Chapter Fourteen

 

The trip from Greenleaf to Jiang Yin at hard burn was only a fifty-four hour journey, but Chang’s yacht was so much faster than anything the Lattimer’s Ghost could hope to match that by the time Marsh slowed to enter the atmosphere, the emissions he’d been tracking had had time to almost completely degrade. Tracking the fugitive Chang would have been a near impossibility on even a sparsely populated planet like Jiang Yin, but just one of a series of things the young noble had underestimated was the resourcefulness of a mechanic motivated to make amends for a mistake in judgment.

“Try it now Mister Marsh, I was able to improve the gain another eight percent.” Willis said from under the pilot’s console.

“Scannin’, scannin’, scannin’, No damn it, still nothin’…wait! I’ve got a trace!”  Marsh replied excitedly after the first contact they’d found since arriving three hours earlier.

“Its way weak, but it’s him aright! Slippery hun dan.” The pilot continued as he drove the Lattimer’s Ghost from high orbit and into the planet’s gravity well. “Damn, I’m losin’ the trace. Can you give me any more gain?”

“I have already exceeded design parameters by twenty percent, any more power forced through these circuits and they will fuse.” Willis replied tensely, engrossed with keeping the sensors from doing just that.

“Damn atmo churn is screwing up the scan!” Chan hissed in frustration from her post in the co-pilot’s station.

GOS SE I’ve lost it!” Marsh snarled and swore viciously.

“You get any kind of vector?” Chan said through clenched teeth.

“Just the southern hemisphere.”

“Then we only have half a planet to search mei mei, things could be far worse/” William said softly from the captain’s side.

“Things can always be worse, so if half a planet is as close as we can narrow the search, then we’ll have to search half a bloody planet.” Chan said with her head on her open palm as it rested on arm the of the co-pilot’s chair.

“A fancy boat like his Lordship’s is bound to stand out on a dump like Jiang Yin, hell a fancy rig like that would stand out anywhere Cap, we just got to ask the right folk.” Marsh offered as he brought the Lattimer’s Ghost down to an altitude of three hundred meters.

“Mister Marsh is right Captain, we’ll have to be discrete about it as any ship stands out on Jiang Yin, but someone saw that ship arrive.” Willis added as he closed the access panel he’d been buried shoulders deep in earlier. “I just do not know how much time we have. Chang the younger is both immature and desperate, a most dangerous combination.”

“Any species in most dangerous when cornered, but you’ve all gotten so focused on tracking Chang’s yacht that you are over looking something obvious.” Li Ming said entering the bridge.

“Okay swami, spill it.” William snorted in disbelief.

“I see the same sort of thing at gaming tables all the time. Typically happens to rookies, but it can happen to anyone, a player can get so focused on making one hand, they miss another right in from of them. Right now you are trying so hard to fill an inside straight that you are missing the flush you are holding.”

“Very alliterative with all those gambling metaphors you tied in there, but you didn’t really get to any point.” William replied with uncharacteristic shortness.

“Then I’ll speak more plainly. You are all wound up trying to find Chang’s yacht, when there is a larger and more clearly defined objective that resides here that is well known to the residents of Jiang Yin, namely the Hip Sing Tong.”

“Well that makes it clear that I am too damn tired.” Chan said pinching the bridge of her nose as she realized she had over looked the obvious.

“And I owe you an apology Miss Wong.” William said bowing formally.

“You’ve all been on the bridge for nearly thirty hours. Not like I discovered a new branch of physics or something.” Li Ming smiled and returned the courtesy with a text-wave curtsey.

“Marsh set us down about twenty-five klicks from the largest village you can find on this continent. We’ll have to do a standard spiral search from that point, but someone has to know where the Hip Sing calls home.” Chan said lifting herself from her chair. I’m going to take a shower and get two hours sleep. “I suggest the rest of you do the same. Thanks for the sanity check Li Ming.”

“Don’t mention it Captain. Sleep well.”

“I will.” Chan yawned.

 

William and Chan disembarked after Marsh relocated the Lattimer’s Ghost, a little over two hours later, both looking refreshed from the much needed breather and headed into the sad little village that hadn’t bothered to post sign on its outskirts.

“I guess if you are from around here, you know what the town is called and if you’re not, then my take is they don’t want you to know what they call the town.” William remarked on entering the little village.

“Sounds reasonable, I just hope someone in this little fei wu[1] town knows something.”

“Might not want to go saying that too loud mei mei. The place may not be much by the way we figure things, but it is everything in the ‘Verse to them.”

“I’m certain you are right about that, it seems the smaller the town was back on Aberdeen, the more uptight they would get if you said anything about it. I take it that establishment over there is the saloon, so not to be cliché, but I suppose that is the best place to start, after you my good man.” Chan said opening the door with a flourish.

“Thank you ma’am.” William replied tipping his hat and entering the dreary and faded clapboard building.

It took a couple seconds for his eyes to adjust to the dim interior and when they did, he was even less impressed by the inside than the outside. A handful of battered tables with mismatched chairs, a bamboo counter, and a décor that was equal parts dingy and garish. Only one other man, who sat alone at a table in the middle of the room, was inside besides the aged barkeeper.

“Good day to you elder, two shots of whiskey please.” Chan flashed what she hoped was a friendly smile.

“Show money first.” The man demanded.

Chan slid two platinum coins across the counter. The man responded by looking at the two strangers in front of him long and hard before grunting, scooping up the coins, and reaching for a dusty bottle. He pushed a couple of indifferently cleaned glasses in the strangers’ direction and poured a liquid that at least resembled the amber color of whiskey. They both downed the shots grimacing at the less than whiskey like taste.

“My name is Chan Juan and this big fellah here is William, I’m certain that you’ve figured out by now that we’re both from the ship that just touched down and new in town.” Chan waited in vain for any kind of response before plunging ahead with the plan she had rehearsed. “Well then, we’re free traders and we are looking to do any sort of business we can find. You know anyone in these parts that might need to move any cargo or need something transported? Anywhere in the ‘Verse no questions for them as what can pay.”

“I’m not knowing you. No can help.”

“Er…well thank you for your time and the…passable whiskey.” Chan managed to say with a smile, but only just.

They exited the saloon and glanced up the length of the one street that comprised the village and the only other business to be seen was a general store. Chan and William looked askance at each other and silently headed for the establishment that looked every bit as down at the heels as the inhospitable saloon.

“Good morning strangers, right fancy ship you have out there.” The proprietor of the store said with a big smile as they entered. “What brings ya’ll to Sunrise?”

“You know how it is on the Rim friend, looking what work there is to be done.” Chan smiled back, relieved on discovering that not everyone in the town was as hostile as the saloon keeper. “Do you mind me telling you that you sure are different from that bartender at the other end of the block, downright unfriendly that one.”

“Jamison? Yeah, if ya’lls family don’t go back three generations worth of Sunrise livin’ he can’t see as you havin’ any use to him. Might be tough on new customers, but not like that comes up all that much, hell, your’n the first strangers we’ve had in town in nigh on five, six years. Jiang Yin ain’t exactly known fer bein’ a tourist spot and all you see. Oh, where are the manners my mama pounded into me? Thomas Parker at your service.”

Hello Mister Park-” Chan began.

“Tom.”

“Sure thing Tom, I’m Chan and this is William. As you sussed out, we are new to Jiang Yin and figured you folk had to have things as need to be taken to other places in exchange for things you don’t make locally. We were hoping that maybe we could work up a means of making such an exchange pay off for everyone involved.

“Idea sounds nice up on the front end of it, but I’m not sure’n ya’ll get more’n a handful of others to go for it though. Not like there’s much of a surplus o’ anything’ fer tradin’ no how in the first place.”

“Know any place hereabouts or even farther out that might be interested?”

“Most folk, me included ain’t been more’n than twenty miles from where they was born. I get to hear a bit more’n others thanks my line o’ work, but I don’t know any place on Jiang Yin that has enough goods fer regular like trade.”

“Times is hard.” Chan nodded in understanding.

“They sure is. I know this ain’t hardly likely, but you folk lookin’ to buy anythin’?”

“While you’ve got some fine merchandise here Tom, not much call for farm or ranching gear on a ship like ours. Maybe you could help with something else though?”

“Like I said earlier, no one in Sunrise gets around much, but ya never know. What’s got ya all confounded?”

