The traffic control bunker in Village A was just a low, concrete room, located at the edge of town, right by the tiny landing field. A single door led to a long, metal and concrete corridor that connected back to the main habitat. With Hornet’s entire command staff, Ndika, and Arturo Hulegu joining the Village A controller, the place was more than cramped, but everyone waiting there was silent. The room was bathed in red light from a single, fading bulb on the ceiling and the only sound was the hum of that bulb and the rustling susurration of the ancient com gear piled haphazardly against the wall.
“What makes you think she’s even coming here?” asked Hulegu in a low whisper. He was leaning against the far wall, arms crossed over his chest, looking very much bored. “How long have we been waiting?”
“She tracked us from the Gatehouse,” said Maccabee, not taking his eyes off the gravitational scanner. The thing was an outdated beast of a machine, but grav detection was a technology that had been around for a long time. The gear might not be sensitive, but it would do the job. “She knows we were headed for Angstrom. She won’t be able to get there herself, not now. So. . . .”
“She’ll come here,” finished Hulegu. “Her nearest base of operations.”
Maccabee didn’t feel the need to respond. He’d come to this conclusion twenty hours ago, shortly after entering the Ngrono system. This had not been his plan, not at first, but as he’d realized what was likely to happen in the next day or two, he’d been unable to let the opportunity pass him by. He could have taken enough pleasure in destroying the base here, leaving some sly and witty note for Josephine to discover when she and Infinite Justice arrived, as they were sure to do eventually. Then, he and Hornet could have moved on to another world, and let the game continue. But here was an opportunity. One well worth taking.
It had been Arturo who had convinced the Village A controller and his people to play along. Hulegu was, after all, a revolutionary. And the people on this shithole mining world were almost at the bottom of the heap, not so low as the scavengers of Makassar, perhaps, but getting closer. The right words had changed their attitudes immediately. That, and a good bit of clean credit, courtesy of Captain Maccabee. Money well spent, and a cheap price too, if this worked out.
“Transition,” said the controller, his voice soft. Maccabee’d already seen it on the grav deck, a bloom of color out some five million klicks from the planet. Not too close, plenty of room to maneuver, to run, should it be necessary. Just the kind of caution that he’d expect from Josephine. But there was nothing for her to see here, no ships, no enemies. Just empty space, as usual.
“Send the signal,” ordered Maccabee. Sitting next to the controller, Samara keyed in a short sequence on the com gear and sent the recording they’d managed to get out of one of the crew from Josephine’s base. This was a gamble, like every other part of the plan, maybe a bit bigger than certain parts. Anything, any tic or blink or frown that was out of place or didn’t ring true could raise the alarm. Of course, it would be a few minutes before the signal even reached Infinite Justice. Assuming that was the ship out there. The grav deck was still processing her drive signature.
“It looks like her,” said the controller. He was the pale, bearded man they’d seen when they first entered the system. Despite the changes wrought by the last twenty-four hours, the man looked, if anything, less calm than before. “This is about the best reading I can get.”
“Good enough,” said Maccabee. He turned to his crew. “Move to your shuttles. We need to be in position to fly when the moment comes. Assuming she takes the bait.”
“Even if she doesn’t,” muttered Alger, “she’ll be bloody well headed this way.”
“Right,” agreed Maccabee, “which is—”
“Transition!” said the controller. Maccabee spun around to catch a glimpse of the grav deck as another bloom appeared on its screen, a much larger imprint than Infinite Justice had left. “It’s exactly a thousand klicks from the first one,” continued the controller, his voice sounding a bit wild. “Exactly.”
“They’re working together,” said Samara, reaching the conclusion at the same time as Maccabee. Jumps that precise were no coincidence. They exchanged a glance across the crowded room.
“What now?” asked Ashburn.
“Infinite Justice is turning,” reported the controller.
“The first ship is turning to intercept the second one,” he said, pointing at the grav deck, which was now tracking the gravitational signatures of each ship’s fusion reactors. “That second ship is big, Captain—more than eight megatons.”
“Which means she’s a freighter, or a fleet ship,” said Samara.
Maccabee nodded. “And there’s no way Josephine would engage a fleet ship.”
“What the bloody hell is going on out there?” growled Alger.
“She’s right on top of us!” barked a crewman from below Simon and the Boss. “Range is nine hundred kilometers.” The emphasis was not unsurprising. That sort of range was dangerous from a simple navigational standpoint, much less for a combat situation.
