Reality snapped back into place with a satisfying quickness, no hint of disaster apparent, no pain except at the level normally associated with a wormhole transition. That was plenty bad enough. All around the bridge, people began breathing again, but the danger was only beginning.
“Position,” snapped Maccabee, regaining his composure before the others. His full command staff—minus Kinte, who was watching the reactors with the same precision as a man looking down the barrel of a sniper rifle—was on the bridge, including Colonel Jugnauth; Samara, Sel and Ducila Pinzon were there as well, standing at the back of the deck, right by the sealed blast doors.
“Tracking,” said ensign Arden Millicent in reply to Maccabee’s request. Millicent had had the most contact with Maccabee of any of the three ensigns on board, as his duties bound him to the bridge most of his waking hours, but the captain still didn’t know what the make of the young man. He was lean and muscular, not tall, but somehow an imposing presence, with his dark hair waxed back, his olive skin gleaming with a healthy shine, and bright orange eyes staring out of a chiseled face. He was quick, Millicent, but seemed to lack that essential spark that made a real officer of quality.
“Status,” said Maccabee, addressing this request to Lieutenant Ganda.
“All systems nominal, captain,” she replied, her voice still a little unsteady from the transition. “All reactors coming back up from throttle-down, no indication of any abnormal activity.”
“Good,” Maccabee said. Each jump since the accident had been nervous, and he’d hardly slept at all in the last two days, just catching an hour here and there between regularly-scheduled transitions, forcing himself awake for each one of them. Samara had finally strong-armed him into taking a tranq and sleeping for the last six hours before this final jump, while she watched over things. There was no one else he trusted.
“Position verified, captain,” said Millicent, at last. “We’re within the target radius, relative velocity ten-point-four meters per second.”
“Thank you, Mister Millicent,” said Maccabee, finally allowing himself to sit back in his chair. The first step was complete, and exactly as planned. “Send the message, Anver,” he ordered.
“Time to find if our information’s good,” rumbled Jugnauth.
Maccabee turned his chair to face the man, who was trying to put as much distance as he could between Maccabee’s old crewmates and himself. “You have reason to think it won’t be?” he asked the commando.
“No sir,” replied Jugnauth. “Just years of experience.”
Samara chuckled, and though Jugnauth fought hard to keep a scowl off his face, Maccabee knew it was only because she’d had a career not unlike his own, spent fighting in wars all over the galaxy, relying on information so out-of-date it was worse than no information at all. She’d nearly died because of it.
“Pinzon,” said Maccabee, turning to his former security chief. She was a tall woman, and he knew she was incredibly strong, though her frame didn’t show it in the loose spacer’s coveralls she was wearing. Unlike Samara, Ducila Pinzon was not the sort to carry weapons when they weren’t required, and so she stood with her feet planted at shoulder width, her arms folded across her chest, a frown on her face. It was not a feminine visage, square-jawed and low-browed, but not unattractive. Her chestnut skin was offset by reddish-brown hair and dark, glittering eyes. “What do you think?”
“I don’t, captain,” she said bluntly. “Not enough information. Either they’re here, or they’re not.”
“Captain,” said Anver. Maccabee turned. “Signal is sent, and in the clear.”
“Very well,” he said. “Millicent, take us to the receive position.”
Aye, sir,” said the ensign, and he moved his hands with quick efficiency over the controls, sending Phoenix across empty space at half her maximum acceleration.
It was not, technically, empty space that they were in anymore. This was the Kuiper Belt of the Dominion K-14 Star System, nearly seven light-hours from the system primary, eight billion klicks away. Tens of thousands of objects moved through this apparently empty space, some of them the size of Maccabee’s head, others as big as worlds, but there was so much space out here, so much distance even in what might officially be called a part of the star system, that the density of objects was slight. According to their charts, a medium-sized object, roughly thirty klicks in diameter, lay half a million kilometers off their port bow. . . .
Maccabee looked up at the navigational display in the holo, and spotted the object, marked out in the dull brown that designated naturally occurring bodies. A tag floated nearby, marking it as DK-14 KBO VR6625. No other significant objects were noted on the display. Truly the most desolate place there was, until the dark interstellar void, yet this was where their contacts worked, and lived. Two men and one woman, the only crew on a twenty-megaton-capacity slow miner, cruising the extreme reaches of the system, looking for hidden treasure. No FTL capacity, not even a slipstream drive to whisk them in to Dominion Rock in a few days. Just an anti-matter burner, a big stack of rockets strapped onto the back of the ship. If they decided to head in this very hour, it would be years before they completed the trip.
“Slowing to match receive target, captain,” said Millicent, breaking apart Maccabee’s thought structure.