“As I said, times is hard and we’d much rather do the sort of work I mentioned, but if there is other work to be had, then we aren’t afraid of that line of money making either. Now I know an upstanding town like Sunrise wouldn’t be a part to anything shady, but word is a group of hard cases lives right here on Jiang Yin and maybe, being a local and all, you might know where they hang their hats?” Chan asked carefully.

“Unless you mean rustlers or maybe a no account filcher every now and then, I doubt if there is anyone around these parts you could call a hard case. A few ornery folk maybe, but no one you could call a real criminal.”

“Maybe a group of folk that run together, a gang, maybe a tong?”

“Not anywhere near Sunrise…” Parker hesitated slightly.

“But you might know of a place that does?”

“You sure I can’t interest you in anythin’? May not be fancy, but what you see is what you get. No junk on my shelves.” The shopkeeper said with pride.

“Maybe I spoke too hasty earlier.” Chan’s eyes swept around the room and landed on a large container on a shelf behind Parker. “Say, didn’t see you had purification crystals. We’ll take five boxes. Can’t ever have too many purification crystals, wouldn’t have had water at all during the War without them.”

“A vet huh? Well things didn’t pan out like we hoped, but bless you for tryin’.” Parker said with sincerity, passing over the boxes in exchange for Chan’s coins. He then leaned in as if there was someone that could over hear. “As I said I get to talk to more folk than most in Sunrise on account of the tradin’ I do with other towns. Heard tell of a group of toughs that run ‘bout a hun’red ‘n fifty klicks south of here that might fit with what your lookin’ fer.”

“This group have a name?”

“Word is they calls themselves the Hip Sing. Folk down there is more’n a little scared of ‘em from what little makes it up here.”

“Tom, you may not know it, but you’ve made some new friends here today. Here’s another fifty in coin to keep our little conversation just between us, dong ma?”

“I was gonna stay mum on what we visited with to begin with, but word travels pretty slow in these parts, so don’t ya’ll worry none ‘bout nothin’ Miss Chan. Consider it a small repayment for services rendered during the cause.” Parker said as the small sack of coins vanished quickly.

“A pleasure visiting with you Tom much obliged.”

“Likewise.”

Chan and William had to restrain themselves and wander around the town, speaking to a few others and spending an equal amount of time with as many as they could to mask the time they’d spent with Parker before returning to their ship.

“We in business?” Cindy asked before the loading ramp could even close.

“We are in business.” William replied with a huge smile. “We’ve got to relocate southward, but we have a line on where the Hip Sing call home.”

“The ‘looking for business’ line of gos se we used here isn’t likely to work any better down there, so how about we had to touch down at the first place we could due to engine failure?” William said as he followed Chan to the bridge with Cindy close behind.

“Sounds like a plan to me.” Chan answered on entering the bridge and reaching for the intercom. “Willis, I need you to doctor the engines so we look like we’re in trouble. Plan is we are making an emergency set down, doesn’t have to be fancy, to fool Jiang Yin folk.”

“Certainly captain. I will only need a few minutes.”

“You get it set up, but wait for my cue.”

“Yes captain.”

“Marsh?”

“Yes Cap?”

“I want us to move out heading north. Take us about a thousand klicks away to lose any possible eyes and then take us up to high altitude, just inside atmo. We’ll drop back down like we are a broken bird, spewing smoke and I then I want us to set down near the town that is one hundred and fifty klicks from the town we’re at now.”

“Too easy Cap.”

 

For years afterwards, the residents of the town quaintly named Meditation would talk about the time they saw the ‘boat fall out the sky.’ Since it was such a singular event, everyone that witnessed the incident could tell everyone else exactly where they were when it happened. The first hint they had that something was going on was the roar of s ship dropping down out of the sky like a fiery bolt of lightning. The boat wobbled something fierce and looked like it was going to plow into the ground, but leveled out just in time and came down hard in the glade west of town, skidding for close to three hundred meters before coming to a stop. Folk dropped what ever they were doing to run and see what had happened and if anyone survived, because if they hadn’t, well, most folk glossed over the fact that they would have stripped the carcass like a swarm of hungry locusts.

“You outdid yourself that time.” Cindy whispered to Marsh as she and the others staggered out of the Lattimer’s Ghost, taking on the role of shaken but uninjured survivors.

“It was a nice bit of flyin’ if I don’t mind sayin’ so.” The pilot replied, sitting on the ramp and holding his head as if he couldn’t believe what had just happened.

“Just don’t over act.” William hissed as the first of the locals arrived.

“You folk alright?” An older man asked stepping forward through the others of the town.

“W-we…we…are good sir.” Chan stammered as if in shock. “W-we’ll b-be alr-right. J-just a mite s-shaken up.”

“I should say you should be. Living through a terrifying experience like that. You need our healer to look at you?” The older man said.

“N-no, that won’t b-be necessary. We have a medic with us and she assures us that we’re all fine. Maybe a little rattled and scared out of a few years we might otherwise have had coming to us, but fine non-the-less.”

“I am Elder Monroe and if we can help, please don’t hesitate to ask.”

“I’m Shu Meifeng and this here is the crew of the Pegasus. I’ll be bold and speak for all of us by saying thank you Elder and the rest of you good people, we are powerful sorry to go and disrupt your town. I’m sure you all can figure out our stop here was unplanned. We’ll set the ship to right and get out of here just as soon as well can.”

“You be sure to visit with us as soon as it gets dark. No point in trying to do fixings to your boat in the dark.” Monroe said sternly.

“I agree Elder, some of the crew will follow you all back right now, but you will get to meet everyone bye and bye.”

“We look forward to it Captain Shu, don’t get many visitors around here, especially those that drop out of the sky. Come on now people, these folk have work to do, so go on back to your business and leave them to theirs. You heard the Captain, you’ll get to meet everyone soon enough to meet your curiosity. Now run along.”

The crowd slowly began to disperse, but the children of the village hung around to watch the new thing no different than any other children around the ‘Verse were wont to do, until harried parents barked for them to come along, just as parents around the ‘Verse were wont to do. 

 

“Well that couldn’t have gone any better mei mei.” William said quietly after the crowd began breaking up. “Our entrance gave us a good reason to be here and to stay for awhile. So who’s going into town first?”

“Cindy, Xavier, and you should lead off.” Chan replied without hesitation. “Marsh and Willis will have about an hour’s work to set things to being right, but keeping things still not looking that way. Li Ming and I will be along in about twenty minutes. You know the drill, so make sure the others keep their inquiries discrete.”

Not to worry mei mei, we are entering the end game. We won’t drop the ball this late in the game, not one little bit.”

“Okay then, see you in town.”

 

When Chan and Li Ming did join the others, they found the two women and William as the center of attention in the large tavern that seemed to be used as a makeshift meeting hall. Making the most of his many years as a spacer, ‘Verse traveler, and his natural ability to spin a yarn, William, who was using the alias of Merlin, held the locals spellbound with his exploits and some of the tales he was spinning were even true.

“Aren’t you going in?” Li Ming asked when Chan pulled up short at the door to the tavern.

“I think I’m going to wander. Crowded in there and I’m sure them as what aren’t here have probably got more interesting things to say.”

“I guess there’s some sort of logic in there somewhere. I’ll work the crowd and see if we might get lucky and find out if one the less interesting has got anything worth saying.” Li Ming smiled and edged her way into the tightly packed room.

Chan ambled along with no real destination in mind as she explored the town of Meditation. Not much larger than Sunrise, but it did boast two streets and many of the businesses were open and in better repair than the smaller town. Chan passed an open door and a voice from within called out to her.

“One of the sky folk I reckon?” The older man said friendly enough. The sign on over the door simply said ‘Tailor.”

“I am. Hello, I’m Meifeng.”

“Thaddeus Gumble is what they hung on me when I was birthed, but I’ve been called Ted longer than I suspect you’ve been alive nian qing de[2].”

“Okay Ted it is then. Mind if I come in?”

“Oh sure, sure young lady, excuse me for being rude. Not like I get many visitors, everyone from Meditation just moseys on in. Have a seat here and tell me about at the doings I missed.”

“You must be a busy man, you sure I’m not going to keep you from those pants you’re working on?”

