Chapter Two

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“MARSH!!! What in the gou cao de[1] hell do you think you are doing?” Chan thundered over the intercom. I’d prefer not to have our first run end with us as a smoking crater. It’s not good for repeat business!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“William I hate you right now.”

“No you don’t”

“I don’t? Why not?”

“My sparkling personality.

Wo de ma he ta de feng kuang de wai sheng dou[2]! I am going to have to kill you one day when I’m not quite so busy running this soon to be five ring circus.” Chan snapped back, but could not sustain her anger in the face of William crossing his eyes at her. She snorted a short laugh and smacked him backhanded on the shoulder. “What ever am I to do with you?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Well now comp’ny that be somethin’ we don’t get much round here. I’m Grady Smith welcome to the hou zi de pi gu[3] of Regina.” He said gruffly. “Sorry no one met ya, but as you kin tell, ain’t much fer ceremonies and such.” Smith stopped and ran a hand nervously across his wispy thin hair and continued. “Look I ain’t gots good news. The Dragon Flower shipment is late and seein’ as how time is money and all, mebbe, you good folk can help us both out by takin’ a look for them miners tomorrow? They’s good people an’ might need help.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What killed him?” Chan asked quietly.

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

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

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

“Did he say anything else?” William asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Miss Schultz!” Chan thundered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can let her go now gentlemen. I think the crisis has passed. Thank you for saving our pilot’s life. Miss Schultz, because you were the wounded party in this sorry exchange, I will not restrict you to quarters this time. However, if there is a next time you and I will have words, dong ma[4]?”

“Yes ma’am.” Cindy replied dejectedly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chan asked eyeing the young woman intently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m in, when do we go?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ta ma de.[5]” Chan whispered in awe. “William, guard the airlock, we need to find out exactly who these gao yang zhong de gu yang[6] are. Cindy and Xavier follow me.” Chan didn’t wait to see if her orders were being followed as she crept silently into the damaged patrol boat. The ship seemed deserted and they were able to locate a computer terminal. Still showing signs of being out of her element, Xavier nonetheless effortlessly hacked into the system.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come again?” A confused Chan replied.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me?” Chan asked incredulous.

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay crew, we go in quiet. Getting the ship moving and those doors open are critical. If the plan goes to da bian[7], beat feet back to the ship and we run. We can scan for the guys in the desert and pick them up in the morning. Won’t get us paid, but it will be the right thing to do.”

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wo de ma[8]! Damn it! Damn it! Damn it! That bloody hurts!” Chan wheezed as Cindy rolled her over. “G-G-Good thing w-we wore armor, eh Cindy?”

Ren ci de Fo zu![9] You are alive!” Cindy yelped in surprise and joy.

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

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

Jian ta de guay[10] Cindy, we’ve still got a job to do, just going to have to do it a different way, hurry, there’s more coming. Quick to the Raven, we’ve got to make our stand there!” She glanced over her shoulder and saw that William had managed to get the second warehouse door open. Before she could say another word William appeared at her side, his own pain forgotten as he glanced at Cindy, at her silent nod, he grabbed Chan and effortlessly and tossed her over his shoulder. Making his way toward the ship faster than someone his size had a right to move. Cindy back peddled behind them, laying down a near continuous stream of fire and keeping the pirates at bay long enough for everyone to board the Raven safely.

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

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

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

“Bridge.” Li Ming responded instantly.

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

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

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

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

“Here captain.” Came the immediate response.

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

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

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

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

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

“See you there!”

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Not now Cindy I-” Chan started.

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

“She is right mei mei. William added.

“Yeah, that’s the damn thing about it. She is, my side hurts like a gao yang zhong de gu yang[11].” 

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

Dang ran[12] Captain. You get better.” He replied and headed for the bridge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Me and Xavier are right cozy Cap. Not like those ta shi suo you di yu de biao de ma[13] down there even had anti-ship weapons or time to think about us with all that ruckus you were stirring up. I’ll be down in second.” Marsh said sardonically, then put word to deed and brought the Lattimer’s Ghost in to a landing with his typical flourish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Out of twenty!” He hissed in palpable anger. “These…these…he chu sheng a jiao de zang hu[14] deserve the hangman’s noose they have coming!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’d like that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Willis?” She asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 



[1] Dog humping

 

[2] Holy mother of god and all her wacky nephews

[3] Monkey’s butt

[4] Understand?

[5] F--- me blind

[6] Motherless goats of all motherless goats

[7] Sh-t

[8] Mother of god

[9] Merciful Buddha

[10] Like Hell

[11] Motherless goats of all motherless goats.

[12] Certainly

[13] Whores in hell

[14] Filthy fornicators of livestock