Chapter Six

 

“So when was our last payin’ gig? It’s been awhile and I’m gettin’ a mite fuzzy on when we last made any coin.” Marsh asked as the Lattimer’s Ghost approached the moon Whitefall.

“Our last cargo for hire was from Verbena to Greenleaf arriving 8 March 2518, so just short of two weeks.” Willis replied after a short pause to concentrate.

“Only two weeks? Damn I would have sworn it’s been longer than that, I guess ‘cause we got less than twenty-four hours downtime on the last two planets we were on. We’ve really got to work on our bein’ sociable skills, this having to depart without getting to see the sights is starting to make me feel unwanted.”

“I shall remain unconvinced on that last statement Mister Marsh.

“What are you sayin’ Thorton?”

“I simply state an observed fact. Not being on a planet means we are in the Black. You adore flying and thus your claim to be unhappy with being off world is an unconvincing statement based on the observed data.”

“Now don’t go getting’ all logical on me. A man has needs he can only find off ship and no I don’t just mean grapplin’! I like seeing the insides of a drinking establishment, or a game of chance with someone I can rook for some coin, or anything other than just the insides of this here fine vessel of ours.”

“I can concur that downtime is good for the ship as it seems for the pilot. The Black is not a forgiving medium and the ship requires service that can only be done while she’s on the ground. I too would like more time to do my work. The ‘Ghost is in fine condition for her age, but for all that I care for her, she is an older vessel and needs more care than one of the newer models.”

Almost in response to this comment, the ship emitted a long rippling shudder that could not be completely attributed to entering the atmosphere of Whitefall

“I think you hurt her feelings.” Marsh chuckled. “You know how women can be when you bring up their age. There, there honey, the bad man didn’t mean it.” He added and lovingly rubbed the console.

“You know very well that was just a ripple in the ionosphere.”

“For all that religiosity you got, you sure need to work on your women skills Willis. The ‘Ghost is a grand lady and you must remember to treat her like such. Cause there is two things that will get you on the skids real quick with women and ships. They are all vain and they all strike back at them as what doesn’t give them their due.”

“I believe the quote you are butchering is ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ my young friend.” A familiar voice rumbled from the rear of the cabin.

“What quote? I was just talkin’ from my own dealings with wimmings.”

“I might have known. You have the soul of a heathen Sylvester.” William said rolling his eyes.

 Marsh frowned again at the use of his first name, but remained silent. He brought the ship down and landed near the town of Durango with flair and began to power down.

“Now that we are on the ground, I will return to my realm and see what I can do to keep this ‘grand lady’ in top condition. Marsh, Mister Lemont.” Willis nodded to each man and then departed the bridge, passing Chan and Cindy in the corridor, nodding to each of them as well, but not slowing.

“What was that shudder during re-entry Marsh?” Chan asked.

Unable to contain himself, the pilot began to laugh uproariously.

“Has he gone space happy? Cindy, you better prep for surgery, brain replacement surgery.”

“Aye, aye Captain, one minor surgery to replace the pilot’s brain coming right up. Would you like me to add a personality and some dignity to go with it?

“Actually Mister Marsh here was having a profound conversation with our mechanic on how to treat a lady.”

“I don’t even want to know what our resident flying shaved orangutan could possibly think about women.” Cindy said shaking her head.

“You seem to like me well enough.” Marsh shot back.

“Oh I like you well enough in that one department, but as for what I think of the rest of you, well there is a lady present.” Cindy replied pulling herself up to her full height and managing to seem dignified despite the topic at hand.

Chan burst into laughter herself at that point and even Marsh had to join in, in the much needed chance to release tension.

“I guess its time to meet this contact of ours. I wish I knew this guy better, but it was the best I could do given the time we had.” Chan said at last, a frown briefly crossing her brow.

“I believe she really was trying to help Captain. No need to revisit an old sore.” William said gently having caught the frown and knowing what it meant.

“Don’t you think I know she meant well! If she hadn’t Whitefall would be her new home.“ Chan replied darkly.

“Ouch that’s harsh Captain.” Cindy winced. “Whitefall ain’t a place to call a home.”

Chan eyed the other woman hard, but just nodded.

“Well rather than think about what has happened, lets look to what we can make happen now.” William said with conviction.

“Ever the optimist as always William, but I agree. Let’s go meet this Mister Elam and see if we can come to an arrangement. We have got to get out in front of this wave of bad luck we’ve been caught up in and start changing the odds to our favor. Speaking of odds, when will Li Ming be here?”

“Just under two hours according to her last wave.” William answered.

“I think she’ll like this place. Coin to be had from people that are not ready from someone like her, might make up for her having to bail out on that ‘hot table’ of hers she had on Athens.”

