“That fucking bastard nearly killed me, Maccabee.”
“Then what are going to do about it?”
Maccabee turned his chair away from Samara, until he could look out the broad, ceramaplast window and across the miserable city of Grapple. The blinding sun, only an hour in the sky, sparkled in thousands of tiny rainbows, each created by a scratch in the super-tough window material, mute evidence of the fury of the planet’s sandstorms. The globe-spanning monster that had covered Pheonix’s assault was gone now, only twelve hours later, as if it had never been. Their local liaison said this was common for the bigger storms, that the smaller ones were more intense and lasted longer.
From this office at the top of Grapple’s newly-crowned highest building—former headquarters of VistaCom, one of Hobarth’s two entertainment providers, now the home of the Revolutionary Vanguard—all twelve square kilometers of the city were laid out in neat blocks of nearly-identical buildings. Someone had once had the clever idea of painting them all different colors, mostly in earth-tones, browns and greens and oranges. Now, the color was flaking off the buildings as they weathered in the planet’s intense conditions, giving the buildings an unhealthy, mottled appearance. To the right, the ruins of Government Tower were hidden in a haze of smoke and dust that shimmered slightly in the morning sun. Beyond the city were the rocky hills and scrub brush that enabled a permanent settlement here. After that, there was nothing but sand.
“Are you ignoring me?” asked Samara, stepping around in front of him, then climbing into his lap, straddling his legs with her own. A sudden smile appeared on her hard face. “Because I have ways of making you talk.” Her hand slipped down between them, gripped his penis firmly through his pants, and gave it a friendly squeeze. It pushed back with its usual reckless enthusiasm.
“Not fair,” Maccabee murmured, though he was smiling too. Then he sighed, shaking his head. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be,” she said. “Now answer my question.”
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with him, Samara,” he said. “He did his job.”
She scowled. “He nearly killed me,” she said, leaning in closer.
“Not necessarily mutually exclusive,” he said. Her eyes narrowed dangerously and he grinned. “You had plenty of time to get out. You didn’t have to go after Thoms.”
“The whole point of the fucking mission was to go after Thoms!” she barked, pushing herself off his chest and back up to her feet. “Damn it, Maccabee, don’t you make excuses for the fucker. All he had to do was give me ten minutes instead of five.”
“He followed the timing to the letter,” Maccabee pointed out, trying not to wince when he saw Samara’s face.
“Fuck the timing!” she yelled. “The mission is about the objective, not the fucking timing! You know that!” She pounded a fist against the ceramaplast window, making it shudder slightly. “He knows that.”
“And what do you think I should do, then?” asked Maccabee in a low voice. “Look around you, Samara. We’re the odd ones out at this little party, and the only thing that’s keeping me in charge is the goodwill of the people who wrote the invitations.” He pointed at the seat opposite him. “Sit.”
“Fuck you,” she said, but her heart wasn’t in it, and she threw herself down in the chair opposite him. “What the hell are we doing here, Maccabee? Why are we risking our lives for these people?”
“We’re back in space,” he said, trying to make it sound good enough.
“Yeah, and back to getting shot at.” Samara shook her head. “Look, I don’t mind playing the game out here. It’s as good as any I’ve played, better than some. I guess that’s good enough for me, that and being near you.” Her face softened a bit. “But why are you here?”
He thought about it a moment, then shrugged. “I don’t know, Samara,” he answered. “Not for sure.”
“Tell me,” she said, leaning forward and taking his hand in hers.
“I needed. . .” he began, but that was all. What did he need?
There was a sudden knock on the door. “Captain?” came a voice from the other side: Brenner.
“Come in!” called Maccabee, as Samara let his hand go and sat back in her chair.
Brenner entered, looking hesitant. He’d performed better than Maccabee’d expected these last two weeks, none of the back-talk or sullenness he’d showed the first few days of Maccabee’s command. That was a good sign. But Maccabee still couldn’t place the man, didn’t understand what drove him, why he was here. Of all the revolutionaries, he seemed least devoted to the cause, though his presence said otherwise. Now, his dark eyes flickered briefly towards Samara, then back to Maccabee. Wondering.
“What is it, commander?” Maccabee asked.
