Chapter Thirteen

 

“Greenleaf approach control, this is shuttle 427. We are on the beam and at assigned altitude for landing in Li zi Cheng[1] over.” Xavier said trying her best to sound professional to the no nonsense authorities that tightly controlled all departures and arrivals on Greenleaf.

“Shuttle 427, you are cleared for at landing bay ninety-four. Any deviation from that order will result in defense systems destroying your ship. Greenleaf approach control out.”

“Understood control, shuttle 427 out.” Xavier signed off and turned to Chan in the co-pilot’s seat. “These guys really need to work on their social skills.”

“Despite how we’ve been treated, Greenleaf is the source of at least a third of all the meds in the ‘Verse. High value cargo typically leads to all sorts of theft. They got tired of them as what ain’t got taking from them as what do got.” Cindy interrupted before the captain had a chance to respond. “You just make sure you stay on the beam sweetcheeks.”

Xavier glared at the medic in response to the new nickname Cindy had hung on her and focused on keeping the locals from decided they were a threat.

“You two ready?” Chan said ignoring the exchange between the hacker and medic, turning instead to face William and Li Ming.

“I should say so mei mei, We are already ahead of the game thanks to Li Ming being zhen de shi tian cai[2] by suggesting using the plan we used to avoid Darius Nightblade the last time we visited Persephone and leaving the ‘Ghost out in space while we dropped in via shuttle.” William responded with a big grin directed toward the ship’s resident gambler.

“I just hope Marsh will forgive me for being left five hours away at the edge of the system.” Li Ming replied with a mischievous grin that indicated she wasn’t all that worried.

“Aw the little snit will survive.” Cindy snorted derisively.

“Well you are certainly in fine form today. Nervous or something?” William remarked.

Me nervous? Not on your life. I’ve got six charms that protect again fear and I’m wearing my lucky socks.” The medic glibly replied.

“You know sometimes I wonder if it is a wise of you to trust the woman with sharp objects and firearms Captain.”  Xavier said never taking her eyes off the vertical approach slope indictor now that she could see the Li zi Cheng port.

“And she should trust a woman that puts bone through her nose?” Cindy returned hotly.

“You have no room to talk considering some of the places you like having a bone-” Xavier began just as hotly.

“Enough!” Chan snapped. “Whether we wish to admit it or not, we are all more nervous than we care to admit, now stop squabbling.”

Xavier flared the shuttle into a precise touch down in the proscribed docking bay ninety-four and after initiating the power down sequence, turned to face the others. “I guess now is the time to see what we can make happen.”

“Okay you all know the plan.” Chan said standing and cycling the airlock. “Cindy and I will see what word is on the street about Keystone, while Xavier does her thing on the Cortex to plant suitable references for Li Ming AKA Tang Shuzhen investor and her silent bodyguard Lester Moore, better known to us all a William. I know we are over a hundred klicks from Keystone’s stomping grounds in Lychee City, but let’s not go out of our way to draw attention to ourselves. How long do you think it will take to plant the sort of bona fides Miss Tang here is going to need to satisfy Keystone?”

“Even with the Blue Sun algorithm, hacking is more of an art than a science. I’d like four hours to play it safe.” Xavier responded after several seconds of thought.

“That will give me plenty of time to find the proper garb that a well-heeled bodyguard to a lady of stature like Miss Tang is purported to be.” William added.

“And that is more than enough time for Cindy and I to case the area and see what information is available on Keystone, so we are set. We meet back here in four hours. Anyone got anything that needs saying?” Chan’s eyes swept across the crew and found only saw shaking heads. “Okay everyone, good hunting.”

 

“We are as ready we will ever be Captain.” William announced.

“Well come on out then William, it’s not like you to be shy.” Chan chided her first mate.

Li Ming flowed into the room, the liquid analogy being all too appropriate at capturing the fluid motion that came close to describing the woman’s graceful entrance. It seemed as if she had tapped into every bit of the ‘Verse’s six thousand years of written history concerning the art form of makeup, costume, and savoir-faire. Wong Li Ming had not joined them today, instead the glorious Tang Shuzhen had chosen to grace them with her presence. The transformation was at more than the physical level, even Li Ming’s demeanor had changed. Always blessed with an overabundance of confidence, the gambler had exploited that facet of her personality that she had always considered to be a positive trait and used that to fuel her new role.  No longer a stunning voluptuous woman in her late twenties, Li Ming now personified the aging dowager, once a great beauty in her earlier years, but possessed of such a royal carriage that time only enhanced what nature had given her like some grand dame from a long lost Earth-That-Was novel.

