Chapter Four

           

“Hey Li Ming, we made planetfall ten hours ago and you’re still here, what is going on?” Asked Marsh the small statured pilot of the Lattimer’s Ghost and finest in the ‘Verse if you let him talk about it, which he would if given even the slightest encouragement. 

“Uh…well this may be a bit difficult for a guy to understand, but now that we are back on solid ground and water isn’t a premium, I’ve got to wash my hair.” Replied the stunning Wong Li Ming. “You know sometimes a girl just has to take time to spoil herself. Gambling isn’t everything you know.”

 “Well you got the ‘a bit difficult for a guy to understand’ part right. You usually have your shuttle in atmo before the ‘Ghost is after that “hot table” you are always going on about. Are you sure you’re feeling okay? You’re the one that calls herself a gambler and it is how you make you living, so now you are telling me gambling isn’t everything?”

“Yeah well, since you are a guy, you don’t have to understand about a woman’s hygienic needs. Now you go find some trouble to get into like a good little Troglodyte and try not to drag your knuckles so much when you do.” She quipped then continued up the stairs toward the shuttle she called home.

      Marsh paused on the landing and admired her shapely form as she departed. He sighed and shook his head before heading down the main boarding ramp to catch up to Cindy Schultz the ship’s medic, who was every bit as unattractive as Li Ming was beautiful and Xavier, the ship’s odd duck computer and security systems expert.

“You know one of these days she’s going to catch you checking out her p gu.” Said Xavier.

“We’ll it’s her fault you know.”

“Her fault?” snorted Cindy. “Okay go ahead and explain to me how it’s her fault you are always checking her out.”

“Well if she didn’t look so damn fine, I’d be looking at someone else. Besides she knows I’m checking her out. Chicks always know, especially the fine ones.”

Cindy rolled her eyes then looked at Xavier. “Tell me again why I bother? He’s a typical guy, born to be a pig and here I am trying to make a silk purse out of him.”

“You have always enjoyed a challenge I guess.” Replied Xavier, admiring her reflection in the window of the shop selling what the owners proudly proclaimed were antiques. She could be considered attractive, but her current appearance seemed to be constructed to make that as hard to detect as possible. Maybe it was the hair shaved high and tight leaving a purple scalp lock, or possibly the inserts that made her eyes seem like completely green mirrors, but the most unusual thing was the bone that pierced her nose, almost like she was trying to pay homage to some aborigine from Earth-That-Was. She turned from the window and tilted her head to one side, which she did unconsciously whenever she was thinking though something.

“No challenge isn’t the word, conundrum is more the word you are looking for.”

“Conundrum?” Both Cindy and Marsh replied simultaneously.

“Yes it is a conundrum how they could shave an orangutan, teach it to talk and let it call itself a pilot.”

Cindy burst out laughing as Marsh sputtered trying to come up with a suitable reply, but was so taken by surprise that he couldn’t.

Xavier gently placed her hand on his shoulder and smiled sincerely. “It’s okay big fellah, your secret is safe with me. Don’t get upset. Last thing we need is for you to revert to your roots and have you gen hou zi bi diu shi[1] like you used to do back in the jungle before the big bad men came to shave you.”

At this point it was difficult to tell who was redder, Marsh from his crewmate’s stinging rejoinders or Cindy from laughing so hard. Cindy at this point had tears in her eyes and was holding her sides as she guffawed from Xavier’s pointed comments.

“Let’s go, we have work to do.” The flustered Marsh finally managed to growl as he strode away from the ship and into the Eavesdown Dock proper. Xavier took the still laughing Cindy by the arm and pulled her along so the two women could catch up with their much-abused friend.

 

Several blocks from the Eavesdown Docks, Captain Wu Chan Juan sat with her corpulent first mate William Lamont sharing a beer and trying to not look so depressed.

“We’ve only been on planet ten hours Chan, no need to act like we haven’t got a friend in the ‘Verse you know.” The big man said around the Bao[2] he was stuffing into his mouth.

“William, we have to plan our cargoes well in advance if we are to keep that Bao you love so much flowing.” She replied with a frown.

“Never mind about me being a Bao connoisseur mei mei. This is the biggest port we’ve been to since the ‘Ghost took to the Black again and we will find something.”