 

The Lucky Deuce Hotel was an homage to an Earth-That-Was Wild West frontier inn, at least the floor plan and layout was the same; the rest was as close as Whitefall could manage given the meager resources of the moon. Except for Willis who was, as usual, tinkering in the engine room, Li Ming who had yet to arrive, and Xavier who was restricted to quarters, the rest of the crew strolled into the hotel to meet with their contact Otis Elam. Half a dozen listless men lingered around the bar, while two men and a woman played cards at a corner table. Glancing around the room, the crew quickly came to the conclusion that it was going to be a long day.

A young woman in a form fitting dress walked down the stairs with a man at least twice her age and when he saw her, the bartender nodded toward the obvious visitors. Her smile already brilliant, brightened and after steering the older man towards the bar, she approached the five crew members with an exaggerated motion in her hips.

“Hello boys and ladies. I’m Chiffon and I run the Lucky Deuce. We got anything a traveler could want in the way of pleasure. We got women, drink, cards, food, and just about anything else that can be had for a price. Welcome to Durango, please let me know how I can…” She smiled looking Marsh up and down with a lascivious grin. “…be of service to you.”

On noticing Cindy’s jaw tighten, Chiffon didn’t miss a beat. “Hey hon, didn’t mean to crowd your territory, but me and my girls mean to please and that includes servicing a woman’s needs if you happen to go for that sort of thing.”

“Actually we are looking for Otis Elam.” Chan interrupted before things had a chance to take a bad turn.

  “Well why didn’t say you knew that old coot! I’ll get him for ya. Why don’t ya’ll have a seat and make yourself to home and see if you see anything you might like.”

Chiffon headed toward a door that was partially hidden by the stairs with her distinctive sway and shouted upstairs. As she knocked on the door, three more women also in form fitting outfits slinked down the stairs.

“Ladies, how about we give it a rest until the sun goes down. We’ve got to attend to business of a different sort right now.” William smiled, obviously enjoying the show, but knowing that the good times would have to wait until later.

As if on cue, Chiffon returned on the arm of a tall, thin man in his mid-fifties, grizzled, but well dressed. She gave the man a peck on the cheek, then went back up stairs.

“Welcome, welcome, welcome, I’m Elam. I got the wave from Jenkins that you would be coming. Let’s go to my office, we have words that aren’t for this lot’s ears.” He said with a sweeping gesture that indicated the rest of the room. Leading the way, Elam showed Chan and William to his office. A frosty glare from Cindy kept Chiffon’s three ladies from coming any closer and seeing as how there weren’t going to be any business opportunities any time soon, they returned upstairs. 

“Why Miss Schultz, I’d about ready to say you’re getting’ attached.”

“Marsh, shut up and buy me a drink while you are ahead.”

“Uh…right.”

Marsh sidled up to the bar and waved to the bartender.

“Quite a woman you got there or should I say quite a woman that’s got you?”

“Unless you have a really good dental plan friend, you will probably want to just give me two glasses of Ng Gaa Pei[1] and everybody gets to keep chewing with the same teeth their maker gave them.” Marsh growled low.

For a moment the bartended looked at the small man before deciding not to press the issue. Handing over the two drinks, he took the pilot’s coins and returned to his conversation with the old man that had come down the stairs with Chiffon.

“I can take care of myself you know Cindy, I’ve had to do so for a long time.” Marsh grumbled as he sat down and slid a drink over to his companion.

“Yeah I know you can, and I know up front I told you we were just going to keep things simple, but it just set my gut on fire to have those pretty things staring at you like you was a walking coin purse. If they was looking at you I might not have got so riled, but even if I do think of you as a shaved monkey most of the time, you are a friend and I’d do the same thing for them as well.”

“I thought you thought of me as a shaved orangutan. I don’t think I’m ready to slide down the evolutionary scale.”

“Keep working on it Sylvie and maybe you’ll make it all the way up to chimpanzee!”

Both burst into laughter and the tension between them melted, now all they had to do was wait and see if the deal went well with Elam and the Captain.

 

 

“Let me get this straight, you want us to smuggle firecrackers?” Chan blinked in amazement.

“Just so Captain, Whitefall ain’t got much, but we do got sulpher springs, a lot of cattle and enough trees to make enough black powder to make the best damn fireworks in the ‘Verse. Ariel, like most Core worlds, has a big appetite for the pretties Whitefall makes. Thing is, the making of the fireworks is easy, getting all them yu ben de[2] permits to ship the stuff legally is hard. Damn hard. I’ve got fifty tons of Whitefall’s Finest, that’s a ‘Verse wide know brand you know, but I don’t have a proper license. What I do have to make the trip worth your trouble is enough raw Ytterbium to fill the rest of your hold so as the Feds won’t find the real deal. So what I am offering is a full load with a premium rate to make it sweet. You know how much coin we are talking here?”

