Episode 304: Refreshments

It had once been the command center, Maccabee decided. That much was obvious, just from the doors they’d left on the other side of the curtains, but the place was barely recognizable as part of a ship at all, much less the bridge of a twenty-million-ton vessel drifting through the outer reaches of a star system. How long it had been this way was anyone’s guess, and that made more difficulty by the drifting vapors, scented smoke and a hint of Mist—hardly a popular drug in this part of the PARC, but cheap and easy to get. Maccabee glanced over his shoulder, looking for Mpho, but the other man did not follow them into Zeca’s abode.

The space—Maccabee had a hard time calling it a command deck—was roughly hemispherical, easily twenty meters across, rising nearly ten at the center, and dropping away from the entrance into a central pit that housed what had once been a state-of-the-art holo system. Maccabee guessed it wasn’t working, since it was filled with blue-green water in which bright, toothy fish were swimming quickly to and fro. Around the tank, control stations had been removed wholesale from the deck and replaced with tattered carpets that still held an air of richness; scattered on these were couches and lounges in a similar state of loving disrepair. Several water-pipes bubbled merrily beside some of the seats, and it was in this direction that Zeca motioned for his visitors.

“Can you still run the ship from here?” asked Samara with typical tactfulness. Maccabee scowled at her, but she didn’t even shrug.

Zeca seemed unperturbed by the question. “Berret runs most of the vital ship systems,” he said with a wave of his hand. “From the secondary control center on Deck Two.” He smiled and lowered himself onto a lounge, gesturing broadly for the rest to seat themselves. Maccabee glanced over at the commandos, nodding his head almost imperceptibly left and right, then sat on a couch near to Zeca while the man and woman spread out as casually as they were able. “Sometimes,” continued Zeca, “I like to drive from here, I will admit.”

“Is Berret joining us?” asked Maccabee as their host reached a long, slender hand for the tip of one of the hookahs, placed it between his lips, and sucked in a breath of flavored smoke.

“Berret’s not very interested in visitors,” said Zeca, in a tone of voice that indicated he didn’t care to continue the conversation. “Please,” he went on, waving a hand at those still standing. “Sit. Smoke. Talk.”

“You know why we’re here,” said Maccabee. It wasn’t a question as much as something he wanted to hear from the other man’s mouth.

“I know why you are here,” Zeca replied, “on board my ship.” He took another breath of smoke from the pipe, savored its apple flavor, and blew it out in a long sigh. “Why you are going to Dominion Rock, I can only guess.”

“You’ve just been waiting here?” asked Keita, perhaps unable to help herself. Maccabee was wondering the same thing, though, so he couldn’t blame her.

“We have a job to do, miss,” Zeca said, frowning slightly. “There is ore aplenty in these reaches, locked away in thousands of lifeless worlds, slowly spinning in the cold.” He smiled, and closed his eyes, either pleased with his words or the predicament they described.

“Well?” asked Maccabee after a moment’s silence.

“Well what?” asked Zeca, opening his eyes and looking genuinely confused.

“Should I shoot him now?” asked Samara, her left hand caressing the butt of one of her pistols.

“Samara,” said Maccabee in a flat voice, but the damage was done.

“Who the fuck are you to come here and threaten me?” hissed Zeca, rising from his lounge with a surge of energy. “How dare you! You’ll treat me with more fucking respect than that, you little bitch, or I will rip out your eyes and eat them with a fucking SPOON!”

Zeca was literally howling with rage by the end of the sentence, and Maccabee came to his feet in a single, smooth motion, reaching out a hand to Samara. She didn’t respond to Zeca at all, however, just stepped over to one of the couches and perched herself on the thread-bare arm with a curious expression on her face. Zeca watched this movement, his chest heaving, his eyes bulging so far from his skull that Maccabee thought he might literally pop them free, hands clenched tightly into fists at his side, and his whole body trembling.

And then, as suddenly as he’d gone mad, the captain was himself again, the rage leaving him like a switch had been thrown somewhere. Maccabee suppressed the immediate urge to put the man down like the rabid dog he appeared to be.

