Episode 308: Hurried Departure

The light of the setting sun was turned a brilliant burnt orange by the dust at the horizon, and rooftop solar panels throughout Grapple were lit afire by the reflected shine. The sporadic gunfire that had sounded through the city in the early hours of the day was stilled now. For the moment. How long that would last was anyone’s guess, but Maccabee didn’t have high hopes. He felt a little better about Al’Breth, perhaps, but there was something still making him uneasy.

“Shuttle’s inbound,” said Samara as she stepped up next to him at the edge of the roof. The air up here already had a bit of a chill to it, now that the sun was setting, though Maccabee knew that it would still be sweltering hot between the buildings below.

He turned and looked past Samara at the two commandos from Jugnauth’s unit, his security detail while he was away from the ship. Private Toulloise was guarding the stairs that led down from the roof into the VistaCom building, watching the darkening skies as well; Private Kerlovski was patrolling the perimeter, his rifle up and his eyes scanning the neighboring rooftops. Despite that, what made Maccabee feel safe was the knowledge that Samara was there with him, even though she wasn’t watching anything but him. Her hand, perhaps unconsciously, was resting lightly on the grip of one of the pistols at her waist.

“I don’t know why this place has me worked up,” he confessed to her. Kicking a loose piece of gravel, he added, “I just want to get out of here.”

“Ten minutes, Keita said,” Samara soothed. “For what it’s worth, I want off this shithole too.” She clapped a hand on his shoulder and grinned. “Reminds me too much of my childhood.”

He doubted that—although who could say? Samara had never told anyone about her childhood, not that he knew of. But he nodded and smiled back at her.

“I’ve got a visual,” said Toulloise, pointing her gloved hand up and into the westerly skies. Maccabee looked and spotted the flashing landing lights of Phoenix’s smaller shuttle, still distant, but moving quickly. That sight alone was enough to calm him.

Back to business. “Any word from Santoro?” he asked Samara. The cargo ship had started deploying the orbital grid, but that wasn’t a short or easy task. Captain Brakman had guaranteed system operational status in twenty-four hours, which meant at least another twenty to go.

“They’re working double-time,” Samara replied. “I think Brakman’d prefer we stay in orbit until the grid’s in place.”

“I’m sure,” Maccabee said. Anything big enough to test the grid would probably be too big for Phoenix to handle anyway. “You pull up the briefing on our next stop?”

“I took a glance at it,” Samara said. “No hurry.”

“Anything catch your eye?” Maccabee asked as the shuttle suddenly became visible as more than just a collection of lights, a small ship falling out of the sky, the whine of its landing motors just barely audible over the light wind on the rooftop. Keita flared the shuttle upwards, killing off some of her speed, then slowly eased towards the landing site.

“Should be a change of pace from Hobarth,” Samara said, raising her voice slightly as the shuttle came closer. “Population’s two billion.” That was a thousand times greater than the mining world.

Keita touched down with hardly a bump, and the shuttle’s side door slid open a moment later. “Sir!” called the ensign from inside the little ship. “Ready when you are!”

“Let’s move,” Maccabee said, motioning the others to board. Samara went ahead of him, while the two commandos waited until he was on board, gave the rooftop a last, quick check, then piled in. Toulloise slapped her hand on the hatch control, and a moment later the noise and wind of the roof was cut off as the door shut them inside the cozy quiet of the shuttle’s compartment.

“All aboard!” called Kerlovski. Keita was still strapping herself back into the pilot’s seat.

“OK, everyone please take your seats,” she said. A moment later, the shuttle was up and moving, and Hobarth receded quickly below them. Maccabee watched out of the front window as the night sky grew ever darker, and then suddenly came alight with the bright singularities of stars, spreading like a sheet of glory across the vastness of the universe. The sight filled him with a sense of peace, as it always did.

“This is why,” he said, leaning close so he could speak to Samara in a low voice. He pointed to the stars. “This is where I belong, out here.”

“There are other ways,” she said, but there was no criticism in those words. Just someone pointing out a fact.

The shuttle continued on, and Phoenix appeared out of the night ahead of them, her running lights bright.