“Not a chance, not a tailor in the ‘Verse can dignify himself with the name if he can’t handle two things at once. Won’t say I wasn’t interested in what was going on, but these old knees don’t move as fast as they once did and by the time I got to moving, weren’t nothing to see. I figured going by how folk was going on, whoever it was would be by soon enough and here you are.”

“And here I am. Ship’s power coupling failed and we had to sit ourselves down fast or we would have gotten real cold real fast. I guess from the ground it must have looked more interesting than it was from what I could see, from my point of view, just a lost of spinning and screaming. Not sure which there was more of.”

“Couldn’t get me in one of those death traps, I like having my feet on solid ground.”

“Can’t say as I blame you after that near miss we just had. I can see where good old solid ground would become very appealing. I got a good look at the land before being able to come into town and I can say you got yourself a nice slice of paradise hereabouts.

Paradise would be stretching it a mite.” Gumble scowled losing his smile, which Chan noticed right away.

“I’m sorry did I say something wrong?”

“Oh no young lady not on you at all, just Mediation’s got its flaws, some damn ugly ones at that it does. At least to my way of seeing things it does.”

“Here?  I know farming and ranching is hard work and times is hard all over the ‘Verse, but it’s so quiet and peaceful like here, don’t seem possible that you could have anything major to go and spoil things.”

“Even the Garden of Eden on Earth-That-Was had a snake. And we got a whole nest of ‘em.”

“A nest?” Chan asked in what she hoped was a curious but not too curious tone of voice.

“Bunch of suo xi[3] thugs wishing they was more than they are.”

“I don’t mean to pry but I’ve got a crew to look to and if there’s trouble about I would prevail upon you to let me know who these unwelcome folk are.”

“I’ve said too much and done got you all worked up.” Gumble frowned.

“Not so much worked up, but I can say my crew has dealt with troublemakers in our line of work and I just need to get them looking for trouble if there is trouble to be had. You sound like you’ve had a run in with these folk.”

“You could say that.” Gumble rolled up his left sleeve and revealed a ragged scar that ran from the back of his wrist to just below the elbow.

Lao tian ye[4]!”

“Punk kid put me out of work for two weeks all cause his fancy coat didn’t conceal his iron the way he wanted.”

“Good thing we weren’t around, me and my crew make a fair living helping them as what needs help from hun dan like that. Hell after seeing that scar, we might still do the job.” Chan said hating herself for what she was doing, but knowing stroking the old man’s anger would get him to talk more freely than he otherwise might.

“Meditation could use the help, but between most folk being too scared to think and too broke to pay not like that’s gonna be happening.” Gumble said heatedly.

“I can’t speak for my crew on something like this by myself. We vote on special cases and going by what you say, this is about as special as a case gets. Not like we’re fancified crusaders or anything that noble, but we do what we can to help them as what needs it. You got a name for these xi niu[5] cowards.”

Gumble looked uncertain about continuing, he clearly wanted justice or revenge, but despite his bluster, he was also clearly afraid. Chan could only hold her breath and wait to see which emotion would win.

“They call themselves the Hip Sing. They are a blight on the face of Jiang Yin and if I was just ten year younger, I’d give them what for.” Gumble scowled as his anger boiled out.

“Let me talk to the crew Ted, I think we can fix these Hip Sing for you. I take it they fancy themselves a tong?”

Gumble spat on the floor in response.

“I’ll call that a yes. I know I’m asking a lot of you, but since we are strangers and if we go poking around as clumsy as we would, they’d just get wind of us and things would go hard on the good folk of Meditation, which is the last thing we’d want. You know where they hole up?”

“They hole up about thirty kilometers from here. West of town gets hilly and there’s a narrow track that runs past a steep gorge before it forks. The left fork runs into a wooded valley and that’s where the hun dan live.” Gumble’s voice was choked with anger.

“What are you not telling me Ted?” Chan asked gently.

“My grandson was part of a dozen men from Meditation that tracked them down. Only four came back, Jack wasn’t one of them.”

“I’m so sorry Ted, nothing worse than losing kin. Like I said, I can’t promise anything without talking to the crew first, but you let Meifeng see if we can make that dear brought information worth at least some of the price.”

“I can’t say as I believe in miracles, but if you make this happen, then you are a guardian angel that has literally dropped in from on high to help an old man get some sort of peace.”

“I already told you we’re no angels, but we might just be able to drop the heavy end of the hammer from on high on these Hip Sing.” Chan said giving Gumble a hug then turning to leave. “Try not to worry, but please keep this little chat to yourself. We don’t need the wrong words getting in the wrong ears.”

“A team of wild mules couldn’t pull it out of me.”

“Good man.” Chan tossed a two fingered salute at Gumble and exited his shop. She found that she had to forcibly restrain herself to a casual stroll as she headed back to the tavern and the rest of the crew.

“Finally…we finally have a hard target.” Chan grinned an evil grin. “We even get to do a bit of good in the process, but one way or another, this thing ends here.”

 

“I need ideas people.” Chan declared, that evening as the entire crew gathered around the dining table to discuss their next steps without any locals around.

“Some sort of sneaking about is called for I suppose.” Cindy scowled. “I am powerful tired of sneaking though.”

“You want we should do a main force aerial assault against a group that outnumbers us ten or twenty to one? I know we tried some insanity like that during the U-War and look how that turned out for us.” Chan sniffed in response.

“Gorram it Chan, you know I don’t mean something like that, but just like during the War, we’ve been on the short end for too long. Just once like to go into something on the upper hand for a change.”

“Such odds are not our lot Cindy. We’ll have to make do with what we got, just like always.” Chan’s expression turned grim as she spoke, her mind drifting to a situation not all that different from where she found herself now, but that other situation was long ago.

“Jiang Yin is too much of a backwater for us to use the ‘Ghost, the shuttles, or, hell, even the hovercraft. Mechanicals just stand out too much here.” William said stroking his neck with his head back as if looking for answers from a higher source.

“Horseback?” Willis offered.

“Only way.” Chan replied. “Okay, the ground element will take horses, Marsh, I’ll need the-”

“If it’s all the same to you Captain, I want to be in on this one.” Marsh interrupted.

“Out of the question.” Chan responded.

“I don’t normally question you when you take that tone, but hear me out. William just said that flyin’ isn’t gonna be part of this op. I know my skills are in the cockpit, but if my main skill ain’t gonna be useful, then I know how to handle a gun and a horse well enough. I’ve been sitting on the outside lookin’ in too long now. Li Ming, Cindy, even Xavier all got more than enough chances to tell their shoot out stories. I’m askin’ for my chance to earn a place at the grownups table.”

“Captain?” Xavier jumped in before Chan could reply.

“What?”

“I know this isn’t exactly the best time to mention this considering the stunt I pulled on Greenleaf, but I’ve been logging a lot of flight time lately. Since the ‘Ghost isn’t going to be in the thick of the fight, maybe I can handle the ship for this one. Not like I’m all that useful in a fight to begin with.”

“Are the rest of you going to gang up on me too?” Chan asked rhetorically.

“As much as it pains me mei mei, I think Marsh’s request is valid.” William answered.

“Et tu William? Et tu?”

“In this one mei mei yes, me too. I know you are aware of just how fragile the male ego is and to be part of a crew that has gone into battle, but to not have had the chance to go into battle yourself, well that is a hard thing to bear. Regardless of how critical your support may be to the greater effort, never getting to prove yourself leaves you with a doubt that gnaws at you. I can see why Marsh wants in.”

“I can’t say I’m all that swayed by the need to salve a man’s ego, or by Xavier’s insanity in the cockpit she calls flying, but we are going in by horseback and there isn’t any ship traffic or trigger happy planetary defenses to tax our dear Xavier, so I’m going to concede on this one. Okay Marsh you are in on the ground element.” She turned and faced her mechanic. “Before we continue, do you happen to have a burning need to prove your manliness too Willis?”

“I most emphatically do not Captain. Such a requirement would reek of desire and that would lead me to unhappiness. Active combat goes against everything the Buddha teaches us. Defending the ship is one thing, but taking the fight to another holds no appeal to me. I am content with my role in keeping our glorious ship operational when needed.”

“Okay then, since we know who is saying on the ship, namely Xavier and Willis, that sets who is in the ground element by default as we will need every weapon we have to cover our escape. Not that I expect trouble or even want it, but in my experience it’s always easier to sneak into someplace than out.