Chan smiled and giggled in a most un-captain-like manner. “Never ending appetite and never ending optimism. I really don’t know what I’d do without you my friend. The ‘Verse would be an empty place without you here to keep me sane.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment and once I’m finished with this.” Indicating the third generous serving of Bao he was demolishing. “Let’s see if Frankie-the-Hand knows if anyone needs something shipped.”

“Frankie-the-Hand! I thought you didn’t like him.”

“I don’t have to like him to carry merchandise for him.”
”William you are incorrigible.”
”It’s my nicest feature…no second nicest.”

“Okay I’ll bite.” Chan said supplying the obvious straight line.”

“Why my sparkling personality mei mei.”

 

”Who would have thought a secondary waste reclamation access terminal would have level five encryption?” Xavier muttered into her sake at the dockside bar Marsh, Cindy, and she had found after her failed attempt to hack into the local Cortex restricted database. “This isn’t the Core, it’s a bloody border world! The bloody Alliance doesn’t lavish that sort of security around just for grins you know.”

“Well on Persephone, apparently they do.” Cindy replied, getting a bit fed up with her crewmate’s whining. “You gave it your best shot and it didn’t work. The Captain will find something; she knows a lot of people in a lot of places. Something will break our way.”

“That would be nice for a change.” Marsh muttered. “Luck hasn’t exactly been breaking our way ever since Greenleaf.”

“Let’s not go down that road either. I’m going to get another drink. You want one?” Cindy said over her shoulder as she headed for the bar.

“Sure thing, if you’re buyin’, I’ll have some of the good stuff.” Marsh replied and rubbed his hands in anticipation.

“Nothing for me thanks.” Xavier called out to her comrade at the bar, before dropping her voice so that only Willis could hear as she continued. “Last thing I need is a depressant right now.”

“Oh give it a rest already sweetcakes. Remember Cindy is a medic. A good stiff drink is just what the doctor is ordering.”

On reaching the bar Cindy signaled the bartender and as she pulled the necessary bills from her wallet, she noticed the large, and obviously well in his cups, man down the bar staring at her.

“Damn iff’n I ain’t been from one end of the ‘Verse to th’ tother and I’ll be dipped if you ain’t about the most powerfully ugly woman I’ve ever seen. A man would have to be ten days past desperate before he’d try grapplin’ wid the likes o’ you.” He then chortled merrily at his own witticism.

Cindy had heard that sort of comment far too many times to let the opinions of a drunk ruffle her, so she simply paid the bartender for the two drinks, and was turning back toward her table, when she heard the sound of a chair sliding back,

“No Marsh dammit, no! He’s not worth it!” Cindy shouted as she moved to block the small man’s deliberate advance on the drunk.

“Yeah Marsh, have your drink, like you said, it’s just what the doctor ordered.” Xavier added as she pulled on his arm trying to get him to stop his advance.

“This won’t take a minute hon, you can have my drink with Cindy.” He replied calmly and deftly slipped out of Xavier’s grasp and around Cindy’s attempt to block his progress.

About this time, the drunk became aware that someone was standing in his light. He looked up blearily at the obstruction. “You got a problem little man?” He growled.

“Yeah. As a matter of fact I do. Since, by your own appearance, despite your claims of extensive travel to the contrary, you are obviously not a man of the world. So, I guess it falls to me to teach you some manners.”

The drunk broke into a horselaugh at the thought of a man 80 pounds lighter teaching him any sort of lesson and stood up, to his credit, he even managed not to sway as he did, but he also showed that he was about eight inches taller than Marsh as well.

“You seriously think you can teach me anything?” He said.

“Even if no one else has tried, I’m going to, as damn if it isn’t time for someone to pound something into that rock you call a head.” Marsh replied evenly.

“Why you little Feng le[3] twit!” The big man snarled as he drew back his meaty fist.

However, the much more agile and much more sober pilot anticipated just such a move and landed a one-two punch with blinding speed striking the drunk on both sides of his nose before he could even draw his fist all the way back, the sudden spurt of blood announcing that the nose was also well and truly broken.

Blinded by fury and pain, the drunk flailed ineffectively, allowing the nimble Marsh to duck under the wild swings and deliver another one-two combination to the drunk’s gut. Despite his small size, these second blows caused the air to explode out of the drunk’s lungs, leaving him gasping like a fish out of water. Sidestepping to the drunk’s left, Marsh drove an elbow to the kidney actually forced the half-mad bigger man to his knees. A final flat palm to the drunk’s nose was enough to send him crashing to the floor with a mighty thud.

