Episode 229: A New Birth

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“The battle is over,” said Arturo Hulegu. “We have carried the day.”

The rebel leader stood by the shattered windows of the skyscraper, looking up at the night sky giving way to day again, his short-cropped hair blowing fitfully in the wind. If he had shifted his gaze and looked down to the street, he would have been able to see the shattered remains of Wasp, her insides strewn across the intersection where she had come to her final rest. The fires in the center of that wreck still burned, slowly petering out as they ate away what fuel there was to be had amidst the destruction.

Maccabee didn’t much care about the fighting, one way or another. He was too tired, too drained, too hurt to care. He sat with his back against the wall of the office he and his people had taken over—not his crew anymore, not without a ship—his arm cradled protectively across Samara’s shoulders. Monteux had splinted both her legs, given her a precious nanite pack, and she was unconscious, breathing slowly and evenly. She was going to be okay, that much was clear. This was enough to keep Maccabee going, for now, despite all the rest, all the death and carnage around him.

The office space was now essentially a field hospital, filled with the soft moans and sharp inhalations of the injured and the dying. Lillie, assisted by Simon and the exhausted Ahanda, moved among them, stopping at each person, checking wounds and bandages and drugs levels as best she could. She’d taken a well-equipped med kit from the ship, before the end, but its supplies were sorely limited, especially faced with the number of injuries the crew had sustained. No more than five of them were wholly unhurt, though the majority of the survivors were not in critical condition. The worst were Alger, who still hovered on the brink of death, and Czerney. God, thought Maccabee, remembering the first time he’d seen her, staggering back here, his mind filled with Jo’s death at his hands. It was a shock that Czerney was still alive, a shock because it didn’t seem like anyone with a body so broken could possibly still live.

“Is there help on the way?” he managed to ask Hulegu. His voice was raw, and his throat hurt when he spoke. Too much crying, too much screaming.

“As soon as I can get it,” answered Hulegu, turning from the shattered window. Nearly every window up to about the fiftieth floor was broken, blown out by the force of Wasp’s death. “Communications are . . . difficult.”

Maccabee nodded. That was no surprise. For all Hulegu’s words about carrying the day, the fighting was far from over in the city streets across the globe, as Samillion’s Security Forces fought to subdue the rebellion. They were alone now, without a fleet to back them up, and with enemy ships in orbit, which didn’t bode well for their chances, but they were hardly defenseless or incapable of inflicting serious harm on the resistance. They probably supposed that more Fleet units would be on the way soon.

They were wrong on that count, Maccabee guessed. It was going to be a while before the Fleet made another strike. If Hulegu was to be believed—and there was no reason to doubt him—revolution was underway on more worlds than Angstrom, on colonies and moons and bases stretched across a thousand light years of PARC space. It might be weeks before Fleet Command gathered up a new assault force to retake Angstrom. By then, the rebellion would be successful; there was no way to resist a force that controlled a planet’s orbit, not if that force was willing to pay the price of victory. Somehow, having spent some time with the rebels, Maccabee didn’t doubt that they would pay that price, if necessary.

Hulegu walked briskly to Maccabee’s side, crouched down beside him, then sat cross-legged on the floor. “A team has been sent this way,” he reported. Maccabee didn’t know how the rebel was communicating with his comrades, but guessed it was something like the com built into his own head. “They may be held up by Security Forces, but I estimate they will be here within the hour.”

“Thank you,” sighed Maccabee, leaning his head back against the wall.

“It’s the least I can do,” said Hulegu. “You saved my life, Captain, and my revolution.”

“I’m not a captain anymore,” growled Maccabee. “Didn’t you notice my ship blow up?”

“Ships don’t make captains,” said Hulegu, grinning broadly. “Men and women make them. They are a special breed.”

Maccabee looked hard at the other man, his eyes narrowed. Hulegu just kept smiling. “What are you getting at?” he asked.