“Captain?” he asked, keeping his hands well clear of his weapons. He was more than safe with just Samara in the room, much less the small army he’d brought. Glancing left and right, he noticed the commandos were not even looking towards the drama at the center of the room. They were watching the flanks, waiting for the sneak attack. Well trained indeed.

Zeca smiled again, and sat on his lounge again, his hand reaching for the hookah he’d tossed aside a moment ago. He took a long, deep inhale at the end of the pipe’s flexible tube, held the smoke for as much time as he could bear, and then let it out again in a slow, measured breath.

“Quite all right, captain,” Zeca said. “I believe you were asking me for the information you require.”

“Yes,” said Maccabee, returning to his seat as well. Samara remained perched on the arm of the couch, her head tilted slightly to the side, her narrowed eyes studying Zeca like he was some half-wit worm. For his part, the captain ignored her, pretended that she didn’t exist at all. “Do you have it?”

“I do,” said Zeca, showing his white teeth in a blinding smile. “But first, I believe some refreshment is in order.” He leaned back across the lounge, pulled aside a pillow to reveal a small control panel, and pressed a stud with his thumb. “Astral,” he called for Mpho. “You may come in.”

Maccabee shared a side-long glance with Samara, but a moment later Mpho arrived, coming from the other side of the command center, opposite the main doors. He carried a large tray precariously balanced in his hands, topped with a variety of silver and glass dishes, most filled with a many-colored bounty Maccabee could only guess at from this angle. Mpho carefully navigated the ramp from the higher levels of the room, waited a moment while Zeca slid a glass table-top into place over the fish tank, and then placed the tray down on that. Stepping back, Mpho admired his work for a moment, then caught sight of Zeca scowling at him, and left at a trot.

“He’s not joining us either?” asked Maccabee. What sort of arrangement had these three worked out here?

“Please,” said Zeca, smiling broadly again and leaning across the fish-tank table. “Eat!” He suited his own words by reaching out a quick hand and taking up a small bowl of olives. The long fingers of his other hand picked out a dark black specimen and popped it into his mouth. “This is the best we can do, so far from anything you might call civilization.”

Maccabee hesitated, but there wasn’t much choice, as attractive as Samara’s suggestion certainly seemed at that moment. He leaned forward towards the table, and inventoried the cheeses, meats and other delicacies on display. A pungent blue cheese caught his attention, but he had no idea what sort of preservation technology was available on board Starduster. Instead, he selected a small dish of charcuterie, leaning back and taking up a tiny bit of sausage. Zeca watched his every move with a kind of predatory intensity, but Maccabee wasn’t particularly worried. He ate the sausage, savoring its sharp heat and salty tang, swallowed that down, then had another.

“Very good,” he said, nodding. It seemed appropriate, and Zeca did relax slightly at the affirmation. He seemed disinclined to encourage the others to eat, maybe not much concerned with them at all. Maccabee thought that was for the best.

“And wine,” said Zeca, picking up a pewter decanter and pouring red liquid into two crystal goblets. The tableware was good quality, but old and well-used like everything else aboard, as though it had all been salvaged off the scrap-heap of some wealthy enclave, or an abandoned space station. Zeca passed one of the goblets to Maccabee, then leaned back again and took a delicate sip from his own. “Excellent!” he sighed before taking another swallow.

“Captain,” Maccabee tried again, sipping his wine carefully from the side of the goblet that was not chipped. It was palatable, but hardly anything special. He made a show of expressing his appreciation anyway, much to Zeca’s delight, then said, “We are on urgent business, as I’m sure you can guess. Any help you can provide would be appreciated.”

“Of course, captain, of course!” said Zeca, spreading his arms in a broad gesture of friendship. “But you are my guest, and I have so few guests. Permit me a moment to pretend you are here for my company, as if we were old friends.” He leaned back and pressed the communications stud again. “Mpho will escort your crewmen to a comfortable spot, and we can talk together, alone.”

