Chapter Five

 

“I understand Frankie you have a reputation to maintain. You try and stay on top of the dirt and if things change you can send me a wave.”

“Yeah Chan, I’ll do that.” The unscrupulous trader closed the connection without bothering to say goodbye.

“Seemed to be in a hurry to get off the Cortex in case someone might hear who he was talking to and some of our stink might rub off on him.” William commented dryly.

“Yeah seemed that way, William, I am beginning to think that going to Verbena would be a waste of time and fuel. No one wants to even admit they know us.”

“Yeah, we seem to have found a way to rile the entire ‘Verse at us. At least if you want to make things difficult, you might as well do a good job of it I figger.” Marsh added.  

“Thing is we don’t want to make things difficult, at least not this difficult. Li Ming, you think this Nightblade character of yours has the sort of pull to make the welcome mat get rolled up and the ‘do not disturb’ sign hung out?”

Li Ming was quiet for a moment, lost in bad memories before she replied. “Honestly Chan, I wouldn’t have thought so. He’s got enough juice on Persephone as you witnessed, but to reach all the way out to Verbena and squash everyone from Patrick Hong to Frankie the Hand? No, I don’t believe it.”

“Marsh, what are we closest too?” Chan asked suddenly.

“Um…hang on a second…that would be…Athens.” The pilot replied after consulting the astrogation array.

“Then change heading to Athens. We don’t have the coin to throw at a pointless trip.”

Athens it is Cap. You got a plan?”

“Small fry like us have a better chance of being able to talk a deal out of a Rim operation than the Border Planets. I don’t have a direct plan as of yet, but we won’t waste as much fuel on the trip and who knows, maybe the stink hasn’t reached this far.”

“Have you given any thought to a Salver’s License?” Willis asked quietly.

“Junk dealers? No it hadn’t entered my mind. Picking over the bones of dead ships and hauling scrap doesn’t quite have an appeal to me.” Chan replied pensively.   

“Job’s a job Captain.” William said.

“Well I’ll tell you what. If we can’t make anything pan out with normal work, I’m not so proud that I’ll let us all starve, I went through something like that once and it ain’t gonna happen again. If movin’ garbage from one end of the ‘Verse to the other is what is payin’ then that is what we will do. Now that that is settled, Marsh how long before we get there?”

“Just under ten hours Cap.”

“Wake me when we get there.” Chan replied over her shoulder as she left the bridge.

“Will do Cap.” Marsh replied, but waited until Chan was out of sight before turning to the first mate and asking. “So do you think we will find anything?”

“Going by how things have been, Athens is no worse than any other place plus as Willis mentioned, there is always United Reclamation.”

“Oh great, just what I need as a title, garbage scow pilot.”

“You afraid driving a garbage scow, if it comes to that, is going to hurt your pilot rep or something?” William chuckled.

“What do you know about it? We pilots live and die off of bein’ the hottest stick on the hottest ship. A Firefly isn’t exactly the hottest ship to begin with, a garbage hauler Firefly is going to get me into a lot of fights.”

“As if you need encouragement to get into a fight.” William snorted.

“Why more fights Marsh?” Willis asked. “Like our esteemed first mate says, you seem to get in enough of those. Your Yang needs more Yin.”

Marsh looked hard at his room mate before replying. “Well I say your Yin needs more Yang. Opinions and five silvers will get you a Fruity Oaty bar.”

“You avoid the question my friend?”

Marsh sighed when he saw the look on Willis’ face as he knew the mechanic would not let the topic go once he went all religious on him. “I’d get in more fights because I know some one would try and cut the ‘Ghost down for bein’ a garbage hauler and I’ll be triple dipped in da bian before I’ll let anyone bad mouth my ship.”

“Noble intent, less noble execution.”

“Yeah well, nobility don’t account for much. Look what the hun dan Baron Chang did to us and he’s a high-falutin’ lord and all.”

“He has you there Willis.” William nodded.

“I must agree, Lord Chang’s actions were without honor.”

“Yeah and why we will end up hauling other people’s go se, and I will end up in more fights, dong ma?”

Dong ma!” Willis replied with a smile knowing that while he had not changed Marsh’s mind, he had got his point across, which was the most you could hope for most of the time with the hot-headed pilot.

 

The Lattimer’s Ghost settled in on the landing pad of the still battle scarred port with a sigh as the power cycled down and the cargo ramp began to lower. Athens had suffered a very heavy bombardment during the war and the damage had yet to be fully repaired. Once the engines were fully powered down, several shouts from Chan to some dock workers waiting outside and fueling umbilicals mated with the couplings on the ship. Safety personnel cross-checked everything by hand, quickly and professionally before a thumb’s up was given and fuel began to top off the ship’s tanks. Chan paid the fuelers from a depressingly small bag of platinum coins before returning to the cargo bay and the rest of the crew. Everyone had gathered in the main cargo bay on arrival to do a last minute huddle. All except Li Ming, she’d been burning up the Cortex on learning of the new destination and found a ‘hot table.’ Her shuttle was detached and on the way to the other side of the planet as soon as the ship made orbit.

