Ghost Stories

 

“Chan slow down!” Exclaimed a portly man as he trotted along a corridor of the busy Kennewick spaceport on Verbena.

“Why William Lemont, I haven’t see you since that dust up at Lang Jiang’s Pleasure Palace.” Replied Wu Chan Juan as she stopped to face the man, taking a last drag, before throwing the thin cigarra she was smoking on the ground and grinding it out with her heel. . 

To his credit Lemont only blushed red as opposed to the deep crimson shade he used to reach whenever the term Lang Jiang’s Pleasure Palace came up.

“Now Chan, you know that wasn’t either my doings or my fault. The bachelor party for Jason got out of control when the twins took a liking to the best man. I barely escaped the fire and Lang Jiang hasn’t spoken to me since. I miss that old reprobate.”

“Okay, okay, you win; I only mention it as I know I can get you to blush whenever I do.”
      ”Well it’s not every day a man of my girth has to crawl out of the second floor of a burning building, wearing a hastily acquired and strategically tied kimono. Now how about we move on to the present mei mei. I hear you are hiring.”

“You know you are the only person in the ‘Verse I let call me that don’t you? Not even my real brothers can refer to me as ‘little sister’ even though they are my older brothers.”

“I consider it both a term of endearment and an extreme honor that I am afforded the privilege.”

“You’ll have to remind me why I allow you that privilege again?”
”Why it’s my sparkling personality my dear soon to be captain.”

Chan lost her battle not to laugh and William joined her for several priceless moments before the big man turned solemn again.

“I’m serious Chan, you want a crew, I want to be on it, and I’ve got the coin to pay my freight, even if I might be packing a bit more freight than the average bear.” He added as he rubbed his vast belly and leered lasciviously.

Chan punched him in the shoulder for all the effect it had before trusting herself to maintain a serious face and reply. “Seriously William, I thought you had a gig?”

“I do, but bouncing isn’t a job in the Black and you know I have the soul of a spacer. I’ll take what work as I can find, but given half a choice, I want to be on a ship and given half of a half’s choice I want to be on yours.”

“William you have the soul of Henry the Eighth, but I also know I couldn’t ask for a better man on my crew. The job of First Mate is yours if you can front your share. I hate to have to resort to offering shares in the ‘Ghost, but you know my situation and I’ve had to make some choices I don’t like. Between you and me, I really need someone I know I can trust on board.”

“How much exactly is my share Chan? I’ve got some money saved, but I can’t buy your boat for you.”

Chan’s eyes flashed for a moment and she took a deep breath before replying with a heavy sigh. “Used to be a time I would have slapped you cross-eyed for saying that, but times have gotten hard enough that I can’t be anywhere near as choosey as I would like, but then again, you are a bit different, you are an old friend that I can be honest with. Walk with me William, the ship’s not far.”

“Certainly mei mei.” William replied with a soft voice knowing his friend was talking about something that was a source of deep pain for her.

The two walked in silence for a while as Chan gathered her thoughts, finally tossing her head as if to chase away the last of her doubts before beginning to speak.

“I knew I was talking a chance when I saw that old Firefly sitting in the scrapper’s yard, but she was sound and despite what happened to Lattimer and her former crew, I knew she would treat me right. And she has, it was my crew that was the problem. We ran the Black for two years before we ran into a bad patch. Them as were in my crew at the time got to talking that it was the ghost of Harold Lattimer himself that was acting as our Jonah. Seemed like there was nothing I could do to break that run of bad luck and keep us in coin, finally we set down here on Verbena eight months ago with a busted compression coil and empty pockets. The crew was nice and all, being stand up enough to tell me to my face that they’d had enough and were shipping out as best as they could with other ships.

“I leveraged every friend I know. I even contacted some of my old Browncoat ‘buddies.’ Those as would even talk to me were of no help and I’ve been stuck here in Kennewick ever since, spending good credits on docking fees and going nowhere about as fast as an Alliance bureaucrat. Since I was alone and had the run of the ship, I could have nice long conversations with our merciful Buddha and finally he sent me an epiphany so pure I could only shake my head as to why I couldn’t see it in the first place. William, what is the root of unhappiness?”

The big man blinked taken by surprise by the non sequitur question before replying with the central core answer known to all Buddhists. “Desire mei mei.”

“Exactly William, I was so deeply focusing on what I, and my damn pride wanted, I couldn’t see I had the answer all along. Do you remember an old poem from Earth-That-Was about no one being an island?”

“My, but you have had time to think Chan. I haven’t heard a quote from the meditations of John Donne in a long time.”

“Yeah well, eight months will do that to you. Anyway, my point was I was trying to be an island, trying to do everything on my own to suit my own prideful desire to be a one woman show. Once I figured out I had a resource others would desire I had a means to resolve my problem. Here she is William, the one and only Lattimer’s Ghost.” 

The would-be First Mate joined Chan in smiling from ear to ear as they arrived at the docking port and they got a good look at the parked standard Firefly-Class Mid-Bulk transport. William took his time looking the ship over as Chan stood to one side to give him the time and space to thoroughly examine what would become his home.

“Beautiful as you are mei mei, but I do have a question.

“What’s that?”

“I have to ask, why does the hull have that brassy color? Typically Fireflies look more gunmetal gray.”

“Ah, yes, I looked into that ‘cause I was curious my own self. The ‘Ghost was one of the very last ships off the line and the contractor supplying the hull plates, knowing the Firefly contact was about to go south, left the builder hanging to pursue other deals that would last longer. The shipyard had to scramble to find a source for hull plates that could meet standards and were forced to settle for a supplier that used a different alloy that contained more copper, the reason for that, I could never find out.”

“Simple enough, makes her look more unique than the average Firefly, I like it. Now that I see exactly what this resource you had is first hand, how much will it cost me to quench my own problems with personal desire and to get myself back into karmic balance?”

“Four hundred credits.”

“Ah…um…wow, I knew I was a man of many passions, but I didn’t know I had so much desire residing in this fine frame of mine.” William replied as he stood hands deep in his pockets and rocking back and forth from his heels to the balls of his feet, deep in thought as he wrestled with the decision. “You have any other investors?”

“I’ve got a pilot and a mechanic solid. I’ve got a line on a medic that’s not as solid, but it’d be a shame not to have one considering the full infirmary. I’ve had several other offers, but not fully sure on any of them, you know folk.”

“Well, you’ve got a First Mate solid as well. I just need to tell my current employer to gen hou zi bi diu shi[1]. I’ll be back in two hours.”

Chan smiled and hugged the big man fiercely. “I knew I could count on you William. Now git! I’ve got captain like things to get done.”

“What sort of things?”

“Mainly making sure I get that medic before she gets away and seeing if I can squeeze out any other serious crew. Things will be a mite tight if we only have five. If I can firm up seven, we’ll have enough capital to keep us flying.”

“See you soon mei mei.”

“I’ll be here.”

 

True to his word, Lemont walked up the cargo ramp of the Lattimer’s Ghost two hours later. He had a large duffle bag on his shoulder and was pulling a hand-truck stacked with boxes behind him. As he entered the ship he was met by a small man.

“Who are you and why are you on my ship?”

William looked the scrawny guardian up and down before replying with a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “I’m the first mate and who might you be?”

“Crap! The Captain said she went and hired a first mate, I just didn’t know she hired so much first mate.” The man guffawed for a moment until he suddenly found himself dangling off the deck in one meaty fist and staring at the other meaty fist drawn back and ready to strike.

“Okay slick, you’ve used your freebie, next ‘fat’ joke and whatever you do, we’ll get another one. Now I asked you a question, who might you be?”

“P-P-Put me down you big…uh…Sir. I’m Sylvester Marsh the pilot!”

Before William could respond, Chan Juan and another man entered the cargo bay from the rear entrance.  

“Marsh, that mouth of yours is going to get you in trouble one day. You should consider yourself lucky that William Lemont is a kind hearted individual. Since you two have had a chance to meet, I’ll introduce you to Willis Thorton, he’s our mechanic. Oh and put Mr. Marsh down. Despite his mouth, he really is a good pilot. Or at least that’s what he likes to tell everyone.”

“Are you sure he’s old enough to have a license captain?” William said as he lowered first his fist and then the pilot. “He barely looks old enough to be on his first joy ride in a hover car.”

“Trust me William, I ran the license six times and called the flight academy. Young Marsh here was first in his class.”

“You’re the captain.” He replied as he turned to shake Thorton’s hand. “Sorry about the little display, it is nice to meet you, both of you actually.”

”It is a pleasure to be working for you Mr. Lemont.” Willis said with a stiff formality.

“None of that fancified stuff young feller. Please call me William, but never call me Bill. I never liked being associated with a notice of debt.”

“William it shall be then. I must take my leave of you good people. I’ve got some more tuning to do to be certain we are ready for when we are given the order to go.” Nodding to each member present, the intense mechanic turned and headed for the engine room. William watched him leave and turned to Chan with a raised eyebrow.

Noticing the silent exchange, Marsh took that moment to leave as well speaking over his shoulder as he departed. “I’m ready whenever you are captain. William.”

Once they were alone Chan shook her head. “I know William, I said I had a resource that others would desire, not that I was a woman of means. I screened both of them carefully. The flight academy said Marsh was top notch in spite of his age and mouth. Thorton had the same sort of recommendations. He’s just a tad too deep into his religiosity to be quite right.”

“Chan, I know how you’ve been struggling, we’ve known each other a long time and it was hard for me to stand by and watch, but I knew you had to face this thing by yourself. Now I don’t have to keep my mouth shut and you are not alone. If these guys come with good ratings, then they know their jobs. Making them get along and be a crew is my job. It will work out mei mei.

I’m really looking forward to it.”

Chan’s eyes twinkled as she replied. “I am too William.”

The two were interrupted by a small voice from outside.

“Uh…hello?”

“Cindy! I’m glad you decided to come by. Cindy Schultz, this is William Lemont the first mate. William, this is the medic I told you about.

“Charmed Cindy, captain said you were a top notch find.” William said while doing an admirable job of not staring at a woman that could in, best kindness, be called unattractive.

“Nice to meet you too William.” Said Cindy. “As for being top notch, well I like what I do.”

“Have you thought about my offer Cindy?” Chan asked, carefully maintaining an air of total calm and Zen-like control.

“I have captain and after considerable thought, I accept. I’m a traveling sort and I can’t stay in one place too long, having a home that travels with me appeals to me.” Replied Cindy.

“Born under a wandrin’ star Cindy?” William asked with a big smile.

“Excuse me?”

“You’ll have to forgive William he’s a font of knowledge from Earth-That-Was. I’m sure that line was a quote from some obscure poem or song.” Chan said with a knowing look that women share when they are talking about a man right in front of him.

“It was from a play actually, but you are right, I do go on at times. It’s part of my sparkling personality.”

Chan rolled her eyes in mock disgust. “Get used to hearing that one too. It’s his favorite line about himself.”

“Actually I won’t mind. Getting to know a new unit will be good for me.” Said Cindy.

“Unit?” Chan replied, obviously going on guard.

Looking over both shoulders to make sure they were alone before replying. “I’m going to take a guess here as not too many pro Alliance types would sign on to a Firefly, so I’m going to guess that everyone in the crew was either for the Independent cause or at least a neutral. I was a Browncoat.” Cindy said with obvious pride.

“Well, I’d say your guess is right on track. I chose to stay out of the war, not something I’m proud of, but I don’t exactly have the shape of a soldier.”  William said so smoothly that Cindy failed to notice the flash in Chan’s eyes.

“The Browncoats weren’t exactly picky about a soldier’s appearance, just as long as they made an appearance. Being there was more important than looking good.”

“Ah yes, that was so true.” Chan added with a thankful glance at William for his timely intervention to give her time to collect her thoughts.

“You were a Browncoat captain?

“Yes I was, but not a very good one. However, we are talking about today’s news and not yesterday’s news Cindy. When can you be ready?”

“Uh I have a few loose ends in Kennewick to close up, but I can be ready in three days.”

“Three days then Cindy, I am so happy you joined us. The ‘Ghost has a full infirmary and it would have galled me to no end to lift without a medic.”

“I’ll see you out Cindy.” Said William as he led the new medic to the main hatch. “Since you were a Browncoat, you know how life is in the Black, you never know when a medic will be needed and I’ll echo the Captain’s sentiments about having you aboard.”

“Thank you William, I think I’ll be happy here.”

“It’s my job to see that you are. Bye now.”

“Bye.”

William returned to where Chan was standing with a distant look in her eye. “Mei mei, she has no way of knowing what happened. Besides, you are the captain. She’ll see that the story is a load of gos se[2].

“Yeah that it is, but I doubt if I’ll ever be able to get out from under that load of gos se William.”

“Those that know you have already figured out the truth, those that don’t know you don’t matter.”

“Still ever the gallant one I see. My hero!” Chan said as she clapped her hands and looked at her friend with fawning eyes before bursting into laughter.

“Ah that’s what I was aiming for.” William replied as he joined in the captain in a hearty laugh. “So, which way to my room?”

”Oh right, let me show you the accommodations, by the way, what’s in the boxes?”

“One guess.”

“Food.”

“You know me too well mei mei. I may love the life of a spacer, but that doesn’t mean I have to love protein packs.”

 

The next morning found the crew of the Lattimer’s Ghost going over the myriad of details to make sure the ship was really ready for spaceflight. It’s been said the devil is in the details, what gets left out of that simple saying is the fact that devil’s name was Murphy. Fuel, water, oxygen for life support, foodstuffs, parts, tools, calibrations, flight certifications inspections, and what seemed like a never ending list of niggling annoyances to make life more difficult than it needed to be. All of those details paled compared to the most important detail, namely finding a cargo.

“Another six waves from this Xavier nutcase. I swear that woman is going to drive me to drink.” Chan snarled as she closed the Cortex link.

“Uh, you already drink mei mei.” William offered cautiously.

“Okay to smoke then!”

“Uh, you already smoke mei mei.” William added even more cautiously.

“That’s beside the point; she’s going to make me drink and smoke more.”

“Not having met this woman, so I can’t go too far out on a limb, but are you sure she is in fact a nutcase?”

“Well, I did see this chick and let’s just say she’s not boosting on all thrusters.” Marsh added from the pilot’s seat of the bridge.

“Her coin good?” Asked William.

“Yes damn it, she’s got the coin, but I don’t want her on my crew.” An obviously and completely exasperated Chan replied.

“Okay then captain, I guess I’ll ask the obvious question…why?”

“I…uh…I…uh… Damn it William do you have to be so logical?”

“Not always, but it seems appropriate at the moment.”

“I too have seen Miss Xavier and while she strikes me as a troubled woman, I did not perceive her to be an actual threat.” Willis said joining the conversation after having heard the raised voices all the way from the cargo bay.

“No she’s not a threat, but I’m not seeing what she would add to the crew. She’s damn sure no fighter and as for her ‘technical skills’ I don’t see where we can use a computer brain trust.”

“What did her former employers say, she got any references?” William said after some thought.

“That’s the main reason I don’t trust her William, this woman doesn’t exist as far as the Cortex is concerned, she’s got names of people she’s worked for, but I couldn’t find a word on her that I could confirm. Even when she sends me a wave, they come with no header and I can’t trace them to where she sent them.” Chan replied shaking her head.

“Are you sure we can’t use skills like that? Being able to move though the Cortex without leaving a trace strikes me as a right useful talent.” Said William.

Chan took a deep breath and pinched the bridge of her nose as a headache threatened to form. “I have to admit, that could be a useful talent, but since I can’t check her background, what sort of problems is she towing behind her that we can’t see? I guess that is what my main problem is about this woman. I don’t mind a surprise, especially if it involves jewelry, candy, or something made out of lace, but you all know surprise out in the Black come in two kinds, trouble and bigger trouble.”

“Mental note to self, ‘something made out of lace’ for captain.” William said with a huge grin.

“Do not make me hurt you so bad that I will need to hire a new first mate while you recover William.”

“New mental note to self, erase previous mental note.”

“Did Miss Xavier leave you a contact address?” Willis asked. “It seems to me that while she may be an enigma, I believe she would have a function on this crew.”

“She’d be entertaining if nothing else.” Marsh chuckled as he watched the exchange while waiting for the main navigation computer to reinitialize after completing the calibration routine. “I’d like to see her in something made out of lace.”

“I’ve hired a crew of pigs. Sweet Buddha, I know I was prideful, but is this to be my lot forever and always?” Chan beseeched the silent heavens hoping for some sort of answer. “To answer your question Willis, no she never does, I’m sure she will contact me again in an hour.”

“Captain, while the rest of the crew may have certain rough edges, I do not believe you would have hired them if they were truly the pigs you speak of. As the Yin and Yang tells us, we must have balance. I believe your own refinement requires that at least part of the crew be of a more raw state to keep the crew and Feng Shui in proper harmony.” Willis said with complete sincerity.

“Willis, why didn’t you become a monk? You obviously live the life and would be worthy.” Chan replied with an honest smile.

“My parents wished this so Captain, but it seems my destiny is on a different path.”

“It is the monastery’s loss Willis.”

“You are most kind Captain.”

“Um I hate to interrupt, but I realize that not being able to check out her claims is offering a bit more trust than is common in the ‘Verse, but you yourself said she wasn’t a fighter, to my thinking, that means if she does try anything, she won’t be hard to subdue if it comes to that. I say we give her a berth and if she proves to be a problem, we buy out her share and dump her on the first planet we reach. If she tries anything, we just give her an all expenses paid close up tour of the Black without a spacesuit.” William said without a trace of humor on his face.

“That sounds like a first mate talking to me.” Chan smiled. “I think you have hit on a plan, besides, there is no doubt we can use the coin.”

“It’s settled then, now next order of business. Uh, is there a next order of business?”

“A cargo might be nice William.” Said Marsh.

“All too true Sylvester.” William replied and catching the flash in the pilot’s eyes. “Serves you right you smart ass.” He thought knowing that Marsh did not like being called by his first name.

“I’ve been stuck on this rock for eight months, and I’ve had a chance to cultivate a few contacts that should lead us to a right proper cargo.” Chan said arching her back in a full stretch as she stood up.” I’ll wait ‘til I hear from Xavier, then William and I will go out and canvass some of the local establishments for a paying cargo.”

“This should be interesting indeed.” William rubbed his hands together then turned to face the pilot. “You got that nav-computer working yet?”

“Yeah finally, the ruttin’ thing had to be wiped clean and manually reload it, but it’s as ready to fly as anything else on the ‘Ghost, that is if old Harold Lattimer gives us his blessing.”

“Don’t give me that haunted gos se.” Chan snapped. “I won’t lose another crew to fairy tales.”

“Easy Captain, I was kidding.”

“Sorry Marsh, I’m overly sensitive about the topic of the late Mister Lattimer.”

“He was a bona fide hero and whether he meant to or not, he’s left us a fine ship mei mei, we’ll make him and you proud-” William was interrupted by a tone announcing a new wave from the Cortex.

“Captain Wu, it is so nice to finally catch you at home.” A bald woman with pale white makeup and darkened eyes and lips said from the display.

“Ah Miss Xavier, sorry for the delays in returning your waves, there is so much to get ready when you are trying to get a ship registered for space worthiness.”

“I quite understand Captain. I’m actually standing at the bottom of your cargo ramp and I’d like to come aboard if that is okay with you.”

Marsh slammed the mute button before snarling “That chick is stalking you captain!”

“Please un-mute the Cortex Marsh.” Chan replied and waited the half second it took for Marsh to stare blankly at the captain and then comply.

“That would be fine Miss Xavier, welcome aboard. Well gentlemen, let’s talk to the lady”

“Lady?” Marsh muttered as he followed the rest of the crew to the cargo bay.

“Captain Wu, I am happy to finally meet you in person.” Xavier said warmly and then waited expectantly.

“Yes Miss Xavier, nice to meet you as well. I-”

“Please Captain, no need to be so formal. Xavier is all I go by, I require no honorifics.” The slight woman interrupted. “Is this the rest of the crew?”

“Yes, well almost all, our medic, a Cindy Schultz, will join us in two days.” Chan went through the formal introductions as each of the men tried hard not to stare at the would-be crew member’s unusual appearance, before they all found things to do at a glance from the captain. Chan then took the woman on a tour of the ship, returning to the cargo bay once finished.

“Captain, I know you’ve had a chance to read my proposal, do you accept?” An obviously satisfied Xavier said once the tour was over.

Chan hesitated for only a moment before replying and shaking the woman’s hand. “Yes Xavier I do.”

“I only have one question.”
”And that would be?”

“Why did you name your ship the Lattimer’s Ghost? Is this in reference to the previous owner Harold Lattimer?”

“Well that’s two questions, but they are related. You are correct this ship was originally owned by Harold Lattimer and she used to fly under the name Tantivy. This ship is actually one of the last 03 model Fireflies produced and she’s plied the spacelanes for just over twenty years. Lattimer was one of the first to join with the Independent faction and his ship was converted into a med-ship to support the war effort.

“I never met the man, but everything I’ve ever heard points to him being a true patriot, he kept the Tantivy close to the battle lines and brought out wounded when no one else would even try to go get them, but the old girl here suffered for it. She may not look like much, but she’s tough, ‘cause she was hit many times despite a collision avoidance upgrade he put in. The Tantivy stayed flyin’ mainly due to the sheer orneriness of the ship herself and her owner. Being so close to the front lines, it didn’t take long before the Tantivy was flagged by the Alliance, but in spite of the hun dan[3] Fed’s best efforts, both the ship and her captain survived the war.

“But the wear and tear on the ship from her wartime exploits was something fierce and constantly having to fly the longest courses to avoid Alliance patrols only added to the ship's overall poor condition. All this abuse caught up with the Tantivy and Lattimer three years after the war ended when the primary stabilizer collapsed leaving the ship on the drift. It was almost the end of the line for our girl here as well as the crew as it was another year before she was discovered and towed in as scrap. She didn’t have a transponder, ‘cause Lattimer had removed it a long time ago and that made the ship just another anonymous hulk when it was brought in. A DNA scan was run on the dead crew and they were able to identify Lattimer for certain. With the war over and her owner confirmed dead, the flag on the hulk was lifted by the Feds.

“The Tantivy sat in the scrapper's yard waiting to be broken up for nearly a year before I found her and despite how she looked on the outside, I knew I couldn’t just let her get broken up to make the next generation of Blue Sun razor blades, So I bought her, despite her reputation she’d picked up for ‘killing’ her crew. Hell, I know fifty people that wouldn’t be breathing if not for this here ship. I knew that rep and I didn’t need any baggage dragged along with her original name, so in a bit of gallows humor, I renamed the ship in honor of her late owner the Lattimer's Ghost.”

“I can tell you have great pride in your ship Captain, I look forward to being a part of your crew and being on a ship with an illustrious, if a tad colored background, too many things in the ‘Verse lack color. This ship shines and I like that. I’ll go get my things and be back in an hour.”

“You travel light Xavier.”

“Well the ‘Verse isn’t always a friendly place and I’ve had to make more than one quick exit, so I’ve found it’s best to be mobile.”

“We can swap quick exit stories one day. I’ve got a few of my own.”

“I look forward to it Captain.”
”Chan.”

“I...thank you Chan, see you soon.”

“See you soon.”

Chan watched the decidedly different woman walk away and began to wonder about her reasons for letting someone she knew absolutely nothing about join her crew. “I hope I haven’t become a whore to money.” She though savagely. “I know I haven’t had much choice in my crew and this choice is going to be the biggest risk since I kept my girl from the scrapper’s yard. Thank you dear Buddha for William, I couldn’t do this alone again. 

As Chan watched Xavier disappear into the crowd, she felt a presence draw next to her. She didn’t bother turning that direction as she knew who it was, why he was there, and smiled to herself at his impeccable timing.

“Ready to find us a job Captain?” William asked after a moment.

“Yes I am. As I mentioned I know a few people, we’ll start with the legit ones, and work our way down the scale.”

“Who’s at the bottom of the scale?” Said William as he checked his pistol and slipped into the folds of the back of his shirt.

“A charming little snake named Chester.”

“Oh him, mei mei, you’ve got to keep better company.”

“Yeah well the old saying is beggars can’t be choosers and just in case you haven’t noticed, we are only one step short of that status.”

“Then it’s time to take a couple steps up the ladder of success.”

“After you good sir.” Chan replied with a sparkle in her eyes that hadn’t been there a couple days earlier as she lit up a fresh cigarra and followed William into the busy streets of Kennewick.

.

“Oh come on Chester, you know me and know I’m good at what I do. Cut me some slack and let me in on what you know. I can make it worth your while.” Chan Juan purred, leaning forward and being her most alluring.

“Chan there is no doubt you could make it worth my while and I’d jump at the chance if I thought for a second that you had the slightest intention of actually allowing me to touch you, but we both know you won’t, so please don’t insult me.” The oily man with a thin Fu Manchu moustache replied. “I know you Chan, but I also know a bit about your background and the rep that bucket of bolts you fly in has, neither is what you call stellar. I have to live here and if I give you a lead, it’s my reputation that stands to suffer for you and yours. That doesn’t exactly put you in the strongest bargaining position despite, your other obvious assets.” Chester accentuated this last point by looking Chan up and down with obvious desire.

“Okay Chester, despite your other charming qualities, no one can call you an easy mark. What will it cost me to get a decent lead out of you?” Chan leaned back her arms crossed in front of her, her eyes flashing just as obvious revulsion and rising anger.

“Two hundred and fifty platinum.”

”Two-…wha…Are you insane?” Chan sputtered. 

“I’m certain a professional would find me so, but you asked what it would cost and two hundred and fifty in coin is my price to provide what you desire.”

“Maybe we could do you a service instead?” William asked to give Chan a chance to gather her thoughts and calm down.

“Y-Yes a service, maybe a cargo run at ten percent off?” Chan added.

“Ah Miss Wu, you then ask me to place faith in your…vessel. I would prefer not to do so. My price is my price. Have you the coin or are we finished here?”

The look that boiled out of Chan’s eyes would have done a fine job of turning the underworld broker into an even finer pile of ash, but Chan’s shoulders slumped as she knew she really didn’t have the option to be choosey. She and William had spent several hours going through every person they knew in Kennewick and none were willing to be the first shipper on the “cursed” ship. Not that they believed in curses, but there were already enough hazards in the Black that made using an untested crew and ship a risk the shippers weren’t willing to take.

Chester you are an extortionist hun dan.” Chan snarled as she tossed a hundred credits down before the broker.

“Extortion is such an ugly word for such a lovely woman Captain Wu and so inaccurate in this case. An extortionist takes damaging information and forces someone to pay them to keep quiet. I have no such information on you and I am forcing nothing. You are asking me for information and I am asking a price for that information, no extortion is involved.” He replied as he gathered up the colorful notes and making them disappear into the folds of his synth-silk robe.  “The man you wish to meet is one Patrick Hong of Dragon Flower Interplanetary. I will send him a wave that you will be visiting him…” Chester paused with a raised eyebrow.

“It is getting late for proper introductions, so tell him tomorrow at ten.” William interjected smoothly. “A proper introduction requires somewhat more formal attire than we are currently wearing. Thank you so much for your time Chester.” William then led the still fuming Chan out of Chester’s dank and cluttered back room office and out into the alley.

“Looks like you needed some air.” He said after a few minutes.

“What I need is to strangle that hou zi de pi gu[4].”

“An admirable goal, but we got what we wanted even if it cost us a bit more than expected, but I suggest we focus our energy on getting this Mister Hong to actually hire us as his shipper. Just because we have a name it doesn’t mean we actually have the job yet. Focus mei mei, I know you know this wasn’t going to be easy.”

“It just galls me to no end to have to drop good coin on the likes of Chester.”

“It takes money to make money captain.”

“You just have to be logical don’t you?”

“It is my way more often than not.”

“I don’t know whether to kill you or kiss you, but either way I’m glad your here dear friend.”
”As if I would choose to be anywhere else. Now, let’s get ready for tomorrow.

 

When Chan and William reached the ship, they were met by Marsh who was so excited he was nearly hovering. He bolted down the cargo ramp, hit a slick spot, landed hard on his rump and slid down the ramp coming to a stop head down on his back.

“Uh hi captain.” He said sheepishly as he rolled back to his feet. “I have some good news.”

“Good news? Why am I suddenly suspicious?” She replied guardedly, but obviously trying not to laugh at the pilot’s misfortune.

“No kiddin’ cap, real honest to Buddha good news.”

“The suspense is killing us Mister Marsh, what is this news?” William chuckled.

“I’ve got someone that wants to rent one of our shuttles, long term even.”

“You rented a shuttle without talking to me first?” Chan said quietly.

“No, no, no Captain, I wouldn’t do that! But let’s face it captain, its extra money and it’s not like the shuttle is being used.” Marsh said defensively.

“So what exactly did you do?”

“Well this damn fine lookin’ woman sashays up to the ship just as hot as all get out and says she got word as we was lookin’ for crew. Well by the time I got my eyes pushed back in my skull, I managed to get her name and all and that I would let the captain know you was interested in signin’ on.”

“And what is her name?” William queried with his head to one side and a small smile trying not to dance at the corners of his mouth.

“Wong Li Ming. And trust me Cap, she lives up to the Li Ming part.”

“Okay, okay, I got it she’s one hot number, Marsh you sound like you could use a dip in the fuel tanks to cool off. This Li Ming leave a way to contact her?” Chan said wearily not really in a mood for any of her pilot’s juvenile behavior.

“That she did Cap, it’s on the Cortex and I’ll pass on the liquid hydrogen bath, I don’t mean to go on, but whoa, you just didn’t see her.”

“As you say money is money, but why does she want a shuttle and not a berth on the crew?” William added to bring the conversation back on topic. ”What sort of hand is she?”

“Said she was a gambler, likes to travel about lookin’ for the ‘hot table’ she called it. She wants a mobile home, but doesn’t quite have the coin for a small ship of her own.”

“First a ‘computer expert’ and now a gambler, add a couple circus animals and a bearded lady and we can will have our own traveling carnival. However, as you both have said money is money. I’ll give this Li Ming a call and see if she’s another problem or worth putting up with cause she’s got the coin.” At that point Chan went up the ramp and headed toward the bridge.

“Captain’s under a lot of stress isn’t she William?” Marsh asked as he watched Chan leave.

“More than you know son, more than you know.”

 

“Miss Wong you have a deal.” Chan beamed and shook the hand of the woman that even the captain had to admit was stunning. “Easy girl, you know it’s been too damn long when you start checking out other women, that or I’ve been around Marsh too long” She added silently.

“Most excellent, I will have my things aboard by nightfall. I am sincerely looking forward to the freedom your ship will provide.” Li Ming said with a big smile. “When will we be departing?”

“Well honestly now that we have a full crew, anytime. But two things are keeping us in place. First, our medic won’t be aboard until tomorrow and if all goes well in today’s meeting, our cargo will be aboard tomorrow as well. Once those final details are done, we can lift at any time.”

“Excellent Captain.”

“Chan.”

“Then I insist you call me Li Ming.”

“Deal. See you this evening.”

“Until then.” Li Ming then turned and exited the ship climbing into her own hover car and sped away.

“Okay you man apes she’s gone and the show is over. For the love of Murphy guys, can’t you show even a little class?” Her eyes widened when she noticed a familiar silhouette trying to remain unnoticed at the back of the cargo bay. ”Oh sweet merciful Buddha, even you William?”

“Hey that’s not fair captain to single me out. The whole crew is here.”

Chan glanced upward and sure enough, her entire crew was peeking out sheepishly from various half hidden perches. She smacked her forehead in mock frustration. “Xavier?”

“Well Marsh made such a big deal, I was curious. I’m certain this won’t be the case often, but he was right, she is a beautiful woman.” Said Xavier as she walked down the stairs to join Chan. The ship’s ‘security expert’ was now sans the gothic makeup, but sporting a day’s growth of hair on the top half of her scalp.

Chan staged whispered conspiratorially. “Please Xavier, I need you on my side at the very least, someone has got to help me balance the raging testosterone on board.” Then she made an elaborate wink.

“Oh right got ya captain, but don’t forget, when your medic joins us tomorrow, it will be estrogen that rules the roost. That will serve the knuckle draggers right smart.”

“Yes. Yes it will, but I must put off that celebration for now. William and I have serious business to do. Oh William dear?”

“Coming captain dearest.” The big man replied tugging at the neck of an obviously brand new uniform-like coat with a closed collar and joining the two women.

“Leave it alone William, you look fine. You actually clean up fairly nicely and this Patrick Hong will be impressed. He had better be given what we had to shell out to get these outfits ready by today.” Said Chan.

“It will be worth it mei mei, he’ll take one look at you in that fine captainy like uniform and you’ll have him wrapped around whatever appendage you want him wrapped around. If you say I ‘clean up fairly nicely,’ then you are a down right knock out. Miss Wong may be quite the seductress, but you won’t be getting kicked out of the bed for eating crackers anytime soon either.”

“You see how he speaks to his captain? Such disrespect, and from my first mate no less. I’m going to have to institute floggings. No wait, scratch that, the knuckle draggers will expect me to do it personally and would enjoy it. Maybe something involving a plank”

Xavier burst out laughing at this and both William and Chan joined her.

“Well we do need to be going. Xavier you keep an eye on the other two knuckle draggers, I’ll have my hands full with this one.”

Xavier sketched a mock salute. “Aye aye captain ma’am.”

“I’m counting on you Xavier. Now stand clear, this mule is a close fit for the main hatch.”

The two boarded the hover mule and waited for Xavier to get clear. Under William’s skilled hands, once clear of the main cargo bay, he pivoted smartly and the ship’s officers departed amid the whirring of gravitics and impellers.

 

The main office of Dragon Flower Interplanetary was a modest, sprawling building right on the edge of the Kennewick spaceport. The architecture and decor bespoke of a company that had been in business for a long time and that it intended to remain in business even longer. Being the biggest was not the company’s business model, just sustaining a solid if small piece of the ‘Verse regardless of circumstance. The tasteful furnishings obviously were patterned to be as close to an Earth-That-Was establishment of the late 19th century as possible. As Chan Juan and William entered the lobby they were greeted by the very model of a professional receptionist and on confirmation of their appointment were shown to what the simple brass name plate on the door proclaimed was the office of Patrick Hong, vice-president of shipping.

“Good to meet you Captain Wu and this must be Mister Lemont your first mate. I received a wave from our mutual acquaintance requesting I grant you this meeting.” Hong said in a cultured voice as he rose and warmly greeted the two spacers. “May I offer you some tea?”

“Thank you Mister Hong that would be most gracious.” Chan replied taking her seat with the grace of a feline. “William and I as well as the whole crew of the Lattimer’s Ghost are grateful that you would see us.”

“Yes sir, we appreciate the opportunity to earn your business.” William added as he took the proffered tea in a cup of the finest bone china.

“Ah yes the Lattimer’s Ghost, I took the liberty of looking into your ship’s background before you arrived. Quite a storied career the ship has had.” Hong said after pouring tea for Chan and himself then returning to his seat. “However, the recent history has not quite been so storied. You are asking me to risk using an unproven ship to carry cargo of substantial value and with an unproven crew as well. Captain, I find myself asking the question why should I take such risks?”

Chan was thankful for the cover the tea provided as it gave her several precious seconds to collect her thoughts before she answered. “Since you have obviously done your homework I will not attempt to insult you and make any claims beyond the truth. While my current crew is new, both my first mate and I have ample experience with mid-bulk freighter operations. My pilot was rated first in his class and my mechanic has equally high recommendations from his previous employer. My medic, while not a certified doctor from an accredited medical school, she has four years of the most intensive instruction course in existence, that of battlefield medic. I know the references from Browncoat officers do not hold the same weight that they once did, my own personal experience have shown me that a good medic is better at keeping you alive than the best doctor in the ‘Verse, as they had to learn to do more with less.

“I did some research on Dragon Flower Interplanetary as well and if your company has a watchword, it is dependability. You do not strive to compete with Blue Sun in total amount of freight shipped or to best the fastest shipper either. What you guaranty your clients is that if Dragon Flower says a cargo will be on a given planet at a given time, then come the return of Earth-That-Was, you will have it there. Prior to the set of circumstances that resulted in me being stuck on Verbena, you will note that I never missed a delivery date either. I would not disrespect you or indeed myself if I wasn’t completely certain I could make the same guaranty today. My ship and my crew stand ready to meet the same standard of excellence your own company uses. I am a woman of honor and of my word, that is all I can offer as collateral that the Lattimer’s Ghost is without a doubt the ship to fulfill your contract.” 

When she stopped speaking, it was clear that Hong had not expected Chan to take this particular tack with him. It was his turn to be grateful for a cup of tea to give him time to gather his thoughts. “Well Captain, you certainly speak passionately in the defense of your ship and crew. This is something I would expect and would not do business with you if you didn’t feel that way. However, almost any other captain would make the same passionate plea; tell me why should I consider you more likely to meet your obligation than any other ship of the same size?”

“I doubt if any other captain would offer their own ship as tangible collateral to back up my passionate plea.” She replied without hesitation.

This time Hong was caught by surprise, he hid it well, but a minute widening of his eyes had been caught by both William and Chan, all they could do at this point was pray that it was going to be enough to sway the businessman. They waited breathless as Hong carefully placed his tea cup on the saucer as if he no longer trusted to keep holding the delicate piece.

“Captain, you are indeed a singular woman. It is now my turn not to disrespect you and ask if you are serious. I have been in business a long time and I have a certain gift for detecting who is lying to me and who is not. I do not believe you would make such a statement and risk your way of life and the independence those that choose the tramp freighter existence treasure if you did not place such confidence both in yourself, your crew and your ship. Captain Wu, I believe we can do business.”

Chan stood to take Hong’s offered hand and let loose the breath she’d been holding with a beaming smile. “Thank you Mister Hong, I can only hope this will be the first shipment of a long term relationship between my ship and Dragon Flower Interplanetary.”

Hong laughed with genuine amusement. “One step at a time Captain, I can only take so many surprises in one day. I will have the loaders at your ship tomorrow morning. It will take them a good six hours to get the cargo secured, which will get you off planet by 1400.”

“What exactly are we transporting Sir.” William asked, finally feeling it was safe to speak.

“Two hundred tons of mining equipment bound for Regina with a similar load return cargo of processed ore. Your ability to back up your confidence will determine if you will pick up any additional work from Dragon Flower. I will have my assistant send you the contract via wave with the standard shipping rates and contractual requirements in the afternoon. Now if you would excuse me, I have a meeting to attend. I do look forward to working with you Captain, Mister Lemont. My assistant will show you out.” Hong said nodding to each of them before exiting from a second door.

The silent assistant appeared without being summoned and led Chan and William to the foyer and graciously bid them good day.

Once back in privacy of the hover mule, Chan hugged William fiercely, perhaps trembling more than she intended before pulling back to share his huge grin. They sat there wordless until William started the mule and steered for the spaceport.

“You did it mei mei. As if there could be any doubt.” He said after awhile.

We did it William. I wasn’t alone. You were there with me and the abilities of the rest of the crew were what sold him.”

“No we did not mei mei, it was you and your faith in us that sold him. I would never have thought to offer the ship. If you had not, he would have shown us the door empty-handed.”

“Well you know the old saying, I have got what I wished for, now it’s time to make good on having got it.”

“Don’t you go second guessing yourself, you have got us in business and we will make it happen. Your job is to stand back and look captainy now. It’s my job to make sure we are ready to lift, which will be easy as we are already ready to lift.”

“Yes we are.”

They drove the rest of the way back to the ship in silence having already said all that needed to be said.

 

Cindy Schulz arrived, as promised, the following day as the cargo was being loaded. She got her things moved into her cabin and then made a complete and thorough inventory of the ship’s infirmary. She took copious notes, then returned to stock items she found lacking with supplies from her own store of equipment. During this time the entire crew, after meeting her when she arrived gave her room to set up her place of business and to get settled.

As Cindy worked though the infirmary, the loaders were making great strides with the cargo and they were going to have the ship fully loaded an hour sooner than expected. The rest of the crew moved through their pre-checks to be certain all was in readiness. The quiet mechanic Willis was a whirling dervish of activity as he brought the Lattimer’s Ghost’s power plant to full power for the first time in eight months. Marsh was on the bridge no longer looking like a teen too young for a learner’s permit. He was in his element and he was all business as he completed the astrogation plot to Regina and ran final checks for the navigation, communications, and control systems.

Xavier and Li Ming did not have a role to play in getting the ship ready, so they kept out of the way, each working on things that mattered to them. Xavier with a watercolor painting she had started on arriving on the ship and Li Ming with decorating her shuttle as her new home.

Chan tried her best to stay out of the way and ‘look captainy,’ but was not having much luck. However, every time she attempted to assist or intervene, almost like magic a towering figure would appear to shoo her away and take care of the matter. So, with nothing else to do, she lit up a cigarra and let the big man work.

William was also in his element and he was cherishing every minute of it. The near chaos of avoiding the load lifters, signing the manifest, answering six questions at once from the port functionaries, and a dozen other tasks he had to keep straight, but keep them straight he did. At 1312 hours he turned to Chan and gave her a big smile and a nod.

Chan walked over to the cargo bay intercom and toggled the switch. “All hands this is the captain speaking. The cargo bay is secured and we have been given clearance to lift. Thank you for your amazing work today and prepare for atmospheric maneuvering. Marsh, take us up.”

The response from the ship was a solid, smooth, and comfortable rise in the hum from the engine room. The barely audible roar of the engines picked up as Marsh fed them power and then the event they all had been waiting for, the vibration of the ship breaking contact with Verbena. Climbing smoothly, the Lattimer’s Ghost cleanly soared through the afternoon sky and soon the curvature of the planet was visible to the entire crew, except for Willis still tending the engine room, on the bridge who had gathered to watch. Only a few minutes later the blue skies of Verbena faded to the endless Black of the ‘Verse. They were on their way and the crew broke out into a cheer.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to leave a place in my life.” Chan beamed so obviously thrilled that she nearly glowed.

“Second star on the right and straight on ‘til dawn.” William mumbled from the back of the bridge.

“What was that William?” Li Ming asked.

“Oh nothing really, a line from a children’s book is all.” He replied a touch of color on his cheeks.

“A children’s book?” Marsh sniggered from the controls.

“Yes a children’s book from Earth-That-Was. Now how about you concentrate on driving this thing Sylvester?” William snapped back and taking some guilty pleasure in seeing the pilot’s ears color slightly at the dig.

“Now children, you behave or Momma Captain will send you both to your rooms without supper.” Chan said tapping her foot and failing miserably at looking stern. When that failed to have the effect she was looking for she added. “I know missing out on protein packs isn’t much of a threat, but I am instituting a new Lattimer’s Ghost tradition called the ‘Lift Day Feast.’ So long as we sail the ‘Verse together, on the day we depart a planet, we will go all out with real food that we purchase fresh on the planet we depart from. I took the liberty while the cargo was being loaded to do the purchasing and tonight we will kickoff the new tradition. I will even prepare the meal this time. Dinner will be a 2000 and you will all dress well. Nothing formal or anything that pretentious, but not greasy coveralls either. Any questions?”

There were none and the crew began to break up, either returning to their duties or cabins. The Lattimer’s Ghost cruised blissfully on until Marsh ignited the Pulse Drive and the ship leapt forward to maximum almost as if she was grateful to be back in her element as well. What she thought about not being invited to the feast was something she kept to herself.

 

Promptly at 2000 hours, Chan entered the dining area with her masterpiece, she never tried to claim being a great cook or even a good cook really, just that she could cook. The meal was a simple sort of stir-fry made with chicken and fresh vegetables on real rice. She placed the meal in the center of the table and smiled approvingly at the crew’s attempts to dress for the occasion. Even Marsh found a shirt with a collar and had combed his unruly hair. Xavier, while still only sporting a couple days growth of hair, didn’t have on any garish makeup or eye inserts. Chan regarded her with her head canted to one side and “Damn she’s actually nice looking once you clean her up.” Chan took her seat at the head of the table after pouring a serving of wine for each member of the crew in whatever drinking vessel they happened to be using. She raised her glass expectantly and the rest of the crew followed suite. “Ladies and gentlemen, I hear by inaugurate the first ‘Lift Day Feast’ and offer the simple wish that this be the first of many.”

“Hear! Hear!” William seconded, and was echoed by the rest of the crew.

“It’s good to be back flyin’ after so long on the ground.” Chan commented her spacer’s patois beginning to loosen by a combination of being back in the Black and wine. “Please everyone, dig in!”

That was all that was needed to start a frenzied round of serving, slapped hands, and just short of a free-for-all as everyone reached for something at the same time. Chan didn’t try to control the flow of the meal, except for occasional flinty stares at Marsh when he got too grabby with the food. The crew laughed, talked, ate, and far too soon, given what a meal like this went for, the food was gone and at everyone pushed back from the table to enjoy the simple sensation of being full and not being full of protein packs.

Chan’s timing was perfect as she sensed the mood of her crew and knew it was time to say something before they started to either feel uncomfortable in the silence or decide it was time to go before getting stuck with doing the dishes.

“Thank you all for making this new tradition a success. Now, rather than scurry away to sleep off this fine meal, I’ll open the table for them as want to speak as much or as little as they would like. Since I cooked this time, I won’t go first. Anyone got words?”

“I do.” Li Ming said immediately. “I know that my skill set is not of direct use in actually keeping the ship flying, so it means a lot to me to a be a part of this crew. I like to thank everyone for making me feel so welcome.”

“I will echo that what Li Ming said.” Cindy added. “I haven’t felt this welcome since my last unit. Captain, you really know how to make a body feel wanted.”

“Anyone else?” Chan asked. There were none so she continued. “A good ship is only half of the equation everyone. Flyin’ certainly takes a good ship, but as I can tell you first hand, if you don’t have a crew to turn the ship into a home, it’s just a big empty house going no where fast. Now since everyone is starting to look a tad on the sleepy side from the feast, I’ll make everyone’s attempts to avoid doing the dishes easier. William, my dear friend, you will have the honors tonight.”

“Why did I know that was coming?”

“Because you know me too damn well. Besides a connoisseur of fine food such as you knows how much work goes into a good meal.”

“Ah well hoist on my own petard as it were. I humbly submit to my fate.” He stood and began to clear the table.

Before everyone could clear out, Chan’s voice sliced though the clatter of the plates and sliding of chairs. “One critical thing to remember is that I will not be the cook for every feast and William will not be the one who clears every time either. We will share the responsibilities. If you absolutely can’t cook, then you will pick up more of the clean up burdens.”

A chorus of ‘yes captain’ was the response and everyone headed their different ways, but still with animate chatter as they left. Chan smiled as she watched William make quick work of clearing the table.

“I think this is going to work this time.” She said finally.

“You only made one mistake with your first crew mei mei.” William replied, studiously washing the dishes.

“Only one? It seemed like it was mostly big mistakes tied together with an occasional smaller mistake.”

“Those were just incidental to the one mistake.”

“Okay William, enough of being coy, what is this one mistake then?”

“You didn’t have me as your first mate the first time.” He replied with a booming laugh.

Chan couldn’t help but join in as in her heart she knew this to be true. “I really shouldn’t encourage that ego of yours, but I really also couldn’t ask for a better first mate.”

“Just remember that come pay day, now go on and get some sleep. You’ve been running too long without enough sleep and there’s nothing to do now, but wait to get to Regina.”

“I think I will take you up on that. I will lay claim to certain excess of fatigue. Good night William.”

“Good night mei mei.”

Chan walked slowly to her cabin reveling in the thrum of the engine, the vibration though the soles of her boots and the smell of a ship under pulse drive. She reached her cabin and managed to kick her boots off before sitting on her bunk. Getting her boots off proved to be a good thing as she was asleep before she could turn out the light.


Chapter Two

 

It turned out the highlight of the five day trip was the Lift Day Feast as the rest of the voyage was about as incident free as was possible. The crew played cards, ate, slept, talked, walked, but the Lattimer’s Ghost proved to be every bit as ready as her crew thought she was. Eventually a tone from the navigation array told Marsh that they had reached Regina and would be landing in ten minutes. He put down his magazine and toggled the ship’s intercom “Okay boys and girls, play time is over, we be hitting atmo in five minutes, might be a little bumpy as there is a fair amount of wind sheer in the northern hemisphere. As always, we thank you for flyin’ Ghost Spacelines.”

“You do enjoy flying don’t you Marsh?” Li Ming asked as she entered the bridge aware, yet unaware of her lithe movements that accentuated every curve even when she wasn’t trying.

“I um, yeah I do. Please don’t give me the usual answer of ‘you mean last week?’ when I tell you I’ve wanted to be a pilot since I was a kid.”

“You asked to be called Marsh and I have honored your wishes, I think I can manage at least some decorum when it comes to not exploit something I can tell obviously makes you extremely uncomfortable. People make assumption based on my appearance all the time and I can certainly relate to not be taken seriously based on something as random as appearance.”

“Remind me never to play Tall Card with you; you actually said that with a straight face.”

“I wouldn’t be much of a gambler if I couldn’t keep a straight face and know a thing or two about Tall Card.”

Before Marsh could reply, the ship pitched sharply toward the planet as it hit a downdraft. Li Ming was tossed forward and managed to catch the back of the pilot’s seat, this brought her in very close proximity to Marsh. When he caught a whiff of her perfume and could feel something extremely soft pressed against his shoulder, the ship pitched down even sharper as he fought for control and to concentrate.

“MARSH!!! What in the gou cao de[5] hell do you think you are doing?” Chan thundered over the intercom. I’d prefer not to have our first run end with us as a smoking crater. It’s not good for repeat business!”

“I’m on it Cap! Just ran into some…er…stronger than expected wind sheer, I’ve got it now.” And true to his words the Lattimer’s Ghost stopped her precipitous dive and leveled out. As soon as the deck was level enough, Li Ming pulled herself over to the co-pilot’s seat and chuckled despite herself.

“Discretely handled Marsh, I shall from now on endeavor not to be on the bridge during re-entry. The last thing we need is for me to cause you additional wind sheer while you are trying to land.”

“Ah Li Ming, you know you are welcome, I just didn’t expect you to hit me with your…er never mind. Trust me, I enjoyed the experience, just caught me at a bad moment.” Then he began to guffaw in side splitting laughter. The ship vibrated a bit in time with his laughing, but he kept the ship flying straight and level toward the crude landing field he could see in the distance.

“What is so bloody funny Marsh?” Chan barked as she stormed onto the bridge, William, and Xavier right behind her.

“I’m sorry captain, the fault is mine. I should not be regaling our pilot with my tales of the gambling circuit while he is trying to do his job. The bridge is suddenly crowded, and I have no place here. I will return to my shuttle. “As she stood she shot Marsh a sly wink, making him start to laugh again. She deftly exited the bridge before she could be asked to explain.

“Oh great my pilot turns out to be a comedian. You know William that traveling carnival we talked about is starting to sound more plausible every day.” Chan snapped her eyes flashing.

“You might be on to something captain. As long as we kept the overhead down, we could eke out a few extra credits every run as the ship was being loaded and unload.” The first mate replied his own eyes twinkling with amusement.”

“William I hate you right now.”

“No you don’t”

“I don’t? Why not?”

“My sparkling personality.

Wo de ma he ta de feng kuang de wai sheng dou[6]! I am going to have to kill you one day when I’m not quite so busy running this soon to be five ring circus.” Chan snapped back, but could not sustain her anger in the face of William crossing his eyes at her. She snorted a short laugh and smacked him backhanded on the shoulder. “What ever am I to do with you?”

“I suggest you make your way to the cargo bay with me so we can meet the manager of the mine. We have arrived.” William replied looking out the viewports as Marsh flared for a landing in the gathering twilight.

“Can I tag along?” Xavier asked from the corner of the bridge where she’d been quietly observing the entire exchange between the other crew members. “I’ve never been to Regina and I’d like to get off the ship for a bit. I’m not quite the spacer I thought I was. I need a little non-ship air.”

“Uh, oh hell, why not?” Chan replied with only the slightest of hesitations. “Might as well see how we operate so we can see if you can find a way to assist with our normal operations. You don’t happen to know how to juggle do you?” They all got a big laugh out of that one, save for Marsh, and were still chuckling as they exited the bridge.

 To say the mining operation’s landing facilities were sparse was like saying things were tough on the Rim. Consisting of only a bare spot on the top of a mesa for a landing field, three wind worn buildings, and a wind powered water tower the facilities did not promise much of a chance of relaxing off ship. The way things looked, it was much more likely that the crew would have to fend off miners looking for a chance to relax on the ship.

Once the ship powered down, William hit the control that lowered the main cargo ramp. Chan Juan, William, Cindy, and Xavier were met by a blast of warm dry wind, but at least it was a change from the scrubbed faintly smelling of hydraulic fluid air of the ship  No one met them as they exited the ship, so they made their way toward the building with a faded sign that said operations. On entering, they found a scruffy looking unshaven man with blood shot eyes attempting to rise from behind a desk with a nameplate that said manager.

“Well now comp’ny that be somethin’ we don’t get much round here. I’m Grady Smith welcome to the hou zi de pi gu[7] of Regina.” He said gruffly. “Sorry no one met ya, but as you kin tell, ain’t much fer ceremonies and such.” Smith stopped and ran a hand nervously across his wispy thin hair and continued. “Look I ain’t gots good news. The Dragon Flower shipment is late and seein’ as how time is money and all, mebbe, you good folk can help us both out by takin’ a look for them miners tomorrow? They’s good people an’ might need help.”

“Why certainly Mister Smith, as you say time is money, we can actually go look for those missing miners now if you like.” Chan replied her eyebrows creased in concern.

“Oh no, no, none o’ that, first jus’ call me Grady and more important, it’s too dangerous at night with the wind comin’ up. Mornings good enough, that way a couple o’ my men can go wid you an’ show you the way.”

“It’s easy to see why you’re the boss Grady, Dragon Flower’s been good to us so we’ll be glad to help.” William added.

“You all are good folk…uh, one more thing. Again, seein’ as we are a small facility, would y’all mind stayin’ aboard your own fine vessel? We are a might short on space fer visitors is all.” 

“That’s what we had planned on Grady. No offense, but we could tell as we made our approach you would be shy on accommodations.”
      Grady laughed at this and ran his hand across his scalp again and then shook his head. “Yeah the commode-dations ain’t much, but you know times is rough, so you take the jobs as what you can find. My men will be ‘round bout seven to head out. That okay wid you?”

“Certainly, wouldn’t want to waste the daylight, we’ll see you in the morning Grady.” Chan said and headed for the ship, the others trotting to catch up. As they walked, Cindy tried to say something, but was hushed by Chan until they were back aboard their ship. William, Cindy, and Chan stopped at the top of the ramp to confer as Xavier excused herself and headed toward her cabin.

“Cap, I don’t believe a ruttin’ word that hun dan said. See, I’ve got a bit of training on stress response indicators in med school and that guy was lying from the moment his pie hole opened.” Cindy said forcefully as soon as the cargo ramp closed.

“I know Cindy, thanks for just confirming what I-“

A piercing scream from the rear of the cargo bay interrupted and the three raced toward the sound with weapons at the ready, they found the enigmatic Xavier kneeling over a bedraggled barely conscious man. Cindy moved next to the man to check him out.

“William grab his legs and help me get him to the infirmary!” She barked.

Moving quickly they got him to the diagnostic table. Once there, the wild-eyed man grabbed Cindy’s arm as she passed the med scanner over him “The w-w-warehouse.” He managed to croak before blacking out. Cindy used every trick she knew to save the man, but it was too late. He died without regaining consciousness.

By this time the entire crew was waiting in the common room for news on their visitor. One look from Cindy told them how things had gone without a word being spoken.

“What killed him?” Chan asked quietly.

“Extreme dehydration and exposure, according to the med scanner read outs, he never really had a chance. Damn my first patient and I lose him.”

“Cindy, going by what you have already said, he didn’t have a chance, you can only save those who are meant to be saved.” Willis said somberly. “It obviously was not his destiny to survive.”

“Yeah, but destiny can go get bent. I hate losing.” The medic said in complete frustration.

“Did he say anything else?” William asked.

“No, he was pretty far gone. It was amazing he lived long enough to say anything at all.”

“Well we know the manager is lying out his pi gu, we’ve got a dead man, and we know that something is going on in the warehouse. Oh and our cargo is late. I’m sure the missing miners are tied into this thing too.” Chan said her eyebrows creased in actual concern this time.

“Why is this our problem?” Marsh growled. “Our job is to drop and pick up not solve ruttin’ mysteries.”

“In case you hadn’t noticed sunshine, we can’t ‘pick up’ if our cargo isn’t here and in case you have forgotten, we have a dead man in the infirmary!” Cindy uncharacteristically barked, her left hand unconsciously fingering a brass Yin-Yang symbol she wore constantly on her belt.

“Wouldn’t be dead if you were a better doc.”

Despite William’s attempt to stop her, Cindy was across the common room faster than anyone would have believed. This included Marsh, as he didn’t even have a chance to stand before Cindy backhanded him with a blow that reverberated off the walls. His head snapped back and the next thing he knew he was flat on his back with the medic raining blows on him in a battle he was losing to block. How much more damage she would have done was unknown as both William and Willis grabbed the flailing fury the medic had turned into and pulled her off the battered pilot.

Marsh crawled to his feet, his lips and nose bleeding, and with one eye that was showing every signs of developing into a classic shiner by morning. He glared at Cindy, but the heat of the glare was weakened by his disheveled appearance and some doubts as to whether he could actually take the still fuming medic.

“Miss Schultz!” Chan thundered.

Cindy’s head snapped toward the captain’s voice and their eyes locked.

“Have you taken leave of your senses?” Chan asked softly. Soft enough that William moved to stand between the two women, knowing what the captain’s tone of voice portended.

“I…damn it captain, I’m a good medic! That guy was a basket case. A full Core system trauma team and center wouldn’t have been able to save him.”

“I didn’t ask about your medical qualifications or the dead man’s condition, I asked if you had taken leave of your senses.”

Finally Cindy stopped struggling and her shoulders sagged. “No ma’am, I…I’m just sensitive about my medical skills being called into question. Especially by a punk kid that hasn’t seen what I’ve seen.”

“PUNK KID?” Marsh roared taking a step forward, a move that faltered with a withering glance from Chan.

“Marsh, shut up. You are damn lucky these two gentlemen stepped in and saved your life as I’m certain Miss Schultz here would have hurt you. Seeing as how she is our medic, you might want to take that into consideration next time you deliberately choose to piss her off.”

“You can let her go now gentlemen. I think the crisis has passed. Thank you for saving our pilot’s life. Miss Schultz, because you were the wounded party in this sorry exchange, I will not restrict you to quarters this time. However, if there is a next time you and I will have words, dong ma[8]?”

“Yes ma’am.” Cindy replied dejectedly.

“Okay, now that we’ve moved past the internal issues, we are still faced with what is going on in the warehouse, where are the miners, and where is our cargo?” Chan said returning the conversation back to the topic at hand.

“Only one way to find out ma’am, a recon.” Cindy said with conviction, finding her confidence with a topic she knew. “I’ve got some experience in that area.”

“I do as well; we had the same teacher Cindy and I’m not mad anymore, you don’t have to call me ma’am. I saw two guards in front of the warehouse. William, I’ll want you along as well.”

“I’m not exactly built for stealth missions.” The big man replied. ”We’ll need an effective diversion if you expect me to sneak past those guards.”

“I volunteer.” A voice from the rear of the common room said. Everyone turned to face the up to this point silent Li Ming.

“This isn’t exactly your forte Li Ming, or are there skills beyond gambler in your repertoire?”

Chan asked eyeing the young woman intently.

      “Yes I have skills you have yet to see madam captain.” She replied mischievously. “But in this case, you are asking for someone to do something that isn’t all that different from what I’ve had a certain talent for my whole life, distracting a man, or in this case men. This is a skill I have used to great effect while at the gaming table.” She almost purred and luxuriantly stretched, more than demonstrating exactly what she meant.

“Uh well yes, that would certainly distract me.” William managed to reply after a pause.

“Men.” Chan said looking upward for strength momentarily before continuing. “Okay we have our distraction and our muscle. Xavier, you think you are up for something outside of your comfort zone as well?”

“M-Me? I…um…as what?” The computer expert stammered.

“I don’t know what we will find in that warehouse, but I know someone that is clever with a computer would be an asset at a time such as now. So are you game?”

It was clear that Xavier was not all that game, but she also knew she wanted a place on the crew and turning down her first chance to help wasn’t the best way to fit in. She nervously scratched the side of her head, feeling the stubble where she had stopped shaving.

“Um, you know I’m not really a fighter, don’t you?” She replied finally.

“William and I are, and Cindy has already proved she is as well.” This earned Chan a sharp look from Marsh, but he chose discretion and remained silent. “The three of us will handle any fighting that might occur. Your job is what you do best; you just won’t be doing it from the comfort of your cabin for a change.”

“I’m in, when do we go?”

Chan glanced out the viewports above the common room and saw that it was now fully dark outside before she replied. “An hour. We will need to get suited up in case there is trouble. Marsh and Willis will stay on the ‘Ghost and keep her ready for a fast break just in case things go completely south.”

The common room emptied quickly as the crew split up to make their preparations. Marsh lingered as he went to the cold storage unit to gingerly apply some ice to the worst of the damage on his face. As he cleaned up the now clotting blood, he had time to think to himself. “That ugly heifer is going to pay for that one. I know I didn’t get to fight in the war, but I’m not some punk kid. Made me look like a hou zi in front of the whole crew too. Yeah, me and that unsightly wench will have a round two, one of these days, and next time, it won’t be me that is surprised.”

Wong Li Ming left the ship exactly an hour later. The chill night prevented her from wearing any of her most effective outfits, but she managed to find something she was sure would do the job. Exiting the side hatch rather than the main cargo ramp in a pair of form fitting slacks and a light coat, that managed to show off enough of her curves to do the job she planned, she walked over to the warehouse and the two guards. The two men immediately noticed her approach and straightened up, making the attempt to try and look professional. Li Ming noticed this and flashed them a brilliant smile.

“Not really a night to be outside is it fellahs?”

“N-No, them as what lives in the desert has to take what is dealt them.” The brighter of the two managed to reply. Neither man even tried to pretend they were doing anything but thinking about the things they would like to be doing if they were inside at the moment. Li Ming knew this and worked the two men like fiddles, she’d laugh at the right times, kidded, flirted, and played the two men against each other. She quickly knew that she couldn’t go inside the warehouse ‘cause o’ orders’ but that things were picking up and they might even be expanding soon. The gambler continued to dance her dance and was exactly the diversion the rest of the crew needed to easily reach the side of the warehouse undetected and as Chan had expected, there was a side door. 

“Okay William, work your magic.” Chan said softly, but before the first mate could comply. Xavier answered.

“Let me, a lock is a lock whether it is physical, electronic, or virtual.” She said sliding a pick out of her coat pocket and into the lock.

She worked for a few seconds while the others stood waiting collectively holding their breath and not even knowing they were. She pulled on the handle and the door creaked open. This time even Xavier held her breath, but the wind was enough to drown out that slight noise. The four intruders slipped inside the warehouse, with Cindy closing the door behind them.

Once their eyes adjusted to the gloomy, poorly lit interior, they were immediately struck by two things. First, there were several dozen large crates all stamped “Dragon Flower” stacked floor to ceiling along one wall. And second, and even more interesting, there was an obviously non-Alliance patrol boat with heavy scoring on the hull that could only have come from heavy weapon’s fire.

Ta ma de.[9]” Chan whispered in awe. “William, guard the airlock, we need to find out exactly who these gao yang zhong de gu yang[10] are. Cindy and Xavier follow me.” Chan didn’t wait to see if her orders were being followed as she crept silently into the damaged patrol boat. The ship seemed deserted and they were able to locate a computer terminal. Still showing signs of being out of her element, Xavier nonetheless effortlessly hacked into the system.

“So who are these guys Xavier?” Chan asked when she saw their resident hacker gain access.

“Pirates captain. Looks like they might have had some Alliance affiliation at one time, but whether they did or not, they’ve gone rogue.”

“Okay, now we know the who. You got a why they are still here? Pirates don’t usually hang around on planet for long.”

“That damage we saw on the way in has fried their pulse drive. They need parts they don’t have, so it looks like they set down here waiting for a pigeon to hijack, for parts or if the damage turns out to be too bad, to take the pigeon’s ship.”

“Well I’m not going to be anyone’s pigeon. You have any idea who shot them up.?”

“Looks like it was a pigeon.” Xavier said after a few keystrokes.

“Come again?” A confused Chan replied.

“The pirates tried to intercept a large freighter shortly after it departed Regina four days ago, but the freighter was surprisingly and illegally armed. These guys, oh by the way, the name of this tub is the Raven, found themselves in the fight of their life and had to destroy the freighter. However, that was only after their pulse drive took a hit. They were short on options with the ship having to set down, so they dripped in on the mining operation here and looks like they snatched the place.”

“Damn, that means the only actual guy who works here that we met was the dead guy in the infirmary. Poor hun dan.” Cindy added fiercely. “Cap, that guy died of exposure, that means he was dumped out in the desert somewhere and some how had the stones to walk back here. There may be other survivors captain, if there are, they won’t last long out there in the deep desert.”

“Okay Xavier, shut it down and make it look like you were never here, we need to get back to the ship and make a plan.” Chan snapped; her jaw tight and fire in her eyes.”

“In and out without a trace is my specialty Cap.” Xavier replied shutting down the terminal. “I’ll keep that in mind, let’s go!”

 

The infiltrators returned to their ship undetected and after Li Ming returned to the ship, none the worse for her encounter with the two guards, the entire crew reconvened in the common room. Chan relayed the information that Xavier had discovered, including the probability of survivors in the desert.

“I know this is our first flight together and I don’t know most of you as much as I’d like. But seeing as how we really don’t have a choice, we’ve got to do something to shut these pirates down. Anyone got words?” Chan said.

“Normally, I’d say the miner’s problem is their problem, but seein’ as how we won’t get paid if we don’t do something, then I don’t see as we have much choice.” Marsh replied, but it was all too clear what his feelings were about getting involved. 

“We do not have a choice captain. These men have already caused the death of the freighter crew, at least one man on planet, and probably many more. How can we help?” Willis said with a fierceness totally out of character for the normally placid mechanic.

“Anyone else?” Chan asked, her eyes sweeping around the room.

“Just who does what?” William replied, when no one else did.

“Okay, I’m going to make some decisions based off what I know about your backgrounds and impressions made since we left Verbena. Marsh, you will do what you do best and stand by to pull us out if things go south. Xavier, since you said you aren’t a fighter, you stay on the ship as there’s to be gunplay. Not sure if you can help Marsh or not, if not, no one will say anything if you keep to your cabin.”

Xavier nodded and Chan continued. “William, you and Cindy will have to take down those two guarding the warehouse and get those big doors open and do it quietly.”

“Willis and I will take the Raven. I know she’s busted up, but her atmo drive should be functional, if it’s not, then that’s were you come in Willis. We will need that ship’s guns to take these hun dan cowards and I’ll do the flyin’ to do it.”

“What do you want me to do captain?” Li Ming asked when it became clear the captain wasn’t going to hand her a role.

“Well I figured the diversion thing wouldn’t work twice. Damn good work in keeping them busy the first time, but you go back over there and this time words ain’t gonna help you. I’ve met these types before, you end up over there and they are going to expect…things. I’m not about to put you in that position.”

“Actually captain, I was thinking of your position.”

“Excuse me?” Chan asked incredulous.

“What I mean captain is I join Mister Thorton in taking the pirate’s ship. I’m a fair pilot or I wouldn’t be living in a shuttle. That would free up your fighting skills for where they are most needed.”

