“I’m coming up to the first node, sir.”
On the main holo, the exterior of Phoenix’s hull looked pitted and scarred, blackened from the impact of high-powered energy weapons and explosive cannon fire. The drive node that Ensign Brunje was reaching for with a gloved hand looked remarkably untouched, its deuterium alloy panels almost pristine, glittering in the glare of Brunje’s helmet light. From this angle, it looked like a blunted, three-sided pyramid, squat and not particularly interesting, to the naked eye identical to the thirty-four other nodes spaced out around the little ship’s hull.
“No visible damage,” Brunje said. “Beginning my scan now.”
Thanks to reflective alloys in the hull, woven through the thickness of ceramasteel in an effort to further blunt the power of incoming fire, it was nearly impossible to scan something on the outside of the hull with a tool on the inside. The sensors that were on the outer hull were designed to look out and away, not back at the hull, and so the only option was to send the tool outside, carried by either a human or a robot. Maccabee wasn’t feeling too charitable towards robots at the moment, however, so he’d instructed the ensign to suit up.
“Bad news, captain,” said the ensign now, finishing her scan. She was well-practiced in zero-gee maneuvers, but was tethered to the hull anyway. No need to make risky mistakes.
“What is it?” Maccabee asked, glancing at Chief Kinte out of the corner of his eye. He’d brought the man up to the bridge for this inspection, planning on giving him a thorough dressing-down when it was over.
“This node is fully functional, sir,” Brunje said. Maccabee could almost hear the wry grin on her face. “Just like the other three.”
“So, it’s the relay,” Maccabee said, leaning back in his chair and breathing out a sigh. “Shit.”
“At least we don’t have to suit up to repair that,” Brenner muttered.
“Just squeeze inbetween the inner and outer hull is all,” snapped Kinte sarcastically. “Captain, I’d like to verify these readings myself. Before I get greased up.”
“Request denied,” Maccabee said, sounding a bit short himself. No less than the man deserved, but it never paid to antagonize your engineer. “I think we both trust Brunje on this one, Chief,” he went on, trying to soften his demeanor. “I’m sure she’d be willing to grease up herself, if it’s necessary.”
“Why not use a remote?” Brenner asked—for the second time, since he’d said the same thing when Brunje had suited up for the spacewalk.
“Too limited,” said Kinte, and Maccabee was gratified to hear the other man’s voice sounding a bit more normal again. “Who knows what we’ll need to do in there?”
“Agreed,” he said, nodding. He shifted slightly in his seat; another idea had just occurred to him. “That said, I’d like to do a personal inspection of the hull.”
“Sir?” asked Brenner, clearly confused. “Why?”
“Old habit,” Maccabee said, forcing a simple smile. It could have been, after all, as far as this crew knew. “You’ll accompany me, commander?”
“Ah,” Brenner said, looking suddenly pale. “Sir, with all respect, I. . . .” Brenner pressed his lips together in a thin line. “Spacewalks make me seriously nauseated, sir.”
Maccabee smiled. “Not necessary, commander,” he said, smiling more broadly now. “I plan on using the second shuttle. It’s got big enough windows.”
“Captain?” said a hesitant voice: Brunje.
“Damn,” said Maccabee, snapping a finger through the holographic com control. “Sorry ensign,” he said. “Please continue your inspection, then come back inside. You can report to Chief Kinte when you’re done.”
“Aye, sir,” came the relieved reply.
“If I may, captain,” said Kinte, stepping towards the hatch. Maccabee just nodded. There would have to be another time. The chief left the bridge.
Standing, Maccabee activated another com channel. “Samara,” he said. “I think it’s time for my hull inspection.”
“Sir,” was all she said over the com channel, and Maccabee felt a surge of affection for her, for the fact that she knew him so well she didn’t so much as hesitate an instant, despite the fact that she had no idea what he was talking about.
“You think Sel and Czerney would like to come along?” Maccabee asked, as casual as if he were asking if they wanted a cup of coffee.
“Don’t forget Pinzon,” Samara said cheerfully. “You know how much she likes the inspections.”