“Sorry to bother you, sir,” Brenner said, buying time. He wasn’t sure about Samara, and who could blame him? But he was bringing something to his new captain, and that indicated a level of trust.
“Not a problem,” said Maccabee, ignoring Samara’s presence and thereby indicating to Brenner that he should do the same. “Have a seat.” He motioned to the chair next to Samara’s.
“No thanks, captain.” Brenner shook his head. “I’m sorry, sir, I don’t even know if this is worth the time.”
“Spit it out, then,” Maccabee said. Was the man always this uncertain?
“It’s Charlie, sir,” Brenner said. “The A.I.” Maccabee nodded. “There’s something wrong with him.”
Maccabee frowned. “I’m aware of that, commander.”
“I don’t mean the secret programming,” Brenner said, suddenly sounding more sure of himself. “Remember the signal, sir, right before we reached Dominion Rock?”
“The signal in the wild,” Samara said, looking up. Brenner nodded, though he didn’t seem entirely comfortable with her sudden inclusion in the conversation.
“Yes,” he said, keeping his eyes on Maccabee. “You had Charlie look at it.”
“That’s right,” said Maccabee. “And I never heard anything more about it.”
“Neither did anyone else,” said Brenner. “I had to ask Charlie about it. He played it down, but he wasn’t able to decrypt the file. Or so he says.”
“That’s not necessarily surprising,” said Maccabee, though he was surprised. An A.I. as sophisticated as Charlie should have decoded almost anything given three weeks to work on it.
“I don’t think there is a code, captain,” said Brenner, and now he was grinning slightly. “I took a copy of the signal code, and ran it through my hand-held. It’s of human origin, but just a string of alphanumerics.”
“That’s a pretty standard way to build a code,” pointed out Samara.
“Of course,” Brenner said, a bit of his disdain for her showing again, but he plowed on. “Except my hand-held said that the string wasn’t a code.”
“Your hand-held said that,” repeated Maccabee, implying that it was very unlikely a simple palmtop computer could outperform Charlie.
“My hand-held said the alpha string was too simple to be a code,” Brenner said. “Any code that short, even it would have been able to crack. In minutes. It’s just not possible that Charlie couldn’t do the same, or come to the same conclusion.”
“But he didn’t,” said Maccabee. Brenner shook his head, a smile now on his lips.
“What does that mean?” asked Samara. Maccabee was wondering the same thing.
“Either Charlie somehow wasn’t able to find the right answer,” Brenner said, “or he’s concealing the right answer. For some reason.”
“Something to do with his . . . other programming?” Maccabee asked, his voice low.
Brenner nodded. “I wanted to bring this to you here, sir, not on the ship.”
“Understood.” Maccabee nodded. “Thank you commander. If you’d please track down Mister Sel and explain this to him. I’d like the two of you to start looking over this signal yourselves, and try to figure out if there’s a way we can bypass Charlie’s hidden code.”
Frowning, the commander said, “It’s not likely to be possible to do that, captain.”
“I know, Brenner,” said Maccabee. “Just do it.”
“Aye, aye,” Brenner replied, snapping off a crisp salute. He looked almost like he meant it, just then. Maccabee returned the gesture, and Brenner left, striding quickly across the room and closing the door quietly behind him.
“Thoughts?” Maccabee asked Samara.
“Many,” she answered. “None of them particularly helpful.” Smiling ruefully, she leaned forward again and said, “If you need something shot or blown up, I’m your girl. Computer programming is not one of my better fields.” Her smile faded, and she took his hand again. “You were saying? Before?”
“Oh,” he said, suddenly not interested in talking about this. “It wasn’t anything in particular. I just needed to be in space. Back in the saddle.” What a phrase that was. He barely even knew what it meant, hadn’t ever even seen a horse. They were some sort of hunting cat, he thought, though why anyone would ride one in that case. . . .
Another knock at the door. Samara let out an exaggerated sigh and threw herself back in the chair again as Maccabee called, “Come!”
“Hey, cap!” said Katrina Czerney, smiling broadly as she strolled into the office. “Am I interrupting a tête-à-tête?”