“Okay everyone, you know the drill.” Chan began briskly. “Cindy, William, and I will see if we can stir up a job. Willis and Marsh, I know you bugged me enough about the care and feeding the ‘Ghost needs, so you finally have the time to get to it. Xavier, you sure you don’t want to join us on the town?”

“Well, I’ve got that watercolor I’m working on and I’d really like to finish it today. How about I comm you when I’m done and we can meet somewhere?”

“Works for me, okay, let’s make this happen people your Captain needs a new pair of shoes.”

“Isn’t that Li Ming’s line?” Marsh asked rhetorically.

“Don’t you have work to do?” Chan countered.

Marsh paused before he replied, obviously deciding that no good would come of the tack he was considering and simply remained silent and nodded.

“Okay, now that we all have our responsibilities, let’s get to it.” Chan bobbed her head once to indicate the discussion was over.

The meeting broke up and everyone turned to their assigned tasks. Chan and William got into the hover car to see if they could make contact with a reputable or even less than reputable middle man that might have a cargo.

Cindy went solo in the hover mule to see if she could luck up on any ex-Browncoats that might owe her a favor. It pained Cindy to have to be the go between for anything involving the Independents, but with Chan not being all that welcome due to some event she hadn’t yet shared with Cindy, it fell to the medic to make the attempt.

Willis headed for his home away from home in the engine room to make some repairs that could only be done when the engine was shut down. The long push from Persephone and then out to Athens had taken its toll on the Lattimer’s Ghost, so he dove into the overdue maintenance with the clarity of purpose for which he was renowned. However, this time he had a distraction he usually didn’t have with him, the repairs needed were extensive enough to require two people and Marsh was on hand to assist. 

“You know Willsie, you should really listen to some of my advice for a change. I listen to yours, why can’t you at least try some of mine?”

“Mainly due to the issue I would have with having to explain to the Captain why she needs to come to the local jail with bail money.”

“The Captain has never had to bail me out!”

“It is only a matter of time. You need-“

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I need more Yin. Let’s just get this drive motivator aligned. Hand me the power socket wrench.”

Dang ran.” Willis replied, using his foot to slide the requested tool to Marsh while keeping his attention fixed on the fine adjustment to the starboard power coupling he was making.

 

As the rest of the crew worked on their assigned tasks Xavier was busy gathering up and organizing her sophisticated electronic gear. When she first went to her cabin, she did a few brush strokes on the watercolor she had started earlier, but she did not have any intent to actually do any serious painting. What she needed was an excuse not to be around the others. She had a plan and she needed time and space to make it work. After she was certain she had her gear carefully concealed, she slipped silently out of her cabin and, after ensuring there was no one to see her, she silently left the ship in search of a quiet place to conduct her business.

She walked along the streets of Logan, the still battered capital of Athens. The war had been hard on this world and it showed. Many buildings were still either badly damaged or boarded up and dark. There was however, a fair amount of foot traffic, so it took Xavier longer than she would have liked to find what she was looking for, a Cortex public access terminal with some semblance of privacy.

Slipping past the standard login procedures with long practiced ease, she was quickly deeper into the system than the terminal was ever meant to allow. Her fingers danced lightly across the keyboard, only slowing to plug in various adaptors to the homemade by-pass she had inserted into the terminal’s access port. She very quickly had the information she was looking for

Shen sheng de gao wan[1] an assayer’s office! That means cash on hand, oh yes United Reclamation will make quite the pay out whether they know it or not.” With the layout of the office downloaded into her portable, she disconnected from the terminal and once she had her gear secreted again, moved away from the terminal and back onto the streets of Logan. She returned to the ship and managed to get back to her cabin unnoticed. Knowing she had several hours to kill, she commed Chan and let her know that the painting was taking longer than she expected, so she wouldn’t be able to meet. Gathering up her artist’s brushes, she went back to her work in progress.

 

“You know this lack of improvement in our situation is beginning to wear on my nerves mei mei. I mean how many times can we hit a planet and run into a brick wall?”

“I’ll confess it grates on the ego to find no one will talk to you, but then again, Athens isn’t exactly Londinum you know. I’ll play ‘good Fed’ this time, so look at the bright side. Willis and Marsh have got most of the repairs the ‘Ghost here needed all tightened up.”

