Episode 301: A Transmission in the Wild
Some people choose to have nightmares.
Technology can salve any wound, still any screams, smooth away ripples of conscious though. Anyone, from sainted holy man to darkest murderous beast, can enjoy a comforting night of unbroken rest, the deep sleep and calm, soothing dreams of chemically-induced perfection. But for some people, nightmares carry weight and meaning, even a message, broadcast from deep inside the brain, striving to be heard by the waking mind that is so dull and sluggish. For others, the dreams are penance, self-inflicted punishments meant to scourge away the guilt of misdeeds only half-remembered in the daytime hours. At night, these things come free, loosed of their moorings, to drift into plain view and terrify.
Maccabee wasn’t sure why he let the nightmares continue, but he knew that he needed them. Maybe it was a kind of mortification of the mind, or maybe he was just trying to say goodbye, somewhere in his deep subconscious. Either way, he’d never been one to block out his dreams with the pharmacopeia of modern medicine; better to face the darkness head-on.
Every night, it was the same: first, the crash, his ship plummeting from the sky, Hornet in flames around him, though it had been Wasp in real life. Didn’t matter. Screams surrounded him, and he watched his people die, his men and women, the hand-picked crew he’d gathered from across the galaxy over twenty years. Spent. Finally, he could move, and he ran through a bucking corridor . . . and into the hallway where he’d shot Josephine. She smiled—she always smiled—and then said, “Hello, lover,” though they’d never been that, not really. And then he shot her, once, through the heart, and the hallway was covered in blood, thick gobs of it, dripping everywhere, coating everything, except for Jo herself: she shouted a silent scream, and Maccabee shot her again, and again, and again. . . .
Then, most nights, he would start awake. Other times, he’d nearly wake, then slip back under and start the whole thing over. That was even worse.
Eleven days out of Angstrom, the nightmare was different. Hornet was crashing, but she was empty, without a soul, human or machine. Only Maccabee, alone on her heaving command deck, watching her die around him, though she was already dead. He stood and walked through the ship, and into the skyscraper where he’d killed Jo. She stood there, looking beautiful and horrible, and she said, “Enough of this, Maccabee.”
“Enough of what?” he asked her, and then he shot her, and she fell, but there was no blood, no screams. Just weird silence, like the hallway was covered in snow, or encased in a damping field. And the dream didn’t end, and Maccabee stepped forwards, his heart pounding, afraid of something, though he didn’t know what. He looked down at Jo’s body, but it wasn’t Jo anymore. It was. . . .
Maccabee started awake, sucking in air in deep gasps. The dark stillness of his cabin surrounded him, exactly as it had been when he’d fallen asleep. No, that wasn’t quite true: the call light was flashing above his head, a small, blue icon that indicated the bridge. Was that what had changed the dream?
Rolling out of his bunk, Maccabee took two strides across the tiny cabin and slipped into the chair behind his desk. If it was urgent, the call light would have been accompanied by a soft tone; an emergency, and the tone would have been shrill enough to wake the dead. Maccabee checked his terminal—the call signal had come in five minutes ago. And who was on watch? He shouldn’t have had to check, but he did. This crew was still too new to him, too unknown. “Lieutenant Ganda,” he sighed as he read the duty roster. Calling, perhaps, to engage in a spirited discussion of the merits of localized government. Then, the soft waking tone sounded. Perhaps more than a simple discussion after all. Trying to stifle a jaw-cracking yawn, Maccabee accepted the call.
“Bridge, this is the captain, go ahead.”
A moment later, Sriyani Ganda’s round face appeared on the screen. Not an unpleasant face, Maccabee thought, young, full of energy, with a sharp blade of a nose and a creamy chocolate complexion surrounding eyes of the deepest purple. Her hair was pulled back tightly, not a single strand of midnight black out of place, just as neat and crisp as the uniform she wore. That was still a surprise to Maccabee every time he saw it: uniforms! Even he wore one. Did the rebels think the uniforms would make them seem more legitimate?
“Sir,” said Ganda. “Sorry to disturb you, captain, but we’re receiving a transmission. I wasn’t sure if you wanted to delay our next jump, check it out.”
