Chapter Three

 

“All hands this is your pilot speaking, prep for lift, grab something hard or soft as floats your goat and we’re Greenleaf bound.” Marsh said in his typical sardonic fashion as he applied full power to the Lattimer’s Ghost and with great flare, broke atmosphere and headed for the Black.

The ship and crew had finally gotten another cargo out of Patrick Hong and the chance to earn some coin after a full week on Verbena. The down side of the run was that Dragon Flower did not have a return cargo, this was only a one way run, but Chan had great hopes of finding something for the return trip. It had cost too much, taken too long, and they had too good a history to stray too far from Verbena and Patrick Hong, thus returning to Verbena wasn’t a question of if, but when.

The Lattimer’s Ghost lifted cleanly despite being packed with a full 400 tons of cargo. The Dragon Flower company, in addition to mining equipment, also exported agricultural equipment and this was what was filling every inch of the ship’s cargo bays. Combined with the length of the trip, a full ten days, even with no return cargo guaranteed, this run was going to be lucrative and the entire crew was in an upbeat mood. The crew was especially looking forward to the Lift Day Feast, as William had announced with great fanfare the day before they were due to depart that he would take the meal preparation on as his special duty.

Using some of the money from the bonus earned on Regina, William had taken special care while shopping to obtain fresh foods uncommon for spacers. He had in a rare fit of pique and banished the entire crew, to include an indignant Chan Juan from the galley as he worked on the meal. The smells of the gourmet meal had long since filled the corridors of the ship and William was facing near insurrection by the time he announced the meal was ready.

“William you have far out done yourself.” Chan beamed as she took in the feast spread out the length of the dining table. “I wanted a nice meal with fresh food on lift day; the feast part was just so much jabber. You have actually gone and made this a meal to fit the title feast.”

“Well I got to thinking that even though I knew you didn’t actually mean a feast, I figure why shouldn’t we actually have a feast? I figure we work hard and one good meal every few weeks isn’t much to ask.” William replied as he carved the spiced ham that was the centerpiece of the meal.

“I for one commend you and thank you for your efforts William. This is as fine a meal as I have seen aboard ship and, trust me, that includes several liners.” Li Ming added.

“Yeah Will’o, good eats.” Marsh garbled around a mouthful of ham.

William spared the pilot a hot retort at the new nickname he was trying to stick him with, figuring it was meant as a compliment.

“I have to agree.” Cindy said as she reached some a bowl of rice. As she did, she knocked over the salt shaker and without conscious thought, picked up the shaker and tossed some over her left shoulder. None of the crew paid this much attention, but when she began obsessively wiping her chopsticks after every bite that anyone said anything.

“Why in the south side of Sihnon are you doing that?” Marsh finally asked.

 “Warding evil spirits.” She replied with complete sincerity.

For several seconds there was silence at the table except for the clicking sounds of Cindy’s own chopsticks. Li Ming recovered first and would not let the medic’s idiosyncrasies cast a wet blanket on a ship tradition. “So Chan, why did Patrick hold out so long before setting up this run?” She asked changing the topic smoothly.

“Ah…Greenleaf is ah…somewhat of a new market for Dragon Flower, they don’t have an existing long term contract with Greenleaf like they do with Regina.” Chan managed to reply. “This isn’t the inaugural run, but one of only a handful so far, Hong hopes a few more one way runs will establish a good enough of a track record that the local nobles there will set up an exchange run. Going by the length of the trip, it would be pretty sweet for us if they do.”

“Nothing sweeter than a steady cargo run.” William added. “Well nothing sweeter than a fine bottle of Miss Wong’s whiskey.”

“Fishing for an accompaniment for this fine meal William my friend?”

Dang ran.” The first mate responded instantly.

“Well this meal certainly deserves it, so you have managed to talk your way into my larders.” Li Ming answered. She excused herself and headed for her shuttle for the bottle.

“I’d like to talk my way into her…OW! You kicked my knee!” Marsh began and stopped suddenly.

“I’ll kick more than that if you say anything to ruin lift day you ma de pi gu.” Chan snapped back hotly.

“Sorry ma’am.”

“Good enough. Now remember this is a festive occasion.”

“That it is.” Willis added. “This is always such a happy day.”

“Happy enough to join us in a drink Willis?” Chan asked slyly.

“Uh…well…um…I really shouldn’t” The mechanic managed to stammer.

“Oh why not Willis? I’m certain Buddha will forgive you.” Li Ming said as she returned to her seat with two bottles of whiskey.

“Oh my, whatever do you have planned Li Ming?” Chan asked with a gleam in her eyes.