The freckles on her pale cheeks seemed darker than usual, and her red hair was a tangled mess on top of her head. Not as tall as Samara, nor as dangerous-looking, Czerney carried herself with the sort of physical confidence that Maccabee usually associated with professional athletes. In this case, the sport was killing, not that you would know it from the woman’s beaming face and casual clothes. The shotgun strapped to her thigh and the pistol at her waist were, however, subtle clues.
“Not at all, Czerney,” said Maccabee, not suppressing his own smile. He was reminded again of how glad he was to have her with him here, another person he could trust without reservation or pause.
”Damn,” she muttered.
Behind her, their liaison to the local revolution slipped quietly into the room. Render Kurawa was a slight man, pale-faced and with a head of stringy hair. The combat fatigues he wore were too big for him, and he moved with the quick, nervous jerks of a prey animal. Hardly the kind of person to match up with Katrina Czerney, which was exactly why Maccabee had put them together.
“Guess what?” Czerney asked, no pretense of formality or military protocol evident in her as she fell sideways into the chair beside Samara. It rolled a meter across the smooth, ceramacrete floor.
“Enlighten me,” said Maccabe broadly, still smiling.
“I got to shoot a policeman!” Czerney said with a childlike glee that matched poorly with her actual words. Maccabee caught Kurawa’s flinch.
“Why?” asked Maccabee, and the tone of his voice calmed Czerney down.
“Well, cap,” she said, swallowing her enthusiasm. “He was about to put a bullet through Render’s head, here.” She tapped a finger to her temple. “Apparently not, uh, fully vested in the revolutionary fervor.” A smile returned to Czerney’s bright red lips as she savored her turn of phrase. “Had to discourage him rather severely to get him to see the true path.”
“Seems reasonable,” Maccabee said. “Your thoughts on the matter, Mister Kurawa?”
“I’d rather not think about it, Captain Derrick,” Kurawa said, bowing towards Maccabee. “My thanks to Miss Czerney for her timely intervention.”
“I assume you didn’t come here just to share your little joy with us, Katrina?” Maccabee asked, still amused.
“Sadly true, cap,” Czerney said with a very serious nod. “The city seems to be well secured—roving anti-revolutionary policemen aside—but the main bulk of the governor’s forces seem to have escaped to the desert, like we suspected. Render here and I took a little ride in a dune buggy crafted by Satan’s own engineers, and found some seriously heavy tracks heading in a northwesterly direction.”
“How heavy?” asked Samara.
“At least one tank,” Czerney replied, confirming Maccabee’s fears.
“No sign of the transport yet, I suppose?” he asked no one in particular.
“Due in ten hours,” Samara said, checking her watch.
“Captain Derrick,” Kurawa interjected. “If I may?”
Maccabee inclined his head towards the man. “Of course.”
“The Revolutionary Vanguard has the necessary forces to pursue the government men,” Kurawa said. “They lack any sort of lines of supply. There are no other settlements on Hobarth, merely mining camps. The desert here is . . . unforgiving.” He smiled, a thin, unpleasant expression. “We can outlast them.”
“I’d prefer to be sure of that before we leave,” Maccabee said carefully. “Do you have anything we can fly out there, take a look?”
“Of course,” said Kurawa at the same time as Czerney said, “Not much.” Then, even she winced. Maccabee hadn’t hired her for her diplomatic skills, but even so. . . .
“What do you have?” Maccabee asked, trying to pretend that Czerney had kept her mouth shut.
“Twenty fixed-wing fighters,” said Kurawa, staring straight ahead. “Ten VSTOL-capable. Three advanced rotor ships. One sub-orb transport for medical emergencies. Two bulk lifters.”
“See?” whispered Czerney. Maccabee scowled at her.
Kurawa cleared his throat. “We mostly use trains to connect to the mine heads,” he said. “The combine uses elevators to haul the ore into orbit.”
Maccabee nodded: that made sense. Though part of the PARC, Hobarth was more or less run by the Devenn Mining Combine, a massive corporate entity that owned probably half the mines in this part of space. Devenn was not known for its light hand or tidy practices, which perhaps had something to do with the ease of building a revolutionary movement on this world.
“The rotor ships might be handy for this,” Samara said.
“Or, oh, one of our shuttles?” Czerney said, raising her eyebrows.