“All stations report at battle readiness,” said Commander Chotak, his voice cool and calm as always, his face bathed in the blue light of general quarters.

“Thank you, commander,” replied Captain Nataga. He activated a control on his chair, then said, “All hands. Transition in five seconds.” Then he counted down in his head. “Lieutenant Oded,” he finally said.

“Aye, captain.”

PNC Light of Suns vanished from the depths of interstellar space.

“Welcome back, captain,” said Brenner, rising from the command chair as Maccabee strode onto the bridge, Samara at his heels. They exchanged a quick salute, and Maccabee lowered himself into the command chair. It recognized him, and reconfigured the screens and holographic controls around him to match his preferences.

“Report,” said Maccabee.

“All hands present and accounted for, sir,” Brenner said, settling himself into his own chair, slightly forward and to the right of Maccabee’s. “Jump batteries are fully charged, and our first wormhole is already in the computer.” Brenner cracked a grin and added, “No orbital control to speak of, so we’re cleared at your command.”

“Systems status?” asked Maccabee, scrolling through a handful of automatic reports.

“Nominal, sir,” replied Brenner. “Mister Kinte says all reactors are operating at target efficiency.” The commander sounded a bit surprised at that, but Maccabee just grunted in reply.

“Very well,” the captain said finally, after spending another moment perusing his reports. “Mister Millicent.”

“Sir,” replied the ensign.

“Take us out.”

“Yes, sir!”

Phoenix surged forward at eighty percent acceleration, heading for Hobarth’s flux boundary.

“Transition complete,” Oded said, sounding slightly green. Nataga himself, as usual, felt terrible, the aftereffects of the transition holding on to him for far too long.

“Report sta—” Chotak began.

“Contact!” barked Lieutenant Ebrem. “Bearing zero-zero-two, three hundred million kilometers and closing.” She looked up from her plot. “Reactor signature matches: it’s them!”

Nataga felt a surge of adrenaline hit his body like a wall. They’d guessed right! “Intercept course!” he ordered. “Maximum acceleration. Go to. . . .” He glanced at the engineering display at his station. “One-hundred-twenty percent.”

“Sir,” said Oded. “Hundred-and-twenty percent requires the X.O.’s agreement, sir.”

“Chotak?” Nataga said.

“Agreed,” Chotak said, without hesitation. “Go to one-twenty, lieutenant.”

“Order confirmed, captain,” Oded replied smartly. “Intercept course, one-hundred-and-twenty percent maximum acceleration, aye!”

Light of Suns leapt forward, surging through the night.

Maccabee leaned back in his seat, watching the main holo, which was now displaying the vast, empty spaces of the Hobarth system. Just two planets, a handful of rogue moons, and only a single ship other than Phoenix herself, the green friendly identifier icon of Santoro creeping back and forth across the atmosphere of the planet, laying out the orbital grid with exacting care.

“Time to boundary?” he asked, not bothering to check the readouts. The benefit of being captain.

“Four minutes, forty seconds,” replied Millicent.

A red light flared on the holo screen, and suddenly an alert tone sounded across the bridge. “Transition!” yelped Brenner. “Unidentified contact, bearing zero-four-four!”

“Shit,” said Samara.

“Range three hundred million kilometers, sir,” continued Brenner after a moment. “Ship type confirmed as light cruiser or similar warship.” He looked up. “She’s starting to accelerate, captain, going to six hundred gravities.”

“I’m getting a signal from Santoro, captain,” Lieutenant Ganda said in the tense silence that followed Brenner’s report.

“Put him on,” Maccabee said.

Captain Brakman’s florid face appeared on the holo, his blue eyes starting from his round skull, his thick, curly hair almost looking like it was standing on end. They were still close enough for a live conversation. “Phoenix!” Brakman barked. “You have to turn around! We’ve got some sort of incoming ship!”

“I read her, too, captain,” replied Maccabee, trying to keep his voice calm. “My computer tells me she’s at least a cruiser.” He smiled, though there was no humor in the expression. “You know what a cruiser could do to either one of us, captain.”

“Easy for you to say!” spat Brakman. “You’ve got guns, you’ve got a ship twice as fast as mine!”

