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?” [1] 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[2] 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[3] 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[4] 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[5].” 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[6].” 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[7]! 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[8]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.

 



[1] Dog humping…cow poop.

[2] Sweet heart

[3] All the planets in space flushed into my butt

[4] stupid

[5] Remorseless harridan

[6] Watch your back.

[7] Merciful Buddha

[8] nuts