“We will need stealth more than anything, so no plates in the body armor, great for when things get ugly, but has too much an affect on a person’s movements to be worth the weight for a change. Weapons load out will be heavy-”

“Now that is what I’m talking about!” Cindy interjected.

“As I was saying.” Chan continued fixing the medic with a look that implied it might be a good idea to remain silent. “Thanks to Li Shen Fong’s boys we are flush on assault rifles and flashbangs, plus I was able to restock on grenades at Skyplex Reno. If things do go way south, we’ve got more than enough juice to punch our way out of the compound. Now, have I over looked anything important?”

“I can think of one thing Captain.” Li Ming said.

“And that would be?”

“Since Xavier is going to remain on the ship, who is going to look at the tong’s computers? I am assuming of course that they have computers this far from the Cortex.”

“I can manage if sweetcheeks lends me Flannery’s crystal.” Cindy said confidently.

“You? Since when do you know so much?” Xavier retorted.

“Look hon, I can’t do that fusion thing you claim you do, but that booster crystal will get me to where I need to go.”

“I must point out Miss Xavier, that there is no reason to expect that the Hip Sing Tongs are using the Blue Sun encryption.” Willis spoke up in an effort to prevent a conversation that was heading toward an argument from reaching that destination.

“He’s got you there!” Xavier preened triumphantly.

“Actually, given Chang’s unmitigated arrogance, he would insist that his ‘underlings’ use suitable computer protection and has certainly shared the Blue Sun protocols with the tong.” Li Ming added.

“I agree with Li Ming, Cindy will play the role of technical expert on this run.” Chan said bringing the discussion to an end. Xavier sniffed, but remained silent. “Anything else?” Not getting anything further she continued. “Okay then, time for some actual old-fashioned horse trading. William please come with me.”

“Certainly Captain.”

 

“Deal?” The rancher said extending his hand.

“Deal!” Chan replied shaking his hand. “You drive a hard bargain Weigou.”

“No harder than I must to feed my Family Meifeng.”

“Not as if your family can eat five assault rifles.” Chan chuckled to show she was kidding.

“True enough, but with the ability to defend what little food we do have, yes these fine weapons will in a way feed my family.” Weigou laughed, showing he took no offense.

“I reckon you’re right about that last part, going by how I heard tell that Meditation has a set of problems outside of the hard times we all live in.”

“We live in interesting times.” The rancher’s face clouded.

“Far too true, take our own situation. We were lucky to survive and luckier still to find such a fine town, but our repairs are taking longer than we like and the need to get around has led me to you and your magnificent animals.”

“Promise to take care of them.”

“I will, I grew up on a farm and know a thing or two about keeping horses fit. Me and my crew are looking forward to getting out into nature again and I can’t think of a better way than a camping trip. It will be grand to eat fresh caught fish cooked over an open flame. That’s a meal as can’t be had on any ship in the Black.”

“I must take your word for how things happen beyond Jiang Yin. I am but a simple farmer.”

“The salt of the ‘Verse.” William said with complete sincerity.

“You are too kind Merlin.”

“Them as what lives in the Core just don’t appreciate how important what farmers do to feed their sorry hides, but that is talk for a different day. We need to get these critters back to our ship so we can load up for our trip early tomorrow morning.”

“And I have work of my own to attend to.” Weigou replied.

“Pleasure doing business with you.” Chan said as she deftly mounted up, leading three other horses behind her.

“Good luck with your fishing.” Weigou waved and slowly headed for his home, cradling the weapons in his arms, but pausing to look over his shoulder at the animals that were no longer his.

William mounted up as well but no where near the skill that Chan had.

“You going to be okay?” The captain asked.

“Ride dear Captain, just ride. I may not be as practiced with handling a beast as you are, but I do know which end of a horse is which.” William returned stiffly.

“You just make sure you let the horse know you know that and everything will be fine.”

 

When her multi-band alarm went off, Chan groaned, shut it off and rolled out of bed. “Four AM has always been too bloody early. I hated it on the farm, I hated in the army and damn if I don’t still hate it.” She growled as she got dressed. “I just hope the others are as miserable as I am, misery is supposed to love company from what I’ve been told.” Chan climbed the ladder out of her cabin and saw William doing the same, but looking more chipper than anyone had a right to look this early in the morning.

“Good morning mei mei, don’t you look especially alluring this fine day.” He said with an all too cheery voice.

“Just for being as cheerful as you are I should find a way to hurt you.”

“Nonsense my good Captain, we are about to embark on a great quest to slay the mighty dragon, to beard the lion in his den, or however you want to put it. I for one want to see Chang’s head on a pike.” William walked along side the captain toward the galley.

“It’s too bloody early William. What the hell is a pike?”

“Medieval weapon, essentially a very, very long spear, primary use was for infantry types to keep horse mounted cavalry at bay. Royalty were fond of placing the severed heads of opponents on pikes and hoisting them from the castle walls to proudly display to all who might challenge them what happened if you tried.”

“Sounds barbaric, but in Chang’s case I can see where some good old fashioned barbarism might come in handy.” On entering the galley she smelled the coffee she craved and immediately poured herself a cup. She drank a solid slug black, then refilled her cup and poured one for her first mate. “I may make to sunup without killing anyone now.”

Despite their attempts to keep up the appearance of being nothing more than casual partners, Cindy’s and Marsh’s arrival was announced by a giggle in the corridor. Joining the others both played it off as if their arrival at the same time was the most uncommon of coincidences.

“I hope you two are talking the proper precautions. I’m trying to imagine what it would be like to have a child on board, but I just can’t.” Chan snickered and that caused William to break out with a outright guffaw when he saw the looks on the pilot’s and medic’s faces.

“Children! Sweet merciful Buddha! Me have a kid by this shaved orangutan? I’d call a curse down on you Captain, but now is not the time for that, what with the big confrontation coming up!” Cindy exclaimed, flushing all the way up to her ears.

This set Chan and Marsh laughing along with William at Cindy’s outrage, they couldn’t tell if she was more outraged at the thought of bearing the pilot’s child or that their actions were as transparent in they appeared to be.”

“What’s so funny?” Li Ming asked looking, despite the early hour, her typically phenomenal self. “What I miss?”

“Blasphemy!” Cindy returned and this set the others laughing even harder.

Li Ming chose to pass on pressing for details that she was certain was at the medic’s expense and poured herself a cup of coffee as well. “Are we ready?” She said trying to change the topic.

“Since we are all here, only thing left to do is get the gear packed up. I guess since Xavier and Willis aren’t here, they can muck out the cargo bay from anything the horses left over night, seems fitting.”

“If that is your decision Captain, then I shall have to live with it, but I assure you I am most definitely awake.” Willis responded amusedly.

“Never doubted you for a second Willis, sometimes I think you sleep down in the engine room more often than in your room.” Chan smiled, having a difficult time remembering to stay mad at the mechanic for his earlier transgression. “Any sign of Xavier?”

“I have not seen Miss Xavier since last night, but I know she stayed up quite late working on her newest painting. She is quite good Captain, she lets me see her work every once and awhile, especially if she happens to be excited about something that is turning out well.”

“Just make sure she is ready to fly when we call.” Marsh said with an uncharacteristic seriousness. “I know my choices were my choices, but it just seems odd bein’ on the side that does the callin’ for help.”

“She’ll be there Marsh, don’t get yourself all worked up.” Cindy smiled knowingly.

“Time to load up, we won’t get this done talking people.” William announced and the crew filed below deck to the cargo bay where they found Xavier currying the horses.

“Well I’ll be dipped.” Marsh blinked in surprise.

“You deal with stress rutting like there’s no tomorrow, I choose to deal with stress a different way.” Xavier replied calmly. “I happen to like horses even if it means I’ll end up having to ‘muck out the cargo bay’ not like that was much of a surprise. You five will all be gone before sunup, that leaves Willis and me to do the clean up, regardless of my haphazard educational history I am capable of doing simple math.”

Unable to find fault with her logic, the crew quickly loaded up the horses and after making sure the last cinch was tight and the last saddle bag was secured, the five members of the ground force mounted up.