“That would be 3,750 in platinum.” Chan responded immediately.

“I don’t know about you, but that is a lot of money on Whitefall, seems like you might live in style for some time with that sort of coin. I can give you a third up front and the rest on delivery, assuming of course you can get past the Feds.” Elam added with a glitter in his eye.

“I will have to talk to my mechanic on exactly hold to store the load so the Feds can’t find anything, but you have a deal Otis.” Chan said as she shook the man’s hand.

“Wonderful Chan Juan, wonderful. I tell you what, how about your whole crew spends the night here in the Lucky Deuce? We got everything a spacer wants to have a good time, my treat for the rooms. Any deals you work with the ladies, well that would be up to you and Chiffon.”

“Can’t say no to an offer like that Otis, I’ll let the rest of the crew know.”  Chan replied.

Jian ta de gui[3], I want to be there to break the news!” Elam countered. “I don’t get to make this much coin ever day. I want to share the fun!”

“You are most generous Otis. I haven’t slept off ship in quite awhile now.” William added as he too shook Elam’s hand.

The three went back into the main room and Elam let loose with a long yahoo like shout. “Barkeep a round for the house! Chiffon, get them girls of yours down here! There’s a party to be done! Now let’s talk to that crew of yours.”

Chan led the way over to the table where Marsh and Cindy were looking expectantly at their captain as she approached.

“Made a deal Cap?” Marsh asked with a broad smile.

“Good one too Marsh, but I’ll let Otis tell you.

“Marsh did ya say?”

“Yeah I’m the pilot and this here is Cindy our medic.”

“Well nice to meet both of ya’ll. You guys are going to be haulin’ a boatload of cargo for a boatload of coin and I am in an expansive mood. I wanted to invite you and the lady here to spend the night on a real bed, with real food, and good drink here at the Lucky Deuce.”

“Um…thanks.” Was all Marsh managed to reply with a slight frown.

“He’s not much for words, most are too difficult for him most of the time, but thank you much Mister Elam.” Cindy said quickly, covering for the taciturn pilot.

Elam blinked and laughed loud and long at her comment. “Words too complicated, that’s funny. Anyway, none of that ‘Mister Elam’ stuff. Mister Elam was my dad and he’s been strung up twenty-five years now. I’m Otis and ya’ll are my guests.” Elam turned toward the bar and shouted over the rising noise. “Now tell me William you play Tall Card?”

 

 

The party was in full swing by the time Li Ming docked her shuttle and Willis was waiting when she exited. “Where is everyone?”

“The Lucky Deuce Hotel. A deal has been made and apparently our contact is an effusive sort. Everyone is invited to spend the night on his coin. I was told to tell you they gamble there.”

“Do they now?” Li Ming replied with an exquisitely arched eyebrow. “Then perhaps I will enjoy meeting this…” She trailed off with the obvious question.

“Mister Otis Elam is our benefactor. I was waiting until you arrived before joining in the festivities. Mister Elam is most insistent that we all join him. The deal is evidently quite good for us and extremely good for him and he wishes to make the most of the new opportunity.”

“Well let’s go see what the Lucky Deuce and Mister Elam has to offer.”

They exited the ship and Willis activated the security protocols on the way out. Waiting until the cargo ramp closed, they then steered for the source of the loudest noise and brightest lights in the fading Whitefall twilight.

 

“Li Ming! Get your fine frame over here!” Marsh bellowed from the poker table he was at to be heard above the din of all the merry making. Cindy was at the same table and concentrating deeply on her cards. Both Willis and Li Ming worked their way over to the table where the two crew and two other men were just finishing a hand with Marsh taking the pot.

“Here, you can have my place Li Ming, this is Dagwood,” Marsh waved his hand to indicate the taller of the two men. “And this here is Blondie, he don’t talk much. I’ve had my fill of poker tonight and I’m going back to the ship.” He finished by collecting a few coins, tossing back his drink, and standing.

“Hey now Marsh, quitting so soon?” Dagwood asked. “Awful early to be calling it quits.” 

“Nice try fellers, but with that last hand I’ve broke even, so you can’t say I’m walking away with your money. Guess I’m just not in the mood for all the hoopla. Li Ming here, though she might be able to keep you entertained.” The pilot said with finality.

Blondie and Dagwood both looked the stunning Li Ming up and down, but only Dagwood spoke. “Oh I’m sure she can. Care to deal hon?”