“Well that is an idea. You think you have the stomach for spillin’ blood of folk you don’t know?” Chan asked pointedly her eyes lancing into Li Ming’s like that of a cobra.

“Despite my fragile appearance, I am neither fragile nor afraid. My line of work requires courage and I have had to shed more than my share of blood. Yes, I can spill the blood of them that call themselves men by leaving other men to die in the desert just because they want some parts.”

“Okay then Li Ming, I’ll take you at your word. Its 1930 now, we will strike at 0100. We go in loaded for bear and we shoot them as what ain’t us. I want these guys to bleed. Anyone got questions?”

The silence told her there were none, so the meeting broke up. With some five hours before the raid, each member of the crew went about preparing for battle in the way that worked for them. Marsh took a nap. Willis burned some incense, prayed, and meditated. Cindy brought out a bewildering array of good luck charms and set them in a specific order as carefully as she checked her weapons and donned her body armor. William cleaned and inspected every one of his weapons, then also got some sleep. Chan also checked her weapons, prayed, then went down to the cargo bay for a smoke. She was never good about sleeping before a fight and she secretly envied those that could. At 0030, the rest of the strike force found her in the cargo bay, where she was policing up the butts of the cigarras she’d finished as she waited.

“Okay crew, we go in quiet. Getting the ship moving and those doors open are critical. If the plan goes to da bian[11], beat feet back to the ship and we run. We can scan for the guys in the desert and pick them up in the morning. Won’t get us paid, but it will be the right thing to do.”

“We’ll get it done captain.” William added, racking the slide of his shotgun.

“Then let’s do this.” Chan replied and headed out the hatch.

 

The five raiders moved out noiselessly into the night. Each member was well armed with Chan, William, and Li Ming sporting shotguns and side arms, Cindy a sub-machine gun with a sidearm, and even the pacifistic Willis had a pistol holstered on his hip. In addition, everyone but Willis was wearing body armor with ceramic plates in case opposition turned out to be stronger than planned. It turned out this last part was a good thing, because even though they had a good plan, no plan survives contact with lady luck.

 

The group split into two elements to approach their assigned targets. Li Ming took point as the two neared the side of the warehouse. Before she could reach the door, she heard a muffled thump behind her and immediately rolled into the deepest shadows she could find. She peered toward the direction of the sound, certain she wouldn’t be able to hear anything due to the way her heart was pounding in her ears. She saw Willis had tripped over something and was trying to crawl closer to the building. The withering curse she thought stopped in mid word as she clearly heard footsteps approaching.

“God and all his apostles curse all clumsy mechanics forever!” She thought and melted deeper into the shadows. She spotted one of the guards closing in what she assumed the man thought was stealthily, but to Li Ming he sounded like a wounded water buffalo. Gathering herself she prepared a warm welcome for the lead footed guard.

 

Ta ma de!” Chan snarled to herself when she saw that the guards were alerted by something and one split off to investigate.

“At least the hun dan are too stupid to stay together and call for help. William I-” She stopped as she saw her first mate step in some sort of animal caused hole and go down hard and loud. She and Cindy barely had time to take cover as the second guard snapped his head toward them, quickly followed by the rifle he was carrying snapping into firing position.

 

As Chan and Cindy faced off against the guard at the front of the warehouse, Li Ming, never willing to admit a lack of talent at anything she did, slithered next to one of the guards as silent as a shadow. Never seeing the hidden gambler, she lashed out with her brass knuckles and had the man down before he even knew she was there.

“Come on you ungainly goon, before the rest of the pirates can figure out what is going on.” Li Ming hissed, certain that they were about to be discovered.

Willis didn’t bother to reply, but when they reached the faint light near the side door, Li Ming could tell he was blushing at his mistake. “It will be okay Willis, just keep focus and we will be fine.”  

 

BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!

 

“Move Willis NOW!” Li Ming shouted, pushing the mechanic ahead of her and toward the loading ramp of the patrol boat.

 

Outside, at the front of the warehouse, gunfire shattered the desert night as Chan and Cindy opened fire before the guard could fire on William. The man went down hard, but the damage was done. The roar of gunfire in the otherwise silent night was more than enough to alert the rest of the pirates. As shouts of confusion broke out across the compound, William managed to get back to his feet, limping heavily from his fall and scrambled to pull the heavy main doors of the warehouse open.

“Cindy, cover the barracks, I’ve got our backs” Chan barked, her eyes sweeping the area for trouble she knew was heading their way.

“You got it captain! I’m on it.” Cindy replied, the bloodthirsty twinkle in her eyes not visible to the captain. “You bet I got this Cap.” She purred as she idly stroked her night battle good luck talisman absently.

William tossed a jaunty salute at Li Ming from across the warehouse as he managed to get the first of the huge doors open and as she followed close on Willis’ heels up the patrol boat’s ramp. She managed a distracted half wave as she disappeared into the crippled Raven.

“Gorram stupid gopher thing, damn near broke my ankle.” He snarled as a twinge of agony shot up his leg slowing his progress in opening the doors. “Just hang in there a little while longer ankle and I’ll fix you some comfort brownies for abusing you like this.”

“We got company!” Chan shouted, sighting in on the first of the pirates to boil out of the barracks.

“I see them Cap. Let them get a little closer!” Cindy shouted back, the gleam in her eye becoming feral as she too sighted in.

The two men charged forward and there was a thunderous exchange of fire. Chan drilled one man with her first shot and paid the price of shooting first when the second sent a well aimed burst her way that slammed her to the ground fighting to stay conscious. Cindy let loose with a blood curdling battle cry as she also let loose with a long burst into the second pirate cutting him down instantly. Cindy rolled to her feet lithely and was to Chan before the man hit the ground.

Wo de ma[12]! Damn it! Damn it! Damn it! That bloody hurts!” Chan wheezed as Cindy rolled her over. “G-G-Good thing w-we wore armor, eh Cindy?”

Ren ci de Fo zu![13] You are alive!” Cindy yelped in surprise and joy.

“Oh yeah, I-I’m alive, but I know that’s going to leave a mark. Help me up.” Chan replied, trying to lurch to her feet, pressing a hand to her side over the dent in her armor.

“We need to get you back to the ship Cap and let me check you out.” Cindy frowned in response.

Jian ta de guay[14] Cindy, we’ve still got a job to do, just going to have to do it a different way, hurry, there’s more coming. Quick to the Raven, we’ve got to make our stand there!” She glanced over her shoulder and saw that William had managed to get the second warehouse door open. Before she could say another word William appeared at her side, his own pain forgotten as he glanced at Cindy, at her silent nod, he grabbed Chan and effortlessly and tossed her over his shoulder. Making his way toward the ship faster than someone his size had a right to move. Cindy back peddled behind them, laying down a near continuous stream of fire and keeping the pirates at bay long enough for everyone to board the Raven safely.

“William put me down or so help me I will shoot you gorram idiot!” Chan raged at her burly first mate to no effect until he had the airlock sealed, when he finally put her down. “You ever do that again and I will find a way to hurt you!”

“Yeah whatever, what’s the new plan?” He replied oblivious to her fury.

She was too mad to even try to respond, choosing to savagely snatch her ship linked comm from her belt. “Li Ming, Willis where are you?”

“Bridge.” Li Ming responded instantly.

“Engineering, captain.” Willis added half a second later. Pulse drive is out, but atmospheric drive is coming online now.

Chan sighed in relief, relief tinged by a stitch in her bruised side. “Thanks to a merciful Buddha, I thought we’d screwed this up badly.”

“You mean you thought ‘I’ screwed this up badly.” William replied bitterly.

“Damn it William, don’t you go to pieces on me. Da bian happens, you weren’t the only one to make noise. Someone else alerted those guards, someone not you! Now we need to get this bucket moving if the rest of the plan is going to work.” She keyed her comm again. ”Marsh?”

“Here captain.” Came the immediate response.

“Get the ‘Ghost moving. The plan hasn’t gone south yet, but it ain’t goin’ smooth either.

“Actually I’m already airborne. As soon as I heard the gunplay I knew it was time to be somewhere else.”

“Damn Marsh, good thinking. I’m going to have to remind myself to take you more seriously, good work!”

“Just earning my keep. You gonna get that lump of gos se flyin’?

“You bet, William and I are on our way to the bridge to help Li Ming. We’ll be airborne in a minute.”

“See you there!”

“That boy might just turn out okay after all.” Chan smiled and turned toward the bridge.

“I’m going to see what sort of infirmary this thing has, I still need to tend to that wound captain whether you like it or not.” Cindy said before Chan could go.

“First my first mate and now my medic, I certainly know how to pick a mutinous crew.” Chan groused good-naturedly. “Okay, okay, got it, jeez, catch up to me on the bridge.” Chan added quickly when she saw the obvious heat in Cindy’s eyes.

The three split up, with Cindy heading aftward and the other two moving forward.

 

“William, go on ahead, I’ll catch up. Much as I hate to admit it, Cindy is right, I’m hurt and I can’t keep up with you.” Chan said after only a few seconds of trying to match William’s long strides.

“I can suggest an alternate means of transportation, but I don’t want to get shot for suggesting it.”

“No damn it, you don’t need to carry me. Just go on ahead. How can I look all captainy like you suggest if I’m carried to the bridge like a sack of rice?”

“Okay mei mei, I’ll go ahead so you can join us as a captain is supposed to, all leisurely and dignified like.”

“Thank you William. For everything.” Chan said quietly, her eyes speaking volumes.

“Just part of the job description captain.” He laughed and resumed his rapid pace for the bridge.

“Chan waited a moment until he was out of sight before following and muttering to no one. “This ship is too damn big.”

 

“Willis can you do anything to speed up the start sequence?” Li Ming said, toggling the intercom to the mechanic in the engine room.

“I am endeavoring to do just that Miss Wong, patience please.” He replied, calm as ever, despite attempting to hurry a process on an engine he’d never seen before.

“Okay Willis, let me know when we are ready. Li Ming out.”

“He really is a good mechanic you know.” A voice said.

“You know you shouldn’t try sneaking up on a heavily armed woman William.”

“You can’t fool me Li Ming you knew I was coming two decks back. I’m not what you call stealthy to begin with, especially with this ankle of mine at the moment.” 

“Yes I did hear you coming, but what happened to your ankle?”

“A damn gopher or something. I stepped in a hole while trying to sneak up on the warehouse, that’s what started all the shooting. Feel like a damn fool.”

“Ah well, don’t be too hard on yourself, Willis tripped over something and fell also. I guess we aren’t exactly commandos are we?”

“No you got me there. How is the start up going?”

“Willis is actually working miracles. This ship hasn’t been at full power since it set down four days ago. He has a cold unfamiliar engine already past the ignition sequence and we will be airborne faster than I would have thought possible.”

“Then I guess we take his suggestion and be patient.”

 

Chan had stopped next to a ladder that led upward to the bridge deck. Her side was hurting more than she let on and the ladders were worse than walking. She had paused to gather herself when a hatch behind her opened. She wheeled around and found a dumbfounded pirate standing there. It was hard to say who was more surprised, but Chan recovered first and snapped her shotgun into firing position.

The pirate scrabbling for his pistol saw his death in the unknown woman’s eyes and to his credit, he stood his ground meeting his death squarely. Until fate stepped in for the second time in less than a second, when Chan pulled the trigger and nothing happened. Both swore savagely and went for their pistols.

Regardless of her injury and body armor, Chan’s pistol cleared the holster first and bucked three times. The pirate managed one shot, but it went straight into the deck. Chan’s shots suffered no such fate, each slamming into the pirate’s chest with a vengeance. As the man slid down the bulkhead to join the pistol that clattered from lifeless fingers, Chan had her comm out and barking orders.

“William, we got rats!” She didn’t wait for a reply as she grabbed her shotgun from where she dropped it during the draw down with the pirate. She carefully cycled the action to clear it, then moved slowly back down the corridor the pirate came from, toward the rest of the crew quarters. No sooner as she entered the hatch, she ran into a second pirate, this time her shotgun operated perfectly and the second pirate hit the deck without being able to fire a shot. Chan, William and Cindy carefully swept the ship and verified that there weren’t any more surprises onboard.

“Okay Cap, follow me to the infirmary.” Cindy said cornering Chan before she could get away.

“Not now Cindy I-” Chan started.

“No your not. You can hear the engines firing up now. Li Ming and Willis have everything under control and William will make sure they cover anything they might have missed. This won’t take long Chan Juan, please?”

“She is right mei mei. William added.

“Yeah, that’s the damn thing about it. She is, my side hurts like a gao yang zhong de gu yang[15].” 

“Keep me informed if anything changes William.” Chan added over her shoulder as she followed Cindy toward the infirmary.

Dang ran[16] Captain. You get better.” He replied and headed for the bridge.

By the time William reached the bridge, the patrol boat was beginning to move. As he dropped into the co-pilot’s seat, Li Ming skillfully steered the Raven out of the warehouse.

“Perfect timing William, you want to do the honors?” She asked, nodding toward the weapon’s console.

“Oh you bet!” He clapped his hands in glee and sighted in on the group of pirates scrambling to get out of the way of the thundering patrol boat. A few brave or foolish souls actually tried to fire back, but this only made things easier for William as he raked the compound with the twin autocannon of the Raven.

Once Li Ming had the ship clear of the hanger, she swung around to give the first mate full freedom of fire, which he took to with wild abandon. The night was lit up by artificial lightning as the deadly duo made strafing pass after strafing pass.

“One more?” Li Ming asked after their third run.

“No looks quiet down there.” William answered as he frowned into the targeting scanners. “I think that’s that.” He added smugly.

“Well it better be, you two were having entirely too much fun.” Chan said from the hatch leading to the bridge. “Cindy had a devil of a time getting me fixed up with the way you’ve been dancing this lumbering hulk around.”

“This ship is actually quite maneuverable for its size Captain. You got a new name picked out for her yet?” Li Ming said as she brought the Raven in for a landing.

“A name? Like I’d give up on the ship I have now. Besides, no gorram way in life the Feds would let an ex-Browncoat keep a ship like this. You in contact with Marsh?”

“Sure thing Captain.” Li Ming toggled a switch and nodded to Chan.

“Marsh you still in one piece?” Asked Chan.

“Me and Xavier are right cozy Cap. Not like those ta shi suo you di yu de biao de ma[17] down there even had anti-ship weapons or time to think about us with all that ruckus you were stirring up. I’ll be down in second.” Marsh said sardonically, then put word to deed and brought the Lattimer’s Ghost in to a landing with his typical flourish.

The crew swept from one end of the mining compound to the other and into every room of every building with weapons at the ready, but the weapons turned out to be an unnecessary, precaution, William and Li Ming had been far too thorough. They found five wounded and one completely terrorized pirate among bodies strewn where they fell. Cindy patched up the battered survivors with what little medical supplies remained on the Raven. As Cindy worked on saving the wounded, Chan and William sat the one unwounded pirate down for a little chat.

  “Okay slick, here’s how it is. Either you tell us where you dumped the people who worked here or my big friend here makes your life a whole lot worse than it is right now. Going by how you managed to keep yourself intact while all the fire and brimstone was raining down, I’m going to take a guess that you aren’t much into pain. My friend William here is a master of making little hunks of gos se like you hurt, so where are the workers and we leave you breathing, play tough guy and you will bleed. So what is it?”

The pirate tried to put up a front, but when William made a show of placing brass knuckles on both hands, he wilted about as fast as Chan thought he would. “Okay, okay, we took them out in the desert. I can show you in the morning.”

“Actually twinkles, you will take us now. Those folk have been out there for going on five days now. Your ship has got some real fancified sensors and all, I’m certain the thermal imagers will find those folk right fine. William will you escort this…this…thing to the Raven?”

“With pleasure Captain.” With that he snatched the cowering ex-pirate and dragged him by the ankles to his ship.

Once they had a basic heading from their captive, the Raven’s superior sensors found where the workers had been abandoned in less than half an hour. Cindy was the first off the patrol boat as it flared for landing still under Li Ming’s control. Except for Marsh who stayed with the Lattimer’s Ghost and Chan who was guarding the wounded prisoners, the rest of the crew was on the rescue mission. William, Xavier, and Willis were only steps behind their medic to assist the ragged figures huddled in the sand.

“Is that all Cindy?” Willis asked, even his calm demeanor shaken by what they had found. “Is there any chance we missed anyone?”

“I’m sorry, but that’s all of them Willis. I found the manning roster in the operations office and they are all accounted for.” She replied, frustrated and weary after nearly two hours in the desert and just before they boarded the Raven to return to the landing field. “Only four made it.”

“Out of twenty!” He hissed in palpable anger. “These…these…he chu sheng a jiao de zang hu[18] deserve the hangman’s noose they have coming!”

Cindy was taken aback by the quiet mechanic’s surprising anger he had always seemed so unflappable. “Willis, this is a terrible thing these folk have had done to them, but why are you taking this so personally?”

Willis blinked as if realizing his state of mind for the first time, then blushed furiously. “Thank you Miss Schultz, the Yang had taken hold and your graceful Yin has brought me back into balance. Let us return to our ship and find out what the captain has planned.”

She paused to let her eyes sweep the barren horizon one last time before nodding agreement. “Yes, let’s get out of here.”

When Li Ming brought the Raven in for a landing back at the crude starport, she could see Xavier waving at her as she set the battered patrol boat down. Once everything was powered down, the full crew of the Lattimer’s Ghost gathered in the cargo bay.

“I was able to reach the local sheriff’s office in Green Dale. They are on the way. They have a hover car, so it will be about three hours before they can get here. Everyone grab a shovel, we’ve got enough dark and early morning to get these folk a proper burial. The survivors?”

“They are really bad off, but I won’t lose any captain. Not again.” Cindy replied fiercely.

“Then we’ll tend to those that are past being hurt any more. Let’s get to it, we don’t want to still be doing this when the sun’s up.”

 

The crew of the Lattimer’s Ghost was relaxing in the common room, when the sheriff’s ramshackle hover car arrived. Three deeply tanned men and one woman piled out and met the crew in the cargo bay.

“Morning all, Sheriff Bruce Poe. Which one of ya’ll is the captain?” A stocky light-skinned black man asked.

“That would be me.” Chan Juan said offering her hand to the lawman.

“Going by what I hear, we are much obliged to you and yours.” He replied as he returned the courtesy firmly.

“Not for me to say sheriff, we saw a situation that needed some action and took it.”

“Still not many as would put their own at risk for them as they don’t know.”

“Can’t lie to you ya sheriff, we had some money issues if we didn’t do something.”

“Can’t fault you there either, times are hard all round the ‘Verse for them as choose not to be all citified in the Core. Well, enough jawbonin’, where are the living dead?”

“I like the way you think sheriff.” Chan chuckled. “May I introduce my crew?”

“I’d like that.”

Introductions were made all around and the sheriff took charge of the six prisoners, locking them in the brig of their own ship with two of his deputies to keep them there. He went over to visit with the four survivors and then paid his respects to the dead. As the survivors were being transferred to the barracks, one of the men regained consciousness. Under Cindy’s very close observation, the man was able to back up most of the story as related by Chan. The Raven’s log added in some of the blanks, and the one uninjured pirate filled in the rest.

With the story confirmed, Sheriff Poe gave Chan permission to unload the mining gear and load up the Dragon Flower crates. Since the crew was working on intuition on how to operate the heavy cargo loading gear, it took nearly five days to get their ship loaded and unloaded. During that time, the four survivors improved enough for the Sheriff to depart with his prisoners, using the Raven to take them to Green Dale.

“Well Chan Juan, these piles of da bian are properly bound by law and will be at the end of a rope before dark. Thank you again captain. You and yours are stand up folk and you have a place to stay if you ever visit Green Dale.”

“I’ll keep that in mind Bruce, as you said a few days ago, times are hard all over the ‘Verse. Friends anywhere are better than coin in the bank.”

With one last handshake, they parted and Chan stepped back to give the Raven room to lift without getting sandblasted. She watched until the ship was out of sight and returned to her own. As soon as she was aboard, she closed the cargo ramp and hit the intercom.

“Marsh, get us back to Verbena. We will be hard pressed to make it due to the loading delay, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to be late with our first run, extenuating circumstances or not.”

“I’m on it Captain, I got the course laid in, but the only way we’ll make it is with a hard burn.”

“Willis?” She asked.

“We are ready for hard burn at any time.” He replied.

“Then at your discretion Mister Marsh, but keep us in one piece, I don’t want a lift off like our arrival.”

“Li Ming is not on the bridge Cap, this lift off will be as smooth as Sihnon silk” Marsh laughed.

Chan toggled the intercom to the off position and headed for her cabin. “For a man shorter than I am, that boy has got ego enough for six or seven heads. But, I’ve got to give him his due, the boy can fly.” She thought walking slowly up the stairs to the upper deck. “I think I’m going to…oh crap! Almost forgot!” Chan moved to another intercom and this time toggled for ‘Ship-Wide’ before speaking. “Before any of you get too comfortable, I remind you, this is lift day. We still have some fairly fresh food on board and while this visit was a bit longer than we planned and with too many detours, we will despite all that keep to ship traditions. See you all in the dining room at 2000.”

Despite being tired and not having the freshest food for the feast William jumped in and actually managed to turn out a top notch meal right at 2000 hours per captain’s orders. There were a few grumbles when Chan first made her announcement, but those were beyond forgotten once everyone had the chance to dig in.

Li Ming set a new standard for the Lift Day Feast by breaking out a bottle of real premium whiskey that she had been keeping for a special day at the end of the meal. “I didn’t say much at the first Feast, but this time I’ve got words.” She said as she poured everyone a shot. “But this time I figure that we are no longer strangers. I like to think that we are now friends that have risked all and shed blood together. Even though it was what I was hoping, in the process of earning our cargo, we have become a crew. Cheers!”

“CHEERS!” The crew replied in unison, with even the Lattimer’s Ghost joining in the occasion when the vibration her engines changed pitch for a second in time to the crew’s reply.

 

Marsh’s course and the hard burn shaved nearly thirty-six hours off the return trip and though it was closer than Chan liked, the Lattimer’s Ghost touched down at the Kennewick landing zone in time to meet their contractual agreement. However, when the ship landed, there was a terse wave from Patrick Hong’s personal assistant. The message simply said for Chan to report as soon as possible. With the stevedores from Dragon Flower waiting to unload the cargo of silver ingots, Chan had to leave William behind to supervise the delivery and grabbed Cindy to accompany her to the meeting.

On arrival, Chan and Cindy were shown directly to the outer office of Patrick Hong. They had to wait some twenty minutes before Hong’s assistant escorted them into the main office, poured tea, and then at a nod from Hong, silently withdrew, closing the doors behind him.

“Captain Wu and unless I miss my guess, ship’s medic Cindy Schulz, it is good to see you.” He smiled genuinely. “And while a tad closer to the upper end of the time limit than I would have liked to see, within the stipulations of the contract.”

“Mister Hong I-” Chan started, but stopped when Hong held up a hand.

“No need to explain Captain. I got a long wave from a Sheriff Poe from the city of Green Dale before you arrived. It seems picking up the cargo was more complicated than was planned. The Sheriff was most impressed with the service done as impromptu deputies you performed on Regina. And after reading both the wave and some supporting documentation by Jiang Liu the senior surviving member of the landing field, I am most impressed as well.

“The contract is ironclad in reference to the possibility of earning a bonus for delivering the cargo ahead of schedule. This you have failed to do, so my hands are tied in regards to the bonus.”

Chan didn’t risk herself to speak at this point; her emotions had gone through to many ups and downs during Hong’s monolog. She had felt dread, surprise, elation, disappointment and now she was creeping toward anger as she thought Hong was being tight fisted after all they had been though. She was struggling so much to keep her temper in check that she almost missed the last part of what Hong was saying.

“-And therefore, with my discretionary funds I am awarding you a meritorious bonus of five hundred credits for services rendered well above and beyond the requirements of the standard service contract. Congratulations Captain to you and your crew.”

Chan barely remembered standing to shake Hong’s hand, collecting the unexpected windfall and woodenly exiting the Dragon Flower building, it wasn’t until Cindy got her into the hover car that time, sound, and Chan reintegrated with the rest of the ‘Verse.

“Well ta ma de.” She muttered at last, and then beamed from ear to ear, not saying a word as Cindy drove them back to the ship.


Chapter Three

 

“All hands this is your pilot speaking, prep for lift, grab something hard or soft as floats your goat and we’re Greenleaf bound.” Marsh said in his typical sardonic fashion as he applied full power to the Lattimer’s Ghost and with great flare, broke atmosphere and headed for the Black.

The ship and crew had finally gotten another cargo out of Patrick Hong and the chance to earn some coin after a full week on Verbena. The down side of the run was that Dragon Flower did not have a return cargo, this was only a one way run, but Chan had great hopes of finding something for the return trip. It had cost too much, taken too long, and they had too good a history to stray too far from Verbena and Patrick Hong, thus returning to Verbena wasn’t a question of if, but when.

The Lattimer’s Ghost lifted cleanly despite being packed with a full 400 tons of cargo. The Dragon Flower company, in addition to mining equipment, also exported agricultural equipment and this was what was filling every inch of the ship’s cargo bays. Combined with the length of the trip, a full ten days, even with no return cargo guaranteed, this run was going to be lucrative and the entire crew was in an upbeat mood. The crew was especially looking forward to the Lift Day Feast, as William had announced with great fanfare the day before they were due to depart that he would take the meal preparation on as his special duty.

Using some of the money from the bonus earned on Regina, William had taken special care while shopping to obtain fresh foods uncommon for spacers. He had in a rare fit of pique and banished the entire crew, to include an indignant Chan Juan from the galley as he worked on the meal. The smells of the gourmet meal had long since filled the corridors of the ship and William was facing near insurrection by the time he announced the meal was ready.

“William you have far out done yourself.” Chan beamed as she took in the feast spread out the length of the dining table. “I wanted a nice meal with fresh food on lift day; the feast part was just so much jabber. You have actually gone and made this a meal to fit the title feast.”

“Well I got to thinking that even though I knew you didn’t actually mean a feast, I figure why shouldn’t we actually have a feast? I figure we work hard and one good meal every few weeks isn’t much to ask.” William replied as he carved the spiced ham that was the centerpiece of the meal.

“I for one commend you and thank you for your efforts William. This is as fine a meal as I have seen aboard ship and, trust me, that includes several liners.” Li Ming added.

“Yeah Will’o, good eats.” Marsh garbled around a mouthful of ham.

William spared the pilot a hot retort at the new nickname he was trying to stick him with, figuring it was meant as a compliment.

“I have to agree.” Cindy said as she reached some a bowl of rice. As she did, she knocked over the salt shaker and without conscious thought, picked up the shaker and tossed some over her left shoulder. None of the crew paid this much attention, but when she began obsessively wiping her chopsticks after every bite that anyone said anything.

“Why in the south side of Sihnon are you doing that?” Marsh finally asked.

 “Warding evil spirits.” She replied with complete sincerity.

For several seconds there was silence at the table except for the clicking sounds of Cindy’s own chopsticks. Li Ming recovered first and would not let the medic’s idiosyncrasies cast a wet blanket on a ship tradition. “So Chan, why did Patrick hold out so long before setting up this run?” She asked changing the topic smoothly.

“Ah…Greenleaf is ah…somewhat of a new market for Dragon Flower, they don’t have an existing long term contract with Greenleaf like they do with Regina.” Chan managed to reply. “This isn’t the inaugural run, but one of only a handful so far, Hong hopes a few more one way runs will establish a good enough of a track record that the local nobles there will set up an exchange run. Going by the length of the trip, it would be pretty sweet for us if they do.”

“Nothing sweeter than a steady cargo run.” William added. “Well nothing sweeter than a fine bottle of Miss Wong’s whiskey.”

“Fishing for an accompaniment for this fine meal William my friend?”

Dang ran.” The first mate responded instantly.

“Well this meal certainly deserves it, so you have managed to talk your way into my larders.” Li Ming answered. She excused herself and headed for her shuttle for the bottle.

“I’d like to talk my way into her…OW! You kicked my knee!” Marsh began and stopped suddenly.

“I’ll kick more than that if you say anything to ruin lift day you ma de pi gu.” Chan snapped back hotly.

“Sorry ma’am.”

“Good enough. Now remember this is a festive occasion.”

“That it is.” Willis added. “This is always such a happy day.”

“Happy enough to join us in a drink Willis?” Chan asked slyly.

“Uh…well…um…I really shouldn’t” The mechanic managed to stammer.

“Oh why not Willis? I’m certain Buddha will forgive you.” Li Ming said as she returned to her seat with two bottles of whiskey.

“Oh my, whatever do you have planned Li Ming?” Chan asked with a gleam in her eyes.

“Me have a plan? You wound me captain you wound me. I figure it is a ten day trip to Greenleaf and so long as the ‘Ghost’s collision avoidance program stays sober I figure we can enjoy ourselves.” The gambler replied demurely

“Well plan or no plan, I’m going to savor your fine gifts.” Realizing the possible double entendre, William fixed Marsh with a baleful stare to prevent any possible repeat of the pilot’s earlier gaffe. Regardless of his efforts, it was too late and the entire table burst out laughing. William flushed all the way up to the ears, but could not resist joining in the merriment.

In fact it was indeed a good thing that the Lattimer’s Ghost’s collision avoidance program stayed sober as the entire crew had quite a bit more merriment than intended.

 

The next morning, the merriment caught up with them as each crew member blinked awake and found themselves in unaccustomed places or in states they usually didn’t sleep in. Willis was the least affected as he had managed to avoid most of the refills the other’s savored, but he woke up on the couch in the crew lounge with a pounding headache. Xavier woke up sprawled on the dining table, the left side of her face dimpled by the table cloth pattern.

Chan somehow found herself in the infirmary on the main operating table, completely clueless as to how she got there or why she would go there in the first place. William found himself in his room, but stark naked on the floor in a puddle of clothes. Li Ming awoke on the bridge with a crook in her neck from being huddled up in the seat for what must have been most of the night.

Each member of the crew wore a sheepish look as they tried to make bloodshot eyes focus and abused muscles move. Marsh tried three times to order his still asleep left arm to move and when this failed, he managed to force, what felt like sandblasted eyes open and realized he wasn’t alone. He turned his head slightly praying he’d got as lucky as he hoped he had and could not believe what he was seeing.

“How in the south side of Sihnon did you get in my room?” He exclaimed and managed to pull his arm free.

“Look around sweety, you are in my room.” Cindy purred like a cat toying with a mouse.

“I…I…Oh gos se!  He managed at last as he fumbled around for his clothes. “You took advantage of me!”

“You bet I did hon, and given half a chance I’ll do it again, but don’t get indignant with me, it’s not like you didn’t take advantage of me as well. Look Marsh, I’m not looking for strings or anything other than what it was. I needed release and so did you. I know I’m nothing to look at under the best of circumstances, so I know what I look like now. I don’t even like seeing me with a hang over and a raging case of bed head. You can grab your clothes and go with no questions or expectations, but Li Ming is not in your league, so anytime you need to grapple, I’m here to grapple with. I may not be pleasin’ to the eye, but I know how to please a man. You just try and remember that and you might decide I’m not so bad after all.

“Look Cindy…I…well…um, well what I do remember was it was good, so maybe I’ll take you up on that, now you have any idea where my pants are?”

Cindy pointed upwards and there were Marsh’s pants caught in a life support vent, both burst out laughing and they were still laughing when Marsh slipped out of her quarters and back to his own. Aside from an arched eyebrow, Willis neither said nor asked anything for which, Marsh was extremely grateful

Marsh was lucky that Willis was not a gossip, but even though a Firefly-class mid-bulk freighter was a fairly large ship, there was no way their little tryst could remain secret for long. Much merriment was made at Marsh’s and Cindy’s expense, but given where the rest of the crew found themselves on the morning after the lift day feast, they couldn’t delve too deeply into the pilot’s and medic’s actions without calling attention to themselves, so the matter was allowed to quietly drop. Not surprisingly the aftermath of the feast was the high point of the long ten day trip to Greenleaf.

 

“Thanks for riding shotgun with me Li Ming. These Greenleafers don’t have much of a sense of humor when it comes to drifting out of your assigned landing vector and an extra set of hands is always welcome.” Marsh said, his eyes never leaving the heads up display showing the approach to the landing field at Longbranch the capitol of Hu Shen Fu prefecture of Southern Greenleaf.

“You can blame the value of the pharmaceuticals that this place exports and the resulting problems with smugglers for the strict approach rules, but I don’t mind helping at all Sylvester, I enjoy the opportunity to hone my piloting skills. I consider myself a decent shuttle pilot, but I can use the practice with flying the ‘Ghost, even if all I’m doing is watching you do the actual work.” Li Ming replied from the co-pilot’s seat.

“I’ll never know why I let you call me by my first name; my mother doesn’t even call me anything but Marsh.”

“I’m sure it’s because you think you might get as lucky with me as you did with Cindy.” Li Ming laughed, but it was in jest and the pilot knew it.

“Yeah well, a guy can dream can’t he?”

“That he can my friend that he can.”

“You two are about to make me gag.” Chan said from the doorway. “Considering your ‘unique’ entrance to Regina, maybe one of you should be concentrating on flying instead of gossiping about your social schedules.”

“Hey Cap, that’s not fair, Li Ming distracted me with her-“

“Assets!” Li Ming interjected.

“Uh…right her assets over Regina, this time she is helping me.”

“Okay, as long as you have a plan, you’ll have to excuse me for wanting to protect my investment.”

“Oh sure Cap, I understand, we are in the glide path, on final approach, and shiny.”

“Captain I have a wave coming in.” Said Li Ming.

“I’ll take it over here.” Chan responded as she walked over to a terminal, her eyebrows knit together in curiosity.

“Captain Wu.”

“Captain, I am Chang Wen Shen, you will come to my office as soon as your ship lands. Here are the coordinates, please to not delay.”

And just as abruptly as the message started, it was over.

“Who was-?” Marsh started.

“I don’t know. I’m looking him up now. O zhe zhen shi ge kuai le de jin zhan[19]…” Chan replied after a quick consult of the Cortex.

“Who is this hun dan?” Marsh asked.

“Why Mister Chang is none other than the Baron Administrator responsible for regulation of interplanetary commercial operations on Greenleaf.”  

“And why exactly would he be interested in us?” Li Ming asked suspicion creeping into her voice.

“At this point you two know as much as I do. To my knowledge we have broken no laws and we are carrying a completely legal bonded cargo. I don’t know why the senior noble for this hemisphere would want to talk to me. I guess we’ll find out as soon as we land.”

“Then here’s your chance to find out Cap, as here we are.” Marsh said as he flared for landing on the designated platform and bringing the Lattimer’s Ghost in for a picture perfect touch down.

Chan activated the intercom. “Cindy, will you oversee the offload? William and I have an appointment with the nobility of Greenleaf. Li Ming, please help Cindy mind the store while we figure what burr the baron has up his pi gu.”

“Certainly Captain, good luck.”

 

Chan headed for the cargo bay to meet William. He was standing there with an enigmatic smile on his lips. “I must say Captain, you are moving up in the world. Usually you at least make planet fall before being called on the carpet.”

“Hysterical William, God only knows how much da bian we’re in and you want to try and start a new career as a comedian, and if you say ‘It’s part of my sparkling personality.’ I am going to kill you where you stand.”

“Pace mei mei I give.” He raised his hands in mock surrender.

“William, you know anything I need to know?”

“Chan, now you know me better, if I did I would tell anything I knew about anything that would get us in a bind. I’ll drive; it will give you some time to gather your thoughts.”

“Good idea.”

The two got in the hover car and drove immediately to the coordinates provided by Chang. This proved to be a towering edifice that was a flawless replica of a classic Ming Dynasty temple given over to use as an office building. It was clearly designed to awe and impress anyone that had to do business there that didn’t work there. Finding a place to park, they entered the building a found a pleasant man at the counter that directed them to the main hearing hall.

“This whole set up is starting to smell worse every step we take mei mei.

“Tell me something I don’t know, but given the surface to space weaponry this planet packs, I doubt if Marsh could get us off planet in one piece. Like it or not, we are in this for the full measure.”

On reaching the ornate doors that led to their destination, Chan took a deep breath and entered, her shoulders square and her jaw set. William’s posture also bespoke calm and the right to be in this place regardless of the situation.

“Captain Wu Chan Juan and First Mate William Lemont of the Firefly-class freighter Lattimer’s Ghost, formally known as the Tantivy.” A crimson bedecked herald spoke in a deep, clear, stentorian voice as the two entered the vast hearing hall.

The lavish hearing hall bespoke the wealth and power and was also designed to intimidate with fine tapestries featuring Earth-That-Was scenes, polished woods, and the high court room-like judge’s bench with five members that appeared almost like some sort of avenging tribunal. The three men and two women on the high bench looked serene, but they also did not show any hint of friendliness either.

“Captain Wu, I am Baron Chang Wen Shen. I know you are curious why I called you here, so I will not waste time and will get right to the point. In the past ten weeks several Greenleaf merchant vessels have been attacked, each has had their entire crew killed, but only part of their cargoes stolen, namely a mildly narcotic product called Highleaf. This is a luxury trade item that to the locals of Greenleaf is no more troublesome than a glass of wine. It is exported for its potent medicinal properties however, to people not from Greenleaf this same product, when processed to that end it becomes a powerful, dangerous, and addictive drug. 

        “Evidence recovered from the drifting ships implies renegade Independents have resorted to piracy to fund anti-Alliance activities. Our local patrol has been unable to capture these attackers as they attack precisely and with great speed. Since you Captain were once a member of the Independents movement. Regardless of your current standing with them, it is only fitting that you and your crew be the bait to stop this menace. Since you might feel this is our problem and not yours, I have been informed that your ship does not currently have a cargo at the moment and my sources also tell me that your ship is due for its flight worthiness inspection; maybe my good captain you would be willing to help?”

Never noted for being unable to read between the lines and facing the five grim visages of what was for all intents and purposes actually a tribunal, Chan was very quickly able to figure which way this situation would play out if she did anything other than agree.

“Baron Chang, my ship is at your disposal.”

“Excellent Captain, since I also happen to know the local Dragon Flower Interplanetary representative personally, I will see that the offloading is expedited. By the time you return to your ship, your business with Dragon Flower will have concluded. I will have the bait cargo in place and they will load immediately once your cargo bay is open. Thank you for your assistance in this matter Captain, I am glad you have chosen to see…reason. So many freighter captains choose a more unpleasant course of action. 

“The willow learns to sway with the wind Baron.”

“Indeed it does Captain. Since you have been so accommodating, I will return the favor. I will send a wave with all the accumulated data we have on these bandits to this point. Hopefully it will assist you.”

“Thank you Baron.”

On a nod from Chang, it was clear the meeting was over, so Chan and William took their leave as quickly as propriety would allow. They waited until they were in the hover car and halfway to the ship before trusting themselves to speak.

“Well that guy was a prince among men mei mei. If you had said no, what do you think he would have done?”

“He would have started with impounding the ship and then working his way through any number of infractions until we saw reason. You know how ‘unpleasant ‘we freighter captains can be and sometimes a gentleman has to be equally unpleasant to get his point across.”

“We are so boned.”

“Among other things, but boned pretty much sums it up.”

“We’ll make it happen Captain.”

“I have no doubt. I just really hate being strapped over a barrel I didn’t choose to be strapped over.”

“You ask to be strapped over barrels?”

Be zui[20] William and drive.”

 

On return to the ship, Chan found that Chang was correct about the Dragon Flower cargo being already offloaded. As they entered the ship, Cindy handed her the small sack that held their payment for the trip. The trucks with the decoy cargo were arriving and Chan figured that going by how efficient Chang’s people had already proven themselves to be, they could figure out how to get the load in place without any help from the crew. She then called everyone to the dining room to break the news of the change in plans.

“Well this isn’t something I like, but we don’t have much choice. Seems some hijackers have been stealing cargo from the locals. Ex-Browncoat hijackers.” Chan said, her eyes sweeping each member of the crew. “The locals have taken exception to this, and have hired us to act as bait to drop the heavy end of the hammer on these hun dan pirates.”

“You took on a merc job Captain?” Asked Marsh.

“No I didn’t, we got shanghaied into this one, and the less said about it the better. Thing is, we have roughly as long as it takes the locals to load the ship to prepare for this job. The local chieftain has sent us a wave with all the information on the pirates he’s got. Xavier, this is where you get to shine. I need you to look through what they have, then see if you can find out what they don’t have, and even more importantly, what they have, but didn’t tell us.

Marsh and Willis, I need you to check everything you can think of, we will be facing an armed ship and we need every ounce of speed and maneuverability you can wring out of the old girl. Cindy, Li Ming, we will start doing a pre-combat checks on every weapon we have and maybe see if we can rig up a couple surprises. People I figure we have five hours max before we have to lift. We will only have time to restock the ship’s fuel, infirmary, and larder before taking off for Persephone. Dong ma?”

“Understood Captain, we’ll give them sons of whores a welcome they will never forget.” Cindy replied and by silent agreement everyone started moving to their assigned tasks, but as they moved out, no one had noticed how Li Ming’s eyes had widened when she heard the name Persephone.

When Xavier got a look at the wave from Chang she found that information on the raiders was scarce, the only real information they has was that the pirates approached fast, fired a warning shot, then if the ship didn’t heave to a second shot would disable the target’s drive. This was followed by a broadcast that no one would be harmed if they cooperated however, once the crew was rounded up, they were executed. In addition to their tactics Chang attached a message to Captain Wu that added that every ship ambushed occurred near Boros and was either inbound or outbound from Persephone. One final note in the briefing included that Persephone also happens to be home of a business rival to the Chang’s. It is possible that these rivals – the Hans – are just using Independent faction veterans as muscle to organize the raids. 

Knowing that any information would be useful, plus she just happened to like poking around in files that others took pains to keep secret, Xavier tapped into the local Cortex to see if she could find a pattern to the attacks. She immediately was able to figure out that there could only be one ship making the attacks as there were a couple of noticeable gaps in the raid pattern; indicating this single ship was out being serviced or was disposing of already captured cargo.  Digging deeper, Xavier was able to find that because of formal flight plans, import/export formalities, and warehouse contracting, there were dozens of possible sources for a leak.

Since a single source didn’t present itself, once she found out from Xavier about this possible lead, Captain Wu went through every step in the Chang shipping SOP to make certain that wherever the leak was located, they would get the word this time also. To this end, the loading was done in broad daylight with heavy noticeable security that drew much attention, while not disguising the contents of what was being loaded from anyone in the area that took the time to look. The decoy cargo was powerful bait consisting of 350 tons of other valuable medicines and a staggering 50 tons of Highleaf.

In order to survive, Chan and crew would have to meet the boarders with blinding violence and attempt a counter boarding if at all possible. After their quick meeting, Chan directed a couple special changes as the cargo was being loaded that would channel any movement by the boarders and give the crew several well protected hiding places. Once the cargo was fully loaded, there was little else left to do beyond closing the cargo ramp and depart.

 

“I tell you William, I’m thinking the Captain sticking to the Lift-Day Feast is a great idea. No need to let a minor thing like being sent on a suicide mission cast a pall on a good meal.” Xavier said while she peeled potatoes for the meal in the galley.

“Well I’m sure there’s meant to be a compliment in their somewhere Xavier.” The first mate replied jovially as he stirred a sauce pan. “I’m just glad I had enough time to get the fixins’ for the meal. We were a mite rushed to leave you might say.”

“That’s putting it mildly, that Chang character was pretty insistent that we get in the Black and off his world before we stunk up the place.”

“A noble of grace, his fine nose not so ready, we are much too crude.”

“A haiku William? I’m impressed.”

“I um, I didn’t think you’d recognize my doggerel.”

“I did study art on Sihnon you know, I just concentrated on painting, but the academy was very thorough about making sure we were shown a wide variety of art forms, including some rather bizarre Earth-That-Was styles. I was particularly taken with the works of Picasso.”

Guernica.” William muttered.

“Yes! I remember that one, but I was never clear on the context.”

“It was an anti-war protest decrying the bombardment of civilians.”

“Nuclear?”

“No, no, no! The first nuclear attack wasn’t until about ten years later.”

“Striking painting for a non-nuclear bombardment.”

“All of Picasso’s works are striking.”

“William you have the heart of a dreamer, Earth-That-Was art, history, poetry, cooking, I think the old term was Renaissance man.”

“Xavier, if I thought for a second you were yanking my chain, I’d have you chin deep in the reclamation tanks. I…I…know I’m not all that pleasing to look at, so I have tried to learn as much about beautiful things as I can. It’s sort of a compensation to my way of thinking.”

“Well you keep it up. I didn’t think anyone, ‘cept maybe Li Ming might know anything about art, so maybe we can talk some times.”

“You my green haired vixen have a deal. Now scoot, too many cooks spoil the broth and all that. I have cooking to do.”

Xavier ran a hand through her short hair pulled into the beginnings of a scalp lock. “I would like that. You’ve piqued my curiosity on Picasso now. I’m going to hit the Cortex to see what I can learn. See you at 2000 hours.” She wink lasciviously and headed back to her cabin.

William watched her leave, his own curiosity piqued at the mystery woman. “That girl is a wild card. I am glad of her though. She makes life interesting.” He thought and then turned back to his primary task of making sure the feast would live up to its name again.

 

In what all hoped would be a harbinger of good luck, William’s meal turned out better than ever. However, due to the threat posed by the raiders, Li Ming kept her larder holding the whiskey bottles firmly closed. The lack of adult libation aside, it was obvious that William had uncovered a heretofore unrealized talent as a chef. The crew made the very most of the meal and time together and simply chose to live for the moment and enjoy each other’s company, and in so doing, they passed being strangers, and they even passed being on the same crew, they were on their way to becoming a family, a dysfunctional family maybe, but a family nonetheless.

 

Marsh plotted the standard course for Persephone taking into account the points of intercept of the previous attacks from Chang’s data. He carefully set a course that would take the ship though the area of primary intercept on a roundabout path while not being obvious about it. The meandering course would make a five day trip stretch to eight days, but he hoped it would give them the best chance of attracting the pirates on the first try. No one wanted to have to make a second run with a bull’s eye on their back. Six days into the trip, Marsh picked up the signature of a ship closing fast. 

“All hands look alive, we have company!” Marsh barked over the intercom. “Man your battle stations! Stand by to repel boarders!”

“You could sound like you weren’t enjoying this so much you know? This is serious stuff” Xavier said as she dropped into her ‘battle station’ in the co-pilot’s seat after making sure the bridge was fully sealed. Their part of the battle, if everything went according to the plan, would be waged from where they were right now.

“Yeah I know, but no need to be all doom and gloom about it. This is more of trouble than that mess on Regina; at least we had the option to run there. Here we have to let them come to us and smile while we do it. I don’t know about you, but I’m not too- WO DE MA! “

Marsh howled and skewed the ship away from what he hoped was the pirate’s signature warning shot. He showed off his piloting skills by not only completely avoiding the inbound missile’s blast radius, he made it look like it was a random course change and not an alerted target. Playing his part to the hilt, Marsh brought the ship to a halt, powering down the drive and waiting for the raiders to dock. The comm screeched with the also signature ‘heave to and prepared to be boarded line’ from the pirate vessel.

“Here’s where they give us we won’t be harmed if we cooperate line.” He stage whispered to Xavier and right on cue the message followed and he grabbed the microphone to reply. “Message received and understood. We are unarmed. Please do not fire, we have children aboard.” 

“Children?” Xavier asked when Marsh hung up.

“Made us sound more pathetic and less likely to fight. Might work, might not. I figure we are deep enough in it now that it can’t hurt.”

“Sounds plausible, now excuse me, I’ve got some mischief to do.”

 

Down in the cargo bay, Captain Wu, wearing full body armor under a deliberately bulky set of coveralls and with a hidden pistol would greet the boarders and play the role of a terrified and helpless woman. As Chan kept the pirates believing they were in control, William, Cindy, Li Ming, and Willis, all also in full armor, waited in the ambush positions hidden in the cargo bay. The plan called for Chan to calmly agree to the boarder’s demands and lead them into the rest of the shooter’s kill zone.

Okay Miss Wu Chan Juan, don’t over do it. These are only men, they expect me to be a helpless woman, so be a helpless woman.” Chan thought to herself as she stood by the controls and waited for the airlock to cycle. However as she thought about helpless women, her mind strayed to the security cam captures of the dead on the other ships already attacked by the pirates and she began to seethe inside. Something about meeting killers of children set Chan’s blood to boiling and rather than the smooth lie to relax the eight boarders that was part of the plan, she snarled, “He Chu Sheng Za Jiao De Zang Hud[21]!” drew her pistol and opened fire.

Chan’s unexpected move threw the ambush into chaos as she was in the boarder’s firing zone, but only half of the boarders were in the crew’s kill zone, this left Chan facing four boarders that only she could fight.

After milliseconds of confusion, a storm of confused fire from both sides erupted. The first person to actually fire was Li Ming who put two shotgun rounds into her target’s chest. His body armor saved his life, but the two powerful hits hammered the man unconscious. Chan’s surprise that started the wild melee pumped three fanned pistol rounds into a second boarder and like Li Ming’s target, went down unconscious. Cindy fired a SMG burst that clipped another boarder in an aimed shot to the head that left the man so stunned he couldn’t return fire. Both Willis and William fired on the last man in their kill zone, but the terrified pirate dodged out of the way. With two of the eight boarders down, things were looking good for the crew of the Ghost, despite the premature start of the firing.

Li Ming fired two more shots at the man Cindy hit and the massive systemic shock was more than enough to kill the man. The surprised boarders finally began returning fire with one of the goons taking a shot at Li Ming for causing so much havoc, but the nimble gambler managed to dodge out of the way, just barely, but enough to stay in the fight.  

“CAPTAIN ROLL LEFT!” William barked as he charged from his hiding place with his rifle blazing to protect Chan.

The First Mate’s fire hit one of the goons trying to fire on Chan, slamming the pirate back against the bulkhead. A second pirate sprang to the defense of his comrade and took William under fire for interfering, but drawing the fire away from Chan. Despite his bulk, the big man rolled out of the way, giving Chan the chance to return the favor with two headshots that reduced the number of boarders by half.

Cindy and a boarder exchanged fire that left the boarder stunned. The one goon still hiding in the airlock hit Chan solidly in the chest before the crew could press home the attack. However, her body armor deflected the shot, leaving her staggered, but not taking her out of the fight. Li Ming fired the instant before the boarder that had already taken her under fire, driving him back before he could fire again. Chan shot the man that hit her also preventing him from firing again.

Willis, hampered by his own unwillingness to kill attempted several shots aimed at boarders weapons, but not being the greatest shot, missed completely. To his credit, he could claim forcing boarders back and allowing the others to do the more effective shooting.

Another pirate hiding in the airlock hit William with a rifle burst that sent the big man crashing to the deck unconscious, only saved by his armor. Li Ming responded with two lightning fast shots at two boarders with one man dodging, while the second man – the one who shot William  – slumping to the deck, dead before he hit the ground. A boarder fired on Li Ming at the same instant Chan fired at the boarder shooting at Li Ming. The gambler was hit by one round before the raider’s weapon jammed, but she too was saved by her armor. Chan’s shot killed the man that shot Li Ming. With only two raiders still standing, they had reached their breaking point and turned to run. The one pirate still in the airlock bolted before anyone could stop him. The last pirate either was either made of sterner stuff or realized he couldn’t escape, swung his rifle at Chan, but a perfectly aimed burst from Cindy split the man’s skull, killing him instantly. 

“WILLIAM!” Chan cried out as she, and then Cindy, who arrived a second after the captain, rolled her first mate over. “Don’t you dare die on me!”

“I’ve got him Captain!” Cindy said tersely and checking his injuries. “You make sure those cowardly lumps of niu shi[22] don’t get away!”

Chan looked like she would refuse to move for a second, but when Willis arrived to help Cindy move William she nodded and ran to assist Li Ming who was covering the airlock. She did however move slower than normal as she favored her left side that had taken the hit.

“You know Chan you have got to stop doing that.” Li Ming said as she felt Chan’s presence next to her.

“Stop doing what?”

“Getting shot, it can’t be pleasant.”

Chan regarded the gambler with a look that might have killed, until she realized Li Ming was pulling her leg. “I…uh…I’ll work on that bao bei[23].”

“Why Captain, I didn’t know you cared.”

“Li Ming, do you want to find out how unpleasant being shot is first hand?”

“I’ll pass.”

“I thought as much, but thanks for caring.”

“Anytime, but may I make a suggestion Captain?”

“Of course.”

“Next time we have an ambush set up, stick to the plan, might cut down that attraction lead seems to have for you.”

At this point Chan’s cheeks colored slightly and she grinned sheepishly. “Yeah, I did kind of throw a monkey wrench in the plan with that move didn’t I?”

“You did, but things have worked out. William will be okay. It didn’t look good, but he took that burst in the armor and he’s strong. He’ll be fine.”

 “Yeah, he’s a regular grav tank. The hardest part will be getting him out of the armor.” Chan’s brow creased in worry, but she shook it off.

 

While Chan and Li Ming covered the airlock, Xavier sprung the mischief she had started as soon as the pirate’s ship docked. Hacking into the hijacker’s airlock controls; she got the Lattimer’s Ghost free of the pirate ship. As soon as the Cortex panel beeped she snapped a single word at Marsh.

“Now!”

“I’m on it!” He replied and slammed full power to the ship’s maneuver drive and bolted for the Boros asteroid belt.

Caught completely by surprise, the pirates failed to react before the Lattimer’s Ghost got a large head start on them. Beyond furious at the casualties inflicted by what was supposed to be another easy target, the raiders immediately prepared to blast these upstarts as an object lesson.

 

“You better be as good as you say you are, cause I’m reading a fire control array trying to lock onto us. You’ve got less than five seconds before we have a missile making all sorts of unpleasantness for us.”

“Trust me.”

“Don’t you think we all already are?”

“Just watch and learn.”

 

Marsh kept up his evasive course toward the Boros asteroid belt just in case, but when the pirates finally locked on and attempted to open fire on the rapidly retreating Lattimer’s Ghost, just as she knew it would, Xavier’s second electronic surprise struck. The fire command   initiated a carefully crafted virus program that sent a powerful electromagnetic surge through the pirate’s ship. The pirate’s ship was bathed in a coruscating nimbus of blue lightning and the resulting overload fried the control systems of the hijacker’s just as they entered the asteroid belt.

Marsh’s attention was tied up with avoiding asteroids himself and so he quickly lost track of the pursuers. When there was a brilliant flash behind him, he brought the ship around after he was certain that there were no missiles in the area and when he reached the location of the flash, he found that the pirates had met with an asteroid at a high enough speed, all that was left was a very deep smoking crater. 

“This is the point where you say ‘thank you Xavier.’” She smiled smugly with her arms folded across her chest and her head canted to one side.

“You got lucky and you know it.”

“Well you are partially right. I thought the overload would just disable their ship the added fireworks were a bonus. Not that I think anyone minds. The ‘Verse is a better place without people like that.”

“I agree. Great job Xavier, I’m glad whatever you want to call it brought you to us.” Chan said as she entered the bridge. She looked out the viewport and nodded at the rapidly cooling new crater on the asteroid. “I was dreading boarding their ship. This is our home and we had the advantage, counter-boarding would have been on their turf and would have lead to all sorts of hurt. As it is we got lucky. Only William and I took hits and Cindy has seen to that.”

“You were hit Cap?” Marsh asked with a surprising amount of concern.

“Trust me, I’ve seen and had far worse, so has William. We’ll both live and thanks to Xavier here, we did it with a minimum of fuss, how much longer to Persephone?”

“Forty hours and its pay day Cap.”

“We earned it Marsh, I’ll leave you to the flyin’ and I’m going to take me a couple of strong painkillers and get some sleep.”

“Say hi to the big guy for me Captain.” Xavier added and then stood with a long stretch. “On second thought, I’ll swing by the infirmary myself and see how he is doing. Night Captain.”

Chan tossed her a wave over her shoulder and gingerly made it down the ladder to her cabin. She carefully got herself undressed and into her bunk after following though with taking the painkillers. “I am getting entirely too old for all this excitement.” She thought as she lay still for a moment and tried to find a position that didn’t hurt so much, then after a few seconds just as the medication took hold, she thought as she drifted to sleep. “Oh hell Chan, you know you loved every second of it.” 

 

“So how is he doing?” Xavier asked as she entered the infirmary, watching Cindy observing scanner readouts.

“He’s doing pretty well all things considered but, even the best body armor can only stop so much kinetic energy. He’s got three cracked ribs and a bruised lung, but going by the readouts, it looks like he’ll outlive all of us.”

“Well that’s good to hear. I’m going to turn in Cindy you look like you need some rest too.”

“I’ll turn in as soon as I check on the two survivors. The other five ‘passengers’ will keep.”

“We should space the lot, bunch of low life baby killers.”

“I agree, but you know the Captain, she won’t go that route unless they cause trouble, then they will get a nice walk in the Black. That crate Willis welded them in will keep them nice and tight until we can give them to Chang’s men.”

“How are you going to check on them in a welded case?”

“I’ll rattle the cage if they jump they are still alive, if they don’t well, then we will be certain they won’t cause trouble.”

“Crude but effective. Night.”

“Night.”

 

Continuing on to Persephone, the ship touched down exactly forty hours later. They were met by three of Baron Chang’s representatives and half a dozen large trucks at the Eavesdown dock.

“Captain Wu? I am Artemis Taylor. I will take charge of the shipment and the additional ‘cargo’ in your possession.” The tallest of the three men said as they walked up the cargo ramp.

 “Mister Taylor, you are more than welcome to them. Would you like some refreshments? We can talk more privately in the ship’s lounge.” Chan replied amiably, the rest of the crew at her back, except for Li Ming who complained before landing that she wasn’t feeling well and had stayed on her shuttle.

“No thank you Captain. I will remain here and will depart as soon as I’m certain the work crew has things under control.”

“Okay then, I guess if you don’t mind handing the money over in public, neither do I.”

“I’m sorry Captain, there has been a misunderstanding.” Taylor said uncomfortably. “Your ship was temporarily deputized as a patrol auxiliary by Baron Chang. Your ship and crew were technically volunteer security personnel conducting a sting operation at the behest of the government of Greenleaf and not contracted shippers; accordingly there will be no payment for the cargo.”

The temperature in the cargo bay dropped to near Kelvin levels as Chan’s smile faded and her arm twitched toward her side arm. The only thing that saved Taylor’s life was William managing to intercept her arm before her pistol could clear the holster.

“No mei mei, let me talk from here.” He said calmly, but holding her arm in a grip of iron until she nodded and relaxed.

“Mister Taylor, exactly when did this deputizing occur? We were not informed and you will understand why things are as tense as they are at the moment.” William continues smoothly as if a bloodletting had not just been narrowly averted.

“I regret the oversight Mister Lemont. Baron Chang’s wave arrived yesterday. Deputizing auxiliaries takes the entire High Council and they did not meet until four days after you left. The time lag for the wave to reach Persephone being what it is, the message did not arrive until ten hours ago.”

“I see.” William said icily. “And what does an auxiliary have to do to be paid?”

“You would have to provide direct evidence that the pirates in question were not actually pro-Independent rogues as is the case. Do you have such evidence?”

Ben tian sheng de yi dui rou![24]” Chan snarled viciously. “You know we don’t have any ‘such evidence.’ You know very well their ship is a crater on one of the asteroids of Boros and the wang bad an de biao zi[25] we captured dead or alive didn’t have anything on them that says they was anything but ex-Browncoats. You better consider yourself damn lucky William chose to save your life today, you might not get so lucky next time. Now you will get off my ship or I think it will be William that decides to take it into his head to shoot you this time.”

“Now Cap-“

“You might want to listen to the lady you hun dan. She said git!” Marsh said with a growl.

Taylor realized covering the Baron’s duplicity with kind words was probably going to get him killed, so he simply nodded and he, with his two silent comrades departed.

“We’ll find a cargo some how Chan. Persephone is busy place.” Cindy said softly after Taylor was out of sight.

“Yes we will Cindy. Yes we will.” Chan replied through a tight jaw. “You can damn sure bet we will, just damn sure bet we’ll find something.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Four

           

“Hey Li Ming, we made planetfall ten hours ago and you’re still here, what is going on?” Asked Marsh the small statured pilot of the Lattimer’s Ghost and finest in the ‘Verse if you let him talk about it, which he would if given even the slightest encouragement. 

“Uh…well this may be a bit difficult for a guy to understand, but now that we are back on solid ground and water isn’t a premium, I’ve got to wash my hair.” Replied the stunning Wong Li Ming. “You know sometimes a girl just has to take time to spoil herself. Gambling isn’t everything you know.”

 “Well you got the ‘a bit difficult for a guy to understand’ part right. You usually have your shuttle in atmo before the ‘Ghost is after that “hot table” you are always going on about. Are you sure you’re feeling okay? You’re the one that calls herself a gambler and it is how you make you living, so now you are telling me gambling isn’t everything?”

“Yeah well, since you are a guy, you don’t have to understand about a woman’s hygienic needs. Now you go find some trouble to get into like a good little Troglodyte and try not to drag your knuckles so much when you do.” She quipped then continued up the stairs toward the shuttle she called home.

      Marsh paused on the landing and admired her shapely form as she departed. He sighed and shook his head before heading down the main boarding ramp to catch up to Cindy Schultz the ship’s medic, who was every bit as unattractive as Li Ming was beautiful and Xavier, the ship’s odd duck computer and security systems expert.

“You know one of these days she’s going to catch you checking out her p gu.” Said Xavier.

“We’ll it’s her fault you know.”

“Her fault?” snorted Cindy. “Okay go ahead and explain to me how it’s her fault you are always checking her out.”

“Well if she didn’t look so damn fine, I’d be looking at someone else. Besides she knows I’m checking her out. Chicks always know, especially the fine ones.”

Cindy rolled her eyes then looked at Xavier. “Tell me again why I bother? He’s a typical guy, born to be a pig and here I am trying to make a silk purse out of him.”

“You have always enjoyed a challenge I guess.” Replied Xavier, admiring her reflection in the window of the shop selling what the owners proudly proclaimed were antiques. She could be considered attractive, but her current appearance seemed to be constructed to make that as hard to detect as possible. Maybe it was the hair shaved high and tight leaving a purple scalp lock, or possibly the inserts that made her eyes seem like completely green mirrors, but the most unusual thing was the bone that pierced her nose, almost like she was trying to pay homage to some aborigine from Earth-That-Was. She turned from the window and tilted her head to one side, which she did unconsciously whenever she was thinking though something.

“No challenge isn’t the word, conundrum is more the word you are looking for.”

“Conundrum?” Both Cindy and Marsh replied simultaneously.

“Yes it is a conundrum how they could shave an orangutan, teach it to talk and let it call itself a pilot.”

Cindy burst out laughing as Marsh sputtered trying to come up with a suitable reply, but was so taken by surprise that he couldn’t.

Xavier gently placed her hand on his shoulder and smiled sincerely. “It’s okay big fellah, your secret is safe with me. Don’t get upset. Last thing we need is for you to revert to your roots and have you gen hou zi bi diu shi[26] like you used to do back in the jungle before the big bad men came to shave you.”

At this point it was difficult to tell who was redder, Marsh from his crewmate’s stinging rejoinders or Cindy from laughing so hard. Cindy at this point had tears in her eyes and was holding her sides as she guffawed from Xavier’s pointed comments.

“Let’s go, we have work to do.” The flustered Marsh finally managed to growl as he strode away from the ship and into the Eavesdown Dock proper. Xavier took the still laughing Cindy by the arm and pulled her along so the two women could catch up with their much-abused friend.

 

Several blocks from the Eavesdown Docks, Captain Wu Chan Juan sat with her corpulent first mate William Lamont sharing a beer and trying to not look so depressed.

“We’ve only been on planet ten hours Chan, no need to act like we haven’t got a friend in the ‘Verse you know.” The big man said around the Bao[27] he was stuffing into his mouth.

“William, we have to plan our cargoes well in advance if we are to keep that Bao you love so much flowing.” She replied with a frown.

“Never mind about me being a Bao connoisseur mei mei. This is the biggest port we’ve been to since the ‘Ghost took to the Black again and we will find something.”

Chan smiled and giggled in a most un-captain-like manner. “Never ending appetite and never ending optimism. I really don’t know what I’d do without you my friend. The ‘Verse would be an empty place without you here to keep me sane.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment and once I’m finished with this.” Indicating the third generous serving of Bao he was demolishing. “Let’s see if Frankie-the-Hand knows if anyone needs something shipped.”

“Frankie-the-Hand! I thought you didn’t like him.”

“I don’t have to like him to carry merchandise for him.”
”William you are incorrigible.”
”It’s my nicest feature…no second nicest.”

“Okay I’ll bite.” Chan said supplying the obvious straight line.”

“Why my sparkling personality mei mei.”

 

”Who would have thought a secondary waste reclamation access terminal would have level five encryption?” Xavier muttered into her sake at the dockside bar Marsh, Cindy, and she had found after her failed attempt to hack into the local Cortex restricted database. “This isn’t the Core, it’s a bloody border world! The bloody Alliance doesn’t lavish that sort of security around just for grins you know.”

“Well on Persephone, apparently they do.” Cindy replied, getting a bit fed up with her crewmate’s whining. “You gave it your best shot and it didn’t work. The Captain will find something; she knows a lot of people in a lot of places. Something will break our way.”

“That would be nice for a change.” Marsh muttered. “Luck hasn’t exactly been breaking our way ever since Greenleaf.”

“Let’s not go down that road either. I’m going to get another drink. You want one?” Cindy said over her shoulder as she headed for the bar.

“Sure thing, if you’re buyin’, I’ll have some of the good stuff.” Marsh replied and rubbed his hands in anticipation.

“Nothing for me thanks.” Xavier called out to her comrade at the bar, before dropping her voice so that only Willis could hear as she continued. “Last thing I need is a depressant right now.”

“Oh give it a rest already sweetcakes. Remember Cindy is a medic. A good stiff drink is just what the doctor is ordering.”

On reaching the bar Cindy signaled the bartender and as she pulled the necessary bills from her wallet, she noticed the large, and obviously well in his cups, man down the bar staring at her.

“Damn iff’n I ain’t been from one end of the ‘Verse to th’ tother and I’ll be dipped if you ain’t about the most powerfully ugly woman I’ve ever seen. A man would have to be ten days past desperate before he’d try grapplin’ wid the likes o’ you.” He then chortled merrily at his own witticism.

Cindy had heard that sort of comment far too many times to let the opinions of a drunk ruffle her, so she simply paid the bartender for the two drinks, and was turning back toward her table, when she heard the sound of a chair sliding back,

“No Marsh dammit, no! He’s not worth it!” Cindy shouted as she moved to block the small man’s deliberate advance on the drunk.

“Yeah Marsh, have your drink, like you said, it’s just what the doctor ordered.” Xavier added as she pulled on his arm trying to get him to stop his advance.

“This won’t take a minute hon, you can have my drink with Cindy.” He replied calmly and deftly slipped out of Xavier’s grasp and around Cindy’s attempt to block his progress.

About this time, the drunk became aware that someone was standing in his light. He looked up blearily at the obstruction. “You got a problem little man?” He growled.

“Yeah. As a matter of fact I do. Since, by your own appearance, despite your claims of extensive travel to the contrary, you are obviously not a man of the world. So, I guess it falls to me to teach you some manners.”

The drunk broke into a horselaugh at the thought of a man 80 pounds lighter teaching him any sort of lesson and stood up, to his credit, he even managed not to sway as he did, but he also showed that he was about eight inches taller than Marsh as well.

“You seriously think you can teach me anything?” He said.