Maccabee felt Samara’s eyes on the back of his head as Mpho emerged again from some hidden door. He felt no threat from Maputo Zeca, though he understood Samara’s discomfort: something was wrong here, and it wasn’t just their host’s outburst of anger, suddenly stilled. “My crew,” he said, “will be happy to wait in the corridor.”

“There’s no need for them to stand around, captain,” said Zeca, and now something in his smile, in his eyes, was more amused than friendly. “But, of course,” he continued, forestalling Maccabee’s objections, “they are your crew. As you wish.”

“Captain,” said Pinzon, her voice about as friendly as the whine of a plasma cannon, “I object. Strongly. I should stay.”

“Understood, Pinzon,” Maccabee said, meeting her eyes. “Request denied.”

Mpho giggled. “This way,” he said, leading them back the way they’d come. Maccabee watched them go, the commandos heading out first, then Keita, Pinzon and finally Samara, her clinical, killer’s stare boring into Zeca’s soul. She passed through the curtain, never breaking that lock, and then disappeared as Mpho let the fabric drop back down. Turning back to Zeca, Maccabee opened a link to Samara, using the com system that both of them had long ago had installed in their heads.

“Unruly lot, your people,” said Zeca with a sad shake of his head. “A ship that lacks discipline is a ship in trouble, captain.”

“I see,” said Maccabee, frowning. He did not see, not yet, but he didn’t like the sound of things. Not at all.

“I don’t mean to upset you, captain,” said Zeca, smiling again and eating another olive. This one had a pit, which he spat out somewhere behind the lounge. “How you run your vessel is your decision, of course, and I’m sure she’s a fine ship.” His eyes burned with sudden longing. “She seems a fast ship, fast indeed.”

“Fast enough,” Maccabee said. He didn’t feel much like opening up to this strange man. “Can we discuss business now?”

“Patience, captain,” said Zeca, that broad smile never fading. “I take my duties as host very seriously, and you should play your role with a bit more zest as well.” He pressed the com stud again, a different one this time, and said, “Berret, you may come up.”

“Barret?” asked Maccabee. He set the goblet of wine carefully on the table, put down the little plate of sausage, and thus freed his hands. “I thought she wasn’t coming.”

“Some things are not meant for all eyes, captain,” said Zeca, and now his eyes were set alight by a lust Maccabee had seen often enough. He’d felt something like it himself once or twice. . . .

Barret Kobun emerged a moment later from the same hidden doorway that had ushered in Mpho. She moved at a weary stroll, clad only in a diaphanous gown that served better to accentuate her nakedness than hide it. Her figure was more boyish than feminine, slight and leanly muscled, and aside from a close-cropped thatch of gold and silver on her head, she was devoid of hair, her skin completely smooth. She didn’t even have nipples, Maccabee noticed, an odd sort of change to make but no worse than many he’d seen. Except for her eyes, which roved around the room seemingly at random, her face was impassive, no hint of a smile or a frown.

“This isn’t necessary,” said Maccabee, standing. Zeca, he noticed, was standing as well, opening the front of his robes to reveal his own nakedness underneath. The man’s penis was erect, and something was. . . . Maccabee rolled his eyes. Zeca had two penises—or was that peni?—sprouting from a common base, below which hung a grossly-engorged scrotum.

“You are my guest,” growled Zeca as he turned slightly to face Berret. She stepped up to him, let her own gown fall from her shoulders, and then reached out a hand for each of his shafts. He slapped her hands away, though, not gently. “Show him,” he said to her.

Berret turned to Maccabee, releasing Zeca’s bifurcating member, and put one leg up on the lounge. With her fingers, she spread apart the smooth, almost sex-less lips of her vagina. Something appeared there, making Maccabee turn his head slightly in fascination. A moment later, Berret’s own penis was revealed, sliding out and up, an angry purple-brown color. Despite himself, Maccabee wondered what sort of price that trick would fetch in a decent brothel.