“Okay, I guess that means I have to play the ‘bad Fed’ in this little dialog. Okay. Yeah, but you could say we are all dressed up with no where to go. As it is, the pickings for the Lift-day Feast are going to be slimmer than befits the title ‘feast.’”

“We’ve only been here a day, let’s give it another day of pounding the pavement and then we can look into Willis’ idea. Work is work and sweet merciful Buddha knows, there is enough junk in the ‘Verse that it would be steady work.”

“Truer words were never spoken on that point mei mei, you up for a game of Tall Card?”

“Sure, why not? Li Ming doesn’t have the market cornered on turning cards.” Chan walked over to the intercom as William dug out the cards. “All hands, if you are interested. William and I are started up a friendly game of Tall Card, ya’ll are welcome to join us in the dining room.”

Chan hung up and waited a few minutes to see if anyone would join them. Sure enough, she heard footsteps approaching and Willis joined them at the table.

“It will only be me joining you this evening. Marsh and Cindy are…occupied and it seems Xavier is deep into her painting.”

“At it again are they? You have to give it to them for sheer perseverance William.” Chan chuckled.

“It is amazing, but they are young enough, no reason to be jealous.” William winked to Willis behind Chan’s back.

“Jealous!” She shot back hotly, then seeing William’s barely restrained smile, she pursed her lips in chagrin. “Droll William, very droll, however, I wager it’s be a longer time since you last grappled, then for me.”

“Ooh, are you going to kiss and tell mei mei?” William replied a wicked gleam twinkling in his eyes.

“William you are still incorrigible.”

“It’s just a single facet of my sparkling personality. Now deal the cards.”

“Done and done.”

 

The card players laughed, joked, drank, and played for many hours before finally turning in near midnight. Since Marsh was preoccupied, William stopped on the bridge to activate the ship’s security protocol before heading to his cabin. It was another two hours before there was any sign of movement aboard the Lattimer’s Ghost.

 

Silent as a ghost within a ghost, Xavier soundlessly exited her cabin and reached the belly hatch of the ship. Again using her handcrafted by-pass circuit cards and her inside knowledge of the ship’s security protocol that she herself had designed, she easily over rode the security system and exited the ship.

Like with any large city, the streets of Logan were deserted at two o’clock in the morning. Xavier kept to the shadows and moved as quiet as a cat-burglar until she reached the office of United Reclamation. Despite the office’s formidable electronic security system, they like the simple locks were no match for Xavier’s skills. She easily entered the building undetected and moved to a local terminal. She knew she had plenty of time, so with the consummate skill of a professional, she set out her hacking tools before her. Once she was satisfied everything was where she wanted them to be, Xavier began to work.

 

“Damn it Bravo team I said fall back! We can’t hold and if you keep your asses exposed like that, we won’t be able to cover your retreat. NOW MOVE!” The comm crackled and even though the transmission had a tinny quality caused by all the jamming, the Major’s orders were crystal clear.

“Understood sir!” Senior Sergeant Jack Taylor replied, despite hating to give up ground that cost so much, but trying to hold this ground would cost them even more. The Battle of Du-Khang was starting to look less like a battle and more like another Alliance victory despite the courage and sacrifice of the Browncoats. That however, was for others to decide. Taylor looked across the shattered landscape and took a headcount of his surviving troops.

 “Eight. Goddammit, I came in here with thirty!” He sighed with a fatigue that was more than just exhaustion it also carried the weight of those losses and the waves he would have to send later. “Okay Bravo team, you heard the orders, we have to pull back. Jensen, Fong, Jiang, and O’Roarke, you will take point and clear us a path back to the second platoon. Check your targets before you fire. I know killin’ purplebellies is what this whole op is supposed to be about, but there are friendlies strung out and scattered between us and the second and I don’t want any more Browncoats to die as don’t have to. Wilson and Steiner, you two are rearguard. Anything behind us is a Fed, kill ’em. Me and Wong will help Schultz move Frost. Move out!”

The four soldiers designated as point, moved out in pairs, carefully covering each other and opening the path that would lead them to safety. Taylor watched for a moment then turned to his medic. “Is it even worth trying to bring him back Schultz?”

“Sarge! Of course it is. He’s hit pretty bad, but he will make it if we get him to a real doc.” Medical Specialist Schultz replied sharply, surprised the sergeant would even ask her such a question.

“Okay then, Wong grab his legs and I’ll get his shoulders. Schultz, you stand close cover. Wilson and Steiner will be too busy covering the rear to see the flanks.”

“Got it Sarge!” Schultz replied as she limbered her aid bag and unlimbered her submachine gun.