“Me have a plan? You wound me captain you wound me. I figure it is a ten day trip to Greenleaf and so long as the ‘Ghost’s collision avoidance program stays sober I figure we can enjoy ourselves.” The gambler replied demurely

“Well plan or no plan, I’m going to savor your fine gifts.” Realizing the possible double entendre, William fixed Marsh with a baleful stare to prevent any possible repeat of the pilot’s earlier gaffe. Regardless of his efforts, it was too late and the entire table burst out laughing. William flushed all the way up to the ears, but could not resist joining in the merriment.

In fact it was indeed a good thing that the Lattimer’s Ghost’s collision avoidance program stayed sober as the entire crew had quite a bit more merriment than intended.

 

The next morning, the merriment caught up with them as each crew member blinked awake and found themselves in unaccustomed places or in states they usually didn’t sleep in. Willis was the least affected as he had managed to avoid most of the refills the other’s savored, but he woke up on the couch in the crew lounge with a pounding headache. Xavier woke up sprawled on the dining table, the left side of her face dimpled by the table cloth pattern.

Chan somehow found herself in the infirmary on the main operating table, completely clueless as to how she got there or why she would go there in the first place. William found himself in his room, but stark naked on the floor in a puddle of clothes. Li Ming awoke on the bridge with a crook in her neck from being huddled up in the seat for what must have been most of the night.

Each member of the crew wore a sheepish look as they tried to make bloodshot eyes focus and abused muscles move. Marsh tried three times to order his still asleep left arm to move and when this failed, he managed to force, what felt like sandblasted eyes open and realized he wasn’t alone. He turned his head slightly praying he’d got as lucky as he hoped he had and could not believe what he was seeing.

“How in the south side of Sihnon did you get in my room?” He exclaimed and managed to pull his arm free.

“Look around sweety, you are in my room.” Cindy purred like a cat toying with a mouse.

“I…I…Oh gos se!  He managed at last as he fumbled around for his clothes. “You took advantage of me!”

“You bet I did hon, and given half a chance I’ll do it again, but don’t get indignant with me, it’s not like you didn’t take advantage of me as well. Look Marsh, I’m not looking for strings or anything other than what it was. I needed release and so did you. I know I’m nothing to look at under the best of circumstances, so I know what I look like now. I don’t even like seeing me with a hang over and a raging case of bed head. You can grab your clothes and go with no questions or expectations, but Li Ming is not in your league, so anytime you need to grapple, I’m here to grapple with. I may not be pleasin’ to the eye, but I know how to please a man. You just try and remember that and you might decide I’m not so bad after all.

“Look Cindy…I…well…um, well what I do remember was it was good, so maybe I’ll take you up on that, now you have any idea where my pants are?”

Cindy pointed upwards and there were Marsh’s pants caught in a life support vent, both burst out laughing and they were still laughing when Marsh slipped out of her quarters and back to his own. Aside from an arched eyebrow, Willis neither said nor asked anything for which, Marsh was extremely grateful

Marsh was lucky that Willis was not a gossip, but even though a Firefly-class mid-bulk freighter was a fairly large ship, there was no way their little tryst could remain secret for long. Much merriment was made at Marsh’s and Cindy’s expense, but given where the rest of the crew found themselves on the morning after the lift day feast, they couldn’t delve too deeply into the pilot’s and medic’s actions without calling attention to themselves, so the matter was allowed to quietly drop. Not surprisingly the aftermath of the feast was the high point of the long ten day trip to Greenleaf.

 

“Thanks for riding shotgun with me Li Ming. These Greenleafers don’t have much of a sense of humor when it comes to drifting out of your assigned landing vector and an extra set of hands is always welcome.” Marsh said, his eyes never leaving the heads up display showing the approach to the landing field at Longbranch the capitol of Hu Shen Fu prefecture of Southern Greenleaf.

“You can blame the value of the pharmaceuticals that this place exports and the resulting problems with smugglers for the strict approach rules, but I don’t mind helping at all Sylvester, I enjoy the opportunity to hone my piloting skills. I consider myself a decent shuttle pilot, but I can use the practice with flying the ‘Ghost, even if all I’m doing is watching you do the actual work.” Li Ming replied from the co-pilot’s seat.

“I’ll never know why I let you call me by my first name; my mother doesn’t even call me anything but Marsh.”

“I’m sure it’s because you think you might get as lucky with me as you did with Cindy.” Li Ming laughed, but it was in jest and the pilot knew it.

“Yeah well, a guy can dream can’t he?”

“That he can my friend that he can.”

“You two are about to make me gag.” Chan said from the doorway. “Considering your ‘unique’ entrance to Regina, maybe one of you should be concentrating on flying instead of gossiping about your social schedules.”

“Hey Cap, that’s not fair, Li Ming distracted me with her-“

“Assets!” Li Ming interjected.