“Which do you prefer?” asked Berret, her voice a husky contralto that could have fitted a young man as easily as a woman. She didn’t try a smile on him, but didn’t seem particularly reluctant either, acting as though she were offering him his choice of beverage.

“The former, I’m afraid,” said Maccabee, “and neither at the moment.” As if his words had shattered some romantic mood, Berret’s penis retreated into its hide and she lowered her leg.

“Come, come, captain,” said Zeca, coming up behind Berret, his hands running up over her belly and cupping her smooth, sex-less breast-mounds. “You have some entertainment on board Phoenix, I’m sure. Why, you brought four women with you, by my count. Afraid, perhaps, that mine wouldn’t be up to your standards.”

He shifted, and one of his members entered Berret. Her eyes were locked on mine, now, willing me not to look away, and I saw her flinch slightly as he twisted his hips. I didn’t have to guess what his other penis was up to.

Maccabee sighed, looking back up at Zeca. “Can’t we talk business here?”

“Go ahead,” grunted Zeca, starting to thrust more vigorously. Berret sighed, leaning slightly forwards and pressing herself against him. “I’m listening.”

“Then tell me what I want to know, before I get bored,” growled Maccabee.

“Next . . . signal,” gasped Zeca between thrusts. “In . . . two . . . hours. No need . . . to rush . . . things!”

“What?” said Maccabee. “What did you just say?”

“Ungh!” groaned Zeca. Berret was panting now, thrusting herself back as her captain pushed forwards, and neither of them seemed to be paying much attention to anything Maccabee was saying.

“Samara,” he said over the com link, keeping his voice low as Berret let out a guttural moan, her hands grasping at the table-top spasmodically.

“I heard,” she muttered inside his head. “You sure I can’t kill him now?”

“Maybe later,” he said, looking back as Zeca climaxed, his body stiffening and his head jerking backwards. Almost at the same moment, Berret stopped making any noise, her motions of pleasure ceasing as well. That blank expression returned to her face as Zeca pulled out of her; she simply stooped and put on her robe again, pulling it tight around her shoulders. Zeca nodded, and Berret padded out of the room, glancing over her shoulder once at Maccabee. He watched her go, then subvocalized to Samara on the open com link: “Find Berret; find out what’s going on here.”

“You were saying, captain?” Zeca said, reclining on the lounge, his robe open and a penis lying on each thigh. “Got it,” came Samara’s voice in Maccabee’s head.

“She doesn’t seem to get much out of that,” he said, nodding in the direction that Berret had gone.

“Of course not,” said Zeca, waving a hand through the air, the other taking hold of the hookah again and bringing it to his mouth. That was the source of the Mist, Maccabee guessed, its sour-sweet smell starting to overwhelm the subtle aroma of apples from the flavored charcoal. At least it served to mask the smell of sex. “Her pleasure is not the goal.”

“What is the goal?” Maccabee asked.

Again that broad, shining smile. “You’ve had a fuck before, captain,” Zeca said. “I can tell you have. You know what the point is.”

Maccabee shook his head. “Ass,” he muttered. “I’m glad I’m not stuck on a ship with you for years.”

The smile disappeared, and Zeca’s hands twitched, as though he wanted to close his robe now, but knew it would be a gesture of weakness. Unfortunately, his deflating manhood wasn’t much of a threat anymore either. “Insult me again, you fucking pig,” he growled, pushing himself to his feet.

Maccabee took two steps forward, his railpistol suddenly in his hand, and pointed the weapon at Zeca’s forhead from a range of about ten centimeters. The man’s eyes tried to focus on the barrel, but it was just a bit too close, so he looked at Maccabee instead.

“What the fuck are you doing?” he said, nearly screaming. “This is my fucking ship! You do as I tell you!”

“Shut up,” said Maccabee, and something in the tone of his voice made Zeca listen. “You already told me everything I need to hear. I can wait for an incoming signal as easily as you can. So don’t for a second think there’s any particular reason for me to leave you alive, Zeca.” He lowered the weapon. “I suggest you calm down and sit down and shut up.”