“As to actually learning something from this lesson will be shown if you keep a civil tongue about you next time you think you’ve thought of something clever.” An only slightly winded Marsh commented as he gave a chagrined wave to the bartender. “Yeah I know, it’s time for us to go. For your trouble.” He added as he flipped a ten platinum coin to cover for the disruption he’d caused.

“You do know you didn’t have to do that.” Cindy said as they headed back toward their ship. “I’ve heard that sort of thing before and I do know how to handle myself with his sort.”

“Actually I did have to do that. Even if you aren’t the most beautiful thing in the ‘Verse, who in the south side of Sihnon does he think he is to call attention to it.”

“Well, as hard as this is to believe, I actually think he’s got a valid point this time.” Cindy replied, her face creased in thought.

“It seems our shaved orangutan is more of a conundrum than we thought. He almost seemed human for a second there.” Xavier said shaking her head in disbelief.

“Yeah I’m a real credit to my new species. Ook ook ook.”

And this time all three of them shared in the laugh.

 

“Do you think I laid it on too thick this time William?” Chan Juan asked while they waited at a traffic light to cross the street.

“Well, I was about to hand you a trowel, but no, I think you did what you had to do to get Frankie-the-Hand to tell you about that cargo he was obviously saving for someone else. The bigger problem is we have to wait four days before the shipper has his cargo ready to go. That’s four days for something to develop you know how I hate developments.” The first mate replied after taking a moment to think about the morning’s meeting with the unseemly Frankie-the-Hand.

Chan Juan shivered for a second before she continued speaking and continued walking when the light changed. “Yes, but damn it all, now we owe that…that…  Damn what did they call that long, thin, sneaky, little mammal critter on Earth-That-Was?

“A weasel?” Offered William.

“Thinner than that, but you are on the right track.”

“A ferret?”

“Yes that’s it! A ferret, I tell you I’m glad the life support unit on those things failed during the trip to the ‘Verse. I don’t think it was any loss they didn’t make it here. Can you imagine what it would be like to have more of them around than that hou zi de pi gu Frankie-the-Ferret running around?”

“You have a point, but it couldn’t be helped. Frankie wouldn’t budge and offering to transport a single load of cargo at standard rates, but with no questions at a later date was the only way to get him to spill. You know I never liked him, but we aren’t in the position to be too picky right now.”

“Don’t I know it! Those hun dan “nobles” of Greenleaf really left us strapped over a barrel. I know you’ve got some money stashed, as do I, but that won’t keep us in fuel, parts, and protein packs for long and I’ll be a purple pig in a pink tutu before I let the ‘Ghost get stranded somewhere again. I got lucky getting the crew I got, considering how choosy I couldn’t be. I won’t go for outside partners that aren’t onboard and a part of the crew.”

“As well you shouldn’t. I wouldn’t fly under a captain or owner that won’t risk being in the Black themselves. It’s the primary reason I signed on to fly with you mei mei, no, that would be the second reason.”
      ”You just can’t stop having me play the straight-man can you? Okay what would be the first reason you choose to fly with me?”

“Why your sparkling personality mei mei.”

 

As the rest of the crew went about trying to locate a job that would keep them in fuel, parts, and protein packs, the ship’s mechanic Willis Thorton was in his beloved engine room tinkering. He had picked up several new parts for the Lattimer’s Ghost and was in the process of installing them to keep the ship that was fifteen years older than he was in top running condition. Technically, he was also watching the ship, but with his head and shoulders buried in the life support access panel, he wasn’t really able to fulfill that part of his watch very well.

 

This preoccupation was a happy coincidence for the three beefy men that were at that moment slipping up the ramp of the ‘Ghost. Despite being in a fairly busy area, the three men remained unseen and even if Willis was watching carefully, there was little guarantee he would have seen them enter. They were that good. Moving silently, they quickly made sure the cargo bay was clear before moving up the stairs to the upper deck. Skill is only half of a professional’s make up. The second and equally, if not more, important part was luck. As the lead intruder crept up the stairs, an empty can of peaches left carelessly on the landing found its way under his foot. The man slipped, but his training kept him from falling. His training could not however, keep the can from falling to the floor of the cargo bay.

Da xiang bao zha shi de la du zi[4]!” Willis thundered as the wrench he was using slipped off the nut causing him to bark the skin on his knuckles. “Sweet merciful Buddha, forgive my outburst, the fault was mine.” The deeply religious Willis said contritely before returning to his task, unbeknownst to the pious mechanic, his outburst just so happened to mask the faint sound of a can rattling around in the cargo bay.