“That ship’s small,” said Simon, keeping his voice even though a noticeable effort, “but she’s packed to the gills with weapons, Boss.”
“Which means we’re right where we want to be,” replied Anderson with a wild cackle. “Outo! Ready tubes!”
“Tubes?” repeated Simon. Anderson pointed and Simon looked as pieces of Parthenon’s hull started to open up, lowering down out of her main superstructure. There were twenty of the protuberances, and each one, judging from Anderson’s order, was a missile tube. Missiles weren’t particularly effective weapons at long range, but that explained why Anderson had jumped right on top of Infinite Justice. “Damn,” muttered Simon.
“Enemy target is standing off,” reported another crewman. “Incoming signal!”
“On,” ordered Outo. A moment later, one side of the flying bridge’s view was obscured by a ten meter image of the Commodore, a scowl painted across her face.
“This is Infinite Justice,” she growled. “I don’t know what game you’re playing at, but you will surrender immediately and prepare to be boarded! Respond now, or I will open fire. You have five seconds.” She didn’t bother to count, but neither did she shut off the channel. The bridge of her ship was not visible in the frame, just her angry—and, Simon noticed now, freshly scarred—face. He felt a surge of satisfaction knowing that he’d caused those scars, twined red ugly lines that ran from her forehead down and across her cheek.
“Response?” asked Outo, his voice tight with tension.
“If she fires, take her out,” replied Anderson, with evident glee. Simon felt his stomach lurch. A single volley from Infinite Justice might well leave Parthenon unable to reply in kind.
He was about to open his mouth when the Commodore’s scowl deepened, and she said, “Time’s up. You will now be boarded by brute force.”
The signal cut off. “She’s powering weapons,” reported one of the crewmen.
“Secure the bridge!” ordered Outo. Simon had no time to ask just what the hell that meant, because suddenly the entire fucking bridge was flying upwards, right at the massive, unmoving main hull, and it was obvious that they were going to die, and then a hatch was opening on the underbelly of the ship, folding open and out of the way, and suddenly the entire bridge was plunging into darkness, slowing, stopping. Simon looked down over the edge of the Boss’s platform and saw just a glimpse of stars as that outer door snapped shut again. Then, as the holo emitters came alive, the darkness around them was suddenly replaced with a virtual image of the view they’d just left. The effect was dizzying.
“Incoming fire!” shouted a crewman, and suddenly Parthenon lurched as a full broadside from Infinite Justice slammed into her bow. Thousands of rounds of particle cannon fire hosed down her shielding, but the Boss had evidently invested in some improvements to that system as well. Lasers and heavier beam weapons bled through the energy screen, and several forward sections of the ship were opened to space, but all of Parthenon’s vitals were buried deep inside her hull, far away from her enemy’s deadly fire.
“Missiles away!” barked Outo.
Simon blinked at the flashes of light as all of those twenty tubes belched out a missile, each one obviously powered by matter/anti-matter thrusters, leaving brilliant trails of ionized waste gases as they flashed away at upwards of a hundred gees, not hardly fast enough to catch a warship that was expecting them, and at a decent range. Unfortunately for Infinite Justice, she was neither a warship, not expecting this sort of attack. Automatic countermeasures lit up the holo as Parthenon’s holographics artificially highlighted the other ship’s response, and four missiles were wiped away in the first second.
Infinite Justice started to accelerate, then, jumping away from Parthenon, trying to outrace the missiles. She was fast, but the missiles were fast too, and they had only a tiny distance to cover, by the standards of space combat. Another five died as the point defense lasers opened fire, sweeping a lane free of incoming missiles, but there were too many, and the extra time bought by Infinite Justice’s sudden acceleration was slight. The two lead missiles dove inwards and blew up at a minimum stand-off range of a hundred klicks. Gigaton infernos lit up the vacuum and focused beams of gamma radiation lanced out from those bombs to tear at the target’s flanks, one on each side. Shielding flared, buckled, collapsed, and armor ablated, exploded, and gave way.
Another missile died, and then one more reached its firing point, sending another gamma ray burst along Infinite Justice’s flank, no deep damage, but a blow that was certain to destroy weapons bays. Then, the enemy was away, moving too quickly for the other missiles to catch. They realized this and quickly self-destructed in small, controlled explosions, not risking a chance friendly-fire incident.
“That caught her fucking attention!” crowed the Boss.