“Wow!” Was all Chan could say, when she found words.

“Then I take it that my outfit is a success?”  Tang Shuzhen said, for the voice that spoke was not that of Li Ming.

“You could say that and a hell of a lot more. How in the hell did you change your voice?” Xavier all but gasped.

“You have to thank our fine medic for that one.” Li Ming said with a twinkle in her eye.

“Just a careful injection of a minor toxin into the larynx that temporarily paralyzes a few of the vocal cords is all it is.” Cindy replied.

“A toxin? Since when did you become a ben tian sheng de yi dui rou[3]. woman? You let her poison your throat? That is a bit more that mama’s little girl Xavier would go for regardless of how important this meeting is going to be!”

“It only lasts for six hours and Li Ming’s voice will be back her same sweet honeyed dulcet tone that you all know and love.” William said entering the room with a flourish. “What no ‘wow’ for me? I assure you, I took as much time on my appearance that Li Ming did.”

“Er…wow.” Chan grinned.

“A sympathy ‘wow’ isn’t going to cut it mei mei. I want the real thing. Now I’m going to exit and reenter and this time I want a wow with feeling.” William did exactly as he said and departed the room and reentered with an even larger flourish.

“WOW!” Chan fawned, her eyes fluttering in rapture.

“Now that is more like it mei mei!”

This brought a comforting laugh from the assembled crew as they felt their plan to strike back was finally coming together.

“While there is no doubt we look the part of a ruthless wealthy investor and her personal guard, the question is now do we have the credentials to back us up?” The oddly juxtaposed Li Ming and Shuzhen voice asked.

“You are completely dialed in Li Ming…er…Shuzhen.” Xavier said with confidence despite stumbling over using Li Ming’s character name. “Thanks to Flannery’s disk I was able to insert a complete dossier on Miss Tang that will stand up to all but the most deliberate verification. As per the story we cooked up, you are the window of Tang Zedong of Sihnon. Your family was once powerful, but fell on hard times just as you became a debutante at your first cotillion. Your arranged marriage brought in a critical infusion of cash, but poor Zedong was killed less than a year later in a not fully explained shuttle crash. Bereaved or no, you took control of the family’s money and have for the past thirty years have earned a reputation as a woman that has quietly amassed power in circles that are not mentioned in polite company on any of the Core Worlds. Hard information on you is even harder to come by, mostly rumors and that digging too deep into your background can be unhealthy. Since I don’t mind saying so myself, its gorram good work.”

“I like your confidence.” Li Ming smiled.

“You would.” Chan interjected. “Now going by what Cindy and I dug up, Keystone may play the role of the wealthy completely above board senior advocate, like a lot of others in his line of work, he’s got dealings that that his high-powered clientele would rather not know about.”

“You got that solid?” Li Ming asked.

“No not even close, took Cindy and I most of our four hours to very carefully dig that little tidbit out of the rumor mill. Keystone is such a high roller and has so many levels of go betweens that no one at the peon level knows anything for certain.”

“But the fact that the rumors exist lends credence to Keystone actually having those sorts of dealings.” William added. “If he was completely above board, our plan wouldn’t work, that he has other shady dealings should give us our in.”

“Then I guess it is time to make the call.” Li Ming nodded absently.

“Agreed.” Chan replied. “We’ll make ourselves scarce and let you work your magic.”   

The rest of the crew vacated the shuttle and William helped Li Ming set up the elaborate wall hangings that would be behind and frame the gambler with the trappings of a luxurious personal yacht. Once the backdrop was in place, William stood behind Li Ming, his face set in his own role of that of the ever present and ever professional bodyguard. With one last look over her shoulder at William, Li Ming smiled at his nod and activated the Cortex.

“Keystone. Do I know you? How did you get this number?”

“My name is Tang Shuzhen and you can’t expect a lady to reveal all of her secrets can you Mister Keystone?”

“I can when they call me on my unlisted number, so I will ask you again, how did you get this number?” Keystone repeated, his voice taking on a hard edge.

“We have a mutual acquaintance, one Lloyd Flannery. Some of my associates have had previous dealings with some of his associates. And as I never deal with anyone but the person in charge of any business dealings in which I enter, your extracurricular activities required me to talk to you directly.”

“I have no idea what you mean, don’t call this number again.” Keystone’s hand moved as if to end the call.