“Okay, we will maintain radio silence except in the case of dire emergency or until we need a lift.” Chan said going over the plan one last time. “We’ll head out southward and loop around to come upon the Hip Sing compound from the west. That will throw off any of the locals that might spy for the tong and will have us arriving in a direction the Hip Sing won’t expect trouble to be coming from. Not knowing the lay of the land beyond that scan Marsh got on the way in, I’m going to bank on us needing two days to get into position. Our DTG is now 1 June 0500.”

“DTG?” Xavier blinked in confusion.

“Oh sorry, U-War talk. Means date time group. Anyway, we’ll be in place to strike by 0300 on 3 June. The ‘Ghost will have to be in the sky and ready for a quick dust off, your choice if you want to be further out at low altitude or in closer at high altitude, either way, we will need you to be close enough to pick us up within five minutes after our signal goes out.”

“Top speed on atmospherics is just under fifteen hundred KPH. If you are at low altitude and keep the ship within eighty klicks, you can be here in just over three minutes. However, you’ll be at high speed NOE the whole way. You think you’re up to something like that?” Marsh looked at Xavier with obvious skepticism.

“I might, if I knew what NOE meant.”

Tian xiao de[6]! Please tell me our lives are not dependin’ on this feng le[7] woman!” Marsh all but wailed in disbelief.

“Oh lighten up Marsh! NOE means nape of earth flying and no I’m not all that sure about buzzing along within thirty meters of the ground at fifteen hundred KPH, so I am going to play it safe. I’ll take the ‘Ghost up to fifty thousand meters and hover. I can drop down from that altitude in less than two minutes and I won’t have to worry about scratching the paint. I told you I’ve been studying this flying thing for some time now.”

“You had enough yammering there young feller?” William asked sardonically. “We do have a long distance to cover you know.”

“Okay, okay, she’s got a solid plan.” Marsh led his horse out of the cargo bay to join the others waiting for him to catch up. “See you in two days.” He called back as he left.

“All of you endeavor to take care of yourselves.” Willis called back. He and Xavier watched the others until they were out of sight before closing the ramp. “I guess we should be grateful the Lattimer’s Ghost only had to stand duty as barn for one night.”

“I suppose. You want to shovel or wipe?”

“I would chose the shovel if you are giving me a choice.”

“Shovel it is then, let’s get this done before the stench works it’s way into the deck plates.”

 

The meandering nearly random course to throw off suspicion led Chan and the other riders into rugged and slow going terrain. The quick scan Marsh made during their unorthodox arrival revealed that the Hip Sing compound was roughly thirty straight line kilometers from the town of Meditation. The direct route via horseback was closer to forty, but the need for stealth pushed the trip to nearly sixty.

“My pi gu will never be the same.” Li Ming whined as her weary horse stumbled for the third time in the last half hour. “How much longer are we going to push Chan?”

Chan’s head snapped up from nodding in the saddle as she answered.

 “I’m going to call a halt right here, it’s gotten dark enough that we’re liable to walk right over a cliff and not know it until we hit the bottom.”

“Thank God, Buddha, Shiva, Allah, and any other deity you care to name.” William groaned sliding off his mount. “Twelve hours in a saddle has to be against some law somewhere.”

“Any one want to tell me why I thought it was a good idea to not stay on the ship?” Marsh chimed in, dismounting and stretching his back with an audible pop.

“You wanted in on the action honey buns. You have no one to blame but yourself.” Cindy quipped while yawning expansively.

“I’ll give you some action you bu hui hen de po fu[8]!”

“Ready whenever you are hon.” Cindy answered blowing the pilot a kiss.

“Do we leave your bodies in a shallow grave out here in the middle of no where?” Chan said with a brittle hardness in her voice that caused both of the bickering couple to fall silent.

“You know what the most disappointing part of this journey has been?” Li Ming cut in.

“What pray tell might that be my good woman?” William picked up on what the gambler was trying to do.

“We aren’t going to get to cook fresh fish over an open fire. I’ve never done that and would have liked to try.”

“We made good time everyone. Damn me for pushing so hard, but we are more than halfway there now and the country flattens out somewhat, should be easier going now. We’ll make our entry time for sure now, but doubt if there will be time for fishing tomorrow either.”

“Well a girl can dream.” Li Ming primped in mock delight. This got everyone to chuckle and was just the tonic the bone tired riders needed.

“Let’s set up camp, break out the protein and the fire jelly. It won’t be fine dining, but it will stick to the ribs.” William said moving to unpack.

“Work to do my dear friend.” Chan replied with her arms folded across her chest.

“What’s that mei mei?”

“Got to tend to the horses first, you ought to know better considering all the stuff you read.”

“Well hell, the lady is right.” William face-palmed and began loosening the saddle on his panting horse.

The members of the Lattimer’s Ghost under Chan’s guidance quickly tended to the exhausted horses and then set up their camp. Worn out themselves, they talked quietly for a while and after figuring out the watch for the night, they crawled into their bedrolls and settled in.

 

Pushing on early the next morning, the riders did in fact have an easier time than the first day and reached their rally point an hour before sundown. After getting the horses and camp ready, Marsh and Li Ming went out to fish and surprised themselves by actually catching a pair of small trout in a nearby stream. Dancing around in delight, the fish were promptly cooked over an open fire and while not much more than a couple mouthfuls, they were a much welcomed and unexpected treat. Posting a fully armed and armored sentry guarding against the off-beat chance of a nightly encounter, those of the crew that could sleep before a battle lay down for a few hours of rest.

“Can’t sleep Cap?” Marsh, who drew first watch whispered when Chan joined him at the blind the crew had set up on arrival.

“Never could before a fight.” She responded quietly. “Thought I’d have gotten over that during the U-War, but never did develop the knack.”

“Me I can sleep any place any time, so I guess I’m lucky.”

“Yeah you are. So when are you going to move in with Cindy?”

“What!”

“Shush, folk are trying to sleep.”

“Right, sorry, you just surprised me is all.”

“Marsh, just makes good sense, you spend most of your time in her cabin as is. Might as well let Willis have Cindy’s single and you two can take advantage of sharing the double. I know Willis would be glad to have a room he could do up with all his Buddhist fixings.”

“I…I’ll have to think on that one. My hand to god Cap, I hadn’t thought that far out.”  

“Too much thinking with the zhan dou de yi kuai rou[9], but that is to be expected with you being a man and all.”

“Can’t change what the maker made me Cap.”

“I guess Willis’ religiosity is having an affect on you after all.”

“Maybe Cap, I know you said you can’t sleep before a fight and all, but you should at least lie down. Two hard days of ridin’ has got me worn down, I know you have to feel the same.”

“I think I’ll take that suggestion. Be sure to keep a sharp eye to the east.”

“I’m on it Cap.”

Chan lay down and despite her conviction that she could not sleep, the long ride had more of an effect that she believed possible and she was shocked when she found herself being shaken awake by William at the designated time of two AM. Gathering her wits and her gear, Chan gave the others a quick once over, but discovered William was as efficient as always and found everyone was ready. She nodded once and moved out silently, the others falling in behind and doing their best to move as silently as she did. 

 

“Anything?” A nervous Marsh hissed.

Chan paused in her scan of the Hip Sing compound with the night-vision goggles taken from one of Li Shen Fong’s mercenaries and fixed the pilot with a caustic glare. “Nothing. Now I know you are a bit new to this side of the action, so I’m going to give you a break. When you need to know something I will tell you, until that time bi zui!” Marsh fell silent and the captain returned to inspecting the compound. After several tense minutes she lowered the goggles.

“Okay, near as I can see, these hun dan are so certain they are the top dog in these parts that they do not post sentries. There are six buildings I can see, the two on the left appear to be bunkhouses. The big one in the middle is obviously their barn, the leader of the tong’s home has got to be that two-story on the right, just inside of a building that I’m guessing is a smokehouse. That leaves that one large one next to the barn as their headquarters, meeting hall, or whatever they call it.

“I can’t see the east side from here, so they might have eyes on the road that leads to Meditation, but three-sixty security is not in their bag of tricks. That means getting in will be easier than I hoped.”

“Doubt if those goggles can detect mines.” Cindy stated flatly, but betrayed her own unease by absently stroking one of her many good luck charms.

“No they wouldn’t and thank you for giving me something else to worry about.” Chan said tersely, but managing to keep her voice down.