“She can stand off at a million klicks and burn us down,” pointed out Simon, whose heart was pounding in his chest. Those missiles were only good for a sneak attack, but he shuddered to think of the damage the massively powerful grazers had caused inside Infinite Justice. Could they even respond?
“She’s not interested in fighting us,” scoffed Anderson. “Look!”
He pointed at the holo display, and it appeared he was right. Infinite Justice was running, not slowing her acceleration, but moving at maximum for the second planet in the system. Parthenon’s A.I. pegged that ugly rock as Ngrono’s World, a forlorn mining colony. A perfect base for the Commodore’s operation.
“Are we going to close in and finish her?” Simon asked, keeping his voice carefully neutral. There was no sign of Hornet, so he assumed that Maccabee had not yet found this place.
“That’s your man’s job,” said Anderson. “We know where she is, now. We’ll swing back out of here, get as close to Angstrom as we can, try to intercept this Maccabee guy you’re so hot about.”
“She’ll be long gone by the time we get back,” protested Simon. “She knows she’s blown, now. No way she’ll stay here!”
“Not my problem, really,” said Anderson, but he sounded like he was reconsidering. “Of course, you may be right.” He glanced up at Simon. “You say this Maccabee’s a smart guy, right?” Simon nodded. “So, we can stay here, keep little miss pirate company until he gets here. I mean, he’s got to get here sooner or later.”
“Assuming he can get off Angstrom,” pointed out Simon. “He doesn’t have a choice about that.”
“Sir,” said Outo, interrupting their low-voiced conversation. “Incoming signal from the planet, sir. Must have sent it right when they saw her come through.”
“Interesting,” said Anderson, immediately forgetting Simon. “Put it on.”
A woman’s face appeared on the holo. She was dressed in something that looked similar to the uniforms the Commodore’s crew on Infinite Justice wore, though not as well made. Her face was drawn, tired, almost haggard. Something was certainly wrong.
“Commodore,” she began, confirming that she was an employee of the same. “There’s been a major mining accident in Village A; catastrophic life-support failure. I’ve got the civies loaded on my shuttles, but we need to get them off-planet somehow. I’m sorry to preempt you, ma’am, but I’m putting those shuttles in the air right now. We’ve got about two hours, maybe three, before those shuttles run out of air. Thank God you’re here! Please reply!” Then, the signal died.
“That seems mighty suspicious,” muttered Anderson. Simon was thinking something along the same lines, but the woman’s story certainly didn’t seem impossible. A place like this wasn’t going to operate with the strictest safety margins, nor was it likely that they’d have any sort of real evacuation plan. The only thing that struck him as slightly odd was that the pirates would offer to lend a hand. Sure, someone in the mining colony had to be on the take, but why bother with the rescue? Let the poor souls shuffle off, then relocate before the inevitable investigation. Better than a few hundred witnesses to your pirate shuttles.
“What are you going to do about it?” Simon asked.
“For now, Mister Tamil,” said the Boss, leaning back in his chair, “I’m gonna watch.” Then he leaned forward again. “But Captain Outo,” he added. “Take us closer in. I want a good view of this.”
“Were those missiles?” asked Ashburn. “God-damned missiles!”
“Who is out there?” asked Samara, her voice low. Maccabee had no answer. “Who would know?”
“Yakazuma?” suggested Alger, though he didn’t really sound like he believed it. Maccabee didn’t.
“Whoever it is,” he said, “we have to stick to the plan.” He pointed at the screen. “He’s following her in-system, but slowly. Like he isn’t really interested in fighting.”
“He waited for her to shoot first, I think,” said the controller. “Hard to tell with this system.”
“She’s closing the range quickly, captain,” said Samara. “And I’m reading an incoming signal.”
“Let’s get to the shuttles,” said Maccabee, making up his mind. “Let her eat static, for now. Route those signals back up to the command shuttle.” That was the one of Hornet’s ships that would be in the attack. Unless the crew of Infinite Justice was extremely diligent, they would mistake that shuttle for the one that was stationed in Village A; there was no way Maccabee was bringing that heap on this mission.
Hornet’s crew filed out through the exit of the small control room and rushed down the length of passageway, heading for the airlocks. All eleven shuttles were docked at various parts of Village A, and shuttle commanders split off at junctions to head for their ships, each giving a brief wave to Maccabee. He and Samara were the last two together, and when they reached the airlock connecting to her ship, Maccabee paused.