“Nothing, Captain,” replied the rebel leader. He stood again, brushing off his pants, as though that gesture would somehow make them clean again. They were caked with dirt and dust and blood, though not his own. Hulegu had done his part in the assault on Infinite Justice. “Rest, for now. We’ll talk later. You’ll find that we will be very grateful for your help.”

“I didn’t do any of this for your revolution, Colonel,” said Maccabee, closing his eyes and seeing Jo’s shocked face again, seeing her die again, and again, and. . . . He looked back at Hulegu. “You know that.”

“You made a choice, Captain,” said Hulegu. “You could have left me in that camp, left me to die. You didn’t. You could have fought your battle alone, steered clear of this mess.” He gestured at the ceiling, clearly indicating the space above them. “You didn’t.” Hulegu shook his head. “For that, you have my thanks.”

“Well,” said Maccabee, “if you can get a med team here inside the hour, you’ll have more than my thanks.”

“That’s for later,” said the rebel, waving away Maccabee’s words. “I’ll be back.”

Hulegu turned and strode from the room, heading for the stairs, no doubt to steer his people in. Maccabee watched him go, suddenly worried. He didn’t fear that Hulegu would betray him, or hurt any of his people, but he wondered just what the man had in mind for Hornet’s old crew. More specifically, what he had in mind for William Maccabee Derrick.

Letting his eyes close again, Maccabee drifted into an uneasy sleep. In his dreams, he shot Josephine over and over, and each time, it took her longer to die. Each time, as she screamed for mercy, he jerked awake. Then he nodded off again, try as he might to keep his eyes open, and the dream started over. Too many times to count, he watched her die, killed her with his own hands, pulled the trigger again and again, pumping shot after shot into her, each one making her body twitch and jump, each one sending blood spattering across the floor, the walls, his hand. He felt the sticky warmth of it there, clinging to him, and try as he might to wipe it off, it wouldn’t go away.

Once more, he pulled the trigger, but this time, the bang was thunderous, and Maccabee startled awake, his eyes flying wide open. The tenor roar of a hovering aircar filled his ears, and he stumbled to his feet, looking at the windows. Hulegu’s team had arrived, and they’d brought an ambulance with them. The crash that had ripped him from his nightmares had been the ambulance’s side ramp falling open, crashing right through the bare window frames to the floor. Monteux was already on that ramp, pointing to the wounded and shouting, Hulegu behind her, motioning for the medics to come out. First, though, two rebels dressed in full combat gear tromped down the ramp, gently herding Monteux in front of them, then taking stations on either side of the ramp, their railguns crossed over their chests, but ready to be used at a moment’s notice.

“Hurry!” shouted Monteux, moving with renewed energy as she ran back towards Simon and Ahanda. The two men were lifting Alger on a make-shift stretcher made from a door, ripped from its hinges and covered with a blanket. They started towards the ambulance, while Sel rushed up and helped Monteux lift Czerney. Maccabee stayed out of the way, his broken wrist wrapped with a splint and hanging in a sling. Hulegu was now on board the ambulance, and the guards made no move to interfere as Maccabee’s people carried the wounded on board the aircar. Doc Monteux returned a moment later, started herding others into the vehicle, choosing the most seriously injured. When Simon and the others caught up with her, she sent them to retrieve Samara as well, and Maccabee started after her.

“Come on, Cap!” called Simon over his shoulder as he helped Ahanda maneuver the unconscious XO onto the ambulance. Maccabee reached the ramp, but Monteux was there, pulling him aside.

“Sorry, William,” she said, raising her voice just loud enough to be heard over the whine of the aircar’s motors. “I need all the room they have, and more. You’ll be fine.”

“You’re right, of course,” he said, speaking by instinct. He looked up to see Simon take Samara inside the ambulance, disappearing into its gloomy interior, then looked back at Monteux. “You take care of them, Lillie,” he said, stepping back from the ramp.

“Of course I will, Captain,” she said, smiling kindly at him. Behind her, the last of the worst of the wounded were climbing aboard, and Sel and Simon were coming back down the ramp.

“I’m not a captain anymore,” Maccabee said again.