Zeca did just that. His eyes were bulging again, but he reached for the water-pipe with his shaking hand and took a few puffs of the Mist-laced smoke, and in moments he was calm again. He closed the robe, reached for his goblet, and took a sip of wine as though nothing at all had happened.

“Pinzon,” said Maccabee over his com link. “You can come on in.”

“Thank you,” she said, and a moment later he heard the curtain open. Mpho’s voice was audible in the corridor, though Maccabee couldn’t quite make out what he was saying. “Try and stop me,” he heard Keita say, though, clear as day, and he smiled slightly. Zeca, however, did not protest, just kept sucking on his hookah for all he was worth. His eyes were rolling into the back of his head, and tongue was twitching in his half-open mouth.

Maccabee was about to do something—the man was obviously downing too much Mist straight into his lungs—when Mpho appeared out of the shroud of smoke and calmly took the hookah from his captain. Zeca sprawled backwards on the lounge and his eyes finally closed, his mouth falling open.

“Too much Mist,” muttered Mpho.

“What the hell is going on here, mister?” pressed Maccabee, giving a nod to Pinzon. She stepped up behind Mpho, not touching him but making it clear she’d rather he didn’t leave.

“Capitain’s okay, gun puppies,” said Mpho. “Just taking a sleep, is all.” The man’s eyes darted nervously at Zeca, then around at Pinzon. Maccabee sighed, and was about to motion for Pinzon to let Mpho go when another voice said, “No, the captain’s not all right.”

It was Barret, walking back into the control room with Samara. She was still in the diaphanous robe, so still essentially naked, but her whole demeanor had changed, like she’d put on a uniform in her mind. Samara’s eyes fixed on Zeca, and Maccabee thought the man would be lucky to live out the next two hours.

“Kobun,” said Maccabee, as though they hadn’t met just a few minutes before. “Care to fill us in?”

“Sir,” she said, “Maputo’s an ass, and a horny bastard, but he’s not a bad man, not really.” She shook her head, looking down on Zeca’s unconscious form with something approaching sympathy. “Or, he wasn’t before the Mist started eating at his brain.”

“Mist isn’t that dangerous,” said Keita. Pinzon shot her a hard look, but the ensign stood her ground. “It’s not, captain. And I am clean on board ship, I guarantee.”

“Relax, ensign,” said Maccabee. “No one’s accusing you of anything.” He said this while giving Pinzon a significant glare, and his former security officer backed off, returning her attention to Mpho. “She’s right, though, Berret,” Maccabee added.

She shook her head. “Maybe,” she said. “All I know is that he started taking the stuff and things started to go downhill.” Barret shrugged, wrapped her arms around herself. “We’d been together before, plenty of times. It’s pretty dull out here. That’s why I had the. . . .” Glancing at the others, she said to Maccabee, “You know.” He nodded. “Sometimes it was the three of us, sometimes me and Maputo, sometimes me and Astral.” She nodded at Mpho, who looked suddenly embarrassed.

“Sounds like fun,” said Samara, though her eyes were still on Zeca.

“It was, for a while,” Berret said. “Then he started hitting me, started forcing himself on me.” She shrugged. “Should have shot him or something, right?”

“I would have,” said Pinzon.

“Yeah, well,” Berret said, looking down at the carpeted deck. “It didn’t seem that bad, at first. A bit like a game.” Again the shrug, as though none of this mattered. “It’s pretty boring out here. This was . . . different. Exciting, in a way.” Maccabee met Samara’s eyes, looking for something like empathy, but found only cold, the professional face she showed the outside world.

“And then?” he asked.

“Then it got worse,” Berret said simply. “You saw the way he acts, the rages. These last months since the supply ship have been . . . not so good.”

“Do you know about the signal?” Maccabee asked her, deciding it was best to keep her talking, and to move the conversation on from the last months. They’d work out a course of action when he had all the details.

“Yes, of course,” said Berret. “We get a relay from Dominion Rock every day.” She shrugged again, looking over her shoulder at Samara. “I don’t even really understand it. Just a string of numbers, always different. I’m assuming it means something to Maputo.”