“Before you act hastily, I happen to know your most lucrative interest has suffered a severe set back by some unworthy opponents and I know you seek redress, I can assist with both of those endeavors.” Li Ming held her breath as everything hinged on what Keystone did next.

“You dignify them by calling them opponents.”

“Perhaps I used an overly generous title, but I needed to gain your attention.” Internally Li Ming breathed a deep sigh of relief.

“You’ve got thirty seconds.”

“I like a businessman that knows the value of time. Obviously I can not go into detail into for such a…private matter, but I have dealings not too dissimilar to yours and I have a group of worthy employees that can take the place of those of yours lost in that terrible accident near Boros. I’m certain you have been using my allotted thirty seconds to verify what passes as the truth about me and my family.”

“You are canny enough I suppose. You have managed to intrigue me Mrs. Tang and while I completely disavow knowing of any of the incidents of which you speak, I do think we should talk further in a more private setting. Going by some of your holdings, I’m certain a woman of your status must consult with advocates frequently.”

“I do Mister Keystone, far more than I like.”

“I have an opening in my schedule in three hours, can you be here?”

“I can.”

“See you then.” Li Ming closed the channel and sagged in exhaustion.

“You did it!” William exclaimed and pulled his partner into a massive bear hug.

“Don’t muss my outfit you goon!”

“Oh right sorry.” William blushed slightly. “Got a little carried away there, let me go tell the others we are in business.

“We have only just barely gotten to phase one William, we’ve still got a ways to go before we celebrate.”

“Nonsense, getting to phase one was the most important part, but I understand where you are coming from. I’ll take care of getting the tickets for the bullet train we have to take to get from  Li zi Cheng to Lychee City.”

“See you outside.” William exited the shuttle and informed the others of what had happened with Keystone.

As she heard the whoops of joy Li Ming stood and took another deep breath. “Now if we can just survive phase two that will be something to celebrate.” She thought before she went outside to join the rest of the crew.

 

Mrs. Tang Shuzhen and her silent bodyguard were ushered into Keystone’s office exactly three hours later by Miss Dubois. Flashing her most brilliant smile as she entered, the elegant older woman sat down gracefully in the chair across from the large finely grained wooden desk.

“Tea?” Keystone asked playing a role of his own, that of debonair host, to the fullest.

“Please.” Li Ming responded.

“Audrey. Darjeeling for two. ”

Keystone’s personal assistant brought in the tea, poured, and departed, closing the door behind her as she left.  

“This is an exquisite cup, dare I ask if it is an Earth-That-Was original?”

“You may, however, the set itself is not an original. The pattern is, but the set was crafted on Sihnon two hundred years ago.”

“I admire beautiful things Mister Keystone, but I admire those with the discriminating taste to know beautiful things as well.”

“My sources tell me you are, among other things a collector of repute Mrs. Tang, but the relative merit of fine collectables is not what brought you to my office today.”

“And there is your, also to be admired, understanding of the value of time again. Truth be said Mister Keystone, despite the fine trappings your extensive clientele has brought you, we both know the true source of your success is your ‘other’ business dealings, the ones unknown to your connections in the corporate structure of Blue Sun.”

“Your words imply that you believe you know much about me, which leaves me at the disadvantage as I do not know near enough about you.”

“I have made it my business to be as enigmatic about my…interests as possible, the less the government and competitors know about me, the less they can take advantage of a poor widow simply trying to look out for herself in these interesting times that we all live in.”

“A widow you may be, but ‘poor’ has never been a part of your vocabulary. A shrewd widow is perhaps a more fitting title.”

“Perhaps…” Li Ming put down the delicate bone china teacup and stabbed Keystone with a knowing gaze. Pausing long enough to ensure she had his undivided attention. “To get right to the point Mister Keystone, you have recently had a run of bad luck. Two major operations concerning a lucrative ‘pharmaceutical’ opportunity that was the central part of your off the record business holdings have been severely disrupted in the last two months.”

“I do not know what you could be talking about Mrs. Tang, but, in fact, I am far more interested in how you happened to come into believing this to be true.”

“As you alluded to earlier, I have a reputation for many things, some true, many not, but one thing that is true is that keeping an eye on the market value of commodities in the ‘Verse is very important to me. Recently, there has been a ‘Verse-wide spike in prices in a by-product exported at ruinous tax rates from right here on Greenleaf. This spike would be a golden opportunity for a ‘shrewd’ investor, if not for the fact that the correlating spike in prices has happened at a time of an unprecedented decrease in the supply of this commodity. You used to be a major supplier and the disruption of your operations has had a ripple affect on some of my own holdings. I wish to assist you re-establish your original source of the product so that we may mutually benefit.”