The rest of the survivors of Bravo team began to move across the broken terrain. They had moved less than a third of the way when the already chaotic battleground was pierced by a bloodcurdling scream behind them that cut off in mid-point with a terrifying finality. A shock wave from a powerful explosion washed over them as they hit the ground just in time. Schultz was up first firing a nearly continuous stream of fire at the wildly firing figures advancing on them. Taylor and Wong recovered almost as quickly and their fire added to Schultz’s to desperately drive back the advancing Alliance soldiers.

A lone outline stumbled out of the chaos and all three weapons swung that way, until they saw the apparition firing back towards the heaviest of the Alliance attack. A half second later, during the strobe flash of a grenade, Steiner was briefly recognizable, that was until a burst of fire bisected him and erased his upper torso.

“Wong you’ll have to leave Frost, Schultz you go with him. I’ll cover you.” Taylor barked, his assault rifle thundering at its maximum cyclic rate of fire.  

“Sergeant Taylor we can’t leave Frost, he won’t make it if you do!” Schultz protested.

“Don’t argue with me Specialist! None of you will make it if you try to take him. GO!”

Before Schultz could reply, Wong bolted into the dark, not having to be told twice to flee the insanity that was about to engulf them all.

“Sarge please let me try!” Schultz said as she lifted the wounded Frost onto her shoulder.

“Schultz I said-” Whatever the sergeant was going to say was silenced by a high pitched whine that increased in pitch as it got closer.

“SEEKER!” Taylor managed to scream before Schultz was slammed so violently to the ground she heard a rib crack as she blacked out. She awoke a few seconds later from a screaming command from her own brain to…BREATHE! She attempted to follow that command and nearly choked on all the fluid in her mouth. She still wasn’t thinking clearly due to the concussion from the explosion and she was befuddled enough to wonder how she could have so much water in her mouth as despite her mental fog, she knew she hadn’t been swimming. When she realized why the water tasted coppery, she understood what she was drowning in and retched violently.

“M-m-my…g-god, so m-m-much b-blood!” She sputtered as she hacked her lungs clear. She slowly managed to get her eyes open and nearly retched again when she saw the source of the blood. Sergeant Taylor’s headless body lay across hers’ and what was left of Frost, who couldn’t really be recognized as human any more. Pinned by the weight of the two men she began to scream.

 

Cindy bolted up from the torment with a real scream and Marsh pulled her close, having been through this before.

“The dream?”

D-dang ran. It’s always the same. I will never be free of Du-Khang, never.” She shuddered violently, the sweat still beading on her brow and breasts.

“I was too young to have been a Browncoat, so I can’t begin to know how it was, but that was then and this is now. I’m not good with words, but you survived then, maybe if you talk it through how you did that, it might get you from the then to the now?”

“T-talk? You? Mostly, it’s ‘Hey Cindy, you in a grapplin’ mood?’ Since when do you care enough to try and talk?” Cindy spat.

“Hey, don’t take it out on me. I wasn’t there and I don’t have to help. You think I like bein’ shook out of a good sleep by some battle I wasn’t at, but you keep rattlin’ around that skull of yours?”

“I thought you wanted to be a Browncoat?”

“I…what?”

“Sorry, bad joke. I guess I can’t find the right words either tonight.”

“Yeah, doesn’t seem like a night for words.”

“One thing you can do and won’t take no words at all.”

“Yeah?”

“Hold me.”

Since she’d already given him leave to bypass words, Marsh pulled her close and stroked her hair softly until the troubled woman managed to fall back asleep.

It’s a good thing she’s as good as she said she was in the grapplin’ department or I’d have to give a pass on spendin’ time with a lose cannon like this.” He thought cynically. “But even a pig like me don’t like seein’ anyone suffer like this. The ‘Verse might have shown me a kindness I didn’t know by havin’ me be too young to have been in the U-war. Damn Feds anyway, bunch of hun dan meddlers.

Marsh waited until he was sure Cindy was really asleep, before carefully tucking her in and settling back in close to her for what he hoped was the rest of the night.

 

“I have news on the quarry sir.” The superbly dressed administrative assistant said, handing over the hard copy of the latest wave.

“Go on, you know I don’t like it when you get all melodramatic on me.” The man replied tersely, but with a raised eyebrow that belied his gruff response.

“They’ve been reported on Athens.”

“Well it looks like the boss’ plan is working. They must be getting desperate to try to break into the salver’s market.”

“Did the boss say why he wants so much pressure on such a small operation?”

“The boss shares why he does some things with me, but not everything. This one he is playing close to the vest, but it has to have roots in these guys breaking up the Highleaf hijackings.”

“Seems a little petty.”

“I will forget you said that, so unless you have more to report, you can go now.” The man said coldly.