Maccabee frowned. His mind still felt heavy. “A transmission? One of ours?” The rebellion used many different codes and some long-distance transmitting equipment, but. . . . he shook his head as Ganda opened her mouth. “Wait, where are we?” he asked.
“Closest star is K-two-four-eight-zero-one-four.” Ganda rattled off the Grid Reference without looking down, evidently having expected the question. “Bearing two-nine-zero mark two-three, absolute,” she added, “about two light-months range.”
“Anything in the catalogue?” Maccabee asked.
“Three gas giants,” Ganda replied, “two rocky worlds, and no inhabitants.” She smiled slightly. “Besides, the signal’s not coming from that direction.”
Maccabee ignored the fact that she’d been stringing him along the same path of inquiry she’d already covered, and said nothing. A signal in deep space was more than just unusual. It was essentially unheard of, the chances against it so staggeringly vast as to make it nearly impossible. Still, coincidence had landed stranger fish. “I’ll be right down,” he said, and cut the connection.
Phoenix was a small ship, hardly bigger than a gunship, though most would likely call her a sloop. Still, she was less than a third the size of Hornet, Maccabee’s last ship, and as he dressed in the captain’s cabin—a berth that would barely have rated a lieutenant on board his previous command—he was reminded of just how small Phoenix was. Small, but capable, and built along one of the strangest designs he’d ever personally encountered. Maccabee wouldn’t have wanted to use this ship for pirate hunting, that was certain. It was also certain that he was no longer a pirate hunter, however.
He fastened the uniform shirt, but left the faux-suede jacket hanging open, stepped into the self-sealing boots, soft false leather enclosing his feet, then opened the hatch into the narrow passageway beyond. Even that took some getting used to—hatches were supposed to open themselves! Turning left, Maccabee took three strides and reached the forward ladder, gripped one railing in each hand, and slid downwards, boots hitting the metal deck plates with a hard bang. Aft, below his cabin and the XO’s cabin, was the A.I. core; forward was the bridge, just another few steps away. About ten long strides from his bunk to his captain’s chair.
The heavy blast door that sealed the bridge did move automatically, though it was usually left in the open position. The door was slow to open—not to close; the thing could be shut in under a second flat—and it just got in the way. Maccabee strode past it, stepping over the threshold without even thinking about it. He glanced at the big chrono on the bulkhead above the holo tank: 02:23, ship’s time, three minutes past the scheduled wormhole transition.
“Captain on the bridge!” barked Ganda. Maccabee scowled. Not enough time had passed yet for him to mold this crew to his own preferences. No shouting was high on the list, as was less rigid formality.
“At ease,” he said, waving a hand. He felt foolish even saying it. Two crew were on this watch with Ganda, one at the navigator’s station, checking the computer’s figures for each jump, the other manning the com, and no doubt powering up the sensors at this moment. Neither of them seemed terribly impressed either by Ganda’s announcement or Maccabee. He fought the urge to seal the front of his uniform jacket and instead let himself fall into the comfy captain’s chair, swiveling it around to face the lieutenant.
“Details, Ganda,” he said.
“The signal is weak, sir, but clear” she began. “We picked it up ten minutes ago, but lost it after thirty seconds. I reversed course along our original trajectory and picked it up again pretty easily. The signal contains a repeating code string, thirty-two seconds long, spaced out with a four second break. Crewman Anver is working on the decode.” Maccabee glanced over at the young woman who was seated at the communications station, but she did not look up at the sound of her name.
“Any obvious source or point of origin?” Maccabee asked. It seemed clear that this wasn’t just noise, or some random babble from a pulsar.
“Nothing along the axis of travel, sir,” replied Ganda, “but we can’t exactly triangulate.”
Maccabee nodded. In deep space, tracing a signal back along its carrier path was damned hard. Even a slight error could propagate across a thousand lightyears into a huge mistake. Scratching one eyebrow, he considered his options.
If he’d still been captain of his own ship, master of his destiny and answering to no one, he would have diverted. A handful of jumps along the carrier path, maybe a lightyear each time; a few hours to reestablish the signal after transition, then another jump; somewhere, something might materialize. Or not. That was the way these things usually went. Not this time though. Maccabee was under orders, and without any leeway for puttering around in deep space for two days or a week. Still. . . .
“Anver,” he said. This time, the woman looked up at him. “Any luck?”
“Not yet, captain,” she replied, shrugging.