“Don’t be silly,” scolded Monteux. “Catch up as you’re able.” She waved and jogged up the ramp. The armed rebels followed her up, and then Hulegu came back down, gave a wave to the driver, and stood back. The ramp lifted back up, and the ambulance slipped sideways, clearing the skyscraper as the ramp sealed itself back to the side of the aircar. Then, with a shuddering roar, the ambulance powered up its engines and howled off into the dull light of dawn.

Maccabee stepped to the windows, holding on to a piece of the framing that was still standing and tried to watch the aircar go, but it had already disappeared into the grey half-light; the rebels ran without warning flashers, and low to the ground, trying to avoid any Security Forces that might still be about in Halley’s empty boulevards. Glancing upwards, Maccabee saw the last stars fade into the brightening bowl overhead, while indistinct fingers of pink stole across the sky, heralding the coming sun.

He felt a hand on his shoulder, turned, and saw Simon standing there, his face drawn and haggard, but a small smile on his lips. As soon as Maccabee looked his way, Simon let his hand drop, as though that touch, a simple gesture between friends, was too friendly after all, too close. The small smile faltered.

“You look like shit,” said Maccabee. The humor mostly fell flat, but enough of it got through to save Simon’s smile. The other man let out a little chuckle, looking at the ground.

“I’m sorry, Cap,” he said. “I fucked up about as bad as I could have done.”

There was no need to ask what Simon was talking about. Maccabee sighed, looked back out the window, and felt that empty hole in his stomach return, like a creeping, cold hand inside him. He didn’t know the details yet, knew nothing at all about what had happened to Simon and Yakazuma, except that Simon had returned and Yakazuma had not. And now her body, that Simon had worked so hard to save, was somewhere down in that wreck on the street, blown to pieces.

“It was fucked from the very start,” said Simon, the words coming out slowly, reluctantly. “I was fucked. Yakazuma saved me, saved my life, but we got snagged, by the Commodore.” He snorted. “By her dogs.” The hatred in his voice made Maccabee look back at him, but Simon wasn’t looking at his captain; he was staring out into the city, but his eyes were seeing something else. Something horrible. “They tortured her to get to me. Took everything away from her, except her sanity. I can’t say how she survived it, because I don’t understand how she could. Even the . . . the Commodore, she reprimanded them, her dogs.” He glanced downwards, at Wasp. “I suppose they were on board her,” he said. “I wish I’d seen them die.”

Maccabee felt only cold. The wind this high up was bitter, and the dawn wasn’t yet strong enough to warm the air, but the cold was inside him, not from the weather. As far as he knew, no one from Infinite Justice had survived the crash and the explosion. They’d been locked up, and there was no time to rescue any but Hornet’s crew, and barely time for that.

“They used me to find you,” Simon continued, looking now at Maccabee. Tears were running down his face. “Used her as a threat hanging over me. Amathea. . . . She tricked them, made them think she was broken, inside. But I knew different. I found a chance, on the Gatehouse. I got away, came back for her.” He smiled, an ugly grin of pleasure. “I gave the Commodore that scar on her face. I wish I’d given her more than that. We got out of the ship, but Amathea was hit. There was no time. . . .” Simon’s voice broke, but he swallowed hard and went on. “She died in my arms.” He looked down at his hands, as though expecting to see her blood there, but it was other blood that stained his skin purple.

“I should never have let her go,” whispered Maccabee. “She’d still be alive.”

“Would she be?” asked Simon. He shook his head. “I don’t know.”

“You did what you could,” Maccabee said to him. “You tried.”

“But it wasn’t enough,” Simon replied, looking back down at the wreck.

“Sometimes it’s not enough. But it’s all we can do.”

Simon nodded, but stayed silent. Maccabee had nothing more to say, so he turned back to the burdgening dawn, where pink was now turning to orange and flaming red in the sky. Halley’s tall towers were taking shape against the sky, not just dark shadows now but buildings, and already the tallest of them glimmered in the light of the sun. It was a long time before either one turned away from that dawn, as though it was the first sunrise they’d ever seen.