“No sir.” The assistant replied meekly knowing she’d overstepped her bounds. She withdrew without another word.

The man watched her leave, both to admire her shapely form and to ponder if he gave her too much freedom to speak. “Regardless of her obvious physical charms, she is a good assistant. I’ll give her the cold shoulder for the rest of the day and she’ll get the hint.  He thought. “I can’t have an assistant that can think too much on her own. The last thing I need is for any of the bigwigs to get wind of some of the ops I’ve got going on the side. Yes, the cold shoulder will be all it takes.”

At that point the man returned to his terminal and the latest project the boss had sent him via the network of secure couriers and cutouts they used to communicate.

“Phase two ready.” Was all the message said. Considering the hell phase one was doing to these pathetic little people, he shuddered to think what phase two could entail.

 

With a final click of the last tumbler, the floor safe opened and Xavier smiled broadly when she saw the strong box inside. “Almost to the payoff girl almost to the take.” She whispered and nearly laughed at the simple mechanical lock on the strong box, which she picked with almost contemptuous ease.

Her broad smile became feral when she saw the good sized coin purse sitting on top of the even larger stack of credit notes inside the strong box. She reached in and lifted out the coin purse. As she did there was a loud snap as some mechanical device under the notes was freed by the moving of the heavier coins.

“Zhe shi shen me lan dongxi?[2] Was all she had time to say as she looked at the crude wood and spring loaded metal object with wire leads leading to the bottom of the strongbox before an ear-splitting alarm sounded and portcullis-like gates slammed down across the doors and grates sealed the windows of the assay office.

“I’m humped, I am so bloody humped!” She croaked, looking about frantically for a means of escape. “If only I could signal the ship. I could…wait!”

Her mind changing gears as her eyes fell on the circuit cards still lying next to the terminal she’d hacked. She grabbed her micro-transmitter she used to listen to the local police band to keep track if any alerts were raised while she worked. She certainly heard those alerts now and while she knew the micro-transmitter didn’t have the range to reach the ship; it wouldn’t take much modification to change that. Her hands flew as she started working on the impromptu construction “Infinity’s left nut, please give me enough time.”

 

“Oh gos se NOW what?” Marsh grumbled as he started awake again.

“It was the Cortex.” Cindy replied standing naked before the terminal in her cabin.

“A wave? Who the hell would be sending a wave at…” He paused to look at his chrono. “0330?”

“Xavier. Wo de tian a[3], she’d gotten herself arrested!”

“WHAT? How?”

“Don’t ask me. All it says is she got pinched and something about United Reclamation. Toss me my pants.”

Marsh did so without thought as he pulled on his own. They exited Cindy’s cabin and nearly ran into Willis, who had also clearly just gotten out of bed.

“Xavier’s been arrested!” Marsh and Willis said simultaneously and then blinked at each other in confusion.

“Get out of the way you two, no time for a parrot show!” Cindy snarled and raced to the Captain’s cabin. Not standing on protocol, she opened the door and dropped into the cabin unannounced and pulled up with her hands raised.

“That is a damn good way to get yourself killed Cindy. And with you shot, who would patch you up?”

“Xavier is in trouble! Pinched by the locals, didn’t you hear the Cortex squeal?”

“Damn I’m getting slow in my old age.” Chan growled savagely, rolling out of bed and to her terminal. She hit playback and watched in silence.

The attention squawk repeated followed by a voice only message in Xavier’s voice. “Help! I’ve been pinched! United Reclama…”

“I’m going to kill her. Resurrect her and kill her again.” Chan spoke with a quavering in her voice that conveyed her anger better than any overt display could hope to show.

“Wake everyone! We have got to get her back so I can kill her.”

Cindy barked up the ladder to Marsh and within three minutes, the entire crew had mustered in the dining room with all thoughts of sleep gone from their eyes.

“What do we know Captain?” William asked.

“Willis checked the Cortex a little deeper than I would have given him credit for knowing how to do and all we know is ‘An unidentified female had been arrested by the local police for breaking and entering at the United Reclamation office.’” Chan closed her eyes and let loose with a stream of inventive invective curses that went on for an impressive length of time. None of the crew spoke or even moved until she finally stopped cursing, pausing for both breath and to collect her thoughts.

William broke the silence, figuring he was closest to the captain and could judge when it was best to risk her increasing fury. “I don’t know much about Xavier, not like any of us do, but I’m quite sure the comment about her parents and the Alliance animal breeding program has got to be too expensive to be practical.”

“You do know I can hurt you right?” Chan managed after a long pause, but her voice lacked the heat that would have indicated she was serious.

“I have no doubts, but I would counter that you will probably wait until we’ve rescued our wayward duck before you do.”