“Depends on who’s going,” Maccabee said. He looked over at Kurawa. “Mister Kurawa, this is your call.”
“I will ask General Al’Breth at once, captain,” replied the liaison, and snapping off a sharp salute, he spun on his heel and shuffled to the door. The other three watched him go in silence.
“I don’t want us delayed,” Maccabee muttered after a moment’s silence.
“We’ve got a few days to play with, and still be on schedule,” Samara said. “If there’s one thing Hulegu knows how to do, it’s make a plan. The man shits timetables.”
“I know,” Maccabee said, “but I feel the need to be gone from here.”
“I’m just glad to get off the damn ship for a while,” said Czerney, unfolding herself gazelle-like from the chair and striding to the wall of windows over the city. “It’s not too bad a place,” she said. “Render took me to a local food joint, mostly North African stuff, a little bit of Chinese mixed in. Not half bad.” Maccabee saw her sudden frown reflected in the window. “Beer was warm, though.” Katrina Czerney took her drink seriously.
“I don’t suppose you met this General Al’Breth,” asked Maccabee, “in between meals.”
“Ha, ha,” said Czerney, turning from the window. “No, and not for lack of trying. Pinning Render down was like catching mercury with your hands. He changed the subject every time I asked about the General. That’s how we ended up eating lunch.”
“Nothing at all?” Samara asked her.
“Just some vague song and dance about the ‘Glorious Leader,’ and how amazingly wonderful her farts smell.” Czerney scowled. “Awfully cult-like for my taste.”
“I don’t suppose the central players had much contact with these worlds,” Samara ventured. “Too hard, logistically. This whole thing operates like a terrorist network, a bunch of individual cells, each fully independent of the others, most without even knowing about the rest. All you do is send the right signal—”
“Us,” Maccabee said.
“—and the whole thing goes off,” Samara finished. “The orbital screens are a nice touch, though. I wasn’t expecting that at Dominion Rock.”
“So,” said Czerney. “Now what?”
“You are getting back out there,” said Maccabee. “Without Kurawa.”
“I don’t think he’ll like that,” she said, smiling broadly.
“Tough for him,” Maccabee said, returning her smile. “Phoenix is all the authority I need at the moment. If anyone gives you shit, stay cool. Try not to shoot any more people.”
“Not fair,” Czerney replied.
“Sorry,” Macabee said, still grinning. “Dig around, see what you can find out. Talk to people. You know what to do.”
“Aye, aye, cap,” she said, throwing off a jaunty salute. He just laughed and waved her out, watching her confident swagger as she strode from the office. Funny how Czerney always seemed to be the same person, no matter how many times she brushed death. Hell, if any part of her other than her brain was original—not a vat-grown replacement—Maccbaee would be surprised.
“Interesting girl,” Samara said. Maccabee turned and found her watching him. “Nice ass.”
“Not as nice as yours,” he said. “Not that I was looking.”
“I know,” she said. Standing, she stretched her arms above her head, briefly revealing her smooth stomach, finely crisscrossed with dozens of scars. He’d asked her once why she kept them. She’d looked at him like he’d lost his mind. “Because they’re a part of me,” she’d said. And they were, he realized now, at least as much as her cool, deep green eyes and her lithe, dancer’s body.
“What do you want to do now?” she asked.
“We wait,” he said.
“Sounds boring.” Samara walked to the office door, then turned around to face him. Behind her back, she activated the locking mechanism on the door, and a sly grin slipped onto her lips.
By the time General Al’Breth decided to dispatch a flight of her ancient VSTOLs to check the desert for governor Thoms’s supporters, the transport ship had arrived in orbit, a bulky, six-megaton freighter, loaded stem to stern with arms, munitions, supplies and the same sort of orbital defense grid they’d brought to Dominion Rock. Of course, it wasn’t the same ship as had arrived there, and this one would stay weeks after Phoenix was on her way to the next target. All a giant clockwork machine set up by Arturo Hulego, back on Angstrom.
As for the recon mission, it came back empty-handed, and Maccabee was not at all pleased.
“Nothing?” he asked Render Kurawa.
“Our planes have a limited range,” the man offered by way of explanation, but Maccabee waved that aside.