Even through his eyelids, Maccabee could see the shimmering, red glow of the brilliant spring sun that shone on the Benjamin Barton Parklands, and on him. He could feel the warmth of that solar radiation on his skin, like a soft caress, and a gentle breeze brushed across his face, bringing the smell of fresh flowers to tickle his nose. The sounds of traffic and congestion that filled Halley’s streets were muted here, muffled by the kilometers of lawn and forest and lakes and gardens that separated him from them. Most thrilling of all, he heard birds chirping around him, now to the left, now to the right. Actually, live birds. Maybe dirt-side living was not such a bad thing after all.

Then, he felt something new, something that made his heart jump inside his chest: soft lips brushing against his own, ever so gently. “Someone’s coming, Maccabee,” whispered Samara in his ear.

He opened his eyes, looking up into hers only a few centimeters away. “Why’d you kiss me?” he asked. “Or, rather, why’d you wait until now?”

“I do what I want, when I want, mister,” she growled, leaning back from him. “Get used to it.”

“All too true,” he muttered, sitting up. “Where’s our visitor?”

She pointed to the path that emerged from the nearest stand of trees, and Maccabee saw Arturo Hulegu striding towards them, a discreet pair of armed guards trailing him by about ten meters.

“Wonderful,” Maccabee said, entirely insincerely.

“You knew this day was coming,” Samara replied, gently lowering herself onto the blanket they were sharing and closing her eyes. “Stay on your toes.”

Maccabee couldn’t answer, because Hulegu was now close enough to hear them, and so he sat quietly, trying not to scowl, as the rebel leader walked off the path and came up the small hillside to stand about two paces away. His guards stayed on the path, a respectable distance removed from their boss.

“Colonel,” said Maccabee by way of greeting, giving the other man a small nod, but not bothering to stand.

“It’s General, now,” corrected Hulegu. “Captain, you’ve been here three weeks. Your crew is on the mend, those who could be saved. The rest have been buried. It is time we talked.”

“Blunt, General, but to the point,” conceded Maccabee. “What would you like to say?”

“You impress me, Captain,” Hulegu said. “I think your talents have been wasted these last years. We have need for people with your peculiar skills.”

“I don’t have a ship anymore, Hulegu,” Maccabee pointed out, trying to keep his voice neutral. This was what he’d expected, of course, but he still hadn’t made up his mind on how to answer the impending question.

“We have ships, Captain,” replied Hulegu. “What we lack are capable people to command them.”

“I’m not a warship captain,” Maccabee said, “nor do I intend to go into battle against the Fleet.” He spared the other man an icy smile. “That smacks of suicide.”

“We won the battle in orbit, and on the ground.”

“True” admitted Maccabee, “but you lost half your ships. Not odds I care for.”

“It’s a pointless issue for us to discuss,” Hulegu said, shrugging uncomfortably. “We’re not offering you a warship command. There are enough of us capable of committing suicide, as you put it.”

“Then tell us what the fuck you are offering,” said Samara calmly, her eyes still closed, “before the sun sets. I still have time to work on a tan out here.”

“My offer,” Hulegu responded, “is for Captain Maccabee. Alone.”

“Then it had better be impressive,” Samara replied. “He doesn’t come cheap.”

Hulegu glared in her direction, leaving Maccabee to wonder just why he didn’t care for her, but the stare was lost on Samara, whose eyes were still shut.

“We have a ship for you,” said the rebel, finally turning back to Maccabee, Samara’s interruption quickly receding from his focus. “An armed courier. Not nearly as heavy as Hornet, or the Commodore’s ship, but enough to sting and run. She’s fast, very fast, sublight and superluminal.”

“Good so far,” said Maccabee.

“Naturally you’d be carrying messages for us,” continued Hulegu. “But there are also certain . . . special assignments that would be passed your way. To that end, you’ll have one of our commando teams aboard, along with certain other items and personnel that might come in handy.”