“Mrs. Tang, you must be mistaken, I am only what it says on the building directory in the lobby, an advocate. I do not have any other businesses.”

“Now who is wasting time Mister Keystone?”

Despite his many years of arguing in court, the woman in his office confounded Keystone. She seemed to know more than she had a right to know and he was not used to being on the short end of the information stick. It had been years since he’d faced an opponent that had the best of him and knew they had the best of him. This forced Keystone to change his tack.

“If such a business dealing existed, which I am not confirming, what makes you so certain you could assist in correcting the balance of trade?”

“Having cargo shipped around the ‘Verse is not without risk Mister Keystone, you are certainly aware of that fact. Ships have accidents, crews can be disloyal, and even fraud or outright theft are all part of the shipping industry, true?”

“Too true.”

“All business have to have…security procedures to mitigate against these unfortunate events and those procedures can take many forms, both passive and active, true?”

“Also true.” The frown on Keystone’s brow showed he was in deep thought as he followed along to see if he liked where he was being lead.

“Because of all these threats to my shipping interests, I have had to implement many security procedures, background checks on employees, biometric scans, tracking devices, security officers, hardware and software. As you are well aware, these are all standard things to protect an investor’s property.”

“Yes Mrs. Tang all standard procedures, but your point?”

“I was just getting to that. Now since I do conduct a lot of shipping operations of goods that are of substantial value, I have had to take special precautions for the most valuable shipments. Namely, I have outfitted a special ‘security’ vessel that has served my business very well in these uncertain times both as a courier and as an escort. I propose that if I allow you use of this vessel and her hand picked, experienced crew, you will allow me a portion of this new pipeline of the previously alluded to commodity that is in such short supply.”

“An interesting proposal to be sure…” Keystone dissembled in an effort to buy time to think. “Ever since the Star Knight plowed into that bloody asteroid thanks to the interference caused by the godforsaken Lattimer’s Ghost, I’ve been in search of a replacement ship and crew.” He thought. “And with the loss of the Whitefall facility, the boss has been so desperate that he’s been talking crazy talk to consider an even more godforsaken option. Damn it all can I believe this woman?” Exhaling softly, he steepled his hands in front of him before continuing aloud.

“So, you just happen to have an fully operational vessel on hand, you do know that sounds like a frightfully over convenient coincidence don’t you?”

“Your track record as an advocate implies you are not easily frightened Mister Keystone.” Li Ming said challenging his ego, knowing he also had a record for being vain and for the simple undeniable fact he was a man.

“Fear is not found in my lexicon.” Keystone all but bristled. “I am again not going to confirm any of your suppositions, but such a vessel could be useful in the right business venture. As I said earlier, you intrigue me Mrs. Tang. However, the arrangement you propose is outside my purview as an advocate.”

”I see Mister Keystone, it was my understanding that you were the one in charge.” Li Ming said cautiously now uncertain of what to say next. Thinking furiously, she almost missed the next thing that Keystone said.

“I do however have a client that may be interested in your proposal.”

“Then by all means tell me their name and I will not bother you again.”

“An advocate lives on being able to be discrete Mrs. Tang, I know you understand that concept, so I am going to ask you to wait in my lobby while I make a call and see if I can set up a meeting with this individual.”

“You are too kind Mister Keystone, I knew you were the sort of man I would like to do business with.” Li Ming smiled, standing with poise despite a body that was no longer capable of the fluid motion of her youth.

“This will be but a moment.” Keystone said punching in an access code to send a wave.

“Take all the time necessary Mister Keystone, as we have discussed, time is a commodity itself, but I believe that waiting for this wave happens to be capital well spent.”

Less than five minutes later, Keystone entered the lobby with a big smile on his face and holding a digital assistant. “It took some doing, but my client has agreed to meet!”

“Wonderful.”

“Indeed. Can your man take a set of coordinates?”

“Lester is a man of many talents, but the answer to your question is yes.”

“Excellent, can you be at these coordinates in an hour?” Keystone said eying William with obvious skepticism.

William took a look at the data, nodded silently, and copied them to his multi-band.

“It has been a delight making your acquaintance Mister Keystone.” Li Ming said standing and offering her hand to him in grand fashion.

“And I yours Mrs. Tang.” Keystone replied kissing her hand in equally grand fashion.

“I’m certain your client will find the potential profit in the arrangement I suggested to all of our benefit. Now I must leave if I am to make this meeting on time. Good day to your sir.”