“Very well,” he answered. Why they had to play this elaborate game was anyone’s guess, but the Starduster—a grandiose name for such a ramshackle ship—was staying hidden, for now. If she even had a fusion reactor, it was on stand-by, or it would long since have been picked up by Phoenix’s sensors. Maccabee was following his instructions to the letter. What happened next was up to the other ship, if she was out there, somewhere, floating invisible in the darkest night of all.
Everyone on the bridge was silent, waiting. Five minutes passed, then ten. Maccabee glanced over his shoulder at Samara, saw her shrug so slightly that he might well have imagined it, turned back and caught Brenner’s eye. The XO had apologized for his comments two days earlier, and Maccabee had told him the matter was closed, but that was naturally a lie, or at least an nuanced version of the truth. “Thoughts, commander?” asked Maccabee. He’d have to work with Brenner, use the man to the best of his abilities, if this mission was going to succeed, even if he’d rather just replace him with Samara and be done with it.
“The briefing suggests it’s an old ship, captain,” said Brenner, speaking with a chilly formality that seemed inevitable, given what had gone before. “Perhaps they’ve had some sort of system failure.”
“It is a possibility, sir,” said Sel. “They have no support out here.”
“Suggestions?” asked Maccabee. He hadn’t considered a simple mechanical failure. Good. Perhaps Brenner would bring something to the table after all.
“Send the signal again, sir,” said Millicent. “Try an alternate frequency band, or send a wide-field burst.” He shrugged. “They could just be out of position.”
Another possibility. Starduster was supposed to meet Phoenix at this location, but if they were even a few thousand klicks out of place, the narrow beam signal would miss them entirely. “Good thought, ensign,” said Maccabee.
“Don’t like it, captain,” said Jugnauth. “The wide-field,” he added. “Too many ears.”
“Not out here,” said Lieutenant Ganda, smiling at Jugnauth. “There’s nothing out there.”
“We’re here,” said Jugnauth. “So’s the other ship.”
“If we’re going to announce our presence,” said Brenner, “I’d rather light up the active sensors, do a single globular sweep, shut ‘em down, and then skip out on a mini.”
“A mini?” asked Maccabee.
“Sorry, sir,” said Brenner, and he really did look chagrined. “Super-short-range wormhole transition, sir, otherwise called a mini-jump. In the Navy.” The Union Navy, Brenner’s old outfit.
“How mini?” Maccabee asked.
“Well, you gotta get outside the flux limit, so usually about two million klicks or so,” Brenner answered. “That way, if something’s lurking out there with it’s guns on us, we’re gone before they can fire.” He shrugged. “Course, they’ll know where we are right away, but. . . .”
“Yeah,” said Maccabee. “Useful idea.”
“Not at two million klicks it isn’t,” Samara chimed in softly. “That’s almost weapons range. I’d rather do ten million, if we’re going to bother at all.”
“Sir,” said Ganda. Maccabee looked her way. “Shouldn’t we at least try the narrow-beam signal again, sir?”
“Absolutely,” he said. “Anver.”
“Aye, sir,” said the crewman. She touched a few controls, then said, “Signal away, captain.”
Again, they waited. Maccabee tried not to fidget. What if there was no ship out there? The plan didn’t really allow for that eventuality, which was why it was a poor plan, but Maccabee hadn’t had a say on it. He could abandon this system, move on to his next target, but that would be an awfully big failure, not to mention potentially stupid. The chances of a serious picket in this system were low. He could. . . .
“Sir!” said Anver sharply. “Incoming signal!”
“On!” he barked, sitting up straight in his chair.
The holo image flickered and then was replaced by a com signal; image quality was poor, less because of the signal itself than the recording system, and the picture shimmered slightly, the color balance out of whack. The person in the image was a woman, which meant Berret Kobun was her name; her face was pale chocolate, drawn and sickly, but she didn’t seemed concerned. Just tired. Very tired. “Phoenix,” Kobun said in a dreary voice. “This is Starduster. Signal and code packet received. Welcome to Dominion Rock.”
Maccabee could feel the deck under his boots tremor slightly as Phoenix mated up to Starduster’s lower airlock, sliding up under the bigger ship’s belly like a parasite attaching itself to an unsuspecting host. He finished checking the magazine in his railpistol, slid the weapon back into the holster at his hip, and glanced at the rest of his little team. Pinzon, Samara, two of Jugnauth’s commandos, and Ensign Mars Keita, a tall wisp of a woman, long-limbed, long faced, long-haired, the delicate fingers of one hand resting on the butt of her three millimeter railpistol. Whatever time Keita didn’t spend tending to Phoenix’s main guns was inevitably dedicated to the cleaning and care of her personal arsenal of firearms. The ensign got along swimmingly with Katrina Czerney, whom Maccabee had nearly had to tie up to keep off this mission.