“Watch your back,” he said to her, wanting to touch her, but not daring.
She smiled. “You worry too much, Maccabee,” she said. Then she ducked into the airlock and disappeared.
Maccabee turned and rushed down the last bit of corridor, turned a corner, and came to the small ladder that led to his shuttle. The ship was actually sitting on top of this particular module, and he climbed up and into a narrow tube, crouching and bending his head to reach the hatch below and pull it up, letting its automatic mechanisms seal tight. An indicator ten centimeters from his face lit up green, and he straightened and reached upwards, turned another lever, and pushed up on the upper hatch. It swung upwards, banging against its combing, and he saw the face of Terrance Al’Bahar looking down at him.
“Captain,” said the crewman, reaching down a hand and helping Maccabee into the shuttle. “Are we a go?” Terrance had a sharp accent, a sort of lilting sing-song quality to his speech, inherited from his native world. Wherever that was.
“We are a go,” said Maccabee, climbing into the pilot’s seat and securing his crash harness. “Strap in, people!” Then, accessing his com implant, he linked up the shuttle commanders. “OK, this is it. Remember, staggered launch, disorganized ascent, poor piloting skills. We’re overloaded with civvies, probably piloted by some of ‘em.” There were a few laughs over the link. “Are we go?”
“Go!” came the reply, repeated in turn by each shuttle. Maccabee nodded, then lifted his ship off the habitat module. The little shuttle jumped into the air, and he slid her sideways for a moment, steadied her, then started a slower ascent, watching as the rest of the shuttles launched in haphazard fashion below.
“Incoming signal,” said Samara. “Routing to you.”
Josephine appeared on the screen in front of Maccabee. The sight of her took his breath away. It was as though she hadn’t changed at all. Then he noticed the differences, the lines around her eyes and mouth, the coldness of those eyes. And the scar. It was still livid, like she’d decided not to have it cleaned up by her medic. Or maybe her medic was dead? Whatever the reason, the thing was an ugly blemish. He wondered how she’d gotten the wound.
“Camila, God damn it, come in!” barked Josephine, speaking to an officer who was currently locked up somewhere uncomfortable inside Village A. They’d managed to convince her to make the initial recording, but not to play along any further. “What the hell is going on down there? I will not allow you to dock with me unless I get a reply, is that clear? I don’t care what the hell is happening down there!” She pressed her mouth into a thin line. “Reply now!”
“Samara,” said Maccabee. “Send her the A.I. signal from your ship. Break it up. I want no more than seventy percent visual and less audio. Make it hard for them to tell it’s an A.I.”
“They’ll figure it out quick enough,” Samara replied. “I give this two, maybe three minutes.” There was a pause. “Better to let her sit in silence for a while longer.”
Maccabee checked their ascent. Their progress was slow. Infinite Justice was still fifteen minutes from orbit, but already starting to decelerate; it would take the shuttles half that time to clear atmosphere, and then another minute or two to cluster together, bring up the stragglers. He didn’t want them too close together, in case Josephine decided to come in shooting, but if she did make that decision, a few extra klicks wasn’t going to make a difference. At any rate, Samara was right.
“Give her another ten minutes,” he said, making his decision. Alger’s shuttle careened a little too close for comfort, and Maccabee ducked the shuttle downwards slightly, hoping that no one would notice that little bit of expert piloting. “Unless she’s going out of her skin.”
“I think she’s already there, captain,” said Samara. He could almost see her smile; she was enjoying the thought of their enemy’s discomfort. Maccabee realized that he was not. Instead, he felt only nervousness. Who the hell was out there?
“Any signal from the other ship?” he asked.
“Nothing,” Samara replied. “He’s coming in slow, keeping about a million klicks between him and Infinite Justice.”
“So I see,” replied Maccabee. Even this little shuttle had more sophisticated sensors than the controller’s room on the planet, and the ship’s A.I. had assigned the mystery vessel the classification “unknown heavy freight type.” That was odd as well, since there were very few ship types not in the computer’s memory. Of course, most normal freighters didn’t carry missiles armed with gigaton warheads.
Minutes passed slowly by, and the shuttles climbed into orbit, straggled towards each other, and moved around the planet to meet Infinite Justice. Josephine’s graceful ship was now easily visible on Maccabee’s screens, and he winced at the dark scars along her flanks. Was she even capable of fighting anymore?
“Sending signal now, Maccabee,” said Samara. “Don’t know if she’ll buy this level of interference now that we’re all in orbit.”