“Excuse me, sir?”
Maccabee frowned, but it wasn’t left to him to dispense the reprimand. “And what’s the damned ETA, crewman?” snapped Ganda. Whatever she thought of the new captain, she didn’t seem likely to put up with insubordination. That was good. Of course, her loyalty would only last so long at Maccabee continued to earn it. How many times had he gone through this? The thought of doing it again, of winning the devotion of another crew, and one that he hadn’t even built himself. . . .
“Sorry, sir,” said Anver, though she didn’t much sound it. “I’m not sure how long it’ll take, sir. I’m feeding it into Harvey right now, but he’s never seen this encryption before.”
Harvey was the A.I. on board. Maccabee had never liked the idea of personifying ships’ computers, but there it was again: he hadn’t chosen this ship anymore than he’d chosen the crew. At least the A.I. wasn’t obtrusive, not like some that always babbled on and on about metaphysics and the meaning of life.
“Give me a guess, crewman,” said Maccabee, trying not to sound too impatient with Anver.
“A few days, sir,” she replied, shrugging again. This time she wasn’t being evasive, though, so he let it pass. “A week at the outside.”
“Too long to sit around here,” Maccabee muttered. “Note our location in the log, Lieutenant,” he said to Ganda, “and all relevant details. Then get us back on course.”
“Aye, captain,” Ganda replied, snapping a crisp salute. He returned it more casually, then stood. “Sorry to have bothered you, sir,” added the Lieutenant.
“No bother, Ganda,” he replied. “Definitely worth getting up for, but we’ve got a timetable to follow here. Maybe if we come back this way. . . .”
“Yes, sir,” she said. “Good night, captain.”
“Good night, lieutenant,” he said. “Crewmen.” Maccabee left the bridge and started up the ladder to Deck 2, heading back towards his quarters. When he got to the hatch, though, he hesitated, then kept walking. He needed to talk to someone, and there were only a handful of people on board Phoenix whom he could trust. Past the next hatch, which led to his coffin-like office, he climbed another ladder up to Deck 1, ducking his head at the front of the corridor. The curve of the outer hull cut this top-most deck off before it stretched above his cabin, but it was here that the rest of the officers lived.
Maccabee had secured a single cabin for Samara Kar Deffin, his former second in command, and his closest friend in the galaxy, while the rest of his people—Katrina Czerney, Massat Sel, and Ducila Pinzon—shared a berth on Deck 2, among the enlisted crew. This was not the most ideal arrangement. Unlike Maccabee, who was now the official captain and commander of this ship, the members of his former life he’d dragged along with him were outside the chain of command, supernumeraries who weren’t even technically part of the rebellion. Their allegiance was to Maccabee himself, a personal bond that had nothing to do with revolutions or politics. That made the ones who’d signed their lives to the cause nervous.
The narrow corridor—all the corridors on board Phoenix were narrow—running through what the crew called officers’ country was empty. Maccabee walked along the metal deck plates until he was in front of the hatch to Samara’s cabin. The ID plate still said “Ensign Oballa” on it, the name of the man who’d been kicked off the ship to make room for Maccabee’s personal choice of companions. It was a condition of his being here, of accepting this command, but he regretted it more every day. Samara would never have let him leave her behind, but the others. . . .
All around him, the ship itself continued to operate as normal, uncaring of the schedules of the fragile humans inside itself. You could, if you wanted, assign the ship the personality of Harvey, the computer. The A.I. was, in a way, responsible for all the decisions on board, the moment-to-moment adjustments that carried out the desires of the humans who fancied themselves in control. Instead, Maccabee thought of the ship as a separate entity, perhaps under the orders of the other humans and himself, perhaps answering to the whims of Harvey, or just maybe aware of itself. Not, perhaps, in the traditional sense, but Maccabee had served on board enough ships, had known them as well as any lover, to know that they were somehow more than the simple sum of their parts. The hum of air recycling systems, the distant gurgling of a water pipe, the felt-more-than-heard thrumming of the gravity generators and the supersonic pressure of the reactor feed lines, inaudible, but felt all the same; all of it added up to a sort of living, breathing thing.