“Damn it, Cap,” she’d whined, “I’m fucking bored to tears here!”
“There’ll be plenty of opportunity for shooting soon enough,” he’d said, fearing that he was probably right and not just trying to fob her off. Two of his people were already probably too many, and there was no way he’d manage to keep Samara away. Pinzon was just more reliable than Czerney, less likely to kill someone first and ask questions later.
“Seal is green, captain,” said one of the commandos. Maccabee hadn’t yet caught the man’s name, nor that of the woman who was his partner.
“Thank you,” he said. Stepping forward, Maccabee palmed the airlock door control, waited for the heavy hatch to slide aside, and climbed in. The others followed quickly, Pinzon bringing up the rear, and she sealed them in. Everyone reached out for a hand hold, and a moment later, the artificial gravity in the lock was shut down. Maccabee looked upwards and saw the outer door slide open, revealing the length of the docking collar extending upwards towards the pockmarked ceramasteel of the slow miner’s hatch on the other side. Then, with the groaning sound of protesting machinery long disused, that hatch rumbled aside, revealing a dimly lit chamber beyond, not so different from the one where they stood.
A voice floated down the passage: “Come on up. Gravy’s off.” It was a man’s voice, one of the other two crew on Starduster. Maccabee assumed he meant the gravity was off.
“Let’s go,” said Maccabee, pushing off and letting go of his handhold. He floated upwards, or forwards if you wanted to look at it that way, along the three meter length of his own ship’s lock, and then into the docking collar. That belonged to Phoenix as well, as Maccabee had no intention of trusting the other ship’s facilities more than he had to. For four more meters, he floated in bright light, and then he caught himself at the hatch to the Starduster. Keita floated up next to him, her pistol in her hand now.
“Let me go first, captain,” she said. Her voice was a shimmering thing with a musical lilt to it, and her almond-shaped eyes twinkled. “Just in case.”
Maccabee nodded, wondering how the ensign had slipped past Samara to take that role. Glancing down, he caught Samara’s eye, and she just grinned, a gun in each of her hands, her toes just touching the sides of the docking collar, her body perfectly controlled in zero g with the fluid grace of a hunting animal.
Keita grabbed the edge of the hatchway with one hand and levered herself up into the Starduster, her own feet catching her on that same lip as she popped upwards, then moving quickly up and over to keep her from sliding back into the docking collar. It was a precisely-timed move, and Maccabee watched the ensign with an appreciative smile. “Clear,” she said a moment later, and then she was moving aside to open the way for the others.
Maccabee eased himself through the hatch and then over to the bulkhead, grabbing a rough bar welded there some time after the ship’s construction. A big, yellow arrow roughly painted on the bulkhead pointed down at his feet, indicating the direction that the artificial gravity would take when it came back on. The two commandos slid in after him, then Samara, and finally Pinzon, bringing up the rear again. Maccabee nodded to Keita, who’d drifted over to what appeared to be the airlock controls. She pressed a battered, green stud, and the hatch began its grinding way home, sending a shiver through the steel under Maccabee’s hand. A small light next to the stud blinked from red to green, back to red, then returned to green, flickered, and stayed steady.
“Gravy in three,” said the man’s voice, “two, one.” Downward pull returned with a sharp and sudden tug. Someone’s boots hit the deck hard enough to make a clanging thud. Then, the inner hatch locking mechanism retracted with the hard sound of metal hitting metal, and the door swung open into the ship beyond. A moment later, a thin, brown face peeked around the hatch, topped with disheveled hair and flanked by ears so long they touched the owner’s shoulders: Astral Mpho, if the briefing data was right.
“Puppies?” said Mpho, stepping around the heavy hatch and narrowing his eyes.
“Pardon?” said Maccabee, stepping in front of the others.
“You’re gun puppies,” said Mpho, pointing to the pistol at Maccabee’s side.
“Just a precaution,” said Maccabee, not really sure what the man was saying. “It pays to be careful out here.”
“Sure does,” said Mpho with a nod. “You’re mighty careful,” he added, making a show of looking past Maccabee at the heavily-armed crew behind him.
“Are you going to let us in?” asked Maccabee, deciding not to continue that particular line of conversation.
“Sure as hell I’m not saying, ‘No,’” muttered Mpho, stepping aside. “Welcome ‘board.”