Clunk-ting-ting-rattle-rattle-clunk came the sound from the cargo bay and Li Ming, already wired for reasons known only to her, reacted immediately. She rolled up from her comfortable sofa, drawing her pistol in a smooth motion, and moved to peer cautiously from her shuttle.

Ta ma de.” She muttered as she saw the three men on the stairs. “Never let it be said Darius Nightblade is a man of patience. At least he didn’t send the hun dan that hung me over the balcony.”

Li Ming moved quickly and silently along the mid-level catwalk above the cargo bay until she melted into the shadows at the corner that led to the top of the stairs the three intruders would reach when they started moving again. Dropping prone, she waited in ambush.

 

The three men froze in absolute silence for over a minute waiting to see if the clattering can had given them away. When no sign of detection presented itself, they began moving again, this time carefully checking each step for debris.

When the men reached the catwalk, Li Ming took a deep breath and then let half of it out as she sighted in on the lead intruder. She gently squeezed the trigger, just as she was taught so many years ago, and heard the hammer strike home on a dud round. The click of the hammer almost reverberated in the resounding silence of the cargo bay. In that next split second of time, it was impossible to figure out who was more surprised, Li Ming or the intruders.

Li Ming however, recovered first with a withering curse as she threw down the jammed pistol and raced for her shuttle. The three hired guns were very good at their profession and responded milliseconds behind their target by drawing their weapons and letting loose with a fusillade of fire at the wildly dodging gambler.

 

Wo de ma![5]” Willis exclaimed as he heard the unmistakable sound of gunfire exploding on the ship. He all but vaulted off the deck and raced for his quarters to arm himself, but as always, he was torn when it came to doing violence to others, despite the provocation. “Merciful Buddha, please guide me, do I take up arms or call for help? I know violence is not your way, but I cannot abandon my friend and home to robbers.” If Buddha or anyone else had an answer, he was going to have to reach his quarters before he received that guidance.

 

Whether it was her gambler’s luck or simply fate, one of the gunmen’s pistols also jammed reducing the amount of fire coming her way, and Li Ming was almost to safety when she felt the branding iron hot slug graze across her left arm.

“Gorram it that hurts, you ruttin’ Ben tian sheng de yi dui rou[6]!” Li Ming snarled as she dove into the shuttle, trying to ignore the blood on her arm as she scrambled for another weapon. “And I really liked this outfit too. I am really going to have to find a way to make Nightblade pay for this.”

She pulled her pump action out from its hiding place and racked the slide, taking special care to make sure the round slammed home in the chamber. Once ready, she took up position covering the entry to the shuttle.

The roaring flash of a shotgun set on full choke met the first gunman through the hatch. He took the entire load of buckshot in the chest and was both blasted backward out of the shuttle and out of the fight. The man following on his heels spun out of the way of his crippled comrade and took cover on the far side of the entry to the shuttle, waiting for the third man to clear his jammed pistol. Thinking quickly, he fished in his pocket coming up with a handful of coins for the surprise he had cooked up for the unexpectedly difficult mark cowering inside the shuttle. The third man reached the other side of the hatch and nodded at the hand signals from the second man that he was ready.

 

Willis dropped down the hatch to his quarters and drew his pistol, his eyes flashing wildly at what he knew he had to do. He started up the ladder and prepared to come to Li Ming’s assistance.

 

The second gunman threw in the hand full of coins, dropped to the floor, rolled into the center of the shuttle, and looked for his target, his partner providing high cover to his low. What he saw was an object arcing out from behind the plush sofa across the shuttle. His eyes went wide when it registered what he’d seen, but being fully prone, he could not move quickly enough before the object detonated. 

 

“Tian xiao de![7]A stunned Willis muttered when he heard the explosion below deck. “No, no, no, no, this is too much! Dearest Buddha, please show our sister Li Ming your mercy. I must get help to avenge her death.” And the sobbing mechanic changed directions for the bridge.

 

Peering out of the shuttle, the very much alive Li Ming saw that her flashbang had it’s intended results, better than intended actually with one of the gunmen unconscious and the second one nearly so, his eyes rolling around in his head like marbles. Kicking his weapon away, Li Ming calmly waited for the man to regain his senses so they could have a little chat.