The message was received, such as it was, and only silence answered. Maccabee gave the order for the shuttles to move in towards Infinite Justice, now keeping an eye on the new ship closing in on a distant parking orbit. The mysterious freighter was large, but oddly designed; her bow was crushed from a broadside, obviously fired by Infinite Justice, but she was otherwise undamaged.
“Shuttle putting out from Justice,” reported Samara, drawing Maccabee’s attention back to the matter at hand. “Looks like she’s heading for the surface.”
The shuttle didn’t come close to Maccabee’s little flotilla, but instead angled downwards, cruising below them and heading towards Village A. That meant they had precious little time to spare. But what was the shuttle doing?
“Any signals?” he asked.
“Nothing yet.” Samara sounded as relaxed as Maccabee was tense. “OK, now I’ve got something. Shuttle to surface. It’s her!” She sounded excited, now. “It’s Josephine, Mac. She’s off the ship.”
Maccabee keyed in a quick sequence on his control panel and switched to the general com channel. “Go! Now!”
Moving as one, the shuttles surged forwards, quickly and efficiently. A moment ago, they’d appeared to be overloaded, poorly piloted heaps, but now they were weaving through complex evasion patterns, cutting in and out around each other, and expanding into a half-sphere, closing down around Infinite Justice from a hundred and eighty degrees. Time to intercept was only thirty seconds, but Maccabee held his breath that whole time, knowing that someone on board would realize what was happening, would put the pieces together and open fire. A single broadside would do the trick.
And then they were there, the shuttles landing on Infinite Justice and grappling her hull, just as they were designed to do. Maccabee’s slammed home with a good bit of velocity, right on target at the forward dorsal hatch, and he was out of the pilot seat before the little ship stopped rocking, grabbing the racked plasma rifle by his seat. Terrance was already at the hatch, activating the assault programs. Each shuttle had targeted a specific hatch on the enemy’s hull, all of them detailed in the blueprints Sel had discovered, and now the shuttles were overriding the seals, breaking through the encryptions. Men and women inside would be realizing soon what was happening, would be grabbing weapons, running to action stations.
Maccabee gripped the plasma rifle’s textured grips in his gloved hands. Like everyone else in the shuttle, he was wearing only light ballistic armor, enough to stop a railpistol round, maybe two. Not enough to save any of them if they encountered heavier fire. Alger’s team had the heaviest armor, as usual. The man seemed to like the stuff, and. . . .
“I’m in,” said Terrance. He glanced up at Maccabee, who nodded. “Opening.”
He leapt back from the shuttle’s belly hatch as it cycled open, and Maccabee and two other crew—Aldu and Ngum—stepped forward, their rifles at the ready. The hatch on Infinite Justice’s hull showed signs of age, but was otherwise in good shape. It dropped about ten centimeters, then slid to the side, and suddenly they were looking down into a corridor through a narrow, meter-long passage through the hull’s armor and maintenance layers. No one was looking back up.
“Team Four is in,” said Czerney’s voice over the com. “Minimal resistance. We are moving towards the objective.” Now that they were on board, the com signals would be intercepted—that was a given. Thus the codes. Czerney was already headed for the engineering section.
“Grenade,” said Maccabee. Aldu pulled a grenade from her belt, pressed the trigger, and dropped it down the hatch. Everyone turned their heads as the flash-bang went off below, and then Maccabee was shouting “Go!” and Aldu and Terrance were jumping in, just dropping straight down a good three or more meters. “Go!” Maccabee shouted, and the other three went, Ngum first, then Zakes and Kano, and then he was dropping after them. He hit hard, rolled forward, and caught himself short on the bulkhead. Three railpistol rounds pinged off the ceramasteel above his head a moment later, and he rolled back the other way, bringing up his rifle, but Zakes was already there, two plasma rounds blasting the attacker apart.
Terrance hauled Maccabee to his feet. In his head, he heard a dozen other voices as the rest of the teams breached the hull. Samara was in and heading for the bridge; Alger was moving towards engineering, encountering the heaviest resistance. Suddenly, the air around them was alive was the sounds of combat.
“Team One in,” he said over the command channel. Then, aloud, he said, “Let’s go,” and took the lead, moving quickly down the corridor. His team was tasked with taking the secondary control deck, which was near the bow, two decks down from their current location. If the blueprints they’d studied were still accurate, there was a ladderway just a few meters ahead, along a transverse corridor.