“Good day Mrs. Tang.” Keystone watched the two depart and turned to head for his office.

“Mister Keystone?”

“Yes Audrey?”

“That was your last appointment for the day.”

“Oh excellent, place a reservation with Le Bistro Provence I feel like celebrating tonight.”

“Very good sir.”

 

“You did it Li Ming! Damn that was phenomenal!” William said as they boarded the mag-lev train for the port.

“Well I did something, but I thought Keystone was the end of the line, now we’ve got to meet with someone we don’t even know about. I don’t know about you, but I’m a little freaked out at the moment.”

“Despite my outward of appearance of jocularity, I too am a bundle of nerves. But look at it this way, if Keystone reports to this client, they have got to be the pointy end of the pyramid. This is the hun dan that is calling the shots and we’ve finally got a crack at them.”

“Yeah that is good news. When will the shuttle be here?”

“I sent Chan a wave as soon as we left the building, they’ll be here in fifteen minutes. Marsh is on his way, but is a bit over an hour out. We’ll make the rendezvous with no problem, but the ‘Ghost will have to go through all the hoops to make orbit and obtain permission to land. I’m not sure he’ll make it in time to be of much use to us.”

“Marsh will make it happen.”

“I know, that’s what worries me.”

 

“All aboard who’s going aboard!” Chan shouted from the shuttle’s airlock when she saw Li Ming and William approaching.

“Well said mei mei, I knew I was having a positive influence on you.”

“I’ll agree to you having an influence, but the jury is still out on whether it is positive on not. Now hurry up and get strapped in, we’ll be pushing it hard to make the rendezvous as it is.”

En route, the entire contact team had time to get ready for the meeting. Which to the crew of the Lattimer’s Ghost, that meant getting ready for battle. Chan and Cindy got into full armor and did last minute pre-combat checks on all of their weapons. William and Li Ming donned more discrete armor under their costumes and even Xavier, who would stay with the shuttle as pilot got into her body armor in case the plan went south.

Xavier touched down in a secluded mountain resort where Li Ming and William exited to wait for their contact. Chan and Cindy waited at the ready for whatever contingency the plan, which they were making up as they went, deemed necessary. The crew had been in place for ten minutes when a very sleek and obviously expensive yacht flared for a landing.

“Mister Marsh if you do not slow down, approach control is going to open fire on us!” Willis barked into the intercom. “If you do not cease hard burn, I am going to shut it down myself.”

“Damn it all Willis, the Captain needs us!”

“This I do not dispute, but our ability to assist while in the form of rapidly cooling plasma is of such a limited degree that she would be better served if we arrive in a more useful form.”

“Okay, okay, slowing to normal burn.”

“Thank you, now I shall endeavor to ensure the engine is ready if we should require hard burn on departure.” Willis switched off the intercom and began making the adjustments that would indeed make sure the Lattimer’s Ghost was ready for maximum effort.

 

Five men exited the yacht that sported the single character Cheng that proclaimed her name was ‘Accomplished’ exactly what that accomplishment consisted of was unknown, but the barely restrained look of velocity inherent in the design all but screamed some sort of speed record. Four of the men where clearly bodyguards of the highly proficient, professional, and deadly sort, while the fifth man was just as clearly their contact.

Ti wo de pi gu![4]William all but choked in shock and it took every fiber of his being to keep that shock from registering on his face when he recognized their contact, but was forced to stay silent if he was to keep up his act as Tang Shuzhen’s personal guard. “That little punk was a member of Baron Chang’s entourage when that old hun dan summoned us to his tribunal and forced us to do his dirty work for him and I can’t say a gorram thing! I have no choice but to keep light on my feet and see how this mess plays out.”

“I am Tang Shuzhen.” Li Ming said pouring on the charm as the man who couldn’t be more than twenty stopped in front of her.

“I have the honor to be Chang Ai Rui. It seems our mutual acquaintance Mister Keystone seems to think you have a viable business proposition.” The arrogant young man said with the unmistakable air of someone born to status and wealth that they had done nothing to earn, but felt the entire universe owed them everything.

Li Ming’s experience with keeping a straight face learned over a decade of gambling allowed her to keep the surprise of who their contact was from showing, but the revelation did force her to adjust how she would handle what had all the potential of being a very volatile situation from getting worse.

“I am honored to meet the son of such a prominent family.” Li Ming smoothly purred. “Since I know your time is valuable. I have a ship and crew that is capable of taking the place of the one you lost near Boros. Fast, discretely equipped, and most importantly manned by a trustworthy crew. I dare say a ship of better quality than the one that suffered the accident.”