“Uh…right her assets over Regina, this time she is helping me.”

“Okay, as long as you have a plan, you’ll have to excuse me for wanting to protect my investment.”

“Oh sure Cap, I understand, we are in the glide path, on final approach, and shiny.”

“Captain I have a wave coming in.” Said Li Ming.

“I’ll take it over here.” Chan responded as she walked over to a terminal, her eyebrows knit together in curiosity.

“Captain Wu.”

“Captain, I am Chang Wen Shen, you will come to my office as soon as your ship lands. Here are the coordinates, please to not delay.”

And just as abruptly as the message started, it was over.

“Who was-?” Marsh started.

“I don’t know. I’m looking him up now. O zhe zhen shi ge kuai le de jin zhan[1]…” Chan replied after a quick consult of the Cortex.

“Who is this hun dan?” Marsh asked.

“Why Mister Chang is none other than the Baron Administrator responsible for regulation of interplanetary commercial operations on Greenleaf.”  

“And why exactly would he be interested in us?” Li Ming asked suspicion creeping into her voice.

“At this point you two know as much as I do. To my knowledge we have broken no laws and we are carrying a completely legal bonded cargo. I don’t know why the senior noble for this hemisphere would want to talk to me. I guess we’ll find out as soon as we land.”

“Then here’s your chance to find out Cap, as here we are.” Marsh said as he flared for landing on the designated platform and bringing the Lattimer’s Ghost in for a picture perfect touch down.

Chan activated the intercom. “Cindy, will you oversee the offload? William and I have an appointment with the nobility of Greenleaf. Li Ming, please help Cindy mind the store while we figure what burr the baron has up his pi gu.”

“Certainly Captain, good luck.”

 

Chan headed for the cargo bay to meet William. He was standing there with an enigmatic smile on his lips. “I must say Captain, you are moving up in the world. Usually you at least make planet fall before being called on the carpet.”

“Hysterical William, God only knows how much da bian we’re in and you want to try and start a new career as a comedian, and if you say ‘It’s part of my sparkling personality.’ I am going to kill you where you stand.”

“Pace mei mei I give.” He raised his hands in mock surrender.

“William, you know anything I need to know?”

“Chan, now you know me better, if I did I would tell anything I knew about anything that would get us in a bind. I’ll drive; it will give you some time to gather your thoughts.”

“Good idea.”

The two got in the hover car and drove immediately to the coordinates provided by Chang. This proved to be a towering edifice that was a flawless replica of a classic Ming Dynasty temple given over to use as an office building. It was clearly designed to awe and impress anyone that had to do business there that didn’t work there. Finding a place to park, they entered the building a found a pleasant man at the counter that directed them to the main hearing hall.

“This whole set up is starting to smell worse every step we take mei mei.

“Tell me something I don’t know, but given the surface to space weaponry this planet packs, I doubt if Marsh could get us off planet in one piece. Like it or not, we are in this for the full measure.”

On reaching the ornate doors that led to their destination, Chan took a deep breath and entered, her shoulders square and her jaw set. William’s posture also bespoke calm and the right to be in this place regardless of the situation.

“Captain Wu Chan Juan and First Mate William Lemont of the Firefly-class freighter Lattimer’s Ghost, formally known as the Tantivy.” A crimson bedecked herald spoke in a deep, clear, stentorian voice as the two entered the vast hearing hall.

The lavish hearing hall bespoke the wealth and power and was also designed to intimidate with fine tapestries featuring Earth-That-Was scenes, polished woods, and the high court room-like judge’s bench with five members that appeared almost like some sort of avenging tribunal. The three men and two women on the high bench looked serene, but they also did not show any hint of friendliness either.

“Captain Wu, I am Baron Chang Wen Shen. I know you are curious why I called you here, so I will not waste time and will get right to the point. In the past ten weeks several Greenleaf merchant vessels have been attacked, each has had their entire crew killed, but only part of their cargoes stolen, namely a mildly narcotic product called Highleaf. This is a luxury trade item that to the locals of Greenleaf is no more troublesome than a glass of wine. It is exported for its potent medicinal properties however, to people not from Greenleaf this same product, when processed to that end it becomes a powerful, dangerous, and addictive drug. 

        “Evidence recovered from the drifting ships implies renegade Independents have resorted to piracy to fund anti-Alliance activities. Our local patrol has been unable to capture these attackers as they attack precisely and with great speed. Since you Captain were once a member of the Independents movement. Regardless of your current standing with them, it is only fitting that you and your crew be the bait to stop this menace. Since you might feel this is our problem and not yours, I have been informed that your ship does not currently have a cargo at the moment and my sources also tell me that your ship is due for its flight worthiness inspection; maybe my good captain you would be willing to help?”