“To the rear!” shouted Terrance suddenly. He was bringing up the back and now Maccabee heard him start to shoot his heavy blaster, the distinctive whine very loud in the tight corridor, but a lot quieter than the heavy CRUMP! of each impact. There was no way to tell what was back there between the smoke and flame, but railgun fire was coming back up the corridor. Maccabee’s team hunched against the walls, and Aldu and Ngum added to Terrance’s fire with their plasma rifles. Maccabee looked forward: they were still five meters from the cross corridor. It would be good cover. Assuming it wasn’t already held against them.
Pushing away from the bulkhead, Maccabee dashed forwards, keeping his head low as more fire ricocheted around him. He felt a round tug at his arm, but the ballistic armor shrugged it off, and then he was at the corner, skidding to a stop, staring right into the even dozen spinning barrels of a tripod-mounted machinegun, something that looked like the Thresher’s meaner cousin. There was just enough time for him to throw himself sideways before the thing opened fire, and two rounds still clipped him in the leg before he was around the corner and scrambling further down the corridor, which was coming quickly to an end. Behind him, sounding like the howl of some horrible machine beast, the gun roared on, thousands of rounds chewing the bulkheads apart, penetrating into the conduits and pipes underneath. Sparks started to fly, overhead lighting died, and water started running somewhere inside the bulkheads.
Maccabee barely felt the pain in his leg as he used the bulkhead to climb back to his feet. The machinegun was silent again, but the ship bore mute signs of its fury. How much ammunition had they managed to set up here at this choke-point? There was no other way forward to the command deck, a fact that the crew of Infinite Justice obviously knew all too well.
“Status?” Maccabee asked over his team com net. It was localized enough to avoid interception—probably. Better than shouting down the corridor. He could still hear sporadic fire from down the corridor, but he could see Terrance and the others, and they looked all right.
“Holding, cap,” said Terrance, sounding calm. “What the fuck did you find back there?”
“Multi-barreled railgun,” reported Maccabee. “Holding the ladder against us.”
“Aye, sir,” said Terrance. The man obviously expected his captain to come up with a clever plan to bypass the cannon, one that would not result in his death. “We’ll hold it together here, cap.”
One of the advantages of having eleven teams on board the ship was versatility and adaptability; not every team was assigned to a high-priority target. Maccabee linked into the command channel and signaled to Russ. “Team eight, this is team one. What’s your status?”
“Holding by the port-side vehicle bay, team one,” replied Russ. “All enemies in this area have been neutralized.”
“I need fire support at my main objective,” said Maccabee. “Move now. Be aware, this signal is probably being intercepted.”
“Understood,” answered Russ, his voice cool. “On our way.”
Maccabee turned back to look at his team, just in time to see a string of micro-missiles erupt from the transverse corridor where the machinegun was mounted. “Down!” he shouted, as three of the missiles peeled off towards his team, the remaining one diving at him, obviously on a preprogrammed attack path. Maccabee threw himself forwards and down, towards the missile, and felt the heat blast as the missile passed right over his head. It tried to turn, slammed into the bulkhead and burrowed a few centimeters into it before exploding and turning the corridor into a threshing machine of shrapnel. Maccabee felt two pieces hit him in the back, but neither penetrated his armor. Another caught him in the arm, leaving a sharp, hot cut down his wrist.
“Terrance!” roared Maccabee, not bothering with the com. “I need grenades!” He hauled himself forwards on his elbows, moving towards the corner, then rolled onto his back. Another flight of missiles branched out from the transverse corridor, two of them howling over Maccabee’s face and then suddenly turning, their body sensors picking him out from the floor. Neither one could make the turn in the tight corridor, but one of them flew up into the overhead, its backblast showering Maccabee with debris. Throwing up an arm just in time, Maccabee shielded his face.
There was no reply from his team. Hauling his plasma rifle onto his chest, Maccabee cranked up the fire selector to maximum output, single shot; then, for good measure, he over-cranked the selector. The gun shouldn’t have allowed such an adjustment to be made, but most of Hornet’s small arms were modified in one way or another, and this one happily indicated that it would burn its whole charge on a single shot, safety be damned. That amount of power in a single burst would overload the lensing circuits and cause the whole weapon to blow itself apart. Which was the point, after all.