“No time to discuss this, captain,” Maccabee said. “I suggest you head for the flux boundary immediately, activate whatever countermeasures you’ve already laid in orbit.”

“I have shuttles on the surface! My people are down there!” Brakman looked frantic, and Maccabee felt for the man. He’d been in the position of captaining what amounted to a defenseless vessel. One of many reasons he’d never do it again.

“It’s your choice, captain,” he said. “You’ve got less than six minutes before they get here.” He nodded to Ganda, and she cut the signal.

“You’re leaving him here?” Brenner said.

“If you’ve got another option,” Maccabee growled, “I’d like to hear it.” He glanced at the chrono, and at the rapidly approaching red dot. “You have thirty seconds. Millicent! Go to maximum accel!”

“Aye!” said the ensign, and Phoenix now jumped forwards at 800 gravities, easily outpacing the heavier warship racing in from outside of the system. Because of their relative course, however, that move actually lowered the intercept time, but Maccabee decided he’d rather hit wormhole transition as soon as possible, rather than bend his course and run.

“Who are they?” asked Samara.

“They’re not ours,” Maccabee said. “That limits the options.”

“Incoming signal, sir!” said Ganda. “Audio only.”

Maccabee waved at her to put it on, and a man’s voice sounded over the bridge speakers a moment later: “Unidentified vessels. This is Captain Nataga of the PNC Light of Suns. I order you to heave to and prepare to be boarded. Non-compliance will be met with maximum force. Transmission ends.”

For a moment, there was silence on the bridge.

“It’s going to be close, captain,” Millicent said, glancing down at his readouts, trying very hard not to sound scared and mostly succeeding. “They might get off a shot at the edge of their envelope.” He looked up. “Depending on what that is.”

Maccabee scowled, then activated the ship’s com. “General quarters!” he barked. “All hands to battle stations! Prepare for incoming fire!”

“I guess you’re not stopping,” Samara said, her eyes watching the main holo.

“We’ll see,” Maccabee replied.

“Damn, they’re fast,” said Chotak softly.

“I doubt they’re even pushing the limit,” Nataga agreed. “Ebrem, what do you think?”

“We’ll have them in maximum grazer range, sir,” she replied, head down as she ran the calculations, constantly updating the shifting course and position of each ship. “But only for six-point-four seconds.” She glanced up. “That’s assuming they go into transition at the earliest possible moment.”

“Safe assumption,” groused Chotak.

“The freighter’s starting her run, captain,” Ebrem continued. “Straight away from us, maximum accel.” She shook her head. “Four hundred gees.”

“Assuming we swing by the raider and he manages a jump—” It was wishful thinking to hope that one of their shots might disable the little rebel ship in those four seconds. “—can we come around to intercept the freighter on the other side of the planet?”

“Aye, sir,” Ebrem said a moment later. “Do you think they’ll heave to?”

“Or be destroyed, lieutenant,” growled Nataga. “One or the other.”

“Aye, sir,” she replied, keeping her feelings about that to herself.

“Two minutes to jump,” Ganda reported.

The board—the list of stations on the ship reporting for duty—was lit up in green, indicating that Phoenix was ready for action, as ready as she’d ever be to face an enemy this much bigger than her. Maccabee had to remind himself that he wasn’t in his old ship, Hornet, anymore; she would have stood toe to toe with this intruder, at least for a while. Still, it felt wrong to be running like this.

“Sir,” said Brenner, his voice soft. Maccabee glanced at him. “I’ve run the tracks, and I don’t think Santoro will make it. Assuming we jump as planned.” He didn’t have to add that this meant Phoenix would be safely gone, leaving the freighter as the only target for a no-doubt angry PNC captain.

“Ninety seconds,” Ganda said.

“Damn,” muttered Maccabee. He glanced at his real number two, at Samara. “What do you think?”

“I already know what you’re going to do,” she said with a smile that was frayed around the edges. “You may as well do it, while we still have time.”