“I hope it means something to us,” said Keita, frowning. “Zeca may not want to talk about it when he wakes up.”

“If he wakes up,” Pinzon said.

“He’ll will,” said Samara. “For a while.” There was a dreadful note to her flat voice.

“We’ll decide that later,” said Maccabee. He turned to Samara. “Head back to the airlock.” Pointing to Mpho, he said, “You, go with her.” He activated the com system he’d brought with him from the ship. “Phoenix, this is Maccabee.”

“This is Brenner, captain,” came the reply as Samara and Mpho headed back through the curtain. “Go ahead.”

“Have Lieutenant Ganda and Massat Sel meet Samara at the airlock, commander,” said Maccabee. He glanced over at the commandos. “And put Jugnauth on the line.”

“Aye, captain.” At least for now, Brenner was behaving. Good. A moment later, Jugnauth said, “Captain.”

“Colonel,” Maccabee replied. “I need you to bring over a team, as many as you deem necessary, and secure this ship.”

“Any resistance, captain?” asked Jugnauth, ever the professional.

“None expected,” said Maccabee, glancing at the Starduster’s crew. “Any nasty surprises waiting around here, Berret?” he asked the woman. He needed to get her some clothes, he realized.

“No,” she said, “but they should take Mpho with them. Some places aren’t safe anymore.”

“I bet,” muttered Maccabee. “Colonel, you’ll meet with a Mister Mpho at the airlock,” he instructed. “He will guide you through the ship. This place is a heap, so I advise caution.”

“Understood,” said Jugnauth. “Anything else, captain?”

“That’s it,” said Maccabee. Then he called Samara. “Wait down there until Jugnauth and his people come aboard, hook them up with Mpho, and come back up.”

“Crystal,” she replied.

“Pinzon,” he said, pointing at his former security chief. “Take Berret to her quarters, get her something more substantial to wear, please.” He glanced at the woman. “If that’s all right with you, Berret.”

“It is,” she said with a small nod. She started to follow Pinzon out of the command deck, and Maccabee motioned for one of the commandos to accompany them. Just in case. Then, Berret turned around to look back at Maccabee. “Thanks,” she said. “I don’t know what I expected, but this wasn’t it.”

“You’re welcome,” he replied. “Let me know what we can do.”

Berret looked like she had something more to say, but she only nodded and then turned to follow Pinzon. A moment later, they were through the curtain, and Maccabee sat down, picking up a piece of fruit from the tray that still sat on the table.

“May as well grab a bite, ensign,” he said to Keita. “You too,” he added, pointing at the female commando. “I didn’t catch your name yet.”

“Private Brin Toulloise, sir,” she said with a professional snap to her voice. “I’ll pass on the food, sir.”

Maccabee shrugged. “It’s not bad, considering,” he offered, but he wasn’t going to press the issue.

“What do we do now, captain?” asked Keita, sitting gingerly on one of the couches and glancing over at Zeca, who appeared to still be breathing.

“Now, we wait.”

Jugnauth and his team cleared the ship in just over an hour, from end to end, finding nothing of note. “Engineering bay is breathtaking,” the Colonel reported, in what Maccabee assumed was an understatement. No matter what Keita’s feelings on the matter, he would rather have seen a fusion ring on an ancient shit pile like this. Instead, Starduster carried ten massive antimatter tanks, each one with enough of the stuff to incinerate the entire vessel, each a delicate balance of containment systems and delivery modes. Miraculously, Mpho had managed to keep the place from exploding. Maccabee could easily forgive him for the ramshackle state of the rest of the ship.

“Sel?” asked Maccabee, turning now to face the other man. Sel and Ganda had uncovered various functional control panels—with help from Berret, who was now back in functional spacer’s coveralls, looking much more comfortable. The three of them were working on a special project for Maccabee.

“Nearly there, sir,” answered Sel. “I’m having to clean out a lot of . . . stuff . . . as we go along.”