Two men ran into the corridor from the crossing, short-barreled railguns at their shoulders, one heading each way. Maccabee almost fired his rifle, remembered just in time what he’d done to it, and pulled out his sidearm, all while the crewman was realizing that the body on the floor was still moving. Maccabee fired, stitching the man’s face with five rounds. Screaming a gurgling death cry, the man fell backwards. His fellow was already turning around, but now shots came from somewhere down the smoke-filled corridor: someone on Maccabee’s team was still alive! A blaster bolt caught the man full in the back, ripping his torso open and sending his body sprawling to the floor.
Maccabee holstered his sidearm, yanked a length of cording from a pocket on his combat vest, and tied it around the trigger assembly of the rifle. Paying out about three meters of cord, he moved a bit closer to the corner, rolled back over onto his stomach, and took a deep breath. Then, he heaved the rifle around the corner, holding tightly to the cord and ducking his head down. He heard a shout, and then the cord snapped taught in his hand. A moment later, a high-pitched, climbing whine shrilled through the corridor, followed in less than two seconds by a thunderous explosion. Fire blossomed out of the transverse corridor and licked at Maccabee, but he had his arms over his head and the ballistic armor protected him from the heat. A moment later, the blast was flickering away.
Climbing to his feet and pulling his sidearm again, Maccabee stepped into the corridor. The machinegun was a wreck, its barrels warped and twisted around one another, as though it had been spinning when the plasma rifle had blown. The remains of the crew that had tended it were even less pretty, and Maccabee winced, making a mental note to recheck the safeguards on his crew’s rifles.
The sound of booted feet behind him made Maccabee spin around, but it was just his team; rather, what was left of his team. Terrance was nowhere to be seen, and Ngum was also missing
“How bad?” he asked Aldu, who was now the ranking member of the group.
“Al-Bahar took some shrapnel in the leg, sir,” reported Aldu, her voice tense but in control. “He’s holding our rear.” She scowled. “Fucking missile hit Ngum dead in the chest, popped his head off.”
Maccabee made a conscious effort not to wince when he heard that news, but nodded instead, clapped a hand on Aldu’s shoulder and pointed with his railpistol to the hatch they were seeking. “Secure that hatchway.”
“I am five meters from the transverse corridor, team one,” said Russ over the com. “You still need fire support?”
“Come on in,” said Maccabee. “Coast is clear for the moment.”
“This is team two,” said Samara as Maccabee gave a wave to Russ and the other man’s team. Even over the com link, Samara sounded displeased. “Objective is secure, but primary control has been routed to team one objective. We are attempting a reroute.”
“Understood,” Maccabee answered, subvocalizing so as not to confuse those around him. “We are about to take that objective.”
Turning, Maccabee saw that Aldu had the hatch open and was pointing her rifle down the ladderway. “Status?” he asked.
Without taking her eyes from the narrow tube she was looking down, Aldu said, “Clear, sir. No sign of movement.”
“Russ,” said Maccabee, motioning for the other man to come closer. “Take your team in. You’ve got us beat on armor, and you’re fresh.” Russ nodded. “I want maximum efficiency. There’s no use in trying to take prisoners.” Russ gave another short nod and turned to move away, but Maccabee grabbed his arm. “Try not to blow up the control decks, though.”
“Hey, captain,” protested Russ. “Have I ever let you down?”
“No,” answered Maccabee, grinning.
Russ motioned to his team, and the five of them clustered around the ladder. Maccabee motioned for Aldu to back away, and she did so with crisp, clean efficiency. Russ glanced back at Maccabee, who gave the nod to proceed. He then turned and gave the signal to his team. Two of them grabbed grenades from their gear harnesses, and tossed them in the hole. A moment later, a gout of flame and light burst up through the ladderway. Maccabee thought he heard a scream, but there was too much noise to be sure.
Russ was already jumping into the hole, his team right on his heels. As the last of them went down the ladder, Maccabee and Aldu moved back up to the gap and looked down. Russ was there, giving them a thumbs up. Then, something hit him in the back, throwing him out of view and sending a blast of blue flame up the tube. Maccabee flinched back, but he could hear shooting down there. Someone was fighting back. “Watch our backs!” he barked at Aldu. Then, he climbed into the hole, not jumping but using the ladder as it was intended.
Halfway down, Maccabee stopped and crouched. Hooking one foot through a ladder rung, he slowly rotated his body. He could see shots passing through the space below the ladder, plasma rippling through the air, the bright-hot vapor trails of railgun rounds heating the corridor. The noise was stunning, but still he moved slowly, letting his head fall until he was twisted upside down. Letting go of the ladder with one hand, Maccabee pulled out his sidearm, and risked a quick glimpse into the corridor.