“Captain, as you said the people think they are the undisputed powerhouse in the region and going by what we have seen, they are probably right.” William said quietly. “Beating back that posse from Meditation that your contact mentioned was certainly the last confrontation to their power the locals could hope to muster. Mines are only placed when control of an area is in doubt. The lack of sentries proves they think this area is theirs without question.”

“I may not be a veteran, but sounds logical to me.” Li Ming added.

“You’ve got me there William, I’m sorry I mentioned mines.” A chagrinned Cindy replied.

“Well good, one problem off the kilometer long list of things that complicate matters.” Chan grinned in relief. “Okay, I know Li Ming might as well be a shadow for how quiet she can be when she chooses, but, I need someone with a veteran’s eye as scout. Cindy you up for it?”

Dang ran.” The medic replied instantly.

“Okay then, you take point. I’ll track you via the goggles. When you are in place, give me a thumb’s up and we’ll join you.”

“Moving.”

Chan watched intently through her priceless goggles as Cindy glided through the light brush, flopping to the ground when the last of the cover gave out. Crawling across the opening, slowly, with a random series of starts and stops, Cindy slid up next to the barn. She waited there until she was certain that she had not been detected, then eased up to the targeted building. Another pause, then Cindy gave the signal.

“William you’re with me. Li Ming and Marsh, you are base of fire if something goes wrong.” Chan handed the goggles to the pilot. “We’ll give you the high sign when we’re ready.”

“Got it Cap.”

The pilot and first mate followed the same path and used the same methods that Cindy had used and reached the building safely. They too waited for over a minute before giving the sign that it was okay for the others to follow.

“Ready?” Marsh asked, his voice cracking to his embarrassment.

“Ready.” Li Ming replied giving no sign of having heard.

The crossing to the building was almost a routine task by this point and using the proven technique that the rest of the raiders had used, Marsh and Li Ming safely reached their target without being detected.

“Okay, time for you to work your Houdini act.” Chan whispered.

“This is a crude lock and even cruder alarm. This won’t take long.” William’s eyes gleamed as he attached the by-pass and made short work of the tong security system. Peering closely at the door, he chose a pick and slipped it into the door.

“Done.” He smiled as he twisted the knob, but held the door closed, turning a questioning gaze at the captain.

Chan used hand signals to move herself and Li Ming to the entry side of the door, while pointing for Cindy and Marsh to join William on what would be the backside of the door that opened outwards. When everyone was in place, Chan nodded.

William opened the door slowly and Chan stepped forward coiled as tight as a spring.

“Ren ci  de Fo zu[10].” Chan sighed internally when the corridor was clear. “Now to see what we can see.” She thought and moved silently into the building, Li Ming a step behind and to the left, her presence felt more than heard as the gambler kept position noiselessly. Marsh and Cindy followed a few meters behind the two women, with William pulling the door closed behind them and covering the rear.

The moving through the building was as nerve wracking an experience as any of them had ever known, Cindy’s and Chan’s wartime experience included as they all knew just how badly outnumbered they were and what the consequences of detection would be. After turning two corners, the raiders found an office. William stepped forward to pick the lock, but found the door was unlocked and most importantly, the room held what they were looking for: a computer.

Stepping aside, William let Cindy move into the room first. The others filed in close behind, shutting the door and taking up overwatch positions to either side in case one of the tong should happen to enter. Slipping the captured algorithm data crystal from a pocket, Cindy activated the terminal and began to work.

“Got the goods!” Cindy murmured softly after what seemed like hours, but in actuality had taken less than five minutes. “Doesn’t mention Blue Sun by name, but does list Flannery’s contact info and a draft of a contract between the Hip Sing and Chang. I’m no advocate, but this has got to hold up in court.”

“Get a copy and shut it down.” Chan whispered back.

Cindy nodded her understanding, removed the incriminating evidence and algorithm crystals and powered the computer down. She did a quick sweep to make sure she’d returned everything to how it had been before she entered. Reclaiming her sub-machine gun that she’d placed on the floor while working, she rejoined the others preparing to exit the office.

“Part one done! Now let’s see if we can move on to the primary target of tonight’s hunt.” Chan smiled a death’s head smile and gestured to Li Ming to take up her position next to her in front of their formation.

Chan’s desire to find Chang proved to be easier than she planned, as no sooner had they left the office, they turned a corner and all but ran directly into the young noble walking with five members of the Hip Sing Tong.

 

In spite of the hour and the near total surprise, both groups responded to the encounter at the same time and in the same way, with the thunder of gunfire. The raiders had one tiny advantage

as the fight broke out - they were expecting trouble, while the complacent tongs were not.

 “FALL BACK!” Chan barked as her assault rifle snapped up into firing position and barked even louder in the confines of the corridor. The man Chan targeted was wearing full body armor, but absorbing a burst at nearly point blank range was more than even ceramic plate reinforced ballistic mesh was designed to handle. The man had time to utter a startled gasp and before folding over in a boneless heap.

As soon as she saw that surprise was lost, Cindy instinctively stepped between Li Ming and Chan to clear her field of fire. “Who said these gorram hun dan get to wear armor better than ours!” She thought as she saw the captain’s fire impact the man she’d shot. Realizing the lighter pistol caliber rounds of her sub-machine gun would not penetrate the tong’s armor, she shifted her aiming point upward slightly.

The man saw the shift and threw himself as far to the left as he could in an attempt to avoid being hit, but the hallway was far too narrow for the move he needed to work. He felt as if a red hot poker had been drawn across the side of his head as one of the ugly woman’s shots burned a furrow along his skull. The tong fought blackness, his weapon clattering to the ground from nerveless fingers unfired.

On hearing the order to fall back, Li Ming pivoted sharply and raced for the exit, blowing past a dazed Marsh and falling along side William who had also swung around to lead the way for their escape.

“Don’t mind if I do!” Marsh roared, stepping forward into the space Li Ming had vacated and giving him a clear field of fire. His assault rifle set on full auto, the pilot sprayed an unrelenting stream of fire over the remaining tong. Marsh whooped uncontrollably as one of the Tong guards was stitched from mid-thigh to chest and crumpled soundlessly to the floor from the bone crushing hit.

This can NOT be happening!” Was the thought that repeatedly hammered in Chang Ai Rui dumbfounded mind. “These wretched peasants will not have me!” He choked, dodging violently to avoid the incessant whine of supersonic lead.

“This way!”  A voice managed to penetrate the din of fire and Chang’s fogged mind. Seeing Xiao Wenxiong, the tong elder retreating away from the ambush finally jarred the paralyzed noble into motion. Chang dodged behind one of the guards that was still firing, taking advantage of what little cover the completely expendable servant could provide and literally ran for his life.

Chu fei wo si le[11]! Chan thundered when she saw Chang flee. “You will not escape again!” She growled and, ignoring her own order, leapt into pursuit.

Ta shi suo you di yu de biao zi de ma[12]! Where in the hell is she going?” Marsh gaped as the captain charged forward.

“Shut up and shoot!” Cindy growled putting a second burst into the man she’d wounded and shifting fire to the last guard standing when the injured man slumped, now permanently out of the fight. Marsh blinked and added his fire to hers in a deadly combination that caught the last tong in a deadly crossfire that quickly cut the man down.

“Pursuit!” Cindy snapped as the man fell and bolted after the captain, who had disappeared around a corner.

“Right behind you!” Marsh answered matching Cindy stride for stride.

 

William glanced over his shoulder when he didn’t hear footsteps close behind, stopped and swore with a searing vengeance. “Damn it all where are the others?”

“What? Oh gos se! Quick this way!” Li Ming skidded to a halt on realizing what the first mate had said and raced back down the corridor, terrified that something dreadful had happened to the others. William slid in behind the gambler, trying to match her speed as he automatically returned to his designated, if now unexpected role of rear guard.  

Racing along trying to keep up with Chan and Cindy, Marsh found himself in the unusual position of being the one calling for air support. “Xavier, Xavier, Xavier, DUST OFF!”

“Copy! En route, be on the ground in less than two!”

“Keep her light on the skids, we’ll probably have company!”

“Just make sure you remember to bring the party favors. Xavier out!”

“I just hope she remembers to pull up.”

 

“FINALLY!” Chang exclaimed as he bolted free of his ally’s center of operations. He saw out the corner of his eye that Xiao had peeled off to the left, screaming at the top his lungs and shocking the tong compound into action. “Maybe the jing chang me yong de fools can actually do something to help for a change.” He snarled, his eyes never leaving his salvation in the form of his matchless yacht Cheng.