Never noted for being unable to read between the lines and facing the five grim visages of what was for all intents and purposes actually a tribunal, Chan was very quickly able to figure which way this situation would play out if she did anything other than agree.

“Baron Chang, my ship is at your disposal.”

“Excellent Captain, since I also happen to know the local Dragon Flower Interplanetary representative personally, I will see that the offloading is expedited. By the time you return to your ship, your business with Dragon Flower will have concluded. I will have the bait cargo in place and they will load immediately once your cargo bay is open. Thank you for your assistance in this matter Captain, I am glad you have chosen to see…reason. So many freighter captains choose a more unpleasant course of action. 

“The willow learns to sway with the wind Baron.”

“Indeed it does Captain. Since you have been so accommodating, I will return the favor. I will send a wave with all the accumulated data we have on these bandits to this point. Hopefully it will assist you.”

“Thank you Baron.”

On a nod from Chang, it was clear the meeting was over, so Chan and William took their leave as quickly as propriety would allow. They waited until they were in the hover car and halfway to the ship before trusting themselves to speak.

“Well that guy was a prince among men mei mei. If you had said no, what do you think he would have done?”

“He would have started with impounding the ship and then working his way through any number of infractions until we saw reason. You know how ‘unpleasant ‘we freighter captains can be and sometimes a gentleman has to be equally unpleasant to get his point across.”

“We are so boned.”

“Among other things, but boned pretty much sums it up.”

“We’ll make it happen Captain.”

“I have no doubt. I just really hate being strapped over a barrel I didn’t choose to be strapped over.”

“You ask to be strapped over barrels?”

Be zui[2] William and drive.”

 

On return to the ship, Chan found that Chang was correct about the Dragon Flower cargo being already offloaded. As they entered the ship, Cindy handed her the small sack that held their payment for the trip. The trucks with the decoy cargo were arriving and Chan figured that going by how efficient Chang’s people had already proven themselves to be, they could figure out how to get the load in place without any help from the crew. She then called everyone to the dining room to break the news of the change in plans.

“Well this isn’t something I like, but we don’t have much choice. Seems some hijackers have been stealing cargo from the locals. Ex-Browncoat hijackers.” Chan said, her eyes sweeping each member of the crew. “The locals have taken exception to this, and have hired us to act as bait to drop the heavy end of the hammer on these hun dan pirates.”

“You took on a merc job Captain?” Asked Marsh.

“No I didn’t, we got shanghaied into this one, and the less said about it the better. Thing is, we have roughly as long as it takes the locals to load the ship to prepare for this job. The local chieftain has sent us a wave with all the information on the pirates he’s got. Xavier, this is where you get to shine. I need you to look through what they have, then see if you can find out what they don’t have, and even more importantly, what they have, but didn’t tell us.

Marsh and Willis, I need you to check everything you can think of, we will be facing an armed ship and we need every ounce of speed and maneuverability you can wring out of the old girl. Cindy, Li Ming, we will start doing a pre-combat checks on every weapon we have and maybe see if we can rig up a couple surprises. People I figure we have five hours max before we have to lift. We will only have time to restock the ship’s fuel, infirmary, and larder before taking off for Persephone. Dong ma?”

“Understood Captain, we’ll give them sons of whores a welcome they will never forget.” Cindy replied and by silent agreement everyone started moving to their assigned tasks, but as they moved out, no one had noticed how Li Ming’s eyes had widened when she heard the name Persephone.

When Xavier got a look at the wave from Chang she found that information on the raiders was scarce, the only real information they has was that the pirates approached fast, fired a warning shot, then if the ship didn’t heave to a second shot would disable the target’s drive. This was followed by a broadcast that no one would be harmed if they cooperated however, once the crew was rounded up, they were executed. In addition to their tactics Chang attached a message to Captain Wu that added that every ship ambushed occurred near Boros and was either inbound or outbound from Persephone. One final note in the briefing included that Persephone also happens to be home of a business rival to the Chang’s. It is possible that these rivals – the Hans – are just using Independent faction veterans as muscle to organize the raids. 

Knowing that any information would be useful, plus she just happened to like poking around in files that others took pains to keep secret, Xavier tapped into the local Cortex to see if she could find a pattern to the attacks. She immediately was able to figure out that there could only be one ship making the attacks as there were a couple of noticeable gaps in the raid pattern; indicating this single ship was out being serviced or was disposing of already captured cargo.  Digging deeper, Xavier was able to find that because of formal flight plans, import/export formalities, and warehouse contracting, there were dozens of possible sources for a leak.