Maccabee made his decision. “Millicent,” he said. “Plot an attack vector, head-on assault. I want maximum lateral accel, as much evasive as you can give me, as random as the computer can make it. Go to one-ten on the drive, give me as much as you think she’ll handle.” He looked back at Brenner. “Commander, if you’d please let Samara take your seat.”

“Sir, I. . . .”

“No time, Brenner,” said Maccabee. “Move it.”

Brenner nodded, slipped out of his seat, and Samara was there in a moment, her hands flying over the controls, plotting out her attack, powering up the ship’s weapons.

“One minute, captain,” said Ganda.

“How much time do we need?” asked Maccabee.

“Five minutes, sir,” said Brenner. The man’s voice was cool, but not as bad as Maccabee had expected. He’d deal with it later.

“Execute!” he ordered, and Phoenix turned to go on the attack.

“Target vector changing!” barked Ebrem. “She’s turning towards us, captain, and . . . putting on more accel!” The lieutenant shook her head. “Range in ten seconds!”

“All hands!” barked Nataga over the com. “Prepare for incoming fire!”

“Five seconds!”

“I didn’t expect this,” muttered Chotak, echoing Nataga’s own thoughts. Did the raider know something he didn’t, or were they just determined to buy time for the freighter to haul its heavy ass out of the planet’s gravity well?

“Range!” Ebrem said.

“Fire at will,” Nataga ordered.

“Fire!” ordered Maccabee, but he was almost too late. Samara wasn’t waiting for any orders, and the very instant that Phoenix was in range, her heavy forward batteries opened up, spewing coherent energy across the vastness of space, still ten million klicks from their target, but close enough. The little ship’s heavy beam weapons lanced out, missing their target at first, but bracketing the other vessel, first above, then below, as Samara worked against her counterpart on the cruiser, trying to outguess whoever was piloting over there. Millicent jerked Phoenix up and down, spun her sideways, changed her vector five times a second, each movement putting her several ship-lengths out of her previous position.

Now the other ship was firing as well, they were two seconds into the engagement, 900,000 kilometers range, and there was a hell of a lot more fire incoming than Phoenix was putting out, two dozen beam weapons, each broadside effectively hemming the little ship in on all sides. One shot in that first volley connected, and Maccabee winced as he felt his command shudder, but there was no bleed-through yet. The shields were holding.

“Activating particle cannons,” Samara said, as the range dropped to 700,000 kilometers, and suddenly there was fire in the sky. Maccabee watched as rounds impacted on the other ship’s shields, concentrated, penetrated, hit her hull. Nothing serious, not at this range, not against a ship this size. Phoenix shuddered again, harder this time, and damage control icons started flashing.

“Forward shields down to sixty percent,” Ganda reported. “I’ve lost two of the forward drive nodes.”

“Slowing acceleration!” Millicent said in response.

They were at 300,000 klicks, now, knife-fighting range, and suddenly beams of energy were everywhere, criss-crossing the sky. Two intersected Phoenix’s desperately-changing course, and she bucked wildly as they ripped through shields and ceramasteel, blasting into the hull just aft of the engineering section. Alarms screamed through the bridge.

“Hull breach!” shouted Ganda. “Hull breach in section four!”

“Evacuate!” barked Maccabee. “Damage control teams, go!”

“Incoming!” shouted Oded, seeing that this time she’d not managed to avoid the attack. Light of Suns jerked sideways, then upwards, as ten thousand heavy particle cannon rounds tore through her shielding. Nataga watched in disbelief as the tiny raider holed his ship, blasting open Vehicle Bay Two. The high-pitched whine of hull breach alarms shrilled through the bridge.

“Breach, Bay Two!” barked Chotak. “Sealing internal bulkheads!”

“Keep at them!” Nataga said, raising his voice over the mayhem.

“Crossing now, captain!” Ebrem called out. The two ships were passing each other, streaking by at a combined speed of more than a million meters per second.

“Aft batteries, engage!” called Maccabee as they sped past the other ship. He nearly breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that the fresh shielding of the ship’s stern would now be absorbing some of the incoming fire. That was small comfort, however, no matter how good Millicent was doing. A single good volley, and Phoenix would be an expanding ball of gas.