Mpho led them from the airlock to a set of stairs, so steep they barely fell out of the ladder category, heading up to the next level of the ship. The exterior scan Phoenix had run as they were closing in for rendezvous showed that most of Starduster’s massive bulk was open to vacuum, giant storage bays filled with ores and whatever else the ship could harvest out here. Only the relatively small front section was habitable, but that part was still a hundred times the size of Phoenix and contained several smaller cargo holds for carrying things that might not take well to hard vacuum. What that was, Maccabee couldn’t guess, since everything in the Kuiper Belt, by definition, lived in desolate space.
They climbed the stairs, Mpho still leading, and came out into a giant, open space that stretched at least a kilometer behind them, half that to their left, and a few hundred meters ahead. To the right was bulkhead. The metal decking of the compartment was divided into three-meter tiles, obviously removable, some of them now off-kilter, a handful missing entirely. The overhead, easily a hundred meters above their heads, was obscured by a tangle of unidentifiable machinery: articulated arms big enough to pick up assault shuttles—or even Phoenix—were bent at odd angles, piping and hoses protruding from various gashes in their outer skins; cranes mounted on tracks along the overhead seemed precariously balanced, some of them apparently in danger of falling from their rails; cables, some for lifting, some for hydraulics or other systems, hung in great loops from gear that Maccabee could not identify; and a few hundred meters towards the stern, a heap of scrap marked the spot where some of the machines had finally lost their grip, toppling to the deck below.
“What the hell is this?” asked Samara, stopping to gape at the compartment. Mpho turned around.
“Central,” he said. “Where we grope the heap.”
“Ah,” said Samara, nodding sagely. “Looks a bit messy.”
Mpho scowled. “You try cleaning it with three people, and only two of ‘em carrying upstairs.”
Which two, Maccabee wondered.
Mpho led them along Central’s open space, keeping close to the bulkhead, touching the wall with the tips of his fingers, glancing occasionally towards the overhead. Though the ship didn’t seem to be moving, the suspended equipment creaked and groaned with a slow, ominous rumble, and Maccabee motioned his people to follow Mpho’s lead. It wasn’t a long trip, and then they were climbing through another hatch and into a narrow corridor. Chemical stains and other marks marred the bulkheads here, and they tromped through a puddle of some liquid. Maccabee hoped it was water. A few turns, and they reached a central stair, running only up from this deck.
Mpho led them in a climb, and Maccabee counted ten decks before they left the stairwell and headed off another corridor. This one seemed better cared for, and Maccabee guessed this was where the skeleton crew lived and worked. Mpho was right about the amount of time it would take three people to keep up a ship this big—literally more time than there was in a day. Of course, robotic helpers could have taken care of the job, but that was the sort of luxury an outfit like this would be hard-pressed to afford.
“I hope they don’t have a fusion ring,” muttered Keita from behind. Maccabee shot a sharp glance over his shoulder, but Mpho didn’t seem to have heard her comment.
Finally, they turned another corner and Mpho stopped in front of a pair of massive blast doors, each one a meter thick at least. Neither looked likely to move ever again, however, and diaphanous maroon curtains was strung up across the doorway those doors had once sealed shut. Mpho stepped up to the curtains and called out, “We’re here!”
A hand appeared through a narrow gap between the two curtains, then another. Then, moving slowly, the hands spread apart, opening the gap and revealing the third member of Starduster’s crew, Maputo Zeca, the nominal commander of this heap of metal. He bowed his head to Maccabee.
“Welcome aboard the good ship Starduster, Captain Derrick,” he intoned in a deep baritone. “I am Captain Maputo Zeca, master of this vessel. I trust your journey has been wearying. Will you join me for some refreshments?”
“We’re on a tight schedule,” said Maccabee, not sure how to respond.
“Of course, captain,” said Zeca with a broad smile that showed perfect, white teeth. Zeca was tall and thin, similar in build to Ensign Keita, but his skin was much darker, a black so deep it seemed to mirror the stygian night of space. The captain wore long, flowing robes in many colors, and his hands were hidden inside the wide sleeves of the garment. An odd outfit for a starship.
“Then. . . .” said Maccabee, letting the word hang there.
“But you will forgive us for wanting to trade a few words with you,” said Zeca, his smile fading slightly. “We travel alone out here, captain, very much alone. It has been six years since we were in-system, and our last re-supply—the last time we saw another human besides ourselves—was eight months ago.”
“It’s been six years since you’ve been off this ship?” asked Samara, sounding suitably agog. It did seem like an inhuman time span, even on a ship this large.
Zeca nodded. “Indeed, friend, a long time,” he said. “A long time,” he repeated softly. “But you see. . . .” he began, but then, shaking his head, he stopped. “No, let us talk of it over wine and the hookah.” He waved a beckoning hand at them. “Come!”
Maccabee glanced at Samara, and she just shrugged. What else could they do? So, with Mpho standing aside to let them pass, the team from Phoenix walked ahead through the curtains.