“You always do try to fill those inside straights don’t you? Okay, tantrum over and the Captain is back. Options?”

“The good news is the report said the locals have her. If she was pinched by the Feds, our only choice would be to post bail.”

“That and the fact we are on the Rim.” Cindy added. “A Core world would be a hopeless situation and depending on the Border planets, that would be just as bad. I think we can spring her.”

“And how will you accomplish this magical feat pray tell?” Chan asked sardonically still too angry to think as clearly as she would prefer.

“I think I have a plan fitting of the great Houdini himself.” William chortled and clapped his hands together.

“Guessing this Mister Houdini is an Earth-That-Was magician or something to that effect, I would hear this plan of yours Mister Lemont.” Willis smiled his eyes agleam at the possibilities the master of the temple would no doubt find appalling that his star pupil would so readily wish to take part in so willingly.

“You are correct Willis, but Houdini was an Earth-That-Was ‘escape artist’ renowned for his ability to get out of chains, handcuffs, and locked rooms. The plan is a bit complicated and will take some fabricating, but it can be done.”

“We don’t have time for theatrics William, spill the plan.” Chan said flatly.

“Actually theatrics plays a part in this plan, a big part in fact…”

 

An hour later, the crew was moving into position for Operation Houdini, split into four elements and using all three of the ship’s hover vehicles. Walking slowly down the street toward the police precinct holding Xavier, William waited until he heard the single beep in his micro-transmitter that let him know that everyone else was in position, before he nodded once to himself and fully committed himself to his part of the plan.

 

“I say! I do say! Where is the man in charge of this constabulary?” A large man, dressed in the current high fashion, but slightly disheveled, blustered as he stormed up to the desk of the duty office.

“Excuse me sir? I’m Officer Ward, how may I assist you?”

“How ‘can he assist me’ he asks. I am beset by ruffians while on a nightly constitution and I am asked ‘how can I be assisted.’ No wonder I was accosted! I want to speak to the police chief, sheriff, or the chief inspector, or whatever his bloody title may be.”

“Uh sir, please calm down and lower your voice. Please give me a few details and I will see to it that you are assisted, Mister…?”

“Douhini. Thaddeus Throckmorton Douhini. And I said I want to speak to the man in charge, which you are most manifestly not!”

 

As Officer Ward attempted to get any worthwhile information from the agitated man in front of him, he noticed the arrival of the cleaning crew on one of his monitors, but failed to notice the cleaning crew had arrived an hour early and in a different vehicle than normal. He just punched the ‘Admit’ button and tried once again to get Douhini to speak in a coherent fashion, but the man was so upset now that he was fanning himself with a perfumed handkerchief that stank to high heavens.

 

Cindy and Willis breathed a silent prayer in thanks as the service entrance opened and they entered the building carrying cleaning equipment in from large hover mule, they made a show of doing all the proper tasks a night cleaning crew would do. Ward, managed to spare a glance at the monitors every once in awhile as he painstakingly took Douhini’s statement on the alleged assault to make sure the cleaners were doing their jobs right. However, Douhini histrionics were starting to give him a headache, especially when the exasperating man realized he got the ‘ruffians’ description wrong and had to start all over again.

“Okay Mister Douhini, let’s start from the top and give me the description of the first man again…”

“Man? You mean Vandal, Visigoth, Mongol, Viking…”

“MISTER Douhini, the first man’s description please! If you don’t help me get this right, we won’t be able to apprehend the miscreants.” Ward said through gritted teeth. “Oh hell now this ma de pi gu[4] has got me talking that way.” He thought and gave up on trying to multitask and just hoped the cleaning crew remembered to put enough paper towels in the men’s room.

 

Cindy noted that the camera that had followed them when they first entered hadn’t moved for over two minutes and nodded to Willis to make his break. She began an elaborate monolog that made it seem as if she was talking to her partner that was just out of frame.

 

Ren de Fe zu[5] guide me this day and forgive my transgression against the duly appointed law of this world.” Willis whispered quietly in supplication as he approached the women’s wing of the building. Luckily for him and less fortunate for the Alliance, was the central government’s insistence on uniformity. All newly constructed government facilities, and by recent, meaning post war, had the same layout. The local jail was built to replace the one destroyed, like most of the planet’s facilities, during the war. Willis had memorized the path from the service door to the women’s wing and quickly found himself outside the single isolated cell that constituted the women’s ‘wing.’

“I’m here.” A voice he instantly recognized came from the right side cell. “I heard footsteps and since it was a bit early for the morning meal. It meant you guys had got my message.”