More particle cannon fire was coming in now, heavier than before and more concentrated, as the other ship’s tac officer realized that Phoenix was better able to resist energy beams than physical ammunition. Millicent rolled the ship desperately, and Samara activated the point defense clusters on full automatic, letting Charlie direct their concentrated fire, but the incoming projectiles were traveling more than half the speed of light. Some of them had to get through.

Phoenix bucked wildly as a half volley snagged her stern, the force of the impacts on the lightly-armored hull literally shoving the ship off course, then penetrating through the thinner inner shell before exploding, blasting open the back of the ship like an over-pressured cargo container.

Ganda screamed as she was thrown backwards from her station and Maccabee shouted, “Evasive! Evasive!” and there were yells coming over the com from all over the ship as Phoenix spun out of control. All the while, Samara’s hands kept moving, kept pouring fire at their enemy.

“Got her!” shouted Ebrem triumphantly as Nataga saw the raider spin wildly under the impact of a heavy barrage of particle cannon fire. His fierce grin matched the lieutenant’s.

“Oded!” he barked. “Intercept course on the raider!” Nataga looked at Chotak, saw the other man’s raised eyebrows, and added, “Let’s hope she’s too wounded to fly.”

“She’s still returning fire, sir!” said Oded, as she maneuvered Light of Suns. The ship shuddered with yet another excellent shot, and Nataga had to wonder just who the hell was on board that tiny ship.

“You may continue to shoot, lieutenant!” Nataga said to Ebrem as Oded threw full acceleration against their present course, slewing them around in as tight a circle as she could manage.

“We’ll be out of range in five seconds,” the lieutenant replied, but she kept at it.

“We’re clear,” gasped Millicent, finally sitting up from his controls as Phoenix sailed out of the fire envelope of the other ship. “God!”

“Ganda,” said Maccabee. “Report.”

“Nothing good, sir,” said the lieutenant, wiping away a trickle of blood that was running down her cheek from where she’d hit her head falling across the bridge. “That last hit knocked us around, but it wasn’t as bad as it seemed.” She paused, listening to the ship’s com chatter. “Pressure doors were sealed—only two compartments open to vacuum.”

“And the first hit?” Maccabee asked, dreading the answer.

“That’s in the engineering section,” Ganda replied. “Took out Battery Bank P-Three; Kinte is checking now to see if we can salvage anything.” She looked up at the captain. “Two dead there, sir, both in engineering.”

Maccabee nodded, not having anything to say. The ship carried eight battery banks, and needed only seven to operate at normal efficiency, but in his experience, the hours and even days after a pounding like this always turned up more problems than were apparent at first notice.

“Millicent,” he said, ignoring Ganda’s surprised expression. What did she expect? That he would break down and weep for the dead right here, with that damned cruiser pouring on all its speed to get back into range?

“Sir,” said the flustered ensign. He had them on a straight-line escape vector, which needed to be changed from moment to moment as their pursuer altered her location and course.

“Recalculate jump for a single light,” Maccabee said, checking his own displays for a moment, keeping his voice carefully moderate. “Same course as before. Soon as you can get it for me.”

“Aye, captain!” said Millicent, snapping to the task with admirable speed.

“Kinte,” called Maccabee over the com. “Kinte, can you hear me?”

“Captain,” came the other man’s voice. It was not at all friendly. “I’m busy at the moment, captain.”

“This can’t wait,” snapped Maccabee. Damn this ship and its crew! It was too soon for this, too soon to take them into this much strain. “I’m recalculating for a single light jump. I want only the starboard banks active, understood? Starboard only.”

“Sir, only bank P-Three is damaged,” countered Kinte. “Excluding the port side would take—”

“That’s not a request, mister,” Maccabee growled. He glanced up at Samara, who held up ten fingers, then five more. “You’ve got fifteen minutes until the ship that did this can start shooting at us again, and this time it won’t be a short hit and run. Now, I say again, is that understood?”

“Yes, sir!” snarled Kinte. “I’ll have the port side locked out in ten minutes, sir.”

“Thank you, Chief,” Maccabee said, deliberately returning his voice to as close to normal as he could manage.