Since a single source didn’t present itself, once she found out from Xavier about this possible lead, Captain Wu went through every step in the Chang shipping SOP to make certain that wherever the leak was located, they would get the word this time also. To this end, the loading was done in broad daylight with heavy noticeable security that drew much attention, while not disguising the contents of what was being loaded from anyone in the area that took the time to look. The decoy cargo was powerful bait consisting of 350 tons of other valuable medicines and a staggering 50 tons of Highleaf.

In order to survive, Chan and crew would have to meet the boarders with blinding violence and attempt a counter boarding if at all possible. After their quick meeting, Chan directed a couple special changes as the cargo was being loaded that would channel any movement by the boarders and give the crew several well protected hiding places. Once the cargo was fully loaded, there was little else left to do beyond closing the cargo ramp and depart.

 

“I tell you William, I’m thinking the Captain sticking to the Lift-Day Feast is a great idea. No need to let a minor thing like being sent on a suicide mission cast a pall on a good meal.” Xavier said while she peeled potatoes for the meal in the galley.

“Well I’m sure there’s meant to be a compliment in their somewhere Xavier.” The first mate replied jovially as he stirred a sauce pan. “I’m just glad I had enough time to get the fixins’ for the meal. We were a mite rushed to leave you might say.”

“That’s putting it mildly, that Chang character was pretty insistent that we get in the Black and off his world before we stunk up the place.”

“A noble of grace, his fine nose not so ready, we are much too crude.”

“A haiku William? I’m impressed.”

“I um, I didn’t think you’d recognize my doggerel.”

“I did study art on Sihnon you know, I just concentrated on painting, but the academy was very thorough about making sure we were shown a wide variety of art forms, including some rather bizarre Earth-That-Was styles. I was particularly taken with the works of Picasso.”

Guernica.” William muttered.

“Yes! I remember that one, but I was never clear on the context.”

“It was an anti-war protest decrying the bombardment of civilians.”

“Nuclear?”

“No, no, no! The first nuclear attack wasn’t until about ten years later.”

“Striking painting for a non-nuclear bombardment.”

“All of Picasso’s works are striking.”

“William you have the heart of a dreamer, Earth-That-Was art, history, poetry, cooking, I think the old term was Renaissance man.”

“Xavier, if I thought for a second you were yanking my chain, I’d have you chin deep in the reclamation tanks. I…I…know I’m not all that pleasing to look at, so I have tried to learn as much about beautiful things as I can. It’s sort of a compensation to my way of thinking.”

“Well you keep it up. I didn’t think anyone, ‘cept maybe Li Ming might know anything about art, so maybe we can talk some times.”

“You my green haired vixen have a deal. Now scoot, too many cooks spoil the broth and all that. I have cooking to do.”

Xavier ran a hand through her short hair pulled into the beginnings of a scalp lock. “I would like that. You’ve piqued my curiosity on Picasso now. I’m going to hit the Cortex to see what I can learn. See you at 2000 hours.” She wink lasciviously and headed back to her cabin.

William watched her leave, his own curiosity piqued at the mystery woman. “That girl is a wild card. I am glad of her though. She makes life interesting.” He thought and then turned back to his primary task of making sure the feast would live up to its name again.

 

In what all hoped would be a harbinger of good luck, William’s meal turned out better than ever. However, due to the threat posed by the raiders, Li Ming kept her larder holding the whiskey bottles firmly closed. The lack of adult libation aside, it was obvious that William had uncovered a heretofore unrealized talent as a chef. The crew made the very most of the meal and time together and simply chose to live for the moment and enjoy each other’s company, and in so doing, they passed being strangers, and they even passed being on the same crew, they were on their way to becoming a family, a dysfunctional family maybe, but a family nonetheless.

 

Marsh plotted the standard course for Persephone taking into account the points of intercept of the previous attacks from Chang’s data. He carefully set a course that would take the ship though the area of primary intercept on a roundabout path while not being obvious about it. The meandering course would make a five day trip stretch to eight days, but he hoped it would give them the best chance of attracting the pirates on the first try. No one wanted to have to make a second run with a bull’s eye on their back. Six days into the trip, Marsh picked up the signature of a ship closing fast. 

“All hands look alive, we have company!” Marsh barked over the intercom. “Man your battle stations! Stand by to repel boarders!”

“You could sound like you weren’t enjoying this so much you know? This is serious stuff” Xavier said as she dropped into her ‘battle station’ in the co-pilot’s seat after making sure the bridge was fully sealed. Their part of the battle, if everything went according to the plan, would be waged from where they were right now.