“Xavier.” He whispered. “I am…pleased to see you. A warning though, the Captain will be less pleased.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

“I will too.” A second voice interrupted. “Hurry up young feller, you don’t have all night.”

“Meet Betty Li, my ‘roommate’ I had hoped she would be a sounder sleeper.”

“Not a useful trait in jail bao bei. Now hurry slick, as I said before, we don’t have all night.”

“Right.” Willis replied and pulled the large tube of Scrapper’s Gel from a side pocket of his cleaning crew uniform. He ran a small bead near the deadbolt and stepped back to let the strong compound do its work.  

“Miss Li, have you considered that it was the nature of the Yin and Yang to require balance in all things?”

“Excuse me?”

“I see that you have some…experience with the darker side of life, maybe it is time for you to experience the other side of what the ‘Verse has to offer…” By the time he finished speaking the woman was so confused by the unexpected sermon that she didn’t know if it would be better off to stay in the cell or being associated with this strange man and his equally odd cell mate. By the time the Scrapper’s Gel had worked its way through the deadbolt, she had her decision and ultimately decided that would probably be best to stay put. 

 

“One of these days you are going to have to tell me how you managed to do that.” Xavier said looking at the mechanic with a new found curiosity.

“I simply showed Miss Li there were many paths and that it might be better for her to pick one that did not include going with us.”

“Okay, I’ll accept that for now. What is the rest of the plan?”

Willis stopped suddenly and pointed upward.

“What the fire escape?”

“Exactly so.”

“Uh wait a moment then. There is a terminal behind you, no point in having something so mundane as the fire alarm give away your plan.”

“The plan is William’s in truth.”

“I seem to have underestimated both of you on how devious you can be.”

“We all learn something every day.”

“Ain’t that the truth! There fire alarm is shut down.”

“Hurry then, Mister Marsh awaits.”

“Thanks Willis.”

“You are most welcome Miss Xavier.”

Neither wasted time on words they didn’t have time for. Willis raced back to where he had left Cindy and Xavier bolted up the ladder and onto the roof.

 

“It’s about time.” Marsh hissed from the small hover mule he’d somehow piloted onto the roof of the jail. “Get on hot stuff, we gotta wait for our cue before we can go and if you ain’t ready, you will be on your own this time.”

“No need to tell me twice.” She replied and climbed onto the hover mule and tried to guess just exactly what this cue could be.

 

“Well I can see I will get no satisfaction from this constabulary office. I will have to file a formal complaint at the next Federal facility I see. You have not done any great service to your profession this morning Officer Ward, your name and that of your police chief will figure prominently in my report.” William said with great drama as he and Ward stood next to the door.

“I’m certain it will Mister Douhini. The report you have given me will certainly be on the top of the blotter report. It certainly is one of the longest I have ever taken. I…excuse me. I have to let the cleaning crew out.” Ward said as he noticed a blue light flashing on his desk. He buzzed the crew out then returned to Douhini.

“I am sorry you are unhappy.”

“Unhappy doesn’t begin to cover it, but I have wasted enough of my time. Good morrow to you sirrah!”

 

Chan saw William exit the building and gunned the hover to maximum speed, ready to play her part in the passion play of her long time friend’s design.

 

Douhini exited the building with an amazing amount of flourish and Ward breathed a deep sigh of relief. He watched the bizarre man reach the bottom of the stairs and shook his head in amazement. As he started to turn toward his desk, he dropped to the floor in well trained reflex as the already crazy night took a turn toward the insane.

Shots ripped the silence and bullets hit the front of the building, spattering off the stone façade. Ward clawed for his side arm and saw Douhini belie his size and bolted down the street faster than he would have thought possible. Screaming at the top of his lungs that he was being murdered, that part Ward had discovered did not surprise him. The man’s ability to talk would be more than legend and any amount of noise he could make didn’t surprise Ward at all.

This line of thought was just one of the things that hammered through the police officer’s mind as he freed his side arm and hit the panic alarm that would lock down the station and summon every cop within five miles. Ward just didn’t see how the night could get any crazier.

 

“That would be the cue!” Marsh shouted and gunned the hover mule for all it was worth. It might not be the Lattimer’s Ghost, but Marsh was comfortable with anything that moved under its own power. Xavier closed her eyes and by sheer force of will managed not to scream as the vehicle went off the side of the three story building. Marsh however, made the hover mule do things she didn’t think possible and rather than end up a bloody puddle, they dropped in a series of what she could best describe as semi-controlled crashes down to the street and raced away into the night.

 

“You shot me!” William bellowed as he ran up and jumped into the hover car Chan had stopped just out of sight of the police station.

“I’m sorry it had to have been a ricochet, I didn’t shoot anywhere near you! Besides it’s only a graze!” Chan countered and rapidly accelerated back to maximum speed.

