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[1] 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[2] 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[3]!” 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[4]!” 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[5]! 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[6]! 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[7], 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[8] 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[9].”

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.

 



[1] Panda urine

[2] Whores in hell

[3] Frog-humping sonofabitch

[4] Shut up, you inconsiderate schoolboys

[5] Baboon’s asscrack

[6] Like hell

[7] Horse butt

[8] Name of all that’s sacred

[9] Come in