“Even if no one else has tried, I’m going to, as damn if it isn’t time for someone to pound something into that rock you call a head.” Marsh replied evenly.

“Why you little Feng le[28] twit!” The big man snarled as he drew back his meaty fist.

However, the much more agile and much more sober pilot anticipated just such a move and landed a one-two punch with blinding speed striking the drunk on both sides of his nose before he could even draw his fist all the way back, the sudden spurt of blood announcing that the nose was also well and truly broken.

Blinded by fury and pain, the drunk flailed ineffectively, allowing the nimble Marsh to duck under the wild swings and deliver another one-two combination to the drunk’s gut. Despite his small size, these second blows caused the air to explode out of the drunk’s lungs, leaving him gasping like a fish out of water. Sidestepping to the drunk’s left, Marsh drove an elbow to the kidney actually forced the half-mad bigger man to his knees. A final flat palm to the drunk’s nose was enough to send him crashing to the floor with a mighty thud.

“As to actually learning something from this lesson will be shown if you keep a civil tongue about you next time you think you’ve thought of something clever.” An only slightly winded Marsh commented as he gave a chagrined wave to the bartender. “Yeah I know, it’s time for us to go. For your trouble.” He added as he flipped a ten platinum coin to cover for the disruption he’d caused.

“You do know you didn’t have to do that.” Cindy said as they headed back toward their ship. “I’ve heard that sort of thing before and I do know how to handle myself with his sort.”

“Actually I did have to do that. Even if you aren’t the most beautiful thing in the ‘Verse, who in the south side of Sihnon does he think he is to call attention to it.”

“Well, as hard as this is to believe, I actually think he’s got a valid point this time.” Cindy replied, her face creased in thought.

“It seems our shaved orangutan is more of a conundrum than we thought. He almost seemed human for a second there.” Xavier said shaking her head in disbelief.

“Yeah I’m a real credit to my new species. Ook ook ook.”

And this time all three of them shared in the laugh.

 

“Do you think I laid it on too thick this time William?” Chan Juan asked while they waited at a traffic light to cross the street.

“Well, I was about to hand you a trowel, but no, I think you did what you had to do to get Frankie-the-Hand to tell you about that cargo he was obviously saving for someone else. The bigger problem is we have to wait four days before the shipper has his cargo ready to go. That’s four days for something to develop you know how I hate developments.” The first mate replied after taking a moment to think about the morning’s meeting with the unseemly Frankie-the-Hand.

Chan Juan shivered for a second before she continued speaking and continued walking when the light changed. “Yes, but damn it all, now we owe that…that…  Damn what did they call that long, thin, sneaky, little mammal critter on Earth-That-Was?

“A weasel?” Offered William.

“Thinner than that, but you are on the right track.”

“A ferret?”

“Yes that’s it! A ferret, I tell you I’m glad the life support unit on those things failed during the trip to the ‘Verse. I don’t think it was any loss they didn’t make it here. Can you imagine what it would be like to have more of them around than that hou zi de pi gu Frankie-the-Ferret running around?”

“You have a point, but it couldn’t be helped. Frankie wouldn’t budge and offering to transport a single load of cargo at standard rates, but with no questions at a later date was the only way to get him to spill. You know I never liked him, but we aren’t in the position to be too picky right now.”

“Don’t I know it! Those hun dan “nobles” of Greenleaf really left us strapped over a barrel. I know you’ve got some money stashed, as do I, but that won’t keep us in fuel, parts, and protein packs for long and I’ll be a purple pig in a pink tutu before I let the ‘Ghost get stranded somewhere again. I got lucky getting the crew I got, considering how choosy I couldn’t be. I won’t go for outside partners that aren’t onboard and a part of the crew.”

“As well you shouldn’t. I wouldn’t fly under a captain or owner that won’t risk being in the Black themselves. It’s the primary reason I signed on to fly with you mei mei, no, that would be the second reason.”
      ”You just can’t stop having me play the straight-man can you? Okay what would be the first reason you choose to fly with me?”

“Why your sparkling personality mei mei.”

 

As the rest of the crew went about trying to locate a job that would keep them in fuel, parts, and protein packs, the ship’s mechanic Willis Thorton was in his beloved engine room tinkering. He had picked up several new parts for the Lattimer’s Ghost and was in the process of installing them to keep the ship that was fifteen years older than he was in top running condition. Technically, he was also watching the ship, but with his head and shoulders buried in the life support access panel, he wasn’t really able to fulfill that part of his watch very well.

 

This preoccupation was a happy coincidence for the three beefy men that were at that moment slipping up the ramp of the ‘Ghost. Despite being in a fairly busy area, the three men remained unseen and even if Willis was watching carefully, there was little guarantee he would have seen them enter. They were that good. Moving silently, they quickly made sure the cargo bay was clear before moving up the stairs to the upper deck. Skill is only half of a professional’s make up. The second and equally, if not more, important part was luck. As the lead intruder crept up the stairs, an empty can of peaches left carelessly on the landing found its way under his foot. The man slipped, but his training kept him from falling. His training could not however, keep the can from falling to the floor of the cargo bay.

Da xiang bao zha shi de la du zi[29]!” Willis thundered as the wrench he was using slipped off the nut causing him to bark the skin on his knuckles. “Sweet merciful Buddha, forgive my outburst, the fault was mine.” The deeply religious Willis said contritely before returning to his task, unbeknownst to the pious mechanic, his outburst just so happened to mask the faint sound of a can rattling around in the cargo bay.

Clunk-ting-ting-rattle-rattle-clunk came the sound from the cargo bay and Li Ming, already wired for reasons known only to her, reacted immediately. She rolled up from her comfortable sofa, drawing her pistol in a smooth motion, and moved to peer cautiously from her shuttle.

Ta ma de.” She muttered as she saw the three men on the stairs. “Never let it be said Darius Nightblade is a man of patience. At least he didn’t send the hun dan that hung me over the balcony.”

Li Ming moved quickly and silently along the mid-level catwalk above the cargo bay until she melted into the shadows at the corner that led to the top of the stairs the three intruders would reach when they started moving again. Dropping prone, she waited in ambush.

 

The three men froze in absolute silence for over a minute waiting to see if the clattering can had given them away. When no sign of detection presented itself, they began moving again, this time carefully checking each step for debris.

When the men reached the catwalk, Li Ming took a deep breath and then let half of it out as she sighted in on the lead intruder. She gently squeezed the trigger, just as she was taught so many years ago, and heard the hammer strike home on a dud round. The click of the hammer almost reverberated in the resounding silence of the cargo bay. In that next split second of time, it was impossible to figure out who was more surprised, Li Ming or the intruders.

Li Ming however, recovered first with a withering curse as she threw down the jammed pistol and raced for her shuttle. The three hired guns were very good at their profession and responded milliseconds behind their target by drawing their weapons and letting loose with a fusillade of fire at the wildly dodging gambler.

 

Wo de ma![30]” Willis exclaimed as he heard the unmistakable sound of gunfire exploding on the ship. He all but vaulted off the deck and raced for his quarters to arm himself, but as always, he was torn when it came to doing violence to others, despite the provocation. “Merciful Buddha, please guide me, do I take up arms or call for help? I know violence is not your way, but I cannot abandon my friend and home to robbers.” If Buddha or anyone else had an answer, he was going to have to reach his quarters before he received that guidance.

 

Whether it was her gambler’s luck or simply fate, one of the gunmen’s pistols also jammed reducing the amount of fire coming her way, and Li Ming was almost to safety when she felt the branding iron hot slug graze across her left arm.

“Gorram it that hurts, you ruttin’ Ben tian sheng de yi dui rou[31]!” Li Ming snarled as she dove into the shuttle, trying to ignore the blood on her arm as she scrambled for another weapon. “And I really liked this outfit too. I am really going to have to find a way to make Nightblade pay for this.”

She pulled her pump action out from its hiding place and racked the slide, taking special care to make sure the round slammed home in the chamber. Once ready, she took up position covering the entry to the shuttle.

The roaring flash of a shotgun set on full choke met the first gunman through the hatch. He took the entire load of buckshot in the chest and was both blasted backward out of the shuttle and out of the fight. The man following on his heels spun out of the way of his crippled comrade and took cover on the far side of the entry to the shuttle, waiting for the third man to clear his jammed pistol. Thinking quickly, he fished in his pocket coming up with a handful of coins for the surprise he had cooked up for the unexpectedly difficult mark cowering inside the shuttle. The third man reached the other side of the hatch and nodded at the hand signals from the second man that he was ready.

 

Willis dropped down the hatch to his quarters and drew his pistol, his eyes flashing wildly at what he knew he had to do. He started up the ladder and prepared to come to Li Ming’s assistance.

 

The second gunman threw in the hand full of coins, dropped to the floor, rolled into the center of the shuttle, and looked for his target, his partner providing high cover to his low. What he saw was an object arcing out from behind the plush sofa across the shuttle. His eyes went wide when it registered what he’d seen, but being fully prone, he could not move quickly enough before the object detonated. 

 

“Tian xiao de![32]A stunned Willis muttered when he heard the explosion below deck. “No, no, no, no, this is too much! Dearest Buddha, please show our sister Li Ming your mercy. I must get help to avenge her death.” And the sobbing mechanic changed directions for the bridge.

 

Peering out of the shuttle, the very much alive Li Ming saw that her flashbang had it’s intended results, better than intended actually with one of the gunmen unconscious and the second one nearly so, his eyes rolling around in his head like marbles. Kicking his weapon away, Li Ming calmly waited for the man to regain his senses so they could have a little chat.

 

When Willis sent out his frantic call of the ship being under attack and Li Ming being murdered, the rest of the crew of the ‘Ghost raced back at top speed, their movement coordinated by their ship-linked handsets. All five of the off ship crew formed up and advanced on the ‘Ghost in a regular skirmish line fully prepared to do violence to them as what had hurt theirs. What they found was a bit different than they expected.

Reality found them face to face with Li Ming with a bandaged arm and Willis dumping the last of three bodies off the ship. They stood there open-mouthed for a second before Captain Wu lanced Li Ming with a basilisk-like glare.

“Okay, I won’t say I’m unhappy to find you still breathing, but as soon as we get this ship sealed, you are going to explain yourself. And I better like the explaining or we are going to revisit our arrangement.”

Li Ming only nodded glumly, then assisted in getting the ship sealed and a watch set. This took less than five minutes to accomplish, and then everyone gathered on the bridge, so Marsh could hear and still keep an eye on the security monitors.

“I had hoped by not leaving the ship, I could remain undetected, but I guess that was just me counting on wishful thinking. First, I owe all of you an apology for not admitting my situation and trusting you with that information.” Li Ming began, her voice starting out shaky, but becoming firmer as she found her focus.

“Three years ago I had a disagreement with a casino owner here on Persephone. His name is Darius Nightblade and he seemed to think he deserved more than the standard 60/40 split house gamblers get when they work an establishment. He wanted 70% of the take instead of the 40% due him. He told me this when I had some five thousand credits in front of me. I told him that I wouldn’t work under those conditions and I would cash out and leave. He said, yes you will, but maybe not in the manner you think you will.

“I didn’t like how that sounded one bit, but before I could make my move, I was surrounded by half a dozen leg-breakers and next thing I know I am on my way to his private office. Nightblade’s casino is quite the top-drawer establishment. You can see it in that monitor right there.”

The crew turned to see where she was pointing and could clearly see the sweeping hundred-story tower in the distance. She waited until everyone was looking at her before she continued.

“His office is in the penthouse. He had already had his goons divest me of my money, derringer, and brass knuckles, so things were not looking good for Mama Wong’s little girl Li Ming at all. Things were about to get a lot worse. Nightblade tells me that he’s got everyone at the table ready to swear I’d lost big that night and was looking distraught about it, so distraught that they were concerned about my well being. He really wasn’t in a mood to talk, so he just snapped his fingers like he was in some stupid holo-vid or something and his goons had me hanging upside down from his balcony.

“I have never been so scared in my life. I was certain that was it for me. Fortunately, I had one last ace in the hole. I had a flashbang specially made to look a hair comb. All I had to do to activate it was snap it and throw it. The dress I was wearing that night included a long, and fortunately strong, silk belt. Below me I could see a decorative cornice and while Nightblade went on and on about teaching the others a lesson, no one was keeping an eye on me. I guess they figured I wasn’t in a position to influence things. Well, long story short, the flashbang and the silk belt lassoing the cornice escape trick worked. I was able to get out of the casino before Nightblade could seal the place off, but he’s wanted to finish that night’s business ever since. I’ve kept either to the Rim or the Core worlds since then. I had hoped that having to visit Persephone on the ‘Ghost would never come up.”

The heat in Chan Juan’s gaze was down from basilisk-like to merely starving tiger-like when Li Ming finished speaking. She stood and paced a bit before her hand lashed out to slap Li Ming with a solid open-handed blow. Li Ming managed to keep her feet, but only just.

“That was for putting me and mine at risk without letting me know. I can’t abide a chicken-headed woman and that is the last time you get to be one on my ship, dong ma?”

Li Ming nodded as she rubbed the cheek Chan Juan had slapped, but both were red when you added the shame she felt from the trouble her actions had already caused and for not trusting Chan when she should have.

“Captain, the easiest way to solve something that is obviously my problem is for me to go. You can’t lift until the cargo is loaded and that won’t be for four days. On the other hand, if it’s one thing Persephone has in abundance, its transports heading off world. Just give me an hour to pack and I can be off world in an hour and a half.” Li Ming said, not knowing that her left cheek was beginning to show the outline of a handprint. 

“Woman I told you that you don’t get to be a chicken-head on my ship again. Regardless of you having handed this crew a helping of something we wouldn’t step in, you are still a member of this crew and you will not dance out of here to get yourself hung from someplace without a cornice and a fancy silk belt. All we have to do is stand our ground for four days and then we can fast burn off this rock.” Chan Juan all but snarled back.

“Four days? Are you insane? You won’t be able to hold off Nightblade and his goons for four days! I was gone for three years and he had hired guns after me in less than twelve hours. Now think about how much hurt he could call up in four days? I’ll just start packing the essentials. You can sell the rest of my stuff to help cover the jam I’ve put you in.”

“Li Ming if you don’t sit down, I’m going to knock you down.”

“Chan I will not let you hit me again.”

As was typical for his nature, it was the gentle Willis that spoke next. “Ladies please, taking the frustrations of the moment out on each other will benefit no one except perhaps this Mister Nightblade. Maybe the solution, much like the Yin and Yang of the Buddha, lies with the combination of your ideas. Honorable Captain, you wish to stay the four days until the cargo is loaded, a wise choice that benefits the whole crew. Honorable Miss Wong, you wish to spare the rest of the crew any danger by departing immediately, a noble decision that again benefits the rest of the crew, but not yourself. The answer is simple. We do both.”

“Willis what in the south side of Sihnon are you talking about? We obviously cannot do both. They’re exact opposed ideas.” Marsh snapped impatiently.

“There you are wrong my hot-headed young friend. Miss Wong can depart immediately in the shuttle that is her home to wait for us on the outskirts of the system for four days until we can rejoin with her with the loaded Lattimer’s Ghost.” Willis smiled.

“Well damn, the little git actually has a keeper of an idea there.” Marsh smiled and slapped Willis on the back. 

“Now wait a damn minute! Last time I checked, I was the gorram captain of this gorram ship!” Chan Juan thundered. William opened his mouth to speak, but Chan silenced him with a glare. “Okay, I’ll fess up to getting a mite too worked up about the situation we find ourselves in, but once again our sage mechanic has brokered out a reasonable idea that keeps Li Ming’s naughty bits out of the fire and lets us get the cargo I had to offer more than I care to think about loaded. Since there is nothing else to talk about, we got us a shuttle to prep for immediate departure. Get to it people.”

The crew split up to get to their duty stations with Chan Juan following Li Ming up to her shuttle.

“What you want to take another swing at me?” Li Ming stood just inside the shuttle facing the captain with her hands on her hips.  

“No actually I don’t. I trust the first one got the point across.”

“That it surely did.” The taller woman nodded subconsciously rubbing her still stinging cheek

“This Nightblade character as much bad news as you said?’

”Probably worse. I can only tell what he was like three years ago and I didn’t know him all that well. You are all going to have to watch your backs even after I go. He will know you know where I went and I have no doubts he will use whichever of you he can get his hands on to get to me.”

“You let me worry about that. As of now, the crew is restricted to the ship and we will set a bridge watch to make sure no one else tries to sneak aboard. I’ll have William with me tomorrow when we meet with the shipper to nail down the contract and we’ll be in constant contact via handsets. The second shuttle will be prepped for a fast extraction. There won’t be any trouble, except for them as what brings it.”

“Thank you Chan Juan. I don’t deserve a friend like you.”

”Friend? Hell ‘you don’t deserve a captain like me, but you got me nonetheless.” And for the first time since Li Ming finished her story, Chan Juan smiled.

“Damn you for trying to make me cry woman.” Li Ming sniffed. “And here it is you that told me I couldn’t be a ‘chicken-head’ any more.”

The two women hugged tightly for a moment, then Chan stepped back smiling. “I’ll go then. You’ve got a course to input and the last thing you need is me making you be a chicken-head again.”

“Watch yourself Chan Juan.”
”You too Li Ming.”

Li Ming’s shuttle broke free of the atmosphere less than ten minutes later.

 

The next day, Chan Juan and William left the Lattimer’s Ghost for their meeting with their shipper wearing body armor and carefully concealed pistols. As they departed the ship, Chan Juan looked back to make sure the ship was properly secured and what she saw made her blood boil. Her snarl was so guttural that it brought William around clawing for his pistol.

Ta ma de!” He said as he saw what had made his captain so furious.

Chan raged as she read the ‘She’s not worth it!’ graffiti scrawled all over the lower hull. “That hun dan has the nerve to deface my ship and try and tell me the value of one of my crew. I’ll kill him.”  

She managed to take a step toward the tall tower Li Ming had pointed out before William enfolded her in his huge frame. “Mei mei no we can’t! He has too much protection for you to fight them yourself and the Alliance is too strong in this sector for us to take him on and get away. This is one time we are going to have to set our feelings aside, despite how they burn, and only do what we set out to do this morning. I will not lose you to this jackal!”

Slowly Chan Juan uncoiled and her breathing evened out. She reached into her coat and William prepared to grab her again in case she came out with her pistol, but instead she had her ship-linked handset.

“Thorton! You’ve got work to do on the lower hull. Marsh and Xavier, you’ve got to rework the monitors for wider coverage and it all better be done by the time we get back. Come on William” She pocketed her handset and marched resolutely for the Eavesdown Docks, thankfully away from the direction of Nightblade’s tower.

 

The damage to the Lattimer’s Ghost was trivial vandalism with no harm done to any of the ship’s systems. A deeply embarrassed Marsh, who had taken lead during the watch, helped Willis use a rented ultrasound scrubber to quickly remove the markings from the hull.

Xavier was just as embarrassed as Marsh as she was the one who set up the ‘Ghost’s surveillance package and somehow, someone had hacked her system. Knowing the captain was not in the mood for excuses, she had only used their last names, she only did that when she didn’t trust herself to keep her temper in check, they tripled the surveillance coverage by the time Captain Wu and William returned.

The second Marsh spotted them he went to greet them, but his hand stalled halfway to the handset. The captain’s clipped pace told him everything he needed to know.

“Marsh, get my ship in the Black we are leaving!” Chan Juan barked as she stormed onto the ship. The pilot didn’t ask any questions, he didn’t need to. He completed his stalled grab for the handset and contacted Approach Control for departure instructions.

Cindy, who was on watch, was fully armed and armored, waited until the captain blew past on her way to the bridge before she cornered William.

“Damn, and I thought she was mad when she left. What’s up?”

“The shipper cancelled on us.”

“What? Why?”

“Good questions both, but don’t ask me to answer them. Going by his attitude, it was a kindness that he even let us meet with him. We walked in all friendly and professional like good businessmen, damn but you would have been proud of the captain the way she suppressed her fury for that meeting. Anyway, we went in expecting to put the contract to paper and we met a wall of ice instead. Mister Davies said it had come to his attention that our ship had Browncoat leanings and with him being a decorated former member of the Alliance Navy would have no truck with them as what fought against him and his men. We could see ourselves out.”

“He didn’t.”

“Damn all if he didn’t. Wasn’t a thing we could say. All we could do was see ourselves out.”
”Then why were you gone so long, that “meeting” couldn’t have lasted five minutes.”

”It was 90 seconds, but you have a point. We spent the last five hours talking to every person we knew and them as what know the people we know. Most wouldn’t even talk to us, those that would told us we an odor to us so bad we might as well be fishmongers what only worked with ten day old fish. Wasn’t much point in beating a dead horse into bones, so we came back here. I’ve never seen Chan so mad before.

“The final straw was when those three local toughs that tried to stop us from getting back here. They stepped up all bold and bluster, but one gander at the look in the captain’s eyes was enough to get them to high tail it. Seems this Nightblade fellah has riled up all forms of local talent against us. I tell you it would be a kindness if you could slip something into her coffee tonight so she might sleep.”

”William! You know I can’t do that! Why the very thought of it.”

“Aye Cindy I know you can’t, but it worries me to see her so worked up. You know how she is when it comes to taking care of her crew and this ship. She blames herself for taking that Dragon Flower cargo to Greenleaf that has us in the position we’re in.”

”That’s wasn’t the way of it.” A soft voice came from behind them said.

“You’ve been practicing on your creepin’ skills Xavier girl. I didn’t hear you that time.”
”Sorry William, that wasn’t my intent.”

“I know it, cause you’d be hanging by that pretty purple scalp lock of yours from the main airlock if it was. But back to the topic at hand, no it wasn’t the way of it, but nothing in the ‘Verse will make the captain see it any other way.” 

“So where are we going?” Asked Cindy.

“Only place that makes sense to the captain. First, we marry up with Li Ming second, we’re Verbena bound. Captain was stuck there a long time and has lots of friends there, unless of course the Nightblade fellah has a longer reach than that.”

 

Whether that was true or not, only time would tell.


Chapter Five

 

“I understand Frankie you have a reputation to maintain. You try and stay on top of the dirt and if things change you can send me a wave.”

“Yeah Chan, I’ll do that.” The unscrupulous trader closed the connection without bothering to say goodbye.

“Seemed to be in a hurry to get off the Cortex in case someone might hear who he was talking to and some of our stink might rub off on him.” William commented dryly.

“Yeah seemed that way, William, I am beginning to think that going to Verbena would be a waste of time and fuel. No one wants to even admit they know us.”

“Yeah, we seem to have found a way to rile the entire ‘Verse at us. At least if you want to make things difficult, you might as well do a good job of it I figger.” Marsh added.  

“Thing is we don’t want to make things difficult, at least not this difficult. Li Ming, you think this Nightblade character of yours has the sort of pull to make the welcome mat get rolled up and the ‘do not disturb’ sign hung out?”

Li Ming was quiet for a moment, lost in bad memories before she replied. “Honestly Chan, I wouldn’t have thought so. He’s got enough juice on Persephone as you witnessed, but to reach all the way out to Verbena and squash everyone from Patrick Hong to Frankie the Hand? No, I don’t believe it.”

“Marsh, what are we closest too?” Chan asked suddenly.

“Um…hang on a second…that would be…Athens.” The pilot replied after consulting the astrogation array.

“Then change heading to Athens. We don’t have the coin to throw at a pointless trip.”

Athens it is Cap. You got a plan?”

“Small fry like us have a better chance of being able to talk a deal out of a Rim operation than the Border Planets. I don’t have a direct plan as of yet, but we won’t waste as much fuel on the trip and who knows, maybe the stink hasn’t reached this far.”

“Have you given any thought to a Salver’s License?” Willis asked quietly.

“Junk dealers? No it hadn’t entered my mind. Picking over the bones of dead ships and hauling scrap doesn’t quite have an appeal to me.” Chan replied pensively.   

“Job’s a job Captain.” William said.

“Well I’ll tell you what. If we can’t make anything pan out with normal work, I’m not so proud that I’ll let us all starve, I went through something like that once and it ain’t gonna happen again. If movin’ garbage from one end of the ‘Verse to the other is what is payin’ then that is what we will do. Now that that is settled, Marsh how long before we get there?”

“Just under ten hours Cap.”

“Wake me when we get there.” Chan replied over her shoulder as she left the bridge.

“Will do Cap.” Marsh replied, but waited until Chan was out of sight before turning to the first mate and asking. “So do you think we will find anything?”

“Going by how things have been, Athens is no worse than any other place plus as Willis mentioned, there is always United Reclamation.”

“Oh great, just what I need as a title, garbage scow pilot.”

“You afraid driving a garbage scow, if it comes to that, is going to hurt your pilot rep or something?” William chuckled.

“What do you know about it? We pilots live and die off of bein’ the hottest stick on the hottest ship. A Firefly isn’t exactly the hottest ship to begin with, a garbage hauler Firefly is going to get me into a lot of fights.”

“As if you need encouragement to get into a fight.” William snorted.

“Why more fights Marsh?” Willis asked. “Like our esteemed first mate says, you seem to get in enough of those. Your Yang needs more Yin.”

Marsh looked hard at his room mate before replying. “Well I say your Yin needs more Yang. Opinions and five silvers will get you a Fruity Oaty bar.”

“You avoid the question my friend?”

Marsh sighed when he saw the look on Willis’ face as he knew the mechanic would not let the topic go once he went all religious on him. “I’d get in more fights because I know some one would try and cut the ‘Ghost down for bein’ a garbage hauler and I’ll be triple dipped in da bian before I’ll let anyone bad mouth my ship.”

“Noble intent, less noble execution.”

“Yeah well, nobility don’t account for much. Look what the hun dan Baron Chang did to us and he’s a high-falutin’ lord and all.”

“He has you there Willis.” William nodded.

“I must agree, Lord Chang’s actions were without honor.”

“Yeah and why we will end up hauling other people’s go se, and I will end up in more fights, dong ma?”

Dong ma!” Willis replied with a smile knowing that while he had not changed Marsh’s mind, he had got his point across, which was the most you could hope for most of the time with the hot-headed pilot.

 

The Lattimer’s Ghost settled in on the landing pad of the still battle scarred port with a sigh as the power cycled down and the cargo ramp began to lower. Athens had suffered a very heavy bombardment during the war and the damage had yet to be fully repaired. Once the engines were fully powered down, several shouts from Chan to some dock workers waiting outside and fueling umbilicals mated with the couplings on the ship. Safety personnel cross-checked everything by hand, quickly and professionally before a thumb’s up was given and fuel began to top off the ship’s tanks. Chan paid the fuelers from a depressingly small bag of platinum coins before returning to the cargo bay and the rest of the crew. Everyone had gathered in the main cargo bay on arrival to do a last minute huddle. All except Li Ming, she’d been burning up the Cortex on learning of the new destination and found a ‘hot table.’ Her shuttle was detached and on the way to the other side of the planet as soon as the ship made orbit.

“Okay everyone, you know the drill.” Chan began briskly. “Cindy, William, and I will see if we can stir up a job. Willis and Marsh, I know you bugged me enough about the care and feeding the ‘Ghost needs, so you finally have the time to get to it. Xavier, you sure you don’t want to join us on the town?”

“Well, I’ve got that watercolor I’m working on and I’d really like to finish it today. How about I comm you when I’m done and we can meet somewhere?”

“Works for me, okay, let’s make this happen people your Captain needs a new pair of shoes.”

“Isn’t that Li Ming’s line?” Marsh asked rhetorically.

“Don’t you have work to do?” Chan countered.

Marsh paused before he replied, obviously deciding that no good would come of the tack he was considering and simply remained silent and nodded.

“Okay, now that we all have our responsibilities, let’s get to it.” Chan bobbed her head once to indicate the discussion was over.

The meeting broke up and everyone turned to their assigned tasks. Chan and William got into the hover car to see if they could make contact with a reputable or even less than reputable middle man that might have a cargo.

Cindy went solo in the hover mule to see if she could luck up on any ex-Browncoats that might owe her a favor. It pained Cindy to have to be the go between for anything involving the Independents, but with Chan not being all that welcome due to some event she hadn’t yet shared with Cindy, it fell to the medic to make the attempt.

Willis headed for his home away from home in the engine room to make some repairs that could only be done when the engine was shut down. The long push from Persephone and then out to Athens had taken its toll on the Lattimer’s Ghost, so he dove into the overdue maintenance with the clarity of purpose for which he was renowned. However, this time he had a distraction he usually didn’t have with him, the repairs needed were extensive enough to require two people and Marsh was on hand to assist. 

“You know Willsie, you should really listen to some of my advice for a change. I listen to yours, why can’t you at least try some of mine?”

“Mainly due to the issue I would have with having to explain to the Captain why she needs to come to the local jail with bail money.”

“The Captain has never had to bail me out!”

“It is only a matter of time. You need-“

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I need more Yin. Let’s just get this drive motivator aligned. Hand me the power socket wrench.”

Dang ran.” Willis replied, using his foot to slide the requested tool to Marsh while keeping his attention fixed on the fine adjustment to the starboard power coupling he was making.

 

As the rest of the crew worked on their assigned tasks Xavier was busy gathering up and organizing her sophisticated electronic gear. When she first went to her cabin, she did a few brush strokes on the watercolor she had started earlier, but she did not have any intent to actually do any serious painting. What she needed was an excuse not to be around the others. She had a plan and she needed time and space to make it work. After she was certain she had her gear carefully concealed, she slipped silently out of her cabin and, after ensuring there was no one to see her, she silently left the ship in search of a quiet place to conduct her business.

She walked along the streets of Logan, the still battered capital of Athens. The war had been hard on this world and it showed. Many buildings were still either badly damaged or boarded up and dark. There was however, a fair amount of foot traffic, so it took Xavier longer than she would have liked to find what she was looking for, a Cortex public access terminal with some semblance of privacy.

Slipping past the standard login procedures with long practiced ease, she was quickly deeper into the system than the terminal was ever meant to allow. Her fingers danced lightly across the keyboard, only slowing to plug in various adaptors to the homemade by-pass she had inserted into the terminal’s access port. She very quickly had the information she was looking for

Shen sheng de gao wan[33] an assayer’s office! That means cash on hand, oh yes United Reclamation will make quite the pay out whether they know it or not.” With the layout of the office downloaded into her portable, she disconnected from the terminal and once she had her gear secreted again, moved away from the terminal and back onto the streets of Logan. She returned to the ship and managed to get back to her cabin unnoticed. Knowing she had several hours to kill, she commed Chan and let her know that the painting was taking longer than she expected, so she wouldn’t be able to meet. Gathering up her artist’s brushes, she went back to her work in progress.

 

“You know this lack of improvement in our situation is beginning to wear on my nerves mei mei. I mean how many times can we hit a planet and run into a brick wall?”

“I’ll confess it grates on the ego to find no one will talk to you, but then again, Athens isn’t exactly Londinum you know. I’ll play ‘good Fed’ this time, so look at the bright side. Willis and Marsh have got most of the repairs the ‘Ghost here needed all tightened up.”

“Okay, I guess that means I have to play the ‘bad Fed’ in this little dialog. Okay. Yeah, but you could say we are all dressed up with no where to go. As it is, the pickings for the Lift-day Feast are going to be slimmer than befits the title ‘feast.’”

“We’ve only been here a day, let’s give it another day of pounding the pavement and then we can look into Willis’ idea. Work is work and sweet merciful Buddha knows, there is enough junk in the ‘Verse that it would be steady work.”

“Truer words were never spoken on that point mei mei, you up for a game of Tall Card?”

“Sure, why not? Li Ming doesn’t have the market cornered on turning cards.” Chan walked over to the intercom as William dug out the cards. “All hands, if you are interested. William and I are started up a friendly game of Tall Card, ya’ll are welcome to join us in the dining room.”

Chan hung up and waited a few minutes to see if anyone would join them. Sure enough, she heard footsteps approaching and Willis joined them at the table.

“It will only be me joining you this evening. Marsh and Cindy are…occupied and it seems Xavier is deep into her painting.”

“At it again are they? You have to give it to them for sheer perseverance William.” Chan chuckled.

“It is amazing, but they are young enough, no reason to be jealous.” William winked to Willis behind Chan’s back.

“Jealous!” She shot back hotly, then seeing William’s barely restrained smile, she pursed her lips in chagrin. “Droll William, very droll, however, I wager it’s be a longer time since you last grappled, then for me.”

“Ooh, are you going to kiss and tell mei mei?” William replied a wicked gleam twinkling in his eyes.

“William you are still incorrigible.”

“It’s just a single facet of my sparkling personality. Now deal the cards.”

“Done and done.”

 

The card players laughed, joked, drank, and played for many hours before finally turning in near midnight. Since Marsh was preoccupied, William stopped on the bridge to activate the ship’s security protocol before heading to his cabin. It was another two hours before there was any sign of movement aboard the Lattimer’s Ghost.

 

Silent as a ghost within a ghost, Xavier soundlessly exited her cabin and reached the belly hatch of the ship. Again using her handcrafted by-pass circuit cards and her inside knowledge of the ship’s security protocol that she herself had designed, she easily over rode the security system and exited the ship.

Like with any large city, the streets of Logan were deserted at two o’clock in the morning. Xavier kept to the shadows and moved as quiet as a cat-burglar until she reached the office of United Reclamation. Despite the office’s formidable electronic security system, they like the simple locks were no match for Xavier’s skills. She easily entered the building undetected and moved to a local terminal. She knew she had plenty of time, so with the consummate skill of a professional, she set out her hacking tools before her. Once she was satisfied everything was where she wanted them to be, Xavier began to work.

 

“Damn it Bravo team I said fall back! We can’t hold and if you keep your asses exposed like that, we won’t be able to cover your retreat. NOW MOVE!” The comm crackled and even though the transmission had a tinny quality caused by all the jamming, the Major’s orders were crystal clear.

“Understood sir!” Senior Sergeant Jack Taylor replied, despite hating to give up ground that cost so much, but trying to hold this ground would cost them even more. The Battle of Du-Khang was starting to look less like a battle and more like another Alliance victory despite the courage and sacrifice of the Browncoats. That however, was for others to decide. Taylor looked across the shattered landscape and took a headcount of his surviving troops.

 “Eight. Goddammit, I came in here with thirty!” He sighed with a fatigue that was more than just exhaustion it also carried the weight of those losses and the waves he would have to send later. “Okay Bravo team, you heard the orders, we have to pull back. Jensen, Fong, Jiang, and O’Roarke, you will take point and clear us a path back to the second platoon. Check your targets before you fire. I know killin’ purplebellies is what this whole op is supposed to be about, but there are friendlies strung out and scattered between us and the second and I don’t want any more Browncoats to die as don’t have to. Wilson and Steiner, you two are rearguard. Anything behind us is a Fed, kill ’em. Me and Wong will help Schultz move Frost. Move out!”

The four soldiers designated as point, moved out in pairs, carefully covering each other and opening the path that would lead them to safety. Taylor watched for a moment then turned to his medic. “Is it even worth trying to bring him back Schultz?”

“Sarge! Of course it is. He’s hit pretty bad, but he will make it if we get him to a real doc.” Medical Specialist Schultz replied sharply, surprised the sergeant would even ask her such a question.

“Okay then, Wong grab his legs and I’ll get his shoulders. Schultz, you stand close cover. Wilson and Steiner will be too busy covering the rear to see the flanks.”

“Got it Sarge!” Schultz replied as she limbered her aid bag and unlimbered her submachine gun.

The rest of the survivors of Bravo team began to move across the broken terrain. They had moved less than a third of the way when the already chaotic battleground was pierced by a bloodcurdling scream behind them that cut off in mid-point with a terrifying finality. A shock wave from a powerful explosion washed over them as they hit the ground just in time. Schultz was up first firing a nearly continuous stream of fire at the wildly firing figures advancing on them. Taylor and Wong recovered almost as quickly and their fire added to Schultz’s to desperately drive back the advancing Alliance soldiers.

A lone outline stumbled out of the chaos and all three weapons swung that way, until they saw the apparition firing back towards the heaviest of the Alliance attack. A half second later, during the strobe flash of a grenade, Steiner was briefly recognizable, that was until a burst of fire bisected him and erased his upper torso.

“Wong you’ll have to leave Frost, Schultz you go with him. I’ll cover you.” Taylor barked, his assault rifle thundering at its maximum cyclic rate of fire.  

“Sergeant Taylor we can’t leave Frost, he won’t make it if you do!” Schultz protested.

“Don’t argue with me Specialist! None of you will make it if you try to take him. GO!”

Before Schultz could reply, Wong bolted into the dark, not having to be told twice to flee the insanity that was about to engulf them all.

“Sarge please let me try!” Schultz said as she lifted the wounded Frost onto her shoulder.

“Schultz I said-” Whatever the sergeant was going to say was silenced by a high pitched whine that increased in pitch as it got closer.

“SEEKER!” Taylor managed to scream before Schultz was slammed so violently to the ground she heard a rib crack as she blacked out. She awoke a few seconds later from a screaming command from her own brain to…BREATHE! She attempted to follow that command and nearly choked on all the fluid in her mouth. She still wasn’t thinking clearly due to the concussion from the explosion and she was befuddled enough to wonder how she could have so much water in her mouth as despite her mental fog, she knew she hadn’t been swimming. When she realized why the water tasted coppery, she understood what she was drowning in and retched violently.

“M-m-my…g-god, so m-m-much b-blood!” She sputtered as she hacked her lungs clear. She slowly managed to get her eyes open and nearly retched again when she saw the source of the blood. Sergeant Taylor’s headless body lay across hers’ and what was left of Frost, who couldn’t really be recognized as human any more. Pinned by the weight of the two men she began to scream.

 

Cindy bolted up from the torment with a real scream and Marsh pulled her close, having been through this before.

“The dream?”

D-dang ran. It’s always the same. I will never be free of Du-Khang, never.” She shuddered violently, the sweat still beading on her brow and breasts.

“I was too young to have been a Browncoat, so I can’t begin to know how it was, but that was then and this is now. I’m not good with words, but you survived then, maybe if you talk it through how you did that, it might get you from the then to the now?”

“T-talk? You? Mostly, it’s ‘Hey Cindy, you in a grapplin’ mood?’ Since when do you care enough to try and talk?” Cindy spat.

“Hey, don’t take it out on me. I wasn’t there and I don’t have to help. You think I like bein’ shook out of a good sleep by some battle I wasn’t at, but you keep rattlin’ around that skull of yours?”

“I thought you wanted to be a Browncoat?”

“I…what?”

“Sorry, bad joke. I guess I can’t find the right words either tonight.”

“Yeah, doesn’t seem like a night for words.”

“One thing you can do and won’t take no words at all.”

“Yeah?”

“Hold me.”

Since she’d already given him leave to bypass words, Marsh pulled her close and stroked her hair softly until the troubled woman managed to fall back asleep.

It’s a good thing she’s as good as she said she was in the grapplin’ department or I’d have to give a pass on spendin’ time with a lose cannon like this.” He thought cynically. “But even a pig like me don’t like seein’ anyone suffer like this. The ‘Verse might have shown me a kindness I didn’t know by havin’ me be too young to have been in the U-war. Damn Feds anyway, bunch of hun dan meddlers.

Marsh waited until he was sure Cindy was really asleep, before carefully tucking her in and settling back in close to her for what he hoped was the rest of the night.

 

“I have news on the quarry sir.” The superbly dressed administrative assistant said, handing over the hard copy of the latest wave.

“Go on, you know I don’t like it when you get all melodramatic on me.” The man replied tersely, but with a raised eyebrow that belied his gruff response.

“They’ve been reported on Athens.”

“Well it looks like the boss’ plan is working. They must be getting desperate to try to break into the salver’s market.”

“Did the boss say why he wants so much pressure on such a small operation?”

“The boss shares why he does some things with me, but not everything. This one he is playing close to the vest, but it has to have roots in these guys breaking up the Highleaf hijackings.”

“Seems a little petty.”

“I will forget you said that, so unless you have more to report, you can go now.” The man said coldly.

“No sir.” The assistant replied meekly knowing she’d overstepped her bounds. She withdrew without another word.

The man watched her leave, both to admire her shapely form and to ponder if he gave her too much freedom to speak. “Regardless of her obvious physical charms, she is a good assistant. I’ll give her the cold shoulder for the rest of the day and she’ll get the hint.  He thought. “I can’t have an assistant that can think too much on her own. The last thing I need is for any of the bigwigs to get wind of some of the ops I’ve got going on the side. Yes, the cold shoulder will be all it takes.”

At that point the man returned to his terminal and the latest project the boss had sent him via the network of secure couriers and cutouts they used to communicate.

“Phase two ready.” Was all the message said. Considering the hell phase one was doing to these pathetic little people, he shuddered to think what phase two could entail.

 

With a final click of the last tumbler, the floor safe opened and Xavier smiled broadly when she saw the strong box inside. “Almost to the payoff girl almost to the take.” She whispered and nearly laughed at the simple mechanical lock on the strong box, which she picked with almost contemptuous ease.

Her broad smile became feral when she saw the good sized coin purse sitting on top of the even larger stack of credit notes inside the strong box. She reached in and lifted out the coin purse. As she did there was a loud snap as some mechanical device under the notes was freed by the moving of the heavier coins.

“Zhe shi shen me lan dongxi?[34] Was all she had time to say as she looked at the crude wood and spring loaded metal object with wire leads leading to the bottom of the strongbox before an ear-splitting alarm sounded and portcullis-like gates slammed down across the doors and grates sealed the windows of the assay office.

“I’m humped, I am so bloody humped!” She croaked, looking about frantically for a means of escape. “If only I could signal the ship. I could…wait!”

Her mind changing gears as her eyes fell on the circuit cards still lying next to the terminal she’d hacked. She grabbed her micro-transmitter she used to listen to the local police band to keep track if any alerts were raised while she worked. She certainly heard those alerts now and while she knew the micro-transmitter didn’t have the range to reach the ship; it wouldn’t take much modification to change that. Her hands flew as she started working on the impromptu construction “Infinity’s left nut, please give me enough time.”

 

“Oh gos se NOW what?” Marsh grumbled as he started awake again.

“It was the Cortex.” Cindy replied standing naked before the terminal in her cabin.

“A wave? Who the hell would be sending a wave at…” He paused to look at his chrono. “0330?”

“Xavier. Wo de tian a[35], she’d gotten herself arrested!”

“WHAT? How?”

“Don’t ask me. All it says is she got pinched and something about United Reclamation. Toss me my pants.”

Marsh did so without thought as he pulled on his own. They exited Cindy’s cabin and nearly ran into Willis, who had also clearly just gotten out of bed.

“Xavier’s been arrested!” Marsh and Willis said simultaneously and then blinked at each other in confusion.

“Get out of the way you two, no time for a parrot show!” Cindy snarled and raced to the Captain’s cabin. Not standing on protocol, she opened the door and dropped into the cabin unannounced and pulled up with her hands raised.

“That is a damn good way to get yourself killed Cindy. And with you shot, who would patch you up?”

“Xavier is in trouble! Pinched by the locals, didn’t you hear the Cortex squeal?”

“Damn I’m getting slow in my old age.” Chan growled savagely, rolling out of bed and to her terminal. She hit playback and watched in silence.

The attention squawk repeated followed by a voice only message in Xavier’s voice. “Help! I’ve been pinched! United Reclama…”

“I’m going to kill her. Resurrect her and kill her again.” Chan spoke with a quavering in her voice that conveyed her anger better than any overt display could hope to show.

“Wake everyone! We have got to get her back so I can kill her.”

Cindy barked up the ladder to Marsh and within three minutes, the entire crew had mustered in the dining room with all thoughts of sleep gone from their eyes.

“What do we know Captain?” William asked.

“Willis checked the Cortex a little deeper than I would have given him credit for knowing how to do and all we know is ‘An unidentified female had been arrested by the local police for breaking and entering at the United Reclamation office.’” Chan closed her eyes and let loose with a stream of inventive invective curses that went on for an impressive length of time. None of the crew spoke or even moved until she finally stopped cursing, pausing for both breath and to collect her thoughts.

William broke the silence, figuring he was closest to the captain and could judge when it was best to risk her increasing fury. “I don’t know much about Xavier, not like any of us do, but I’m quite sure the comment about her parents and the Alliance animal breeding program has got to be too expensive to be practical.”

“You do know I can hurt you right?” Chan managed after a long pause, but her voice lacked the heat that would have indicated she was serious.

“I have no doubts, but I would counter that you will probably wait until we’ve rescued our wayward duck before you do.”

“You always do try to fill those inside straights don’t you? Okay, tantrum over and the Captain is back. Options?”

“The good news is the report said the locals have her. If she was pinched by the Feds, our only choice would be to post bail.”

“That and the fact we are on the Rim.” Cindy added. “A Core world would be a hopeless situation and depending on the Border planets, that would be just as bad. I think we can spring her.”

“And how will you accomplish this magical feat pray tell?” Chan asked sardonically still too angry to think as clearly as she would prefer.

“I think I have a plan fitting of the great Houdini himself.” William chortled and clapped his hands together.

“Guessing this Mister Houdini is an Earth-That-Was magician or something to that effect, I would hear this plan of yours Mister Lemont.” Willis smiled his eyes agleam at the possibilities the master of the temple would no doubt find appalling that his star pupil would so readily wish to take part in so willingly.

“You are correct Willis, but Houdini was an Earth-That-Was ‘escape artist’ renowned for his ability to get out of chains, handcuffs, and locked rooms. The plan is a bit complicated and will take some fabricating, but it can be done.”

“We don’t have time for theatrics William, spill the plan.” Chan said flatly.

“Actually theatrics plays a part in this plan, a big part in fact…”

 

An hour later, the crew was moving into position for Operation Houdini, split into four elements and using all three of the ship’s hover vehicles. Walking slowly down the street toward the police precinct holding Xavier, William waited until he heard the single beep in his micro-transmitter that let him know that everyone else was in position, before he nodded once to himself and fully committed himself to his part of the plan.

 

“I say! I do say! Where is the man in charge of this constabulary?” A large man, dressed in the current high fashion, but slightly disheveled, blustered as he stormed up to the desk of the duty office.

“Excuse me sir? I’m Officer Ward, how may I assist you?”

“How ‘can he assist me’ he asks. I am beset by ruffians while on a nightly constitution and I am asked ‘how can I be assisted.’ No wonder I was accosted! I want to speak to the police chief, sheriff, or the chief inspector, or whatever his bloody title may be.”

“Uh sir, please calm down and lower your voice. Please give me a few details and I will see to it that you are assisted, Mister…?”

“Douhini. Thaddeus Throckmorton Douhini. And I said I want to speak to the man in charge, which you are most manifestly not!”

 

As Officer Ward attempted to get any worthwhile information from the agitated man in front of him, he noticed the arrival of the cleaning crew on one of his monitors, but failed to notice the cleaning crew had arrived an hour early and in a different vehicle than normal. He just punched the ‘Admit’ button and tried once again to get Douhini to speak in a coherent fashion, but the man was so upset now that he was fanning himself with a perfumed handkerchief that stank to high heavens.

 

Cindy and Willis breathed a silent prayer in thanks as the service entrance opened and they entered the building carrying cleaning equipment in from large hover mule, they made a show of doing all the proper tasks a night cleaning crew would do. Ward, managed to spare a glance at the monitors every once in awhile as he painstakingly took Douhini’s statement on the alleged assault to make sure the cleaners were doing their jobs right. However, Douhini histrionics were starting to give him a headache, especially when the exasperating man realized he got the ‘ruffians’ description wrong and had to start all over again.

“Okay Mister Douhini, let’s start from the top and give me the description of the first man again…”

“Man? You mean Vandal, Visigoth, Mongol, Viking…”

“MISTER Douhini, the first man’s description please! If you don’t help me get this right, we won’t be able to apprehend the miscreants.” Ward said through gritted teeth. “Oh hell now this ma de pi gu[36] has got me talking that way.” He thought and gave up on trying to multitask and just hoped the cleaning crew remembered to put enough paper towels in the men’s room.

 

Cindy noted that the camera that had followed them when they first entered hadn’t moved for over two minutes and nodded to Willis to make his break. She began an elaborate monolog that made it seem as if she was talking to her partner that was just out of frame.

 

Ren de Fe zu[37] guide me this day and forgive my transgression against the duly appointed law of this world.” Willis whispered quietly in supplication as he approached the women’s wing of the building. Luckily for him and less fortunate for the Alliance, was the central government’s insistence on uniformity. All newly constructed government facilities, and by recent, meaning post war, had the same layout. The local jail was built to replace the one destroyed, like most of the planet’s facilities, during the war. Willis had memorized the path from the service door to the women’s wing and quickly found himself outside the single isolated cell that constituted the women’s ‘wing.’

“I’m here.” A voice he instantly recognized came from the right side cell. “I heard footsteps and since it was a bit early for the morning meal. It meant you guys had got my message.”

“Xavier.” He whispered. “I am…pleased to see you. A warning though, the Captain will be less pleased.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

“I will too.” A second voice interrupted. “Hurry up young feller, you don’t have all night.”

“Meet Betty Li, my ‘roommate’ I had hoped she would be a sounder sleeper.”

“Not a useful trait in jail bao bei. Now hurry slick, as I said before, we don’t have all night.”

“Right.” Willis replied and pulled the large tube of Scrapper’s Gel from a side pocket of his cleaning crew uniform. He ran a small bead near the deadbolt and stepped back to let the strong compound do its work.  

“Miss Li, have you considered that it was the nature of the Yin and Yang to require balance in all things?”

“Excuse me?”

“I see that you have some…experience with the darker side of life, maybe it is time for you to experience the other side of what the ‘Verse has to offer…” By the time he finished speaking the woman was so confused by the unexpected sermon that she didn’t know if it would be better off to stay in the cell or being associated with this strange man and his equally odd cell mate. By the time the Scrapper’s Gel had worked its way through the deadbolt, she had her decision and ultimately decided that would probably be best to stay put. 

 

“One of these days you are going to have to tell me how you managed to do that.” Xavier said looking at the mechanic with a new found curiosity.

“I simply showed Miss Li there were many paths and that it might be better for her to pick one that did not include going with us.”

“Okay, I’ll accept that for now. What is the rest of the plan?”

Willis stopped suddenly and pointed upward.

“What the fire escape?”

“Exactly so.”

“Uh wait a moment then. There is a terminal behind you, no point in having something so mundane as the fire alarm give away your plan.”

“The plan is William’s in truth.”

“I seem to have underestimated both of you on how devious you can be.”

“We all learn something every day.”

“Ain’t that the truth! There fire alarm is shut down.”

“Hurry then, Mister Marsh awaits.”

“Thanks Willis.”

“You are most welcome Miss Xavier.”

Neither wasted time on words they didn’t have time for. Willis raced back to where he had left Cindy and Xavier bolted up the ladder and onto the roof.

 

“It’s about time.” Marsh hissed from the small hover mule he’d somehow piloted onto the roof of the jail. “Get on hot stuff, we gotta wait for our cue before we can go and if you ain’t ready, you will be on your own this time.”

“No need to tell me twice.” She replied and climbed onto the hover mule and tried to guess just exactly what this cue could be.

 

“Well I can see I will get no satisfaction from this constabulary office. I will have to file a formal complaint at the next Federal facility I see. You have not done any great service to your profession this morning Officer Ward, your name and that of your police chief will figure prominently in my report.” William said with great drama as he and Ward stood next to the door.

“I’m certain it will Mister Douhini. The report you have given me will certainly be on the top of the blotter report. It certainly is one of the longest I have ever taken. I…excuse me. I have to let the cleaning crew out.” Ward said as he noticed a blue light flashing on his desk. He buzzed the crew out then returned to Douhini.

“I am sorry you are unhappy.”

“Unhappy doesn’t begin to cover it, but I have wasted enough of my time. Good morrow to you sirrah!”

 

Chan saw William exit the building and gunned the hover to maximum speed, ready to play her part in the passion play of her long time friend’s design.

 

Douhini exited the building with an amazing amount of flourish and Ward breathed a deep sigh of relief. He watched the bizarre man reach the bottom of the stairs and shook his head in amazement. As he started to turn toward his desk, he dropped to the floor in well trained reflex as the already crazy night took a turn toward the insane.

Shots ripped the silence and bullets hit the front of the building, spattering off the stone façade. Ward clawed for his side arm and saw Douhini belie his size and bolted down the street faster than he would have thought possible. Screaming at the top of his lungs that he was being murdered, that part Ward had discovered did not surprise him. The man’s ability to talk would be more than legend and any amount of noise he could make didn’t surprise Ward at all.

This line of thought was just one of the things that hammered through the police officer’s mind as he freed his side arm and hit the panic alarm that would lock down the station and summon every cop within five miles. Ward just didn’t see how the night could get any crazier.

 

“That would be the cue!” Marsh shouted and gunned the hover mule for all it was worth. It might not be the Lattimer’s Ghost, but Marsh was comfortable with anything that moved under its own power. Xavier closed her eyes and by sheer force of will managed not to scream as the vehicle went off the side of the three story building. Marsh however, made the hover mule do things she didn’t think possible and rather than end up a bloody puddle, they dropped in a series of what she could best describe as semi-controlled crashes down to the street and raced away into the night.

 

“You shot me!” William bellowed as he ran up and jumped into the hover car Chan had stopped just out of sight of the police station.

“I’m sorry it had to have been a ricochet, I didn’t shoot anywhere near you! Besides it’s only a graze!” Chan countered and rapidly accelerated back to maximum speed.

“Gorram it Chan, graze or not it hurts!”

“Cindy will see to it, now try and calm down William. I am sorry you know.”

“I know mei mei, just that this wasn’t part of the plan.”

“It was a good plan and I was happy to be a part of it, now bi zui so I can drive.”

 

 En route to the ship, she saw police cars both wheeled and hover screaming toward the police station, just as Cindy had said they would in response to gunfire aimed at the station. The risk of the few shots, despite what had happened to William, more than paid for itself by clearing the path back to the ship as the police responded to the wrong problem.

 

Cindy and Willis were the first ones back and with Willis’ instructions, they had the ship well on the way through the power up cycle by the time Marsh and Xavier arrived. Marsh bolted for the bridge as soon as the gravitics shut down, leaving Xavier to get the hover mule parked. She had just locked the mule in place, when the hover car pulled up the ramp and into the cargo bay with the last of the crew. No sooner had Chan hit the close button for the ramp and Marsh had the ship moving.

“William, have Cindy see to your arm. Xavier, you will go the dining room now. I will be there shortly and you better have answers.” Chan pivoted without waiting for a reply and taking the stairs to the bridge two at a time was quickly out of sight.

William looked at Xavier with a sad face, but didn’t say anything as he passed her on his way to the infirmary. She couldn’t meet even that simple gaze and silently headed for the dining room and a confrontation she would give all the credits on Londinum to avoid.

 

“Course Captain?” Marsh asked as unobtrusively as possible.

“Whitefall. Didn’t find anything here, not like we had time to do so, but a friend of a friend said there was work on Whitefall in a town called Durango. Send a wave to Li Ming and tell her to meet us there. As soon as you have the course locked in. Join us in the dining room.”

“Sure thing Cap.”

       

Marsh entered the dining room and wished he could go back to the bridge. The tension was so thick, he wasn’t sure he could cross the room without bolt cutters. He took his seat and knew he was happy that it wasn’t him on the firing line for a change.

As soon as the pilot sat down, Chan turned to Xavier. “Give me a reason why I shouldn’t toss you out the airlock right now?”

“I don’t have one Captain and even if I could think of one, I wouldn’t use it.”

This was not the answer she was expecting and it served to calm Chan down. “Why?”

Xavier surprised Chan and indeed the whole crew by bursting into tears. “I wanted to help!” She all but wailed. “I-I-I thought I could hit the assayer’s office and be back on the ship with a fat load of credits without any one being the wiser.”

“Then what the hell went wrong?”

Some yu ben de[38] wood and spring loaded metal contraption I had never seen before set off that gao yang zhong de gu yang[39] alarm.”

“What did this thing look like Xavier?” William asked, his curiosity getting the better of him.

“The wood was about four inches long and two wide. The spring held a square shaped metal bar. The weight of the coins held a trigger that kept the spring open, when I lifted the bag, the spring snapped the thing closed and completed the alarm circuit. It must be something new.”

“No nian qing de[40] it is something old, something very, very old. It is an Earth-That-Was device called a ‘mouse trap.’ Believe it or not, homes going back for centuries before the Exodus were often plagued by vermin in the form of mice. They got into food and even caused diseases. The mouse trap would hold some sort of food bait on that trigger and when the mouse moved the bait, the bar snapped shut and killed the mouse.”

“You mean Earth-That-Was had a problem with white laboratory mice?” Cindy asked incredulously.

“They weren’t always white and they weren’t always in labs Cindy. I’ve never seen a mouse trap outside a history book, but it looks like the good and smart people of United Reclamation had a different sort of mouse in mind, but it worked as well as the old ones did for what they wanted it to do. Some Salver probably found one on some hulk and the assayer found a way to put it to use, banking on that no one of this day and age would know anything about them. I say it worked well.”

“History lesson aside Xavier you have managed to make a nuisance of yourself to me in my eyes and there has to be a reckoning.” Chan scowled, bringing the discussion back under control. “You are no longer a member of this crew.”

Xavier couldn’t hold back her gasp, but managed to remain silent.

“You are restricted to quarters until further notice and will take your meals in your cabin until such time as I deem you have earned a place on the crew again, if ever. Until you hear me say otherwise you are now just a paying passenger. Dong ma?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Then we are done here. You can all go.”

 

The crew left the dining room in silence and even the Lattimer’s Ghost seemed to be running quieter than normal as if she realized the gravity of the situation aboard her.


Chapter Six

 

“So when was our last payin’ gig? It’s been awhile and I’m gettin’ a mite fuzzy on when we last made any coin.” Marsh asked as the Lattimer’s Ghost approached the moon Whitefall.

“Our last cargo for hire was from Verbena to Greenleaf arriving 8 March 2518, so just short of two weeks.” Willis replied after a short pause to concentrate.

“Only two weeks? Damn I would have sworn it’s been longer than that, I guess ‘cause we got less than twenty-four hours downtime on the last two planets we were on. We’ve really got to work on our bein’ sociable skills, this having to depart without getting to see the sights is starting to make me feel unwanted.”

“I shall remain unconvinced on that last statement Mister Marsh.

“What are you sayin’ Thorton?”

“I simply state an observed fact. Not being on a planet means we are in the Black. You adore flying and thus your claim to be unhappy with being off world is an unconvincing statement based on the observed data.”

“Now don’t go getting’ all logical on me. A man has needs he can only find off ship and no I don’t just mean grapplin’! I like seeing the insides of a drinking establishment, or a game of chance with someone I can rook for some coin, or anything other than just the insides of this here fine vessel of ours.”

“I can concur that downtime is good for the ship as it seems for the pilot. The Black is not a forgiving medium and the ship requires service that can only be done while she’s on the ground. I too would like more time to do my work. The ‘Ghost is in fine condition for her age, but for all that I care for her, she is an older vessel and needs more care than one of the newer models.”

Almost in response to this comment, the ship emitted a long rippling shudder that could not be completely attributed to entering the atmosphere of Whitefall

“I think you hurt her feelings.” Marsh chuckled. “You know how women can be when you bring up their age. There, there honey, the bad man didn’t mean it.” He added and lovingly rubbed the console.

“You know very well that was just a ripple in the ionosphere.”

“For all that religiosity you got, you sure need to work on your women skills Willis. The ‘Ghost is a grand lady and you must remember to treat her like such. Cause there is two things that will get you on the skids real quick with women and ships. They are all vain and they all strike back at them as what doesn’t give them their due.”

“I believe the quote you are butchering is ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ my young friend.” A familiar voice rumbled from the rear of the cabin.

“What quote? I was just talkin’ from my own dealings with wimmings.”

“I might have known. You have the soul of a heathen Sylvester.” William said rolling his eyes.

 Marsh frowned again at the use of his first name, but remained silent. He brought the ship down and landed near the town of Durango with flair and began to power down.

“Now that we are on the ground, I will return to my realm and see what I can do to keep this ‘grand lady’ in top condition. Marsh, Mister Lemont.” Willis nodded to each man and then departed the bridge, passing Chan and Cindy in the corridor, nodding to each of them as well, but not slowing.

“What was that shudder during re-entry Marsh?” Chan asked.

Unable to contain himself, the pilot began to laugh uproariously.

“Has he gone space happy? Cindy, you better prep for surgery, brain replacement surgery.”

“Aye, aye Captain, one minor surgery to replace the pilot’s brain coming right up. Would you like me to add a personality and some dignity to go with it?

“Actually Mister Marsh here was having a profound conversation with our mechanic on how to treat a lady.”

“I don’t even want to know what our resident flying shaved orangutan could possibly think about women.” Cindy said shaking her head.

“You seem to like me well enough.” Marsh shot back.

“Oh I like you well enough in that one department, but as for what I think of the rest of you, well there is a lady present.” Cindy replied pulling herself up to her full height and managing to seem dignified despite the topic at hand.

Chan burst into laughter herself at that point and even Marsh had to join in, in the much needed chance to release tension.

“I guess its time to meet this contact of ours. I wish I knew this guy better, but it was the best I could do given the time we had.” Chan said at last, a frown briefly crossing her brow.

“I believe she really was trying to help Captain. No need to revisit an old sore.” William said gently having caught the frown and knowing what it meant.

“Don’t you think I know she meant well! If she hadn’t Whitefall would be her new home.“ Chan replied darkly.

“Ouch that’s harsh Captain.” Cindy winced. “Whitefall ain’t a place to call a home.”

Chan eyed the other woman hard, but just nodded.

“Well rather than think about what has happened, lets look to what we can make happen now.” William said with conviction.

“Ever the optimist as always William, but I agree. Let’s go meet this Mister Elam and see if we can come to an arrangement. We have got to get out in front of this wave of bad luck we’ve been caught up in and start changing the odds to our favor. Speaking of odds, when will Li Ming be here?”

“Just under two hours according to her last wave.” William answered.

“I think she’ll like this place. Coin to be had from people that are not ready from someone like her, might make up for her having to bail out on that ‘hot table’ of hers she had on Athens.”

 

The Lucky Deuce Hotel was an homage to an Earth-That-Was Wild West frontier inn, at least the floor plan and layout was the same; the rest was as close as Whitefall could manage given the meager resources of the moon. Except for Willis who was, as usual, tinkering in the engine room, Li Ming who had yet to arrive, and Xavier who was restricted to quarters, the rest of the crew strolled into the hotel to meet with their contact Otis Elam. Half a dozen listless men lingered around the bar, while two men and a woman played cards at a corner table. Glancing around the room, the crew quickly came to the conclusion that it was going to be a long day.

A young woman in a form fitting dress walked down the stairs with a man at least twice her age and when he saw her, the bartender nodded toward the obvious visitors. Her smile already brilliant, brightened and after steering the older man towards the bar, she approached the five crew members with an exaggerated motion in her hips.

“Hello boys and ladies. I’m Chiffon and I run the Lucky Deuce. We got anything a traveler could want in the way of pleasure. We got women, drink, cards, food, and just about anything else that can be had for a price. Welcome to Durango, please let me know how I can…” She smiled looking Marsh up and down with a lascivious grin. “…be of service to you.”

On noticing Cindy’s jaw tighten, Chiffon didn’t miss a beat. “Hey hon, didn’t mean to crowd your territory, but me and my girls mean to please and that includes servicing a woman’s needs if you happen to go for that sort of thing.”

“Actually we are looking for Otis Elam.” Chan interrupted before things had a chance to take a bad turn.

  “Well why didn’t say you knew that old coot! I’ll get him for ya. Why don’t ya’ll have a seat and make yourself to home and see if you see anything you might like.”

Chiffon headed toward a door that was partially hidden by the stairs with her distinctive sway and shouted upstairs. As she knocked on the door, three more women also in form fitting outfits slinked down the stairs.

“Ladies, how about we give it a rest until the sun goes down. We’ve got to attend to business of a different sort right now.” William smiled, obviously enjoying the show, but knowing that the good times would have to wait until later.

As if on cue, Chiffon returned on the arm of a tall, thin man in his mid-fifties, grizzled, but well dressed. She gave the man a peck on the cheek, then went back up stairs.

“Welcome, welcome, welcome, I’m Elam. I got the wave from Jenkins that you would be coming. Let’s go to my office, we have words that aren’t for this lot’s ears.” He said with a sweeping gesture that indicated the rest of the room. Leading the way, Elam showed Chan and William to his office. A frosty glare from Cindy kept Chiffon’s three ladies from coming any closer and seeing as how there weren’t going to be any business opportunities any time soon, they returned upstairs.  

“Why Miss Schultz, I’d about ready to say you’re getting’ attached.”

“Marsh, shut up and buy me a drink while you are ahead.”

“Uh…right.”

Marsh sidled up to the bar and waved to the bartender.

“Quite a woman you got there or should I say quite a woman that’s got you?”

“Unless you have a really good dental plan friend, you will probably want to just give me two glasses of Ng Gaa Pei[41] and everybody gets to keep chewing with the same teeth their maker gave them.” Marsh growled low.

For a moment the bartended looked at the small man before deciding not to press the issue. Handing over the two drinks, he took the pilot’s coins and returned to his conversation with the old man that had come down the stairs with Chiffon.

“I can take care of myself you know Cindy, I’ve had to do so for a long time.” Marsh grumbled as he sat down and slid a drink over to his companion.

“Yeah I know you can, and I know up front I told you we were just going to keep things simple, but it just set my gut on fire to have those pretty things staring at you like you was a walking coin purse. If they was looking at you I might not have got so riled, but even if I do think of you as a shaved monkey most of the time, you are a friend and I’d do the same thing for them as well.”

“I thought you thought of me as a shaved orangutan. I don’t think I’m ready to slide down the evolutionary scale.”

“Keep working on it Sylvie and maybe you’ll make it all the way up to chimpanzee!”

Both burst into laughter and the tension between them melted, now all they had to do was wait and see if the deal went well with Elam and the Captain.

 

 

“Let me get this straight, you want us to smuggle firecrackers?” Chan blinked in amazement.

“Just so Captain, Whitefall ain’t got much, but we do got sulpher springs, a lot of cattle and enough trees to make enough black powder to make the best damn fireworks in the ‘Verse. Ariel, like most Core worlds, has a big appetite for the pretties Whitefall makes. Thing is, the making of the fireworks is easy, getting all them yu ben de[42] permits to ship the stuff legally is hard. Damn hard. I’ve got fifty tons of Whitefall’s Finest, that’s a ‘Verse wide know brand you know, but I don’t have a proper license. What I do have to make the trip worth your trouble is enough raw Ytterbium to fill the rest of your hold so as the Feds won’t find the real deal. So what I am offering is a full load with a premium rate to make it sweet. You know how much coin we are talking here?”

“That would be 3,750 in platinum.” Chan responded immediately.

“I don’t know about you, but that is a lot of money on Whitefall, seems like you might live in style for some time with that sort of coin. I can give you a third up front and the rest on delivery, assuming of course you can get past the Feds.” Elam added with a glitter in his eye.

“I will have to talk to my mechanic on exactly hold to store the load so the Feds can’t find anything, but you have a deal Otis.” Chan said as she shook the man’s hand.

“Wonderful Chan Juan, wonderful. I tell you what, how about your whole crew spends the night here in the Lucky Deuce? We got everything a spacer wants to have a good time, my treat for the rooms. Any deals you work with the ladies, well that would be up to you and Chiffon.”

“Can’t say no to an offer like that Otis, I’ll let the rest of the crew know.”  Chan replied.