“Yeah I know, but no need to be all doom and gloom about it. This is more of trouble than that mess on Regina; at least we had the option to run there. Here we have to let them come to us and smile while we do it. I don’t know about you, but I’m not too- WO DE MA! “

Marsh howled and skewed the ship away from what he hoped was the pirate’s signature warning shot. He showed off his piloting skills by not only completely avoiding the inbound missile’s blast radius, he made it look like it was a random course change and not an alerted target. Playing his part to the hilt, Marsh brought the ship to a halt, powering down the drive and waiting for the raiders to dock. The comm screeched with the also signature ‘heave to and prepared to be boarded line’ from the pirate vessel.

“Here’s where they give us we won’t be harmed if we cooperate line.” He stage whispered to Xavier and right on cue the message followed and he grabbed the microphone to reply. “Message received and understood. We are unarmed. Please do not fire, we have children aboard.” 

“Children?” Xavier asked when Marsh hung up.

“Made us sound more pathetic and less likely to fight. Might work, might not. I figure we are deep enough in it now that it can’t hurt.”

“Sounds plausible, now excuse me, I’ve got some mischief to do.”

 

Down in the cargo bay, Captain Wu, wearing full body armor under a deliberately bulky set of coveralls and with a hidden pistol would greet the boarders and play the role of a terrified and helpless woman. As Chan kept the pirates believing they were in control, William, Cindy, Li Ming, and Willis, all also in full armor, waited in the ambush positions hidden in the cargo bay. The plan called for Chan to calmly agree to the boarder’s demands and lead them into the rest of the shooter’s kill zone.

Okay Miss Wu Chan Juan, don’t over do it. These are only men, they expect me to be a helpless woman, so be a helpless woman.” Chan thought to herself as she stood by the controls and waited for the airlock to cycle. However as she thought about helpless women, her mind strayed to the security cam captures of the dead on the other ships already attacked by the pirates and she began to seethe inside. Something about meeting killers of children set Chan’s blood to boiling and rather than the smooth lie to relax the eight boarders that was part of the plan, she snarled, “He Chu Sheng Za Jiao De Zang Hud[3]!” drew her pistol and opened fire.

Chan’s unexpected move threw the ambush into chaos as she was in the boarder’s firing zone, but only half of the boarders were in the crew’s kill zone, this left Chan facing four boarders that only she could fight.

After milliseconds of confusion, a storm of confused fire from both sides erupted. The first person to actually fire was Li Ming who put two shotgun rounds into her target’s chest. His body armor saved his life, but the two powerful hits hammered the man unconscious. Chan’s surprise that started the wild melee pumped three fanned pistol rounds into a second boarder and like Li Ming’s target, went down unconscious. Cindy fired a SMG burst that clipped another boarder in an aimed shot to the head that left the man so stunned he couldn’t return fire. Both Willis and William fired on the last man in their kill zone, but the terrified pirate dodged out of the way. With two of the eight boarders down, things were looking good for the crew of the Ghost, despite the premature start of the firing.

Li Ming fired two more shots at the man Cindy hit and the massive systemic shock was more than enough to kill the man. The surprised boarders finally began returning fire with one of the goons taking a shot at Li Ming for causing so much havoc, but the nimble gambler managed to dodge out of the way, just barely, but enough to stay in the fight.  

“CAPTAIN ROLL LEFT!” William barked as he charged from his hiding place with his rifle blazing to protect Chan.

The First Mate’s fire hit one of the goons trying to fire on Chan, slamming the pirate back against the bulkhead. A second pirate sprang to the defense of his comrade and took William under fire for interfering, but drawing the fire away from Chan. Despite his bulk, the big man rolled out of the way, giving Chan the chance to return the favor with two headshots that reduced the number of boarders by half.

Cindy and a boarder exchanged fire that left the boarder stunned. The one goon still hiding in the airlock hit Chan solidly in the chest before the crew could press home the attack. However, her body armor deflected the shot, leaving her staggered, but not taking her out of the fight. Li Ming fired the instant before the boarder that had already taken her under fire, driving him back before he could fire again. Chan shot the man that hit her also preventing him from firing again.

Willis, hampered by his own unwillingness to kill attempted several shots aimed at boarders weapons, but not being the greatest shot, missed completely. To his credit, he could claim forcing boarders back and allowing the others to do the more effective shooting.

Another pirate hiding in the airlock hit William with a rifle burst that sent the big man crashing to the deck unconscious, only saved by his armor. Li Ming responded with two lightning fast shots at two boarders with one man dodging, while the second man – the one who shot William  – slumping to the deck, dead before he hit the ground. A boarder fired on Li Ming at the same instant Chan fired at the boarder shooting at Li Ming. The gambler was hit by one round before the raider’s weapon jammed, but she too was saved by her armor. Chan’s shot killed the man that shot Li Ming. With only two raiders still standing, they had reached their breaking point and turned to run. The one pirate still in the airlock bolted before anyone could stop him. The last pirate either was either made of sterner stuff or realized he couldn’t escape, swung his rifle at Chan, but a perfectly aimed burst from Cindy split the man’s skull, killing him instantly. 