 

When Willis sent out his frantic call of the ship being under attack and Li Ming being murdered, the rest of the crew of the ‘Ghost raced back at top speed, their movement coordinated by their ship-linked handsets. All five of the off ship crew formed up and advanced on the ‘Ghost in a regular skirmish line fully prepared to do violence to them as what had hurt theirs. What they found was a bit different than they expected.

Reality found them face to face with Li Ming with a bandaged arm and Willis dumping the last of three bodies off the ship. They stood there open-mouthed for a second before Captain Wu lanced Li Ming with a basilisk-like glare.

“Okay, I won’t say I’m unhappy to find you still breathing, but as soon as we get this ship sealed, you are going to explain yourself. And I better like the explaining or we are going to revisit our arrangement.”

Li Ming only nodded glumly, then assisted in getting the ship sealed and a watch set. This took less than five minutes to accomplish, and then everyone gathered on the bridge, so Marsh could hear and still keep an eye on the security monitors.

“I had hoped by not leaving the ship, I could remain undetected, but I guess that was just me counting on wishful thinking. First, I owe all of you an apology for not admitting my situation and trusting you with that information.” Li Ming began, her voice starting out shaky, but becoming firmer as she found her focus.

“Three years ago I had a disagreement with a casino owner here on Persephone. His name is Darius Nightblade and he seemed to think he deserved more than the standard 60/40 split house gamblers get when they work an establishment. He wanted 70% of the take instead of the 40% due him. He told me this when I had some five thousand credits in front of me. I told him that I wouldn’t work under those conditions and I would cash out and leave. He said, yes you will, but maybe not in the manner you think you will.

“I didn’t like how that sounded one bit, but before I could make my move, I was surrounded by half a dozen leg-breakers and next thing I know I am on my way to his private office. Nightblade’s casino is quite the top-drawer establishment. You can see it in that monitor right there.”

The crew turned to see where she was pointing and could clearly see the sweeping hundred-story tower in the distance. She waited until everyone was looking at her before she continued.

“His office is in the penthouse. He had already had his goons divest me of my money, derringer, and brass knuckles, so things were not looking good for Mama Wong’s little girl Li Ming at all. Things were about to get a lot worse. Nightblade tells me that he’s got everyone at the table ready to swear I’d lost big that night and was looking distraught about it, so distraught that they were concerned about my well being. He really wasn’t in a mood to talk, so he just snapped his fingers like he was in some stupid holo-vid or something and his goons had me hanging upside down from his balcony.

“I have never been so scared in my life. I was certain that was it for me. Fortunately, I had one last ace in the hole. I had a flashbang specially made to look a hair comb. All I had to do to activate it was snap it and throw it. The dress I was wearing that night included a long, and fortunately strong, silk belt. Below me I could see a decorative cornice and while Nightblade went on and on about teaching the others a lesson, no one was keeping an eye on me. I guess they figured I wasn’t in a position to influence things. Well, long story short, the flashbang and the silk belt lassoing the cornice escape trick worked. I was able to get out of the casino before Nightblade could seal the place off, but he’s wanted to finish that night’s business ever since. I’ve kept either to the Rim or the Core worlds since then. I had hoped that having to visit Persephone on the ‘Ghost would never come up.”

The heat in Chan Juan’s gaze was down from basilisk-like to merely starving tiger-like when Li Ming finished speaking. She stood and paced a bit before her hand lashed out to slap Li Ming with a solid open-handed blow. Li Ming managed to keep her feet, but only just.

“That was for putting me and mine at risk without letting me know. I can’t abide a chicken-headed woman and that is the last time you get to be one on my ship, dong ma?”

Li Ming nodded as she rubbed the cheek Chan Juan had slapped, but both were red when you added the shame she felt from the trouble her actions had already caused and for not trusting Chan when she should have.

“Captain, the easiest way to solve something that is obviously my problem is for me to go. You can’t lift until the cargo is loaded and that won’t be for four days. On the other hand, if it’s one thing Persephone has in abundance, its transports heading off world. Just give me an hour to pack and I can be off world in an hour and a half.” Li Ming said, not knowing that her left cheek was beginning to show the outline of a handprint. 

“Woman I told you that you don’t get to be a chicken-head on my ship again. Regardless of you having handed this crew a helping of something we wouldn’t step in, you are still a member of this crew and you will not dance out of here to get yourself hung from someplace without a cornice and a fancy silk belt. All we have to do is stand our ground for four days and then we can fast burn off this rock.” Chan Juan all but snarled back.