“If the general had authorized the flight—or asked us to run it—right away, instead of waiting twelve hours. . . .” Maccabee didn’t finish the sentence. “Care to explain the holdup?”
“No, captain,” said Kurawa.
“I think I’d like to meet General Al’Breth,” Maccabee said. He was starting to get the feeling that something was very much wrong with the Revolution on Hobarth. Kurawa opened his mouth, but Maccabee cut him off with a raised hand. “That’s not negotiable, Mister Kurawa.”
“The General does not see anyone,” Kurawa huffed. “She is in charge here.”
Gritting his teeth against the urge to put this idiot on the ground, Maccabee rose from his chair and leaned across his desk. “Until someone tells me otherwise,” he growled, “I am in charge. I am the one with the warship in orbit. I am the one who overthrew your government in the space of twenty minutes. And I am also the one who will meet with your general.” He glanced at the chrono on his desk. “Thirty minutes, Kurawa. Best give her some time to prepare.”
The liaison opened his mouth again, then shut it, his teeth clicking together. Turning, he stalked from the room, slamming the door shut behind him. A moment later, Samara emerged from the shadows of the room’s far corner.
“Laid it on a bit heavy, didn’t you?” she asked.
“I got frustrated,” Maccabee said, sitting down again. “Damn it!”
“Let’s just get out of here,” Samara said calmly. “We’ve done our job, the transport’s here. The orbital grid will be active in another day. These people may be incompetent idiots, but they can handle this much.”
“Something just seems off about it all,” Maccabee said with an exasperated sigh. He leaned back in the chair and rubbed his temples with one hand. “I need to sleep.” Then, another thought occurring to him, he sat up. “Any word from Czerney?”
“I sent her upstairs an hour ago,” Samara replied, meaning to Phoenix in orbit. “She looked worse than you.”
“Not good.” Samara shrugged, perching one thigh on the corner of the desk. “Word on the street is that Al’Breth’s going to execute Thoms in public. People are afraid of her, not sure what’s happening. A hundred people died in the Government Tower, more when the Vanguard took to the streets. That’s not surprising, but it seems like there’s been a lot of personal vendettas getting acted out, shops burned, people disappearing, that kind of thing.”
“’Not good’ is an understatement,” Maccabee said. “Shit. You see? I told you this place wasn’t right.”
“And you think your meeting this general will straighten things out?” Samara asked. “Are you going to kill her?”
“If need be,” he growled. Then he shook his head. “No, I’m not. Damn it, I can’t stay on this rock and run a revolution. We’ve a job to do.”
“Now you’re talking sense,” Samara said, standing again.
“I just want to know,” Maccabee said. “At least I can tell Hulegu, eventually, when this is over.”
“Sounds good,” Samara agreed, but he could tell she didn’t much care for this heap of a planet, nor the people on it. There were few things she cared about, but she made up for it with the depth of her feelings, Maccabee thought.
Twenty-five minutes later, they followed Kurawa through a set of ornate double doors two floors down from Maccabee’s office. Though his was higher, this office—it was a suite, really, a residence as well as a place to do business—was much more lavish, bedecked with all sorts of fine fabrics and real leather chairs, real wooden furniture, real glass cabinets. It was outdated, hopelessly out of style, but for this backwater planet, it was luxury and wealth defined. This seemed entirely lost on its new occupants, or maybe the general was making a statement by having twenty of her soldiers occupying the outer rooms, all of them grim-faced and young, not lounging around, but talking quietly and cleaning their railguns. Maccabee didn’t spot a single plasma weapon or blaster among them, and a handful of chem-guns in the mix. That would change when the transport started off-loading supplies.
They passed through the outer room in silence, the soldiers staring, wondering who these intruders were. Kurawa stopped at the next set of carved, wooden doors, which were flanked by two older men, guards carrying heavy-caliber rifles and certainly not in a ceremonial capacity.
“The visitors are here,” Kurawa said, unnecessarily.
“No guns in the general’s quarters,” growled one of the men, looking Maccabee and Samara up and down with hard, grey eyes. He was huge, a foot taller than Maccabee and with arms bigger than most men’s thighs, but those eyes saw a lot, and had seen a lot.