“WILLIAM!” Chan cried out as she, and then Cindy, who arrived a second after the captain, rolled her first mate over. “Don’t you dare die on me!”

“I’ve got him Captain!” Cindy said tersely and checking his injuries. “You make sure those cowardly lumps of niu shi[4] don’t get away!”

Chan looked like she would refuse to move for a second, but when Willis arrived to help Cindy move William she nodded and ran to assist Li Ming who was covering the airlock. She did however move slower than normal as she favored her left side that had taken the hit.

“You know Chan you have got to stop doing that.” Li Ming said as she felt Chan’s presence next to her.

“Stop doing what?”

“Getting shot, it can’t be pleasant.”

Chan regarded the gambler with a look that might have killed, until she realized Li Ming was pulling her leg. “I…uh…I’ll work on that bao bei[5].”

“Why Captain, I didn’t know you cared.”

“Li Ming, do you want to find out how unpleasant being shot is first hand?”

“I’ll pass.”

“I thought as much, but thanks for caring.”

“Anytime, but may I make a suggestion Captain?”

“Of course.”

“Next time we have an ambush set up, stick to the plan, might cut down that attraction lead seems to have for you.”

At this point Chan’s cheeks colored slightly and she grinned sheepishly. “Yeah, I did kind of throw a monkey wrench in the plan with that move didn’t I?”

“You did, but things have worked out. William will be okay. It didn’t look good, but he took that burst in the armor and he’s strong. He’ll be fine.”

 “Yeah, he’s a regular grav tank. The hardest part will be getting him out of the armor.” Chan’s brow creased in worry, but she shook it off.

 

While Chan and Li Ming covered the airlock, Xavier sprung the mischief she had started as soon as the pirate’s ship docked. Hacking into the hijacker’s airlock controls; she got the Lattimer’s Ghost free of the pirate ship. As soon as the Cortex panel beeped she snapped a single word at Marsh.

“Now!”

“I’m on it!” He replied and slammed full power to the ship’s maneuver drive and bolted for the Boros asteroid belt.

Caught completely by surprise, the pirates failed to react before the Lattimer’s Ghost got a large head start on them. Beyond furious at the casualties inflicted by what was supposed to be another easy target, the raiders immediately prepared to blast these upstarts as an object lesson.

 

“You better be as good as you say you are, cause I’m reading a fire control array trying to lock onto us. You’ve got less than five seconds before we have a missile making all sorts of unpleasantness for us.”

“Trust me.”

“Don’t you think we all already are?”

“Just watch and learn.”

 

Marsh kept up his evasive course toward the Boros asteroid belt just in case, but when the pirates finally locked on and attempted to open fire on the rapidly retreating Lattimer’s Ghost, just as she knew it would, Xavier’s second electronic surprise struck. The fire command   initiated a carefully crafted virus program that sent a powerful electromagnetic surge through the pirate’s ship. The pirate’s ship was bathed in a coruscating nimbus of blue lightning and the resulting overload fried the control systems of the hijacker’s just as they entered the asteroid belt.

Marsh’s attention was tied up with avoiding asteroids himself and so he quickly lost track of the pursuers. When there was a brilliant flash behind him, he brought the ship around after he was certain that there were no missiles in the area and when he reached the location of the flash, he found that the pirates had met with an asteroid at a high enough speed, all that was left was a very deep smoking crater. 

“This is the point where you say ‘thank you Xavier.’” She smiled smugly with her arms folded across her chest and her head canted to one side.

“You got lucky and you know it.”

“Well you are partially right. I thought the overload would just disable their ship the added fireworks were a bonus. Not that I think anyone minds. The ‘Verse is a better place without people like that.”

“I agree. Great job Xavier, I’m glad whatever you want to call it brought you to us.” Chan said as she entered the bridge. She looked out the viewport and nodded at the rapidly cooling new crater on the asteroid. “I was dreading boarding their ship. This is our home and we had the advantage, counter-boarding would have been on their turf and would have lead to all sorts of hurt. As it is we got lucky. Only William and I took hits and Cindy has seen to that.”

“You were hit Cap?” Marsh asked with a surprising amount of concern.

“Trust me, I’ve seen and had far worse, so has William. We’ll both live and thanks to Xavier here, we did it with a minimum of fuss, how much longer to Persephone?”

“Forty hours and its pay day Cap.”

“We earned it Marsh, I’ll leave you to the flyin’ and I’m going to take me a couple of strong painkillers and get some sleep.”

“Say hi to the big guy for me Captain.” Xavier added and then stood with a long stretch. “On second thought, I’ll swing by the infirmary myself and see how he is doing. Night Captain.”