The crew of Infinite Justice had barricaded themselves in front of the emergency control deck. Heavy slabs of ceramasteel plating had been hastily stacked across the corridor, with gaps intentionally left where rifles and pistols could find a clear shot. Russ’s team had no such cover, and was cowering inside hatchways at the other end of the short corridor. The door at that end appeared to be sealed shut, its emergency override blown out. A perfect trap.
Maccabee pulled his head back up, looked up at Aldu’s worried face, and slipped his pistol back into its holster. Then he reached up a hand. “HE grenade,” he called to her. He kept his voice low, though there was no chance he’d be heard over the thunder of the firefight just below him. Of course, if the enemy had this section of corridor monitored, it was only a matter of time before they spotted him anyway, assuming they hadn’t already. Most likely, the next time he stuck his head out the hole, it would be shot off for him.
Aldu dropped the grenade right into his hand, and he swung back down, triggering the device as he did so. A moment later, he was looking into that corridor again, and now someone was shooting for him, but the aim was just off. He took a sight on his target, tossed the grenade, and ducked back into the hole as a plasma round lanced up and caught the rim of the ladderway. Blue fire enveloped his lower body, burning right though the gaps in his armor, but Maccabee held on for that long second, held on until he heard the thunderous WHAM! of the grenade going off. Then he dropped backwards through the hole, letting himself fall all the way to the deck, hitting hard and rolling sideways to fetch up prone against the bulkhead.
Debris and flame was still falling from the air, but the grenade had had the desired effect of silencing the enemy fire for the moment. Maccabee scrambled to his feet, yanking his gun from its holster, and charged the barricade, vaulting over its mangled remains, diving forwards and rolling across the deck. He came back up facing the other way, looking right into the frightened face of a crewman with a plasma rifle. Maccabee’s finger tightened on the trigger before he could change his mind, and the railpistol fire blew the other man’s head apart. No one else behind the barrier was left alive.
“Move!” shouted Maccabee. Russ appeared, climbing slowly and painfully over the barricade, followed a moment later by the rest of his team. Two were missing.
“Lost two, cap,” muttered Russ, looking angry, embarrassed and relieved at the same time. Maccabee just nodded, climbed to his feet, and motioned to the heavy, sealed door that stood between them and the command deck.
“Can we get through it?” he asked.
Russ nodded. “I think so. If they haven’t changed the override.” He attached a small minicomp to the hatch control panel and activated the A.I. on the little unit. Sel had programmed all of these attack systems, based on his knowledge of the ship gleaned from the blueprints they’d found. But those specifications were old, and Josephine was not the sort of person to let her security arrangements go stale.
They stood, waiting, while the little computer did it’s work. Maccabee half listened to the reports from the rest of the ship. Infinite Justice was in his hands, with the exception of her most important piece. All the other objectives were secured. Samara and Alger were on their way to him, Ashburn was working on achieving local control of the reactors and drive systems, and the rest were searching the ship stem to stern, looking for stowaways and saboteurs. The tally wasn’t complete, not yet, but Maccabee counted five dead, eleven injured. Not bad, but a terrible butcher’s bill when weighed against the total number of Hornet’s crew.
The minicomp beeped, and then the hatch was sliding open. Maccabee ducked out of the way, motioning for Russ to step back, but there was no need to worry. A single man dressed in an officers uniform was standing in the center of the control deck, his hands clasped behind his back. Maccabee rushed into the room, gun up, Russ and the others behind him, looking for any traps, but there were none. Just that one man.
“Name?” asked Maccabee. The man remained silent, his eyes still fixed on the open hatch. Feeling a bit more worried now, Maccabee ran up to the command seat, shouldering the man aside onto the deck. He grasped the display repeater and took a quick inventory of the ship’s systems, but nothing seemed amiss. No self-destruct mechanism, not reactor runaway. At least, nothing that he could see.
Grabbing the man by the uniform, he hauled him to his feet. “Why are you standing here?” he asked him, pressing his pistol against the man’s belly.
“I’m to inform you,” said the man, his voice perfectly calm, “that you are required to surrender.”
“Surrender?” asked Maccabee, definitely feeling uneasy now. “Why?”
“Because otherwise, the Commodore will destroy this ship.”