“Gorram it Chan, graze or not it hurts!”

“Cindy will see to it, now try and calm down William. I am sorry you know.”

“I know mei mei, just that this wasn’t part of the plan.”

“It was a good plan and I was happy to be a part of it, now bi zui so I can drive.”

 

 En route to the ship, she saw police cars both wheeled and hover screaming toward the police station, just as Cindy had said they would in response to gunfire aimed at the station. The risk of the few shots, despite what had happened to William, more than paid for itself by clearing the path back to the ship as the police responded to the wrong problem.

 

Cindy and Willis were the first ones back and with Willis’ instructions, they had the ship well on the way through the power up cycle by the time Marsh and Xavier arrived. Marsh bolted for the bridge as soon as the gravitics shut down, leaving Xavier to get the hover mule parked. She had just locked the mule in place, when the hover car pulled up the ramp and into the cargo bay with the last of the crew. No sooner had Chan hit the close button for the ramp and Marsh had the ship moving.

“William, have Cindy see to your arm. Xavier, you will go the dining room now. I will be there shortly and you better have answers.” Chan pivoted without waiting for a reply and taking the stairs to the bridge two at a time was quickly out of sight.

William looked at Xavier with a sad face, but didn’t say anything as he passed her on his way to the infirmary. She couldn’t meet even that simple gaze and silently headed for the dining room and a confrontation she would give all the credits on Londinum to avoid.

 

“Course Captain?” Marsh asked as unobtrusively as possible.

“Whitefall. Didn’t find anything here, not like we had time to do so, but a friend of a friend said there was work on Whitefall in a town called Durango. Send a wave to Li Ming and tell her to meet us there. As soon as you have the course locked in. Join us in the dining room.”

“Sure thing Cap.”

       

Marsh entered the dining room and wished he could go back to the bridge. The tension was so thick, he wasn’t sure he could cross the room without bolt cutters. He took his seat and knew he was happy that it wasn’t him on the firing line for a change.

As soon as the pilot sat down, Chan turned to Xavier. “Give me a reason why I shouldn’t toss you out the airlock right now?”

“I don’t have one Captain and even if I could think of one, I wouldn’t use it.”

This was not the answer she was expecting and it served to calm Chan down. “Why?”

Xavier surprised Chan and indeed the whole crew by bursting into tears. “I wanted to help!” She all but wailed. “I-I-I thought I could hit the assayer’s office and be back on the ship with a fat load of credits without any one being the wiser.”

“Then what the hell went wrong?”

Some yu ben de[6] wood and spring loaded metal contraption I had never seen before set off that gao yang zhong de gu yang[7] alarm.”

“What did this thing look like Xavier?” William asked, his curiosity getting the better of him.

“The wood was about four inches long and two wide. The spring held a square shaped metal bar. The weight of the coins held a trigger that kept the spring open, when I lifted the bag, the spring snapped the thing closed and completed the alarm circuit. It must be something new.”

“No nian qing de[8] it is something old, something very, very old. It is an Earth-That-Was device called a ‘mouse trap.’ Believe it or not, homes going back for centuries before the Exodus were often plagued by vermin in the form of mice. They got into food and even caused diseases. The mouse trap would hold some sort of food bait on that trigger and when the mouse moved the bait, the bar snapped shut and killed the mouse.”

“You mean Earth-That-Was had a problem with white laboratory mice?” Cindy asked incredulously.

“They weren’t always white and they weren’t always in labs Cindy. I’ve never seen a mouse trap outside a history book, but it looks like the good and smart people of United Reclamation had a different sort of mouse in mind, but it worked as well as the old ones did for what they wanted it to do. Some Salver probably found one on some hulk and the assayer found a way to put it to use, banking on that no one of this day and age would know anything about them. I say it worked well.”

“History lesson aside Xavier you have managed to make a nuisance of yourself to me in my eyes and there has to be a reckoning.” Chan scowled, bringing the discussion back under control. “You are no longer a member of this crew.”

Xavier couldn’t hold back her gasp, but managed to remain silent.

“You are restricted to quarters until further notice and will take your meals in your cabin until such time as I deem you have earned a place on the crew again, if ever. Until you hear me say otherwise you are now just a paying passenger. Dong ma?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Then we are done here. You can all go.”

 

The crew left the dining room in silence and even the Lattimer’s Ghost seemed to be running quieter than normal as if she realized the gravity of the situation aboard her.

 



[1] Holy testicle Tuesday

[2] What is this garbage?

[3] Dear god in heaven

[4] Horse’s butt

[5] Merciful Buddha

[6] Stupid

[7] Motherless goats of all motherless goats

[8] Young one