Jian ta de gui[43], I want to be there to break the news!” Elam countered. “I don’t get to make this much coin ever day. I want to share the fun!”

“You are most generous Otis. I haven’t slept off ship in quite awhile now.” William added as he too shook Elam’s hand.

The three went back into the main room and Elam let loose with a long yahoo like shout. “Barkeep a round for the house! Chiffon, get them girls of yours down here! There’s a party to be done! Now let’s talk to that crew of yours.”

Chan led the way over to the table where Marsh and Cindy were looking expectantly at their captain as she approached.

“Made a deal Cap?” Marsh asked with a broad smile.

“Good one too Marsh, but I’ll let Otis tell you.

“Marsh did ya say?”

“Yeah I’m the pilot and this here is Cindy our medic.”

“Well nice to meet both of ya’ll. You guys are going to be haulin’ a boatload of cargo for a boatload of coin and I am in an expansive mood. I wanted to invite you and the lady here to spend the night on a real bed, with real food, and good drink here at the Lucky Deuce.”

“Um…thanks.” Was all Marsh managed to reply with a slight frown.

“He’s not much for words, most are too difficult for him most of the time, but thank you much Mister Elam.” Cindy said quickly, covering for the taciturn pilot.

Elam blinked and laughed loud and long at her comment. “Words too complicated, that’s funny. Anyway, none of that ‘Mister Elam’ stuff. Mister Elam was my dad and he’s been strung up twenty-five years now. I’m Otis and ya’ll are my guests.” Elam turned toward the bar and shouted over the rising noise. “Now tell me William you play Tall Card?”

 

 

The party was in full swing by the time Li Ming docked her shuttle and Willis was waiting when she exited. “Where is everyone?”

“The Lucky Deuce Hotel. A deal has been made and apparently our contact is an effusive sort. Everyone is invited to spend the night on his coin. I was told to tell you they gamble there.”

“Do they now?” Li Ming replied with an exquisitely arched eyebrow. “Then perhaps I will enjoy meeting this…” She trailed off with the obvious question.

“Mister Otis Elam is our benefactor. I was waiting until you arrived before joining in the festivities. Mister Elam is most insistent that we all join him. The deal is evidently quite good for us and extremely good for him and he wishes to make the most of the new opportunity.”

“Well let’s go see what the Lucky Deuce and Mister Elam has to offer.”

They exited the ship and Willis activated the security protocols on the way out. Waiting until the cargo ramp closed, they then steered for the source of the loudest noise and brightest lights in the fading Whitefall twilight.

 

“Li Ming! Get your fine frame over here!” Marsh bellowed from the poker table he was at to be heard above the din of all the merry making. Cindy was at the same table and concentrating deeply on her cards. Both Willis and Li Ming worked their way over to the table where the two crew and two other men were just finishing a hand with Marsh taking the pot.

“Here, you can have my place Li Ming, this is Dagwood,” Marsh waved his hand to indicate the taller of the two men. “And this here is Blondie, he don’t talk much. I’ve had my fill of poker tonight and I’m going back to the ship.” He finished by collecting a few coins, tossing back his drink, and standing.

“Hey now Marsh, quitting so soon?” Dagwood asked. “Awful early to be calling it quits.” 

“Nice try fellers, but with that last hand I’ve broke even, so you can’t say I’m walking away with your money. Guess I’m just not in the mood for all the hoopla. Li Ming here, though she might be able to keep you entertained.” The pilot said with finality.

Blondie and Dagwood both looked the stunning Li Ming up and down, but only Dagwood spoke. “Oh I’m sure she can. Care to deal hon?”

“Well, that depends on what game is this? I’m more used to Tall Card.” Li Ming replied playing the role of the ingénue for all it was worth.

“Oh we’ll be glad to teach ya, Blondie and me that is, you too eh Cindy?”

“Yeah me too. What about you Willis, you in?” Cindy asked

“Certainly.” The quiet mechanic took the seat vacated by Marsh to keep the two women sitting together and on the opposite side of the table from the two questionable men.

“You are?” Cindy asked in surprise.

“The source of unhappiness is desire Miss Cindy. I desire nothing, but to learn how this game is played. Since my intentions are not to win, it is not at odds with my beliefs.” Willis replied with a big smile.

“Well, if Willis can learn how to play, so can I.” Li Ming added sitting down next to Cindy and sketching a small nod to the mechanic, knowing why he picked the seat he had chosen. “Now can you go over the rules of this picker-“

“Poker.” Blondie replied with a slight frown.

“Oh right poker…”

 

Marsh slipped away from the table while the two suckers were trying to explain the rules without drooling over Li Ming, knowing that she would see to it that they learned a lesion from her about cards and the way of the ‘Verse at the same time.

“And just where are you going?” William asked with a slight slur.

“Back to the ship, so who is your friend?” Marsh answered, looking with slight interest at the statuesque woman on the First Mate’s arm.

“Why this here is Annie, but neither is she little or an orphan. I won’t get into the image that Blondie and Dagwood bring to mind.” William replied and then burst into a fit of laughter.

“What’s so funny?”

“Oh why do I bother you Philistine, I should have known you’d not know anything about classic comic strip characters.”

“What’s a comic strip?”

“Go back to the ship Marsh, it would take too long and the lady here is clamoring for my attention.” William sniffed and allowed himself to lead toward the stairs.

Chan watched the exchange and despite the noise of the crowd, heard enough to catch the gist of what was going on. Forced to choose which of the men to intercept, there wasn’t a moment of hesitation. “William, I believe you are drunk.”

“Well it wouldn’t be the first time mei mei, is something wrong?”

“Not exactly, wrong but seeing as how you are a bit impaired and not thinking with the head you usually think with, so I am just going to ask a single question. Are you sure this is what you really want?”

“It’s not like a guy like me has many options mei mei and…damn it Chan why shouldn’t I?” 

“Yeah sister, William here is a big boy. He knows the real thing when he sees it.” Annie all but growled.

Chan flashed a brilliant smile at the woman that did not reach her eyes and took two deep breaths before she answered. “Since this is Mister Elam’s party and I don’t what to cause a stir that might upset all the fun, but if you really like your face the way it is currently arranged, you will stay out of this conversation.”

The tall woman released her hold on William’s arm, pulling off her earrings and stepping out of her heels as she did. “You think I am afraid of a woman a foot shorter than I am? I’ve knocked more than one cow hand on their pi gu and you won’t be the first woman I’ve done the same to.”

“Annie, you would be making a mistake if you so much as raise a hand to my Captain. As she said, this isn’t your conversation and if you think the Captain hasn’t knocked a woman a foot taller than her on their pi gu before, then you might have found yourself in a situation you are not ready for. Why don’t you go have a drink and I’ll join you later?”

The dance hall girl looked from Chan, to William, back to Chan, and then stepped back into her heels before making her way to the bar without glancing back.

“I’m sorry William, I really didn’t mean for that to happen. I know it’s been awhile for you, it’s probably been longer for me, but well…you deserve better.” Chan said sheepishly and looking embarrassed.

“No Chan you were right. I let the whiskey do the thinking and you were there to be my conscience for a change. I guess I owe you one.”

“William, you silly man, if we are going to start keeping track of who owes who when it comes to being the voice of reason, I’ll end up the first mate and you will be the captain.” 

“No mei mei, I like things the way they are. What do you think got into Marsh? Usually he’d be hanging from the chandelier by now?”

“Oh who knows? At least we won’t have to baby sit him all night, hoping that cruiser sized mouth of his didn’t overload his rowboat ass and lead to trouble. This is a sweet deal William and I don’t want anything to make it go south. I’m almost tempted to say it’s too good a deal. What do you think?”

“Well it is an unusually good deal, so that makes it automatically suspicious in my book, but I usually get a bad news vibe I’m around a rum character and I’m not getting that from Elam. We could sure use this run, so despite the old adage about be careful of things too good to be true, this isn’t too good to be true. The deal is not only possible, it is probable. The only thing unusual is that we happen to be in a place to take advantage of the opportunity and going by our complete lack of other opportunities, I say we go for it.”

“Then we are in William. My thoughts were pretty much like yours, as is what is turning out to be your lot in life, and I just needed to hear someone else go through the process and end up in the same place I did. Now, enough of this business stuff. Let’s have some fun! And if that happens to include…” Chan nodded her chin in Annie’s direction, who was at the bar sulking. “Then by all means you do so.”

“Actually mei mei, I have had enough time to rethink that course of action and if this run goes as well as it seems like it should, I think I may partake of two of her ilk on the Ariel end. After all, I’ll be a man of means then, and coin has a way of talking far more eloquently than I.” William beamed.

“You are into your cups William as no coin, and damn few people are more eloquent than you and you know it. Now, let’s see how Li Ming is doing.”

 

Marsh punched in the code to disarm the security on the ship, boarded and then reactivated the system. He stood in the cargo bay his head canted to one side listening to see if anything was out of place. Not even sure himself why he was so keyed up. Not sensing anything out of place, he decided to check on one thing before turning in. The ship’s resident passenger was standing next to her easel when he entered her cabin.

“Hey Xavier. How you holding up?”

“Not like you care all that much, but I’ve been in worse situations.”

“Yeah, me too, but anyway, I thought I’d see if you were okay.”

“More like you thought you’d check up on me. No I’m not going to go on any solo run or try to kill you all in your sleep.”

“Well since your mood is for gos se, I’m going to go.”

“My mood is for gos se? Exactly what mood do you expect me to be in? I tried to help the yu ben de[44] captain and crew and get all but banished for my efforts. You want me to pretend that everything is shiny and that I like being subject to being dumped on any qiang bao hou zi de[45] pit of the captain’s choosing if she takes it into her head I’m not living up to her new and unknown standards of behavior?”

“Okay, okay, I got it. I’ll leave you with your pictures and stuff. Night.”

Xavier stood stock still in anger as the door closed and Marsh left. She was so tense, that she heard her paintbrush crack in her hand and managed to relax before it broke. Not being allowed off ship meant the art supplies she had on hand would have to last and she didn’t have brushes to sacrifice to pique. She didn’t have the paint either and that was the only reason she hadn’t thrown any at Marsh. That and it really wasn’t his fault the captain had exiled her and it was her own actions that led to her current status. Xavier might not be able to tell the whole truth to anyone she knew, but she made up for that character flaw by being brutally truthful to herself. She forced herself to unwind and returned to her painting. As it had always been, it was her only escape from when the ‘Verse got too rough and she was particularly proud of this one. “My best yet.” She murmured and let her mind drift.

 

After the vandalism on Persephone the new security package Xavier created was set up to sound an alarm if anyone approached within ten meters of the hull or attempted to enter any hatch without entering a passcode. However, the protocols did not include if a hover vehicle approached from above and didn’t touch the hull. The two men on the hover mule slipped a hose into the life support intake vents that were open because the ship was on planet and not sealed. One of the men turned a valve on a tank in the back of the mule and a gas silently began to enter the ship Neither Xavier or Marsh realized anything was amiss even as they crumpled to the deck.

 

The next thing Li Ming was aware of was the sun beating down on the left side of her face. She didn’t try to open her eyes as she knew it wasn’t going to be pleasant. “Sweet merciful Buddha that was a long night.” She thought groggily and tried to think if there was a reason she needed to be awake at that moment. Li Ming lay there and made her mind piece together the likely chain of events. “Too much to drink? No doubt. Slept in long enough for the sun to reach her bed? Obviously.” That started a whole new train of thought as she tried to remember the last time she was awoken by real sunlight on her face while in a real bed. She was still laying there when she became aware of a rising amount of noise outside. “Voices. Loud Voices. Loud angry voices!” That last thought cut through the lingering fog and her eyes snapped wide open with the thought. She rolled to her feet and with her back flat against the wall, slid next to the window and quickly peeked out the window.

“Ta ma de!” She hissed when she saw the mob outside. “No good will come of this. Looks like it’s time to go.” Li Ming muttered and began pulling on her boots. She was still working the laces when there was a pounding on her door. Grabbing her derringer smoothly, she sidled up to the door.

“Li Ming wake up, big trouble outside!” Came the strained if comforting sound of William’s voice.

“I noticed.” She replied tersely as she unlocked the door and followed the big man down to the Presidential suite that Elam had insisted Chan occupy last night.

“You’re the last one up.” Chan’s voice came sharply as she entered the big room where the crew had gathered. “Not a good trait to be a heavy sleeper on a Rim world.”

“I’ll work on it. But I got a glance outside and my sleeping habits have got to be the least of our worries. Now what’s the deal?”

“I take it you haven’t looked out any windows other than your own?” Cindy snapped as she almost ritualistically caressed her Magnum-Arms automatic.

“No why would I?” Li Ming snapped back, irritated by the medic’s tone.

“Both of you relax!” Chan snarled to head off any further comment. “Cindy is right about looking out the window, not that you would have had a reason. It seems one of the local girls managed to get herself dead. The hun dan that did it thought it would improve the hotel’s décor to have her hanging outside the window next to William’s room.

“WHAT?” Li Ming shouted as she leapt to her feet and looked out the window. When she pulled her head back in her face was drained of color. “Tian xiao de[46]! Isn’t that…?”

“Yes it was the woman I was speaking to last night. Her name was Annie.” William said softly.

“And they think you did that?”

“The short answer is yes.” Chan replied flatly.

“More men in those black dusters are showing up Captain.” Willis said from his lookout post. “There has to be more than two dozen of them now. They have the whole place completely surrounded.”

“The Black Dusters!” Li Ming growled. “Dagwood mentioned them last night. Some sort of vigilante group that’s been pushing into town for the last couple of months.”

“That would be them. Seems like they think they are the local law and they want William’s hide for murder. Probably all of us for accessories going by how mobs like these guys think.” Chan growled as she paced the room.

“The ship?” Li Ming asked.

“No response on any channel. We are on our own with two choices yield or fight.” Chan replied with a hard stare. “You have any weapons?”

“My derringer and a pair of brass knuckles.”

“That gives us a total of four pistols and one hand-to-hand weapon, not exactly an even match against better than two dozen thugs with long guns.”

“Captain, it would be folly to try to fight. Survival is now paramount.” Willis said solemnly. “Logic would dictate we yield now for a chance to change the situation later.”

“These Black Duster types are not about logic Willis, but as much as it galls my very soul, fighting would only result in a bloodbath…ours. Added to the fact the ship isn’t responding, even if we pulled off the miracle of escaping this hotel alive, the Duster’s have to have taken the ship, so we have no where to run to even if we could break out. I haven’t felt this helpless since word reached my unit about the surrender at Serenity Valley.”

Cindy winced at the mention of the battle that ended the Independent’s attempt to remain free of the Alliance. “So you want to yield Captain?” She asked.

“’Want to’ no, but seems like we don’t have a choice. We have to lay down arms and do as Willis suggested, survive for now with the hope of turning the tables later.”  

Chan put deed to word and removed her gun belt. On seeing their captain disarming, first William, Li Ming, and finally Cindy followed suit and also disarmed. Turning to Chan the rest of the crew waited for her next move.

“Now we walk downstairs slowly with hands up and making no fast moves, we might, with an emphasis on the ‘might’ part, see the rest of the day. Willis hand me that sheet and that coat rack, I need to make a truce flag.”

Dang ran Captain.”

Once the make shift surrender flag was put together, Chan led the crew slowly downstairs. The group was met by several heavily armed men all wearing the expected black dusters that were the vigilante’s trademark.

“Any funny stuff and you die where you stand ya murderin’ jackals!” The front man barked, the sweat on his brow revealing his nervousness.

“No funny stuff here, Mister…?” Chan asked politely.

Chandler. And I’ll be askin’ the questions Missy. You are bound by law and to stand down for the murder of Annie McDaniels.”

“Lead on McDuff.” Chan snarled back.

The crew was thoroughly and in the case of Li Ming and Chan, overly, searched for any form of weapons, then bound and taken to the local jail. As they were tossed in the one large cell, they found Xavier and Marsh already waiting for them. After making sure that the group was solidly secure the vigilantes filed out and let the door upstairs slam loudly.

“Well now I know why you didn’t respond to the comm.” Chan said wryly as she watched Marsh lurch drunkenly to his feet.

“I-I-It’s…n-n-not…w-what i-it looks l-like Cap.” The pilot managed to slur.

“M-Marsh is right Captain, w-we were gassed.” Xavier added, also slurring, but not quite as much.

“Gassed?” William blinked in dismay.

 “I-I may have stuttered, b-but I know what happened. Must have tanked it right in the life support intake vent, we were down before we knew what h-hit us.”

“Damn, you think it’s Nightblade Li Ming?” Chan asked.

“I can’t believe he’s tied up with these dusters, not his style to use people he doesn’t employ directly and I don’t see him having this kind of reach”

“Then it looks like we have royally bent somebody’s shaft out of alignment. I hate being in the dark and…” Chan broke off and looked around the cell. She noted there was only a bucket of water, a block of moldy protein, and a second bucket for the aftermath of the first two items. She shuddered as she realized this was the extent of their accommodations. “Sweet merciful Buddha, this is going to suck.”

The only thing Chan didn’t know was how badly.

 

“Chunk of protein Xavier?” Marsh asked wearily, not really expecting an answer.

“God no, that crap was already moldy three days ago and it hasn’t improved with age.” She replied trying not to even look at the crew’s only source of food. “I can’t for the life of me understand how you can stand that gos se.”

“Let it go Xavier, no need to go down the ‘how can you eat that’ road again.” William grumbled.

“Shush up! I hear something.” Li Ming hissed trying to concentrate.

Despite the screaming urge to want to ask what the gambler heard, the rest of the crew managed to remain silent until they all heard the clank of metal on metal as a grappling hook snagged the bars of their cell.

“Get back!” Chan had time to snarl and everyone had just enough time to get away from the window as a sharp cry came from outside.

“Heeeeeyah burros estupidos[47]!” 

The snap of a riata was followed by the whinnying of horses and the sharper crack of the bars breaking free of the brick and crumbling mortar of the cell.

“Get moving amigas y amigoas[48] unless you happen to like la casa de infierno[49]!” A Hispanic man with a gravelly voice rumbled as he stuck his head in through the still billowing dust cloud.

“Isidro Benevidez! How is it you are here?” Willis gasped.

“For once, no time for talk mi amigo, save the questions for later. The Black Dusters may be as stupid as a bag of hammers, but even they will respond to as much noise as we have just made!”

“You heard the man move!” Chan barked and bolted up and out of the cell.  

Not about to miss their Deliverance the crew scrambled madly for freedom. Outside they found Benevidez and half a dozen other men had, in addition to the two powerful draft horses that had pulled the bars from the cell, enough riding horses waiting for everyone. Three of the men assisted those of the escapees that needed help getting mounted and as soon as the last person was in the saddle, the entire group thundered into the dark, with Benevidez’ companions taking up rear guard and flanking positions around the as yet unarmed crew. Riding hard they could just faintly hear the sounds of an alarm being raised as they crested a ridge and rode out of sight.

Spurring her mount to draw next to Benevidez, who not only rode a large stallion, skillfully led the draft horses behind him, Chan had to holler to be heard above the din of the pounding hooves. “We need to talk!” She roared.

“Not a problem, now that we are out of sight, that cowardly excuse of a sheriff will not try to follow us until dawn.” He replied and then emitted a piercing whistle as he reined in his horse patting the stallion’s neck as they came to an abrupt halt. “Okay señorita, what are these words you have that couldn’t wait?”

Taken by surprise by the sudden halt all but their rescuers had difficulty in coming to a stop so quickly. William’s mount, seemingly more skittish than the rest pulled up so short that the first mate was thrown, but despite his size, the big man snapped into a combat tuck and rolled right back onto his feet. Even in the dim light reflected from Athens, everyone could see he was blushing and for once even Marsh held his tongue.

“S-sorry, it’s been a long time since I’ve ridden. That won’t happen again.” William muttered and grabbed his mount’s reins firmly, making it clear that regardless of the previous mishap that he was in charge.

“Well first of all thank you Mister Benevidez and Willis would you care to explain?” Chan asked with an arched eyebrow and also drawing attention away from her friend’s discomfort.

“Certainly ma’am. Isidro and I met three years ago while we were studying on Hera, we took to talking between classes and he became a member of my temple. We keep in touch by wave whenever we can. When we arrived on Athens, I sent him a message. It seems fortune was with us all that I did.”

“I arrived right after you were thrown in that pit of a jail. As soon as I heard that mi amigo Willis Thorton was being held by those worthless Dusters, I gathered as many of my best compadres as I could find on short notice and rode as fast as I could. It was those Dusters what framed you and there’s more going on that you don’t know, stuff that reaches way beyond a backwater like Whitefall. I can let you know more once we reach my ranch in San Melas.”

“Actually I think I have an idea.” William said, speaking for the first time since they stopped.

“Then let’s have it.” Chan replied.

“Rather than fleeing, which is what any sane group of escapees would do, since you say the sheriff will not take action and these Black Dusters are too incompetent to figure out anything complicated. Then, I propose you ride off with all these fine steeds, including this uppity filly here and make a trail the authorities can’t help but find. We in turn will sneak back into town on foot and see if we can regain control of our ship.”

“Good plan amigo, you think you can make it happen?”

William smiled and cracked his knuckles. “Don’t let my apparent lack riding skill make you think I don’t know how to deliver the goods, my friend.”

“Good enough then. You hand these Duster’s their heads and meet me in San Melas as soon as you can. I’ll let you in on the big picture when you arrive.” Benevidez smiled back.

“We will be there Mister Benevidez. We owe you much and if you can shed some light current events, performing a public service like eliminating vermin is well worth our time.” Chan added sincerely, her jaw set and her eyes hard.

“Please Amiga, call me Isidro. See you in a few days. Vámanos Muchachos[50]!” Benevidez spurred his stallion and he and his companions thundered into the night leaving a trail that no one could miss.

Marsh watched their rescuers ride off intently then turned to Willis. “What in the south side of Sihnon was that gibberish he was speaking?”

“Ah yes, he said it is an Earth-That-Was language called Spanish. The colony that Isidro was raised in still speaks it. He tried teaching me some, but I couldn’t see the use and my engineering classes really didn’t leave me much time for it.”

“We can save the history lessons for another time you two, we have work to do.” Chan chided before turning to William. “Okay, this is your idea, you got any details on how you want to make this happen?”

Dang ran Captain, but first I need to see how well the ‘Ghost is guarded. If the Dusters are as stupid and Benevidez thinks they are, they might not even have her guarded at all. Based on their dispositions we can adjust from there.”

“Everyone ready to be sneaky?” Chan asked, the silent nodding heads was all the indication she needed and with that, she lead off to circle back to come up on their ship from the opposite direction from the decoy trail left by Benevidez.

 

An hour later, Chan was crawling silently though the scrub brush west of the Lattimer’s Ghost. Their initial scouting detected three Black Dusters guarding the ramp to their ship. In response, William led Cindy and Marsh in from the east, while Chan led Willis, Li Ming, and Xavier in an approach from the other side. Moving in ten foot increments and then freezing, both groups got closer to the guards than they would have though possible.

“Stupid doesn’t begin to cover these clowns.” Chan said shaking her head in amazement as the three guards talked and smoked without the slightest clue that seven desperate people were within twenty feet of them. “I’m going to have to do something to get the attention of these jing chang mei yong de[51] Dusters.”

Crawling silently as the night itself, Chan moved close to the ship’s hull and on an angle away from where the other three members of her team waited. Once in place, she trilled an absolutely perfect call of a nightingale.

As the guards pivoted toward the noise, Marsh, Willis, and Li Ming were the closest and struck as one. Li Ming drove a palm into the nose of a man only slightly taller than she was and crushed his nose. Blinded by the pain, he was unable to defend against the combination to his solar plexus that left him on the verge of blacking out. Li Ming assisted him to his breaking point by grabbing the back of his head and snapping it downward to meet the knee she drove into his face. The man gurgled once and crumpled to the ground.

Marsh’s victim was still trying to unsling his rifle when the pilot grabbed the rifle stock and pivoted it upward around the guard’s own shoulder to deliver a bone crushing blow to the man’s face that knocked the hapless duster senseless.

Willis’ foe was the farthest away when the attack started and managed to twist away from the mechanic’s initial strike, and rather than try to fight, turned to run. However, with Li Ming and Marsh anticipating that very tactic, the man ran into ran into a flurry of fists and didn’t get five feet before folding to the dirt unconscious. 

The crew froze in silence save for the strangled panting of the combatants, straining their ears listening for any sign of detection. When no such indications were detected, Chan, Marsh, and William armed themselves with the Duster’s weapons.

“So far so good gang, let’s fan out and search the ship for any other guards.” Chan ordered and moved out toward the bridge, Marsh close behind and William splitting off on his own to check the engine room.

“Help me move these hun dan Dusters.”  Xavier growled as she struggled pulling the legs of one of the guards.

 “I have this one ladies; if you can get the others, there is some cord in the storage locket aft.” Willis responded, picking up another guard in a fireman’s carry.

Li Ming grabbed the shoulders of the man Xavier was trying to move, while the stockier Cindy was able to move the third guard on her own. The guards were quickly searched, bound, and locked in one of the aft passenger cabins. After they locked the door, they met William returning from the engine room.

“Clear.” William responded to the unasked but obvious question.

“Good. These clowns won’t be going anywhere any time soon.” Cindy said grimly.

“That’s good, cause we ain’t goin’ anywhere neither.” Marsh all but snarled.

“What now?” Li Ming winced.

“We are landlocked. We are stuck here.” Chan answered with a heavy sigh.

“I wouldn’t have believed there was enough authority on Whitefall to be able to impose a landlock.” Said William.

“Well somebody can, ‘cause somebody did. We are royally humped.” Marsh replied.

“There is some good news.” Chan said trying to lighten the mood.

“One can but beg to ask mei mei.” William smiled.

“All our gear they grabbed when we were arrested is sitting on the dining room table.”

“Be still my beating heart.” William snorted.

“I happen to be thankful for the small favor. I happen to love that little derringer and am glad it didn’t end up in one of these nia shi de du gui[52] pockets.” Li Ming added.

“Then thank the Buddha for the blessing.” Chan said coldly. “It is time however, to move to phase two.”

“Phase two?” Xavier asked.

“Clearing Durango of the rest of these hun dan for our friend Benevidez. It is time to gear up people we have some Black Duster ass to kick.”

 

It took the crew less than fifteen minutes to meet in the cargo hold ready for battle. Chan, William, Cindy, and Li Ming each wore full body armor and in addition to their sidearms, they each carried a pump-action shotgun. Marsh, despite his reputation for getting into fights, did not have armor or anything heavier than a pistol, but he made up for the weapon short coming by taking one of the captured Duster’s lever-action rifles and he was ready to do his share.

“Marsh, you think you can channel some of that fury of yours for the powers of good tonight?”  Chan quipped as she made a final check of her equipment.

“You bet Cap! These Duster jokers have it comin’!”

“I concur.” A voice added from the rear of the cargo bay.

“Willis! You sure?” Li Ming replied with a start. “This isn’t exactly your forte.”

“This is also true, but this is my ship as much as all of the rest of you and if some violence is required to free her from those who have seized her illegally, then I will do what must be done to assist.”

“Me too.” A second voice replied.

Chan looked hard at Xavier as she stepped into the light. “You think you have a place in this?” She asked quietly.

“Captain, I know I made a mistake, but regardless of outcome, it was not for selfish reasons. The ‘Ghost is as Willis said, as much my ship as all of the rest of you, despite my current status. I wish to help.”

“You know how to operate that pistol of yours? You’ve never struck me as a fighter.” Chan pressed.

“I am not a good shot and no I am not a fighter. However, I am sure there will be things that need to be done in preparation that do not require an experienced fighter. I am certain I can do these sorts of things and I am determined to re-earn my place on the crew even if I can’t re-earn your trust.”

Chan looked at the younger woman hard and long before replying. “Well said missy, now let’s see if you can make good. You can help, but if you screw up neither God nor Buddha will save you from me.”

“Fair enough Captain. Now what can I do help?”

“First you can set a code lock to keep these hun dan Dusters off the ship while we are gone.”

“And second?”

“You help Marsh and Willis loading spare magazines.”  

 

The grand clash with the Black Dusters turned out to be more of a grand anti-climax as the Dusters proved to be every bit as stupid as Benevidez thought they were. The only sentry posted was asleep at his post when the crew entered town and died in his sleep on Chan’s knife without even knowing he was in danger. With the only guard out of the picture, the crew was able to get into position near the block of buildings the Dusters had taken over.  In a pathetic attempt at protecting their turf, the Dusters had lined up barrels all around their block as cover. Li Ming spotted that the barrels were whiskey barrels commandeered from the various saloons in town. The rotgut quality of the locally brewed whiskey meant the Dusters had surrounded their base in incendiaries. 

The resulting “battle” was more of an embarrassment than a fight. A single rifle shot by Chan into the front of the main building started a stampede of Dusters into their “fighting” positions around the block. Waiting until they were in position with only a handful of pot shots to keep the illusion of an attack to draw as many Dusters into the kill zone as possible, the crew waited for Chan’s next signal. Keeping up the pretense of an all out attack until it was clear that no further thugs would arrive, Chan then had Cindy let loose with several long bursts from her sub-machine gun that split the barrels in several places and allowing the highly flammable liquid to pour out. Pausing for a few seconds, William and Chan tossed a pair of grenades and there was a massive whoosh of displaced air and a brilliant burst of flames that lit up the night for miles. The mop up was all too simple and by morning there wasn’t a single Black Duster left in Durango. The crew gathering up some of the many now surplus ex-Duster horses in town, and by riding hard, they arrived in San Melas by late in the afternoon of the following day.

 

“It’s like this amigas y amigos you have gone and made the wrong set of bastardos mad at you. A few months back, a group of Core Worlders set up a real on the down low operation back in the hills south of here. It is supposed to be a big secret, but they hired local manual laborers and I just happened to be one of them. They paid real good to be quiet, but no amount of coin is enough to make me sell out mi amigo Willis.” Benvidez paused to exchange a smile with the mechanic before continuing. “I got a look at the main jefe[53], a real piece of work named Robert Ghallager. He is some kind of scientist sent in to set up growing Highleaf in hydroponics vats. It is Ghallager that is also the one backing the Black Dusters as well.

“As you know the Dusters are muy estúpidos[54] and they talk too much when drinking. So I picked up a piece of information a couple weeks back. Seems some do-gooders on some Firefly-class transport broke up a sweet deal they had of hijacking Highleaf straight from the source at Greenleaf. These two Dusters were going on how the ‘Corporation’ was putting the squeeze on the ones what screwed up their money maker, so it seems this here ‘Corporation’ had put out the word to poison any work these fine hard working citizens might try to find. I worked those two for the rest of the night earning enough good will by buying drinks until the spilled the name of that Firefly, which as you have probably figured out by now is your ship. So it turns out your recent turn of bad luck wasn’t an accident, it was engineered and since I knew the name of the corporation from my earlier work, the group in charge of the raiders near Greenleaf and who has made your lives miserable is none other than Blue Sun!”

The crew was completely silent, the only sound was the crackling of the logs in the fire as the sat in Benevidez’ living room near the large fireplace on the chill night, each member of the crew eyes grew harder as their friend spoke until every one of them had a gaze as hard as flint.  

“Ghallager you say.” Chan said after a long silence, her flat tone made it clear it wasn’t a question. “Where do we find this hydroponics lab you mentioned?”

“I know what you are thinking senorita, but I have a better idea. This scientist has some kind of Alliance backing in addition to being on the Blue Sun payroll as they have a regular train running between San Melas and the spaceport at Corazon del Fuego. If you can destroy the train with the scientist aboard, it will break the Highleaf trade and then I can get the landlock on your ship lifted. There is a crusty old bird named Patience that runs a large chunk of this moon that hates the Dusters and what Ghallager is doing to Whitefall as much as I do. You destroy the train and kill that scientist and she has the pull to get that landlock lifted.”

“Any chance we can make a different deal with this Patience woman?” Li Ming asked.

“Patience is not a friendly woman under the best of circumstances and at the moment, she’s more ornery that usual. She wants the Dusters and Ghallager gone that is the only thing that will get her to help.”

“Why she all bent out of shape?” Marsh grumbled.

“Seems a ship captain, and more unfortunately for you a Firefly captain at that, beat her out of some platinum she didn’t want to pay about a year back, so she is not going to be willing to do any favors or special deals for anyone in a Firefly any time soon.” Benevidez chuckled. “I’ve never seen the old buzzard that mad ever, it did my heart good to see her get bearded like that.”

“Okay, so we have to destroy a train. You got any idea how to go about doing that? We only have a few shotguns, rifles, and a hand full of grenades. Not exactly the sort of firepower to stop a train.” William queried while pinching the bridge of his nose.

 “Smart man amigo, I doubt if even the Blue Sun enclave has that sort of firepower. It just so happens that I actually learned some of that engineering that Mister Thorton loves so much while we were in school.” Benevidez chuckled and shot a glance over to Willis again before continuing. “I wrangled a ride on the train before it was fully operational and discovered through observation of the locomotive and talking to the engineers that if the brakes are applied with the engine locked open, the overpressure in the hydraulics will blow the train. How you make that happen is up to you, but I’m sure you smart people can handle the details, one more bit of important info is that the next run is in three days, so you better get to planning.”

“You don’t think small Isidro, I’ll give that.” Li Ming smiled.

“No I don’t bonita[55] this is a hard place to make a home on and that Highleaf mierda only makes it harder. Too many of the young ranch hands are getting hooked on that poison and I want it stopped. Willis is like one of my brothers and it pains me to have him put both his life and beliefs on the line, but this has to be done and I know he wouldn’t be on a crew that couldn’t get it done. I’d do it myself, but I have already put myself, my family, and my land at risk breaking you out of jail and telling you what I know. If word got to the Duster’s or Blue Sun they’d find me and my family picked over by coyotes, so I can’t risk being seen or even closely associated with you regardless of how I might feel, but if you can kill Ghallager, then it will be worth it. Now I will leave you good folk to work out your plans as they involve your lives and I should not influence you any more than I already have. Hasta mañana[56].” Their friend sketched a jaunty salute and departed humming an equally upbeat tune until he faded out of ear shot.

 

“Okay crew, we are short on options here, so anything that doesn’t involve how to take out this train is off the table. I need to hear how we are going to make this train job work.” Chan said concisely to forestall any debate.

“I’ve got an option Cap.” Marsh offered

“Spill it.” Chan replied.

“I ride back to the ‘Ghost and get the hover car. That will get us some speed and let me recon the train route. If I can find a good ridge, I can use it to drive the hover car onto the top of the train while it is in motion. It will give us a quick and easy access to the engine without having to fight through guards.”

The rest of the crew blinked almost in unison at Marsh before Cindy managed to reply. “That is a surprisingly good idea. Reckless perhaps, but a good idea nonetheless”

“I might not know about Earth-That-Was stuff, but I do know how to fly and I am not as stupid as the rest of you think I am.” The pilot replied indignantly.

“I like the idea my own self, but I rather use the small hover mule.” Said Chan.

“Marsh’s plan is not without merit, but I think we might want to leave less to chance when it comes to boarding the train in motion. I think we should take advantage of the fact the train has paying seats and board as passengers. It means getting through guards, but if anything goes wrong with the hover car, we will still have a means take over the engine, even if it is an old fashioned Earth-That-Was style plan.” William said while pacing the living room..

“I have to agree with Cindy and say Marsh’s plan is best. It is an all the eggs in one basket plan, but as long as the hover car is up to the task, there are fewer things to go wrong.” Li Ming responded after some thought.

“I can ensure the hover car can meet the demands. In fact I’m certain I can not only boost the anti-grav for a short jump like Marsh envisions, but to carry three people for the trip as well.” Willis said nodding his head, his mind obviously thinking furiously about the mechanical adjustments the stunt would require.

“If the majority thinks the external approach is best, so be it, but I must continue to argue for including an internal element as well.” William insisted.

“I am going to go with William on this one. This is too important to risk to one method of attack. Only question left is who is going to do what?” Chan answered with a single nod that signified her decision.

“Since it is my idea and I am obviously too heavy to be on the hover car, I volunteer to board the train.” William replied.

“You can’t go alone William, it is too dangerous to go without someone to watch your back.” Chan countered immediately.

Mei mei you will not be able to accompany me as we will need a light load in the hover car and that means you will have to go with Marsh.”

“I will go with William.” Li Ming responded. “I think I have certain ‘assets’ that might make getting past the guards somewhat easier without tipping our hand by having to resort to violence to do so.”

“The lady is correct.” William replied with a big smile.

“Then that means I am going with the Captain.” Cindy added with finality. “I might not be the lightest thing on two feet, but in this case, I think I am small enough for the task.”

“Um, I know I’m not much in a fight, but there has to be something I can do.” Xavier said speaking for the first time.

“William and I are going to need a means to get away from the train quicker than we can run. If you were to bring in some of these fine horses, it would be much appreciated as due to both of our physiques, neither William nor I care for running.” Li Ming said with a twinkle in her eye.

“Once the hover car modifications are completed I will be free to assist Miss Xavier with this part of the plan. In this way no member of our crew will be working alone” Willis responded.

“Okay people it looks like we got us a working plan. Willis and Marsh will ride back to the ship tomorrow at first light. I suggest we all get some sleep tonight as it is going to be a busy time until we meet with that train.” Chan concluded.

The plan outlined, the crew were content to take their Captain’s advice and broke up into males and females with each group heading to their section of the bunk house space Benevidez had provided and one by one quickly dropped off to sleep.

 

Driven by their three day deadline, the crew took to their assigned tasks with a vengeance in order to be ready in time. Marsh and Willis had the longest task with another hard ride back to the ship that took them rest of the day to reach the Lattimer’s Ghost by early that same evening.  Knowing how critical the hover car would be to the entire operation, Willis worked long into the night, taking nearly five hours to carefully modify the vehicle to suit the demanding needs of the mission. Despite knowing the need for every minute of practice, the pilot and mechanic chose not to push their luck and drive back to San Melas as soon as the hover car was ready, instead waiting until morning. In addition to the much needed rest, the best part of the drive back was the chance to give the modifications a solid test and thanks to the higher speed of the hover car, they only needed an hour to reach San Melas. 

Once back at the Benevidez ranch, Willis joined Xavier in practicing the riding skills they would need for their part of the plan. As the two riders honed their proficiency, Marsh used the time to get a better feel of the boosted hover car. After Marsh felt comfortable with the changes, Chan and Cindy joined him to practice boarding and disembarking under a variety of conditions and speeds. As the others worked on their part of the plan, Li Ming and William worked on their disguises and how to best conceal the weapons they would need for their close assault part of the operation. Knowing from hard experience that it was possible to practice too much, Chan called a halt to the preparations at sundown so everyone could get a good meal and a good night’s rest.

 

“Tickets! Tickets please!” The conductor asked as he entered the car that the two non-descript passengers were riding. William handed over the boarding passes and the conductor punched them without a second glance as he moved efficiently on with his task.

“Well that went easier than I would I thought.” Li Ming exhaled a breath she didn’t realize she was holding softly to her partner.

“Never doubted it for a second my dear. We aren’t known in these parts and no reason for them to suspect anything. I just wish we could have got a seat closer to the baggage car. There are five cars between us and were we need to be and I don’t like it one bit.”

 “Allllllllllll aboooooooooooooord!” The Conductor shouted and the train began to move. Unlike the Earth-That-Was trains of old, the modern mag-lev design rapidly and smoothly accelerated and soon San Melas was lost in the distance. 

“Maybe I can do something about that.” Li Ming murmured and approached the two men guarding the platform that lead to the next car.

“Good morning fellahs tell me, are you as good with those guns as you look?” She sighed with great exaggeration, which even her loosely fitting clothing accentuated her sensuality.

 “Uh we…damn straight Miss.” The shorter of the two men replied.

“Ooh how fascinating. Are you two the ones in charge? That ratty old conductor doesn’t carry a gun and he was no where near as handsome.”

“Er, well we are in charge of this car Miss…uh Miss?”

“Desiree Duvalier and who might you two be?”

“I’m Pablo.”

“They call me Ham.” The second man replied, speaking for the first time, his eyes never leaving Li Ming.

“Mmmm I’d like to hear the story behind why they call you Ham. Maybe we can have a drink when we reach Corazon del Fuego?”

“I’d like that Desiree.”

“I have a better idea sweet lady, how about you tell us who’s that fat slob you are traveling with?”

Chester? Oh he’s my indentured, dense as a brick, but loyal as a dog. Now Pablo hon, you want to join Ham and me in town for that drink. I am a woman of certain needs and one man usually isn’t enough to satisfy them.”

“Uh…er…you bet Desiree. I know a couple nice places in town.”

Li Ming clapped her hands in delight. “Wonderful! I’m sure we will all have the best time.”

“It will be a night you won’t forget.” Ham replied all but drooling.

“I’m sure it will be special, but may I ask you just the tiniest favor?”

“Spill it sister.” Pablo leered.

“This car is a bit further back than I prefer to sit. Is it possible to move to the next car? I will be ever so grateful and promise to make it worth your trouble.” Li Ming purred coquettishly and batting her eyes.

“Pablo, I don’t know…”

“Shut up Ham, you want to miss out at this fine woman you go right ahead. If any one man can satisfy ya hon it will be me and me alone it seems.” 

“Oh no you don’t Pablo, I know you think I’m stupid, but I know a good thing, when it’s standing in front of me!” The tall man growled.

“Okay, okay Ham, don’t go getting’ buggy! You go right ahead hon and make yourself comfortable, but Desiree?”

“Yes Pablo dear?”

“Do not get it into that fine frame of yours to skip out on our meetin’ I can be a very ornery man when I’m promised somethin’ and don’t get it, dong ma?”

“Oh I certainly do. See you in town.” Li Ming winked lasciviously then turned back toward her companion. “Chester!”

“Ma’am?”

“Get your plentiful pi gu moving! These gentlemen are giving us an upgrade!”

“Yes Ma’am.” William ambled up to Li Ming playing the part of a lackey to the hilt.

“Thank you again guys. You will both get something to remember, I promise” She blew them both kisses then sashayed with an abundance of hip motion onto the platform and into the next car, William tagging along like a proper servant.

“That is one fine woman Ham.” Pablo smirked.

“She sure is. I can’t wait to get to town now.”

“Yeah you got that right.”

 

The guards in the next car were no smarter than the first two and using her tremendous allure to the fullest Li Ming played the role of the temptress like a pro. Long practice with using her natural beauty to take advantage of men’s lust, she worked her way forward using her charm and working her magic to get herself and William closer to the front of the train. The guards on the second car back from the baggage car, proven more resistant than the others, but a carefully placed caress was enough to work past that obstacle. After half an hour of a stunning virtuoso performance, the two of them were in the car right behind the baggage car. 

  Once in place, William sent a single pulse signal and the entire crew sprang into action. Chan sent a single tone reply to announce the start and this set William and Li Ming into motion.  They each drew their hidden pistols and fired on one of the two guards on the car. Li Ming’s target went down immediately, shot through the heart, giving her time to rush forward as William downed his target with his second shot. William ran to the door heading away from the baggage car and used a small drop of Scrapper’s Gel to fuse the lock and prevent reinforcements from arriving from the rear of the train. 

Li Ming killed the first guard from the baggage car to open the door to their car with another well placed shot and took advantage of the opening to toss in a grenade. The blast killed one guard instantly and wounded the other six. She immediately rushed to the door and killed another guard as she burst though the door of the baggage car. Moving with a feral smoothness and grace, the one woman assault felled two more guards by the time William reached the hatch. As the two entered a badly wounded man through up his arms to surrender and to make sure it wasn’t a ploy, William laid him out with a single punch. One of the two remaining guards tried to shoot William while he was occupied, but Li Ming saw the guard move and shot him down before he could fire. William no longer in a mood to take prisoners, pivoted and shot the last guard before he could shoot or surrender. 

“Well that was downright exhilarating!” William exclaimed as he kicked the weapons away from the dead guard to make sure there would be no surprises.

“Yeah, good thing these Dusters are a stupid as they are or this might have been a challenge, now let’s find the hun dan in charge of these idiots!” Li Ming replied breathlessly as she slapped a fresh magazine into her pistol, her eyes sweeping the baggage cars for movement.

“Ladies first.”

“I don’t think that is necessarily the gentlemanly thing in this situation.”

“Humor me, you are by far more agile than I and I need all the help I can get.”

“Right.” Li Ming then returned to her combat stance and started moving toward the front of the baggage car.

As the two on the train fought, Marsh was fighting a battle of his own. As soon as the front of the train reached his innocuously placed guide marker, he gunned the engine as he had several dozen times before, and raced forward at full acceleration to hit the make shift ramp perfectly. Marsh’s timing and arc were flawless however, despite the all of the modifications made to the hover car and all the practice runs he’d made the day before, when the smaller vehicle hit the slipstream from the train Marsh found himself in trouble. 

The hover car skidded sideways and pitched to one side alarmingly and, by pure instinct, Marsh steered into the skid while pulling back sharply on the throttle control. This straightened out the hover car, but caused the nose to pitch downward even more alarmingly that the first sideways tilt. As Marsh reached for the throttle control again, Chan lost her balance and fell forward, her hand landing on the pilot’s and driving the accelerator forward far past Marsh’s intended mark. This fluke turned out to be an incredible stroke of luck, as the already boosted thrust hit a speed not even Willis intended and made the nose of the hover car hit the slipstream at the perfect angle to bring the hover car down safely on top of the train. Chan, Cindy, and even Marsh sat white knuckled for a second as they realized how close they had come to disaster.

“Remind me to take the bus next time!” Chan yelled to be heard over the roaring of the train.

“I’ll send you the wave myself” A very chagrined Marsh replied. “Go get ‘em Cap!”

“You bet!”

The two women duck walked out across the top of the fuel tender toward the engine. Despite having practiced for this situation, the noise and vibration was far worse than either expected.  

“Sweet merciful Buddha guide my path.” Chan prayed fervently as she slowly inched forward on the swaying train. She was still nearly three meters to the engine when she heard a piercing scream behind her. Wheeling about by pure instinct, she just managed to catch Cindy’s flailing arm before she went over the side.

“Jesus! Buddha! Hera! Freyda! Save me!”  The medic howled in terror.

“None of them are here at the moment you stupid cow! Concentrate and help me help you!”

Cindy’s eyes locked on Chan’s and some of the terror faded replaced by anger, but most importantly, comprehension. She nodded her head and got her free arm on the railing of the tender. With a ponderous slowness the two women straining against gravity, vibration and fear managed to pull the medic onto the top of the tender. Cindy opened her mouth to speak, but Chan silenced her with a gesture and pointed toward the cab of the engine. Cindy nodded and using each other for stability, the two women managed to reach the engine. 

 

In the baggage car, William and Li Ming advanced carefully looking for the scientist Ghallager. William thought he heard something in the latrine and after silently signaling to his partner kicked the door open to find the scientist cowering in abject terror. Frightened and pathetic, neither William nor Li Ming could find it in them to shoot the wretched man, instead choosing to seal him in the latrine with a drop of Scrapper’s Gel to fuse the lock.

 

On the top of the train, Cindy and Chan dropped into the cab, but as they did, one of the engineers spotted them as the shaken Cindy landed badly and made too much noise. Chan fired her shotgun twice instantly killing one man and wounding the second. As the survivor reached for the controls, Cindy fired a burst from her submachine gun and killed him before he could stop the train. With the train under control, Chan reached for her comm.

“Riders up!” She said signaling for Willis and Xavier to approach.

Cindy worked feverishly and quickly figured out how to disable the brake cut outs to bring the train to a stop while keeping full power to the engine. Cindy and Chan fairly leapt back to the hover car on a now stationary train with the warning klaxons screaming behind them, Marsh blasted free of the train at maximum speed.

Willis and Xavier bolted out of their hiding place at Chan’s signal and brought their mounts in close before the train even stopped. “Looking for a free ride big guy?” Xavier quipped as soon as she saw William.

“A gentleman never turns down a sincere offer from a lady, but right now, moving is better than talking.” He replied as he and Li Ming climbed into the saddles of the extra horses, the warning sirens from the building overload providing all the incentive they could want. All four spurred their mounts and raced away as fast as the horses could run. A few sporadic shots from a couple of the brighter Black Dusters shooting from the windows of the train, forced them to take an evasive course until the afternoon was shattered by a massive explosion.

“Jesu Christu!” William said recoiling from the blast and resulting shower of debris landing all around him and the other riders. It took several seconds for the riders to get their terrified mounts under control. When they looked back, the engine, tender, baggage car, and the first passenger car were completely destroyed with the wreckage fully engulfed in flames.    

“Let it never be said we do things half-assed.” Marsh said pulling the hover car next to the mounted crew. “I’m not sure what I was expectin’, but that was awesome!”

“Friend Marsh, we did what we had to free ourselves from a situation forced upon us. Do not take pleasure at the deaths of so many!” Willis hissed in uncharacteristic anger.

“I have to agree with Willis on this one. We did a rotten job, but we shouldn’t be celebrating too much.” William nodded after a couple seconds.

“Yeah well, it was still an awesome explosion. Let’s see if Benevidez can deliver his end of the deal.” Marsh grumbled before engaging the drive of the hover car and heading toward their friend’s ranch.

 

Muy bravo amigas y amigos[57] the explosion was visible for miles! I knew you could do it.” Benevidez exclaimed when the crew rode up to the ranch house. He hustled everyone into his home and broke out several bottles of wine. Once everyone, even the reluctant Willis had a glass, the rancher raised his own. “To a job that needed to be done and was done well!” He downed his glass in a single gulp and passed the bottle around so those that wanted more could refill their glasses.

“I want you to tell me everything, but first, I talked to that old bag Patience and the landlock on your ship is lifted, you can go as soon as you fill me in.”

“I’ll field this one.” William offered and launched into a highly animate description of the events of the day, supplemented by the rest of the crew when it came to the parts he hadn’t personally witnessed.

When the story was over, Benevidez wore a huge smile. “Yeah that sounds like Ghallager, sniveling little wimp. The ‘Verse is a better place without him.” He raised his palm to Willis to forestall whatever the mechanic was going to say. “I know amigo what the teachings are, but sometimes you have to do bad things to make some better things happen. Whitefall might not be much, but it is my home and getting rid of that Highleaf basura[58] is a step in the right direction.”

“This has been big fun, but I need to get to the ship and get it moving before anything else can go wrong.” Marsh said standing and heading toward the door.

“I know Whitefall isn’t for everyone and you need to get moving, but hurry back “

“I’ll go with him.” William added. “Not a good idea for anyone to be out and alone. I won’t feel safe until we are in the Black”

“Always thinking Señor William, good idea though.” Benevidez replied with a hearty laugh.

“The ‘Verse has a way of eliminating those that don’t do enough thinking. We’ll be back as soon as Marsh here can work his magic.” The first mate replied and headed out the door and boarded the waiting hover car.

 

Less than an hour later, the crew could hear the sweet sound of their ship approaching, everyone went outside and Marsh brought the Lattimer’s Ghost in with his typical panache. He lowered the cargo ramp, but kept the engines at full. The crew each made their goodbyes, with Benevidez pulling his friend Willis into a big bear hug before letting him go.

“Well Isidro, our ride is here, we’ve got to go.” Chan said stopping at the bottom of the ramp for one last look at the harsh landscape.

“I understand bonita, thanks again and remember, for you my friends never forget that Blue Sun has got your number. Vaya con Dios![59]

Gracias mi amigo.” Chan replied with a sly grin.

Benevidez’ mouth hung open for a second before letting loose with a booming laugh. “Perfecto bonita perfecto, you have made this a day to remember. Watch your backs.” He stepped back to get clear of the downdraft as the ship soared upward and then returned to stand with his wife and watch the ship disappear into the distance.

 

“Well I guess the first question Cap has to be where to?” Marsh asked smiling broadly at being behind the controls of a ship in the Black again.

“What’s closest?”

“Anticipating that answer, that would be Triumph.”

“How far?”

“Also anticipated and that would be 42 hours.”

“Do it.”

“Done.”

 

Later that evening, the crew was completing their traditional Lift day meal, albeit a sparser one than usual due to the lack of a chance to buy any fresh food, but regardless of the precise components, just being on their own ship and back in some sort of control made the meal taste better than canned food normally did.

Before the crew could leave Chan stood and cleared her throat. “I’ve got words that need to be said before you go and in front of all of you.” The crew sat up straighter all eyes riveted on the Captain as she normally was never so formal. “Even though it seems like it was a long time ago, I made a bad call and I want to both reverse that decision and apologize to the person I wronged.

“Xavier, I judged you too harshly. You got pinched while trying to change our dry spell and I thought you’d screwed up our chance for a deal on Athens and it turned out there were forces in motion that would have led us to Whitefall even if you had brought home half a million credits.

“Even though I made you an outsider, you stepped up when it came to defending and fighting for our home. You have proved yourself to be every bit as much a member of this crew as the rest of us and I hope you will forgive me.”

Xavier sat quietly her expression nearly unreadable, but the quivering of her lip. “I…uh” She started her voice cracking. “I…would be lying if I said I wasn’t surprised. Thank you Captain. I am grateful to be back as ‘crew’ instead of passenger. Thank you.”

“Well that was another bit of good news mei mei. Now we need to know what the plan is about the hun dan Blue Sun he chu sheng za jiao de zang huo[60] riding our backs?”

“I don’t have an answer to that yet Lao peng you[61]. I will have to cogitate on that and get back to you. We can’t go against a corporation as big as Blue Sun alone and it seems they have made us unwelcome where ever we go, but there has to be a way to get some information on exactly who is running the Highleaf trade, so I guess that is our first order of business. I’m sure you can guess what the second order of business would be.”

The feral grins that swept the table was all the answer Chan needed to know she’d gotten her point across.


Chapter Seven

 

“Firefly-Class freighter Lattimer’s Ghost, this is Beylix approach control, you are cleared to land on pad two-seven delta.” The professional, if bored voice squawked over the ship’s communication speakers.

“Roger Beylix approach. Lattimer’s Ghost cleared to pad two-seven delta.” Marsh replied with an amused expression. After turning back to his flight controls he quipped. “You think they teach them that tone of voice in signal school?”

“Can’t be any different from how they teach civil servants how to wrinkle their nose when they look at you like they smell something they don’t like.” William answered from the co-pilot’s seat.

Marsh responded by laughing out loud. “Well what do you know? I always thought that was just me that they looked at like that!”

“Oh no my friend, that look is as ‘Verse wide as that controller’s tone of voice, and both have been skillfully crafted by generations of bureaucrats. I’m certain those idiosyncrasies survived the passage from Earth-That-Was.”

“I’ll believe you, what was isn’t as big on my list as what is, like findin’ work again.”

“I won’t dispute that with our current situation, a lesson on ancient history isn’t going to help us find the hou zi de pi gu[62] that is running the Highleaf operation of Blue Sun that has it out for us. Whoever it is has got themselves dug in deep.”

“Well Beylix is a good place to find stuff as what them as don’t want it would put it. Might take some sweet talk and some hard coin to get the right person to part with the right words, but this is good a place to look as any place in the ‘Verse. Beats Triumph by a long shot”

“That would be the dream young Marsh and why the captain chose to come here rather than the closer Triumph. Took us an extra two days to get here, so you can bet as soon as we have the cargo ramp down, we will hit the mean streets to see if we can find just the sort of person you mention.”

 

“So you are telling me they not only escaped, but they managed to shut down our primary Highleaf operation again in the process.” The man said in a voice approaching absolute zero and obviously not a question.

“Yes sir.” His assistant replied meekly knowing by her boss’ tone of voice that anything but a straight answer would result in her immediate termination, employment wise for certain, and literally was within the realm of the possible as she had never seen him so mad.

“How?”

“They had help getting out of the jail, but none of the surviving members of the operation knows who. The destruction of the train took out all of the senior personnel on Whitefall and a raid by locals took advantage of the disarray to destroy the growing facility. Again, there were no survivors to identify the raiders.” The assistant cringed at the man’s grimace.

“Well it would seem the boss and I have underestimated our quarry’s abilities. I’ll chalk the first set back to the pirates being surprised. They were a small crew and had gotten too cocky from too little resistance. But this Whitefall disaster is a completely different matter. Seven crew, only five at best fighters, eliminated forty-odd guards and every leader on that godforsaken moon. I will have to contact the boss and let him know that we will have to rebuild our entire operation from scratch. If I am still alive and working for Blue Sun after that conversation, I am going to devote the rest of my existence to ending the existence of the Lattimer’s Ghost and her crew” The man growled in a voice so fierce that it raised the hackles on the assistant’s neck by their complete and bone-chilling sincerity.

 

True to William’s word, as soon as the ship was fully powered down, everyone but Willis exited the ship to see what news or work they could find. The rest of the crew split into three teams with Chan and William, Li Ming and Xavier, and Marsh and Cindy fanning out to blanket the landing field to try and find business or info on Blue Sun.

Willis watched the others depart, sealing the ship up to perform a little maintenance and, more importantly, to provide security in case Blue Sun decided to take a more active role in the crew’s affairs. “Sweet merciful Buddha, guard over and guide your servants as they walk through the dangers of this world.” The somber mechanic prayed as the ramp closed. He turned to return to the engine room and silently added. “And letting them find any sort of honest work would be nice as well.”

 

“So tell me lovely ladies, why should you need to know such information? Surely there are better lines of work for women of your…talents” The oily little man crooned.

“Look Finn, all we want to know is do you, or do you not have work for us? Honest work you pile of ma da bian[63].” Li Ming replied sharply, her eyes hard.

“Oh Li Ming, you wound me.” Finn returned feigning dismay. “I am but a simple and honest businessman trying to make a living in a harsh and unforgiving ‘Verse.”

“Finn you are neither simple nor honest, but that is beside the point. I’ve got a good ship and a better crew and we just want to ‘make a living in a harsh and unforgiving ‘Verse’ as well. You got the goods or not? No need for the usual line of crap; just be square with me.”

Finn looked uncomfortable for a moment then leaned in close to Li Ming. “You didn’t hear this from me, but the word is that it’s not good for business to do business with you right now beautiful one.”

The two women exchanged a glance and Xavier nodded her head at Li Ming’s raised eyebrow before the gambler leaned in closer to Finn.

“What if we said we are not surprised to hear this news, would you be willing to tell us why doing business with us would be a problem?”

“That I have not heard.” The small man replied a little too quickly.

Li Ming responded by running her a finger gently tracing the curve of Finn’s left ear. “Come on now Finn, you’ve known me a long time, throw me a hint.” She all but purred.

Finn looked even more uncomfortable, his eyes darting to both sides and he looked over his shoulder as if someone might overhear before replying. “Blue Sun.”

“Thanks old friend, you have confirmed what we needed to know. We’ll make sure that no one sees us when we leave. You tell the misses I said hello.” Li Ming flashed a brilliant smile then motioned to Xavier to follow. The two women exited the seedy restaurant singly via the side exit before meeting back up two blocks away.

“Looks like Benevidez knew what he was talking about.” Xavier said after they had walked another two blocks.

“You have to wonder why a Corp as big as Blue Sun would take it into their head to make small fish like us sweat. We can’t be considered competition and we damn sure haven’t crowded their grip on the ‘Verse.”

“I couldn’t begin to tell you, but somehow we have and now we have to figure how to get them off our pi gu.”

“I’ve got enough problems with Nightblade, last thing I need is an even bigger fish wanting to make my life more complicated than it already is Xave. Being able to get out of the way before the da bian hit the fan has been a specialty of mine, for a long, long time, but this load is more than this one girl is willing to try and bear.”

“Captain will figure something out. If she can’t, I’ll have to come up with something.”

Li Ming stopped dead in her tracks to stare at her enigmatic partner. “You can’t be serious?”

“Why not? Just because Chan is the captain, that doesn’t give her an exclusive monopoly on ideas. My ideas have just as much merit as hers and I don’t have all the pressure on me like she does. Maybe I can see things more clearly than she can.”

“Well I will agree Chan has to be under a terrible amount of stress and I’m not going to enjoy being the one that tells her a rumor is a fact and that the biggest corporation in the ‘Verse has got it out for her.”

“Yeah, not going to be fun, but we will see what her response is before I start offering up my ideas.”

“Yes Xave, let’s just hold your ideas in reserve for now. What did your Cortex search find?”

“Nothing on Blue Sun, but that is not a surprise, I did find there is a guy paying nice coin for some sort of investigation.”

“Say what he needed figured out?”

“All the message said was ‘wanted: independent investigators to uncover mysterious occurrences during the course of business’ the name Darrin Coorvish and a contact number.” 

 

The three teams returned to the ship with two things in common, first, as with every other planet or moon in the ‘Verse, no one had any business for them. Second, the other two teams had found the same mysterious advertisement from Darrin Coorvish that Xavier discovered earlier.

“I have to assume that any place we try to go in the whole ‘Verse has got the word not to hire us at this point. I had hoped we might be able to get in front of the message by going deeper on the Rim, but that didn’t pan out.” Chan said while pacing in the ship’s dining room to the rest of the crew that had gathered for the post landfall sweep update.

“What about this Coorvish character Cap?” Marsh asked.

“I don’t like how this ‘mysterious occurrences’ sounds. Last thing we need is to get into someone else’s problems considering our own situation.” Chan replied shaking her head. “If this thing were square, why haven’t the local talent done this investigation?”

“Not like we have anything else to do with our time Cap.” Marsh pressed.

“Well I did get the low down on what the mystery is about from a rather desperate sort of old coot for a pint of bitters Captain.” Cindy said quietly.

“Go on and spill it girl!” Chan snapped, then pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed. “I’m sorry Cindy, too much thinking and not enough cigarras on my part. I didn’t mean to get all fang on you.”

“I understand captain we have had to live in interesting times for far too long. What I learned was, it seems that hunting parties go out in search in the hinterlands for an animal he called a chimper.”

“Chimper?  William frowned. “He must have meant a chimpanzee.”

“The old guy said chimper, but I am sure you are right. Anyway, seems the chimpers are captured and sold on the Core as pets, apparently they are all the rage. Lately, it seems, the hunting parties have been ambushed with several wounded and a few dead. The last expedition had two dead and four severely wounded out of ten sent out. None of the locals are willing to go out anymore and this seems to be cutting into this Coorvish’s profit margin. Guess he wants to know who is putting a crimp in his chimper gig.”

Marsh rocked forward off the rear two legs of his chair and back onto all four before smacking the center of his forehead. “Da xiang bao zha shi de la du zi[64]! You can not be serious? You want to go looking for why the locals can’t find a bunch of monkeys?”

“Aw Sylvie, you don’t want to go to the family reunion or are you just ashamed to introduce me to your parents?” Cindy sniggered loudly at the pilot’s expense.

Marsh fixed the medic with a gaze hot enough to melt hull plating. “One day you are going to push that shaved orangutan thing too damn far!” He snarled throwing his cup across the room.

Bai tuo, an jing yi dian[65]! Last thing we need is a lover’s spat children. If you can’t behave, the captain is going to send you to your rooms without supper.” William growled, fixing each with a baleful gaze to make it clear that now was not the time for joking around.

“All I ever wanted was to be free to move around the ‘Verse and make some honest coin. Did I listen to my father and join the family business? No. Did I even look at any of the men he tried to get me hitched to? No. I had to go and become the owner of a tramp freighter.” Chan said rubbing her temples in the vain attempt to make the pressure building there subside. “Sweet merciful Buddha, but all this noise is giving me a headache. Damn how could use a good drink and a good lay.” She thought to herself before rejoining the conversation, thankful as always for William’s, once again, timely intervention. “Okay crew, as the First Mate has stated, time to cut the children’s chatter and act like you belong at the adult’s table.” She paused to make sure all eyes were fixed on her before she continued. “Since we all know that no other work is going to be coming our way, William and I are going to talk to this Coorvish character and see what he is about. If he doesn’t trigger William’s hun dan detector, we are going to take this job monkeys, chimpanzees, or orangutans. Dong ma?”

A chorus of “Yes captain” brought the conversation to an end and Chan turned for the bridge. “You want to make the call or should I?” She asked over her shoulder.

“I will.” The big man answered once they were out of earshot of the rest of the crew. “You do the talking once the meet starts. Until then, you remain the aloof and enigmatic captain. Why should this one be different?”

“Because I am beginning to wonder if I know what I am doing William. I led my first crew to near bankruptcy until they bailed on me and now it looks like I am about to run my second crew down the bankruptcy road as well.”

“Dammit mei mei you know things are different this time, don’t even try to go down that path with me!” William retorted hotly.

“How are they different this time?” She replied just as hotly.

“You didn’t have my sparkling personality the first time.” He replied with a hearty laugh, his instant of anger forgotten.

Chan didn’t manage to laugh, but she did smile for the first time since making planetfall on Beylix. “Thank you William. I needed that.”

“I can think of a couple other things you need as well, but those are not my place to arrange or even really talk about mei mei.”

“One thing at a time old friend, one thing at a time.”

 

“It is nice to meet you Captain Wu.” Coorvish said warmly as he shook Chan’s and William’s hands, inviting them to sit and offering refreshments in the businessman’s sparse office just under an hour later. “I will be blunt captain. I haven’t had anyone take me up on my offer in over a week, so it was a pleasant surprise to get your wave. I will also be straight to the point on what you want to know most. I propose a week long tracked ATVs safari into the outback. You must bring own weapons and supplies for a pay rate of five platinum per day per person for a total of 35 platinum each. The area in question is a heavily forested one and our task will be to find out who is making and to suppress the attacks on the hunters. Are you still interested?”

“Will we be to report to you while we are out checking on what is bushwhacking your hunters?” She replied.

“I should say so, I am going as well. I will have my own personal bodyguards and vehicle. I am not the sort that stays in the rear with the gear once I know there is trouble afoot. Your team will be fully autonomous when it pertains to the actual investigation, but I fully intend to stop these attacks and I will be there personally.”

Chan didn’t reply immediately and spared a quick glance at William who didn’t get a chance to comment before Coorvish continued.

“I see by your lack of an enthusiastic response that you are hesitant to have me along. Trust me Captain Wu, I hire good people and trust them to do their jobs. These attacks however, have grown in intensity and your team will not be strong enough to provide for their own security and still have enough firepower to conduct a worthwhile investigation. My bodyguards and I will form what is called your base of fire to free your group to concentrate on collecting the detailed information without being concerned for your survival.”

“These attacks are that deadly?” Chan asked growing cautious as what seemed like a simple mission was becoming more involved than she liked.

“Not yet, but the escalation of violence has increased. So far we have only lost a few killed, but the pattern and aggressiveness of the attacks clearly indicates that it is time to show whoever is behind the assaults that we mean business or they will assume they own the entire outback. I will not allow that, but I need help. Captain will you be willing to help if I push the pay to ten platinum per day?”

“Mister Coorvish, I run my crew and they know that, but for something like this I want to discuss it with them first. May I speak to you in two hours?”

“Certainly Captain, hear from you then.”

 

“…and that is the long and the short of it. The floor is now open for them as what has words.” Chan said as she finished briefing the crew on the potential job and knowing who would be first to speak.

“I don’t like it Captain.” Xavier said speaking first rather than Marsh and surprising Chan.

“Ditto Cap, this one reeks.” Marsh confirmed with a single nod of his head.

“Money is money Captain and we have gone for too long without proper maintenance.” Willis said with his typical somberness.

“Okay that is two against and one for. Li Ming?” Chan asked.

“I find myself in the strange position of agreeing with Marsh. There is much this Coorvish is leaving out of the situation and when the dealer isn’t being upfront, it is time to leave the table.”

“And I find myself in the usual position of disagreeing with Marsh. The only thing we seem to be getting any experience at is fighting, so we might as well take coin from them as what are willing to pay for that skill.”