“Don’t doubt it,” muttered Jugnauth. The colonel was standing in a position Maccabee would have called parade rest, his weapon hung from one shoulder and angled downwards across his front; a medium-caliber plasma rifle, easily powerful enough to punch through Starduster’s ancient hull.

“How long until the signal?” asked Samara. Unlike Jugnauth, she was lounging across one of Zeca’s couches, eating some of Zeca’s food, and thankfully staying away from the hookahs. Those had actually been put out and pushed to the far side of the room, so that the stink of Mist didn’t overwhelm anyone. Jugnauth scowled, but Samara was outside any chain of command but Maccabee’s, and he was in no mood to discipline her.

“Fifteen ticks til the clock strikes,” answered Mpho from the com station. The man was unstable, but he knew what he was doing, and knew the old ship’s systems better than anyone else. He’d also been at the station to receive the signal before, many times, since Zeca had put him on that job so he could spend more time with his hookahs.

Keita and Pinzon were back on Phoenix now, having hauled Zeca’s unconscious body across to the other ship. Berret had watched, but said nothing, a small smile touching the corners of her mouth as her captain was dragged away. Jugnauth had sent his commando team back as well, keeping only Privates Toulloise and Magon, who’d originally accompanied Maccabee on board Starduster. The two of them were currently on guard duty at the airlock. Just in case, as Jugnauth said.

Something beeped. Maccabee looked up quickly, saw Mpho raise his hand, and waited. “Incoming signal,” said Mpho, his voice low. The rest of the command deck was utterly silent. “Code is correct. Verifying.” The disorientated babble that Mpho usually produced was gone, replaced suddenly by curt professionalism. Of course, the man had to be competent to have kept Starduster from exploding long ago. Finally, he looked up from the com station. “Got it in one,” he said with a smile.

“Sel?” asked Maccabee. His former crewman was already at Mpho’s side, looking at the message string that was playing on the screen there. There was no way to project it into the non-functional holo tank.

“It matches the same pattern as the other signals, captain,” said Sel. He tweaked a few settings at the station, then looked up. “The format on this message matches that of eighty-seven percent of the others I’ve been able to access.”

“Meaning that there’s no picket in-system,” said Maccabee.

“That’s the logical assumption, sir,” admitted Sel, though he seemed uncomfortable even with the word. “It could easily be incorrect.”

“But you’re sure of the underlying premise?” Maccabee pressed him. Sel was probably the smartest person he’d ever known, but not one to make premature commitments to any theory.

Sel nodded. “The message is not in the number string itself, captain, but in the digit sum of all the individual numbers. Eighty-seven percent are even numbers, the rest odd.”

“A binary code,” muttered Samara. “Pretty damn simplistic.”

“But secure,” said Ganda. “Cracking the code just gives you two different options, zero or one. Unless you know what those options are, the signal’s meaningless.”

“Captain,” Berret said, sounding reluctant to speak up. “If I may?”

“Certainly,” said Maccabee.

“There’s no way in hell a picket ship’s in this system eighty-seven percent of anything,” Berret said, shaking her head. “I’ve lived on Dominion Rock for forty-two years, not counting the ten I’ve been out here on this pile of scrap. If Mister Sel here is right, then there’s no picket.”

“Done,” said Maccabee, clapping his hands together. “Ganda, how’s our project?”

“Just finishing, sir,” she replied with a small smile. “Should be a show.”

“Then let’s pack up, people,” Maccabee said, standing and reaching out a hand to help Samara to her feet. Behind him, Jugnauth pulled his rifle into his hands and then muttered something over his own com-net, presumably giving his people a heads-up. Berret’s eyes were a little wild, and Mpho looked like he was about to throw up.

“Relax,” said Maccabee, stepping over to Berret’s side. “All your belongings have been transferred off Starduster. You’ll be able to retrieve them when we reach Dominion Rock.”

Berret laughed uneasily. “It’s not that, captain,” she said. “And don’t think we’re not happy. It’s just. . . .” She looked around her, as if seeing everything for the first time. “I’ve been on Starduster for . . . a long time. It’s been my home.”