“You will not get away you cowardly sack of da bian!” Chan swore as she burst free of the building and saw Chang closing on his ship. Redoubling her efforts she continued to chase the fleeing noble.

“Let’s see what you think of this!” Marsh spoke softly, taking up as stable a firing position as he could once he’d also exited the building and sighted in on Chang. Waiting until he was sure of his sight picture, he squeezed the trigger. The assault rifle kicked fiercely as Marsh emptied the magazine at Chang and saw him stumble as rounds struck all around the would-be crime boss.

“I will not be denied!” Chang raged as he felt the crushing impact of at least one bullet striking him in the leg. However, when money is no object, it was easy to buy the very best and the credits lavished on his Newtech body armor repaid the investment a hundred fold. Slowed by the force of the powerful blow, but not felled, Chang was able to keep his legs moving by equal parts armor and pure determination. Escape was less than ten meters away now and none of the barbarians were within fifty. “Pathetic little mindless drones.” He sneered and made the final push for his yacht.

“Thank you for a lovely idea and slowing that liu kou shui de biao  zi he hou zi de ben er zi[13] down.” Chan purred and carefully sighted in the lumbering Chang. “Oh and thanks for cluing me into how good his highnesses armor is.” Chan set the assault rifle’s selector switch to semi and gently squeezed the trigger.

They can’t stop me now!” Was the last thought that passed through Chang’s mind before the heavy slug from Chan’s rifle passed through his mind, transecting his skull from front to back exploding outward in a cloud of blood and shattered bone, causing the him to pitch forward face first into the dirt, at least what remained of his face.

 

Chan didn’t even get to savor the moment or even have a full second to think about killing Chang, when she was hit from behind by a blindside tackle that slammed her to the ground. She swore viciously and scrabbled for her knife ready to fight for her life. “Gorram it Marsh you trying to get your throat cut!”

“No Cap, just trying to keep you from getting cut in half.” He pointed toward the building they’d fled. “Bad guys.”

Only then did Chan see the members of the Hip Sing tong boiling out of every building in their hideout hungry for revenge and hear the angry whine of bullets slicing through the spot she’d occupied before she’d been knocked to the ground that would have indeed cut her in half.

“Uh…Thanks.”

“No problem Cap.”

“Big problem actually, making a stand would be insane and running through the woods at full speed at night would just as crazy. Tell me the ‘Ghost is on the way!”

“Should be here in less than ninety seconds.”

“We won’t last even that long in the open! Quick Chang’s ship, it’s our only hope!” Chan pushed Marsh ahead of her and the two made a frantic dash for the partial safety offered by the yacht, both firing from the hip in a desperate attempt to hold the furious tong at bay.

Fortunately for Chan and Marsh, William had come to the same conclusion and had already reached the cover of the late noble’s ship and he and Li Ming were already laying down a storm of covering fire. When the two reached the yacht, amid the continuous din of bullets striking off the hull and ricocheting in every direction, they found Cindy swearing like a cruiser full of sailors as she huddled for cover near the ship’s hatch controls.

“What’s wrong now?” Chan shouted to be heard over the long burst of fire she unloosed in the direction of the tong.

“That go tsao de[14] Chang apparently didn’t trust the Hip Sing and the hun dan has a security lockout on the gorram entry! I’m trying to by-pass it!” Cindy snarled as she frantically popped an access panel off the yacht.

Ai ya, wo men wan le[15]!Chan gasped.

“Tell me something I don’t know!” The medic spat.

“William, help Cindy! Marsh and I will help Li Ming cover.”

“Got it!” The first mate acknowledged, dropping behind the shelter of the yacht and rolling next to Cindy.

“Damn shotgun isn’t much use in a fight like this.” Li Ming grunted as she fired the weapon in question as fast as the slide would operate.

“At this point it’s more the noise and the flash as anything! Heavy fighting doesn’t use much marksmanship, just a lot of spray and pray!” Chan replied changing magazines with much practiced speed.

“These clowns are a bunch of gorram amateurs!” Marsh added, punctuating his words with tightly controlled bursts of fire. “Might think they’re big on a no place like Jiang Yin, but real troops would eat them alive.”

“And you know this how?” Chan asked, never taking her eyes off her sector of fire.

Regardless of the chaos of the fight, Marsh flushed at being reminded of his own lack of combat experience and didn’t reply, instead focusing his anger into a burst that took one of a half a dozen tong that were trying to flank their position out of the fight.

“GOT IT!” Cindy cried triumphantly as the hatch slid open smoothly.

“By the numbers, Marsh and Li Ming move!” Chan barked.

William and Cindy each dropped to a knee and added their fire on the remaining five tong of the pincer movement that threatened to over run their position before they could escape. Li Ming, as cat-like as ever, nimbly evaded fire and darted onto Chang’s ship and immediately headed for the cockpit.  

Marsh fired one last burst and pivoted toward the yacht. He had only taken two steps when he was knocked sideways by a sledgehammer blow to his side. Gasping in pain, but silently thanking his armor, the pilot had the presence of mind to use the spin imparted by the impact to swing around and return fire. “Rat bastard!” He slavered in fury and emptied the assault rifle into a tong, whether it was the one who shot him or not, he had the satisfaction of seeing the man fall. He then turned and hobbled aboard the safety of the airlock, his side already beginning to throb in absolute agony.

“GO!” Chan ordered when he saw Marsh stagger and emptied her own weapon in a long ripple of fire that cut down one man and drove the other three diving for cover. William heard Cindy sob in anguish and side stepped to cover her as she raced to the pilot’s aide. When Chan’s weapon clicked empty, William kept the three flanking tong pinned down until he saw that Chan was safe, then backpedaled onto the yacht as well, the hatch knocking his shotgun to the left as it slammed closed.

“How is he?” Chan asked moving to Marsh’s side.

“He’s a lucky little git is what he is, but he’s going to remember this day.” An obviously relieved Cindy replied. “Bullet hit on an angle or otherwise it would have penetrated. No permanent damage.”

“Easy f-for y-you to say. You didn’t get it.” Marsh sputtered.

The comforting sound of the ship’s engines coming online thankfully cut off whatever comment Cindy had to say. William and Chan looked at each other in surprise then both ran to the cockpit, leaving Marsh and Cindy alone.

“Didn’t think I’d have cared one way or the other if you got your fool self shot.” Cindy said, her eyes brighter than Marsh had ever seen.

“W-well, i-it wasn’t i-in the p-plan, b-but I do t-thank you for c-caring.”

“You know this complicates things don’t you?” Cindy replied, gently kissing Marsh.

“Yeah, b-but in a g-good way.” He returned the kiss with a passion that surprised him.

 

“-up Xavier! Pull up! We’ll meet you in orbit!” Li Ming was shouting into the transceiver as Chan and William arrived.

“Understood!” The roar of the Lattimer’s Ghost engines reversing thrust and the sound of the small arm fusillade from the enraged tong as it rattled impotently against the hull and canopy as Li Ming gained altitude almost drowned out Xavier’s reply.

“We made it.” Li Ming sighed as they soared out of range.

“We did.” Chan flopped into the seat next to the gambler.

“Even got more than we bargained for in the process.” William added smugly.

“What might that be?” Chan said suddenly exhausted from the furious fight and flight.

“Imagine how much data Chang keeps in his personal computer. That stuff we got from the Hip Sing is good, but it’s only circumstantial. This ship is going to have a platinum mine full of information.”

“Xavier’s going to have a field day. Speaking of our girl, let’s find a quiet place to dock. We’ll need to get Marsh to the infirmary for a proper once over as well as getting Xavier onto

this gaudy escapee from a birthday cake.” Turning to Li Ming she added. “Take us to three AUs

and we’ll make the swap there.”

“Too easy Captain.” Li Ming reached for the transceiver and relayed the plan to Xavier.

 

Once the two ships docked, Cindy quickly got Marsh heading for the infirmary and for once the argumentative pilot didn’t put up a fight. Chan and William also boarded the Lattimer’s Ghost to fill in as interim pilots, while Li Ming stayed on as pilot for the yacht.