“Four days? Are you insane? You won’t be able to hold off Nightblade and his goons for four days! I was gone for three years and he had hired guns after me in less than twelve hours. Now think about how much hurt he could call up in four days? I’ll just start packing the essentials. You can sell the rest of my stuff to help cover the jam I’ve put you in.”

“Li Ming if you don’t sit down, I’m going to knock you down.”

“Chan I will not let you hit me again.”

As was typical for his nature, it was the gentle Willis that spoke next. “Ladies please, taking the frustrations of the moment out on each other will benefit no one except perhaps this Mister Nightblade. Maybe the solution, much like the Yin and Yang of the Buddha, lies with the combination of your ideas. Honorable Captain, you wish to stay the four days until the cargo is loaded, a wise choice that benefits the whole crew. Honorable Miss Wong, you wish to spare the rest of the crew any danger by departing immediately, a noble decision that again benefits the rest of the crew, but not yourself. The answer is simple. We do both.”

“Willis what in the south side of Sihnon are you talking about? We obviously cannot do both. They’re exact opposed ideas.” Marsh snapped impatiently.

“There you are wrong my hot-headed young friend. Miss Wong can depart immediately in the shuttle that is her home to wait for us on the outskirts of the system for four days until we can rejoin with her with the loaded Lattimer’s Ghost.” Willis smiled.

“Well damn, the little git actually has a keeper of an idea there.” Marsh smiled and slapped Willis on the back. 

“Now wait a damn minute! Last time I checked, I was the gorram captain of this gorram ship!” Chan Juan thundered. William opened his mouth to speak, but Chan silenced him with a glare. “Okay, I’ll fess up to getting a mite too worked up about the situation we find ourselves in, but once again our sage mechanic has brokered out a reasonable idea that keeps Li Ming’s naughty bits out of the fire and lets us get the cargo I had to offer more than I care to think about loaded. Since there is nothing else to talk about, we got us a shuttle to prep for immediate departure. Get to it people.”

The crew split up to get to their duty stations with Chan Juan following Li Ming up to her shuttle.

“What you want to take another swing at me?” Li Ming stood just inside the shuttle facing the captain with her hands on her hips.  

“No actually I don’t. I trust the first one got the point across.”

“That it surely did.” The taller woman nodded subconsciously rubbing her still stinging cheek

“This Nightblade character as much bad news as you said?’

”Probably worse. I can only tell what he was like three years ago and I didn’t know him all that well. You are all going to have to watch your backs even after I go. He will know you know where I went and I have no doubts he will use whichever of you he can get his hands on to get to me.”

“You let me worry about that. As of now, the crew is restricted to the ship and we will set a bridge watch to make sure no one else tries to sneak aboard. I’ll have William with me tomorrow when we meet with the shipper to nail down the contract and we’ll be in constant contact via handsets. The second shuttle will be prepped for a fast extraction. There won’t be any trouble, except for them as what brings it.”

“Thank you Chan Juan. I don’t deserve a friend like you.”

”Friend? Hell ‘you don’t deserve a captain like me, but you got me nonetheless.” And for the first time since Li Ming finished her story, Chan Juan smiled.

“Damn you for trying to make me cry woman.” Li Ming sniffed. “And here it is you that told me I couldn’t be a ‘chicken-head’ any more.”

The two women hugged tightly for a moment, then Chan stepped back smiling. “I’ll go then. You’ve got a course to input and the last thing you need is me making you be a chicken-head again.”

“Watch yourself Chan Juan.”
”You too Li Ming.”

Li Ming’s shuttle broke free of the atmosphere less than ten minutes later.

 

The next day, Chan Juan and William left the Lattimer’s Ghost for their meeting with their shipper wearing body armor and carefully concealed pistols. As they departed the ship, Chan Juan looked back to make sure the ship was properly secured and what she saw made her blood boil. Her snarl was so guttural that it brought William around clawing for his pistol.

Ta ma de!” He said as he saw what had made his captain so furious.

Chan raged as she read the ‘She’s not worth it!’ graffiti scrawled all over the lower hull. “That hun dan has the nerve to deface my ship and try and tell me the value of one of my crew. I’ll kill him.”  

She managed to take a step toward the tall tower Li Ming had pointed out before William enfolded her in his huge frame. “Mei mei no we can’t! He has too much protection for you to fight them yourself and the Alliance is too strong in this sector for us to take him on and get away. This is one time we are going to have to set our feelings aside, despite how they burn, and only do what we set out to do this morning. I will not lose you to this jackal!”