“And I have final say in all mission decisions,” Maccabee added. “On the ship and off, as long as we’re away from your command structure.”

“I can arrange that,” said Hulegu. “I told my superiors you were likely to demand that sort of arrangement. They’ll concede the point.”

“Good.” Maccabee smiled. “Point two: I want to have the opportunity to bring in some of my old crew, assuming they want to join me.”

“Also not a surprise.” Hulegu glanced at Samara. “I’d like to approve your choices.”

“Then you’ll have to do without me, General,” replied Maccabee, his smile widening. “You’re the one coming to me, asking me for help. I’ve got lots of other things I could do. Like take a long vacation from all this.” He shook his head. “No, I’ll accept a limit on how many of my people I can bring along, but I choose them, no questions asked, or I walk.”

“Done,” growled Hulegu, licking his lips and looking down at the ground in front of him to hide any other hint of emotion. Perhaps it wasn’t his decision to extend this little job offer after all, no matter how impressed he claimed to be with Macccabee. Perhaps whatever had passed between him and Samara had poisoned the well of goodwill beyond reclamation.

“Then I think we can do business, Mister Hulegu,” said Maccabee, rising to his feet and holding out his hand. The rebel took it and shook it briefly. “Samara?” Maccabee asked, glancing at her over his shoulder. She raised her head, opened one eye, shielding her face with one hand, and with the other she gave a thumbs up. She was in. That was enough for Maccabee, though he hoped a few more would sign on. After the last few months, he’d blame no one for leaving, however.

“You have until tomorrow, twenty-hundred hours, to get your people together and make whatever other arrangements you need to make,” said Hulegu, obviously itching to get moving. His eyes were shifting around, alighting anywhere but on Maccabee’s face, as though he expected an attack at any moment. There were still pockets of guerilla fighters in the hinterlands, but it was unlikely anyone would be taking pot shots at him in the park, Maccabee thought. “We have a pressing assignment for your ship; that’s as much time as I can give you.” He tossed a data crystal to Maccabee, who caught it out of the air. “Here’s the details. You can take four others, assuming they want to come. Any field, we have everything covered.”

“Yes, sir!” said Maccabee, throwing out a jovial salute. “I’ll be there.”

“See to it,” muttered Hulegu. He shot another glare at Samara, spun on his heel, and strode off down the lawn to his waiting guards. Maccabee watched him until he was out of sight, then turned to see Samara lying on her side, regarding him with her cool green eyes.

“Well?” he asked.

“Sounds like an interesting gig,” she said. “And we’ll be back in space. With a new ship.”

“Not out own ship,” Maccabee said, coming back to sit cross-legged next to her. She shifted and laid her head on his lap.

“Not our own,” she repeated. “Funny way of putting it, Captain, considering Hornet was your ship, not ours. We may not own this one, but it’ll be ours to command, at any rate. Once you’re out of orbit, anything is fair game.”

“It won’t be our crew, either,” he said.

She rolled on her back, her head still in his lap, and looked up at him, smiling. “Who would you like to have with us?”

“Alger,” he replied. “Everyone.”

“Can’t take everyone,” she said with a little frown, “even if they’d come. I think some of them are going to be out of the game for good.”

“Can’t blame them for that.”

“Not at all,” she agreed. “We’ll know soon enough.”

“Yes we will,” he said, softly stroking her hair back off her forehead. He looked up across the broad, green lawn, past the tall, sun-dappled trees and out to the gleaming towers of the city, like crenellated walls guarding the perimeter of the park. Would anyone come, anyone but Samara?

Thirty-two hours later, a small ship slipped quietly out of Angstrom orbit, accelerated with modest speed to the flux boundary, and disappeared through a wormhole, vanishing into the void. No name was officially given to the vessel; just a hull number: AA-1. It was the first and the last of its kind, designed by a madman, built by a desperate cabal. Her mission: to fight a hopeless war against impossible odds, a war of shadow and feint, of knives in the dark.

Pheonix, Maccabee called her.