“Since William and I are okay with this job enough to do it, then that makes it four to three in favor of taking the job. William, send Coorvish a wave telling him we accept his terms.”

Dang ran Captain.” William replied instantly, pivoting on his heel to head for the bridge.

“We are going to regret this.” Marsh muttered to no one in particular.

 

The next morning, Coorvish and ten other men arrived in two large ATVs. The surly driver of the crew’s vehicle exited without a word and joined his companions standing behind their employer and suspiciously eyeing the crew.

“Friendly lot.” Xavier muttered, fidgeting in her new ballistic mesh body armor. Cindy knew that the younger woman did not like guns or fighting, but that the nature of this new job would require more protection than Xavier’s typical jeans and a tee shirt garb she normally wore. Taking the computer expert into the market square, Cindy managed to locate the body armor at a reasonable price that Xavier still tried to balk at until Cindy explained the costs of medical treatments in relationship to that of the armor if the younger woman was wounded badly enough that she as medic could not heal. Once back at the ship, Cindy helped Xavier adjust the armor and the rest of her gear so that she didn’t look like a complete rookie.

“Just stare back hard and stop fidgeting. You are going to want those thugs to think you are too dangerous to mess with. Now hush” Cindy whispered back, making a point to crack her knuckles loudly and flexing her fingerless gloves for maximum effect.

“A fine ship you have captain,” Coorvish boomed. “a fine ship and crew indeed. We have a long way to go I do hope you are all ready?” He asked rhetorically.

“Of course we are Mister Coorvish, it will only take a few minutes to store our gear and secure the ship and we can depart.”

“Excellent! Klaus here will lead.” Coorvish replied slapping one of his men on the back, then turning to board his ATV.

Xavier engaged her newly enhanced security system as the rest of the crew got everything stowed on their ATV. Chan had insisted practicing this simple task to make it clear her crew were professionals and the rehearsal paid off, as the crew was ready to move in under five minutes. Coorvish was clearly impressed and sketched a two fingered salute to Chan before nudging Klaus to head out.

The trip to the Beylix outback turned out to be very scenic, very long and, after awhile, very boring. After ten hours of rattling along, the lead ATV finally called for a halt. Coorvish and his men set up one camp near their vehicle as the crew of the Lattimer’s Ghost set up a second camp of their own near their vehicle. Taking direction from Chan and Cindy, the crew had also began to set up a defensible perimeter when Coorvish, with two men approached the second camp.

“I see that I have chosen my companions well!” He exclaimed, clapping his hands together as he toured their camp. “Top notch precautions Captain Wu.”

“Given the unknown nature of attackers, it seemed prudent to be prepared.” Chan replied as she paused to wipe the sweat beading on her brow from the exertion of creating a shallow hasty fighting position.

“Quite so, Captain, quite so. My own men seem to be somewhat more complacent than you and your crew.” Coorvish cast a reproachful glance at his guards before continuing. “When I get back to my campsite, I will have my men follow your example and set up similar defensive works.”

“But sir, Jenkins and Chu have already…” One of the guards began.

“Jenkins and Chu have already what Adams?” Coorvish snarled.

“Uh…um…well, Jenkins and Chu went hunting sir.” Adams managed to stammer.

“Oh for the love of Saint Peter, we have plenty of rations, what is wrong with the rations that they had to wander off on their own?”

“Nothing is wrong with the rations that I know of sir. They just…well…they just…” Adams faltered at the near apoplectic expression on Coorvish’s face.

“Captain Wu, please excuse me, I have a few issues to take care of. I can see at least your crew has an idea of the nature of living in unfriendly territory and the necessary precautions and common sense required in such an environment. It seems I must impart some of that common sense into the rest of the team.”

Chan just nodded silently in acknowledgement and returned to her work.

“You two come with me.” Coorvish barked and the Chan caught a look of pure venom from Adams before he turned to follow his livid employer, who was striding back to his camp barking orders and clearly about to make life for his supposed bodyguards most unpleasant.

“I would take it that our illustrious employer has just discovered city thugs do not bodyguard make.” William smiled when Coorvish was far out of earshot.

“Yes and those thugs seem to think their lack of preparation is our fault.” Chan replied with a broad grin.

“Nobody likes the teacher’s pet mei mei.” William managed to reply without laughing.

“I doubt seriously if they are using the term ‘teacher’s pet’ my friend.”

“No I’m sure they will be thinking of us in terms that would make even a seasoned spacer such as yourself blush Captain.”

“Make me blush? As if.” Chan chuckled at that thought.

“Regardless, those bully boys are even more disposed to dislike the fact we draw breath, so it would be a good idea to keep an especially careful watch tonight.”

“I’ve already worked out the rotation. I’ll brief everyone as soon as the camp is ready.”

“I had figured as much. How much longer before the position meets your approval?”

“At least another hour.”

“The rest of the crew will be ready.” William answered with a nod and moved to check on the next position over, where Marsh was applying far less enthusiasm in his preparations than suited the first mate. “I’ll be certain we are ready.”

Chan nodded in return and reapplied her attention to her preparations knowing that William would see to everything, just as he always did.

 

William did not quite have everything prepared to his satisfaction yet, mainly due to the fact that one of the two men that had gone hunting stumbled back into the camp a bloody mess a little sooner than he had predicted. There was an outcry from the other camp that brought preparations to a halt as Cindy raced over to assist.

“Given what a pair of idiots you two are, I’m surprised either one of you managed to come back at all, of all the lame-brained, inbred, half-witted ideas on this side of the ‘Verse to take into your empty skulls!” Coorvish was thundering at the survivor as Chan and Cindy reached the second camp.

“MISTER Coorvish!” Cindy snapped as she quickly assessed the injured man. Her tone of voice caught Coorvish by surprised and made him pause long enough for the medic to continue.

“This man is in shock and has lost a fair amount of blood. The cuts although bloody are actually fairly shallow, so he will survive, but I will not have you haranguing him while I am working on him. Please hold your diatribe until after I have stopped the bleeding.” She then turned back to her patient, having clearly dismissed Coorvish.

“Sir, with your permission I have a search party ready to send out to try and locate the missing man.” Chan managed to interrupt before Coorvish could reply with fury that was clearly twisting his already livid visage.

“A what?” He managed to snarl at Chan, but fortunately her timely intervention had deflected his anger from Cindy and the wounded man.

“A search party sir.”

“Oh right to try and find the other idiot. Captain, at least somebody out here is a professional. Report back as soon as you know anything. Hopefully, by the time you get back, I will have whipped these gou cao de[66] goons into some semblance of preparedness.” 

“I’m sure you will sir.” Chan pivoted and raced over to their camp in time to catch William before he left. She found her first mate, Li Ming, and Marsh suited up and ready to go.

“We’ll be in constant radio communication. It will be full dark in less than forty-five. We will be back regardless by then.” William said tersely.

“Good plan, see you then.” Chan replied and moved to take her place in her fighting position.

The three quasi soldiers of fortune moved out quickly and were soon out of sight.

 

As promised, the search party was back in less than forty-five minutes. However, they had precious little new information. They managed to find despite the failing light the location where the would-be hunters were ambushed, but only found tracks, blood, and precious little else. They were unable to find the body of the missing Chu and returned to camp empty handed. Tensions in both camps were very high as they set the watch and bedded down for the night. Perhaps the preparations more than the unknown assailants were prepared to face, or more likely, they were satisfied by the casualties they had already inflicted, but whatever the reason, the rest of the night passed without incident. In the morning, a much calmer Coorvish, this time accompanied by four bodyguards, entered Chan and company’s camp.

“Jenkins is going to be fine.” He said without preamble. “Thank you Cindy and thank you Captain Wu for talking some sense into me. As you can suspect, I am under a fair bit of strain and all the events of yesterday evening came at me too quickly to respond in a reasonable manner.”

“Just keeping up my part of the bargain Mister Coorvish.” Chan replied warmly.

“After last night Captain, please call me Darrin.”

“Only if you call me Chan.”

“Deal. Anyway, since it is clear you know what you are doing in this environment, how do your suggest we proceed?”

“Whoever is responsible for these attacks is obviously very close, so I suggest that we take advantage of already having a solid base camp, to proceed on foot patrol. We will never find anyone rattling along in those ATVs.”

“Agreed. Who do you want to send on this patrol?”

“I’ll take five of my crew. A smaller patrol will be quieter and we’ll use your men as the rapid reaction force if we run into anything we can’t handle.”

“Are you sure five is enough? The attackers have hit groups much larger than that.”

“Yes, but they have only hit groups that were unprepared and we have something the others did not have…back up.”

“Fair enough, good luck Cap…er Chan.”

“Thank you Darrin.”

Chan waited until she was alone with her crew before continuing. “Xavier and Willis, we will leave you with the ATV, Coorvish’s thugs may be good at breaking legs, but they haven’t got a clue how to fight in this sort of setting. All five of us will have transmitters and if any one of us calls, we will need you to be the actual rapid reaction force. Dong ma?”

“Absolutely Captain, I do not trust these ruffians at all.” Willis sniffed; his disapproval of Coorvish’s men all too clear.

“Yeah these goons couldn’t find their way out of a Lilac Drop house.” Marsh snorted in agreement.

“I again find myself in the strange position of agreeing with Mister Marsh.” Li Ming added after a moment.

“Why is it so difficult to accept that I am not as stupid as you all think?” Marsh groused. “No wait, don’t answer that!”

“Yeah, time to work and last thing we need is to stir up bad karma.” Cindy said as she turned to face each of the cardinal directions with a charm held before her.

“Like that piece of glass is going to protect you.” Marsh laughed.

“This ‘piece of glass’ got me through the entire U-War with all my parts where are supposed to be, so forgive me if I place more faith in it than I do it you.” Cindy retorted hotly.

“Enough!” Chan snapped. “It is time to go. We will do this in a wedge. Cindy has point, William and I the trail, Marsh and Li Ming you will cover the flanks. Keep your transmitters at the ready, we are far enough in the wild that if it moves shoot it. Not orders I like to give, but too many people have had their butts handed to them out here to be askin’ too many questions, everyone ready?”

Knowing the question was rhetorical before she asked it, Chan didn’t wait for an answer, she simply moved out with the complete assurance that her fellow crew would be exactly where they were supposed to be.

 

The soft two tone whistle brought Chan to an instant stop, her shotgun at the ready, her eyes and ears straining to detect the source of disturbance the signal indicated. She could neither see nor hear anything, but her war years had taught her long ago that patrolling was a skill that required the use of all five senses. It was times like this when she cursed her smoking cigarras as she knew how much the habit dulled her sense of smell. Cindy appeared from ahead as silent as a shadow to report.

“Bad news ahead Cap, something has cashed it in. You can smell the blood and something less pleasant on the wind.” Cindy said grimly.

“Right. You know the drill, you three will form base of fire. William and I will move off to the right to establish the crossfire. I’ll give you two clicks when we are ready.”

“You got it Cap.” The medic nodded and disappeared just as silently as she had appeared.

As soon as Cindy heard the signal, she gestured to Marsh and Li Ming to advance. Crawling slowly forward, they soon discovered the source of the smell. In a clearing they found what was left of a campground. Silently Marsh and William took up over watch positions so the rest of the fire team could investigate.

“Whoever they were, they tried to put up a fight.” Cindy remarked as she knelt to examine one of the many congealed pools of blood.

“Didn’t do them much good.” Li Ming replied quietly as she swept through the shattered remains of the camp. “Whoever did this was out for more than blood, this is undistilled fury.”

“Yeah, this was personal, it looks like the attackers have managed to destroy everything they could get their hands on, even the tentage has been shredded, hell, even the tent poles have been broken.” Chan added surveying the damage with a practiced eye.

“At least four days captain, the owners of this stuff died at least that long ago.” Cindy stated flatly, moving to rejoin the other two women.

“Died? No chance they survived?” Li Ming asked.

“Not a hope in hell. Too much blood, look at the size of that pool there, there, and there. That is at least four liters each, that is half of total blood volume. Even if they survived the wound that took them down in the first place, they would have bleed out or died of gross system shock by now. No, whatever happened here is Shepherd’s work now. That is if we can ever find the bodies. I wish I knew why they take the bodies. God knows there are enough people in the ‘Verse that need killin’ but it takes a rare lump of ma da bian that doesn’t deserve a proper burial.” The medic shuddered and went silent.

“Damn, looks like the attackers have escalated their position.” Chan growled in frustration. “I’m going to contact Coorvish.”

While Chan signaled back to the base camp, Li Ming and Cindy carefully scanned through the wreckage for clues that might point them in any sort of direction or at least give them some sort of idea what step to take next.

“Hey I’ve got something!” Cindy shouted as she followed one of the blood trails.

Chan and Li Ming trotted over to where Cindy was standing to the left of Marsh’s over watch position.

“I knew that smell seemed worse over here.” Marsh muttered as he stood.

“This person was still alive when they were dragged through here. You can see by the blood splatter that the heart was still pumping. These savages are a real piece of work.” Cindy emitted a low growl after a close examination of the blood trail and indistinct tracks leading out of the destroyed camp.

Li Ming wasn’t looking at the blood or the tracks, as her focus was upward. The shattered camp had bothered her more than she cared to admit and she offered a small prayer for the dead, where ever they might be. When she opened her eyes, she blinked twice to make sure she was seeing what she thought she saw.

“I think they might be a little more savage than you think.”

“What are you talking about Li Ming?” Chan said a little sharper than intended.

“I think we’ve made a fundamental error in assuming we were looking for people trying to corner the chimper market. I think chimpers are trying to corner the human market.”

“Quit talking in riddles woman.” Marsh snapped. 

“If you take a look above you, that looks like brown strands of fur to me. If I remember from my visit to the Londinum zoo when I was a little girl, that Chimpanzees have brown fur.”

Ai ya huai le[67] she’s right!” Cindy exclaimed when she saw the tufts of fur caught in the branches along the path. “Chimpanzees are highly intelligent, strong, and adaptive. Buddha only knows what the cloning process done during the Exodus could have done to them. It looks like they have decided they don’t like being dragged off to the Core to be pets anymore and have decided to fight back.”

Wo de ma he ta de feng kuang de wai sheng dou[68]! You are not telling me a bunch of MONKEYS did this!” Marsh exploded. “Monkeys risin’ up in revolt is ruttin’ stupid! Cap, you can’t be serious about takin’ this Feng le[69] woman serious!”

“Calm down slick and bi zui[70].” Chan responded impatiently before turning to look the medic directly in the eye. “Okay Cindy, I need you to put aside all those fancy charms and half-baked thoughts that rattle around in that leaky brainpan of yours and think. Are you seriously telling me that you believe all these attacks have been by the chimpers them and theirs?”

Cindy took two deep breaths before replying in a surprisingly calm tone of voice. “Yes Captain I do. What little information there is on the attacks has never shown the attackers using weapons, I bet if you could do a ballistic analysis of the few spent cartridges there are, would all trace back to the weapons that belonged to the hunting party. The attacks only started after the chimper fad caught on and the numbers caught changed from one or two of the animals being taken to dozens. These chimpers are not the chimpanzees from Earth-That-Was. I did take some formal medical training before becoming a Browncoat medic and we touched on some of the medical experiments conducted during the Exodus. Those scientists had lots of time on their hands and have tinkered with the DNA of every animal that they brought with them. Most were simple corrections of genetic defects, but some of the alterations were more extensive and I will bet all I own, that they tried to make the Great Apes smarter.”

“My question is why would they let such a precious commodity loose in a Rim world like Beylix?” Chan asked.

“My platinum is on that one of scientists had a conscience. They probably wanted to give the critters a chance to live free.”

“Or wanted to see how they would do in the wild.” Li Ming offered. “I have to agree with the Captain, these things would be too valuable to just lose track of a mated pair or more.”

“Li Ming, I know you have spent time in the Core, but one thing about laboratory scientists everywhere, they are a sheltered bunch. They are so focused on their theories, that they usually forget there is a real ‘Verse out there. Scientists are used to hard facts or data that does not lie or change, if someone took it into their head to steal some of these animals, I doubt if anyone would have caught them if they had even a halfway decent plan.”

“Now I still ain’t believin’ this story about super monkeys yet, but if this was an experiment, wouldn’t someone have shut down the poachin’ once they started showing up in those fancy Core worlds?” Marsh asked his skepticism all too clear.

“Well escaped, set free, or part of a larger experiment in chimpanzee development, these things are here now and we have to tell Coorvish of the new evidence.” Chan said after a moment.

“Captain, that hun dan started the chimper fad, he will want to kill them.” Cindy pressed.

“And lose his golden goose, I doubt it. Either way, I have to report, now hush Cindy.” Chan replied raising a hand to forestall any further argument.

“I’ll go let William know what is going on.” The medic replied and stormed off.

 

An hour later, the two ATVs joined the advance party at the ruined hunter’s camp. Coorvish had ordered the expedition regroup before continuing the search. On arrival, seven of his remaining bodyguards fanned out to provide security before Coorvish dismounted and marched directly to where Chan was standing, motioning for her to join her in a private conversation.

“Captain Wu, now that we can speak without others listening in. Do you want to show me what constitutes the evidence of this preposterous notion that genetically enhanced chimpers are behind these attacks?”

“Certain Mister Coorvish, my crew and I have taken the time for you to join us to prepare our case as it were.” Chan replied smoothly.

After thirty minutes, Coorvish looked decidedly less skeptical, but was now looking correspondingly much more uncomfortable. “This is insanity Chan.” The fact he had used her first name again, let her know that she had gotten through enough that Coorvish was no longer outright hostile as he was when he first arrived.

“If I hadn’t seen the evidence with my own eyes, I would have doubted the facts myself. However, the claw and fang marks on the hunter’s belongings are unmistakable. Add the blunt force damage to the vehicles, clearly made by clubs wielded with great strength, makes it fairly clear that this was not the work of humans.”

Coorvish nodded to himself as if reaching a decision before continuing. “Captain, I want your crew to lead off on foot as you have clearly demonstrated your expertise in this area. The ATVs will follow in the middle. My vehicle has a gun ring and I will have the light machine gun mounted to provide added covering fire. I will have my bodyguards follow on foot to provide rear security.”

“Sounds like a decent plan, I just hope the ATVs don’t scare the critters into hiding.”

“It can’t be helped. If the chimpers have indeed chosen to go on the offensive, we will need the firepower to stop them.”

“I’ll need five minutes to brief my crew.” Chan responded, obviously unhappy with the direction the investigation was going however, Coorvish either did not, or chose not to notice her discomfort.

“My men will be ready as well captain. Good hunting.” He then turned and moved to rejoin his bodyguards.

If this man had the brains Buddha granted a doorknob, he’d end this.” She thought as she walked over to the rest of the crew. “But noooooo, I’m the Great White Hunter, fear me!”

“What is the plan Captain?” William asked disrupting Chan’s internal conflict.

“Marsh, I want you to take over as ATV driver, the rest of us will take the lead of a grand hunting caravan.” She quickly outlined Coorvish’s plan before adding a few details of her own.. “We will take up a diamond formation. Cindy you have point. Li Ming you will continue to cover the right flank. Willis, you will take Marsh’s place on the left flank. William and I will continue to cover the rear. Xavier, you will be between William and me. Any questions?”

“Captain, what are we going to do if we find where the chimpers are holed up? You know Coorvish will want to exterminate them.” Li Ming asked softly.

“Honestly Li Ming, I am trying not to think that far ahead. If Cindy is right and these critters are as smart as she thinks they are, they will avoid a group as strong as ours.”

“I have an uneasy feelin’ about all this.” Marsh grumbled.

“Agreed, but we signed on to do a job, we have to follow though.” Chan responded, but not with her usual conviction. “Move out people, it’s time.”

 

The grand caravan moved slowly through the heavy woods, carefully and skillfully crossing open areas and on guard for trouble. The problem was, their adversary was small and wily and could be anywhere, but regardless of personal feelings the crew of the Lattimer’s Ghost pressed on, taunt as tripwires.

Did I listen to my mother and settle down with some handsome doctor? No I didn’t, I just had to see the ‘Verse first hand.” Li Ming thought savagely as she pushed through yet another clearing. “Here I am pushing though the woods after some sort of super chimps swinging through the trees like… what was his name? Tirezon? Treezan? ” Her musing slammed to an immediate halt in a moment of clarity so pure that it could only be classified as an epiphany. Her daydreaming had forced a forgotten piece of information dancing at the edge of her recollection snap into place with an almost audible click – chimpanzees could brachiate! Her remembrance brought a hypersensitivity to her surroundings that allowed her mind to assemble a pattern she would have otherwise overlooked, leading her to see a patch of brown in the trees as something other than a collection of dead leaves.

“ABOVE YOU!” She barked and her shotgun moved in a fluid motion that tracked that patch of brown the instant it stirred. She fired as the creature leapt silencing its piercing shriek in mid point as the shotgun blast took it full in the chest, causing the animal to crumple to the ground, stone dead from a fist sized hole blown completely through where the heart had once been.

Li Ming’s frantic warning gave the rest of the crew a split second to react as the rest of the chimpers attacked. Cindy instantly realized the instinctual nature of the chimper’s response to the encroachment by humans and managed to switch from an equally instinctual response to shoot to a perfectly timed vertical butt stroke that struck the chimper leaping down on her right between the eyes. The creature managed a strangled squeak and slumped to the ground unconscious from the powerful blow.

The crew’s diamond formation quickly degenerated into a wild melee of shouts, shrieks, and scattered gunfire Willis managed to snap off a quick badly aimed shot from his rifle that grazed his attacker. The animal landed off balanced, but still manages a potent backhanded blow that left the mechanic stunned.

Chan had been struggling with what to do about the chimper revelation ever since Li Ming and Cindy advanced the theory. Faced with a life or death struggle Chan surprised herself, by choosing not to fire as a chimper leapt toward her. She had always been good with her fists, a legacy of having three older brothers, drove a fist into the chimper’s gut. The animal managed to stay conscious however and lashed at Chan with a series of punches, most of which she managed to block, but she quickly realized this creature would pummel her to death if the exchange lasted much longer.

As Chan fought for her life and to preserve the chimper’s life, William again belied his large size and dodged the chimper attacking him initial leap. Firing from the hip, he managed a snap shot that left the animal wounded and dazed. He managed a quick glance around the ambush site and was not surprised to see the decidedly non-combatant Xavier was in trouble. It was hard to tell if the woman or the chimper attacking her was screaming more, but despite not being able to strike a blow on the beast, she had at least managed to avoid the worst of its attacks on her as well.

Li Ming paused to check that the first chimper was indeed dead, before movement from in the corner of her eye made her whirl around and bring her shotgun firmly into the pocket of her shoulder. “Ren ci de Fo zu[71] please guide my hand.” She whispered as she squeezed the trigger. Whether Buddha chose to intervene or not was, of course, a moot point. What did matter was that her aim was true and the chimper that had reared up to finish off the dazed mechanic fell to the ground as dead as the first creature she’d fired on.

Just as abruptly as the fight started it was over, when another chimper charged Cindy only to be driven into the ground by an all her might overhead crushing blow. Having lost more than half their number dead, unconscious, or wounded, the surviving chimpers proved they were indeed intelligent and scattered into the forest.

“Xavier, Willis, and Cindy, you stick with the wounded chimpers! William, Li Ming, follow me!” Chan said in a rapid staccato of orders before speaking into her transmitter. “Marsh, you follow in the ATV. Pursuit!”

However, before the crew could follow those orders, Coorvish behind a wall of his bodyguards approached. “How are the wounded?” He asked as he snapped his head from side to side surveying the battle scene.  

“No human casualties. Two chimpers out cold.” Cindy replied automatically.

“Well two are better than none. Klaus, Felix, load the beasts in the cages on my ATV!”

“Mister Coorvish, in light of the change in status of these animals, are you certain that is the best course of action?” Chan asked her voice tightly controlled.

“Captain Wu, they are still bloody animals, certainly much more dangerous than I initially suspected, but they are nonetheless still only animals. We’ll truss up these two and continue the hunt to get the rest. I heard you giving orders for the pursuit as I arrived I would suggest that you return to that endeavor.

“Captain you can’t…” Li Ming spoke first, but only by a half second before several of the crew voiced their dismay as well.

Ni men dou bi zui[72] ! You have your orders move!” Chan snarled her flashing eyes enough to silence any further protest.

The two guards Coorvish ordered to carry the unconscious chimpers slung their weapons and roughly began to drag them toward the ATV. This turned out to be a yet another mistake by the poorly trained guards as halfway to the vehicle, rough handling jostled the two stunned animals awake. The guards panicked and went for their weapons.

“Kill them! Kill them!” Coorvish howled in his own panic.

The entire crew of the Lattimer’s Ghost were so keyed up that they responded to Coorvish’s command faster than his bodyguards could and that ignited a firestorm. Li Ming fired almost faster than the eye could follow and her shotgun again thundered with two blindingly rapid shots taking out two of the inept thugs. The chimpers seemed to sense the change in their situation and both began raking the two guards still struggling to unsling their weapons with all four of them going down in a tangle of arms and legs.

“You inbred idiots! Damn it! Damn it! Damn it! Never mind the monkeys, kill them!” Coorvish railed and tried to redirect the fire of his bodyguards at the Lattimer’s Ghost crew, before he suddenly realized how exposed he was and ran for cover

“Cowardly excuse for a human!” Xavier screamed as she fired as rapidly as the weapon would cycle at one of the guards. Her fire was more enthusiastic than accurate, but one of her shots managed to graze the man she was unloading on.

Chan could only stare in open mouthed amazement as the situation spiraled out of control, but her combat experience kicked and she opened fire on the biggest threat facing her crew, the guard manning the light machine gun on top Coorvish’s ATV, but distracted by the complete breakdown of her crew’s discipline, her quickly aimed shot missed, but at least forced the man to take cover.

 “Oh the da bian has hit the fan now!” Marsh gasped out loud when the firing started. He knew he couldn’t add much to the fight my trying to dismount the ATV and fire, but he had an idea that he figured would be much more useful. “Hang on guys, help is on the way!” He yelled as he accelerated the ATV to move its imposing bulk between the two lines of firers, crouching low for cover as bullets began to strike the unarmored vehicle.

Cindy’s submachine gun chattered unrelentingly through Coorvish’s bodyguards, wounding two of them. William realized that Xavier had run out of ammunition from her wild burst of inaccurate fire and that the man she had wounded was drawing down on her to get even. Taking careful aim, he fired and killed the man before the bodyguard could fire. 

Marsh, in a fit of pique, managed to crush all of the wounded as he pulled the ATV into position almost at the same time that Xavier realized she was out of her league and dove behind the ATV, grateful for the cover and fumbling to reload her pistol. “What in the hell do I think I am doing!” She said out loud, her voice several octaves above normal.

“The wisest course of action available to you Miss Xavier.” Willis commented dryly from where he too was sheltering from the hail of bullets striking the ATV.

“Damn you Willis you damn near scared me out of my skin! Why aren’t you in the fight out there?” Xavier demanded once she could make her voice work.

“While I agree in the noble principle with defending creatures that are only acting to defend themselves, I could not bring myself to fire on fellow humans to do so. Since my skills with this,” He paused to indicate the rifle across his lap. “leave much to be desired, I figured I could best serve the crew by keeping myself out of the line of fire.

“I can’t argue with that logic, I almost got my fool head shot off trying to fight it out with trained gunman. If not for William, well, let’s just say you wouldn’t have to share a cabin with our pilot.”

“Mister Marsh is not so bad a room mate as you might think.”

“I don’t want to find out personally, so I will take you at your word.”

 

Okay you ignorant little gopher, stick your head back up.” Chan almost crooned as she patiently waited to take another shot at the machine gunner and the man did not disappoint her. The man popped up behind the weapon and directly into Chan’s line of sight. As she squeezed the trigger, he must have felt the brush of death and he snapped his head toward the woman with the bead on him. He managed to let his legs drop out from under him and avoid having his skull split by the shotgun blast, but enough of the pellets hit him that when he hit the floor, he was able to make the best decision of his life and communicate that thought to the driver. “Drive, you dumb ass!” He managed to croak before he blacked out.

Seeing the ATV pull away, Chan was first tempted to stop it from escaping, but checked that thought to see where Coorvish had managed to run and began to curse a violet streak as she saw Coorvish disappearing on a grav bike at extremely high speed. She turned to see if their ATV was still mobile and saw one of the guards that was wrestling with a chimper finally get his weapon free just as the chimper managed to close its hands around the man’s neck, there was a muffled shot, but it did not cover the audible snap as the man’s neck broke and both fell over each of them dead before they hit the ground. 

The last chimper staggered away from the last of the bodyguards and it was clear that the chimper, despite its wounds, had gotten the better of the fight. The creature looked at Chan with an unreadable expression, but one that implied much more than animal intelligence, before it slowly hobbled in the same direction its comrades had taken when they fled before the standoff had turned into a bloodbath.

Chan could only shake her head in amazement. “No one will ever believe me.” She muttered.

“You’d be wrong about that mei mei, I saw it too.”

“That is of some comfort, but we are so royally humped that it will small solace if Coorvish has us all arrested.” She replied, visibly tired and pinching her nose bridge to try and stave off the headache building there.

“That’s only if he manages to escape mei mei, we will have to figure out a way to see that he doesn’t.”

“He’s got a faster vehicle and a hell of a head start.”

“Details, only details.”

“Right, details. Okay everyone, mount up, we are changing the name of the game, from chimpanzees to a big fat rat.” Chan shouted to get the crew moving.

“Cap you do realize this tub is never going to catch a grav bike don’t you?” Marsh said leaning out of the shattered window of the ATV.

“Yeah and it wasn’t possible for intelligent chimpanzees to be the source of the attacks either. I think we have seen that anything is possible, so let’s get moving.”

“Sure thing Cap. I guess it is only fitting you ride shotgun.” Marsh smiled as William and Chan boarded.

“Yeah fitting. Let’s go.”

 

A gravitic vehicle is usually notoriously difficult to track, but Coorvish’s panicked attempt, left enough damaged vegetation, that once she figured out the pattern, Li Ming was able to do so with surprising ease. With the gambler playing the role of bloodhound, Chan exchanged places to give Li Ming the best view of the path through the woods. However, even with Li Ming’s guidance, Chan despaired of even catching the man for despite being able to follow Coorvish, that didn’t change the speed difference between a grav bike and an ATV. Chan sat behind Li Ming and tried to stave off the depressing thought of being bound by law when she got back to what passed for civilization on Beylix.

“Hey Captain, there is something ahead.” Marsh’s voice broke Chan’s revelry.

“Okay that’s a useful report.” She answered irritably. “What sort of something?”

“Looks like the wreckage of a grav bike.” Marsh grinned from ear to ear.

“WHAT!” Chan roared then wedged herself forward between the pilot and Li Ming to see for herself. Sure enough, not fifty meters ahead of them was the broken remains of a grav bike.

The crew cautiously dismounted and fanned out to search the area, but all they could find was a fresh blood trail and now that they knew what they were, indistinct chimper tracks leading back deeper into the woods.

“Well Captain, it would seem that Coorvish has been hoist on his own petard.” William laughed at the newest turn of events for the day.

“If I knew what a petard was I would agree, but if you mean the hun dan got what he had coming to him, then, yes he did,” Chan replied thoughtfully.

“Yes mei mei that is exactly what I mean.”

“I guess since Coorvish got his just rewards, I guess it is time for us to go back and face ours.” Chan said, her shoulders drooping in defeat as she contemplated their probable fate.

“The future will bring what it brings Captain, you know we are all behind you and will face anything you face. You are not alone.”

“Thank you William that is a kindness.”

“Only doing my job Captain.”

“And let’s see if you get to keep doing that job.” Chan managed to smile.

“One thing at a time mei mei, one thing at a time.”

On returning to the landing field in Plymouth City, the crew found that the other ATV had got there first and there were Federal marshals guarding their ship. Rather than have a scene that could only be used against them, they drove straight to the marshal’s office and turned themselves in. Bound by law for murder, they were immediately taken in front of the magistrate in the biggest case to hit Beylix in a long time.

“Wu Chan Juan, captain of the independent freighter Lattimer’s Ghost and ex-private in the Independent army. How do plead to the charges before you?” The apathy of the magistrate was clear even though this was the most interesting case to come before him since being exiled from Ariel for refusing to be lenient on a parliament member’s son for drunk driving.

“I speak from my entire crew sir and we all plead self-defense.”

This managed to make the magistrate sit up in interest. “Really now, self-defense you say, please make your case.

“Well Lord Magistrate, the late Darrin Coorvish was essentially poaching animals and exporting them off world. These animals known as chimpers in the Core where they are a popular fad are descendents of chimpanzees from Earth-That-Was. We conjecture that these animals had been genetically altered during the Exodus and are more intelligent than the original animals, an animal already noted for being extremely intelligent to begin with I might add and evidence gathered in the field proved that these creatures have turned on the hunters attempting to take them off world. When Coorvish attempted to cage two of the chimpers my crew managed to subdue, there was a miscommunication when the animals attempted to break free. Coorvish shouted ‘Kill them’ and my crew thought he was directing his bodyguards to open fire on them. My crew, turn opened fire in self-defense resulting in the deaths of five of the seven bodyguards. Chimpers were responsible for the two remaining bodyguards and Coorvish.”

“Well captain, I can say you have presented the most original defense I have ever heard.” The magistrate replied with an amused expression. “Super intelligent animals turning on mankind and a ‘miscommunication’ resulting in the deaths of nine men, yes indeed most original. Do you perhaps have the slightest shred of evidence to support the preposterous story?”

“The only evidence is at the site where the fight took place. We can show you the hunter’s camp wiped out by the chimpers, where we ourselves were attacked, and where Mister Coorvish met his end.”

“Magistrate, you can not be seriously considering this nonsense!” An irate voice shouted from Chan’s left. She didn’t need to look to see it was one of the surviving bodyguards who comprised the primary evidence for the prosecutor.

“You interrupt these proceedings one more time and you will find yourself bound by law for contempt. Do I make myself clear?”

“Uh yes sir.” The man flushed and sat down angrily.

“Captain Wu, since you have managed to entertain me, something no one else in the twelve years since I’ve been consigned to this god awful planet has managed to do. I am willing to let you present this supposed evidence. However, before you get your hopes up too high, I will give a fair warning. If your evidence proves to be a waste of my time, I will exercise my rarely used privilege of in loco and in case you don’t know what that means, it means I get to sign your execution order myself without review by a higher court.”

“We welcome the chance to prove our defense magistrate.” Chan replied calmly.

“Lord Magistrate, please may I speak.” The prosecutor asked.

“Certainly advocate.” The Magistrate replied after a thoughtful pause.

“Sir, this course of action is extremely irregular. The plaintiff has sworn a valid complaint and witness statement as to the actions of the defendants. In return, we are supposed to believe in semi-sentient animals and fairy tales?”

“Advocate, it is based on the strength of your witnesses’ statements that the defendants were bound by law. You know Alliance law clearly states they now have a right to prove their actions. Since the evidence is at the scene of the crime and your department does not have the resources to bring that evidence to the court, the court must go to that evidence or would you deny these citizens their rights?”

“Absolutely not Lord Magistrate! My objection is based on the preposterous claims the defendants are making and that the chances of finding such evidence are nonexistent.”

“However, it is I on the business end of this bench and not you. I have already stated what the penalty would be if this proves to be a waste of time and yet the defendants are still standing by their claims. That is enough to peak my curiosity and why I have made my ruling. Your objection is noted and overruled. Bailiffs prepare the defendants and this court for travel.”

The magistrate’s gavel sounded with a resounding crack and any further discussion was ended.

 

When the court reconvened in the mid-afternoon of the following day, the gallery for press and spectators was standing room only. The use of hover trucks, heavily escorted by bailiffs and marshals cut the travel time to the site of the crime scene down to just over two hours. This gave investigators plenty of time to sweep the remains of the devastated hunter’s camp and what the advocate called the primary crime scene. At Chan’s insistence, there was enough time to briefly recheck the crash site of Coorvish’s grav bike. The evidence gathered there was such a shock that the advocate had asked for the delay to mid-afternoon even though the defendants were ready to speak early that morning.

The magistrate entered and took his seat. He impaled the advocate with a hard stare before speaking in a voice that made it clear he was not in a good mood. “You’ve had your delay advocate. I hope you are prepared.”

The advocate stood slowly and nervously ran a hand through his hair before he began. “Lord Magistrate, the defendants were hired as quasi-mercenaries to do a job. When they balked at the details of that job, rather than simply quit, they viciously turned on their employer and set about trying to kill him and every other employee they could slaughter to prevent them from speaking. Fortunately, their plan failed. These two traumatized survivors managed to escape and were able to stand witness for the other nine men who can never speak again. Do the defendants deny their actions? No they do not, rather they attempt to obfuscate the facts with a fabulous mixture of the history of Earth-That-Was and the Exodus with b-grade melodramatic science fiction of wild DNA experiments gone mad and capping it off with a clever opportunistic ‘misinterpretation’ of their employer’s final words. Do not let this admittedly unique crafting of lies hide the core truth of what happened. These seven men and women conspired to kill their employer and eight other employees. Lord Magistrate there can be only one verdict. Guilty as charged.”

The advocate sat down and calmly met the magistrate’s gaze with confidence. The magistrate then turned to face Chan. “You have heard the arguments against you and your crew Captain Wu, you may now present your final defense.”

“Thank you Lord Magistrate.” Chan replied confidently as she stood to speak. “I do not deny that we were appalled by what Mister Coorvish wanted to do with the animals known locally as chimpers despite the undeniable proof we presented him on their intelligence. Proof I might add that was demonstrated to these proceedings yesterday. At the moment Mister Coorvish spoke the unfortunate phrase ‘kill them,’ he was so caught up in his incomprehensible need to prove that he was the superior being that he failed to take stock of the tension in the air at that moment. There were fourteen heavily armed men and women faced off in what, I can assure you that, my crew and I perceived as a life or death moral dilemma. Regardless of his intent, the only clear part of his words was to light the fuse of a powder keg of pressure that was far past the boiling point.

“Once the command was given, it was too late to stop it. Each side reacted as they thought best to survive the situation. Again unfortunately for Mister Coorvish, his choice of using second rate thugs to enforce his petty empire resulted in them being no match for a hand full of experienced combat veterans and properly trained professionals. Yet we were not responsible for viciously turning on our employer. The shooting was over in less than fifteen seconds and Mister Coorvish was still alive at that time and would still be alive now had he chosen not to flee at that moment.

“You yourself saw the evidence at the grav bike crash site. We had been in custody for a full twenty-four hours prior to returning there and could not have staged anything that occurred there. It was the chimpers themselves that chose to show themselves. We all watched in awe as they appeared in the distance, simply observing us. Even though they outnumbered your bailiffs and marshals, they remained silent and unthreatening. It was your own calm words Lord Magistrate that coaxed that one chimper to approach. You saw the intelligence in its eyes as he laid that cylinder in front of you then slowly ambled back to his extended family.

“Given the chimper’s previous track record of destroying every piece of human equipment that they captured, can you honestly state for the record that it was a coincidence that the only piece of technology to be returned from chimper possession undamaged just happened to be Coorvish’s own personal data recorder?

“Voice print analysis by the advocate’s own crime lab has positively confirmed that the voice on that recorder is that of the late Darrin Coorvish. I can honestly say I had no idea of the extent of Coorvish’s desperation to remain in total control of the chimper trade and that once we had proved how intelligent the creatures were to him that at that point he considered us a direct threat to his livelihood. At the time it occurred, I thought his command of ‘kill them’ was just a terrible choice of words, but having heard that recorder, I am not so sure that his choice of words was a mistake at all.

“Lord Magistrate, my crew and I are simple itinerant traders who have been down in our luck. We took this job against my better judgment as we were sorely in need of cash. However, faced with the true nature of the chimpers, I am glad that we took this job. I do not know if another crew in the same dire straits as we are in would have responded with the morally right choice to act to protect these magnificent creatures. The advocate was the one who mentioned the term ‘b-grade melodramatic science fiction of wild DNA experiments gone mad’ whether that is true or not, I don’t know if any records from the Exodus can prove any of that or not. All that is certain is that these chimpers are more than meets the eye, This fact is even more amazing considering the fact that they have evolved, or progressed, or whatever you want to call their enhanced intelligence on Beylix, a planet known as the garbage dump of the ‘Verse. This planet may have consigned twenty-five percent of its surface to landfills and the storage of the collective junk of our entire civilization, but to borrow an old expression, you seem to have produced a ‘diamond in the rough’ regardless of the circumstances. Such things are beyond someone like me and are more the purview of a Shepherd, but while I have yet to be convinced they are actually sentient, they are obviously much more than their ancestral chimpanzee archetype. Whether they will one day amble out of their woods to make contact with us as equals is far beyond me, but given their already established capabilities, I would not scoff at the prospect.

“Lord Magistrate, based on the evidence collected at the three crime scenes and the words of Mister Coorvish, I would ask no less than you find my crew not guilty of the charges against them, for they acted under my orders. If I may be so bold I would further ask that if the law allows, I would humbly ask to be also exonerated by the events that occurred during the contract with the late Darrin Coorvish. Thank you.”

“I will return to my chambers to deliberate. Bailiff you will return the defendants to their cells until that time.” The gavel sounded and the magistrate departed.

 

“Captain, you were brilliant.” William said once they were secured in the planetary lockup. “You were as eloquent as any Earth-That-Was or Sihnon barrister has ever been. I was nearly moved to tears.”

“Oh come on you big lug, you are making my head swell. You keep that up and they might have trouble getting a large enough noose.” Chan actually blushed slighted.

“He’s right Cap, them was right fine words.” Marsh nodded in agreement.

“I think William is speaking for all of us Captain. If your words didn’t save us, then I guess we are guilty.” Cindy added as she nervously paced her small cell.

“Yeah well, we will see what we will see.”

There was a clatter of keys and three bailiffs entered the holding area tense in case the prisoners decided to make a last second attempt to escape “Magistrate has a verdict. You know the drill now, single file and nothing funny.” The senior bailiff said.

“No funny stuff, you can count on it Bailiff Huang.” William responded as he and the crew filed out to meet their fate.

The crew of the Lattimer’s Ghost stood as the magistrate entered and remained standing is a nervous silence as he got settled behind the bench, his expression an unreadable mask carefully sculpted from years of practice.

“Wu Chan Juan, William Lemont, Sylvester Marsh, Cindy Schultz, Willis Thorton, Wong Li Ming, and the woman Xavier. You have presented these proceedings with the most momentous decision since the founding of the Alliance. Are you a band of murderous thugs or are you the first humans to realize a that an animal is be more than what they appeared and acted to protect that discovery and those animals?

“When you first presented these absurd assertions, I was amazed anyone would enter such statements into the record of their own capital proceedings. Your claims of self-defense based on the undiscovered intelligence of a native animal bordered on laying the ground work for a later insanity plea. However, when confronted that such a later plea would not be forthcoming and if found to be a hoax, you would face execution without the chance of magisterial review, you stood by your original claims.

“While compelling, the evidence discovered at the hunter’s camp and the primary crime scene were not enough to convince me of self-defense. However, my own personal contact with, for lack of a better term, the chimper envoy and the revelations of the intentions of your late employer Darrin Coorvish, I am compelled to rule that, while irregular in the extreme, you and your crew acted with an admiral amount of restraint until forced into a situation with no good solution. I can not fully condone your actions, but I have clearly found they were not done with malice aforethought and that I must find in favor of the defense. The defendants are ruled not guilty and are free to go.”

A final crack of the gavel and the magistrate swirled out of the chamber. The crowd exploded in shouts and the advocate fixed the crew with a baleful stare before storming out as well. The two surviving bodyguards stared at Chan with a look of unadulterated poison before following in the advocate’s wake.

 

Mei mei we can go.” William said after Chan didn’t show any signs of moving.

“I know what he said Lao peng you[73], I’m just having a hard time to get my feet to believe what he said.”

“I think it might be okay if, just this once, if you were to take my arm honorable Captain and allow me to escort you back to our ship.” The first mate said with great formality.

“Just this once.” Chan echoed and allowed William to lead her from the court room, the rest of the crew following behind her, each beaming with pride and relief. Less than an hour later, the Lattimer’s Ghost was in the Black and putting as much distance between the ship and Beylix as she could without doing a hard burn. After the Coorvish deal went south, saving their necks had taken over as their primary concern. Getting back at Blue Sun or even making coin had become completely secondary to that all important goal. Since they were still cash poor a hard burn was not an option, but Marsh had the ship running as hard as the ship could run without using the fuel a hard burn would cost. Their next stop was still something they would think about later. Along with other things like making coin and getting back at Blue Sun.

The most important task at hand after breaking atmo was getting to the Lift Day Feast and this time, Chan and William made certain it was exactly that, a true feast. They made sure to grab the most elaborate foodstuffs they could get their hands on in the short time they had before leaving Beylix as they wanted to celebrate not only the ship’s traditional fine departure meal, but to also celebrate their collective freedom. Their stop on Beylix had nearly cost them that most valuable commodity of all and Chan was bound and determined on making sure that everyone recognized that they had managed to win back that most precious of freedoms, the freedom to travel where ever they chose to go.


Chapter Eight

 

Freedom to travel anywhere they chose however, did not give the crew of the ‘Ghost a plan on how to break out of their nearly penniless situation. Choosing to remain on the Rim gave them two options as far as a next destination, Lilac or Triumph. Knowing the backward nature of Triumph, Chan chose Lilac as at least some of the miners were prosperous or desperate enough to be willing to deal with them despite Blue Sun’s influence.

The arrival on Lilac after four days of travel from Beylix, once again, seemed to be for naught. The crew fanned out to find work and found that apparently, there wasn’t enough desperation to prosperity in the ‘Verse for anyone to buck the will of the megalithic entity known throughout the ‘Verse as Blue Sun. The three teams that went out to find work found essentially the same information from different sources. There would be no work for them, as unofficial Blue Sun reps had made it clear that helping a certain Firefly-Class mid-bulk freighter registered and doing business under the title Lattimer’s Ghost would result in no shortage of “lost business opportunities” and a greater than normal chance of “goods lost in transit” as these shadowy individuals put out to all the shadowy sorts of people Chan and company associated with. Cindy, William, and Xavier had even found that, word was, the “advisory” was directly related to the sudden shortage of Highleaf on the Rim. Whether it was the work of the advisory or annoyance at not have access to the popular drug was moot. No legitimate work was going to be available. However, the teams had each found an additional piece of information as they contemplated turning to a life of crime that evening around the dining table.

“I don’t like the sound of anyone going by so obvious an alias as Madam Black, paying as much as she is offering, but not wanting any questions beyond wanting to get to Beaumonde as fast as possible.” Chan said flatly rubbing her nose bridge in an effort to stave off what seemed to be like what was becoming a permanent headache.

“Two thousand credits buys a lot of silence mei mei, I don’t like it, but that is enough money to more than get us out of the bind we are in and even finance a run or two at those Blue Sun hun dan.” William replied his hands steepled in front of him.

“You all know I like coin, but you can’t spend it, if you are in the belly of a gorram Reaver!” Marsh all but spat in response. “Like what happened when her two buddies got snatched up the last time this bu hui hen de po fu[74] tried to reach Beaumonde.

“As much as I hate to agree with the little snot, he has got a point for a change.” Cindy chuckled. “I saw more than I want to think about during the war, but at least those were humans. God only knows what Reavers are, but they ain’t no kinda humans I want to run up on.”

“I know I am fairly new to the ways of life on the Rim, but you mean these ghost stories have some substance to them?” Willis asked in open disbelief.

“Never met anyone that met a Reaver that lived to talk about it, but back about three years ago when I was still running with my first crew, we had a cargo bound for Athens and we got a distress from a freighter out bound from Athens. They managed to say Reavers had snagged them with an EMP rig of some kind. Their mechanic had worked a miracle to get any sort of message out at all, but that was the only miracle they got. The last thing coherent thing they said before the transmission cut off was they were being boarded.” Chan said with an expression as grim as anyone on the crew had ever seen.

“Sounds like a bad situation, but that doesn’t make Reavers real captain.” Willis insisted.

“Yeah, but in between the sporadic gunfire, you could hear this howling that wasn’t made by anything human. It was this braying sort of sound that carried a kind of tortured frenzy not fit to talk about at the dinner table.” Chan’s whole body shook as a shiver ran through her during her recollection.

Willis nodded slowly, his expression pensive as his logic warred with his respect for Chan. “I can not say I am convinced, but I will keep an open mind captain.”

”Well ain’t he a zhen de shi tian cai[75]to have an open mind!” Marsh snorted and poured himself another glass of wine. “Believe what you want, a Reaver won’t care if you believe in him or not while he’s gnawing on your innards.”

“Have you ever seen a Reaver Marsh? As always you talk a lot, but can you back up that battleship mouth with that row boat ass of yours?” Xavier said staring hard at the pilot, clearly at her wits end from his constant needling of the quiet mechanic.

William sputtered into his own glass at this comment and Cindy broke out in uncontrollable laughter that soon had the whole crew, to include Marsh red faced in hysterics. “R-r-row boat…” Chan managed to choke out before losing out to the laughter that had her holding her sides and barely able to breathe. When the laughing finally died down, it was replaced with open mouth gasping as each member of the crew slowly regained composure amid a few chuckles that almost started the laughing again.

“W-well, t-t-that was certainly w-welcome.” William, the first to recover, managed to say.

“Wasn’t exactly the effect I was aimin’ for, but glad to help.” Xavier replied still chuckling, then winked to the first mate and blew a kiss toward Marsh.

“Y-yeah, it was, but as much as I needed that, as we all needed that, we are left with the same question. Do we talk to this Madame Black or not?” Chan said bringing them all back to reality.

Li Ming was the first one to speak.

“I’ve spent most of my life on Core and the Border planets. I’ve heard the stories about Reavers and got the chills they were supposed to give. But when talking to some of the other gamblers out here on the Rim, they don’t think of them as ghost stories. If you remember Blondie and Dagwood from the Lucky Deuce on Whitefall, Dagwood said he saw what was left of a town hit by Reavers about a year ago and he couldn’t say anything more. Blondie of all people said. ‘Bad business’ and that was the end of it. The look on Dagwood’s face told me that there was more to these rumors than I had been led to believe.”

“Well said Li Ming.” Chan nodded, stood, and leaned forward placing both hands on the table. “I’m going to talk to the Madam Black woman. William is right about how two thousand credits would fix our problems. I know it is a risk, but if we don’t get any cash soon, we will be on the drift or planet bound due to something on the ‘Ghost giving out that even our own miracle worker Willis can’t put to right. Besides, since Reavers are all supposed to be ghost stories, you tell me if a ship named after a ghost isn’t perfect to make this run.”

The crew replied with a few nervous chuckles, suddenly aware that maybe there could be more truth to the rumors than all of them had been led to believe.

 

Two days later, the ship was fully fueled and as ready as Willis could make the ship be. Chan and William met with Madam Black, as promised, shortly after the crew meeting. The meeting gave both sides a chance to size up the other and neither side found a reason to back out of the deal. Chan made it clear the ship would need some basic maintenance before taking on such a potentially hazardous run and the enigmatic Madam Black agreed to the two day delay. Another side benefit of the delay was that it gave time for the crew to make inquiries around town and see what else they could dig up on Black.

Xavier burned the midnight oil trying to pull up information on their passenger, but for once, the self-described hacker found someone that had less information about them on the Cortex than was available about her. This was both a source of frustration and envy as Xavier prided herself on how completely absent from the Cortex she failed to register. Even after her arrests on Athens and Beylix, she had meticulously purged all records of her existence from anyone.

One thing there was in abundance on Lilac were rumors and the mysterious Madam Black was at the center of most of them. And Cindy, Marsh, Chan, and William all spent a large amount of time and a fair amount of their precious coin trying to figure out which of the swarm of rumors were closest to the truth. How Black and her friends got to Lilac was unknown, the rumors on that part of the story would never firm up enough. Among the popular stories floating around the bars were Black was a mine owner that found a big strike, but had been double-crossed by other partners that made off with the claim and her ship. She was a Registered Companion and she had been dumped by her patron who had so much dirt on her that she couldn’t call on the Guild to bail her out. There was even a story that she was part of a team of Alliance assassins.

Since how she got there was completely secondary to what had happened since she arrived, the crew let that story slide to concentrate on the more critical information of what happened to the first ship that tried to get her to Beaumonde. The most reliable story they could finally agree on was that Black with two other passengers boarded a transport with a crew of six just over three weeks ago. Five days later, one of the ship’s shuttles returned to Lilac with Black and two of the ship’s crew. The three survivors were so rattled by their experience that the only thing they could get out of any of them for several days was one word…Reavers. After the disaster of the first trip, Black was unable to get anyone to talk to her, let alone entertain trying to take her to Beaumonde. She kept increasing how much she would pay, but the locals had decided Black was a Jonah and were not interested in her money. This was all the crew could learn before Black showed up, exactly on time with only a travel case and a second high security case handcuffed to her wrist.

“Morning Madam Black, William will show you to your cabin. Since you made it clear that haste was of the essence, we will depart immediately.” Chan said with a sincere, if strained smile.

“Thank you Captain Wu.” Black replied tersely and turned to follow William.

Chan watched them depart, a sense of dread filling her as they went out of sight. She grimly hit the intercom. “Okay Marsh, take us out.”

“You got it Cap.”

“We are grateful for your business Madam Black” Said William, attempting to be a polite guide.

“No you aren’t Mister Lemont.” Black replied without rancor.

“Excuse me?”

“As you have looked into my situation, I have done the same with you and your ship. I’m not sure how you have managed to get yourself so deeply in trouble, but that is your business. I know you need the money bad enough to be willing to risk taking me aboard your ship. We are partners of necessity Mister Lemont gratitude has nothing to do with our circumstance.”

“Madam Black, you wound me.” William replied. “Our situation is what it is, but regardless of circumstance, you are a passenger on our ship and courtesy demands I treat you with respect despite the circumstances that made this so.”

Black blinked in surprise and for the first time that William had ever seen, her eyes lost their hardness. “Well said Mister Lemont.”

“Please, call me William, but never call me Bill. I never liked being associated with a notice of debt.”

Black almost smiled at that, but was interrupted by their arrival at their destination.

“Here is your cabin Ma’am. Since you are our only passenger, I only ask that you stay off the bridge and out of the engine room unless escorted. You otherwise have the run of the ship. We have a tradition aboard this ship called the lift-day feast. It will begin at 1800 hours and you are sincerely welcome to attend.”

“I will be there Mist…um William.”

“See you then.”

 

The trip to Beaumonde would take six days based on the course Marsh plotted in an attempt to avoid another disastrous meeting with the Reavers. The first two days of the trip proved to be very uneventful. The lift-day feast was another fine meal, as William was actually becoming a cook of no small skill. The dinner was a little more awkward than usual due to Black showing up her high security case still handcuffed to her wrist, but even Marsh managed to keep from saying anything to ruin the event.

 

“Captain to the bridge, we got trouble!” The edge in Marsh’s voice was clear even over the intercom.

“Half bloody way.” Chan growled as she jumped from the dining table and bolted for the bridge. Cindy and Xavier right behind her.

As soon as Chan crossed the hatch to the bridge, Marsh began speaking rapid fire. “I’ve got a ship, runnin’ without core containment, on the scanners Cap. They’re a fairly decent range out, I doubt if I’d have seen them so soon if they had their emissions to standard.”

“Options?”

“We got lucky this time Cap, they are on a bad vector even if they do see us this far out. If we go to hard burn, they will never close the distance.”

“Do it.” Chan replied without hesitation and reached for the intercom. “All hands prepare for hard burn. We have some company that we rather not meet.”

The Lattimer’s Ghost leapt to her highest speed and while the flare from the burst of power of her hard burn gave them away to the Reaver ship, Marsh’s calculations on the trajectories of the two ships was correct. The Reavers pursued for nearly thirty-six hours before passing out of the maximum range of the scanners.

“Looks like we’ve lost them Marsh, good work.” Chan said wearily. The stress of the day and a half of pursuit etched on her face.

“I like to think so, in fact I…GOS SE!” Marsh’s face blanched in horror.

Chan whipped around to look at the scanners and her stricken look told William at the co-pilot’s seat things had gone from bad to worse.

“I didn’t think Reavers could coordinate a pursuit.” Marsh all but wailed.

“The last thing the ‘Verse needs is for them to start getting smarter as they spread.” William said grimly as he consulted the secondary scanner read out at his station. “Those gou cao de hun dan[76] have played the part of the hounds and driven the fox right into the hunters! And we fell for it like complete saps.”

“Yeah they played us good.” Chan reluctantly agreed. “You got any piloting tricks up those sleeves of yours Marsh?”

“Last one didn’t work as good as I thought it did Cap, but to answer your question, no, not this time. Any vector I take away from one of them and it will dump us right in the lap of the other one. We are gorram humped.”

“Well, I’m not ready to bend over and take it in the pi gu yet.” Chan growled. “Give me some damn options people!”

“Speaking of people Captain, I think we need to let the others know about the change in our situation.” William said.

Chan nodded and reached for the intercom. “Crew, this is the captain. Seems we weren’t as smart as we thought we were. The Reavers have managed to lead us into a trap. I will not go down without a fight, but I need ideas, please report to the bridge and we will try and suss out a plan. That includes you Miz Black, passenger or no, you are in this for a full measure as well and I want to hear from all of you.”

 

“Here’s the deal.” Chan said as soon as everyone was either on or in earshot of the bridge. “Two Reaver ships have us hemmed in. Any way we run, we end up in the sights of one of them. The one we dodged two days ago is far enough away, that if we can get past the one closing on us now, the other one will not be able to catch us.”

“Are you sure about this Captain?” Willis said, clearly pained to be bringing up the topic. “We thought we were in the clear once and proven wrong, I would hate to take extreme measures only to find the Reavers have anticipated our move again.”

“That is always a possibility to my thinking my friend. We got hoodwinked good and now I’m not so quick to write off that Reavers aren’t as smart as we are, as they obviously are at least as smart as us, if not smarter. But, no need to buy trouble, we’ll deal with our current situation and if it happens to change again, we’ll deal with that then.”

“A wise course of action Captain, I withdraw my question.”

“Right. Ideas people, spit out anything you got, nothing is off the table.” Chan said, her gaze sweeping across the nervous faces around her.

“We could lure them into a hard burn flare.” Cindy suggested at last after the uncomfortable silence that ensued when Chan stopped speaking.

“Marsh?” Chan quizzed the pilot.

“The ship chasing us is too well armed to let them get close enough for that trick to work in the Black, now if we were in an atmo that would do the trick.”

“I have an idea, but it borders on insanity.” William said after running his hands back across his head.

“Nothing is off the table William.” Chan replied.

“I read this in an ancient Earth-That-Was novel-”

“Does anything you do not involve Earth-That-Was in some way.” Marsh interrupted.

“Not the time lover. Shut up and fly.” Cindy snarled.

“Thank you Cindy.” William replied through clenched teeth.

“As I was saying, this book was written by a David Bril…Brim…”

“Your point my friend?” Chan reminded.

“Sorry mei mei. The point is, this space ship was crewed by genetically altered and sentient dolphins-”

“What in the south side of Sihnon is a dolphin?” Marsh interrupted again.

“Boy you are trying my patience. Shut up and FLY!” William growled dangerously. “A dolphin was, well still is, an aquatic mammal. The important thing is this ship had the capacity to flood areas of the ship so the dolphins could work in their native environment. The ship was being hotly pursued in a solar system and they vented some of their water in the pursuer’s path which managed to disable their pursuer when-”

”-the water flash froze to ice! That could work!” Marsh interrupted yet again, but this time, his fingers began dancing across the controls of the ship.

“You are right William my friend that is insanity. It has to be if Marsh likes it.” Chan grinned broadly.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, very funny, the plan must suck if Marsh likes it.” The pilot groused, but his hands never slowed down. “This could work Cap, everything is going to depend on if our buddy Willis here can get the pumps to push that much water fast enough.”

“Um, how much water are we talking about here? We are still several days from Beaumonde or Lilac for that matter.” Li Ming said, speaking for the first time.

“All of it, the reclamation tanks as well.” Marsh supplied. “I like that last part the most. Dumpin’ a big steaming pile of da bian on a pack of Reavers sounds right fittin’ to me, serves them hun dan right. Trick will be to avoid that big honking Reaver grappler mounted on that monster followin’ us while we lure them in close enough to guaranty they hit the ice.”

“I thought you couldn’t let them get that close?” Cindy demanded.

“The area of a hard burn in a vacuum is pretty small; this ice thing has the advantage that it will cover a fairly wide area if I juke hard enough.”

“Can you do it Willis?” Chan asked.

“I’ll have to pull every safety on the pump system and it will probably cause some blowback, but yes, it can be done. I will require the assistance of Miss Xavier and Miss Schultz and about thirty minutes to get everything ready.”

“Okay then, get started, I want everyone armed and armored in the mean time. Maximum load out, I’ll even dig out my stash of grenades.” Chan rubbed her hands together with a savage grin. “Da bian and frags, should make for a right warm welcome. Okay people let’s get ready for unwanted visitors.”

Chan raced to her cabin to get armed and armored for the impending confrontation, then returned to the bridge and swapped places with William at the co-pilot station to let him do the same. Down in the engine room, Willis with the aid of his two requested assistants frantically made the changes to the fresh and waste pump systems to get their part of the plan ready before the Reavers could close. As each got a few moments, they too broke away to prepare for battle, each grabbing their heaviest weaponry. At precisely thirty minutes, the intercom squawked.

“Okay wiz kid, we need that miracle.”  An obviously tense William said.

“The bloody master safety valve won’t disengage Willis is in the access tube manually disabling it now!” Xavier snapped back, her rapid adjustments to the engineering control computer never slowing.

“We are running out of time you three. We are inside the grappler’s range! Make it happen!” Chan’s voice burst onto the channel.

“WE’RE ON IT!” Cindy barked in response. “We’ll let you know when we are ready; the master safety valve is the last thing we need to over ride!”

“Understood, bridge out.”

“Bridge out, you bet you are bloody out of your yu ben de minds. All officers are the same, regardless of what situation or service.” The medic, dragooned into assistant mechanic swore viciously.

“We are all under far too much stress Miss Schultz, we are however-“

Willis was interrupted as the ship performed a gut wrenching maneuver that tossed the three mechanics around the engine room violently despite the gravity compensator’s best efforts. When the room stopped spinning, the intercom squawked again and this time Chan’s voice held the raw sound of desperation.

“Tell me you are ready, ‘cause that last trick Marsh just pulled will not work twice.”

“What the h-hell did t-t-that lunatic shaved orangutan just d-d-do?” Cindy croaked as she nursed a large bruise on her forehead.

“The Reavers fired their grappler. Marsh barrel rolled us out of the discharge at the last possible second, if I hadn’t have seen it with my own eyes I wouldn’t have believed it possible. The grappler will take about a minute to recharge. We are cooked if you aren’t ready.”

“We are ready Captain.” Willis replied sharper than intended.

“Willis remind me to tell you I owe you some sort of sexual favor later! Stand by!” Chan all but gushed in relief.

“You ladies should get ready to defend the ship.” Willis managed to reply, his face a deep crimson red of embarrassment.

“You might want to take her up on her offer Willis. You could do a whole hell of a lot worse than to get hooked up with the captain.” Cindy said over her shoulder as she and Xavier headed forward and the two women broke into giggles as the mechanic flushed even redder.

“You are terrible!” Xavier replied when they were out of ear shot.

“Yes, but couldn’t possibly expect me to pass on an opportunity like that!”

“True enough. I don’t even want to think about what will happen if this fails.” Xavier added nervously as they reached the lounge and strapped themselves in next to Li Ming and Black, who was still wearing the security case on her wrist.

“Then it won’t fail.”

“All hands brace for hard maneuvering!” Chan announced cutting off Xavier’s reply.

A second later, the Lattimer’s Ghost began to slew side to side with a rapid and sickening motion. Outside, the ship began to stream water, and something decidedly less identifiable that instantly froze into a wide patch of ice as the ship corkscrewed. Inside, it was hard to tell which sound screamed louder, the warning klaxons or the tortured pumps as they pushed more water than they were ever designed to handle faster than they were ever designed to do.

 

On the pursuing ship, the ravening hunger of nearly captured and helpless prey was reaching a fever pitch when the impossible happened. The open space between the hunter and the hunted suddenly opaqued and the ship slammed into a physical obstacle that shouldn’t be where it was. The ship began to tumble end over end and all thoughts of prey were over ridden by the only imperative more important than the Hunt…survival.

 

On the Lattimer’s Ghost, the three crew on the bridge Chan, William, and Marsh had a clear view as the Reaver ship impacted their surprise and not only saw the ship pitch end over end, but saw large chunks of their pursuer’s ship fly off in several directions from the impact.  

“WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” Marsh exclaimed as the Reaver ship spiraled out of control. “Tell me we got that on film! We’ll never have to buy booze again as long as we can show them THAT!”

“Yes Marsh, the recorder was active and we got…holy crap! We got company!” William said, starting one thought, then switching in mid thought as something on the scanners caught his eye.

“What do you mean company? We stopped ‘em!” Marsh wailed.

“EVASIVE MARSH NOW!” William thundered, but it was too late, the entire ship shook from a hammer blow as they were hit by something big topside.

“What the hell is going on?” Chan managed to ask, her mind still trying to catch up with the rapidly changing events.

“One of those big chunks we saw flying off the Reaver ship when they hit the ice was a qing wa cao de liu mang[77]shuttle! They’ve latched onto the upper airlock!” William responded going paler than Chan had ever seen him. William swore so violently that even the captain was taken aback. “Bloodthirsty beasties or not, they’re good! They’re halfway through bypassing our security and the hatch will cycle in less than a minute!”

Ren ci de Fo zu[78]Chan murmured softly and then, regaining her composure, toggled the intercom. “All hands BATTLESTATIONS! Bring your heaviest weapons, stand by to repel boarders!” She shut off the intercom and turned to face Marsh. “Is this it? Or will there be more of them?”

Marsh looked up from the intensive scan he was running while Chan was on the intercom before replying. “This is it Cap, their mothership is still spinnin’ and ventin’ atmo. If there were any other shuttles, they didn’t make it through the ice.”

“Okay then, we won’t have to blow the fusion plant.” Chan intoned with a voice flat and cold.

“No Cap we won’t, but I think I can get those hun dan off our backs.”

“How?”

“You don’t really want to know.” Before Chan could press Marsh for more detail, he had activated the intercom. “Folks belay that last order. Hang on and hang on hard, strap down and hope you don’t lose your lunch.” He hung up and glanced at Chan. “You too Cap, this is going to be rough.”

The initial inclination to argue clearly marched across Chan’s face, but realizing time was too short, she nodded curtly and strapped herself in.

As the captain was still cinching her seatbelt, Marsh pitched the ship’s nose up then yawed hard to port. As he fed power to the engines, the ship started to rapidly roll perpendicular to their direction of travel. The incredible stress was felt by everyone as a crushing weight on their chests and heard as a howl of groans throughout the ship as the Lattimer’s Ghost seemed to give voice to her ill treatment by the deranged maneuver. After thirty seconds, with alarms screaming warnings of imminent disintegration, there was a horrific rending of metal and Marsh fought the ship back into stable flight.

 “H-H-Has th-th-the insanity s-s-stopped?” Willis stammered over the intercom. “If I-I-I d-do not g-get a few m-m-minutes t-to m-make adjustments, the engine is going to r-rip itself off its m-mounts.”

“W-William?” Chan asked weakly, but when she saw the big man was in worse shape than she was, she shakily managed to bring her eyes into focus and once she got the equally shaken external viewer online, the Reaver shuttle was cart wheeling away with the ventral hatch ripped open and obviously suffering from an explosive decompression.