“Sir, if I may?” asked Brenner in the awful silence that followed.

“Yes?” Maccabee said, none to kindly.

“Request permission to go to engineering, sir,” said the X.O. “To personally supervise the work.”

Maccabee turned his chair and looked hard at Brenner, but the other man seemed honestly concerned. “You think that’s necessary?” Maccabee asked him.

“I understand your order, sir,” Brenner replied. “And I agree with it.”

Maccabee nodded. “Then see to it, commander,” he said.

“Aye,” Brenner said, snapping off a crisp salute and spinning before Maccabee could return it. He watched as the commander waited for the blast door to swing ponderously open, then disappeared into the ship.

“No transition yet,” Ebrem said, unnecessarily. Nataga was watching the tactical displays as avidly as she, wondering what the raider was doing. They were outrunning her, for one thing, which was a blessing. Obviously, Light of Suns had shot away some of the other ship’s drive nodes, the delicate devices on the outside of the hull that generated the null momentum field around a vessel with a slipstream drive.

“Any sign that her accel is still dropping?” he asked, in spite of himself, in spite of his feelings about idle chatter on the bridge. He wanted that ship!

“No, sir,” replied Ebrem. “Still holding at five-twenty.” She glanced up at her captain. “The freighter is about to clear the flux boundary.”

“Never mind him,” Nataga said, though he was loath to let such an easy target escape his grasp.

“If the raider could jump, he would have done so by now,” Chotak said hopefully, supporting his captain.

“Unless she’s just waiting to make sure that bulk hauler is clear,” Oded ventured, surprisingly bold.

Nataga had to smile. That was the thought he’d been trying not to think, with a spectacular lack of success. “Unless she’s doing that,” he repeated, just to be sure that Oded knew she hadn’t overstepped the line. She smiled briefly, then turned back to what she was doing while her captain kept watching her. They’d give him trouble back home for the field promotion—those were only supposed to be done in time of war—but it was well worth it. She deserved it, she’d earned it.

Besides, no matter what Central might want to delude itself into thinking, this damn well was a time of war.

“Jump calculations complete, sir,” Millicent reported. It was the first anyone had spoken in ten minutes, and Maccabee nearly started. He blinked, trying to clear the red dot of the other ship from his vision, but he’d been staring at the holo too long.

“Thank you, ensign,” he said, straightening in his seat. “Commander Brenner,” he called over the shipwide com. “What’s your status?”

“I was about to call you, captain,” said Brenner, and he sounded better, calmer, more in control. “Kinte says we’re ready on this end. I had him double check everything, then had Ensign Brunje do it again, just to be sure.” Maccabee could almost feel the other man’s satisfaction, and was suddenly very glad he’d sent him down there. “The port side batteries are locked out.”

“Understood, commander,” Maccabee said. “Thank you.”

“Aye, sir.”

“And thank you to Chief Kinte, commander,” added Maccabee, hoping he might mend some more bridges.

“Aye, sir,” came the ready reply.

“Ensign,” Maccabee said, clearing the com. “Please proceed.”

“Yes, sir!” Millicent said, a broad smile splitting his young, handsome face. He rang the jump siren, then fired it a second time just to be sure. Then, with the familiar disturbing sense of reality folding in on itself, Phoenix vanished into a wormhole.

Nataga watched in silence. No one on the bridge of Light of Suns dared say a word. The freighter was gone, jumped out of the system ten minutes ago. He’d been sure the raider was his, absolutely certain she wouldn’t jump, couldn’t jump.

“They must have been able to repair. . . .” Chotak began, then trailed off. “Whatever it was.”

“Lieutenant Oded,” Nataga said, forcing himself to sound calm, swallowing his anger. There was no one to blame but himself. “Track along her last known vector, and along her initial departure angle, before she turned to attack.”

“Yes, sir,” Oded said, her voice barely audible, even in the awful quiet.

“And plot a course back to the planet,” Nataga added, and his voice sounded terrible in his own ears.

“Yes, sir.”

Someone down there is going to give me some answers,” hissed the captain of PNC Light of Suns, and no one who heard him doubted that fact for an instant.