Don’t push it, Maccabee thought, but all he said was, “Too many to fit in the shuttle. I’ve invited the commander to join us.”
“Sounds great,” Samara said. “I’ll get the others and meet you at the vehicle bay.”
“Thank you,” Maccabee said, shutting down the link. He turned to the commander, who was looking well confused by now, and said, “Shall we?”
“After you, sir,” Brenner said.
“Lieutenant Ganda,” Maccabee said, heading for the hatchway. “You have the bridge.”
“Aye sir,” came the reply.
By the time they reached the tiny bay where Phoenix’s two shuttles were stored, Samara was already there, standing by the open hatch on the little runabout. Maccabee saw Sel inside, warming up the ship’s systems.
“Czerney?” Maccabee asked as he crossed the dimly lit space to come up next to Samara.
“On her way,” Samara said. “Had to put on some clothes.”
Maccabee frowned. “Sleeping?”
“Sort of.” Samara grinned.
He just shook his head. Trust Czerney to get in trouble if not suitably stimulated. True, he and Samara were sleeping together, but at least he knew her, trusted her. Whoever was sharing Czerney’s bed was as good as a stranger.
“What’s this all about, sir?” asked Brenner, scowling.
“I told you,” Maccabee said, still trying to sound lighthearted. “We’re going to inspect the hull. Seriously, commander, when was the last time you really looked at this ship from the outside?”
“When we came up from the planet,” Brenner said, exasperated.
“I mean, really looked, Brenner,” Maccabee said, silently urging Czerney to hurry up. “You’ll see.” He motioned with his head for the others to get on board, and Brenner sighed but followed the order. Samara shook her head, smiling, and climbed into the little shuttle.
“Cap!” called Czerney as she rushed into the bay, still fastening the vest she’d pulled on over a simple, white shirt. Her boots were unfastened and flopped carelessly on her feet. “What’s the rush?”
“Hull inspection, Czerney,” growled Maccabee. “Get in.”
She opened her mouth to say something—hull inspection?—but clapped it shut again when she saw the look on Maccabee’s face. “Aye, cap,” she said instead, hopping into the runabout. Maccabee took a last look around the empty vehicle bay, then climbed in himself, pulling the hatch shut behind him.
“We’re in,” he said to Sel. “Let’s go.”
“Captain,” Sel acknowledged. “Bridge, this is Mister Sel,” he said over the com. “Request departure clearance.”
“Clearance granted,” Ganda’s voice said. “Happy inspection, captain.”
Everyone was silent as they slipped backwards and down out of the bay doors and into deep space. The bright docking lights snapped off as the outer doors shut quickly behind them, and suddenly they were in the gloomy twilight that dwelt between the stars, the dark, grey mass of Phoenix drifting silently above them. Sel activated the exterior floods, and bright warmth seemed to bathe the hull of the ship, though it was only an illusion. Right here, at least, there was no sign of battle damage, just clean ceramasteel and the glistening drive nodes dotting it here and there.
“Where to, sir?” asked Sel.
“Start a circuit of the hull,” Maccabee said, “port side first.” He waited a moment while Sel complied, then said, “Now, please check for open com channels.”
“No channels open, sir,” said Sel a moment later.
“Care to tell us what this is about?” Samara asked. She climbed out of her seat and leaned over Sel, looking up at Phoenix beyond the wide forward viewport. “Doesn’t look too bad from here.”
“I thought we needed a quiet place to talk,” Maccabee said.
“There are conference rooms on board,” Brenner replied. Then a sudden smile found its way onto his face. “All of them monitored by Charlie.”
“Exactly,” said Sel before Maccabee could wipe his own self-satisfied grin off his face. Sel caught his surprise. “I assumed this was your reasoning, captain,” he said apologetically. “Since Commander Brenner told me about his concerns, I’ve been thinking of ways to bypass the A.I.’s security nets. The shuttles occurred to me as a potential meeting space.” He smiled ever so slightly. “I wasn’t sure how to get on board without arousing suspicion, however.”