“Mister Kurawa,” said Maccabee, pointedly ignoring the hulking guard and his more normally-sized companion. “Please inform the general that we are here. She may elect either to come out and talk here, in front of her men and women, or she can let us come in as we are. You have sixty seconds to get me an answer.”
Kurawa hesitated, knowing full well that following Maccabee’s preemptory order would have dire consequences inside the Vanguard, but at the same time unable to refuse. He turned, glared at the big guard, who stood aside, and then Kurawa slipped through the door and into the general’s room. Maccabee just looked at his watch, pretending to be completely unconcerned and hoping that Samara was picking targets behind him. He could feel the soldiers in the room staring at him, and the low chatter that had filled the space was now replaced by a chilly silence.
After fifty-two seconds, Kurawa reappeared through the door. “The General will see you in her chamber,” he said. “As you are,” he added for the benefit of the two guards. The brutish one scowled and gave Maccabee and Samara a hard glare, but Maccabee ignored it while Samara smiled calmly up at the man.
The inner sanctum was—had been—a luxurious conference room. That had changed. The long, polished table was covered with weapons, except for the center, where a portable holo table took pride of place. The twenty-centimeter-high holograph was showing a detailed schematic of the city around them, flashing lights in different colors pinpointing units of some sort, whether friend or foe Maccabee had no way of knowing. Bright light glared off the table, but the rest of the room was lost in shadow, so that he had to keep a close eye on Kurawa to keep from losing the man. Conversation in the room, already muted, had died completely now that they were here, and only the sound of an open com channel in the background disturbed the silence.
General Al’Breth was waiting at the back of the room, standing alone, hands on her hips. She was not tall, nor powerfully built, but the glare she directed at Samara and Maccabee was hard and unfriendly. She had chocolate-brown skin, a round, young face, marred by an ugly scar that cut from her left temple across her cheek and down to her chin. Her eyes reflected the lights in the center of the room in quick flashes.
“Captain Derrick,” Kurawa said, introducing Maccabee. He ignored Samara as best he could. “General Al’Breth,” he continued, turning the other way. Then he stepped back and disappeared into the gloom.
“General,” said Maccabee. “Thanks for seeing me on such short notice.”
“Cut to the chase,” Al’Breth replied, her voice barely above a whisper, harsh, as though some sort of throat injury were in her past.
“I’m worried about the governor’s units,” said Maccabee, not at all upset about dropping the pleasantries. “I’d rather we knew where they were.”
“Look for them, then,” the general said. “I’m busy.”
“Doing what, exactly?” Maccabee asked, trying not to let his irritation show too much. “Seems to me a revolutionary would want to hunt down a potential enemy like that.”
Al’Breth laughed, a low, throaty sound, not at all unpleasant. “You don’t know them like I do, captain,” she said. “They’ll disappear in that desert. They’ll burn, and they will die.” She shook her head. “No, I don’t need worry about them.”
“I’m glad you’re so confident,” muttered Samara. Al’Breth’s head swiveled around sharply to send another glare towards her.
“Let’s all be friends, now,” said Maccabee, more for Samara’s benefit than Al’Breth’s.
“Is there anything else, captain,” asked the general, “or can I get back to running this revolution?”
“One other thing, general,” Maccabee said. “I’ve heard you’re executing Thoms.”
“Immediately?” he pressed.
“As soon as the city is fully under my control,” she replied.
“You might consider holding on to him for a while,” Maccabee said. “Just in case.”
“No,” Al’Breth said. “He dies.”
“That isn’t—” Maccabee began.
Al’Breth cut him off. “It is my decision. Not yours. Your business here is done, and I thank you for it.”
Maccabee glanced at Samara, who simply shrugged: she wasn’t interested, not anymore. He nodded, then, turning back to the general. “Very well, General Al’Breth.” He held out a hand, and she took it, grasping firmly. “Luck.”
“Luck,” she replied. Then her stance softened slightly, and she said, “Don’t worry, captain. We’ll hold.”
“Good.” That was all he could think to say.
Everyone watched them, still in silence, as they crossed the room and Kurawa materialized out of the shadows to walk at their side. “This way, captain,” he said, and Maccabee let himself be led from the room.
“Time to go,” said Samara under her breath.