“Keystone implied your offer would be interesting and I must say he was right for a change. His track record was once extremely good, but he has recently proved to be less than effective than I had hoped in dealing with an unforeseen situation.”

“He struck me as effective enough in his chosen field, but I can not see where he would be as effective as someone who is used to dealing with individuals that span a wide spectrum of social standings. Unlike someone such as myself, who has had decades adapting to the realities that the fates have handed out. His ilk are ill at ease outside of the rarified atmosphere to which they aspire, unlike a man of noble blood such as yourself, actually born to rule.”

“Your reputation seems to be well deserved. I need underlings that know their place. Keystone has had trouble remembering he is not of the blood at times.”

“I have no such pretensions Mister Chang. My family is an old one, but it has never been a noble one. My place is to assist in your success and in so doing, make a living for myself.”

“Mrs. Tang I believe we can do business. Keystone sent me the Blue Sun file on you and I like how you have kept your dealings so discrete. The opportunities for trade are far greater than my father understands and I can not do business with someone that doesn’t understand the need for discretion.”

“I understand completely.”

William saw the eyes of one of Chang’s bodyguards widen and leaned forward ready to react in a split second if the man moved, but the man remained in place watching William as warily as William was watching him.

“Your offer comes at a most opportune time as my distributorship has recently suffered a couple of set backs from some insignificant pests that have caused trouble far out of proportion to their worth.”

“I am a woman that does her research before entering into any business venture, so the timing is not completely coincidental. The disruption of the supply of the opportunity you mention has had an effect on the market that is impossible to ignore. I saw a chance to assist in restoring the supply and took steps accordingly. I believe I could also assist in helping you with your pest problem.”

“As annoying as they are, they are almost secondary to the lengths I have to go to restore my source of supply. The pressure from my distributors has been so intense that I am sure you can see the irony of someone of my standing having to lower myself to the point of being forced to speak to such a vile sector of society as the Hip Sing Tong. In fact-

At this point the alerted bodyguard could restrain himself no longer and interrupted Chang with a hand on the younger man’s shoulder. The immature noble snarled at the interruption, but goggled in complete astonishment when the bodyguard pointed at William. There was a split second as both sides realized the situation, then everyone went for guns.

 

As weapons cleared leather, the quiet of the mountain resort was shattered by the sharp crack of gunfire. Being the best that money could hire, two of Chang’s bodyguards were the first to fire, picking the closest target in the form of Li Ming. Seeing the others would fire before she did, the nimble gambler dived to one side in a fluid motion, sidestepping the shots and drawing her never fired and recently acquired Le Mat model pistol, firing the shotgun round at one of the guards. Her shot struck one of the men solidly in the chest, but had little very effect beyond revealing that the bodyguards were wearing the same heavy armor as Chan and Cindy.

Chan and Cindy bolted from cover as soon as Chang’s bodyguards moved with Chan taking a snap shot at the same guard Li Ming just hit. Slowed by being hit by the gambler, the man was unable to fully evade the auto-fire attack from Chan’s assault rifle, but again thanks to his armor, was barely fazed by the grazing hit.

William had time to register that the bodyguard who had spoken to Chang was pulling his egotistical change toward his yacht as the fourth man laid down covering fire on William. The big first mate felt the impact of the pistol shot punch him in the gut hard enough to drive him back a step and down on one knee.

Cindy stopped and took a quick shot at the fleeing Chang, fortunately for the young noble, he was also wearing body armor and at fairly long range for Cindy’s submachine gun. The medic’s shot deflected off Chang’s body armor, but in a stroke of unbelievable luck, a slug flattened by his armor struck the bodyguard that had spoken in the side of the head, crumpling the man as if he had been pole axed.  

William’s weapon finally cleared his concealed carry holster and he sighted in on the guard that had shot him. The slug from William’s pistol struck the man in his weapon arm, but he was able to not only hang onto the weapon, but snap an unnaturally fast second shot at the first mate. William took the shot square in chest and was left all but unconscious as the cumulative shock from the impact of two heavy pistol rounds.

Li Ming saw William reeling from the onslaught and switched her Le Mat from shot to slugs and snapped off three rapid fire shots at the man that hit William returning the favor in spades, but causing her pistol to jam. However, the three slugs from the Le Mat caused the bodyguard to fold over like a sack of flour.