“G-Go ahead W-Willis.”

“Captain, th-the airlock is s-still cycling!” Li Ming screamed.

Ta ma de! All hands repel boarders!” Chan croaked and staggered to her feet, lumbering unsteadily off the bridge. Responding to the captain’s order and their own ingrained sense of survival, the entire crew shakily grabbed their best weapons and rallied to defend their ship.

 

If not for suffering some of the same effects of vertigo as the crew, the pack of Reavers that had entered the airlock of the prey’s vessel might have had easier than usual pickings. However, the violent shaking in the confines of the airlock had battered the pack even more than the prey and the Hunters were less steady than was acceptable for a pack about to strike.

 

Chan and William were to the left of the airlock guarding the corridor to the bridge. Cindy, Li Ming, and Xavier were directly across and spread from the lounge to the galley, with Madam Black cowering in terror the corner of the lounge. Willis stood alone to the right of the airlock guarding the corridor to the engine room. As the first Reaver lurched out of the airlock, it was met with a hail of gunfire from three directions.

 

The point crumpled to the deck from the prey’s gunfire, but the wild frenzy of the Hunt would not let such a trivial matter stop a feast. Four Hunters broke free of the confines of the portal, braying their endless hunger and streaming their red as they absorbed the prey’s attempts to stop the feast. Three Hunters turned left to face a single prey, while the hungriest ran directly forward to face the greatest number of prey.

 

The din of the battle was a wild kaleidoscope of strobe bright sights and raucous hammering sounds. For even a battle hardened veteran like Cindy, this fight was beyond even her U-war experiences. “It’s that infernal screaming that is different.” She thought as dropped behind the galley counter to reload her sub-machine gun, Li Ming’s shotgun blazing away to cover her. “I mean curses, orders, the cries of the wounded are one thing, but this…this…damn I don’t know what you call the noise these things are making, but it ain’t natural.” She popped back up and found one of the horrors directly in front of her. For several milliseconds, she had time to register the mauled remnant of a face, the unholy gleam in the thing’s feral eyes, and most of all the unnatural howling the thing was making before the command from her brain reached her trigger finger and the Reaver slammed to a halt as an entire magazine punched through its chest.

 

“Out of the portal, get into the open!” Was the clear imperative that screamed deep in every one of the Hunters. “Close on the prey! FEAST!” Burned in the Hunter’s red, but these prey were fighting harder than most. The hungriest one was down and the three that turned to feed on the lone prey to the right had been driven back by the prey’s stingers, blocking the pack from clearing the portal. “FORWARD!” The Lead raged in hunger and frustration as one of the prey threw a round object into the portal. Not many prey had these objects, but the Lead recognized the danger to the pack, but his nearly subsonic ‘great danger’ scream was cut off when the object detonated.

 

CRUMP! The sound of the grenade was somewhat muffled by the confines of the airlock and most of the remainder was absorbed by the bodies of the Reavers still stuck in that small area. Chan’s throw had been perfect and the effect was deadly, the three Reavers that had been driven back by gunfire were blown forward again, but they were the only ones to exit the airlock. The close quarter explosion decimated all the others. However, the blast had rolled one of the Reavers into the lounge right next to Madam Black. The other two wounded Reavers turned on Cindy and Li Ming, blocking their attempts to assist their terrified passenger.

Cindy’s foot lashed out and caught the Reaver square in the solar plexus. She knew that the normally immobilizing blow would barely faze the horror, but that wasn’t her goal, the kick had already succeeded in what she wanted and that was to back the Reaver up enough so she could get her sub-machine gun into play. Because of the close proximity of Li Ming and Black, Cindy had to keep her burst short, but with the barrel all but touching her target this wasn’t a problem. Her knowledge of anatomy put the exquisitely controlled burst directly through the Reaver’s heart, killing it instantly.

“Steady on man, steady on.” William whispered to himself as he took aim at the Reaver closing on Li Ming. The rifle barked and the bullet split the Reaver’s skull killing it before it hit the ground.

Li Ming had time to sketch a grateful nod William’s way then turned to help Black. “Damn, I can’t tell who is screaming more, her or the bloody Reaver.” Was all she had time to think as the wounded Reaver brought its axe up in an arc that threatened to cleave Black in two. Li Ming’s shotgun was still swinging around in what seemed like hopelessly slow motion as that axe began its downward motion. “I’ll never make it.” Li Ming wailed internally as Black finally unfroze.

The woman hit a button on her security case, popping it open. Black reached in and pulled out a Newtech pistol of some sort.  She managed to step far enough back to avoid being cut in half, but the motion of her hand coming up, brought it directly in line with the falling axe. However, Black managed to fire the instant before the axe hit and a brilliant beam of light drilled a hole through the Reaver before the axe cleaved through Black’s hand and the weapon slicing both in two. Both had an instant to stare in shock, then the laser exploded.

”Sonofabitch! She was packing a gorram laser!” Chan growled as Cindy pushed the Reaver’s carcass off of Black.

Wo de ma![79]” Cindy said when she saw Black’s wounds. “Li Ming, Willis, help me get her to the table!”

“Willis, lock both your hands around her wrist to stop the bleeding on this stump, she’s got sucking chest wounds and her airway is clogged with blood. The rest of you, quick, I need plastic wrappers, some sort of tube, and get me one of the paring knives!”

The crew reacted rapidly and managed to find the items Cindy needed, but Black was too badly wounded. Black gurgled as Cindy successfully performed the tracheotomy, but even as she got the mangled woman’s airway stable, the last of her air, bubbled out of the shrapnel wounds in her lungs.

Chan watched helplessly as Black wheezed her last and died. Her eyes sparked with anger as she now knew what was so important that Black was willing to risk everything to get back to a Border world and that they had failed to deliver. “Willis, please conduct whatever repairs the ship may need and let’s press on to Beaumonde.” Chan sighed deeply and turned toward the bridge. “William please supervise the clean up. I need a moment.”

Dang ran Captain.” The first mate replied quietly.

The crew silently went about their tasks of spacing the bodies of the Reavers, repairing the relatively minor damage, and cleaning up the aftermath of the fight. They had survived, but the loss of their passenger had taken the wind out of their sails. With their entire water supply gone, they had to use some of the emergency supplies in the second shuttle, but that was only a trivial detail. Since a painstakingly thorough search of Black’s meager belongings failed to produce any of the credits promised them, Xavier took it upon herself to see if she could figure out just who employed Black.

En route, Xavier had found enough marker tags on the case that held the laser and a careful examination of Black’s fake ID to prove she worked for Iskellian. On arrival on Beaumonde, Chan and William went through the motions of contacting the high tech arms company, but despite Chan’s best efforts, the corporation flatly stated that any business of this woman was between her and the crew not Iskellian and even if this woman did work for Iskellian, which they refused to accept she did, the crew failed in their task and thus any contract would be void. Once again the crew was not going to get paid.

“You know, knowing that was going to happen did soften the blow some, but only slightly.” Chan sighed as William drove back to the ship after the failed meeting with Iskellian.

“Yeah I know what you mean mei mei, but we both know Iskellian is second hand news. It’s time to make a choice Chan.”

“I know it William. I had hoped to avoid this moment, but it was unavoidable the second Black died.”

“How do you think the crew will take it?”

“Can’t say for sure, haven’t known them long enough, we’ll find out soon enough.”

“That we will mei mei, that we will.”

 

“Okay folks, I’m going to speak straight and I’m going to ask the same of you.” Chan said after the crew had finished dinner that evening. “Once I’ve said my piece, them as you that has words can speak your mind as well. You all know we got hosed again today. You all also know we are getting desperate low on coin to keep us in the Black as well. And finally you all know why we are in the situation we are in. It is time to face facts and make a decision, on what to do about our situation. I see we have two choices, either we find a way to get Blue Sun off our backs, or we can resort to taking other than legitimate work to make coin. You all know I was a Browncoat, so taking on long odds is in my nature. My vote is to take to Blue Sun and break the Highleaf Cartel’s freeze on us.

“William has already told me he supports that plan as well. I need to know which option each of you wants, but since either course is going to put us in a place that could cost us much more than coin, I’ll give you all a chance to cash out your share and walk away with no hard feelings of any kind.”

“I have no problem with taking from them as what has too much already Cap.” Marsh said speaking first as usual. “Gorram Feds try to keep folk from having what they want. Lots of coin to be had getting’ stuff to them as what is willin’ to pay for it.”

“Captain, my background is not in shall we call it ‘speculative ventures’ or in revenge as I prefer to follow what the Buddha has shown us. I desire neither material wealth or to strike back at those who have wronged us. I do however, wish to remain in the service of this ship and in your service. Since I have been given your leave to speak my mind, I would prefer not follow a path of lawlessness. Given we only have two choices if we stay with the ship, if this leads us into conflict, then so be it.” Willis said in his typically formal manner.

“Li Ming? You have a legitimate, well semi-legitimate self-employment of your own. I can understand if you choose not to continue with us.” Chan smiled.

“You can’t get rid of me that easy Chan. I like filling an inside straight as well. Count me in on the ‘take to Blue Sun’ group.”

“I always hate, petty much like all of us do, when I find myself agreeing with Marsh, but long odds is one thing, taking on a monster like Blue Sun is another. I’m no stranger to helping separate a mark from his coin. I say we leave the monster to them as what likes slaying dragons.” Xavier added after some thought.

“Okay we have two for going after Blue Sun and two against. Add William and I to the anti-Blue Sun group and we have four to two; that leaves you Cindy.”

“Take it to Blue Sun all the way.” The medic said with a big grin. “You know us Browncoats have to stick together. I’ve never liked being pushed around, by the Feds or anyone else. If I’m going to go out, I want to go out swingin’.”

“Okay Marsh and Xavier, the vote is five to two for going after Blue Sun.” Chan said after waiting a moment to see if anyone else would speak. “Since this is not the course of action you would want, the offer to cash out and walk away is still open.”

“Cap, you asked me what I wanted. Vote didn’t go my way. Oh well, the ‘Verse goes on. You hired me as pilot of this boat and until you tell me to pack my gos se and leave. I’m not leavin’ the pilot’s seat.”

“Xavier?” Chan asked with one eyebrow arched.

The self proclaimed hacker tugged at her nose ring, which she did unconsciously whenever she was deep in thought, before she replied. “I think going up against Blue Sun is a sucker bet, but the ‘Ghost is my home. If I cash out, I would not only have to find a new crew to run with, I’d have to give up a place I have let get to me. Besides, if I bailed on you, who do you think could get you inside places people think you shouldn’t be? Hell count me in too.”

Chan had to take a moment before she could reply. She had to clear her throat twice before she could rely on her voice to work right. “Okay then, we take it to Blue Sun. We’re going to have to get more info to follow up on besides “Blue Sun” and Beaumonde is as good a place to find that information. Sleep well people, tomorrow we begin to see what we can see.”


Chapter Nine

 

Knowing they might have to depart with little notice, Marsh and Willis stayed on the ship keeping all systems on hot stand by and ready to lift in a moment’s notice. While on the planet, the rest of the crew split up into teams to gather information from the sources they were most adapt at reaching. William went with Chan as they went to every contact and ne’er-do-well they knew between them. Not to find work this time as they knew what the answer to that question would be, but to find out if there was a name attached to the word that dealing with the crew of the Lattimer’s Ghost would be bad for business. Cindy went with Xavier who was going to find an unsecured access node to see what the Cortex might have to say. While Li Ming put on something exquisite and went to talk to the gambling circuit and the contacts she knew that mixed with the high roller set.

 

“I have never seen port authority goons be so gorram dedicated.” Cindy managed to whisper in between wheezes as a pair of brutish looking officers ran past their hiding place and the two women reversed direction and we finally able to meld into the space port crowd.

“Yeah you think they were actually trying to earn their pay for change.” An equally winded Xavier replied in a similar whisper. “First they add three layers of watch dog ‘bots to the remote access node, then, they add in a quad-bank encryption matrix, and to put the kiss of death on our whole enterprise, the ruttin’ bulls are on top of their game. It’s a damn good thing that the optical bomb I used kept them from getting a visual on us, or our mugs would be flagged all over the Cortex by now.”

“Oh la-de-da for small flippin’ favors.” Cindy growled hotly.

“You know full well that is a big deal.” Xavier countered just as hotly.

“Yeah I know, sorry, no point in us fighting now.” Cindy sighed. “I just hate not knowing who needs a foot in their pi gu. Not being able to access the Cortex, means we’re humped as far as being able to help today.”

“Some times the cat eats the mouse; some times the mouse eats the cat. Come on let’s head back to the ‘Ghost.” Xavier replied nodding grimly.

“Yeah, let’s just hope the others are more successful than we were.”

 

“Fanty you are a lying sack of gos se!” “William thundered. “Why we even talk to you is beyond me.”

“I’m Mingo.” The twin replied.

“Does it look like he cares a tinker’s damn which one you are, you jing chang  mei yong  de cow turd?” Chan snapped as she stepped between the three men. “You owe me Mingo and don’t try and tell me you don’t remember why!”

“Okay, okay Chan you win. Far be it from me to argue with a lovely lady. Besides, our friend William here looks like he’s ready to come to blows and my brother is far too handsome to brawl.”

“This is true.” Fanty smiled.

“Yeah, I know you two are the best looking men in the ‘Verse, at least that’s what you keep telling each other. We’re not asking for work, cause we know we’re not welcome, we just want to know a name.”

Fanty’s smile faded and he checked to make sure no one was near, before he leaned in close. “Chan, I know you saved our bacon and if I knew the answer, I’d tell you. All I know is the rep from Blue Sun was a leg breaker on the upper end of the entry level and who ever gave him the word had him jumping. That means the orders came from at least a mid-grade supervisor. That’s all we know Chan, you know my brother and I pay our debts and the answer to what you seek would square our debt to you. We can’t spill what we don’t have.”

“Okay Fanty, that’s fair. We’ve got a couple other irons in the fire, we’ll see if any of them pan out.” Chan said and even managed a smile. “You two stay sharp and on top of the dirt, a woman has to have something to think about when she’s lonely.”

Chan gave each of the twins a kiss on the cheek before giving William the high sign that it was time to leave. When they were sure they were out of earshot, Chan stopped to gather her thoughts.

“Whoever we are looking for has done a fine job of keeping his hands clean. If Fanty and Mingo can’t give us a name, no one we know can.”

“Too true mei mei, We can only hope that the other’s have had more luck.”

 

“I’ll see your ten and raise you twenty. Time for the long pants gentlemen.” Li Ming all but purred as she leaned forward, tapping her cards against the table and revealing a tantalizing and breathtaking amount of her décolletage, but not even the slightest clue of what her cards might or might not be.

“How does she do that every time?” A distinguished gray haired man said in disgust as he threw in his cards.

“She does it McTavish by keeping you looking at her instead of the cards. She simply knows you are an incorrigible lecher and is keeping you off your game by having you concentrate on what might be instead of what is.” An equally distinguished gentleman wearing the red diagonal sash of the aristocracy replied, chuckling at his compatriot’s discomfort.

“Oh bugger off Fenwick!” McTavish growled.

This comment only made Lord Alfred Fenwick laugh harder and McTavish storm off in a huff. “Don’t take that old codger seriously Li Ming he’s never been a good loser. Not even when he was growing up.”

“I never take McTavish’s tantrums seriously. He’ll be his typical lecherous self again before he reaches the smoking room.” Li Ming winked lasciviously and gathered up her newly gained credits. I do however take you seriously Lord Fenwick.”

“Hmmm that sounds ominous my dear. I recognize that tone. What gives?”

“You know me too well old friend. I freely admit to having an ulterior motive.”

“Well that actually sounds intriguing”

“I admit to an ulterior motive, but that particular motive is not what brought me here today.”

“It’s not like you to equivocate Li Ming, pray tell what is on your mind?”

Taking a deep breath, which in the tight dress the lovely lady before him was wearing, was more than enough to catch Fenwick’s attention, Li Ming spoke quickly as if she would burst if she didn’t get the words out.

“I’ve taken up with a tramp freighter to broaden my circle of potential opponents. This ship has come on hard times because of an unfair outside influence and I need to know if you can tell me who exactly gave the order that has my friends in such a bind.”

“A tramp freighter? Li Ming, you simply must choose your friends better then than. You know you are a woman of substance, you should be the house gambler on one of the liners that ply the Core.”

“Alfie dear, please, I did choose my friends well and my reasons for choosing a ramp freighter over a liner is that I tire of the space set that frequent those vessels. I wanted to see the best and the worst the ‘Verse has to offer.”

“Well, far be it from me to tell a grown woman how to live. What is it you do need my dear?”

“Just as I asked, I need a name of who in Blue Sun has put a lean on my friends’ business dealings?”

“Your friends are being leaned on by Blue Sun? I’ll take you word on your choice of friends, but you are diving in still waters Li Ming and I know you are smart enough to know that. What is the name of this ship?”

“The Lattimer’s Ghost.”

Fenwick nodded with a twinkle in his eyes as he stepped over to the Cortex terminal in a recessed alcove. Li Ming stayed where she was, to give Fenwick some privacy. She waited a good twenty minutes before her benefactor returned.

“My but that is a grim expression.” She said as he reached the table.

“Again I advise you that you are on a dangerous path my dear, but I know you well enough to know I can not talk you out of it, so here is what I found. Whoever is leaning on your friends, they are not a member of the pointy end of the corporate pyramid. I’m sorry my dear, that is all I could find. No one known to me was aware of any official order to make life difficult for a single tramp freighter”

“I understand Alfie, this is not the first dead end we’ve run into, but every piece of the puzzle is a step closer to getting to the finish. I do thank you for you’re the effort.”

“You are of course welcome nian qing de[80], I don’t get to see you often enough to suit me and if your humble servant can assist, assist I will.”

“‘Humble servant’ my eye and you know it! I’ll be lucky if leave here with my virtue unsullied.” Li Ming said in mock horror.

“You wound me milady.” Fenwick replied clutching his heart with great theatrics. “Seriously though Li Ming, please be careful. I’d hate to see anything happen to that lovely body of yours.”

“I will Alfie, I promise.”

“Good enough then. Now I must away to see if McTavish is calmed down from his earlier snit. I believe he is still distracted enough that I might be able to take him for a few more of those credits he seems to like to lose. Good evening” Fenwick sketched a polite bow and headed back into the country club’s parlor.

Li Ming watched her contact as he departed and sighed. “Merciful Buddha I hope the others have had more luck.”

 

“You know if I were the suspicious type, I’d think someone was out to get us.” Marsh said rolling his eyes as the data gathering teams went over the meager information they had found over yet another protein paste dinner.

“Well for once you are right, someone is out to get us, the only problem is we can’t bloody figure out whom in the ‘Verse that happens to be. Narrowing the culprit down to the thousands of middle management drones of Blue Sun is better than nothing, but that still leaves a lot of possible targets.” William growled in frustration.

“Seeing as how we have run out of leads here on Beaumonde, we are going to have to take a stab at what our next step is going to be.” Li Ming replied glumly as she stirred the remains of her portion of dinner around her plate with her fork.

“Since wishing we knew more than we do is pointless, we might as well go back over what we do know.” Chan said firmly to head off yet another argument. “This whole mess started when we got shanghaied into disrupting the Highleaf hijackings out of Greenleaf. We know for a fact that the pirates operated between Persephone and Greenleaf. Going off of that fact, it is a fair guess that our next step lies between those two points. Only thing left from that guess is whether we need to go to Persephone or Greenleaf as our next stop. My take is that Greenleaf suffered more from the hijackings that we did, so I say Greenleaf is as much a victim as we are and my spin is we go to Persephone first. Any one else think otherwise?”

There was a pause before anyone spoke, then Cindy stood. “Captain, I can’t say why I feel this, it’s just something in my gut, but I say that Greenleaf isn’t as clean on this thing as you think. That yu ben de[81] Baron was sure ruthless enough into forcing us to do his bidding, so I say there have to be folk just as ruthless to be willing to hijack their own kin.”

“She’d got a good point captain.” Xavier added. “Just because they were the targets, doesn’t mean they can’t be the source.”

“Won’t say as that couldn’t happen, but lets face it girls, Persephone has got the lock on the number of likely nefarious types that would be behind the hijackings. Greenleaf, if it has a dark side, they sure keep it hid well.” Marsh piped up.

“I’ll give you I hadn’t thought about how we were ‘convinced’ to help points to a harder side to the Greenleafers than meets the eye, but that is still a pretty big stretch. After all, as a Baron, Chang is pretty used to barking and peons jumping.” Chan persisted.

“Going by the number of thugs that call Persephone home, I’m going to side with the captain on this on.” William added weighing in after some serious thought.

“As if you’d make another choice.” Marsh muttered.

“I’ll be kind and pretend I didn’t hear that little man.” William growled dangerously. “Chan and I go way back and we were disagreeing on things back when you were still trying to figure out how to tie your sneakers. I agree with the captain this time because I think she’s right, not because I can’t think for myself.”

“I agree with our esteemed captain as well.” Willis said quickly to head off another pointless confrontation with the argumentative pilot. “If one reduces our situation to numbers and then calculates the odds, Persephone is clearly the logical choice.”

“As someone who knows a few things about playing the odds, I’m going to go all in with the captain as well.” Li Ming said adding her voice to the majority. “I won’t say it’s impossible to fill an inside straight, but the stakes are too high at the moment to be putting a serious bet on the long shot yet.”

“Well, I like to hear from all of you since your lives are as tied up in this mess as mind. Not that this ship is a democracy, but I’m not so set in my own brilliance that I can’t take a hint from my crew when needed, However, in this case, the majority is along my own way of thinking, so Persephone it is. Marsh, get us airborne.”

“Sure thing Cap, but I do think you are forgettin’ somthin’ important like.”

“And that would be?”

“He means my current difficulties with one Darius Nightblade.” Li Ming sighed.

Gos se, I must be getting addled from all this protein paste.” Chan said smacking her forehead.

“I’ve got an idea that can get us around that one.” Xavier said with a wicked grin.

“Then spill it sister!” Chan snapped.

“The last time we wanted to keep the lovely Li Ming here out of harms way while the rest of us waited for a cargo, we were going to have her wait in the shuttle on the edge of the system then join up with her later. That plan collapsed when the cargo didn’t show, but what I propose is to reverse the operation.”

“I got ya!” Chan said snapping her fingers. “We keep the ship on the edge of the system and make the trip to the planet in the second shuttle.”

“That would be the plan.” Xavier beamed.

“Okay we have a plan and we are sticking to it. It’s a six day trip to Persephone from here?” Chan questioned and turned to Marsh for confirmation.

“Yep, six days at standard burn.”

“Alright then, we have six days to pull out every sneaky and underhanded trick we can cook up between us to keep ourselves off the radar. We need to get in, shake the tree as hard as we can, gather up whatever falls to the ground and git before the hijackers, Nightblade, or Blue Sun knows we were even in their backyard. Questions?”

There were none and the Lattimer’s Ghost lit her pulse drive on course for Persephone just under twenty minutes later.

 

“You know this is going to sound hokey as all get out, but regardless of how many times I see that view, I never tire of seeing stars. True enough, I forget to look more often than I like, but when I do remember they still remind me why I chose this life.” Chan said three days later as she flopped into the co-pilot’s seat and rubbing her eyes; fatigue seeming to ooze from every pore in her body.

“I hear ya Cap, I love the Black.”

“When this Blue Sun mess is over, remind me to sleep for about a week.”

“Will do Cap, I use some shut eye myself.”

“Well make sure you get some sleep, I need you sharp enough to thread a shuttle through the eye of a needle when we get to Persephone.”

“Um, Cap?” Marsh asked pensively.

“Yes?”

“Who exactly is going to pilot the ‘Ghost if I’m flying the shuttle?”

Chan blinked and dropped her head into her hands for a moment, then began cursing in a non-stop stream of invectives that lasted for the better part of five minutes. Marsh, for once, kept his mouth shut as the captain raged, but did admire that she never repeated herself once and made a note of a couple choice phrases he’d never heard before. Not sure of why Chan was as mad as she was, he was the very model of a professional pilot when she finally was aware he was in the room again.

“I am a ma de pi gu.”

“Captain, you may be a lot of things, but I wouldn’t ever say you were a horse’s butt.”

“I might as well be Marsh. I flat forgot that Li Ming is the only other real pilot we have besides you. I mean me and William can take a stab at it, but neither one of us are really what you could call a pilot.” Chan began counting on her fingers. “Cindy? No, she’s no better than William and me. Willis? Nope, same as the rest of us. And Xavier, I don’t think she could even go through the start up sequence. Well, thank you Marsh. Good thing you pointed out that flaw in our plan. Starting tomorrow, we will begin immediate piloting lessons for the entire crew. We won’t have to be good enough to join the Space Hawks, but basic piloting skills are a must.”

“SPACE HAWKS? Those tin plated Cortex hungry show offs? Like any of them know what real piloting is about.” Marsh harrumphed.

“Why Marsh, I believe you are jealous. The Space Hawks happen to be the most elite fighter squadron in the Alliance navy. Well at least they seem to think they are.”

“Good at frilly ‘wow the yokels’ flying is more like. I doubt any of them can make a Firefly sing like I can.”

“There, there Marsh, I was only using the Space Hawks as an example, no need to go and get all huffy.”

“Huffy-” The pilot began then stopped as Chan burst into laughter. “Oh right FUN-NY.” But Marsh chuckled in spite of himself. “Yeah Cap, you missed a real callin’ as a comedienne.”

“It’s a gift, but I will have to work out a rotation of flight sims for the shuttle and as much stick time as possible as co-pilot for all of us. You have accidentally made yourself quite a bit more work by pointing out the sorry state of our piloting skills, but all of us have got to be able of taking over the helm or operating a shuttle before we reach Persephone. Oh and in answer to your first question, Li Ming is good enough to pilot the ‘Ghost while we are sneaking around on the planet. Since she can’t go with us, she can more than earn her keep taking your place.”

Marsh sniffed at the very idea. “Cap she might be able to take my space, but even as hot as she is, she can never take my place.”

“I guess that’s fair enough. Now if you excuse me, I’ve got some scheduling to do.”

Chan hopped up from the co-pilot’s seat and left the bridge mumbling under her breath crew names and shifts.

“Take my place. Hah! As if!”  Marsh snorted then settled back into his typical routine he used whenever deep in the Black that allowed him to keep an eye on all the instruments, but still allowed him time to admire the stars.

 

Three days later the Lattimer’s Ghost was standing by with thrusters at station keeping on the far outskirts of Persephone’s orbit. One of the shuttles separated and pirouetted with great flair on a course that would take it atmospheric and to the busy Eavesdown docks on the bustling Border planet. True to Chan’s word, she had cracked the whip and had had the entire crew undergo as much pilot training as was possible in three days under the watchful eye of Marsh and Li Ming. As soon as Marsh had the shuttle parked on a landing pad in one of the more shady sections of the dock, the crew split into two teams. A heavily disguised Chan and William were going to see if any of their contacts might know more than what Fanty and Mingo were able to provide, while Marsh, Cindy, and Xavier would look for the same sort of information while making the rounds of the local hangouts.

“So you’re telling me, if I happen to have some merchandise that needs to be moved, this is the guy that can do it?” Cindy said dangling one of her few remaining ten credit notes tauntingly.

“Yes, yes, lady friend. The Lucky Day Pawn is the best shop in town to make coin for work done perhaps without the Alliance’s blessings.” The nondescript man nervously licked his lips, his eyes riveted on the money in front of him.

“You wouldn’t lie to me now would you?” Cindy put on her best sultry pout, but given her less than stunning looks, it was clearly the ten credit note that held all the allure to the man sharing a booth with the medic.

“No lying, no, no, no. I doing my best business with Lucky Day. You can doing too!”

“Okay hon, here you go, try not to shoot it all up in one place.” Cindy said as she handed over the money and watched the junkie bolt out of the pub in search of the nearest pusher he could find. She finished her drink then nodded discretely to her partners at a booth across the room. Cindy stood and exited the bar, Marsh and Xavier followed a few minutes later and met up in near by alley.

“We in business?” Xavier asked her eyes darting side to side, clearly uncomfortable in such a rough neighborhood.

“You bet we are. It took me nearly four bloody hours and cost me the better part of a hundred credits, but I have the name of the local fence, the Lucky Day Pawn.”

“Not exactly an original front for a fence now is it.” Marsh replied equally unsettled at their surroundings.

“That’s the pawn broker’s problem not ours. Let’s get back to the docks. I need to see if there is a bit less security on the Cortex access nodes here than they use on Beaumonde.”

“Fine with me, I don’t mind slummin’ most times, but damn Cindy, you have found the bottom of the barrel here.” The pilot said as they exited the alley and headed for the transit tube that would take them back to Eavesdown.

“Yeah, girl, I’ve been on the outside looking in at them as what has most of my life and this place is about as ugly a boil on the butt of the ‘Verse as I have ever seen.” Xavier agreed with complete sincerity.

“This is deeper in the muck than I like to go my own self, but this is where the trail led and I had to stay on the trail while it was still hot. It was just one of those ‘well, I don’t know personally, but I know I guy that might know’ sort of things.” Cindy said and even she was walking a bit faster than normal until they had boarded the transit car. Since they had some time before they reached the docks, she carefully went over what the next step of their little data mining expedition would be.

 

“You know something mei mei?” William said as he and Chan sat on a park bench taking a much needed rest.

“What’s that?”

“It has been many a year since I actually walked long enough to get a blister.”

“Do tell?” Chan snorted derisively. “Yeah I guess we all have sacrifices to make.”

“Yeah I guess, but it would be worth it if we’d found anything. Maybe we should try another tack?”

“Like what?”

“We catch a transit car back to the shuttle and call it a day.”

“You might be on to something there my friend. We obviously aren’t on top of our game today, hell we aren’t even in the game.”

“Looks like mei mei. I say we just mosey back to the shuttle and wait for the others.”

“Mosey William? I don’t recall as ever seeing you mosey before.”

“Well at least I didn’t say sashay.”

“I don’t think the ‘Verse is ready for that, but I do agree, we have shot our bolt, no point in us beating a dead horse any deader. Let’s go my friend, there is the transit car.”

Chan and William trotted over to the transit station with groans that spoke volumes for how tired they were and headed for the Eavesdown docks.

 

“Just one…more…security flag…and…we’re in!” Xavier announced after a long twenty heart stopping minutes of hacking a Port Authority access node she’d found after by-passing two doors marked “Restricted Access” and climbing into a maintenance shaft. Cindy and Marsh were on guard right outside the shaft, alert for anyone who actually had a right to be in the area just happened to show up.

“Yes, yes, YES, that’s it…that…IS…IT!” Xavier murmured as her hands flew across the keypad. She was in one of her rare fusion states, when she felt she had melded with the Cortex and was the Cortex. These fusions didn’t happen often, but when they did, she knew she could do anything. She ran freely along the Cortex and found the subnet she was looking for. Security? Pah, that was for mere humans, she was so much more than that right now. She slipped past the security subroutine and even looped it back on itself. There would not even be a trace she was here. She traced the hum of the subnet and locked onto the specific dedicated source box she needed. Firewalls? Passwords? Why bother? She was the Cortex and these things were not just merely trivia, they were trivial. In minutes she was backing out just as tracelessly as she went in. She hated to break from her fusion state as they were so rare, but she knew she had to and with the last keystroke she was Xavier again, just Xavier. She shivered for a second then crawled out of the maintenance shaft.

“Going by the look on your face, everything went well.” Cindy said with a knowing smirk. “Orgasmic is the word I think that covers that look” Was what she thought impishly. However, she was kind enough not to mention that now. That and that the only time she’d seen that same look on her own face was after one of the better romps with Marsh.

“Oh you have no idea Cindy. I got the goods let get back to the shuttle!” Xavier replied barely able to contain her glee.

“What gives Xav? You mean you aren’t gonna tell us what goods you got?” Marsh asked as they quietly exited the restricted area of the docks.

“Not until we get to the shuttle, Sylvie. A girl has to be in the right mood you know.”

Before Xavier could reply, Cindy burst into laughter, both at the outraged look on the pilot’s face and from her own thoughts about the mood Xavier was in.

 

When Cindy, Xavier, and Marsh reached the shuttle, they found Chan looking glum and William with his boots off and massaging his feet.

“Please tell me you found something. We struck out so bad it isn’t funny.” Chan asked as soon as she saw the others.

“We got something, but cupcake here won’t spill.” Marsh answered angrily, angry because Xavier and Cindy laughed most of the way back to the shuttle and he was certain it was at his expense, he just didn’t know how.

“Okay, okay, I’ve had my fun.” Xavier replied blowing a kiss in Marsh’s direction before continuing smugly. “Captain, not only is the Lucky Day Pawn receiving regular payments from the Santo branch of the Blue Sun legal department, the name on those checks is one Lloyd Flannery.”

Chan jumped to her feet so quickly that Xavier took a step back in alarm, but the captain threw her arms around the younger woman too fast for her to escape, but instead of doing the great bodily harm she expected, Chan hugged her fiercely.

“Hot damn Xavier that is outstanding work! Thank you!”

“G-Glad to help captain.” Xavier managed to stammer.

“Marsh, get us off this rock, we finally have a name!”

“You sure you want to bug out so fast Cap? I think this pawn broker needs talkin’ to.”

Chan hesitated for a moment as she thought through Marsh’s plan, then she shook her head before continuing. “No if we lean on this guy, he will almost certainly warn this Flannery guy, no we head for Santo and see what we can find there.”

“But Cap-”

“Not this time Marsh, I know it is tempting to want to start lumping on anyone and everyone we find, but that will just make things more difficult for us in the long run. No we head for Santo and see where that takes us.”

“Okay Cap.” Marsh sighed heavily then plopped behind the controls of the shuttle. “Fasten your seatbelts gang, Marsh airlines is ready to lift.”

The shuttle docked with the Lattimer’s Ghost in just under an hour and was under standard burn for Santo less than ten minutes later.

 

The Lattimer’s Ghost was restricted from using Hard Burn except for a dire emergency as it cut into their dwindling fuel supply something fierce and the crew’s cash reserves were just too thin to support moving that fast. This restriction meant the trip to Santo was going to take seven days and that was with Marsh shaving every corner possible. The up side of the long trip was it gave the crew plenty of time to work out their plan for what to do when they actually reached the planet. The downside of the long trip was that it gave the crew plenty of time to work out their plan for what to do when they actually reached the planet. The opportunity to offer proposals, nearly endless debates, counterproposals, and nearly endless arguments made the week trip seem much, much longer than the actual seven calendar days that elapsed. Eventually the options boiled down to two choices, either a direct confrontation with Lloyd Flannery, the lead Xavier had discovered or to place the man under surveillance to see if he led them to any bigger Blue Sun fish.

“Okay crew, the captain has asked that I chair this meeting regarding our final decision on what our course of action will be when were reach Santo in two days.” William said from the head of the dining table. “After nigh on infinite lip wrangling, we have two options before us and we will stick to these two and only these two options. Is that clear?” The first mate waited until everyone at the table nodded their agreement before continuing. I know we went though some hard times to get to where we are now; I just hope we don’t have any lasting hard feelings. The captain asked me to be chair tonight as she didn’t want her opinion to make others think she was already set on what we would do. So, now that part is out of the way, who wants to go first?”

“I will.” Li Ming said without hesitation. “You all know I play cards for a living. One of the first rules of any game of chance, especially one you haven’t played before is to get a good look at what the other people at the table are doing. I say we need to put eyes on this Flannery and see how the hand plays out from there.”

“I to not pursue games of chance like Miss Wong, but wisdom only comes to those who are patient enough to wait for it, I must agree with the lady. Observing Mister Flannery is the most prudent path for us.” Willis said nodding slowly as he spoke.

“Cards and wisdom are both nice, but sometimes you just have to gut it out. This Flannery has made our lives miserable or he knows who exactly has made our lives miserable, so I say we bring some of that that feeling to his hide as soon as we get our hands on him.” Cindy all but growled, her flashing eyes revealing her pent up frustration.

“My line of work is just a different way of observing someone without them knowing about it, so I’m all about the check this Flannery out first.” Xavier added receiving a baleful glare from Cindy in return.

“I can see the logic of what those who want to eyeball Flannery are saying, but I have to still agree with Cindy and now that we have a solid target, we need to teach this guy a lesson and learn something in the process.” Chan said firmly.

“This is one time I am going to have to disagree with you mei mei, you know more about war than I do, but I’m sure somewhere along the way you learned about the value of reconnaissance and intelligence during the war. We have got to check this guy our first.” William said after the slight pause when Chan finished speaking. Turning to Marsh who had yet to speak he waited expectantly for what the pilot had to say.

“Ya’ll know I’m more of doer than a thinker, but goin’ by the number of times that has led me into more whupass than I could bring, for once, I have to go with checkin’ the guy out first. We will only get once chance at this before Blue Sun unloads on us. If we don’t have our ducks in a row, we will get buried.”

There another longer pause at Marsh’s uncharacteristic caution before William spoke again.

“Okay that is five to two in favor of setting up surveillance on Flannery. Captain, I think it is time for you to take the floor now,”

“Thank you William.” Chan said as she stood and moved to the spot vacated by William at the head of the table. “I said I would hear you all out even though I thought leaning of Flannery was the best option, but Marsh brought up a surprisingly good point. We do just get one shot at this, if we lean on our only lead, he could easily warn anyone he might be able to tell us about, so unless we resort to kidnapping or murder, we will buy more hurt than we earn. So, I guess that settles it. When we get to Santo, we go in quiet and learn all we can without tipping our hand first. Get some sleep everyone; we will be on the ground in just under forty-six hours.”

 

The crew broke into chatter as they went about their in the Black duties that were a big part of a spacer’s life and spent the next couple of days honing their parts of what was going to be an interesting time once they hit the planet. Landing on Santo exactly on schedule, the crew again split up into teams with Willis staying to do what maintenance that he could, given the budget shortage the lack of coin placed on him. Chan and William, as they typically did, sought out their underworld friends, while Cindy took first watch on Flannery. Marsh went with Xavier to cover her back as she attempted to tap the local Cortex, and Li Ming got dolled up to make the rounds of the high roller tables at one of the  casinos that were Santo’s ‘Verse-wide trademark.

“You know, I had forgotten how mind-numbingly boring sentry duty could be.” Cindy murmured to herself from here perch across the street and four doors down from Flannery’s office. The abandoned building made for an excellent observation post, save for the smell from some of the activities of the illegal residents of the building. Cindy and Chan had cased the whole block and found this to be the best place to keep an eye on the office, while remaining unseen themselves. She glanced at her watch. “Great only fifteen more minutes to go to liven up the wonderful time I’m had.” The last part of Cindy’s shift however, turned out to be no different from the first part.

William showed up five minutes early and let her know she hadn’t missed much. “Nothing worth the time we spent looking. The captain is getting pretty frustrated. She’s been a spacer for a fairly long time and it’s just not making sense that no one knows anything. You’d think one of the people we knew had something, but we got nothing. Anyway, enough of the good news see you in a few hours.”

“Okay William, this place is a pretty good spot, just watch your back, the natives might get restless with someone invading their territory.”

“I’m on it Cindy, thanks”

 

“I don’t believe this!” Xavier gasped in surprise and causing Marsh to yelp and claw for his pistol.

“What? WHAT!” The startled pilot growled.

“Oh nothing, I just got in easier than I though, second time I’ve fused.”

“Fused?” Marsh’s face screwed up in confusion, but his partner was so engrossed in what she was doing, she didn’t respond. “Damn feng li[82] woman.” He muttered and settled back to keeping watch.

What Marsh could not see and probably wouldn’t understand if he could was that while Xavier was breaking into the local Cortex node, she had entered what she called her fusion state again. She was amazed that it had happened again so soon after her Beaumonde experience, normally months, if not years passed between the rare events. Regardless of the unusual happenstance, she was going to make the most of it. The latest in security protocols seemed almost laughable as she danced around every roadblock to the data she wanted.

Flannery’s home address? There it is! Too easy…challenge me. Something useful…like his private access code.” Marsh could only hear the tappity-tap of her keypad as she entered the commands. “One private access code coming up, Xavier girl you are awesome, let’s see what else he’s got here…my, my, my, what’s this? Why looks like our little friend has a home on Bellerophon. Her thoughts flowed in a stream of consciousness very similar to how she flowed through the Cortex. “A mid-level corporate lawyer should barely be able to afford visiting such a place let only have property there. I wonder if he’s being a good citizen and paying all his taxes like he should. Should I call an Alliance auditor and find out? Call, hey now there’s an idea! I bet I could…” She paused for only a fraction of a second as she weighed the risks of what she wanted to try and then seamlessly inserted four modified lines of programming code. “EXCELLENT! Should I keep digging? Like mebbe for instance something really useful like his bank account?” She paused again, this time longer than before. “No, no, no too risky, people what has money watch what they have more than them as what don’t, plus the bank hacks might object. Time to pull the plug.” Xavier carefully backed out of the Cortex and disconnected her equipment, sighing with deep content.

“Damn girl was it good for you?” Marsh snorted at the look on the hacker’s face.

“As a matter of fact it was more than good. Let’s get back to the ship and let the others know what we got!”

“Sounds like a plan.”

 

“So, just as the fei fei de pi yan[83] was about to spill what he knew he fills an inside straight and wins the biggest pot of the night. He was so busy letting everyone know he was the big winner that he only had time to toss me a five-credit chip and blow me a kiss before he was mobbed by his new found friends sharing his good fortune and booze he was buying like it was going out of style.” Li Ming fumed, clearly unaccustomed to being cast aside by anyone.

“The surveillance hasn’t turned up much of anything either.” Chan added grimly. “And neither did William and me.” The crew, less Willis who was currently watching Flannery, was at the dining table sharing the results of the day’s information gathering efforts. “You two have been unusually quiet since you got back, go ahead and spill, to my thinking, you can’t have done any worse than the rest of us.”

“Once again, you’ll have to ask buttercup over there, all I can tell you is we didn’t get caught and ever since she finished she’s been grinnin’ like…like…”

“The Cheshire Cat?” William offered. “Before you ask, it’s from a book. Never mind which one, you haven’t read it. Come on Xavier what are the goods?”

“Well perhaps, if you all follow me, I can show you.” The enigmatic woman didn’t give anyone a chance to say anything else as she was through the hatch leading to the bridge before anyone had a chance to speak. Curiosity got the better of the crew and she waited until they all had gathered around her. She activated the communications array and typed in a couple of commands.

“Okay Xavier, we’ve seen the comm before.” Chan said irritably.

“True enough Captain, but…” She hit on more key and flashed a brilliant smile. “You’ve never seen the comm track all outgoing and inbound calls to one Lloyd Flannery before!”

 There was silence for almost two full seconds as what Xavier had said sunk in, and then everyone started talking at once.

“You didn’t!”

“How-“

“Genius, pure genius!” William bellowed above the din and pulled Xavier into a big bear hug that lifted her off her feet.

“Okay, okay, okay now, please a little quiet and William put her down before you break her ribs!” Chan roared to make herself heard and continued when the crew calmed down. “Xavier, I don’t know how you did it, but you have just made our lives here one damn sight easier. What exactly did you do?”

“I was able to hack Flannery’s access code, and using that, I was able to plant a tracer that would allows us to monitor who he calls and when.”

“Damn fine work Xavier, damn fine. Now all we have to do is wait for Flannery himself to help us catch him in the act!”

 

The only problem with Chan’s plan was that Lloyd Flannery had a vote in what happened. While the tracer made things easier, the crew thought it best to maintain their surveillance on the Blue Sun lawyer. However, the following day of watching his every move did not yield anything of substance. Neither did the third day, except for a nearly disastrous moment, while Marsh was on watch and trying to follow Flannery when he went to lunch. The lawyer surprised his unseen tail by stopping short to admire a nice looking woman strolling by. Caught in the open the pilot had to hop onto the bumper of a passing garbage truck to avoid being spotted. He waited until the truck turned a corner then quickly ran back to take up trailing Flannery again. Once again Marsh’s ability to beat the odds saved the entire crew from the disaster of tipping their hand.

Chan was seriously doubting the wisdom of the surveillance plan, but William convinced her to wait one more day before confronting Flannery. As fate would have it, it just so happened that it was Chan herself on Flannery’s tail when the crew got their big break. While not so rigid as to be predictable, Flannery was a creature of habit. He only ate in one of three restaurants, he went to the same shoe shine stand, and the bank at the same time every day. When he left the bank and went a different direction than usual, Chan was instantly suspicious. Flannery was a man who liked his comforts and always insisted on the top of the line. When he turned into what was at best a second rate tobacconist’s shop, Chan immediately followed him inside. As she pretended to examine the various brands of cigarras, she saw Flannery pass something to a rather seedy looking man that was obviously someone of Flannery’s nature would never be seen in public with, now Chan was certain she was onto something. She purchased some of the cigarras since she really was running low on her stash on the ship and hurried out of the store. The two men had split up and gone different directions forcing Chan to make a quick decision.

“‘Ghost, ‘Ghost, ‘Ghost, Shadow lead here. I think we just got our chance, our boy just made a suspicious looking drop with a real piece of work. I am following the new guy. I need someone to pick up the tail on Flannery. Over” She said discretely into her multi-band as she smoothly followed the unknown man.

“Xavier here Shadow lead. I was monitoring Flannery’s comm traffic. I’ll grab the next transit car and pick up the tail at his office. Over.”

“Outstanding Xavier, Shadow lead out.”

The man was good, but Chan completely outclassed him when it came to tailing somebody without being seen. It was obvious he was not in a hurry, and after twenty minutes of what was supposed to be idle window shopping, but was just as obvious to Chan as the man’s sorry attempt to throw off a tail, the man finally entered a poster child example of a seamy pawn shop. Chan nodded and discretely spoke to her multi-band again.

“‘Ghost, ‘Ghost, ‘Ghost, Shadow lead here.” She said softly.

“‘Ghost here.” William replied instantly.

“Round up the rest of the crew and meet me in the alley between Eighth and Ninth streets on Hobart Way. Have Li Ming and Willis keep the store on hot standby and Xavier on our boy. Over.”

“On the way Shadow lead, be there in less than ten. How much hardware should we bring?”

“Nice and quiet ‘Ghost, no point in alarming the locals or the constabulary.”

“Understood, day wear only. ‘Ghost out.”

Chan became a quiet place in the shadows, keeping a sharp eye on the shop, and waiting for the cavalry to arrive.

 

As promised William, Cindy, and Marsh arrived in the hover car just under ten minutes later. Marsh parked nose out in the alley in case they would need to make a quick exit. The four of them entered together and Chan walked up to the two men behind the counter. One was the man she’d trailed, thin and greasy looking with a bedraggled beard. The second man was taller, balding, and had a gold tooth with what looked like a red stone set in the middle. A third man was restocking shelves at the front of store and talking to what looked like a couple of legit customers. The tall man kept a suspicious eye on the others as the greasy one smiled at Chan.

“Help you?”

“Um, yes, you see…I well, why doesn’t matter.” She pulled the multi-band off her wrist, but held it tightly as if it was far more valuable than it was as she showed it to the man. “I need to pawn this, I…I need some coin and it’s all I have.”

The man grunted, half looking at the device she held and half trying to look Chan up and down without getting caught. “Well bao bei this here thing might not be all you have.” The man leered.

“Sir, please! I am here on business. I know these sorts of places are not to be found on the likes a properly civilized planet like Sihnon, but at least attempt to be professional!” Chan gasped, playing the role of affronted lady to the hilt. “How much will you give me for this top of the line multi function unit?”

She is good.” William thought and hid a smile at Chan’s antics, watching the two real customers leave the store. He nonchalantly moved to where he could intercept any move by the man stocking the shelves.

Cindy hung on Marsh’s arm and cooed over the merchandise as if she were angling to get her reluctant boyfriend to buy something he didn’t think was worth the time of day. She acted as if something behind the counter had caught her and she moved next to Chan.

The greasy looking man guffawed at Chan’s discomfort. “Five platinum, take it or leave it.”

“I’ll take it.” She replied making a casual gesture.

The man was surprised as he expected her to haggle, but the gesture brought an instant reaction. “Robbers!” He barked and went to reach behind the counter.

Realizing they had been made, both Chan and Cindy reacted at the same time and in the same way, lashing out with fists at each of the two men catching both by surprise and driving them back from whatever weapon was under the counter.

William moved to block the front door, but the man stocking the shelves proved to be stronger and faster than he looked, successfully driving a fist into William’s face, drawing blood, and leaving the first mate reeling.   

Before the man could hit William again, Marsh hammered him with a pile driving punch to the man’s temple that caused to drop to the floor as if pole-axed. “Never underestimate the little guy!” Marsh quipped as the man collapsed, before turning to assist the women. William was only able to nod in thanks, as he waited for the room to stop spinning.

Chan followed up her first attack by vaulting the counter and throwing a quick combination at the man’s gut, but the greasy shopkeeper proved to be every bit as slippery as he appeared and somehow managed to block both strikes. Marsh saw the balding man drawing his fist back to strike Cindy after she had hit him. The wiry pilot growled deep and low, taking a running leap he vaulted the counter driving both feet into the man’s side, hard enough that the sound of the cracking ribs was clear to all. The man slammed against the rear wall of the shop and slid down the wall in a puddle at Marsh’s feet.

The remaining shopkeeper spun at the sound and again managed to block the two strikes from Marsh who was moving as fast as a cobra. However, with his eyes on Marsh the shopkeeper failed to see Cindy’s attack coming, which consisted of the brutally effective method of grabbing his hair with both hands and slamming his face into the counter, shattering the glass and the man’s nose in one move. Still stubbornly on his feet, Chan delivered a one-two rabbit punch that finally knocked the surprisingly tough man unconscious.

“Now let’s see what our friend Flannery dropped off.” Chan said as she patting the shopkeeper down. “Well looky, looky.” She said holding up a data crystal.

“I guess Miss Xavier is going to have a little homework to do this evening.” A red faced William said.

“You bet she does, now let’s get.” Chan replied, dumping the crystal into her pocket and heading for the door.

“You still look a little woozy William, you go with Marsh. Cindy and I will catch the next transit car.”

“I can walk.” The big man snapped. “I’ve taken a punch to two in my life. I’ll be alright if you just give me a minute.”

“I know you will, but you’ll get that minute in the hover car. Don’t argue William. Go!”

Still miffed, the first mate let the pilot lead him to the vehicle. Marsh gunned the engine and the two men quickly were out of sight.

“Come on Captain, we need to move.” Cindy said and the two women cut through the alley and into the busy streets of San Carlo.

 

“And what have we got here?” Marsh said as they rounded the curve that led to the landing docks and found several cars in front of them being searched by security officers.

“I’m too much of a cynic to buy that the port authority just happened to pick now to institute a random sweep of vehicle and pedestrian traffic. I bet I know exactly what they happen to be looking for.”

“Yeah, I’m ahead of you. How do you want to play this?”

“One hundred percent legit, I’ll do the talking, but if I say ‘tan my hide’ you floor it.”

“Will do boss.”

The security officers worked they way down the line of vehicles and soon reached the two men’s hover car.

“Trouble officers?” William asked cheerily.

“Depends, what is your business here?” The port authority sergeant said.

“Why to see my nephew off to college.” William smiled indicating Marsh who managed a creditable smile. “Nothing but the best for my lad Jacob here, Londinum musical academy, first chair saxophone.”

“Really now?” The sergeant replied only half listening. “Mind if we search your vehicle?”

“Well we are in a bit of a hurry, but proper citizens of the Alliance have nothing to hide, please go ahead, but I must remind you tempus fugit my good man.” The sergeant looked at him blankly. “‘Time flees’ my good man, ‘Time flees,’ ancient Earth-That-Was language called Latin. Now please hurry if you must to this.”

The two officers searched the vehicle quickly, pausing only when they opened the trunk.

“Bound for Londinum did you say?” The sergeant asked calmly, but William could see that the two men had tensed.

“My nephew is indeed. Is there a problem?”

“Then where is his luggage?” The younger officer said, speaking for the first time.

“My good man, does it look like my nephew and I need to stoop to manual labor? My nephew is first chair saxophone, he does not carry luggage like some carpetbagger. And just looking at my physique should clearly demonstrate that do not do physical labor either. My manservant Cassidy took the baggage to the liner Calypso earlier. I am simply seeing my nephew on his way. Now unless you have reason to have us bound by law, you will be hearing from my barrister if you make him miss his ship.”

The sergeant looked like he was the rough and tumble sort, clearly not the type given to excess thought. He looked the two over again and between the youthful appearance of the small one and the wed fell bulk of the larger he made a decision.

“No, no sir, no problems noted, please have a safe trip.” And the two officers moved on to the next vehicle.

The two climbed back into the hover car and disappeared into the busy landing docks. William waited until they were out of sight before breathing a sigh of relief and running a hand through his hair. “That was closer than I like. I know this gets your jaw out of joint, but it is a good thing you look as young as you do, or I don’t think he would have brought that sack of gos se I was peddling.”

“Yeah, I guess. What are we going to do about the captain and the others?”

“Just drive. I’m on it.” William spoke quickly into his multi-band. “Mei mei, come in please.”

“Yes William?” Chan replied almost instantly.

“Big problem at the docks, not sure who put out the word, but the port authority goons are shaking everyone down. I managed to spin enough yarn to get past them, but the bulls are swarming from all sides. I don’t think you’ll be able to slip through.”

“Damn. Okay, we are on a transit car, we’ll get of at the next stop and I’ll see if I can think of something.”

Mei mei, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I wasn’t taking take of my captain now would I? I already have a plan.”

“This I have to hear.”

“Hang on for a moment we’re just pulling into the ship. LI MING GET YOUR PI GU DOWN HERE!”

Chan winced as William’s booming voice came over the speaker of the multi-band held so close to her ear. There was a pause and a few muffled voices before the first mate spoke again.

“Okay Captain, we need you to head for the Imperial Paradise Towers. Li Ming tells me that’s the tallest building in San Carlo. I’ll wave Xavier and have her meet you there. We need you to get to the landing pad on the top.”

“Why do I have a bad feeling about this plan of yours?”

“Oh ye of little faith, trust me mei mei this will work.”

“A fair plan at the right time is better than a perfect one too late. We’ll be there. Chan out.”

William turned to Li Ming as the sounds of the ship’s engine’s spooling up could be heard as Marsh got the Lattimer’s Ghost ready to lift.

“You have probably figured out your part in this plan by now.”

“I’m going to go with using my shuttle to pick them up and then meeting you someplace.”

“You are every bit as brilliant as you are lovely my dear.”

 

An hour later the shuttle docked with the Lattimer’s Ghost. William’s plan had gone like clockwork, except perhaps for a few ruffled feathers and a pair of security guards at the Imperial Paradise Towers that were going to have to live down being beat up by a couple of girls. Chan, Cindy, and Xavier were waiting when Li Ming brought the shuttle in and they’d met up with the ship just like they’d planned. Once safely in the Black, Xavier had a chance to take look at the data crystal with the proper equipment from her cabin.

“Tell me it’s the coordinates to their hide out.” Chan asked the instant Xavier looked up.

“Not going to be that easy Captain.”

“Figures.” Chan replied he shoulders slumping. “You have any idea what it is?”

“Some kind of very high level security code and no I don’t know what for yet.”

“How long to figure it out?” William asked.

“Honestly, it could take days.”

“Damn, we are going to need a place to hole up then.” William added. “Captain?”

“Verbena, I’ve got more contacts there than anyplace else in the ‘Verse.”

“Verbena it is then.” William walked over to the intercom.”

“Marsh, set a course for Verbena, best speed you can manage without going to Hard Burn.”

“You got it. And the answer is…four days.” Marsh replied with his typical self assuredness.

“I know, I know I have four days to crack this thing. That should be plenty of time.” Xavier replied tersely.

“Then we’ll let you get to it.” Chan said as she and William left her cabin.

Xavier looked at the crystal and could see a tiny image of herself in the reflection. “They say third time is the charm, so if there is another fusion state left in there, now would be a good time for it to show.” Not expecting and not receiving an answer, Xavier settled in for what was certain to be some serious work.


Chapter Ten

 

“Well Captain, looks like we really hit the jackpot!” Xavier exclaimed as she barreled onto the bridge her eyes glittering with barely contained excitement. “What’s wrong with you two?” She asked when she saw both Chan and Marsh take, respectively, a literal and a figurative step back in shock.

“I take it you haven’t looked in a mirror?” Marsh replied tongue in cheek.

“Mirror? What are you talking about you go tsao de lump of niu fen?” [84] Xavier replied heatedly.

“Looking like cow poop would be a step up for you at the moment!” Marsh snarled back just as heatedly

“ENOUGH!” Chan thundered. “Unless you both want to share in cleaning out the waste extraction system with your bare hands, I suggest you save the venom for later. Now going by your jackpot claim and haggard appearance, I would assume that what was on the data crystal is of use to us?”

“You bet it is Chan! What we have in our possession is Flannery’s encryption algorithm that will allow us to access the main Blue Sun database!”

Chan whistled.

“Yeah.” Xavier beamed.

“I do have a question. Won’t Flannery just change his codes? I mean he has to know the crystal was taken.” Marsh asked.

“Going by the backdoors embedded on the crystal, it would take months to reinsert new ones without being detected, during which time he would not be able to communicate with his keepers and the drones we jacked might not be in all that big a hurry to fess up to losing something so valuable, at least not right away.” Xavier grinned.

“So we will have to strike soon as Flannery will be changin’ his codes sooner or later.” Marsh said.

“Exactly.” Xavier returned.

 “I think I’m even more impressed it only took you nine hours.” Chan replied.

“Nine hours! Nine hours? I had no idea, but now that I think about the possibilities we have before us, it was worth it. Hell five times as much work would have been worth it, still it could have gone the other way. I had a heart stopping moment when I thought I tripped a failsafe and erased the damn thing.” The ship’s resident hacker then caught a glimpse of herself in the reflection off the view port. “Jeez I do look like gos se.”

“It is however, one of your most endearing charms.” William quipped from the bridge entryway.

“Now don’t you start on me too, I hadn’t realized how much time had gone by.”

 “Time does fly when you are having fun, and I know how much of a challenge that crystal posed and that you would have sat in your cabin regardless of how long it took. I don’t exactly know if you can call ‘hacker’ a profession, but you do it your profession proud.” William added in sincere admiration.

“Thank you William.”

“My pleasure dear.”

“We’ll meet in an hour to discuss our plan for Verbena in an hour.” Chan said, nodding her head.

“Why an hour?” Xavier asked.

“To give you time to take a real shower. You’ve earned it.” Chan replied with a frosty glare directed at Marsh to keep the pilot from making one of his typical comments.

“Thank you Chan, I am pretty ripe and I look forward to the planning session.” Xavier replied then rushed to enjoy the rare shipboard treat of a full shower.

 

An hour later, the rest of the crew was sitting in the dining room and waiting to hear Chan’s idea for how to proceed, when Xavier arrived and all heads turned.

“Wow!” Was all Marsh could manage, the others didn’t even manage that much.

“I do clean up nicely don’t I?” Xavier replied with a throaty purr.

“Well…let’s get to the topic at hand. We’ve still got a lot of work in front of us regardless of how much time the lady may have saved us or how good she looks at the moment” Chan said before there was time for the situation to get out of hand. “In case you have been asleep for the past month, you know our circumstances are very serious. After landing on Verbena, we will be down to ten days fuel and two weeks of protein.”

Chan let those facts sink in for a second before continuing. “Since we know no work is available, we will strictly limit ourselves to following up on what leads we can develop. To best accomplish this, Xavier with myself and William will use Flannery’s data crystal to access a local Cortex node and see if we really do have access to Blue Sun’s network. Cindy and Li Ming you two will circulate around town to see what the latest buzz is on the street. We want to avoid trouble and get in and out as quickly as possible. Marsh and Willis will stay with the ship as I want the ‘Ghost on hot standby in case something goes wrong and we need to bug out quick. Dong ma?”

“We got it Cap. You can bet Blue Sun will never know what hit them.” Marsh grinned evilly.

“Okay people, now that business is done, how about some Tall Card?” Li Ming smiled.

And with nothing else to do, everyone was more than glad to join in as Tall Card was as good a way to pass time as any.

 

Touching down on Verbena three days later the two information gathering teams were off the ship as soon as the ramp was down. Chan, William, and Xavier slipping through the crowd silently and down the first alley they came to, while Li Ming and Cindy took a more open path through the space port making sure to speak with as many people as they could.  

“Damn this is sweet!” Xavier exclaimed as she entered the primary Blue Sun network. “I have got full access and thanks to Flannery’s backdoor bypasses, we aren’t even registering as being on the network. So I guess Captain, what do you want first?”

“Flannery’s head on a platter.” Chan replied with a feral grin. “But to answer your question with something you can do now, how about his communications log? He is not the top dog in this deal and we need to know who he has been talking to, if we are really lucky, maybe we can find out who is giving the orders.”

“Too easy Captain.” Xavier entered a few commands and pulled a data crystal from the Cortex access node a few seconds later. “Done and done.”

“Close it up then and let’s meet up with Cindy and Li Ming. Hopefully they have been as successful as we have.”

“Given their talents, I have every confidence in them.” William grinned as the three quietly left the maintenance corridor and headed toward the space port.

 

“No darling…I’m not looking for a sugar daddy, just a little information.” Li Ming crooned as she leaned forward to give the oily overweight merchant an even more enticing view of her ample anatomy. “Saunders, you’re a successful businessman and dialed into what really matters here on Verbena, you can tell Li Ming the real deal if anyone can.”

Bao bei[85] you sure know how to work what you got doncha?” Saunders leered, reached out to sample the merchandise playfully, only to recoil in mock alarm when Li Ming slapped his hand away just as playfully. “If word gets out that I told you this, not even that fine pi gu of yours will be able to cover what you will owe me Li Ming.” He replied cautiously, his broad smile no longer reaching his eyes.

“Saunders dear heart, you may only have known me for a few minutes, but does it look like these lips kiss and tell?” Li Ming purred and rubbed against the big man causing sweat to bead on his bald head.

“I’d like to find out first hand exactly what those lips can do, let me lock my office door.” Saunders replied lasciviously.

“No can do hon.” Li Ming replied instantly. “My friend would not take to some man hugging up on her woman.”

“Oh you can’t mean all of…that.” He gestured in a manner to indicate Li Ming entire body. “Is going to waste on some woman?  Tai kong suo you de xing qiu sai jin wo de pi gu[86] what a waste! Okay then bao bei what’s in it for me to help you?”

“Well we’ve been in here long enough, that people might believe that you have already told me what I wanted to know. You did mention that if word that you talked to me got out, you’d it would cost you.”

“You wouldn’t!” Saunders gasped.

“I would. However, there is no need for unpleasantness. I may be willing to use devious means to get what I want, but I never break my word. If you tell me what you know about Blue Sun squeezing the Lattimer’s Ghost, no one will find out from me where I got the information.”

“Damn you!” Saunders snarled.

“Too late. Now, which way does this go, smooth or complicated?”

“Guy’s name was Jiang.” Saunders spat. “He works out of Santo, don’t ask me who for, cause I don’t know. He said a mid-bulk transport running under the name of Lattimer’s Ghost was trouble and doing business with them could leave a person unable to eat. Jiang never said why and I didn’t ask. That is all I know. Now will you leave?” Whatever interest Saunders had in the stunning gambler was more than squashed by the sudden change of events.

“Thank you Saunders.” Li Ming didn’t waste any more words, but stepped directly in front of the nervous merchant as she was leaving and gave him a deep soul searing kiss that left him speechless and sweating profusely. “You may want to wipe your face, my color doesn’t look good on you.” She added as she strolled out of his office, her swaying hips giving him one final show as she left.

“Ready?” Cindy asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Got all we are going to get.”

“Good enough. The captain called while you were occupied and said to meet her as a place called Roarke’s Drift. She was pretty jazzed with what Xavier was able to obtain.”

“Then let’s not keep our illustrious leader waiting.”

 

Relaxing at the surprisingly nice Roarke’s Drift, Chan, William, Xavier, Cindy, and Li Ming were enjoying a much needed drink after a job well done. Li Ming was in the process of ordering another round when she noticed Chan’s jaw drop in shock. Turning her head to the captain’s line of sight, Li Ming saw a gaunt woman in her mid-40s approaching the table. However, before she could ask Chan what was going on, the other woman spoke first.

“Well dip me if it ain’t th’ yeller bellied yeller woman of Abbeville.” The woman growled.

“Wish I could say it was good to see you Taylor.” Chan replied tersely.

“I didn’t suspect you would be glad to see someone what kens yer dirty little secret. Cause sure as Earth-That-Was is far away, I know none of yer buddies here know about how you up and bugged out in the middle of a fight, ya cowardly git.” Taylor responded, her contempt all but radiating off of her.

“Look Taylor…Gina…that was the past, why don’t you let it go? I know you won’t let me buy you a drink, so how about we just accept the judgment of commander?” Chan replied, her voice a study in neutrality despite the provocation.

“Yeah funny how that turned out. I sure wish I knew what slick words you used to avoid being shot for cowardice.” Taylor continued relentlessly. “Well I’m certain your tongue was involved, but your mouth was probably too full to talk.”

This last comment brought Cindy to her feet with a feral snarl before Chan could stop her and one thing was instantly apparent when the medic moved was that Taylor was not alone. Two men stepped up to flank the woman, stopping Cindy in her tracks.

“Look Ms Taylor, I don’t pretend to know what happened between you and the captain, but since you won’t let her buy you a drink, maybe I can and we can talk.” Li Ming offered in an honest attempt to defuse the rapidly deteriorating situation.

Taylor fixed Li Ming with a hard cold stare before she replied. “I’m not like your Captain ya painted hussy. I can’t afford a registered companion and even if I could, I like men.”

Li Ming’s fist lashed out so quickly, that no one even saw her move. There was a pause of a few seconds after the sound of the impact before not only everyone at Chan’s table, but Taylor and her two friends snapped into motion.  

Pressing the attack Li Ming tried two quick jabs, but Taylor, more by pure luck than design somehow managed to block the punches and back pedaled furiously. Cindy waded in before Taylor could escape and landed a solid blow to Taylor’s mid-section giving Li Ming the time to register that four more people at a neighboring table had come to Taylor’s aid leaving the crew outnumbered seven to five, but the all out brawl didn’t give her time to dwell on that fact.

Chan rushed in to try and finish off the reeling Taylor, throwing an uppercut at the bitter woman, but she saw the punch coming and twisted away from most of the force of the blow. William bolted forward as one of the men tried to blindside Chan and hammered the man with a powerful cross that drove the man back spitting out teeth.

Although normally not much of a fighter, Taylor’s words had gone a long way toward making Xavier about as mad as she ever got. She slipped in fast and low and when Taylor’s second friend turned to confront William, she delivered a surprisingly effective kick that staggered the man long enough for Li Ming to step in and face the man that William had left in serious need of a dentist. Cindy moved away from Taylor to give Chan time to settle an obviously old score and pivoted to help the hacker double team the man already staggered by Xavier’s kick.

William caught the movement of Taylor’s four other friends out of the corner of his eye and using his surprising speed and his undeniable bulk, wheeled directly into the pack of four men slamming one man into the other hard enough to break the second man’s nose.

“You just couldn’t let it be could you?” Chan growled as she pressed Taylor, her fists lashing out in righteous fury. “You never could, could you?”