The jump siren rang. Inside the cabins, it would not sound unless the inhabitant wanted it to, not during a long transit like this, when jumps came every two hours like clockwork. Out in the corridors and public spaces, though, the crew could easily lose track of time, or get distracted, and be caught doing something sensitive or dangerous when the ship opened up a tear in space and hurled itself through a shimmering wormhole, emerging just seconds later at the other end, lightyears away. The feeling was uncomfortable at best, excruciating at times, and it never got any better. Maccabee reached out and grabbed an overhead bar, gritting his teeth. A moment later, Phoenix went through transition, and he felt his insides tearing apart, ripping themselves asunder atom by atom and . . . and then the feeling was gone, as quickly as it had come.
Maccabee swallowed, forcing the bile that had risen in his throat back down, let go of the grab bar, and pushed the call button on the bulkhead next to Samara’s cabin hatch. A moment later, he heard the locks disengage, and the hatch swung inwards into the darkened cabin. He didn’t see anyone inside.
“Samara?” he asked in a low voice. “Did I wake you?”
“Come on in,” she answered in her usual soft, slow drawl. “No need for anyone to see us talking.”
“They can see whatever they want,” Maccabee said as he stepped over the threshold. Behind him, he was aware of Samara closing the hatch, plunging the cabin into total darkness. The lock snapped shut again with a sharp, metallic sound. “I’m the captain.”
“Exactly,” she said, slipping her hands under his jacket from behind, sliding them up his chest. A moment later, he felt her press her warm body against him. “You’re supposed to be responsible, commanding. Not standing outside my door like a lost puppy.”
Reaching back, Maccabee touched her hips, only mildly surprised when he met bare skin, then slid his fingertips up along the smooth skin of her back. “Were you expecting me,” he asked, “or do you always answer the door naked?”
“Transition was late,” she said, her hands trailing back down his chest, across his belly, and then to his pants. “Figured something was up.” She unfastened his fly, slipped her hand inside, and wrapped it around his hard penis. “And seems I was right.”
“Very funny,” he murmured, sighing as she tightened her grip. “Caught a transmission in the. . . .” He cut off, gasping as she slowly ran her thumb and forefinger up the shaft of his penis. “A transmission in the wild,” he managed to finish.
“Surprising,” she whispered in his ear, her hands tugging, stroking, pulling. His slid down to cup her buttocks, squeezing them, sliding his finger into the crack between them, and then back up and around as she lifted her thigh to give him room, and suddenly he touched warm wetness, slipped a finger up inside her, and was rewarded by a soft, shuddering moan.
“Very,” he said.
It was the last word either of them managed for a while.
Later, they lay wrapped around each other in the narrow bunk of Samara’s cabin. The tiny cubicle barely rated the word, with only enough room for a desk half a meter on a side, a single small chair, and combination toilet/shower cubicle on the other side of space. With the hatch open, there was barely room to stand, and the overhead was low as well, reinforcing the feeling of claustrophobia. Right at that moment, however, Maccabee didn’t think he’d ever want to be any further away from Samara as he was, both of them on their sides, she cupped against his chest and legs, his soft penis still inside her, so that he felt like he was one with her. It had been a long time since he’d felt that way with anyone, since he wanted to be this close to someone. Dangerous and wonderful at the same time.
“So, what was it, then?” Samara whispered. There was no need to speak any louder than that, with his face just behind hers, her short, blond hair tickling his nose. She’d turned on a dim, green light, which made her pale-white skin glow softly, contrasting sharply with Maccabee’s coffee-toned flesh.
“What?” he said, running a hand down her side and up over the curve of her hip, then back to cup her breast, enjoying the touch of her, and watching himself touch her.
“The transmission,” she prompted, shifting slightly so she could look up at him. “Where’d it come from?”
“Don’t know,” he replied, giving her breast a friendly squeeze, then rubbing her nipple between the tip of his thumb and forefinger. “Ganda didn’t see anything along the carrier path, and we don’t have time to chase down every weird thing we stumble across out here.”
“And that’s likely the problem,” she said for him, snuggling down against him, squeezing his growing penis inside her. “What’d the message say?”
“Harvey’s working on it,” he replied. “Could be days.” He thrust gently against her, pushing himself deeper inside her.
“And we’ll be at Dominion Rock by that time,” she said, pushing back and hooking her left leg over his, opening herself to him. “Mmmm.”