“I’ll make sure we find a place for you,” said Maccabee. “Both of you. I think I carry enough weight with these people for that.” He kept his voice low, even though Ganda was packing her gear and Jugnauth was ten meters away.

“These people?” said Berret, glancing at Maccabee out of the corner of her eyes.

“Trust me,” was all he said, and he held out a hand to her.

For a long moment, she hesitated, her eyes still on him. Then she nodded, said, “Okay,” and walked past him. She didn’t take his hand, instead taking Mpho’s and pulling him after her. Maccabee watched them go.

“Come on,” said Samara, scowling as she looked around the strange lair of Maputo Zeca. “Let’s get out of here.”

Within thirty minutes, Phoenix was clear of Starduster, five thousand klicks away from the old mining ship and accelerating at 200 gravities, not hard at all for such a ship, even though it was twenty times faster than the miner could have managed when she was brand new. Maccabee watched the enhanced video feed of Starduster on the main holo, Mpho and Berret standing by his chair. “I’m not sure I want to watch this,” said Berret in a quiet voice. Maccabee glanced up at her, but her eyes were fixed on the holo image, looking through it at something else far away.

“Ten thousand kilometers,” said Ganda, her voice all business.

“Activate program,” ordered Maccabee.

“Activating,” replied Ganda, and she sent the signal that would start the autopilot she and Sel had designed aboard Starduster. Fifteen thousand klicks away now, and the old ship fired up her engines, antimatter shunting through microscopic magnetic gates, colliding with a similar matter stream, annihilation energy driving a lance of pure white fire out the massive exhaust ports at the rear of the vessel. Slowly, ponderously, Starduster started to move.

“Acceleration now at point-two-four g,” reported Ganda, monitoring the autopilot signal from Starduster. “All systems are green.”

“Go for it,” whispered Mpho. Only Maccabee could have heard him.

“Acceleration now at point-six-oh,” Ganda said. According to Berret, Starduster hadn’t pushed past 0.5 g in at least five years. There was no need for speed out here in the Kuiper Belt. All the more reason for Phoenix to be putting some distance between her and the other ship. They were a good 40,000 klicks away now, each moment pouring on more speed and more distance. Phoenix was already passing 0.1 percent of light speed.

“Acceleration now one-point-zero g,” Ganda said in the hushed silence of the bridge. “Engines are leveling. Tank four now yellow, antimatter flow controls initiating automatic shutdown.” She paused a moment, and all eyes but hers locked onto the telescope picture of the accelerating mining vessel. “Shutdown successful. And tank two now opening gates. Successful.”

Maccabee breathed out a sigh of relief. Starduster wasn’t out of the woods yet—his plan called for her to accelerate for another twenty-eight hours before reaching cruise velocity for her trip in-system—but the ramp-up had worried him the most. Part of him would have been happy to see the other ship explode, but this way it might yet be of use to the revolution. Somehow. Scrap, maybe.

Time to turn to other matters.

“Zero acceleration,” said Maccabee to Ensign Millicent.

“Aye, sir,” came the prompt reply. Suddenly, Phoenix was simply cruising through space, traveling over five hundred kilometers every second. At that speed, it would take her six months to reach Dominion Rock. Maccabee had no intention of taking that much time, however.

“Ready for jump on my mark,” he said.

“Ready for jump, aye,” Millicent said, touching a few more holographic controls at his station. Maccabee heard the familiar hum of the gravity generators as they deployed from the hull.

Maccabee let one finger slide through a control on his chair arm. A shrill tone sounded through the ship. “Attention all hands,” he said, hearing his voice echoing through the ship around him. “Prepare for jump in-system. Battlestations, battlestations, battlestations!” Maccabee touched another control, and the general alarm siren howled to life, ringing three times before falling silent.

Maccabee caught Millicent’s eye, and the other man nodded his readiness. One more time, Maccabee checked their position and velocity, took a final look at the jump coordinates he’d chosen. Now or never.