Slowly Chan Juan uncoiled and her breathing evened out. She reached into her coat and William prepared to grab her again in case she came out with her pistol, but instead she had her ship-linked handset.

“Thorton! You’ve got work to do on the lower hull. Marsh and Xavier, you’ve got to rework the monitors for wider coverage and it all better be done by the time we get back. Come on William” She pocketed her handset and marched resolutely for the Eavesdown Docks, thankfully away from the direction of Nightblade’s tower.

 

The damage to the Lattimer’s Ghost was trivial vandalism with no harm done to any of the ship’s systems. A deeply embarrassed Marsh, who had taken lead during the watch, helped Willis use a rented ultrasound scrubber to quickly remove the markings from the hull.

Xavier was just as embarrassed as Marsh as she was the one who set up the ‘Ghost’s surveillance package and somehow, someone had hacked her system. Knowing the captain was not in the mood for excuses, she had only used their last names, she only did that when she didn’t trust herself to keep her temper in check, they tripled the surveillance coverage by the time Captain Wu and William returned.

The second Marsh spotted them he went to greet them, but his hand stalled halfway to the handset. The captain’s clipped pace told him everything he needed to know.

“Marsh, get my ship in the Black we are leaving!” Chan Juan barked as she stormed onto the ship. The pilot didn’t ask any questions, he didn’t need to. He completed his stalled grab for the handset and contacted Approach Control for departure instructions.

Cindy, who was on watch, was fully armed and armored, waited until the captain blew past on her way to the bridge before she cornered William.

“Damn, and I thought she was mad when she left. What’s up?”

“The shipper cancelled on us.”

“What? Why?”

“Good questions both, but don’t ask me to answer them. Going by his attitude, it was a kindness that he even let us meet with him. We walked in all friendly and professional like good businessmen, damn but you would have been proud of the captain the way she suppressed her fury for that meeting. Anyway, we went in expecting to put the contract to paper and we met a wall of ice instead. Mister Davies said it had come to his attention that our ship had Browncoat leanings and with him being a decorated former member of the Alliance Navy would have no truck with them as what fought against him and his men. We could see ourselves out.”

“He didn’t.”

“Damn all if he didn’t. Wasn’t a thing we could say. All we could do was see ourselves out.”
”Then why were you gone so long, that “meeting” couldn’t have lasted five minutes.”

”It was 90 seconds, but you have a point. We spent the last five hours talking to every person we knew and them as what know the people we know. Most wouldn’t even talk to us, those that would told us we an odor to us so bad we might as well be fishmongers what only worked with ten day old fish. Wasn’t much point in beating a dead horse into bones, so we came back here. I’ve never seen Chan so mad before.

“The final straw was when those three local toughs that tried to stop us from getting back here. They stepped up all bold and bluster, but one gander at the look in the captain’s eyes was enough to get them to high tail it. Seems this Nightblade fellah has riled up all forms of local talent against us. I tell you it would be a kindness if you could slip something into her coffee tonight so she might sleep.”

”William! You know I can’t do that! Why the very thought of it.”

“Aye Cindy I know you can’t, but it worries me to see her so worked up. You know how she is when it comes to taking care of her crew and this ship. She blames herself for taking that Dragon Flower cargo to Greenleaf that has us in the position we’re in.”

”That’s wasn’t the way of it.” A soft voice came from behind them said.

“You’ve been practicing on your creepin’ skills Xavier girl. I didn’t hear you that time.”
”Sorry William, that wasn’t my intent.”

“I know it, cause you’d be hanging by that pretty purple scalp lock of yours from the main airlock if it was. But back to the topic at hand, no it wasn’t the way of it, but nothing in the ‘Verse will make the captain see it any other way.” 

“So where are we going?” Asked Cindy.

“Only place that makes sense to the captain. First, we marry up with Li Ming second, we’re Verbena bound. Captain was stuck there a long time and has lots of friends there, unless of course the Nightblade fellah has a longer reach than that.”

 

Whether that was true or not, only time would tell.

 



[1] Engage in a feces hurtling contest with a monkey

[2] A stuffed bun

[3] Loopy in the head

[4] The explosive diarrhea of an elephant

[5] Mother of god

[6] Stupid inbred stack of meat

[7] Name of all that’s sacred