“At least I know my duty! “Taylor growled in response

Taylor tried to fight back, but now that she was mad, Chan was too fast for her, faster and fifteen years younger. Taylor attempted a feint with her left hand, that Chan saw right through and when Taylor tried to follow up her move, Chan was waiting. Taylor’s head snapped to the side with an audible click as the younger woman’s fist slammed into the side of her head making the room go gray. “Damn sure didn’t think this was gonna go this way.” The thought formed unasked as she fought to stay conscious and keep the whirling demon she faced from killing her.

Xavier’s and Cindy’s double team was more than the stunned man they jumped could handle and the man crumpled to the floor in a boneless heap. The two turned in time to see the other two men William had charged close in from both sides and pummel the first mate mercilessly. The two women looked at each other for an instant then raced to help as the big man staggered from the onslaught.

Despite bleeding from the mouth from losing several teeth, the man facing Li Ming proved to be both a competent fighter and possessed of a rock solid constitution. The battered brawler stubbornly refused to go down and just as stubbornly continued to keep Li Ming away from coming to William’s assistance.

“Fight you ignorant heifer, fight! You wanted this, is this all you got?” Chan all but slavered as she continued to pound Taylor from every side. The punch drunk woman tried to fight back, but had badly underestimated the smaller woman. Chan blocked a weak punch thrown by the older woman and delivered a pile driving blow into Taylor’s ribs. Taylor gasped out loud from the punch and was unable to react as Chan delivered a second pile driving blow to the other side of her ribs. Taylor staggered back two steps before her eyes rolled up into her head and she folded to the floor without a sound.

“You get the one on the left!” Cindy shouted as the two women closed on the two men pounding on William.

“Got it!” Xavier replied and put deed to word catching the man by surprise with a flat palm to the face that drove the man back from the lurching first mate. As Cindy lunged for the second man, her foot came down on a rolling beer bottle causing her feet to flip out from under her, but thanks to many years of karate, as her feet shot out from underneath her, she managed to arch her back and land on her upper shoulders while slapping both arms against the floor to dissipate the energy successfully avoided being winded by the fall.

I am not going to be knocked out dammit! Focus! William managed to think through the haze of his pain. When one of the men attacking him twisted away to fight Xavier and a second was distracted by the slip and acrobatic fall of Cindy, William knew that the time had come for action. He reached deep inside to that part of him he kept hidden, the center of his rage from being teased his whole life for being overweight and he exploded into motion.

The two men William attacked initially had recovered enough to join the one already hitting him and the first mate knew he had to make the most of his first attack. Bellowing a challenge like an enraged bull, William threw his beefy arms out blocking the punches thrown at him and unloaded with a lightning fast jab with his full weight behind it into the face of the man with the broken nose. Not expecting resistance the man was caught flatfooted and the crunch of his own bones was the last thing he heard and felt as he collapsed into darkness. Williams pressed the one man remaining facing him, keeping him on the defensive and trying to find a way to get away from a situation that had gone bad and was looking to go much worse.

The man standing over Cindy grinned wickedly and reached for a chair, but before he could even lift it, Chan closed in forcing the man to parry wildly to block her one-two combination. This gave Cindy time to vault back to her feet and deliver her own one-two combination that stuck home and the two continued to double team the man leaving him staggered and bloody.

Xavier however, found herself outmatched by the man she faced. She was never much of a fighter and not striking from ambush left her at a severe disadvantage. “What in the hell was I thinking!” She thought as she saw the fight going against her. “OOOOOOOOOF” She exclaimed as the man landed a solid backhanded blow that bloodied her lip and made sparks dance in front of her eyes. She began to get scared, but uncharacteristically refused to run. “Oh gos se here it comes.” She gasped as she saw the man draw his fist back to deliver the next blow, but then the man staggered and dropped to his knees. Xavier flashed a grin when she realized that Li Ming had struck the man from behind. All but unconscious from the gambler’s blow, Xavier stepped back and kicked the man as hard as she could toppling him over into unconsciousness.

The man Chan and Cindy had double teamed joined the rest of his friends on the floor, leaving only the one man facing William from Taylor’s side on his feet. Realizing that the fight was lost, he threw up his hands in surrender and cringed, hoping he’d made a good decision. William was panting heavily, but nodded then used his chin to point for the door. The man visibly sighed in relief and bolted out the room.

Every one was breathing hard and several were bloodied as the crew turned to leave. Before they could exit, a weak voice spoke up. Taylor, still in a heap on the floor coughing and spitting blood choked out, “Fine, ya could always fight when someone was watchin’. Thing is have you learned to be stand up while alone? Th’ annual wind race is tomorrow. I openly challenge you to face me in the race. You win; you walk away with some sort of pride. You lose, and you spill what happened the day you ran!”

Mei mei-” William started before falling silent at the sight of Chan’s chopping gesture.

“If I agree to do this yu ben de[87] race, we’ll be done, as in settled?” Chan asked her lips in a hard line.

“Win or lose.” Taylor wheezed.

“Then I accept. What do I have to do?”

“I have a spare sled that needs some fixin.’ I can have it at your ship in two hours. You can check th’ Cortex for the rules of an all the rest. Now git!” Taylor spat, now that some of the fight that had been knocked out of her started to return.

“I hope you know what you are doing Chan.” Li Ming said as they left the Roarke’s Drift.

“Since when has knowing what I’m doing ever stopped me…don’t answer that!” Chan said tiredly and didn’t say another word during the walk back to the ship.

 

“You know, during the time I was stranded here, I’d heard about the Great Annual Desert Wind Race, but never paid it much attention.” Chan murmured as she read the Cortex data file while sitting in her cabin with her first mate.

“What’s the nutshell?” William asked.

“Seems simple enough, the race uses sail powered three wheeled sleds over a 500-mile course using the leading edge of a sandstorm for power. Typically fifty riders enter, but only around twenty finish.”

“Doesn’t seem too bad on face value, what’s the catch?” William pressed.

“Well, all in all it could be a lot worse, but according to this, only half of the riders who failed to finish survive.”

“Tell me you are kidding mei mei.”

“Can’t”

“So this Taylor woman has lured you into a death trap to get even for…what happened during the war.” William said softly.

Grateful that her friend had refrained from mentioning that terrible day, Chan replied after a moment of pain crossed her face. “If she wasn’t in it or if the sled she provides is jimmied, then I might call it a death trap, but Willis will take care of any tricks and if she backs out, I will too.”

“Are you sure this is necessary?”

“Just like then, I’m doing this for…for Dawei.” Chan’s voice hitched only slightly as she mentioned her brother’s name for the first time in longer than she liked to admit.

“You were too young to have been battle mei mei, Dawei was younger than you. He tried to live up to his duty, for a moment he failed, but you restored his honor.”

“I’d rather have restored his life.” Chan said so softly that her friend could barely hear her.

“Despite what you say, I know that is not a power you truly desire Chan. You took the blame for his moment of weakness to preserve his name. Your own family doesn’t even know what happened that day and I won’t let this fang of a woman make you doubt your decision to cover for him deserting his post. You have born the mark of the white feather ever since. Less than a third of your unit survived Abbeville, unfortunately, Taylor happened to be one of them.”

“White feather?”

“Sorry, you know I go on, eighteenth century Earth-That-Was tradition from a nation state known as Great Britain, a single white feather was considered a symbol of cowardice, something to do with cock fighting in that a bird with such a feather in its tail was a poor fighter.”

“Why do you know the things you do?” Chan asked with a small smile.

“Mainly to make you smile like that when you are sad.” William replied with a larger smile of his own.

This got Chan to chuckle. “Thank you William. I’m not sure where I’d be without you here, someplace far darker for certain.”

”The brightness is just a side effect of my sparkling personality my dear captain.”

Chan groaned and rolled her eyes. “Right, fell into that one didn’t I?”

“I’d never say that.”

”You are smarter than you look.”

“Touché mon capitan, touché.”

“I’m not even going to ask this time.”

 

As promised, Taylor’s wind sled was delivered by a surly man driving an ATV style mule. He unhitched the sled and drove off without a word.

“Are all of your old army buddies complete hun dan Cap?” Marsh asked as he watched the mule disappear into the distance. “Must make the reunion parties painful.”

Chan didn’t dignify the pilot’s comment with a reply, instead turning to Willis.

“How bad?”

“Things could be far worse captain. The brakes will need to be replaced, a couple of struts are bent, the tires will have to be replaced, and will have to verify the alignment. However, this conveyance is fundamentally sound.” The mechanic said after a quick inspection.

“You can have it ready by morning?” Chan asked

“With certainty captain, I can guaranty completion by 0600.”

“Willis you are a miracle worker.” Chan beamed.

“No ma’am, I merely acknowledge to some competence in my chosen profession.”

“Since I know I can’t get you to accept praise, I will simply let you get to work.” Chan and headed for her cabin in an endeavor to get as good a night’s sleep as possible.

Marsh watched the captain go then turned to Willis. “Well let’s get started.”

“You will spoil the captain’s opinion of my miracle working abilities if she discovers that you helped me.”

“Willis buddy, whether you believe it or not, you are a miracle worker. I just want to have a hand in helpin’ the captain spank that broad what insulted the captain.”

“Given your temper, it is perhaps a good thing that you where not there considering the fight that broke out even in your absence.”

“I shoulda been there exactly for that reason. I usually catch hell for fightin’ this is one time I would have gotten away with bustin’ a few heads. Hell even Xavier got in a few licks.”

“I will again have to agree to disagree my friend. Now let’s turn our attention to fixing this vehicle as I too want to see the captain ‘spank’ this disagreeable woman.”

 

“Riders ready!” The loudspeaker blared and Chan wondered for the thousandth time exactly why she was where she was, when just about anywhere else in the ‘Verse would have to be a better place to be. She glanced around the starting line. Fifty wind sleds lined up nearly hub to hub, with less than a meter between each contestant. Gina Taylor was eight lanes to Chan’s left in a sled with a distinctive vivid green sail.

Any second now.” She thought and gripped the steering vane tighter. Willis had delivered on his promise to have the hand-me-down sled ready and she and Willis went over every aspect of controlling the crude vehicle. Marsh even leant a hand with how to steer with and against the wind, something he called ‘tacking’ as the young pilot was eager to see Chan wipe the floor with Taylor. Chan had decided not having Taylor wipe the floor with her would be sufficient.

“Riders set!”

“Any day now buddy.” Marsh shouted at the man with the starting flag, but the noise of the crowd was far too loud for the man to be able to hear him. “Anyone want to explain why anyone thought this event would be interestin’?”

“Going by the number of spectators, I would say this event is plenty interesting.” Li Ming replied. The entire crew was on hand to see the captain depart.

Before Marsh could respond, the flag man shouted. “Riders FREEEEEE!”

A huge roar burst from the crowd as the sleds slowly gained speed in the strong winds that were the trademark of the deserts of Verbena. Two sleds promptly collided less than fifty feet from the start point, which the crowd responded to with uproarious laughter at the two rider’s obvious incompetence.

“What a doofus!” Marsh laughed along with the crowd. “Do they have a prize for the driver that gets eliminated first?”

“I’m just glad it wasn’t the captain.” William said as the sleds began to shrink in the distance.

“William, you know the captain better than anyone does. What is the beef that this Taylor woman restarted at the bar?” Cindy asked cautiously.

William looked at the medic for a long time before replying. “It’s really not my place to say, beyond during an especially vicious fight during the U-War known as the Battle of Abbeville, something happened that resulted in the captain being accused of something she did not do.”

“Then why all the venom after so many years?” Cindy continued.

“During the war Chan served with her three older and one younger brother. Her younger sister Meizhu was only twelve and was the only member of the Wu family not to participate during the war. From what little Chan has told me of the specifics, Taylor was in Chan’s platoon in another squad. Chan and her brothers were well known for their fighting skills and Taylor was always jealous of the Wu clan and took every opportunity she could to chip at the Wu reputation. When whatever happened, happened, Taylor pounced and has never let go.”

Bu hui hen de po fu[88].” Cindy growled.

“Indeed. By the time the battle was over, Chan along with her three older brothers and Taylor were among the three hundred odd survivors out of the thousand soldier strong battalion that entered the fight. Chan’s younger brother Dawei was not.”

“The death of a Wu wasn’t enough for Taylor? If she’d been in my unit, I think she might have had an accident.” Cindy spat.

“I terrible time to be sure, may the captain prevail today over this spiteful woman.” Willis added with an unusual amount of anger.

“Not like you to get worked up buddy.” Marsh blinked in response.

“You are correct. I will remedy my uncharacteristic behavior by channeling my disquiet into useful activity. Miss Schultz, will you be so kind as to assist me with realigning the pulse drive’s secondary impeller?”

“Might as well, this race will take hours before it’s over.”

“I’ll go with and keep the ship light on the skids in case the captain needs help.” Mash added and the three of them headed for the ship parked half a mile away.

“I’ve taken the measure of the crowd here and there is coin to be made. William would you consent to be my bodyguard?” Li Ming stated as she continued to eye the crowd.

“I’ve had far worst duties in my life. Lead on milady.”

“You want to come with Xavier?”

“Just as far as the nearest Cortex node, since our newly acquired item allows me unlisted access, I want to see if I can trace any more of our boy’s finger painting.”

“Works for me.” Li Ming responded and the three headed deeper into the carnival like race day pavilion.

On reaching the Cortex node, Xavier peeled off from her companions.

“This is my stop.” She said as she reached the terminal.

Zhen ta ma yao ming. Zhu yi[89].” William said as he and Li Ming continued on their way.

“Been doing that since I was eight, see you back at the ship.” Xavier called out over her shoulder and settled in to do some misbehaving.

 

Ren ci  de Fo zu[90]! What in the hell was thinking when I agreed to do this! ” Chan half shouted, half thought as she wrestled to keep the sled on course and ahead of the leading edge of the howling sand storm behind her. She managed a glance at her multi-band. “Hey three hours down, I’m one third of the way through this thing!”

She saw another sled and using a particularly effective tack that Marsh had shown her this morning over took the rider and as she looked around she began to frown. “I don’t see any more riders in front of me, that can’t be right. I can’t be in front.”

Unknown to Chan, the satellite cameras that tracked the race were reporting just that fact and this set off no shortage of observations from the bank of race commentators that tracked every facet of the race. That a stone rookie was in the lead had the electrons of the Cortex smoking.

“No, no, no, no, NOOOO!” Chan shouted an hour later as a cross wind almost caused her sled to swap ends, only manually grabbing the mast and yanking the sail around so that the edge was facing into the wind killed the skid and kept her in the race.

“Damn it that was too close!” She spoke freely to herself now. She was alone and the wind was so powerful it tore the words away from her as she spoke leaving her certain no one would question her sanity.

“Well no one will question my sanity about talking to myself. Getting involved in the idiotic race is another story!” She hunkered down tighter on the steering vane, set her sights on the one sled she could see in front of her and hoped she could hang on. It took the better part of an hour and using Marsh’s tacking technique to the fullest before Chan could overhaul the leader and zip into the lead again.

 

“I tell you Marty, this is unprecedented in the forty-six years in the history of the Verbena Desert Wind Race! A first time, and last minute I might add, entrant is in the lead of the race. If I wasn’t seeing the real-time feed I wouldn’t believe it.” The smarmy race commentator said in obvious disbelief and giving his equally sycophantic partner his well choreographed opening.

“Definitely a first Huifeng, this Wu Chan Juan is a complete unknown and entered the race an hour before it started. She’s pulled ahead three hours ago, only to lose the lead to a long time sledder and resident from right her on Verbena by the name of Gina Taylor. Wu then used a tack I have never seen before to regain the lead that she has held…for just under an hour.”

“Waitaminute! Waitaminute…something is happening!” Marty shouted with in a clearly unscripted interruption and pointed at the sat-cam monitor.

 

Chan had no idea what she and her sled looked like from orbit, she was at that very second far too busy to even remotely care. A second earlier, she was in front of the leading edge of the storm riding in what was considered the most stable region of the powerful disturbance that fueled the race. The next second, another rogue cross wind slammed into her sled. Stable region or not, the sand storm that William would have pointed out was known on Earth-That-Was by Bedouin desert dwellers as a Khamsin could, and did, create unstable eddies that could strike at anytime from almost any direction.

GOS SE! GOS SE! GOS SE! GOS SE! GOS SE!” Chan screamed in terror as the wind pitched her sled up on two wheels threatening a bone crushing ending to her race. Instinctively, she did the thing that saved her before. She grabbed the mast and spun the edge of the sail into the wind and threw her entire weight onto the wheel that had lifted off the ground. For several heart stopping moments, the sled stayed on two wheels then, slammed back down onto all three wheels hard enough that Chan tasted blood.

Laughing hysterically from the close call and the release of a massive amount of adrenaline, Chan caught a flash of bright color out of the corner of her eye. She turned in time to see the distinctive green sail of Gina Taylor fold up as the front end of the older woman’s sled dug in, rolled over twice, and came to a violent stop.

 Serves the old hag right.” Was Chan’s first thought, but that lasted only an instant. “I know I’m going to regret this.” Was her second thought as she found herself tacking hard to the crash site without ever even making the conscious decision to do so.

 

“No Cap don’t do it!” Marsh shouted at the Cortex as commentators Marty and Huifeng began chattering one step above incoherence. “Dammit you knuckleheads speak bloody English or speak bloody Chinese!”

 

“This is beyond unprecedented! This is unfeasible! It’s unheard of!” Marty shouted over his partner who was trying to explain what was happening to an audience that might not realize what was so special.

“Wu Chan Juan is taking advantage of the calmer area in the leading edge vortex gap to affect a rescue of the wrecked Gina Taylor.” Huifeng said. “She only has seven minutes to make this happen or she and Taylor will be caught in full force of the storm and the chances of survival for these two women are not good. It is a statistic of the Verbena Wind Race, that sledders caught in the main vortex only have a forty percent survival rate”

 

“Willis I need full power!” Marsh barked into the intercom.

“I regret that that will not be possible.” Willis replied calmly. “You were aware that the nature of the maintenance Miss Schultz and I were performing would require the primary drive to be offline.”

Da bian! Do we have enough power to lift on thrusters?”

“What is the problem Marsh?” Cindy asked as the edge in the pilot’s voice was harsher than normal.

“The captain is in trouble and only has seven minutes before being caught in the storm. The idiots on the Cortex say she’ll only have a forty percent chance of survival!”

Cindy shared a look of horror with Willis.

“Hon, even if we lift right now, on thrusters, we would need thirty minutes to reach the captain. There is nothing we can do.” Cindy all but wailed.

“Pulse drive?” Marsh asked in desperation.

“And kill everyone in five square miles? Not even for the captain’s life is that an option. She’d tell you the same thing and you know it.”

Marsh slapped the palm of his hand into his forehead and turned to watch the Cortex.

 

“I know I’m the last person in the ‘Verse you want to see right now, but I’m it and you are going to have to deal with it.” Chan said as she reached Taylor’s side and found her cursing without pause. “How bad are you hurt?”

“My leg is broken. Go on and git. Ya got the last word. Storm will be here any minute.”

“I could do that, but then I’d actually be guilty of being the coward you’ve called me for the last eight years. I won’t leave you here to die in the storm, now will you help me get you out of that harness or am I going to have to knock you out again and carry you?”

Taylor looked at the younger woman in complete disbelief as her long cherished opinion of Chan’s cowardice collapsed right in front of her. She nodded numbly and began loosening the sled’s safety harness. Between the two of them, they managed to get Taylor out of the wreck and into Chan’s sled.

“Not that I’m trying to be funny, but wait here.” Chan yelled to be heard above the roar of the rising wind.

“Where do ya think yer goin’?”

“We’ll need some of the safety straps from your sled if you want to have any hope of not being blown out of the sled once we get moving!” Chan shouted and ran back over to the crumpled sled before Taylor could reply. Using her multi-tool knife to cut away several of the straps from the broken vehicle, she ran back over and quickly jury-rigged a harness for the injured woman.

“Hang on! This isn’t going to be pretty!” Chan shouted above the storm.

“YOU ARE INSANE!” Taylor roared back.

Chan looked over her shoulder at the closing maelstrom and thought. “Wo de ma this is going to be too damn close!”

 

Li Ming sobbed as the sat-cam showed the storm obscure Chan’s sled. The gambler and William had joined dozens of others watching a big screen Cortex viewer when they got the word of the unfolding drama. William put an arm around her and tried not to sob himself. The view switched to that of the commentator Heifeng. “It was a valiant effort folks.” He said somberly.

“Waitaminute! Waitaminute…something is happening again!” Heifeng’s partner exclaimed. “THEY MADE IT!”

“What? Yes folks, yes, we’re now getting an oblique view from sat-cam three showing Wu’s sled moving just ahead of the storm. They are riding the bubble and not completely out of danger yet, but they have a chance ladies and gentlemen, they have a chance!”

“Regardless of who wins this race folks, we’ve had racing legend born today, nothing less than the creation of a racing legend.” Marty shouted with glee. “And you saw it happen live right here on channel 84, but now I’m getting a frantic signal from our producer that we have to cut to a word from our sponsor. Blue Sun’s Fruity Oat Bars! There’s a full meal in every bar!”

 

“WAAAAAAAAAAAHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!” Marsh shouted, grabbed Cindy and danced around the bridge for a moment, before grabbing Willis and dancing around with him for good measure.

“If I hadn’t seen it, I would have believed it possible.” Cindy stood in amazement shaking her head.

“It would seem our dear leader is possessed of an inordinate amount of good fortune.” Willis beamed in obvious relief.

“Damn the pair on that woman! Not only has she got balls, she’s got brass ones, big honkin’ cannonball sized brass balls!”

“Well as her medic, I can attest that she is all woman, but you won’t hear me say she doesn’t have a pair.” Cindy grinned in relief and admiration.

“Now all she has to do is hold it together for a couple more hours and she can tell that Taylor broad to stuff it so far up her pi gu she chokes on it.”

“Not quite the spanking we envisioned Marsh, but quite the spanking nonetheless.” Willis said with an also uncharacteristic smugness.

“You said it my friend, you said it!” Marsh replied as he sat back down to watch the rest of the race.

 

Three long weary hours later the battered sled rolled across the finish line. Chan felt as if the weight of the world was being lifted off of her, not just the weight of Gina Taylor as the medics loaded her injured passenger onto a gurney. As the bone tired Chan crawled out of the sled and pulled off her helmet, she became aware of the mass of people that had closed in around her and stood in confusion.

“Miss Wu, despite coming in last of the twelve riders that finished, how do you feel about being a hero?” A young female reporter managed to ask first as several other reporters angled for their chance to ask questions.

“A w-what?” Chan was really too tired for games.

“I said you are a hero Miss Wu! Thousands watched you via sat-cam and the feed of your bravery is being pumped out on the Cortex as we speak!” A second reporter said.

Ta ma de! You can’t be serious!” Chan growled now fully awake. “Can you stop it?”

“It is too late for modesty Miss Wu and much too late to stop the transmission. The footage of your desperate rescue was on a wave three hours ago.” The first reporter said.

“Oh gos se this is kuang zhe de[91]and I don’t have time for this!” Chan shoved her way past the reporters, who followed like a pack of hungry wolves.

“In here Wu! In here!” A voice called.

Chan instantly turned and started running toward the sound and saw Taylor waving from the back of an ambulance. Jumping aboard, the medic slammed the door and the ambulance drove off leaving the mob of angry reporters without an exclusive.

“Hell of a day.” Taylor said after a moment.

“Sure was.”

“I’ve got words that need to be said, so let me say my piece.” Taylor waited for Chan’s nod before continuing. “We got a wave from a Blue Sun drone just before you landed, that’s how I knew to look for you. He said business would dry up if we did business with you. Don’t know why, but that’s small stuff compared to you saving me. Word was during the war in our battalion that you abandoned your post and couldn’t be counted on when it counted. Well that word was wrong. Regardless of what was said before, you have friends here from now on. If you need help setting people straight here on Verbena you have them talk to me.”

“Thank you Gina.” Chan said with a sigh. “Hey I know you just did me a favor, but putting what was between us to rest, but could ask one more favor.”

“Depends on what it is, but go ahead.”

“Could you ask your driver to drop me off at my ship?”

Taylor laughed despite the medications she was on. “Sure thing Chan.”

 

The Lattimer’s Ghost broke orbit thirty minutes later moving as fast as she could short of a hard burn. If Marsh had had his way, they wouldn’t have been restricted from being on full power, but Chan made it clear he’d be leaving via an airlock before they cleared the atmosphere if he tried and going by how impressed he was with the captain at the moment, he wasn’t about to argue for a change.

 

“How bad do you think that media foofaroo is going to hurt us?” Chan asked William as she and the rest of the crew sat in the dining room as they departed Verbena.

“I have no doubt Flannery is going to find out. Wu Chan Juan isn’t the most common name in the ‘Verse, but the media keeps wanting to make sure they say Captain Wu Chan Juan of the mid-bulk freighter Lattimer’s Ghost, so we’ve got to make ourselves scarce.”

“We have any destination in mind or do we run for the Rim for awhile?” Chan sighed heavily.

“As a matter of fact, we have a very specific destination captain.” Xavier said with a huge grin.

“This must be good or she wouldn’t be so coy.” Cindy offered.

“Oh you bet it is good! I was finally able to crack Flannery’s communications log. Our friend reports to a Phillip Keystone on Greenleaf!” Xavier said leaning back in her chair with her hands laced behind her head with a look of complete smugness spreading across her face.

“You’ve got the boss?” Cindy said leaning forward with a hungry look on her face.

“I don’t know if he is the boss or not, but he is Flannery’s boss and that sure as hell puts him at the head of the class to know who the boss is, if nothing else.” Xavier replied.

“And thanks to the hundred credits they gave you for completing the race and the thirty that Li Ming won playing poker, we have enough of a cash infusion to do what we have to do.” Chan replied.

“You got it mei mei.” William purred.

Chan stood and picked up the intercom. “Marsh, new course, Greenleaf, we still can’t do hard burn, but you can get us there as quickly as you can without it.”

“I’m on it cap.” The pilot responded.

“Captain, I think it might be a good idea to pay a visit to Skyplex Reno.” Willis said in his usual quiet manner “We need to top off our fuel, do some maintenance I’ve had to put off and maybe pick up a few specialty items like Miss Xavier’s lock picks.”

Chan nodded and keyed the intercom again. “Marsh, sorry to yank your chain, but make that course for Skyplex Reno.

“Not a problem cap, we’ll be there in thirty-six hours.”

“Now we can see how these Blue Sun hun dan like being the hunted instead of the hunters.” Chan said with a hard gleam in her eye.

 

“Sir the quarry has been found!” Audrey Dubois said with barely contained excitement as she rushed into the exquisitely furnished office of her boss.

“Well it is about god damned time!” Phillip Keystone said snapping forward in his top of the line leather chair, hanging up on the functionary he’d been speaking to when Dubois entered. “Where are those miscreant bastards?”

“They departed Verbena three hours ago. Captain Wu has managed to become somewhat of a local celebrity.”

“Oh pray tell, please continue.” Keystone said arching an eyebrow.

“Something called the Annual Wind Race. A local sporting event on wind powered sleds. Wu was an entrant for some reason and-“

“Probably beyond desperate for cash about now I suspect. “Keystone chuckled evilly.

“Yes sir. Anyway, she was an entrant and-“

“Don’t tell me that feckless little whore won?” Keystone interrupted again.

“No sir. During the race, another entrant crashed and she managed to rescue the other racer from near certain death from the wind storms, which apparently can be quite dangerous. This action prevented Wu from winning, but there is a small payout simply for completing the race.”

“I never considered having sporting events frozen out to them. Item of action Audrey, contact all gaming and sporting venues via the standard methods. No one is allowed to do any further business with these parasites.”

“Yes sir. Action item noted.” Dubois said making an entry into her data assistant.

“Where are they now?”

“According to our sources, they filed a flight plan for Beylix.”

“That, of course, is complete crap.” Keystone growled and punched several built-in keys on his desktop that produced a 3D image of the ‘Verse, centered on Verbena. He leaned back in his state of the art conforming chair and pondered the image. “Damn communications lag. Three hours, even at hard burn in a Firefly won’t have got them very far.” He tapped another key and a red circle appeared around Verbena. “That is the limit of where their rust bucket could reach in three hours, but which direction would they go? Because whatever vector they departed on, you can bet they changed direction as soon as they were out of sensor range of our observers. Damn all the Firefly-Class ships, their crews, and most especially their captains to the flames of hell!”

Audrey Dubois stood in silence, having long learned not to draw attention to herself when her boss got this angry.

“Damn it all! Keystone raged in continued frustration. “I wish those inbred eggheads in R&D could find a way to speed up communications! Yeah and while they are at it, see if they can get that inconvenient ‘speed of light’ thing resolved too.” His shoulders slumped. “Not much we can do at this point, but send an ‘all agents’ waves to immediately report these vermin as soon as they surface again and hopefully, they get us the information fast enough to do something about it next time.”

“Are using the hunters a viable options sir?” Dubois said, taking an enormous chance by speaking. Keystone blinked as if suddenly remembering her existence and gave her a hard stare that sent ice flowing through her.

“That isn’t a bad idea Audrey. These pests move in such backwater cesspools that reports of their location doesn’t get to me fast enough to take more…effective measures. A mobile resource would be able to deal with Wu and the rest of her pestilent ilk much more readily…yes Audrey I like that plan. Action item: make inquiries on who is available to track down these albatrosses.”

“Yes sir. Action item noted. Will that be all sir?”

“Yes Audrey.” However, before Dubois could exit the office, Keystone spoke again. “Oh and Audrey?”

“Yes sir?”

“Use the Purple Channel and see if Jubal Early is available.”

“Yes sir.”

Keystone was staring so intently at the image of the ‘Verse, he failed to see Dubois’ shudder as she left, not that he would have cared for what she thought even if he had seen her response.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eleven

 

Skyplex Reno was one of dozens of similar stations that dotted the ‘Verse, they provided fueling points, entertainment, lodging, and places to pick up mail at the post facility. The crew of the Lattimer’s Ghost would avail themselves to many of those services, but the most important service the facility floating in deep space could provide was not formally listed on the Cortex or on any official guide to the station. Skyplex Reno, like almost every station of its kind in the ‘Verse was the place to find items the Alliance considered illegal. Their locations on major trade routes made the stations perfect venues to serve a highly transient clientele that needed the services of a black market.

“Station time is 2004 hours 17 May 2518.” A voice carefully chosen for its friendliness intoned and the bulk of the crew of the Lattimer’s Ghost exited the ship’s airlock and entered one of the main corridors to the station.

“Do you think Willis gets tired of being left behind all the time?” Li Ming asked no one in particular.

“Not much at a skyplex for man like Willis, unless you count the chance to spread the word to them as are most in need of it.” Cindy replied absently. “Besides, he loves tinkering with the systems on the ‘Ghost more than any man has ever loved a woman.”

“Well, I for one am glad to have his services. I know the captain does as well as she would not have survived that Mister Toad’s wild ride of a race without the work he did getting that hand-me-down sled ready.” William added.

“Absolutely right, if our mechanic was even slightly less competent than he is, you’d be calling William captain now.” Chan responded as she glanced at her multi-band. “Okay, you all know why we are here. I want to be undocked in no more than six hours. We go in pairs as Skyplex Reno is not place to be wandering alone. Who exactly is with whom”?

“Li Ming is with me Cap, she wants to clean out some of the locals and I am going to watch her back,” Marsh all but leered. “… and front.”

“Xavier is with me.” Cindy replied rolling her eyes at the pilot. “We’re going to see if we can score some of those specialty items she lost on Athens.”

“Then that leaves William with me to hear what there is to hear and to see what there is to see. Remember everyone six hours.”

Everyone nodded their understanding and the three sets of pairs split up to accomplish their assigned tasks.

 

Four hours later, Chan and William were already aboard the Lattimer’s Ghost and carefully stashing the fruits of their efforts.

“All and all not a bad deal considering the markup for doing business off the books and in a place such as this.” Chan said closing up the panel she’d just hidden the half dozen grenades she had just purchased.

“Twenty in coin struck me as a bit much.” William replied absently. “Each and every coin we have has gotten to the point where they are even more precious than their face value.”

“That’s not something that has changed all that much since we got our selves in a bind. Besides, I’ve been wanting to replace those pearls of joy ever since we ran into those xi niu[92] Reavers.” Despite herself, Chan shuddered at the memory.

“They were what spelled the difference mei mei and I am glad you had those then and these now. I just don’t like having to deal with the black market element.”

“Not always my first choice either, but a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.”

“As we all must. I just hope the others are as successful in obtaining what they need as you were. What do you think bout those Lassiter rumors? I can spot a pile of da bian from a sector away, but that guy sounded like he was serious about the thing being available.”

“William, I believe it was you that taught me to believe nothing of what you hear and half of what you see. How could a low rent piece of work like Walker have a line on an Earth-That-Was antique? I mean the Lassiter is one of a kind.”

“Actually there are two known copies of the Lassiter in the ‘Verse. One’s on Londinum and the second was supposed to be in the hands of some nameless collector. Guess it slipped through those hands, hope he had insurance.” William chuckled.

“I want to meet the guy or gal that had the gao wan[93] to steal something like that from the sort of security an artifact like that is going to have in the first place. I can only hope they get a gorram mint for the thing.”

“Fencing something so rare and so well known is going to be difficult, but I agree, I hope he, she, or they for that matter get enough to retire on after a score like that.”

“What kind of score?” Cindy asked as she and Xavier joined the other two of her crew in the cargo bay.

“Somebody is supposed to have snagged one of the two known Lassiters in the ‘Verse and is looking to unload the thing. At least according to Freddie Walker a go between I know and ran into while we were out and about.”

“I hate to sound stupid, but what is a Lassiter?” Xavier asked.

“A laser pistol from Earth-That-Was, the prototype for all laser weapons since, priceless” Willis said as he entered the cargo bay. “Are you saying such a relic is on this station? I must see it before we go.”

“No idea where it is or even if it is, just a story we heard.” William sighed in obvious envy.

“Since my joining this crew, such stories are surprisingly common in the Black. I guess the residents in such regions wish to entertain themselves with such fables.”

“I’d like to have my hands on such a fable though, but I guess a legend is all it will ever be. How did the repairs go?”

“Exceedingly well Mister Lemont. I was able to coax a ten percent increase in fuel efficiency out of the pulse drive, for a while at least I have. Such fine adjustments will not hold without the parts we already need.”

“We are working on getting you what you need Willis. As soon as we can change our situation, I promise, we’ll get the ‘Ghost everything she needs.”

“That will always be the dream any way.” Xavier replied with a look of skepticism.

“True enough, but makes for a good story anyway. Any luck?” William changed the subject with a hard look directed at the younger woman.

“Fifty-fifty.” Cindy snorted in disgust.

“Which fifty did you find?” Chan asked.

“Got the iron picks, good set too, but no one was admitting to electronic picks.” Xavier answered. “Damn United Reclamation and their trickery.”

“Guess they could say the same about you, but I get where you are coming from. We’ll just have to keep looking.” Cindy said grimly. “Any word on the shaved orangutan and Li Ming?”

“Got a short wave from Li Ming couple hours ago that she was on a hot table, but that they would make the departure regardless of how the cards were going.” William grunted.

“That girl is our primary bread winner these days. Well her and the captain here. Maybe you can make a career out of being a wind sled racer.” Xavier smiled.

“Not on your life and in any case, that race only happens once a year. I plan to be someplace other than Verbena when the next one runs.” Chan growled in mock anger. “Anyway, we got some nice eats earlier as we didn’t have time for a proper Lift Day feast and I aim to have one on the way to Greenleaf.”

“Sounds like a plan captain. You got any intentions of making that potato salad of yours this time William?” Xavier asked coyly.

“That might be arranged my dear, that might just be arranged.”

 

“Fellahs, this is going to be my last hand. I’ve got a ship to catch.” Li Ming purred after a glance at her multi-band said she had less than an hour before the scheduled departure. She had found what she liked to call a ‘hot table’ at a place with the unlikely name of the Bent Spoon Tavern and had done very well for herself.

Deng yimiao[94] there sweetcakes, you waltz in here all fine and sassy like and as soon as you’ve got your fancy painted claws knee deep in our wallet you want to just up and leave without giving us a chance to reclaim some of our coin? Doesn’t sound like a square deal to me, does it Scar?” The stocky man with a sweating shaved head sitting to Li Ming’s left said without a trace of friendliness.

“Nah it doesn’t Jocko. Although I’m sure I could be convinced to let her keep some of what she took if she is willin’ to share some of what she’s got, and I don’t mean money for a change.”

A taller even more disreputable man with a prominent souvenir of an old burn marring the left side of his face that had given him his nickname replied.

“Now gents, the lady won that there cashy money straight up, so no need for unpleasantness or hard feelin’s.” Marsh said with an edge creeping into his voice, stepping to the gambler’s side.

Scar looked at the pilot and began to laugh in earnest before standing in a rush, using his greater height in an attempt to intimidate the smaller man. “Shut it little man or I’ll hang by boot so far up your pi gu you’ll choke on it and then I’ll take what I want from this ji nu[95] right in front of you.”

Marsh’s eyes flashed and caught the scarred man by surprise with a lightning fast left cross to the mid-section despite him obviously being ready for a fight igniting a flurry of motion as Jocko and Scar lunged at Marsh.

Li Ming was already on her feet as were the other four members at the table who had all reacted the same way when Scar unexpectedly had lurched to his feet. When Marsh moved the other two men at the table bolted free of the fight, the gambler took a step toward the man named Jocko, but caught motion in the corner of her eye and wheeled to face a hard looking woman trying to waylay her from the side. Li Ming slammed her flat palm at the woman’s nose, but the woman saw the blow coming with just enough time to duck and take the blow on the forehead, which left her staggered, but had spared her a broken nose. Not about to give the woman a chance to recover, Li Ming stepped back and delivered a bone crushing spinning back kick that flattened the woman before she could even think to defend herself.

Marsh charged in fast and low throwing a punch at each of the two thugs. The toughs were so unimpressed by the small man that neither even bothered to try and block his attacks, choosing to ignore the punches in favor of the chance to close on and crush their smaller opponent. Scar proved to have a gut like stone completely shrugging off the quick jab that Marsh threw at him leading Marsh to immediately adjust his left jab lower and with his smaller stature allow the punch slid under the Jocko’s guard to deliver a punishing impact to the stocky man’s universal weakness. Jocko came to an immediate halt with his eyes crossed and at least temporarily out of the fight. Scare flailed wildly in response, but the nimble pilot easily spun clear of the poorly aimed haymaker. Furious and hurting, Jocko’s face went even harder as he drew a knife with absolute murder in his eyes.

Li Ming spotted the knife and, with her excess of confidence, charged Scar so Marsh could concentrate on defending himself from Jocko. Li Ming’s first punch rocked the man slightly, enough for her to think she could repeat the spinning back kick again. However, while no where near the most brilliant man in the ‘Verse, he had been in more fights than he could remember. Anticipating what the gambler had in mind, he feigned being more staggered that he was and when Li Ming’s attack came, he timed his counter move perfectly catching her foot and using his brute strength to pull her completely off the ground, failing wildly as she hung upside down in shock at the sudden reversal of fortune.

Marsh faced Scar and for the first time began to wonder if he might have gotten himself into something he couldn’t handle as it was obvious that the other man had made what should have been a simple bar fight into something personal. When Scar slashed with his knife in a move that would have disemboweled him had he still been standing where he was when the thug started his attack,  Marsh side stepped to his right of the thrust and hammered the tall man’s weapon arm with both fists sending the knife flying. Not to be completely out done, Scar’s left hand whipped across the pilot’s face in a powerful backhanded blow that made Marsh see stars. Fortunately, for Marsh, Scar’s rage led him to choose to take the time to recover his knife rather than following up with continued punches on the staggered pilot.

 “Not quite what you had planned there is it dumplin’?” Jocko crooned as he admired his prize. “I’m going to enjoy breakin’ that feisty spirit you got.”

Jocko’s taunts meant nothing to Li Ming, she’d been hearing comments about her anatomy since her teens, but being upside down triggered the terrifying memory of dangling over the railing at Darius Nightblade’s casino and she, as then, literally used that terror to swing into violent action. Snapping forward almost double at the waist, then arching her back, she gained enough momentum to execute an acrobatic back flip that wrenched her free of Jocko’s grasp and back onto her own feet. The dimwitted thug managed to track her move and attempted to grab her again, but the quicksilver fast gambler easily deflected the off balance attempt and dance back out of reach. 

Livid at losing his prize, Jocko roared forward like a charging bull. Not willing to directly confront a man that outweighed her by 80 pounds, Li Ming rolled onto her back and drove both her feet into the man’s gut crushing the charge right out of him. Staggered by the unexpected attack, Li Ming had time to roll back onto her feet and strike back in an all out attempt to knock the staggered man out while she had the chance. 

Remind me not to lean into that sort of thing next time. I’m gorram lucky not to have lost any gorram teeth with that last one.” Marsh muttered groggily to himself as he shook off the effects of the punch that had almost knocked him out, focusing in on Scar now that the other man had reclaimed his knife and was clearly out for blood again. The scarred thug slashed viciously in an attempt to separate the annoying little man from his head, but failed miserably now that Marsh had gotten his wind back.

“Stand still and take what you have comin’ to ya miserable little turd!” Scar roared in frustration and lunged in savagely.

Choosing not to make the bloodthirsty goon’s job any easy, Marsh ducked low and lashed out knocking Scar’s knife arm to the left. However, at that precise moment, Li Ming struck with two rapid chops that drove the nearly unconscious Jocko to her right. The two blows caused the thug to stumble into Scar’s path and the two thugs collapsed in a pile. Marsh stepped forward to ensure the troublemakers stayed down and was thus standing over them when station security finally arrived.  

“Stand down gorram it, stand down!” Pointing at Marsh the sergeant hollered in an attempt to restore order.

“No problem Ossifer. These here tough guys started the whole thing anyway.” Marsh replied sardonically, his hands on his head and waiting for things to get figured out. When the security officers got Scar and Jocko apart, Scar discovered, to his horror, that his comrade had his knife buried to the hilt in his chest and was clearly dead. 

“He did it, that little feller! No account traveler done kilt my best friend! He needs to be bound by law before he tries to skips!” Scar howled in something approaching actual anguish.

Bi zui All three of you are bound by law until the magistrate can sort this out!”

Li Ming was about to open her mouth, when she saw a subtle signal from the pilot.

“Officer, this lady had nothing to do with the fight with these thugs. They set on her cause she’s pretty and alone and beat them fair in cards. I was the one that threw the first punch, you can ask anyone here!” Marsh said forcefully and with obvious sincerity.

One of the other officers had a frown on his face having thought he’d seen something pass between the smaller man and the dazzling woman, but Li Ming noticed his glance and chose that moment make a motion with her left hand that drew attention to a far more interesting part of her anatomy and the officer’s train of thought was derailed by other more base notions. Pressing the slight opening Marsh had given her, Li Ming poured on the charm with the sergeant. “This gallant man came to my assistance when these two brutes took exception to my doing well in cards. Why if not for him, I shudder to think what might have happened to me. I guess daddy was right about traveling outside the Core Worlds.”

“What about this broad?” The sergeant asked about the unconscious woman lying in a heap on the floor.

“Sergeant, this…this…well I can’t say what she is, but she jumped me as the hero fought the two men. It was clearly self defense. Ask anyone.”  

The sergeant was clearly not up to trading wits with a better-armed opponent and fell back to a standard response that always worked, “Tell it to the magistrate”.

The four survivors of the brawl were taken to the detention facility.

 

“…and that your worshipfulness was the whole story.” Marsh finished and waited to see if he’d managed to sound believable for a change.

“He’s lyin’ ya yu ben de hou zi de pi gu![96] This broad was in the fight start to finish!” Scar roared at the magistrate and received a vicious rap in the ribs from one of the bailiffs for his trouble that forced the miscreant to his knees in pain.

“I don’t like trouble on my station.” The magistrate growled after several long and painful seconds, fixing Scar with a withering stare, but just as quickly dismissing the man. “But I do like simple. Multiple witnesses confirm that you did throw the first punch and that Miss Wong Li Ming did not, I’m willing to accept your story Mister Marsh.” The magistrate then fixed the gambler with an even more baleful glare than the one he’d used on Scar before continuing. “Miss Wong, you have four hours to get off of Skyplex Reno. If you are not gone by then, I will have you bound for trespassing and disorderly conduct. Is this understood?”

“Yes your honor.” Li Ming replied with a carefully crafted pose of complete submissiveness.

“May you never stand before me again.”

“No your honor.” She replied as she hurried from the court room, pausing only long enough to sign for her belongings.

“No such luck for you Mister Marsh, your trial will start in twelve hours, but I suppose you already know, that manslaughter carries a sentence of ten years in a penal colony. Yes I’m quite sure tonight’s little activities are far from your first run in with the authorities. Maybe not as many run-ins as this Scar reprobate, but enough that I’m sure you understand the trouble you are in. Bailiff take them both to the lock up.”

 

“I’m on my way back to the ship now, but Marsh is in deep niu fen Captain.” Li Ming said into her multi-band as she used every trick she knew to avoid contact, the last thing she needed was any kind of encounter with anything that would result in her being in front of the magistrate twice in one night.

“I knew he’d get himself pinched with that short fuse of his sooner or later. What’s done is done, we’ll work up a plan as soon as you get her, Chan out.”

This had better be one hell of a plan.” Li Ming thought to herself and found a way to pick up the pace.

 

“I guess killing him would be counterproductive.” Chan said when Li Ming reached the ship and joined the rest of the crew in the dining room.

“He might have thrown the first punch Chan, but it wasn’t his fault. Those goons were dead set on getting their money back. No one else on the crew would have done anything different and to tell the truth, I’m glad he was there.”

“Well that is a kindness, but we’ve got to see what we can do to rescue the little twit.” Chan snapped irritably. “What is your status?”

“The magistrate said I had four hours to get off the skyplex. Don’t see how I can meet that.”

“You are reading too much into the magistrate’s direction. He said you had to be off this station and you will be, you’ll be on this ship.” William chuckled.

“Easy fix!” Li Ming beamed. “What will you want me to do to help?”

“You can be standby pilot if we have to bolt out of here in a hurry, Willis will keep the old girl spooled up for the same reason. The rest of us will be on the skyplex to help young Marsh.” William said taking over the simple part of the planning as he knew Chan well enough to tell by the set of her jaw that she was too focused on the next phase to want to speak at this point.

“Who wants to go with me as I access the station’s network?” Xavier asked.

“I will, we made a decent enough team earlier and we might as well stick with it.” Cindy replied grimly.

“The Captain and I will see what we can find out about these Jocko and Scar jokers, any questions?” Said William.

“Any chance you can pull the same trick for Marsh that you did for me on Athens?” Xavier said scratching between her eyes.

“A jailbreak? I doubt it, but we’ll know more in an hour. I need you two to check in via wave by then. Dong ma?” William replied and got nods from the two women in response and nodded back as they exited the airlock. They were already out of sight by the time he and Chan left the ship moments later.

“You okay Chan Juan?” William asked gently.

The use of her given name broke the captain out of her brooding silence. “What happened to mei mei? Not like you to be so formal my friend.”

“I could tell you weren’t all here, so I figured you might need a bit of a nudge to help you rejoin the space-time continuum that the rest of the ‘Verse uses.”

“Yeah, I guess I did have that thousand meter stare thing going. I’m just more worried than usual. The boy has got himself in deep this time and I’m not sure we can help him. That Athens jailbreak working was a fluke and I don’t the Buddha will be kind enough to give us a second fluke so soon. We burned a lot of karma that last time.”

“Don’t buy trouble mei mei, we’ll have something to work with in an hour. Stick with that and we’ll take it from there.”

“William, you are the heart and soul of this ship.”

“One thing at a time mei mei, one thing at a time.”

 

An hour later, after the promised wave, the two teams met outside a closed teahouse that just happened to have a secluded alcove.

“Captain, either the security on their network is the biggest piece of gos se in the ‘Verse, or I’m even better than I remember.” Xavier said smugly. “Not only was I able to tap directly into the central computer, I was able to access the central access database for the entire station.”

“Ego aside, she was brilliant captain.” Cindy confirmed. “We were able to read the official arrest report. The basic news isn’t good. As far as the magistrate is concerned, this is an open and shut case and he has all the evidence he needs to convict Marsh. There isn’t going to be any other investigation or follow up by the skyplex security, but going by what I got from talking to the locals that is actually to our advantage as the ‘Plexies are considered worse than useless. The are essentially the magistrate’s personal leg breakers and probably wouldn’t know real evidence if it could bite them on the pi gu.”

“That checks with what we could find. Having a high conviction rate is all that matters to the magistrate, the guilt or innocence of the suspect being completely secondary to anything else.” Chan said with a somewhat less grim expression than what she had an hour ago. “We did find that there wasn’t anyone that was sad to hear that Jocko was dead. He and Scar have had a long run of petty and not so petty crimes on the station for several months, but they’ve managed to intimidate anyone that might be able to get them bound by law from talking.”

“Great, inept and corrupt security, a hanging judge, and a kangaroo court waiting to lower the boom on our boy, just what we don’t need.” William growled in frustration. “Since you looked at the official report, I take it there wasn’t an autopsy?”

“Not even close. This place doesn’t even have a real morgue. The body is currently in the office of one of the doctors on the station. I figured you might be interested in checking the stiff, so I added myself to the list of all access personnel in the central computer database. Remember I was brilliant you know?” Xavier mugged in total conceit.

“Right brilliant.” Chan rolled her eyes and managed a small chuckle. “If I had money to pay you at all, you’d get a little extra something in your paycheck as a bonus this week, but, well you know how it is.” She shrugged. “But you did good Xavier, damn good.”

 “I take it our next step is the obvious one?” William asked and got an emphatic nod from the captain, on seeing the nod, he continued. “Cindy are you up for a bit of unauthorized, late night cutting?”

“Absolutely.” The medic responded with her eyes glittering wickedly.

“Some how I knew you would say that.” Chan smirked. “Okay then, William and I will return to the ship to eliminate any additional complications and we’ll let you two ladies work your magic again. When you report back after your autopsy of the unlamented Jocko, we can see what our options will be. Good luck.”

Moving out without looking back, the four members of the Lattimer’s Ghost left the alcove and vanished into the ever present foot traffic of Skyplex Reno.

 

Entering the doctor’s office proved to be every bit as easy as Xavier thought it would be. Having an entry code that the central computer recognized as valid made the task trivial.

“What was it you called it again?” Cindy asked after entering the doctor’s office.

“What did I call what?” Xavier replied absently.

“That thing you call it when you feel you can do no wrong on the Cortex?”

“Oh that, um…for lack of a better term, I call it a fusion state.”

“Well I hope you keep it up. This being able to slip in and out without having to run on a high pucker factor is something I could get used to.”

“I’m as good as they get Cindy, but don’t go getting all that used to a fusion as I never count on them myself. Skill is only part of what I do. Luck still has more of a say so than I like.”

“Fair enough, now let’s find us a dead guy.”

As soon as Cindy figured out the layout of the office and had located the corpse, she went to work.

“Well kiss me and call me a monkey’s uncle.” Cindy said after nearly thirty tense and silent minutes.

“If you insist, but I don’t see how that will help.” Xavier replied with a snort.

“What? Oh sorry, didn’t realize I was speaking aloud. Hang on for a minute and let me copy this information to data crystal. Looks like we hit the jackpot. Big Time!” The medic beamed as she set about making her copy.

“Okay great, you can talk to yourself when you ain’t got anything to say, but when you’ve got real info, you clam up. Spill it sister!” Xavier growled mockingly.

“Sylvie is innocent of murder and I can prove it.”

“You’re starting to get hung up on him aren’t you?”

“What! Not a chance in life I’d want that shaved monkey as my man. He’s a lot of fun in the grapplin’ department, but don’t go reading me callin’ him Sylvie to mean more than that.”

“Okay, okay, I’ll let it go for now, but what did you find out about the dead guy?”

“The stab wound was not the cause of death.” Cindy said matter-of-factly.

“Dammit woman you are starting to work my nerves. What killed him then?”

“Poison. Polyphenyldrine to be exact.”

Ti wo de pi gu[97]! And you can prove that?”

She held up the data crystal. “Sure can. Let’s get back to the ‘Ghost and share the good news.”

“Lead on magic woman, lead on. But first, let’s leave everything as we found it. Not that the Plexies are smart enough to figure out what happened, but no reason to make it easy for them.” Xavier said and began sweeping the office of signs of their break in. Within twenty minutes, the entire crew was looking at what Cindy had found on one of the bridge terminals.

 

“Jocko here was poisoned within thirty minutes of the fight. Polyphenyldrine is powerful, but it is not fast acting when ingested. This means he was served whatever killed him while he was at the table playing cards.”

“Had to have been in one of his drinks, he didn’t eat anything during the game.” Li Ming said after a moment of reflection. “God knows he was drinking like he was on a roll. Now that I think about it he mentioned he was thirsty.”

“Side effect of the polyphenyldrine. Was he sweating a lot?” Cindy said gripping her chin like a college professor waiting for a student to confirm a hypothesis.

“Since I didn’t know the guy, I couldn’t tell if he was sweating more than normal, but beads on that shaved head of his did stand out and he wasn’t like that when we started, only during the last couple hands. I didn’t think much of it at the time because lots of low rent players sweat when they are down that much money.”

“Excessive thirst and sweating. Yep that rips it, Jocko was dead before the fight started only no one at the time knew it.”

“Okay now that we have a means and a time line, the list of who can be trimmed to a very short list - bartender and waitresses.” Chan said nodding as she worked through the events in her head. “And we know these two made lots of enemies since they dropped in. The only question is which one of those enemies was working in the bar that night.”

“Figuring out the who is at this point not the primary obstacle before us.” William said speaking for the first time since seeing Cindy’s evidence.

“Okay, I’m game, what is then?” Xavier asked a little irritably.

“We have irrefutable evidence of Marsh’s innocence, but how exactly are we going to introduce this, obviously illegally obtained, evidence in a court already known to be stacked against Mister Marsh without ending up in a cell bound by law next to him?” William finished.

GOS SE!” Chan snarled.

“My point exactly mei mei. I believe we have reached a point in the investigation where we have to call for some assistance as none of us have the requisite skills for the next phase of this unpleasant situation.”

“Assistance? Who in the south side of Sihnon is going to assist us? Blue Sun has made sure of that.” Cindy sputtered.

“Since we are not trying to obtain work, but engaging someone’s services, our blackballed status should not be a factor. And the service we will have to have is that of a barrister. A good one if he is to beat a stacked deck.”

“I’m on it.” Xavier said dropping into the co-pilot’s seat and bringing up the Cortex index of services for the skyplex. Within seconds she turned back toward the rest of the crew.

“Whole stack of them on the station. It’s too early to try and contact any of them now, but I’ll upload them to your multi-bands and we can hit the ground running in the morning. Well, make that in about four hours” She added after glancing at he own multi-band and noting the time.”

“The lady is making good sense. We can turn in for a bit, then we’ll hit every name on this list and see who we can find to get Marsh’s sha gua pi yan[98] out of jail.” Chan said as she stood up and ended the meeting. “Get as much sleep as you can, we’re going to need everyone as sharp as they can be for tomorrow. Dong ma?”

A chorus of ‘yes captain’ was enough for Chan to head back for her own cabin and try to take her own advice.

 

“Maybe Cindy was right and Blue Sun’s curse is keeping us from finding anyone.” Chan fumed as she left the office of the fourth barrister to turn her down that morning.

“Well if you look at it from a positive aspect, the last one didn’t turn us down.” William said cautiously.

“William, if I didn’t need your help so bad, I would be hurting you right now. Okay right the last guy didn’t say no, but FIVE THOUSAND credits? He might as well have started shooting at us as soon as we walked through the door. At least I know how to handle that!” She snarled in frustration.

“I’m sure he figured you would know how to handle that particular situation and that he had every chance of losing, so I’m sure pricing himself out of the market was a Core Worlder’s way of being polite.”

“Who’s the next guy on the list?” Chan said abruptly changing the topic.

“One Jerry Stoner Esquire.”

“He’s square?”

“No mei mei…e-s-q-u-i-r-e. He apparently is big on Earth-That-Was traditions. An esquire used to be a sort of gentleman of a class known as the gentry. I like him already.”

“You would, but the worse he can do is tell us to go get bent like the others have.”

“A member of the gentry would never say such a thing to a lady.”

“First time for everything William, first time for everything.”

 

“So you say your boy has been framed by the Plexies?” The distinguished gray-haired and bushy-eye browed elderly man aid after listening to Chan’s story.

“That would be the gist of it Mister Stoner. At the time, he confessed to being responsible to keep another member of the crew out of being bound by law not knowing about the poisoning.”

“And going by the way things are done around here to keep Magistrate Reddings happy, I’m sure he was all too glad to have another open and shut case to send to the Core bureaucrats to show how effective a member of the bench he is so he can get a reassignment somewhere other than here. Worthless gas bag.” Stoner harrumphed. “Little lady, I know this evidence you’ve handed me is as hot as the exhaust from a Tohoku-class cruiser’s pulse drive, but I don’t care. I’m not going to let another soul get railroaded to stoke the fire under that overgrown windbag’s increasingly wider ass. I’ll take the case.”

“Er…Mister Stoner?” Chan said with a small voice hoping not to spoil the moment.

“Yes girl what is it?”

“You didn’t mention your price.”
      ”Well…no…I suppose I didn’t. I’ll make you a deal. I won’t mention my price beyond, it will be fair and you don’t mention how you got your evidence beyond it came from a concerned citizen okay darlin’?”

“Mister Stoner you have a deal!” Chan beamed as she stood and shook the older man’s hand.

“See you in court Chan Juan. Now run along, I’ve only got two hours to prepare!” Stoner said theatrically shooing the two of them out of his office.

“Tell me I haven’t just made a ma de pi gu[99] out of myself.” Chan said as the door closed leaving her and William in the bustling skyplex corridor.

“I have a good feeling in my gut about this guy mei mei. And when your gut is as ample as mine, you learn to listen.” William laughed in reply.

“Well that is one thing you do not have in common with most men William my dear.”

“Only one, but I’ll play the straight man. What is that my captain?”

“Most men have trouble thinking with their big head as they let their little head do most of the work for them. You my friend are not driven by your little head, you are driven by the wisdom of your, to use your phrase, ample middle. Not quite the big head, but at least moving in the right direction.”

“Droll Wu Chan Juan, very droll.”

Chan could not maintain her expression and burst out laughing, which in turn got William to laugh as well.

“How about that, I got you to laugh for a change.” Chan was able to say after awhile.

“First time for everything mei mei, first time for everything.”

 

“MISTER Stoner…I will ask you again…how did you come to be in possession of this evidence?” The near apoplectic magistrate all but bellowed.

“I believe you are asking the wrong question your honor.” Stoner replied with an almost beatific expression.

“You dare to tell me how to run my court Mister Stoner! Barrister, you are one wrong word from contempt sir!”

“I mean no disrespect to your august person or the solemnity of these proceedings.”

“Then what do you mean man?”

“I merely wish to state that where the evidence came from is secondary to why didn’t the stalwart investigators of Skyplex Reno did not provide this critical evidence?”

Reddings blinked twice, opened his mouth, closed it, blinked again, and then turned an even deeper shade of red.

“He’s going to have a stroke. I can read his heart rate from here by that throbbing vein next to his right eye and let me tell you it ain’t good.” Cindy whispered to William from one of the gallery seats.

“Maybe that is Stoner’s strategy, to induce the magistrate into incapacitating himself and forcing the Core to send a replacement that might want to see actual justice served. Now hush.”

William whispered back quickly not wishing to miss any of the exchange between the two men that obviously had no love for each other. But he needn’t have worried. Reddings still hadn’t found a way to reply to Stoner’s question without making himself look any worse than he already did.

“Your honor?” Stoner said breaking the long and increasingly awkward silence.

“Given the clear cut nature of this evidence and the resulting impact on Mister Marsh’s case, it is an unfortunately lapse on the part of this facility’s security department failed to discover this evidence the court must rule in favor of the defendant and allow this evidence into these proceedings.” Reddings grimaced as if he had just swallowed something he found floating in waste reclamation.

“I make his heart rate at just under one-eighty.” Cindy whispered with a huge smile.

“We’ll take your word for it. Okay, we’ve seen what we needed to see. Stoner has made a trial out of this farce. Now we have time to go find us the real killer.” Chan added and the three slipped quietly from the gallery.

“First stop is the Bent Spoon Tavern.” Cindy said with her eyes flashing.

“To the scene of the crime then ladies, the game is afoot.” William replied and used his bulk to insert himself into the crowded central corridor of the station.

“He’s been reading that Sherluck Holmes guy again?” Cindy said rolling her eyes.

“Sherlock, Cindy, Sher-LOCK Holmes.”

“Right, that guy.” Cindy responded as she and Chan slipped into the wake William had made with his passage.

 

While not in the best part of Skyplex Reno, the Bent Spoon was not in the worst either. Exiting the elevator bank and turning down the main corridor for this deck showed more than a few less that savory types in the area. The three would-be investigators were clearly not from the area and soon, several tough looking characters closed in to confront them.

“Well looky what we gots here, a tub of lard and two jianhuo[100]. Should make for easy pickin’” A thin teen with a scraggly beard and missing several teeth said as he and four other punks moved in. “Hand over the coin and you don’t get hurt.”

“Son, I can tell the ‘Verse has been hard on you and your…acquaintances, so I’m going to give you something you obviously haven’t had before.” William said quietly, not flinching in the slightest before the street rat.

“Yeah, yer gonna give me yer coin lard ass.” The leader said trying to regain control of the gang’s intimidation racket that wasn’t going to plan.

“No, I’m going to give you a break. You see the two women behind me are Browncoats with a serious axe to grind on how the U-War ended, and I’ve been breaking punks like you in half since before you we born. Now if you wish to walk away from this encounter as opposed to being carried out. You might wish to do something you don’t obviously do much and think about if you have or have not got the juice to take us.” The ice in the big man’s voice had done much to lower the temperature in the area by several degrees, even though there was nothing wrong with the environmental controls.

Clearly not used to objects of his intimidation scam talking back, the teen began to look less certain about the outcome of a confrontation with the three in front of him. William noticed the hesitation. “Yes that’s it son, cognitive reasoning, right now you are experiencing something calling thinking. Take your time, I don’t want you to hurt yourself. I have an idea, how about you take your buddies here off and share in the experience. You’ll go your way and we’ll go ours and everybody wins.”

“We could take you.” The tough said weakly enough that even he didn’t believe it.

“Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn every now and then, so I wouldn’t say your theory  is completely impossible, but finding out you are wrong would be a painful learning experience and my friends and I are pinched for time. So either step aside or get ready for school time, your move slick.” William smile did not reach his eyes, while his and his companion’s stance showed they were ready to provide the lesson he had implied.

“You talk a good game chum, next time mebbe we do it my way.” The tough grunted.

“Until next time then, good day fellahs.” William answered as they continued on their way, still ready in case the punks thought a sneak attack was a better option, but they did not.

“You have the give of gab William.” Chan said once they were clear of the punks. “If I had done the talking, there would have been a reckoning.”

“I know mei mei and as much as those punks needed a lesson, Marsh needs our services more, so time was of the essence. Ah here we are, the lovely Bent Spoon Tavern, ladies first.” William said holding the door open with great flourish.

 

“What can I get you?” The bartender said with the sound of a man long used to not caring.

“We’d like to talk to the waitresses that were working last night.” Chan said pleasantly.

“Who wants to know?”

“Friends of an innocent man.” William countered.

“Innocent, that’s the best one I’ve heard in a long time.” The man snorted derisively. “Might find an innocent man in one of them right fancy monasteries on Sihnon, but no one worthy of that name has ever visited here.”

“Right said. So maybe innocent was the wrong term for me to use, but how about not guilty of manslaughter?” William asked.

“He started it, he has to live with it.”

“Even if the dead man was poisoned?” Cindy said with a smile. “And that he was poisoned here, I wonder what word of that little detail would do for business?”

“Whoa wait a minute, what do you mean poisoned? That hun dan Jocko got stuck no more than three meters from where you stand, there was no poison. I saw it myself” The bartender responded nervously.

“True he was stabbed, but he was already dying of poisoning and the good magistrate is now aware of that fact, how long before his goons grab you, the bartender for murder?” Cindy added with complete sincerity.

“I’m innocent!” The bartender wailed.

“Odd, you don’t look like a Sihnon monk, but maybe if we were to talk to the waitresses that were working last night, we might be able to convince the Magistrate Reddings that you are not the person he seeks?” William offered kindly.

“LEEANNE! YUTING! SUNSHINE! GET YOUR WORTHLESS BUTTS IN HERE!” The bartender bellowed and the three women entered in a huff, but fell silent when they saw they had company.

“These nice people want to talk to you ladies. If you want to walk out that door with your job, you better answer their questions.”

“Thank you so much…I’m sorry we didn’t get your name.” Chan said with an arched eye brow.

“Franklin Karcher.”

“Yes thank you so much Franklin.” Chan continued. “Now ladies, one of you almost got away with murder last night. Not that Jocko didn’t need some killing, but a friend of ours is taking the fall for your little escapade and we just can’t let that slide. So how about whichever of you is guilty make it easy and fess up.”

Chan froze in place when the woman named LeeAnne produced a derringer and leveled the small pistol at Chan’s head.

“You just couldn’t let it lie could you?” LeeAnne sobbed.

“Not if it means our friend has to take your place.” Chan replied evenly.

“Look Miss, despite what you did to Jocko, you are not a killer, at least not the kind to look your victim in the eyes and take a life. Please don’t do this.” William spoke calmly. “Going by what we’ve heard about this Jocko, I’m surprised he lived as long as he did. What did he do to you bao bei?”

“Wasn’t me was my damn fool sister Rachel. She loved that ben tian sheng de yi dui rou[101] for some dumb ass reason and wouldn’t listen to anyone that said he was a waste of skin.” LeeAnne moaned in anguish, but kept the pistol pointed at Chan.

“She was the woman that came to his defense during the fight!” Cindy exclaimed in sudden understanding.

LeeAnne nodded. “Despite the fact he’d cracked three of her ribs a week ago, she still stood by him.”

“He beat her, so you poisoned him?” William asked gently.

“He almost killed her. Drunken pig said he didn’t mean to do it and like a fool she forgave him again. I wasn’t going to sit back and let him kill her by mistake or for any other reason.” LeeAnne growled as she relived the memory.

“As I said LeeAnne, Jocko warranted some killing, but not that woman you are pointing that weapon at. She is the captain of a freighter and trying to look out for one of her crew, just like you were looking out for your sister. Wu Chan Juan is not Jocko and doesn’t deserve to be at barrel’s end. Please LeeAnne hand me that gun.”

For a moment LeeAnne wavered, but then rallied to keep the derringer aimed at Chan, However, she failed to notice that Cindy had moved silently as a cat while William was talking. When he saw the medic was in position, he took a chance. “LEEANNE!”

The woman started and swung her head toward William and at that instant Cindy struck with blinding speed and knocked the pistol from LeeAnne’s hand with a well aimed karate chop to her wrist, before pinning the woman’s arm behind her back.

“Nice work.” Chan said releasing a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding.

“You’re welcome.” Cindy and William replied simultaneously and all three laughed as the tension flowed out of the room.

Her spirit broken once she was unarmed, LeeAnne allowed herself to be lead away without resistance.

 

When they entered courtroom, all eyes swung their way. Stoner’s eyes showed relief, while Reddings eyes showed barely contained fury.

“What is the meaning of this? Who are these people Barrister Stoner?” Redding demanded.

“Three of them are friends of the court your honor, the fourth is your murderer.” Stoner answered glibly.

“The murderer? This is a manslaughter case!” Reddings said trying to catch up with events that were going faster than he could keep up with.