Chan tossed her a wave over her shoulder and gingerly made it down the ladder to her cabin. She carefully got herself undressed and into her bunk after following though with taking the painkillers. “I am getting entirely too old for all this excitement.” She thought as she lay still for a moment and tried to find a position that didn’t hurt so much, then after a few seconds just as the medication took hold, she thought as she drifted to sleep. “Oh hell Chan, you know you loved every second of it.” 

 

“So how is he doing?” Xavier asked as she entered the infirmary, watching Cindy observing scanner readouts.

“He’s doing pretty well all things considered but, even the best body armor can only stop so much kinetic energy. He’s got three cracked ribs and a bruised lung, but going by the readouts, it looks like he’ll outlive all of us.”

“Well that’s good to hear. I’m going to turn in Cindy you look like you need some rest too.”

“I’ll turn in as soon as I check on the two survivors. The other five ‘passengers’ will keep.”

“We should space the lot, bunch of low life baby killers.”

“I agree, but you know the Captain, she won’t go that route unless they cause trouble, then they will get a nice walk in the Black. That crate Willis welded them in will keep them nice and tight until we can give them to Chang’s men.”

“How are you going to check on them in a welded case?”

“I’ll rattle the cage if they jump they are still alive, if they don’t well, then we will be certain they won’t cause trouble.”

“Crude but effective. Night.”

“Night.”

 

Continuing on to Persephone, the ship touched down exactly forty hours later. They were met by three of Baron Chang’s representatives and half a dozen large trucks at the Eavesdown dock.

“Captain Wu? I am Artemis Taylor. I will take charge of the shipment and the additional ‘cargo’ in your possession.” The tallest of the three men said as they walked up the cargo ramp.

 “Mister Taylor, you are more than welcome to them. Would you like some refreshments? We can talk more privately in the ship’s lounge.” Chan replied amiably, the rest of the crew at her back, except for Li Ming who complained before landing that she wasn’t feeling well and had stayed on her shuttle.

“No thank you Captain. I will remain here and will depart as soon as I’m certain the work crew has things under control.”

“Okay then, I guess if you don’t mind handing the money over in public, neither do I.”

“I’m sorry Captain, there has been a misunderstanding.” Taylor said uncomfortably. “Your ship was temporarily deputized as a patrol auxiliary by Baron Chang. Your ship and crew were technically volunteer security personnel conducting a sting operation at the behest of the government of Greenleaf and not contracted shippers; accordingly there will be no payment for the cargo.”

The temperature in the cargo bay dropped to near Kelvin levels as Chan’s smile faded and her arm twitched toward her side arm. The only thing that saved Taylor’s life was William managing to intercept her arm before her pistol could clear the holster.

“No mei mei, let me talk from here.” He said calmly, but holding her arm in a grip of iron until she nodded and relaxed.

“Mister Taylor, exactly when did this deputizing occur? We were not informed and you will understand why things are as tense as they are at the moment.” William continues smoothly as if a bloodletting had not just been narrowly averted.

“I regret the oversight Mister Lemont. Baron Chang’s wave arrived yesterday. Deputizing auxiliaries takes the entire High Council and they did not meet until four days after you left. The time lag for the wave to reach Persephone being what it is, the message did not arrive until ten hours ago.”

“I see.” William said icily. “And what does an auxiliary have to do to be paid?”

“You would have to provide direct evidence that the pirates in question were not actually pro-Independent rogues as is the case. Do you have such evidence?”

Ben tian sheng de yi dui rou![6]” Chan snarled viciously. “You know we don’t have any ‘such evidence.’ You know very well their ship is a crater on one of the asteroids of Boros and the wang bad an de biao zi[7] we captured dead or alive didn’t have anything on them that says they was anything but ex-Browncoats. You better consider yourself damn lucky William chose to save your life today, you might not get so lucky next time. Now you will get off my ship or I think it will be William that decides to take it into his head to shoot you this time.”

“Now Cap-“

“You might want to listen to the lady you hun dan. She said git!” Marsh said with a growl.

Taylor realized covering the Baron’s duplicity with kind words was probably going to get him killed, so he simply nodded and he, with his two silent comrades departed.

“We’ll find a cargo some how Chan. Persephone is busy place.” Cindy said softly after Taylor was out of sight.

“Yes we will Cindy. Yes we will.” Chan replied through a tight jaw. “You can damn sure bet we will, just damn sure bet we’ll find something.”

 



[1] Oh this is a happy development

[2] Shut up

[3] Filthy fornicators of livestock

[4] Cow dung

[5] Sweetheart

[6] Stupid inbred stack of meat

[7] Whores of SOBs