over.”
“Give it up, cap,” said Czerney. She was leaning against the chest of a massive crewman who was called ‘Ship by most of the crew. That was short for Battleship. He provided ample support for the lieutenant, who had several pistols strapped to various parts of her frame and was toting a Dreamreaver in her right hand, her personal weapon, dug out of some storage bin for the special occasion. She wasn’t the only one to have that kind of arms in addition to the load from Hornet’s armory.
“No one’s going to back out,” she continued. “Not now.”
“Like I said,” Maccabee replied, “that’s what I was hoping for.” He grinned. “We won’t be flying up there in plain sight of our enemy’s guns, either. The kind folk at the mining village have agreed to stage a mock disaster for us, which should be well on its way to completion right now. We will be based in Village A; when our target arrives, we’ll make like desperate evacuees, while one of our more, ah, cooperative prisoners informs her Commodore that a toxic leak has necessitated the evacuation of the populace. Infinite Justice might not buy it out of hand, but they’ll be reluctant to shoot down their own shuttles, apparently loaded with civilians.
“There’s more to it than that, of course. But you’ll be briefed by your shuttle commanders before we launch.” Maccabee sighed. “We’re going to win this one, without any doubt, people. Now, anyone have a question?”
“When do we get started?” rumbled ‘Ship. “And when do I get my damn Thresher?”
“Now, and now,” said Maccabee. “Gear up and board the shuttles! We’ve got an hour to get planet-side. Move it!”
The crew broke into immediate motion, most heading for the shuttles, those few who still needed to requisition weapons heading for Pinzon, who was overseeing that process. Not everyone had armor, but most of them had some sort of protective gear. About fifty were regular off-ship team members, and had armor ranging from light full body suits to heavy, powered exoskeletons, articulated, robot-like units that operators literally climbed inside of.
“Nice speech,” said Samara as she walked up to join Maccabee.
“Crap,” he replied. “All crap.”
“Well, whatever,” she said, shrugging. “I’m not a critic. It did the job.” She glanced around at the hive of activity in the docking bay. “We’re going to kick their miserable asses, Mac. Bet on it. Bet on me, if you like. I tend to win.”
“If we get to the ship, and if we get inside her, then I’m with you,” he said, keeping his voice low. “Pirates or not, they’ve never even had nightmares about facing us. No, that’s not what I’m worried about.”
“I know what you’re worried about,” she said. “But that’s in the hands of the Universe, now. They’ll fall for it. Or they won’t.” She shrugged. “If they don’t, we’ll hardly have time to realize it before we’re dead.”
“Remember what I told you, that day in the observation bubble?” she asked him, after a moment’s pause. “What I told you about the Universe?”
He looked at her, wondering if she was starting to snap. Her eyes were calm as usual, deep and peaceful. The kind of peace that only a killer could know, he supposed. “I remember.”
“I don’t believe in God, Maccabee, but I believe in something. I believe that I was put in this Universe for a Purpose. Sounds like a load of fucking bullshit, I know. Bear with me. My Purpose is to clean away the chaff.”
“Chaff?” he asked.
“As in, separate the wheat from the chaff, Maccabee,” she said, irritated. “It’s a fucking metaphor, look it up. What it means is that I’m taking care of the bits that went wrong. The Universe is a big place, Maccabee, full of so much stuff that even the Universe itself doesn’t know what’s going on all the time. Most of the time, stuff works just fine. But there are problems. What we’re dealing with here, that’s a problem.”
“And your Purpose is to deal with problems,” he said, not sure if this conversation was making him feel better or a whole lot worse.
“Right on the first try, Maccabee,” she said with a brilliant smile. “I know you think it’s bullshit, I know. I think it is too.”
“So why bother telling me?”
“Because, that’s what the Universe wants us to think,” she said. “But I know different. I know that I have a Purpose, Maccabee, ever since that day Cerrelus White opened the grate on top of the pit where I spent a year of my life. You know what he said to me, when he looked down and saw me in that pit, blinking up at the bright light I hadn’t seen in six months, naked, covered with my own blood and shit?”
Maccabee blinked in surprise. She’d never said this much about White, nor about the disastrous landing on Desmond Five that had nearly killed her during the Third Secession War. “What did he say?” he asked.
“He said, ‘You’re not meant to be here, Samara. You’re not meant to die. You’ve got business yet.’” She smiled slightly, remembering her mentor. “Then I asked him, ‘What business?’ And he said to me, ‘Business with all of creation.’” She shrugged. “And he was right.”
“Then he reached down and pulled me out of there,” she said, distant pain, well-remembered, clouding her eyes. “He gave me a gun, and pointed at the man who’d tortured me for all those months. That man was unarmed, he’d already taken a round to the leg, should have gone to a medic, then to a POW camp. I mean, this was an official war, the kind where you have rules.”
“Rules that he’d been breaking by torturing you,” said Maccabee, feeling sudden anger, and a sort of displaced fear, afraid that he might have lost Samara before he’d even found her.
“I took the gun from Cerrelus and shot the torturer in the head,” she said, and now her eyes were shining with a sort of fervent light. “I emptied the entire clip into him, forty-eight rounds. I watched each one hit him, until he was just a lump of meat.” She shuddered. “That was the start of it.”
Maccabee was silent. He was dimly aware that the rest of the bay was empty, except for the loaded shuttles. Two of them still had hatches open, waiting for their commanders. No one thought to interrupt this exchange, however. They were just watching and waiting.
“Will there ever be an end?” he asked her, finally.
“Maybe,” she said, looking up and sounding more normal again. “When I’m dead. But, I have a sneaking suspicion that I won’t be allowed to die. I’ll come back and keep going.”
“Now you’re starting to sound religious,” Maccabee said with a grin.
“Only to someone who’s religious to begin with,” Samara answered. “Think of it more as mystical fatalism.”
“You don’t have any plans to die just yet, do you?” he asked her, in spite of his better judgment.
“Keep asking flippant questions,” she muttered, “and you might just hasten your own untimely demise.”
“Ha!” he said. “Nice try.” He clapped a hand on her shoulder. “Come on. We’ve got work to do.”
“Yes we do,” she said.
The walked to the shuttles together and left Hornet for the last time.