“It’s probably nothing,” he went on. “Some fragment, a distress call from two hundred years ago. The signal. . . .” He grunted as she thrust herself down hard on him, and he gripped her breast tight in his hand, pulled out, then pushed back in. “The signal was weak.”
“We can’t keep doing this, Maccabee,” she said, her breathing coming quicker as she arched her back. “The crew. . . . Oh!”
“Fuck the crew,” he growled, quickening his pace. “You’re not . . . in the chain . . . of command.”
“Maccabee,” she said, but that was all. He felt his orgasm coming on, felt her convulse as she reached hers, and her muscles clamped down on him, sending him over the edge.
For a moment, they were silent. Maccabee buried his face in her hair, wishing for that silence to continue, concentrating on his breathing, on her breathing, on his twitching penis, on her smooth vagina, still clenching around him with involuntary spasms of slowly-fading pleasure.
“Maccabee,” Samara said again. She pulled herself off him, turned around awkwardly until they faced each other and he shifted to give her a bit more room, pressing his back against the cold bulkhead.
“I need you, Samara,” he said, and he knew that he did. But what exactly did he need from her?
“I’m not going anywhere, Maccabee,” she said, touching his nose with a finger. “But I know how you work. You don’t need two lovers, each vying for your attention.”
“There’s only you,” he said.
“Me, and the ship,” she replied, “me and Phoenix.” She laughed. “Tell me you didn’t love your Hornet like you love a woman.”
“Maybe I did,” said Maccabee, “but she was something special.”
“So’s this ship here,” Samara insisted. “Don’t go thinking with your dick,” she added, giving it a gentle yank. “We’ve a job to do.”
He opened his mouth to reply, but had nothing to say. She was right. Sighing, he rolled onto his back, letting her cuddle him from the side, resting her head on his chest. At least they could enjoy the rest of this night.
“Do you think it’ll likely work?” she asked him after a moment’s silence.
“The mission?” he said. “It should, provided everything they’ve told us is true. We’re just passing through, dropping off a message.” If only it actually turned out to be that simple.
“Not the mission,” she corrected him. “The whole shebang, the rebellion. This damned uprising we’ve got caught up in.”
He’d lost count of how many times he’d asked that question of himself. “I don’t know,” he said, finally. “I hope so. I’d hate to be on the wrong side, at the end.”
“Hell, Maccabee,” she said with a snort. “There’s not going to be a right side, so we may as well get comfy here.”
“Then why’d you ask?” he asked, and the silence after his question dragged on so long he was sure she’d fallen asleep.
“Don’t know,” she finally said, and he felt her shrug. “Something’s changed. Something’s different. Inside me.”
He frowned, knowing that she couldn’t see the expression. “What do you mean?” he asked, not because he really wanted to know the answer, but because he knew he had to know. Better to find out now.
“Remember when I asked you. . . .” she started. “When we talked. On Hornet, in the observation deck, I guess it was.”
“I remember,” he said. He thought about that talk almost every day, and it scared him every time. It was the first time he’d ever seen Samara Kar Deffin cry, the first time she’d ever shown the slightest chink in her armor, the ceramasteel walls in which she cloaked her soul.
“Well,” she said, and then she paused again, but he just waited this time. “It’s gone.” Her voice was barely even a whisper, so soft he would never have heard it if his face wasn’t centimeters away from hers. “The desire, the rage, it’s gone out of me, Maccabee, like it just up and evaporated into the vacuum of space.” Her words were coming fast now, still barely more than a whisper, and her voice was flat. “I’m empty inside, like the void has crawled up inside me, like . . . like it’s growing in me, a dark thing, Maccabee, screaming at me in a silent voice. I try to shut it up, God, I try, but it won’t shut up, and I don’t know what it wants.” She was trembling now, shaking. “I don’t know what it is, what’s changed,” she said, her voice now raw with fear.
He took her by the shoulders and said, “Samara,” and she started, nearly jumping out of bed. Her eyes were wide open, all white, it seemed, and staring at him. “Shhh,” he said, and he pulled her into his arms and held her as she wept, the tears sudden and choking.
Sitting there, naked in Samara’s bed, cradling her shuddering frame, all he could think was, What am I going to do now? He felt dirty for it, but the thought remained. What now?