After getting settled in, Xavier took a look at Chang’s computer, which proved not to be much of a challenge. Convinced of his own superiority, the internal security of the yacht’s computer was minimal as Chang had obviously never considered the possibility that anyone other than himself would ever have the opportunity to gain admittance to his ship. Once past his password, Xavier had complete access to every business dealing Chang had ever attempted. By the time they’d covered a third of the seventy-two hour trip back to Greenleaf at normal speed, Xavier was able to build a complete profile of exactly what Chang had been doing behind his father’s back.

 

“That was one busy little hun dan.” Marsh whistled when Xavier finished her report via wave from the yacht.

“No kidding. I must admit some admiration for the scope of his operations.” William nodded.

“Doesn’t surprise me in the slightest.” Li Ming sniffed, listening via the intercom at the controls of Chang’s ship.

“Really now, why is that?” Chan asked, somewhat taken aback by the gambler’s tone.

“I’ve seen spoiled little rich kids many times at the tables. Had everything that a whole planet could ever want handed to them and think they’ve done something important because of it. Haven’t earned anything and believes the ‘Verse shines out their pi gu, nothing but a bunch of self-indulgent and petulant little punks.”

“Whoa there pretty lady, sounds like ya got a burr in your bustle.” Marsh began to laugh, but broke off wincing in pain. “Damn, I hope the lump of le se what shot me got put down.” He finished angrily.

“Just remember lover, a couple centimeters the other way and it would have been you that got put down. Firefights are like that; never forget that or you won’t get a chance to.” Cindy replied with an expression that clearly showed hard won experience in the matter and a softer concern that wasn’t there before.

“What’s the plan now Captain?” William asked changing the topic before Marsh could reply.

“We send Baron Chang a wave. With the dust up his son caused during his escape, there’s no way approach control will allow either of these ships anywhere near Greenleaf without authorization. I figure the Baron has got the pull to allow us to land without getting us burned out of the Black.”

“I do not wish to speak outside my place, but are you sure Chang the elder will not just give the order to burn us out the Black anyway?” Willis inquired, not quite convinced.

“Not his style. He is a noble of the old school. Honor is big to him, having us blazed without a warning or chance to fight back would offend his sensibilities.” William responded.

“Not to mention what it would do to our ability to breathe regular.” Cindy chuckled grimly.

“I’ll send the wave now. That will give the good Baron two days to verify what I’m going to transmit to him. We’ve got enough rock solid evidence that he will have to listen.”

“And if he chooses not to?” Marsh asked.

“He will, but if I’ve not pegged him right, we’ll take our evidence right to the High Court on

Osiris and let them summon Chang to them. Either way, he will have to deal.” Chan answered. “Well, I’ve got a wave to compose, let me know if anything big happens otherwise I’ll be in my cabin building our case.”

“We’ve got it covered mei mei.”

Chan rose, stopped in the gallery long enough to pour herself more coffee and exited the dining room. Marsh waited until she was out of earshot before speaking. “Every time I think about wantin’ my own ship and bein’ captain, I look at what Chan goes through and I find myself not just a little content with what I do now.”

“I guess that slug was able to do something none of us have every managed to do and knock the beginnings of good sense into you young Marsh.” William replied with a chuckle and to show he might actually be right, the pilot just placed his arm around Cindy and smiled.

 

Two days later, the Lattimer’s Ghost and the Cheng, with a pair of heavily armed escorts dropped into the atmosphere of Greenleaf on a tightly monitored course. They touched down at a government landing pad in the city of Hong Mu and were met by the local constabulary at the bottom of the loading ramp.

“Wu Chan Juan and William Lemont, you are ordered to come with us to speak with the Baron Administrator Chang.” The lieutenant in charge of the constables said in a voice that brooked no options.

“We would be delighted to speak to the Baron.” Chan said smoothly and followed the officer to the waiting hover car.

Driving directly to the magnificent temple replica that Chang used as his office, Chan and her first mate were whisked around morning traffic and after passing through the usual gun scanners, were taken directly to the meeting hall to face Baron Chang Wen Shen. Still flanked by the other two members of his tribunal he waited until Chan and William were standing directly in front of him before speaking.

“My clan has dishonored you.” He began without preamble. He had visibly aged since the last time they had seen him and despite the anger in his voice, the pain was very clear. He spoke slowly choking back rage and sorrow. “The men known as Flannery and Keystone have already paid for their actions.” This raised both Chan and William’s eyebrows, but they remained silent, not yet certain which way the summons was going to go, as summons was the only term that fit. The idea that this was a meeting didn’t apply. They were at Chang’s mercy and they knew it.

“In return you have taken something from me. While I have suffered the greater loss, you have suffered the greater wrong. As a man of some influence, I have spoken to my associates and you will find that the problems you’ve had obtaining work is no more. Leave now.”

“Yes my lord.” Chan replied bowing stiffly, William following the motion a half-second behind. Not wanting to risk antagonizing the dangerous Chang, they turned to leave.

“Captain Wu?” Chang’s voice cut across the silence bringing the two up short.

“Yes my lord?”

“One piece of advice, return not to my home world again or you will discover that this old dragon still possesses the fire to burn those such as you.” He said his voice as frigid as ice, but with a steeliness that made it clear he was both serious and absolutely capable of doing exactly as he implied.

“Yes my lord.” Chan replied as a chill washed through her.

The constables were waiting as they exited the meeting hall and drove them directly back to

the port and the landing pad where their ship was parked. They withdrew to a safe distance and

waited until the Lattimer’s Ghost had departed with her escorts.

 

“Okay, they’ve peeled off.” Marsh said breathing a sigh of relief as their two shadows turned back toward Greenleaf. “I’m not gonna lie, I thought they would blast us.”

“I was banking heavily on Chang’s sense of honor, but I won’t lie and say I didn’t have my doubts.” Chan replied with a slight touch of trepidation in her voice.

“You think he was serious about never goin’ to Greenleaf again?” Marsh continued.

“With out a doubt, if any of us return and get caught, they will not leave alive and being dead would be kindness compared to what Chang would have in store for them. He has honor, but he is also ruthless. Still, there are quite a few other places in the ‘Verse that we can visit and if he’s true on the other part of his word, we should be able to find work on one of them.”

“You have anyone of them in mind mei mei?” William questioned.

“I know I rely on Verbena too much, but if we’re out from behind that blackball, then I say that is our first choice, how long a trip from here?’

“Six days at standard burn.”

“Okay then Mister Marsh you have a course. I think I’m going to go have something to eat. You care to join me William?”

“Anytime is the right time for eating as you well know mei mei, so certainly.”

The two turned to leave.

“Captain?”

“Yes Marsh?”

“I need to let you know something.” Marsh said with an unusual tone of voice.

“Go on with it Marsh.” Chan replied, curious.

“I already spoke to the others and I’m wanna do what you suggested when I was on watch.”

“Okay, you’ve lost me, on which watch?”

“Back on Jiang Yin when you suggested Cindy and Willis trade out cabins.”

“Well, well, well. Certainly Marsh, you go right ahead, it’s about time.”

“Yeah I reckon it is.”

“May I offer some advice?” William said, his eyes dancing in amusement.

“I…guess so.”

“You better make sure you keep her happy, because if you don’t as a medic, you can just bet that she knows a ton of ways to make you hurt.”

“I’ll have to face that one, one day at a time I suppose.”

“He can be taught!”

All three of them got a big laugh out of that with Chan and William departing the bridge as they had started to do. Before they reached the galley, they felt the Lattimer’s Ghost pulse drive kick in and noticed the change in the vibration in the deck plates.

“It’s good to be in business again William.”

“I must concur mei mei, but I have to say that is only the second best thing about no longer being under a cloud.”

“Okay, I’ll bite, what is the best thing?”

“The clouds no longer hide my sparkling personality!” William threw back his head in a hearty laugh that was so infectious that Chan could do nothing but join in. The laughter filtered through the Lattimer’s Ghost with the promise of the new day before them and the unlimited opportunities that waited for anyone that chose to find them in the Black that was their home.  



[1] junk

[2] young one

[3] petty

[4] Jesus!

[5] Cow sucking

[6] Name of all that’s sacred

[7] Loopy in the head

[8] Remorseless harridan

[9] dangly piece of flesh

[10] Merciful Buddha

[11] Over my dead body!

[12] Whores in hell

[13] Stupid son of a drooling whore and a monkey.

[14] Dog humping

[15] We are in big trouble