“Nice one, cap,” Czerney said, stretching out her back with her hands over her head. “What now?”
“First off,” Maccabee said, “any ideas about Charlie, about what’s gone wrong with him?” He glanced at Brenner. “I know you haven’t had much time. . . .”
“That’s right,” Brenner said, reaching up to scratch his nose. “We bounced around a few ideas, down on Hobarth.” He shrugged. “Right now, I’d say there’s nothing to report, captain. I’d rather have some more time to discuss it with Mister Sel.”
“Sel?” Maccabee asked.
“The commander is right, sir,” Sel replied. “Our time here will be limited—there’s not much worth saying at this point.”
“Good enough,” Maccabee said, though he’d hoped something had already occurred to the two men. Too little time had passed, much of it while being shot at. “Next order of business: what the hell just happened back there?”
“We got shot at,” Czerney said. “Why am I here, again? I wasn’t even on the bridge.”
“Shut up, Czerney,” growled Maccabee. “We’ll get to you.”
“Well,” Brenner said, sounding a little uncomfortable, perhaps realizing he was the intruder in a group of old friends. “PNC Light of Suns is in the database. She’s a Light of Heaven-class planetary assault cruiser, massing two hundred kilotons, complement of one hundred, with accommodations for a full combat-ready assault company.” He smiled slightly, obviously not feeling any humor. “All the bells and whistles.”
Samara sucked air in through her teeth. “That explains why we’re still alive, anyway,” she said. “Most of her tonnage is probably dedicated to assault ships, not her own weapons.”
“The question,” Maccabee continued, “is whether she knew we were at Hobarth, or if this was a simple coincidence.”
“She went to max accel almost the moment she dropped out of her wormhole,” Samara said, sounding confident. “She knew exactly what she was doing.”
“Maybe,” Sel said. “Sir, with all due respect, they may have expected trouble of another sort.”
“Like what?” Brenner asked.
Sel shrugged. “General Al’Breth was active on Hobarth before we landed, commander, for years. Given recent events on Angstrom and other worlds, it would be reasonable for the PARC to send a few ships like this to outlying systems.”
“Find out who’s still loyal, wave the flag around a bit?” Czerney said. “Sounds like their speed.”
“Correct, Miss Czerney,” Sel continued. “Given that previous reports from Hobarth would have included information on the Vanguard, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for them to move in quickly, sir.”
“Good point,” Maccabee said, though he wasn’t sure. Samara just scowled. He watched her face for a moment, then shook his head. “I don’t know. Something about this just doesn’t seem right.”
“What if they did track us?” Samara asked. “What’s our next target?”
“Alla’s Necklace,” Brenner answered, “in the Haji System.”
“What the hell’s that?” Trust Czerney not to beat around the bush.
“Read your briefing,” Maccabee replied. “It’s an asteroid belt, three terraformed planetoids, multiple settlements.”
“Mining?” Samara asked. Maccabee raised an eyebrow. “The briefings are fucking boring.”
“It’s a vacation playground for the rich and famous,” Brenner supplied, crossing his arms over his chest. “I’m surprised you’ve never heard of it.”
“We spent a few years on the rim,” Maccabee said. Samara snickered at the understatement. “Sel, what are the chances they’d be able to track us to the Necklace?”
“Assuming they tracked our original departure vector, captain,” said the little man, his dark glasses glinting, “they will likely come to the right conclusion. There’s not much along this route.”
“I don’t believe it,” Brenner said. “How could they have tracked us from Dominion Rock? There was no one there when we left, no unidentified ships.” He shook his head. “I don’t believe it.”
For a long moment, the five of them stared at each other in silence. “He makes sense,” Czerney finally said. “No one knew where we were going.”
“It’s irrelevant,” Samara said. “I can guarantee you that the bastards are going to follow us this time. So what do we do about it?”
“You sound like you already know,” Czerney said, grinning.
“Samara?” prompted Maccabee.
“Ambush, Maccabee,” she replied, a dreadful relish in her voice. “Let’s hit ‘em back.”