“Your honor, as the autopsy clearly showed, the decedent actually died of polyphenyldrine poisoning. While the knife wound inflicted during the fight did not help matters, the decedent was already essentially dead. Mister Marsh would have been guilty of manslaughter if the cause of death was indeed sharp force trauma. However, the wound inflicted would not have been fatal and the only thing Mister Marsh could be charged with would be aggravated assault. In this case, the actual cause of death was the deliberate administration of polyphenyldrine poison. This was a deliberate act and this woman here, a waitress at the establishment where the crime took place is responsible for murder.” Stoner grasped his lapels and waited for Reddings to try and dispute his logic.

“I’ll grant she had the means and opportunity, but I have yet to hear a motive.” Reddings said after a long pause.

“If I may address the court?” Chan said stepping forward.

“And you are?” Reddings scowled.

“I am Wu Chan Juan, captain of the Firefly-class mid-bulk freighter Lattimer’s Ghost and I know the woman’s motive.”

Redding leaned back in his chair wiping his forehead in frustration. “Why not, this case has had enough irregularities that what is one more.”

“The motive is a simple one your honor. This woman, I only know her as LeeAnne, has a sister, her name is Rachel. The decedent beat LeeAnne’s sister severely last week. I’m certain you will find record of her medical treatment, but there were no charged filed as Rachel refused to press charges. The woman that came to Jocko’s defense during the fight was Rachel, but she did not know that her sister had had enough of seeing her be beaten and had already taken steps to ensure Jocko would never raise his hand to her again.

“It pains me to have to ask that LeeAnne be bound by law as Jocko was clearly a man that needed killing, but the situation is what it is. The murder of this worthless human was at the hands of this woman, not that man. I ask that charges against Sylvester Marsh be dropped.”

Reddings took his time as he worked through all the twists this once open and shut case had taken and sighed. “Wait open and shut! That’s my way out! Okay the guy didn’t commit a bar room brawl manslaughter, this woman committed first degree murder. A murder conviction has more status than manslaughter! This will make me look even better on Osisrus, yes this isn’t a bad outcome after all!” He smiled and addressed the court.

“While the nature of how the facts of this case came to light have been highly irregular, the actual findings are completely within the bounds of our great legal system. It is therefore, the findings of this court that the charge of manslaughter against Sylvester Marsh be dropped. He his however found guilty of misdemeanor vandalism for stabbing a dead body. He is sentenced to time served and remanded to the custody of Captain Wu Chan Juan of the Firefly-class mid-bulk freighter Lattimer’s Ghost.

“The woman LeeAnne is hereby bound by law for the murder of the decedent Jocko and is ordered to stand trial tomorrow 19 May 2518. That is my finding. Bailiff, release Mister Marsh, detain this LeeAnne woman, and clear the court. This case is adjourned.”

The crack of the gavel brought a huge smile to Stoner’s face as he joined William, Chan, Cindy, and the newly freed Marsh. “Have any of you considered a career in law?” He asked with a grin, still grasping his lapels.

“No sir, I don’t think the Alliance is ready for the likes of us. Well sir, you have done us a service, it’s time for us to settle up what do we owe you?” Chan replied.

“Seeing as how you all but handed me a chance to rub Reddings nose in the bovine fecal matter and did some first rate leg work, how does a hundred credits sound?”

“That would fall in the category of fair, can I impose upon you to accompany us to our ship. That is some serious money in the circles we travel and our banker is going to have to cover our debt for us.”

“Banker?”

“Long story, we’ll explain on the way.” William said leading the way out of the courtroom.

 

“Okay Cap we are finally on our way.” Marsh said as Skyplex Reno receded behind the Lattimer’s Ghost. The pilot’s face took on an unusually pensive expression. “Captain…Chan, I’m sorry I screwed our departure. I know I get in lots of fights and…”

“You hush up Marsh. For one you weren’t letting that battleship mouth of yours overload your rowboat ass. That hun dan Jocko would have hurt Li Ming and you did right standing by her. Our schedule wasn’t something that had life and death stamped all over it. Things actually worked out well for a change and that is all that matters. It’s not like we are even sticking to our schedule now, what with the real cargo we’re carrying. Now you go on back to the helm and get reacquainted, I think she missed you while you were gone.”

“Yeah a real cargo, doesn’t seem possible.”

“It’s real. I saw it loaded my own self with my own eyes. Now you’re keeping a lady waiting and I need some sleep.”

“Well I certainly can’t keep a lady waiting, oh and captain?”

“Yes Marsh?”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome Marsh.”

Marsh watched the captain as she left the bridge and for a change it wasn’t to admire her figure. He plopped back down into pilot’s station and swung the chair back and forth a couple times to make sure everything was as he had left it.

I guess I should be grateful that Li Ming won the money that she did, cause she had to spend all of it to pay off that Stoner guy. Cap and William been harpin’ on me about fightin’ for as long as I’ve known ‘em and if not for them, I’d be crushing rocks or somethin’ on a penal colony by now.” He sat absently watching the controls and thinking. “Maybe they might know more than I gave ‘em credit for knowin’.”

Marsh then straightened up in the seat and resumed actively piloting the ship and monitoring the ship’s sensors. He hadn’t realized that his short bout of introspection had set him on the road to wisdom by finally admitting, for once, that he didn’t have all the answers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twelve

 

This Li Shen Fong was a bit of an enigma for a Buddhist monk.” Chan thought again as the crew and their lone passenger gathered for the Lift Day Feast. As the food was served, she allowed her mind to drift back to thirty-six hours earlier…

 

“Are you the captain of this fine vessel?” A man in his mid-30s and wearing the raiments of a Buddhist monk and standing next to Willis asked as William, Chan, Cindy, Marsh and barrister Stoner arrived at the Lattimer’s Ghost from the magistrate’s court.

“I am Captain Wu.”

“Captain, I have the honor to introduce Li Shen Fong.” Willis said. “He is a monk of an order different than my own, that has taken on the responsibility to bring aid to those of the ‘Verse that need help the most. He has a cargo of humanitarian aid that needs to get to the moon Highgate very quickly and wishes to contract with us for this worthy cause.”

Chan was a little surprised at the offer and asked point blank, “Doesn’t Blue Sun have you scared to hire with us?”

“Why should I be scared of what the esteemed Blue Sun Corporation thinks?”

“Er…the captain means Blue Sun has its fingers in too many pies and has intimidated all the regular crews at the Skyplex.” Cindy covered smoothly.

Li nodded in acceptance before replying. “I have a brewing emergency to contain and I need to reach Highgate in five days. Your ship is not listed in the station directory as having a cargo. Is this information incorrect?”

“No, our availability is completely correct. We would be honored to assist.” Chan finally managed to respond without betraying her surprise.

“Excuse me captain.” Marsh asked before Chan could say more.

“Mister Li, may I introduce our pilot Sylvester Marsh.” Chan said shooting the pilot a warning look that spoke volumes.

“I am sorry to interrupt, but I wanted to be sure I heard you correctly and verify that you said you need to be on Highgate in five days?”

“This is correct. I have medical supplies that absolutely have to get to Highgate very quickly to avert the outbreak of a plague.”

“Then captain the only way we can meet that deadline is via hard burn.”

“Is this a problem?” Li asked.

“Not at all Mister Li, it is just that the increased fuel consumption will increase the costs of the standard fees.”

“My order has authorized me sufficient funds to meet such a contingency.”

“Excellent, myself and the good Mister Marsh will accompany you to the cargo bay holding your consignment as Mister Lemont my first mate concludes some previous business. Please lead on Mister Li,”

William waited until Chan and the others were out of earshot before speaking. “Right this way Mister Stoner. Our banker is waiting aboard ship.”

“Son, your business is your business, but I don’t get a good smell coming off of that monk.” Stoner replied quietly.

“Mister Stoner, I can vouch for this monk.” Willis replied with confidence. “I am a devotee of the orders of the Buddha and Mister Li has both the credentials and the knowledge that a monk of his order is supposed to have.”

“I’ll take your word on that boy as I am a Catholic and wouldn’t know one Buddhist order from another if it would get me a million credits, but regardless of his bona fides I tell you that man is trouble.” Stoner replied just as confidently.

“Mister Stoner, you have done us a great service.” Li Ming said from the airlock changing the topic, having approached silently when Cindy slipped aboard the ship and called her while Chan was speaking to Li.

“Ah this must be the face that launched a thousand ships.” Stoner responded with a courtly bow. “It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance Miss Wong.”

“The pleasure is all mine I assure you, now I am led to understand I have an actual debt to settle with you. The more important figurative debt of obtaining Mister Marsh’s release is not a debt I can repay.”

“Ma’am you are as charming as you are lovely.”

“Thank you Mister Stoner, you are too kind, but here is the part of the debt I actually can and cheerfully reply.” The gambler beamed as she handed the bundle of credits to Stoner.

“You are most certainly welcome Miss Wong.” Stoner beamed back pocketing the notes. “Ladies and gentlemen, I believe this concludes our formal arrangements. However, if you all find yourselves in need of my services again or simply wish to please an old man with your company, I will be most satisfied by either occurrence.”

“We would like that Mister Stoner.” William smiled shaking the older man’s hand.

“I’ll hold you to that then as I take my leave, good day everyone.” Putting word to deed, Stoner departed with a spring in his stride that belied his age and was soon out of sight.

“Okay crew, I know it’s been a long time since we’ve had to do this, but we have a ship to prep for cargo, everyone to their stations!” William said with a massive grin as the crew moved out with a spring in their strides he also hadn’t seen in a long time.

 

“Okay Mister Li, counting the accelerated fuel usage, the standard rates for shipping comes to an even one hundred credits per day for a five day total of five hundred credits.” Chan said calmly after inspecting the cargo bay holding Li’s medical supplies and finding all seals and markings perfectly legitimate. Not that imperfectly marked would have prevented her from being willing to make a deal, just how much she would have asked for the added risks. “We really need to get to Greenleaf, but we need the money even more.” She thought as she smiled pleasantly and hoped Li wouldn’t back out on hearing the costs  of the trip.

“Five hundred credits is a lot of money…” Li began and Chan tried not to show a trace of how much her spirits sank. “But the good people of Highgate are in too great a need for me to haggle overmuch. I wisely checked into the typical costs of chartering a vessel such as yours before calling and, while expensive, your price is well within the average for such a trip. You have a deal Captain Wu. One of the things I discovered during my research is that half up front and half on delivery is customary.”

Chan blinked, but kept the surprise from reaching her voice. “You are correct Mister Li.”

Li reached into his raiment and pulled out a fairly hefty bag. “My understanding is that platinum is the preferred currency outside of the Core. I took the liberty to having the up front payment converted earlier today.”

“We’ll take care of contracting the stevedores and…” Chan took the proffered bag, smiled, and took a practiced second glance at the cargo bay. “I say we can have the ship ready to depart in less than six hours.”

“You are making this far too easy for a simple monk that would otherwise be in a severely disadvantaged state. I thank you Captain Wu.”

“Just part of being on the job Mister Li, you are welcome to make yourself comfortable on the ‘Ghost or conduct whatever business you might have prior to departure.” Chan replied.

“I have to contact my order and vacate my temporary quarters here on the skyplex, so I will be along in about two hours.”

“We’ll see you then.”

“Until then good Captain, Mister Marsh.”

“Mister Li.” Chan and Marsh replied in unison and turned to leave the cargo bay.

Waiting until halfway back to the ship Marsh finally began to speak. “I’m still waiting for something to go wrong.”

“I understand what you mean but, for once, it looks like we’ve caught a break, so don’t queer the deal by flapping that non-stop yap of yours.”

“Got it Cap, I need to get back to the ship any way to make sure we are as ready as we said we were.”

 

During the five hours it took to load Li’s cargo, William picked up food for the lift day feast, and Chan had the ‘Ghost’s fuel tank topped off. This left enough left over to allow Chan to give everyone twenty-five in platinum for the first pay the crew had earned in nearly two months. As soon as the cargo was loaded, Marsh detached from the skyplex and kicked in a hard burn for Highgate. Four hours later as the crew gathered for the traditional Lift Day Feast and after several minutes of reflecting on the set of circumstances the got them to where they were now, Stoner’s warning relayed by William, and the unshakeable fact that Li was an enigma for a Buddhist monk, Chan returned to the here and now, still unclear as to exactly what made Li seem out of place.

“Mister Lemont, I do not wish to make less of your choice of profession, but I believe you could make quite the living as a chef on one of the Core Worlds.” Li said after sampling the stuffed duck and roasted potatoes that formed the centerpiece of William’s meal.

“You exaggerate Mister Li, but I thank you non-the-less. It should be obvious just by looking at me that I am fond of food and eating. I simply translate my likes into the meals I serve.”

“And you underestimate yourself Mister Lemont, but I shall concede before a disagreement can occur.”

“Captain’s rule for Lift Day is that disagreements are not allowed to occur during the feast.” Cindy said around a mouthful of duck.

“The lady is right Mister Li.” Chan replied with a smile. “Life in the Black is a difficult one and the feast is our way of making sure we remember that we are, for better or worse, are a family and despite how a family can squabble, we have this one event to remind us of the bond we all gladly share.”

“You are wise beyond your years Captain.” Li nodded then further conversation was lost to the simple joy of a good meal.

The feast proved to be another triumph and once finished, the crew and Li withdrew to his or her own cabin and the following day, into the standard rhythm that comprised a spacer’s life.

 

Two days uneventful later the crew was awakened by the raucous scream of an emergency alarm. After several groggy shouts and undeniable confusion, the crew and Li boiled out of their quarters in various states of undress.

“What in the south side of Sihnon is bloody goin’ on?” Cindy growled first.

“Major engine malfunction alert, I shall need some few minutes to tell you more than that.” Willis replied instantly and bolted toward engineering, nearly bowling over Li Ming as she exited her shuttle.

“Damn it all! Our first real cargo in two months and we have to have our first problem in two months.” Chan snarled as she blinked her eyes several times in an effort to shake off the last her sleep induced fog. “Marsh. Bridge. Now! I need some idea of where we are to figure out where we can divert to if it comes to that!”

“Aye Cap, moving.” Marsh answered already in motion.

“William and Cindy prep shuttle two! Li Ming and Xavier prep the shuttle one. Mister Li, stick close to William in case the situation deteriorates.” Chan barked as she snapped into focus and not even looking behind her as she raced after the pilot for the bridge barely registering the ‘aye captain’ responses from the crew. On reaching the bridge, the read outs and the look on Marsh’s face told her all she needed to know at a glance and reinforced by the tail end of the report from Willis she heard as she took up the co-pilot’s seat.

“-Is all my fault Marsh, my fine tuning has caused the primary induction coil to fail. The fusion plant is going super critical!” The wail in the mechanic’s voice was all too apparent over the intercom.

“You can’t be serious? And you can’t shut it down?” Chan replied before Marsh could.

“I’m going to try and shut the plant down, if I can not, despite the fact that fusion power can not explode, it can lethally irradiate the ship and the surrounding area forcing us to have to abandon ship.”

“Do what you can Willis, the shuttles are being prepped as we speak. Report in when you can.” Chan responded woodenly and slumped in her seat.

“If anyone can save the ship Cap, Willis is the one.”

“I know Marsh. The frustrating part is having to wait to find out if he can.”

“I know what you mean.” Marsh replied and began plotting the location of the nearest planet.

 

“William, I’ve got to go to my quarters for a second. Can you finish without me?” Xavier asked breathlessly.

“What’s so important?” William asked quietly.

“Flannery’s data crystal! If we are to have any hope of getting back at Blue Sun, we’ve got to have it!”

“And people call me an optimist. If we lose the ship, how do you think we will get back at anyone? Don’t answer, go, I need to have some kind of hope and the crystal is the only hope we have left.”

Xavier raced out of the shuttle and down the corridor, returning in time to find Marsh, Chan, and Cindy boarding the shuttle William had prepped. Her jaw dropped as she looked across the catwalk to see William leading Li and a nearly numb Willis onto Li Ming’s shuttle.

“NO! It can’t be!” Xavier sobbed.

Chan stuck her head out of shuttle two, her face pale. “Unfortunately, it can and it is. The fusion plant is in a degenerative feedback loop and Willis can’t break the cycle. We have to abandon ship. Come on Xavier, we don’t have much time, we’ve got to get as much distance from the ship as possible.”

Xavier couldn’t answer with words, simply nodded in response and followed Chan into the shuttle and buckled into one of the empty seats.

Five seconds after Xavier sat down, the two shuttles boosted free of the ship at maximum speed. Five minutes later, there was a bright flash that signaled the ship’s power plant overloading. Radiation readings went off the scale and left the entire crew of the Lattimer’s Ghost in stunned silence, unable to believe that things could go so badly and how they now would never have a chance to confront Blue Sun.

 

“Okay, what now?” Marsh asked after what seemed like an eternity of silence.

“What’s nearby?” Chan croaked, obviously trying to hold back tears.

“That’s the rub Cap, we aren’t all that close to anything. We are close to regular shippin’ lanes, so if I set the life support lean and we run on cruise speed, we might stretch our five days of life support to six, a week if we take turns breathin’.”

“Run it as lean as you can and signal Li Ming to do the same. My faith in luck is about spent at the moment, so I can’t say as we’re bound to be picked up, but we have to try.” Chan said glumly, the light in her eyes almost non-existent.

“You got it Cap, you try and go back to sleep. Not gonna be much point to doin’ anything as it will make the air last longer.”

“Cindy?”

“Yes Captain?”

“You might as well dope us up, that will help stretch the life support as well.” Chan said absently, her mind far away.

“I can’t dope us all up or no one will be able to respond if someone should find us.”

“I’ll stay up.” Xavier said suddenly, speaking for the first time since Chan told her they had to abandon ship.

“You? Why you?” Marsh blinked in surprise.

“I’ve had enough pilot training to handle a shuttle on minimum power in deep space and not run into anything thank you…AND ya little git, as much as I hate to say this, it’s more important to all of us if you are available to dock us if we do get found.”

Whatever response Marsh expected, this answer was not it and the finality of their situation finally sunk in and left the pilot uncharacteristically silent. He wordlessly gave up the pilot’s seat and lay down on one of the shuttle’s fold down benches.

“Cindy?”

“Yes Captain?”

“Don’t go getting morbid on me and deciding that it’s your place to play angel of death. I might be down, but I am not out yet and I am willing to accept the destiny the Buddha has set out for me. I will not have you giving us all a ‘hot shot’ cause you think you are doing us a favor. Dong ma?” Chan’s eyes regained their fire and made it very clear she was serious.

“I won’t lie to you Captain and say the thought didn’t cross my mind, but I give you my word that if we do die, it won’t be because of any action I am responsible for doing.”

“Good enough. I’ll go first.”

Chan lay down and closed her eyes as Cindy administered the drugs to her, then Marsh, and finally to herself. She smiled at Xavier and managed to mumble before she faded out of consciousness. “There’s enough left for you too if you decide you get tired of waiting.”

Xavier nodded and reached for the transceiver. “Shuttle two to shuttle one.”

“Go ahead Xavier.” Li Ming responded immediately.

Marsh has configured our bearing, thrust, and life support to maximize our time. Three of us have been doped to help stretch things as well. I’m transmitting our settings to you and the right dosage for the drugs now. Good luck you guys,” There was only a slight hitch in Xavier’s voice, something that made her very proud.

“I…understand Xavier. I’ve got the settings and will match them. We’ll get though this hon. I know a thing or two about odds and while the house is ahead at the moment, we’re going to fill the inside straight this time.”

“Well if it’s done deal Li Ming, count me in. Shuttle two out.”

Xavier risked running a scan and saw that Li Ming had matched their output to theirs and smiled. She then tinkered with the transceiver for a few minutes, and then adjusted the seat to try and find as comfortable a position as possible.

“Okay now it’s just me and you. It’s nice to know that Li Ming has a hunch not that far from my own. Only thing to do is wait and see if that inside straight gets filled the way I think it will.”

She leaned back looking upward as if beseeching the heavens and settled in for what she was certain would be a fairly long wait.

 

Just over twenty-four hours after the frantic escape from the Lattimer’s Ghost, both shuttles received a burst transmission. Li Ming, who wasn’t expecting anything, jerked forward in her seat and had to scramble to figure exactly what was going on. Xavier, on the other hand was expecting a signal merely smiled when she verified the signal came from the source she thought it would be from.

“It’s about bloody time.” She said stretching and felt several joints and vertebra crackle.

“Shuttle two this is shuttle one!” Li Ming’s voice burst over the loudspeaker, barely able to contain her excitement.

“Go ahead Li Ming.” Xavier replied, deliberately laconic.

“This isn’t possible, but I just got a signal from the Lattimer’s Ghost!”

“Oh its possible hon, not only did you fill an inside straight, you filled an inside royal flush.”

“How did you know?”

“Simple enough, when Willis couldn’t handle a system shutdown, something didn’t feel right. He hasn’t been on the Rim long enough to be able to lie all that well, I planted a simple buried sub routine for the ‘Ghost to signal her location if nothing went wrong for 24 hours.”

“But we saw the flash and detected the radiation burst.”

“Willis is a smart cookie, I’m certain he will be able to explain how he did it all. I’m not as certain that he will be able to explain why. Now you wake up your sleepers while I do the same over here, then we can talk once everyone is able to say their piece.”

 

“What in the bloody hell do you mean the ‘Ghost wasn’t destroyed?” Chan’s voice had an edge to it Xavier had never heard before, a deadly edge.

“Captain, you will have to ask Willis that question.”

Chan shook her head several times to shake off the last of the drugs she’d been given before she chose her words carefully. “Oh I intend to, but first you better tell me what part you played in this charade.”

“I know nothing about what Willis and I suspect Li had to do with the hijacking. All I know is that Willis is too good a mechanic not to be able to shut down a malfunctioning fusion plant. I told William I was going to get Flannery’s data crystal, which I did do, but I also took the time to make sure my hunch was correct. That is all I know.”

“That little hun dan! I would have never pegged him for a traitor!” Marsh snarled despite still being groggy from the drugs. “I’ll kill him. I’ll kill him, figure out a way to bring him back to life and kill him again!”

“You’ll have to take a number Marsh. I’m claiming Captain’s privilege to kill him first.”

“If William hasn’t killed him already.” Cindy added softly.

“Marsh, figure out where the ship is, then call shuttle one and make sure that little puddle of xiong mao niao[102] is still breathing!”

“Aye Cap!”

As Marsh carried out his instructions, Chan paced back and forth, at least as much as the cramped space of the shuttle would allow pacing.

“Oh you bet he is alive Captain, Li too.” William growled. “The whole crew is going to have a part in the reckoning when we get back to the ‘Ghost.”

“I knew I could count on you to keep your temper. Marsh tells me he’s got a fix on where to find the ‘Ghost, but even on hard burn, we are looking at a couple days travel time.”

“No problem Captain. I can keep them alive that long, they won’t even be missing anything when we get there.”

“I can always count on you William. Chan out.” Chan closed he eyes and sighed heavily. “Okay Marsh, lets go find our home.”

“I’ll get us there as fast as we can.”

“Honestly, I’m just glad we have a home to go back to.” Cindy added reasonably.

“Well said Miss Schultz. Thank you for reminding us of that.”

“Just part of the comprehensive medical package I provide.”

Everyone got a laugh out of that one.

 

The two days to catch up to their ship were about the longest two days any of them had ever spent. Thanks to Xavier’s sub-routine, the shuttles could query the Lattimer’s Ghost and receive positioning updates that made making a rendezvous simple. Roughly four hours out, the ship was in range of the shuttle’s simple sensors.

“Shuttle two, this is shuttle one, are you getting the same readings I’m getting? The return is too large for that to be the ‘Ghost.” William voice said over the loudspeaker.

“I’m getting’ the same return, hold on a second.” Marsh replied and made adjustments to boost the sensor gain. “Oh I got it, the ‘Ghost is docked with another ship, that’s why the return is so large. I can’t make out what the other ship is, but they are only just barely managing enough speed to maintain their current heading.”

“Guess we’ll find out soon enough. Shuttle one out.”

The shuttles closed in at the best speed they could muster and soon the mystery of what the other ship docked to their ship was, was soon resolved, but it only left them with more questions.  

“An Alliance gunboat? What in the Ta shi suo you di yu de biao zi de ma[103] is the ‘Ghost doing cuddled up to a Fed ship?” Li Ming exclaimed once she could finally identify the second ship that the sensors picked up.

“Your guess is as good as mine, but I think I may know who can answer that question.” William stood and walked back to stand in front of the bound monk Li Shen Fong. “So you going to tell me what is going on now?”

“You see, but you do not see, you hear, but you do not listen. All is as it should be.” Li replied with frustrating calm.

“Look slick, monk or no monk, if you think I can’t hurt you, you are mistaken.” Menace crept into William’s voice.

“Mister Lemont, there is no need for needless violence. I know some of what Mister Li had planned.” Willis spoke tentatively.

“SILENCE!” Li snapped, his calmness sudden broken.

“Slick, you are not giving the orders or answering the questions here, go ahead Thorton.”

“It is my shame that Mister Li asked me to do him a fav-“

“I SAID SILENCE!” Li thundered, his eyes blazing his fury.

CRACK!

William backhanded Li hard enough to knock him off the bench he was sitting on, when he came up, his lip was split. He glared at William, but wisely chose to remain silent.

“There, that’s a good little monkey. Now, please say on Thorton.”

“Mister Li asked for a favor. He wanted me to cause a fake overload and force the crew to abandon the ship, so Li could borrow the ‘Ghost to set a trap for an Alliance ship. The plan was for drifting ship to be detected and taken into tow by an Alliance ship. Mercenaries hidden in the medical supplies would exit and eliminate crew, then steer the ship to recover shuttles. Once finished, Li would return our ship, while Li and the mercenaries would depart in the captured ship, and we would then swear silence about the whole matter.”  

“You stupid little man, you should have entered the monastery as you are too naïve to be on the Rim.” William replied in utter disbelief. “Do you seriously think anyone that would plot the murder of the crew of an Alliance warship would hesitate to eliminate witnesses?”

Willis’ face blanched white and he weaved back and forth for several seconds clearly trying not to pass out at the depth of the repercussions of his actions.

“I see that you understand now just what would have happened had Xavier not taken action. You got lucky Thorton, hell we all did. Your only hope is that the captain is willing to take pity on stupidity and doesn’t make you take a walk without a space suit. Damn it Willis, it was obvious you weren’t thinking, but hell’s fire man what where you thinking.”

“Mister Li is a monk…I…I…didn’t think a monk would be…so…so…deceitful.”

“Welcome to the ‘Verse son. I’ll let you be ‘cause I don’t want you to wet yourself over this, but I do want you to do some deep thinking about where your priorities lie.”

William returned to sit next to Li Ming for the remainder of the trip to the Lattimer’s Ghost and the silence was deafening.

 

“Docking clamp engaged, seal in five, four, three, two…CLUNK…engaged.” Marsh beamed and blew out a deep breath. “Ladies we are home.”

“Words I never though I’d hear again.” Chan smiled for a moment before her faced clouded.

“We are past the first hurtle Chan.” Cindy said slipping an arm around the captain. “We’ll get the rats off our ship soon enough. At least we are back in the game.”

“True enough Cindy. Thanks, make sure you remind me to extend my current policy on that comprehensive medical package of yours.”

“Sure thing Captain.” Cindy chuckled.

“How are we fixed for weapons?” Chan asked suddenly.

“Three pistols is all Cap. Xavier was too busy to remember to grab a weapon.”

“You ungrateful little snit! If I hadn’t-“

“Kiddin’ bao bei, just kiddin’, jeez what a grouch.”

“Remind me to hurt you later Sylvie.” Cindy glared.

“Fun later you two, there’s work to be done, any response to our visit?” Chan replied tersely.

“None, from either ship Cap.”

“Open the airlock then and let’s see what is what.”

The airlocks for both shuttles opened at the same time, but the crew were not met by the hail of gunfire they expected. In fact, they were not met by anyone or anything. Fanning out quickly, pausing only long enough for one crew member at a time to get fully armed, the entire crew less the still bound Thorton and Li swept through the ship. After the second pass, Chan was willing to accept the Lattimer’s Ghost was clear.

“Okay, I guess the next step is to see if the ship is functional.” Chan said the tension in her voice all too apparent. A quick check of critical systems provided a grim assessment.

“The main drive has been disconnected from the power plant.” Cindy said disgustedly. “No actual damage just disconnected couplings and parts everywhere. And I not sure I know enough to feel comfortable trying to fix it either.”

“Well on the up side, I do feel comfortable unlocking each of the bridge stations to regain control of the computer, but it is going to take me several hours to do it.” Xavier added just as disgusted as the medic.

“William bring Thorton here.” Chan said after a moment of thought.

“What about Rasputin?” William countered using the sobriquet he’d hung on Li.

“Leave the ‘mad monk’ for now.”

A few minutes later the first mate returned with the terrified mechanic in tow.

“Why?” Chan said her voice as cold as the void outside the hull.

“I was misled Captain. I was foolish and Mister Li exploited that foolishness.”

“Well at least you learn quickly.” Chan’s reply was stony and Willis hung his head, flushing all the way to his ears. “I have every right to space you Thorton.”

“Captain, I accept your judgment and my fate, but before you make your final decision, I did not act with malice. I admit it was not my place to allow Mister Li the use of this ship without your consent or knowledge, but I never meant, and was led to believe, no harm would come to the ship or the crew.”

It was Chan’s turn to hang her head as she struggled to find a good answer when none of her choices were particularly good. She stepped back for a moment grasping her lips with her left hand and looking deep into the man before her.

“As I have already mentioned, I have every right to space you, but damn it all, I know you are a good man. Too dam good for them as what lives on the Rim deserve. That is both your greatest strength and greatest weakness Willis. It is knowing that you are a good man that was tricked into a bad decision that is going to save your life today, that, even more than the need for your mechanical skills. There is work to be done in the engine room and you better get to it. Being the man you are, if I ask for your word, I trust you will not need an escort?”

“Certainly Captain…I-I…thank you for your understanding of the circumstance.”

“Save the thanks for later Thorton. There’s other work to be done and jawboning isn’t going to get it done. Okay crew, we have a clear ship. I need everyone but Thorton and Xavier to armor up and get ready to board that Fed ship. Something happened with those mercs Li set lose and we need to find out what that was and why no one is answering. We meet at the forward airlock in five everyone, move out!”

 

The five members of the boarding party arrived fully armed and armored in time to meet Chan’s deadline. Chan, William, and Li Ming each carried shotguns as well as a sidearm and Chan had four of her precious grenades for backup. Cindy packed her trusty sub-machine gun in addition to her sidearm, and Marsh only had a pistol, but refused to let that concern him. In addition everyone wore ballistic mesh body armor with the three women packing the added protection of ceramic plates. Chan gave William a silent nod and he hit the airlock hatch release and both jumped back in shock when they found three non-Alliance bodies slumped in the narrow passage.

Qing wa cao de liu mang[104]!” William exclaimed in shock before snapping his weapon back into the ready position to cover the airlock.

“Looks like the Feds fought back.” Chan said calmly. “Cindy check them out, William and I will cover you.”

“On it Cap.” Cindy responded and knelt to examine the bodies. Several silent minutes passed and when she straightened up she wore a confused frown.

“Well go on ya feng li twit! What happened?” Marsh barked nervously.

“They each have a single head shot, but going by the power burns and extensive stippling, I’d swear they killed themselves.” Cindy responded absently.

“Three suicides? That doesn’t make much sense. Unless they lost the fight and were fanatical enough to kill themselves rather than be captured, but if they lost, why didn’t the Feds meet us?” William struggled to make sense of the evidence in front of him.

“Why doesn’t matter at the moment, we’ve got to clear that ship. The mystery on these three is going to have to wait.” Chan said decisively. “There were ten cryo-chambers in the fake cargo, so that leaves seven more mercs unaccounted for, plus the forty man crew of the patrol boat versus the five of us. Well when I was a soldier, my officers used to call this situation a ‘target rich environment.’”

“‘Target rich’. I like that, well, no time like now, might as well get after them. Odds are the rest ain’t gonna make things easier for us by up an’ killin’ themselves too.” Marsh said glibly.

“I can’t say I can argue with him for a change, so let’s continue. Everyone look sharp this whole situation smells worse than a backed up waste extraction system. William please do the honors” Chan ordered.

With the two ships docked belly to belly, the forward airlock of the Lattimer’s Ghost was connected to the lower cargo hold of the patrol boat. If opening the outer hatch of the airlock had given the crew a shock and a mystery, opening the inner hatch brought an even bigger surprise. In the center of the cargo bay, a heavily armed man stood in the middle of a barrier field. His gear marked him as one of the mercenaries and he calmly and silently watched the crew as they stood there watching him.

“This just doesn’t get any clearer does it?” Chan groused in frustration.

“Things do seem to be other than they should be Captain. What do we do now?” William asked quietly.

“Going back to my cabin and getting roaring drunk comes to mine, but that’s not the answer at the moment. I guess we free this guy and see what he knows. Cindy, the controls to the barrier are over there to the left. The rest of us will cover you and this guy.”

“Sure thing Captain.” The medic replied and moved over to the indicated control panel. “Ready?”

“Ready.” Chan answered.

The hum of the barrier went silent as the field dropped, leaving an uncomfortable silence for several seconds before the man spoke.

“Who are you people and do you know when the next train is due? I have a very important appointment.” He said with open faced sincerity.

“Uh…train?” Chan stammered in confusion.

“Yes, yes good woman the train for Londinum.”

“I’m sorry Sir, I guess you didn’t get the message regarding the change of plans.” Li Ming answered completely unruffled and sounding both authoritative and comforting at the same time in an attempt to prevent bloodshed. “We’ve got a ship standing by to take you directly to Londinum, I must however, ask you to lay down your weapons, for safety reasons you know, before boarding through this airlock.”

The man immediately turned suspicious. “A ship? YOU LIE!” He snarled and snapped his weapon up into firing position.

With the three remaining crew already in position, they were more than ready for such a reaction. Chan fired first with two fast shotgun blasts, but the man, while clearly disturbed, was non-the-less, extremely agile and dodged to his right avoiding the worst of Chan’s buckshot. However, his dodge took him directly into William’s line of fire and his shot killed the man instantly.

“Four mercs down. That leaves six.” Marsh said irritated he hadn’t gotten a chance to shoot.

“Try not to look so eager. You haven’t been in enough fights to know there is no glory in this at all.” William said sharply.

“I’m not lookin’ fer glory, just a chance to settle up for missin’ the U-War.” Marsh snapped back.

“You stupid little punk-” William began.

Bi zui, nin hen bu ti tie de nan sheng[105]!” Cindy interrupted furiously. “Save the testosterone displays for later!”

“She’s right you two, try and remember the task at hand?” Chan added, her eyes sparking in anger. “You two idiot children with me, we’ll sweep toward the bridge. Ladies, sweep aft and get to engineering.”

William nodded stiffly and Marsh mumbled to himself, but the two took up positions next to Chan and the three moved up the ramp that led out of the cargo bay.

Cindy gave Li Ming a look and received a similar look that silently spoke volumes about men and their absolute inability to ever grow up. The two women then soundlessly advanced up the ramp and turned back toward the engineering section of the Alliance ship.

The two groups reached the two critical compartments of the ship and found that while the Alliance ship was fully operational, neither group had seen any signs of life. In fact, they had seen signs of the exact opposite. The corridors of the ship all showed signs of a violent struggle with bullet holes and dried blood throughout the vessel.

“We are still left with what happened to the crew and the rest of the mercenaries. William said after the search of the bridge.

“Only one way to find out.” Chan replied with a weary voice.

“Things could have been much worse mei mei, we could have been in the fight of our lives, in fact, given how badly outnumbered we are, we could have been in the losing fight of our lives.”

“I won’t lie, I was lookin’ forward to a chance to stick it to the purple bellies, but all this empty is startin’ to creep me out somethin’ fierce.” Marsh said with an atypical quietness.

“I have to agree with you young Marsh.” William said in an attempt to reach out to the younger man.

Marsh smiled and turned toward Chan with an eyebrow raised.

“Only one way to find out.” Chan repeated. “Compartment by compartment search.” She activated the ship’s intercom. “Li Ming?”

“Here Captain.”

“Going by the lack of a contact report, I’m going to guess you’ve seen the same thing we have?”

“If you mean an empty ship and signs of a fight, yes.”

“We’ll have to do a complete search of the ship. You and Cindy have the lower deck, the three of us will check the upper deck.”

“Sure thing Captain. Stay safe. Li Ming out.”

“Okay guys let’s do our share.”

 

As the rest of the crew searched the patrol boat, Xavier worked alone on the bridge to regain control of the Lattimer’s Ghost. At Chan’s insistence, she was wearing a pistol in a holster and had the hatch sealed behind her. The men in league with Li had inserted a control program into the ship’s main computer that was designed to only accept commands from the leader of the men that had been smuggled aboard. Since he was not available, Xavier was forced to go through he command processor line by line to delete the rogue program. Not a complicated task, but it was an extremely tedious task.  

I wish I could get my hands on the hun dan that did this.”  She thought for the thousandth time since she’d started debugging the computer. “This is going to take at least three more hours to finish. Rat bastards.”

 

In engineering, Willis faced the same sort of task in reconnecting the engine to the power plant. About half an hour into the job, a voice spoke behind him, “Brother Thorton, I need your assistance again.”

Willis stood to face Li before he replied “I guess I should not be surprised to find you were able to slip out of your bonds and figure out how to arm yourself. I guess that since you are here you feel your plan has failed. Regardless that your plan has not worked the way you envisioned, the core of your pan has succeeded, you have eliminated the crew of an Alliance vessel, you will have to get it to wherever you want it without me. My place is here.”

Li attempted a different tack when Willis surprisingly stood up to his request. “Your place is on holy Hera.” This proved to be a mistake as it called into focus the difference between the mainstream Buddhism that Willis followed and the sub-cult Li followed that believed that Hera was so sacred due to the massive loss of life during the Battle Of Serenity Valley that the planet should be considered the holy land of the ‘Verse.

“I doubt the Buddha would see Hera as holy. The loss of so many lives may imbue your world with a dignity it did not have before, but the transient nature of existence is not in a place, but within the path we take to enlightenment.”

At this point Li lost his kindly monk persona. “I will not debate doctrine with you, I am in need, would you refuse me?”

Willis sighed. “It is with deep regrets that I must decline to offer my assistance.”

Li nodded grimly. “Then you leave me no choice.” He then drew a pistol and fired on Willis. The mechanic however, had been on the Rim long enough to expect this, dodged and returned fire. Li blazed away ineffectually, but Willis took one careful shot that buried deep in Li’s left leg. The monk cried out in pain and shock, and then attempted to stagger away. Willis could not bring himself to shoot at a fleeing man; and instead hit the comm for help.

 

Fei fei de pi yan[106]! Xavier exclaimed when she heard the shooting below and behind her, then nervously upholstered her pistol and verified it was loaded. “Damn I guess I’m it in the way of reinforcements.” She took a couple breaths and then unsealed the bridge. “Okay Xavier girl, you can do this.” She then exited the bridge moving as quietly as she could and hoped she didn’t make a fool of herself.

 As she reached the dining room doorway, she spotted Willis in pursuit of the wounded Li.

“Mister Li, the fight is over. Please yield to reason and surrender.” Willis called out in desperation, visibly relaxing on seeing Xavier at the other end of the corridor.

The wounded Li was on the stair landing halfway between engineering and the passenger quarters. Too hobbled to get any distance and on seeing Willis closing, turned to fire. Willis fearing this action shot Li in his weapon arm and the man crumpled to the deck.

“Merciful Buddha forgive me.” Willis whispered and ran to the monk’s side. He rolled him over fearing the worse, but found Li unconscious and bleeding heavily. “Xavier, please help me!” Willis shouted.

“Hang on a minute.” Xavier replied and moved to the nearest comm panel, which was in engineering. “Chan?”

“You trying to scare me out of my skin woman?” The captain snarled back.

“Sorry, but we had a dust up over here. Li got loose.”

“Oh gos se. Anyone hurt?”

“Li. Willis shot him.”

Jian ta de gui[107]! Willis shot a monk?”

“Sure as sure Cap, saw it myself.”

“Guess there is a first time for everything. Li Ming, Cindy, you listening?”

“Yes Captain.”

“The two of you check on the mad monk, we’ll finish the sweep.”

“On our way.” Cindy responded.

 

No sooner had the sweepers resumed the check of the patrol boat then they ran into trouble. Sweeping inward, brought all five crew on the Alliance ship near the mid-ship galley. This part of the ship was the start point for the area not yet cleared, Chan, William and Marsh entered the galley as Cindy and Li Ming continued on to assist Willis and Xavier.

William turned right as Chan and Marsh turned left, and both groups immediately spotted another of Li’s men attempting to hide near the back of the compartment. The man screamed, “I am death!” as he moved to fire, Marsh managed a single pistol shot that did not penetrate the man’s armor before having to dodge out of the way of a burst from the man’s assault rifle. Chan had a clear shot and pumped two bone-crushing rounds into the man’s chest. The armor absorbed the pellets, but the impact was enough to render the man completely unconscious.

“That’s half of them.” Marsh said striding forward to take the mercenary’s assault rifle.

“You know how to use that thing junior?” William asked with a friendly tone, hoping not to start another confrontation.

Marsh racked the action on the rifle expertly and smiled at the first mate. “I’ve seen one of these a couple times, I have.”

“Good enough.” William replied.

Chan and William waited until the pilot had relieved the mercenary of his ammunition and other weapons before proceeding cautiously.

 

Cindy and Li Ming reached the infirmary of the Lattimer’s Ghost in time to find Xavier and Willis had carried the severely wounded Li to the diagnostic table, with a frantic Willis holding a tourniquet firmly around the monk’s leg, while Xavier was doing the same with a second one around Li’s arm.

“Once you finally shoot some one, you don’t play around do you?” Cindy said rhetorically on seeing Li. “You two keep the pressure. I need to run the med-scanner over him.” Willis was almost as pale as Li as he fought with his own inner demons and waited for Cindy to finish the scans.

“Okay, here’s how it is.” Cindy said after slowly returning the med-scanner into the stowed position. “He’s bad off. I could save him, but it will take surgery. A couple hours of surgery.” The medic paused to let that sink in.

“Then do it!” Willis all but pleaded.

“If it was anyone in the crew, I’d already be prepping for surgery and that’s the rub. There’s just me and this one infirmary. If I tie up both saving this ma de pi gu[108], then we’ll lose critical time switching gears. Something I’m not willing to risk.”

“Cindy, you can’t let a monk die!” Willis wailed.

“He’s not much of a monk/” Cindy replied coldly.

Before Willis could reply, the intercom squawked with an update from Chan. “Five down, still no sign of crew. Proceeding.”

“See? They have already reduced Li’s followers by half. Please Cindy do this for me.” Willis pleaded.

“I’m not sure I owe you any favors after you helped this…this…monk, hijack the ‘Ghost.”

Willis’ shoulders slumped in defeat. He spoke so softly, Cindy had to cant her head to hear. “The fault here is entirely mine and this must be my punishment for my betrayal, to live with knowing I am the one responsible for killing a monk. The ultimate of sins.”

“Willis, this man may have worn the trappings of a monk on the outside, but he was not one where it counted the most, on the inside.” Li Ming said gently placing a hand on the despondent mechanics shoulder. “Look at the lives he had a direct part in ending. The lives of those in the Alliance military are not of primary concern to most of the crew of the ‘Ghost, but to the families of these men and women, they are. Li is assuredly responsible for more than forty lives, fifty if you count his own men. You can not take full responsibility here as Li is the one most at fault in this situation.”

“You are a kind woman Li Ming, thank you for helping me see past my own fault.” Willis replied taking a deep breath before turning to face Cindy. “You have made a logical decision. I can not fully agree, but I understand your choice. Is there anything you can give him to ease his suffering?”

“That I can do. It won’t be the first time the only thing I could do was pump someone up with painkillers and let them slip away.” Cindy replied a little softer than the last time she answered Willis. Cindy went to a cabinet and loaded the auto-injector She stepped next to Li and with a long practiced hand, give the wounded man the injection. Li’s breathing immediately evened out as the drugs took hold, then after less than a minute stopped altogether.

“Li Ming and I will cover the airlock to make sure no more surprises try to enter or exit the ‘Ghost. I know the two of you have more work to do, so let’s all do what has to be done.” Cindy said firmly.

Xavier and a shaky Willis nodded and returned to their work as Cindy and Li Ming moved to keep the ‘Ghost secured.

“You were unnecessarily hard on him Cindy.” Li Ming said a couple moments after reaching the airlock.

“There are those that would say I wasn’t hard enough. He has a lesson to learn, that is if the captain doesn’t space him”

“She wouldn’t!”

“If the captain is as strong as I think she is, she might. Surviving in the U-War required you be strong enough to do what had to be done.”

“I can only hope the captain has had enough time to soften enough to do what needs to be done right this time.” Li Ming shuddered.

“And what is right this time?” Cindy asked, honestly curious.

“To know the full measure of that sweet man that keeps this ship running. He’s had a pair of brutal lessons rammed down his throat in the last couple days. He was deliberately mislead by a monk and is responsible for killing a monk. Two things any devout Buddhist would struggle with. He’s been the voice of reason more times than I can count, and I hope Chan, remembers that before she decides what she is going to do.”

“You might not have been in the war Li Ming, but you’ve got a good head on your shoulders. I know most men fail to notice that, but it is there and I’m…no, we are all the better for it being there.” Cindy smiled, then returned to scanning the corridor for problems.

I hope I can get Chan to see the same thing.” Li Ming thought as she too began scanning hr sector as well.

 

Chan, William, and Marsh moved forward with greater caution after encountering the man in the galley, with two covering as the third member moved. On reaching the infirmary of the patrol boat, William happened to be on point. He took a quick glance and spotted the ship’s cryo-chamber was occupied.

“We got one on ice Chan.”

“On ice?”

“Cryo-chamber with an occupant.”

“Leave him on ice, let’s deal with the mobile.” Chan replied after a slight hesitation.

“Moving.”

The trio continued to leapfrog and by the time they reached the final compartment, the ship’s conference room, Chan was in the lead.

“Okay, last one guys. Let’s do this.” Chan said flexing her fingers around her shotgun and nodded to Marsh to hit the door release.

The door snapped open and Chan rushed in low. She was met with a withering hail of gunfire that fortunately went over her head as her well honed combat reflexes took her to the deck in a tight combat roll that once again, as it had all during the Unification War, saved her life. She snapped her shotgun into position and fired. Her shot slammed into the man’s sternum with enough force to crack the heavy bone and slam him back against the bulkhead hard enough to knock him out immediately.

“That w-would b-be six.” Chan said shakily. “But that one came uncomfortably close.”

“Let me take point for the rest of the sweep Cap.” Marsh offered. “I’m smaller than William and you’ve already had two close calls.”

“Normally I’d have a problem with a rookie point man, but I’ll make an exception in this case. Lead on Marsh.”

However, much to Marsh’s frustration, the man in the conference room proved to be the last person they encountered. They made a second sweep just to be sure and then returned to the infirmary before contacting the rest the crew to give them a status update.

“Cindy, we need you in patrol boat’s infirmary.” Chan spoke slowly, while taking a series of deep breaths to purge the adrenaline from her system.

“Who’s hit?” Cindy exclaimed

“No one, we’ve got a guy in cryo-suspension and a couple survivors we need you to take a look at and see what’s going on this Flying Dutchman of a ship. William will meet you here. Marsh and I will be on the bridge” Chan replied. “Come on Marsh, let’s see what the computer has to say if anything.”

“I’m curious my own self, so I’ll be glad to see if this tub can talk.”

“Okay, I’m on the way.” The relief in Cindy’s voice was clearly felt over the intercom.

 

Less than a minute later both Cindy and Li Ming arrived with weapons still cradled in case somehow any of the mercenaries were overlooked. On seeing everything was as it should be she slung her sub-machine gun behind her back, taking an appraising and jealous look around the well stocked Alliance infirmary.

“Okay, let me check the readouts and see how well this guy is preserved.” Cindy said all business once again as she entered her element, even if it wasn’t her infirmary. After several minutes she hissed in anger.

“I take it something’s wrong.” William said making a statement of fact and not asking a  question.

“You could say that.” Cindy replied through clenched teeth. “Whoever stuffed this guy in here was either a butcher or some sort of twisted sick individual.”

“Okay, you’ve convinced me, now how about telling me what’s got your knickers in a knot?”

“Cyro-suspension is a delicate process, several drugs have to administered in the right order and with a very strict timeline in order for the process to work correctly. If not, you’ll end with a rag doll when you try to revive the patient.”

“Okay, I’m following you, what’s wrong with this guy?”

“As near as I can see, this guy was crammed in here without any rhyme or reason. He got some sort of sedative, but that was about it. If we revive this guy, he’s likely to be even goofier that the guy waiting for the train…HOLY CRAP!”

“Now what?”

“I know what happened with the mercs!”

 

“Okay, since no one on board can tell us what happened, maybe the ship can talk for them.” Marsh said as he dropped behind the helmsman’s console.

“It would be nice to have some answers instead of questions on top of question for a change.”

Chan answered from the communications station.

“Cap!”

“What’s up Marsh?” Chan frowned at being interrupted before she could get the comm panel online.

“I’ve got some answers.”

“Then let’s hear it.”

 “The ship’s log has the typical Fed gos se of ‘searched this’ and ‘patrolled that’ until they discovered a firefly-class freighter entering their patrol area two days ago that did not respond to hails. They launched an ASREV to make a close scan and found the ship’s shuttles had been launched and the ship was abandoned.”

“Makes sense to that point, that was Li’s plan after all, but what went wrong from there?” Chan’s frowned deepened.

 “The ASREV docked and shut the ‘Ghost’s engines off, then returned to the patrol boat. The mother ship docked with the derelict-”

“Derelict indeed.” Chan sniffed,

“Not my words Cap, I’m just readin’ what the Feds wrote.” Marsh snorted before continuing. “Okay, here is where the plan went south. An engineer team went aboard and unhooked the engines to prep the ship for towin’ and mothballin’. They’d been aboard about thirty minutes when the XO reported a powerful jammin’ signal suddenly erupted from the freighter shuttin’ down all transmissions, and then the engineers reported raving mad men stormin’ the ship.”

“The mercs were already crazy before the boarded?”

“That’s what it says here Cap. Anyway, crazy or not, they were loaded for bear and ripped though the Feds like a buzz saw. The chief engineer managed one last entry before the bridge lost contact with engineering saying the lunatics were spacing the crew they found, dead or alive.  Man that’s cold.” Marsh paused and shuddered involuntarily.

“Anything else?”

“A deck hand made one more entry, he and two other survivors were going to try to reach an ASREV. I guess they didn’t make it.”

“Okay, now we know what happened to the Feds. I wish we could figure out what happened to the mercs.”

“I know.” Cindy said entering the bridge with William and Li Ming close behind.

“Nice to know someone does. Care to share toots?” Marsh replied.

“Improper cryo-suspension.”

“Excuse me?” Chan asked.

“Li must have sunk all his money into equipment, that or his medic was a quack. Whoever put his mercs into those chambers didn’t have the slightest clue of what they were doing. When the automatic wake up sequence revived them, they all had brain damage. They couldn’t have been complete brain burns ‘cause they had enough gray matter left to remember to attack the Feds. Going by what little evidence is left, after they finished off the Feds, first they turned on each other, and finally themselves.”

“Then who’s the stiff in the ship’s cryo-chamber?” Marsh inquired.

“He’s wearing a lieutenant’s uniform.” Cindy replied. “I have to guess at least one of the mercs held it together long enough to take a special kind of revenge, but on the wrong target.”

“Any chance we can wake him?” Chan said.

“We could, but according to Cindy the med-scanner says he’ll be a basket case.” William added in disgust.

“Then we leave him on ice, what about the other two?” Chan responded without hesitation.

“I’ve got them sedated and in hard restraints in the infirmary.”

“Mystery solved” Marsh grinned. “Sounds like lootin’ time to me.”

“Try and show a little dignity Marsh, fifty people have died here.” William snapped.

“Just some gorram Feds and them as what hijacked our ship, don’t expect me to be too torn up about them.” The pilot growled back.

“Ease up on the boy William, I’m having trouble feeling all that torn up about them my own self.” Chan interrupted. “We can’t go anywhere until Willis and Xavier restore the ‘Ghost, so we’ve got the time and an unprecedented opportunity on our hands.”

“O….kay” William’s face showed his surprise.

“Look, I’m not saying we toss cabins for personal effects, but those mercs aren’t going to be needing their gear and going by the equipment they were packing, Li didn’t spare any expense.”

“Except for the quack medic he hired.” Cindy countered.

“True, but that was his mistake not ours. Last thing we need is to bring the Alliance down on our heads, so Fed equipment is off limits.” Chan paused long enough to fix Marsh with a hard stare. “Dong ma?”

“Got it Cap, just the mercs’ stuff. Seems a gorram shame.”

“Might be, but the Feds tag their gear six ways from sundown, I know a fence or two that would be willing to handle Alliance gear, but we’ve been sidetracked from our visit to Greenleaf long enough. Merc stuff only or I will have words for anyone that has a problem with that. Am I clear Mister Marsh.

“I got it Cap. I’ll play nice.”

“Good. Enough said. Let’s gather up what we can people. I want to be able to boost free as soon as well get an up from Xavier and Willis.”

The boarding party broke up and scattered, primarily to cover the patrol boat in the most efficient way possible, but while no one would admit it, they also wanted to get the job done as quickly as possible as the blood spattered ship was more of a reminder of their own mortality than any of them liked.

 

An hour after the cache of looted gear was stashed aboard the Lattimer’s Ghost, a frazzled Xavier joined the rest of the crew, less Willis who was still working on the engine, around the dining table.

“Let me get you a drink girl, you obviously need one.” Li Ming said when she saw at how worn Xavier looked.

“Thanks.” Xavier said flopping into a chair. She took the glass of whiskey the gambler poured and downed in quickly.

“Hey the good stuff.” Xavier remarked when she saw the bottle Li Ming had poured from. “You deserve it.” Li Ming nodded and poured another.

Xavier leaned back in her seat and began sipping the second glass much slower, taking time to savor the high quality liquor.

“I know you have every right to want to get hammered, but I need you to take it easy for just a little while longer. That gorram patrol boat has got complete scans of the ‘Ghost and I need you to make that go away. I was here and if someone were to tell me what happened here I wouldn’t begin to believe it, so I know the Feds won’t.”

“Actually, I’m shiny Captain. A records dump is trivial next to purging a computer’s core programming line by line. Just give me ten, and I’ll be good to go.”

“Take thirty. Willis said he’s going to be a while. I’m not sure if the repairs are really all that complicated or if he’s just too rattled to think straight after the shock to his whole way of life he’s taken in the last thirty-six hours.” Chan commented sadly. “I’m not sure he’s ever going to be the same as he was.”

“Willis is a lot stronger than you think Captain.” Li Ming answered sharper than she meant.

“Is he now? And what makes you so sure?” Chan replied with interest.

“Call it a hunch. Let’s just say I like to think I know how to play the odds and let’s just leave it at that.”

“Fair enough.”

“Did I hear correctly about goods taken from the mercs. What we get?” Xavier said to change the subject.

“Several assault rifles, couple pistols, bunch of flashbangs, and a splendid amount of assorted shipjacking tools.” William smiled from ear to ear. “Just the sort of equipment we need to stick it to this Keystone character, but I’ll let the Captain tell you the best part.”

Xavier turned a questioning eye toward Chan.

“The other half of the credits for the trip to Highgate.”

“No da bian?” Xavier exclaimed.

“Sure as sure.” Chan returned.

“Damn this has been a good run after. Even better than what was the original plan.” Xavier continued as she finished off the second glass of whiskey.

“You can say that, you can more’n say that!” Marsh beamed.

“I have to agree, but as you said. I’ve got some work to do. See ya’ll in a bit.” The ship’s resident hacker said and headed for the airlock, no longer dragging like she had when she first entered the dining room.

 

“I am glad those tian xiao de[109] Alliance goons only had half an hour. I shudder to think what they could have accomplished uninterrupted.” Willis fumed as he painstakingly realigned the thrust compression manifold. Why an engine has to be so thoroughly disassembled just for towing is beyond me. Just the first part of my penance for my actions I guess. Long it will be before I am in karmic balance again.” He completed the realignment, verified his work with the portable calibration unit and moved on to his next task. “At this rate I’ll be able to undo what those gorram Feds did in another four hours. Damn it all.” His fuming persisted, but he never slowed in his work.

 

“Okay, that’s the primary memory buffer, now to induce a little brainwash to keep the Feds guessing.” Xavier purred as her fingers danced across the keyboard on the chief engineer’s console on the Alliance patrol boat. “Sideslip that watchdog, bypass all backups, jigger…the…failsafe…introduce an induction of AC current 180 degrees out of phase…and…”

Xavier smiled as she watched the main computer obediently began to purge all records, images, sensor logs, registration numbers, and every other trace of the Lattimer’s Ghost from every storage device on the ship. She repeated the process a second time to ensure she got all residual traces, and then instructed the computer to write a random set of ones and zeroes through every bit of unused memory storage.

“Oops can’t forget the small fry. Now to repeat the process on the memory of all ASREVs docked on this tub.” She linked to the smaller ships, then tapped out the commands that forced the main computer of the patrol boat to purge the ASREV’s computer, reformat them, scramble their memory cores, and then reinstall the standard software package, making the heavy fighter craft computers like they just came off the factory floor. She closed all the access panels she’d accessed and smiled.

“That will leave the Feds scratching their head and pi gu trying to figure out this mystery.” She grinned wickedly and left the bridge. She looked around the corridors as she made her way past the signs of struggle and trembled to think what it must have been like during those horrific last minutes, but forced such thoughts out of her mind when she crossed the airlock and reentered the familiar surroundings of the Lattimer’s Ghost.

“I hate to think just how close to being a wandering hulk in space again the old girl got this time. Closer than I like to think about. Now, where is that Li Ming, maybe I can talk her out of another couple shots of that fine whiskey of hers.”

 

It was nine hours from when he started before a worn to the bone and bedraggled Willis reached for the intercom. “Captain?”

“Yes Willis?”

“We have full power.”

“Hot damn!” Marsh shouted in the background.

“Thank you Willis.” Chan said ignoring the pilot’s exuberance. “Report to my quarters immediately.

“Understood Captain.” Was Willis’ wooden reply as he slowly made his way forward. “I guess this is what it was like in one of those old Earth-That-Was Two-D films when the condemned had to walk the last mile.” He thought grimly. En route, he felt the ship’s pulse drive kick in and going by the higher than normal pitch, they were using hard burn. “Got to be bound for Greenleaf. We are overdue for the reckoning. I hope I get to see how it ends. In less time than he would have liked he found himself standing at the doorway to the Captain’s quarters. He knocked tentatively.

Qing jin[110].”

Willis opened the door and climbed down the ladder, completely convinced that there was a good chance he would not climb back out again. He reached the bottom of the ladder and when he saw the captain, he realized hope he didn’t know he had. The captain was alone and she wasn’t armed. That had potential for a better than hoped for outcome.

“Willis Thorton. You are an interesting man.” She began.

Not having a reply for this, Willis remained silent.

“Probably the most devout man outside of a monastery or abbey I have ever met. Smart, a gifted mechanic, and a gorram idiot all at the same time. You frustrate me Willis.”

“Another sin to add to my list Captain.”

“Try not to take this personally, but my decision would be easier if I didn’t like you. You admittedly committed an act of mutiny, the normal answer is spacing or a bullet to the forehead if you were actively fighting back.

Willis nodded in compete misery. “I did not know why Li wanted to do this thing he had planned, but Li swore that the ‘Ghost would be returned. Since Li was a monk and his request, at the time, did not seem to be unreasonable, I agreed. I will depart the ship as soon as the business with Keystone was resolved, that is if I am allowed to remain that long.”

Chan was obviously torn by how to respond to his actions and just as obvious to Willis was how the Captain was struggling to keep her temper in check. When she finally spoke it was with authority.

“Recently, several of us, myself included have had to face up to our past. I can not condemn you for being duped by Li as he played his role as kindly monk far too well for you to take all the blame. However, while your actions could have been a disaster for all of us, I did learn a lesson by judging Xavier too harshly, so I will not do the same to you. You are an honorable man Willis, so for the next six months you are restricted to your quarters, your place of duty, and the dining room. You will receive half pay during that same time. And it goes without saying that if you choose your faith over this ship and me again, you will have to find a new home.”

“You are too generous Captain. It will be my central task to regain your trust.”

“Go on and get, I don’t want to regret my decision any more than I already know I am going to in the morning.

“Yes Captain.” Willis all but vaulted up the ladder and returned to the cabin he shared with Marsh, which was becoming less and less often as the pilot and the medic spent more time in her quarters. This was gratefully one of those times. Thankful for the silence, Willis set up his small alter and began to pray quietly. He was still there when Marsh returned in the morning.


Chapter Thirteen

 

“Greenleaf approach control, this is shuttle 427. We are on the beam and at assigned altitude for landing in Li zi Cheng[111] over.” Xavier said trying her best to sound professional to the no nonsense authorities that tightly controlled all departures and arrivals on Greenleaf.

“Shuttle 427, you are cleared for at landing bay ninety-four. Any deviation from that order will result in defense systems destroying your ship. Greenleaf approach control out.”

“Understood control, shuttle 427 out.” Xavier signed off and turned to Chan in the co-pilot’s seat. “These guys really need to work on their social skills.”

“Despite how we’ve been treated, Greenleaf is the source of at least a third of all the meds in the ‘Verse. High value cargo typically leads to all sorts of theft. They got tired of them as what ain’t got taking from them as what do got.” Cindy interrupted before the captain had a chance to respond. “You just make sure you stay on the beam sweetcheeks.”

Xavier glared at the medic in response to the new nickname Cindy had hung on her and focused on keeping the locals from decided they were a threat.

“You two ready?” Chan said ignoring the exchange between the hacker and medic, turning instead to face William and Li Ming.

“I should say so mei mei, We are already ahead of the game thanks to Li Ming being zhen de shi tian cai[112] by suggesting using the plan we used to avoid Darius Nightblade the last time we visited Persephone and leaving the ‘Ghost out in space while we dropped in via shuttle.” William responded with a big grin directed toward the ship’s resident gambler.

“I just hope Marsh will forgive me for being left five hours away at the edge of the system.” Li Ming replied with a mischievous grin that indicated she wasn’t all that worried.

“Aw the little snit will survive.” Cindy snorted derisively.

“Well you are certainly in fine form today. Nervous or something?” William remarked.

Me nervous? Not on your life. I’ve got six charms that protect again fear and I’m wearing my lucky socks.” The medic glibly replied.

“You know sometimes I wonder if it is a wise of you to trust the woman with sharp objects and firearms Captain.”  Xavier said never taking her eyes off the vertical approach slope indictor now that she could see the Li zi Cheng port.

“And she should trust a woman that puts bone through her nose?” Cindy returned hotly.

“You have no room to talk considering some of the places you like having a bone-” Xavier began just as hotly.

“Enough!” Chan snapped. “Whether we wish to admit it or not, we are all more nervous than we care to admit, now stop squabbling.”

Xavier flared the shuttle into a precise touch down in the proscribed docking bay ninety-four and after initiating the power down sequence, turned to face the others. “I guess now is the time to see what we can make happen.”

“Okay you all know the plan.” Chan said standing and cycling the airlock. “Cindy and I will see what word is on the street about Keystone, while Xavier does her thing on the Cortex to plant suitable references for Li Ming AKA Tang Shuzhen investor and her silent bodyguard Lester Moore, better known to us all a William. I know we are over a hundred klicks from Keystone’s stomping grounds in Lychee City, but let’s not go out of our way to draw attention to ourselves. How long do you think it will take to plant the sort of bona fides Miss Tang here is going to need to satisfy Keystone?”

“Even with the Blue Sun algorithm, hacking is more of an art than a science. I’d like four hours to play it safe.” Xavier responded after several seconds of thought.

“That will give me plenty of time to find the proper garb that a well-heeled bodyguard to a lady of stature like Miss Tang is purported to be.” William added.

“And that is more than enough time for Cindy and I to case the area and see what information is available on Keystone, so we are set. We meet back here in four hours. Anyone got anything that needs saying?” Chan’s eyes swept across the crew and found only saw shaking heads. “Okay everyone, good hunting.”

 

“We are as ready we will ever be Captain.” William announced.

“Well come on out then William, it’s not like you to be shy.” Chan chided her first mate.

Li Ming flowed into the room, the liquid analogy being all too appropriate at capturing the fluid motion that came close to describing the woman’s graceful entrance. It seemed as if she had tapped into every bit of the ‘Verse’s six thousand years of written history concerning the art form of makeup, costume, and savoir-faire. Wong Li Ming had not joined them today, instead the glorious Tang Shuzhen had chosen to grace them with her presence. The transformation was at more than the physical level, even Li Ming’s demeanor had changed. Always blessed with an overabundance of confidence, the gambler had exploited that facet of her personality that she had always considered to be a positive trait and used that to fuel her new role.  No longer a stunning voluptuous woman in her late twenties, Li Ming now personified the aging dowager, once a great beauty in her earlier years, but possessed of such a royal carriage that time only enhanced what nature had given her like some grand dame from a long lost Earth-That-Was novel.

“Wow!” Was all Chan could say, when she found words.

“Then I take it that my outfit is a success?”  Tang Shuzhen said, for the voice that spoke was not that of Li Ming.

“You could say that and a hell of a lot more. How in the hell did you change your voice?” Xavier all but gasped.

“You have to thank our fine medic for that one.” Li Ming said with a twinkle in her eye.

“Just a careful injection of a minor toxin into the larynx that temporarily paralyzes a few of the vocal cords is all it is.” Cindy replied.

“A toxin? Since when did you become a ben tian sheng de yi dui rou[113]. woman? You let her poison your throat? That is a bit more that mama’s little girl Xavier would go for regardless of how important this meeting is going to be!”

“It only lasts for six hours and Li Ming’s voice will be back her same sweet honeyed dulcet tone that you all know and love.” William said entering the room with a flourish. “What no ‘wow’ for me? I assure you, I took as much time on my appearance that Li Ming did.”

“Er…wow.” Chan grinned.

“A sympathy ‘wow’ isn’t going to cut it mei mei. I want the real thing. Now I’m going to exit and reenter and this time I want a wow with feeling.” William did exactly as he said and departed the room and reentered with an even larger flourish.

“WOW!” Chan fawned, her eyes fluttering in rapture.

“Now that is more like it mei mei!”

This brought a comforting laugh from the assembled crew as they felt their plan to strike back was finally coming together.

“While there is no doubt we look the part of a ruthless wealthy investor and her personal guard, the question is now do we have the credentials to back us up?” The oddly juxtaposed Li Ming and Shuzhen voice asked.

“You are completely dialed in Li Ming…er…Shuzhen.” Xavier said with confidence despite stumbling over using Li Ming’s character name. “Thanks to Flannery’s disk I was able to insert a complete dossier on Miss Tang that will stand up to all but the most deliberate verification. As per the story we cooked up, you are the window of Tang Zedong of Sihnon. Your family was once powerful, but fell on hard times just as you became a debutante at your first cotillion. Your arranged marriage brought in a critical infusion of cash, but poor Zedong was killed less than a year later in a not fully explained shuttle crash. Bereaved or no, you took control of the family’s money and have for the past thirty years have earned a reputation as a woman that has quietly amassed power in circles that are not mentioned in polite company on any of the C