Chan fired a second burst at the fleeing Chang however, despite his superior attitude the immature noble was smart enough to realize just how gravely his life was threatened. He put on a spurt of speed and dived for the safety of his yacht, his two bodyguards following their deeply ingrained training and shielding their charge with their bodies and return fire.   

Moving in bounds, just as she had during the Unification War, Cindy kept a nearly continuous stream of fire on the two remaining bodyguards. “Die you wang ba dan de biao zi[5]! DIE!” She raged and smiled grimly as one of the men collapsed from her fire. The last man took a quick look and realized he was alone and chose discretion over valor, bolting for the safety of the yacht.

 

As soon as the shooting started, Xavier reinitiated the start up sequence on the shuttle and screamed into the transceiver for an update on the location of the Lattimer’s Ghost. “Damn it Marsh where in the hell are you?”

“I’m enterin’ a parkin’ orbit in a south polar insertion. Since we don’t got a cargo, I can’t get clearance to land! What’s going on?”

“Big dust up between our guys and the contact’s bodyguards, things are about to get interesting.”

“As soon as you can give me a vector that won’t get me blazed, let me know and I’ll scoop ya’ll up!”

“Things are hopping, but I’ll do what I can do!”

 

Outside, Chan and Cindy closed on the fleeing bodyguard taking turns firing on him to halt his escape. Cindy managed to hit the man just as he entered his yacht, but his body armor saved him from injury and failed to prevent him from reaching safety.

“You going to make it?” Li Ming managed to ask breathlessly as she unjammed her pistol.

“Gorram hurts to no end, but I’m shiny enough I suppose.” William grunted in obvious pain as he straightened up. “Let’s get those qiang bao hou zi de hun dan[6]!”

“Damn too late!” Li Ming responded as she saw the yacht’s hatch slammed shut. “GOS SE that punk is going to get away! Quick to the shuttle!”

Wo de ma[7]!” Chan screamed as she backpedaled away from Chang’s yacht, knocking Cindy to safety from the searing heat of the yacht’s engine exhaust.

“T-th-th-thanks.” Cindy stammered in a daze.

“Shut up and run woman! Get your slow moving pi gu into the shuttle!” Chan snarled, grabbing the medic’s arm and half dragging her in the proper direction as she watched Chang’s yacht lifting at an impossible angle, screaming for altitude.

Xavier had the shuttle ready but had to wait for the rest of the crew to board before she could lift. William staggered aboard with Li Ming’s help and she helped get William strapped in.

“You tracking him?” Li Ming barked as she joined Xavier at the shuttle’s controls.

“I’ve got him! The little weasel is heading straight for the city!”

“He’ll lose us in traffic if-”

“GO! GO! GO” Chan growled as she and Cindy cycled the airlock. Li Ming slammed full power to the engines and roared in pursuit seconds behind the powerful yacht.

 

Taking his yacht into heavy planetary traffic, Chang was leaving absolute chaos in his wake. Li Ming and Xavier squeezed every ounce of speed they could out of their shuttle, but they were just outclassed by the unmatched speed of the noble’s play thing.

“Break right!” Xavier screamed when she spotted what looked like an aero-taxi closing in from above.

“I see them! Hang on and keep feeding me lateral compensation!”

Snapping clear of the potential collision Li Ming managed to keep Chang’s yacht in sight. The two women complimented each other brilliantly staying fairly close to the powerful ship despite Chang’s best attempts to lose them.

“Thank whatever powers that be that he’s flying like a maniac that the planetary defenses can’t get a lock on!” Xavier said through clinched teeth when Li Ming executed another wild maneuver to avoid city cross traffic.

“The Buddha is merciful!” Li Ming responded absently, then blanched as Chang pulled his wildest stun yet, executing a suicidal roll between a large freighter and an approaching tug. Li Ming tried to follow but it was instantly clear that the tiny opening would close before they could slip through.

Knowing with certainty that they faced a fatal collision, Xavier saw Li Ming freeze and yanked the controls as hard as she could. Xavier was vaguely aware of Li Ming’s and the overloading anti-grav drive’s screams as she rolled the shuttle upside down and pitched the nose up violently. She saw the freighter loom unbelievably large and felt a sickening certainty that she had failed. However, the shuttle had gotten so close to the larger ship that the freighter’s anti-grav reacted to that of the shuttle’s and forced the smaller vessel downward into the clear. When the universe stopped spinning, Xavier regained control and had the shuttle clawing for altitude.

“You are insane!” Chan said breaking the stunned silence. “No, you are beyond insane. No, damn it all there isn’t a word for what you are!”

“She saved our lives Captain, which is more than what I managed to do.” Li Ming said so softly she was almost drowned out by the scream of the shuttle’s engine.

“She what? Oh…right…she did at that.” Chan deflated as the realization of how close to disaster they had come sank in. Not willing to admit too much gratitude at this point, she changed the topic. “Where is Marsh?”

“I’m having a little trouble hearing him over all the cross talk” Xavier responded slowly, clearly shaken by her own actions.

“Cross talk?” Chan asked, color returning to her face in addition to the confusion.

“Approach control is about to give birth to a water buffalo and every ship within two hundred kilometers is expressing their opinion of our personal habits and family histories.” Xavier’s voice getting stronger as she thought about some of the things she’d heard over the transceiver.

“I just bet they are, but Chang is as much responsible as we are. Hell, what am I saying? He’s completely responsible!” Chan replied indignantly. “And where is Marsh?”

“We’ll do an in flight hook up just outside of atmo Captain. We’re less than five minutes from docking.” Li Ming said regaining some of her composure.

“Yeah I suspect on the fly is best. Not going to be welcome on Greenleaf any time soon, but five minutes will be too late. Chang’s gone, we lost his trail.”

“Wait a minute! Did you say trail?” Cindy said speaking for the first time since the near collision.

“Yeah trail, what about it?” Chan growled unintentionally.

“It may be everything. You saw that bullet Chang was flying. It has to be a custom job or so juiced that the exhaust has got to be traceable!”

“That is a brilliant idea! We’ll know in a minute!” Chan exclaimed.

The shuttle docked and Chan was first out the airlock bolting for the bridge at top speed. Li Ming and Xavier followed. When William tried to follow he heard Cindy behind him.

“And just where do you think you are going?” She asked in a tone that seemed to hold all the authority in the ‘Verse.

“To go outside and tap dance. Where do you think I’m going?”

“The infirmary.”

“What?”

“The infirmary, I know you’ve heard of it.”

“My place is on the bridge!”

“Not like you can help with the sensor readings. You’d just be in the way, so why not do the smart thing and have those ribs checked out?”

“Damn you for being logical.”

“Nice of you to see reason, now let me help you.” Cindy slipped her arm around the first mate and helped him in the opposite direction of where the others had gone.

 

“If Mister Chang the younger had not gone to hard burn on leaving atmo, I don’t think we would have found his trail so readily.” Willis said after nearly an hour of frantic of fine tuning the sensors.

“But you found him right?” Chan asked nervously.

“The signature is already startin’ to get faint Cap, but I’ve got him.” Marsh grinned evilly.

“Then hard burn man, that gazelle of his is not going to get any closer with you talking!” William said irritably, the bandages around his large frame already itching.

“Where’s he headed?” Chan inquired.

“Boy’s not too bright. Not even tryin’ to mask his course. Guess being all uppity as he is, he thinks no one could catch him in the first place.”

“That’s nice Marsh, but the question is where is he going?” William added with an edge entering his voice.

“No need to go get uppity your own self there William, but the boy is headed for Jiang Yin.”

“Now why would a paragon of the nobility want to go to a backwater no where like that?” Cindy asked perplexed.

“If I am remembering correctly, that would be the home of the Hip Sing Tong. Chang must be desperate to be stooping that low.” William replied.

“He could have parked at Parliament House on Londinum for all I care thinking he could get away, but on Jiang Yin he is far less likely to be able to call on any of daddy’s friends to shield his worthless hide.” Chan said fiercely.

“Agreed mei mei. The ‘Verse isn’t big enough for him to hide now that we know who the puppet master is that has made out lives so hard for so long.”

“Mister Marsh.”

“Yes Captain?”

“I believe the order given by the first mate was hard burn.”

“You got it Cap.”

 

The pulse drive of the Lattimer’s Ghost lit up with the brilliant flare of yellow that had given the Firefly-class its name and the old ship leapt to maximum speed. Perhaps the adjustments Willis had made to enhance the output from the engines was the answer, but as the ship reached maximum speed, Marsh could feel an odd vibration through the control yoke that wasn’t normally there. The vibration was small enough that he didn’t mention it, but it almost felt like the Lattimer’s Ghost was just as eager to catch Chang as the rest of the crew.

 



[1] Plum City

[2] An absolute genius

[3] Stupid inbred stack of meat

[4] Literally: Kick me in the bottom, but expresses “I am an idiot.”

[5] Whores of SOBs

[6] Monkey raping bastards

[7] Mother of god