“Well, that depends on what game is this? I’m more used to Tall Card.” Li Ming replied playing the role of the ingénue for all it was worth.

“Oh we’ll be glad to teach ya, Blondie and me that is, you too eh Cindy?”

“Yeah me too. What about you Willis, you in?” Cindy asked

“Certainly.” The quiet mechanic took the seat vacated by Marsh to keep the two women sitting together and on the opposite side of the table from the two questionable men.

“You are?” Cindy asked in surprise.

“The source of unhappiness is desire Miss Cindy. I desire nothing, but to learn how this game is played. Since my intentions are not to win, it is not at odds with my beliefs.” Willis replied with a big smile.

“Well, if Willis can learn how to play, so can I.” Li Ming added sitting down next to Cindy and sketching a small nod to the mechanic, knowing why he picked the seat he had chosen. “Now can you go over the rules of this picker-“

“Poker.” Blondie replied with a slight frown.

“Oh right poker…”

 

Marsh slipped away from the table while the two suckers were trying to explain the rules without drooling over Li Ming, knowing that she would see to it that they learned a lesion from her about cards and the way of the ‘Verse at the same time.

“And just where are you going?” William asked with a slight slur.

“Back to the ship, so who is your friend?” Marsh answered, looking with slight interest at the statuesque woman on the First Mate’s arm.

“Why this here is Annie, but neither is she little or an orphan. I won’t get into the image that Blondie and Dagwood bring to mind.” William replied and then burst into a fit of laughter.

“What’s so funny?”

“Oh why do I bother you Philistine, I should have known you’d not know anything about classic comic strip characters.”

“What’s a comic strip?”

“Go back to the ship Marsh, it would take too long and the lady here is clamoring for my attention.” William sniffed and allowed himself to lead toward the stairs.

Chan watched the exchange and despite the noise of the crowd, heard enough to catch the gist of what was going on. Forced to choose which of the men to intercept, there wasn’t a moment of hesitation. “William, I believe you are drunk.”

“Well it wouldn’t be the first time mei mei, is something wrong?”

“Not exactly, wrong but seeing as how you are a bit impaired and not thinking with the head you usually think with, so I am just going to ask a single question. Are you sure this is what you really want?”

“It’s not like a guy like me has many options mei mei and…damn it Chan why shouldn’t I?” 

“Yeah sister, William here is a big boy. He knows the real thing when he sees it.” Annie all but growled.

Chan flashed a brilliant smile at the woman that did not reach her eyes and took two deep breaths before she answered. “Since this is Mister Elam’s party and I don’t what to cause a stir that might upset all the fun, but if you really like your face the way it is currently arranged, you will stay out of this conversation.”

The tall woman released her hold on William’s arm, pulling off her earrings and stepping out of her heels as she did. “You think I am afraid of a woman a foot shorter than I am? I’ve knocked more than one cow hand on their pi gu and you won’t be the first woman I’ve done the same to.”

“Annie, you would be making a mistake if you so much as raise a hand to my Captain. As she said, this isn’t your conversation and if you think the Captain hasn’t knocked a woman a foot taller than her on their pi gu before, then you might have found yourself in a situation you are not ready for. Why don’t you go have a drink and I’ll join you later?”

The dance hall girl looked from Chan, to William, back to Chan, and then stepped back into her heels before making her way to the bar without glancing back.

“I’m sorry William, I really didn’t mean for that to happen. I know it’s been awhile for you, it’s probably been longer for me, but well…you deserve better.” Chan said sheepishly and looking embarrassed.

“No Chan you were right. I let the whiskey do the thinking and you were there to be my conscience for a change. I guess I owe you one.”

“William, you silly man, if we are going to start keeping track of who owes who when it comes to being the voice of reason, I’ll end up the first mate and you will be the captain.” 

“No mei mei, I like things the way they are. What do you think got into Marsh? Usually he’d be hanging from the chandelier by now?”

“Oh who knows? At least we won’t have to baby sit him all night, hoping that cruiser sized mouth of his didn’t overload his rowboat ass and lead to trouble. This is a sweet deal William and I don’t want anything to make it go south. I’m almost tempted to say it’s too good a deal. What do you think?”

“Well it is an unusually good deal, so that makes it automatically suspicious in my book, but I usually get a bad news vibe I’m around a rum character and I’m not getting that from Elam. We could sure use this run, so despite the old adage about be careful of things too good to be true, this isn’t too good to be true. The deal is not only possible, it is probable. The only thing unusual is that we happen to be in a place to take advantage of the opportunity and going by our complete lack of other opportunities, I say we go for it.”

“Then we are in William. My thoughts were pretty much like yours, as is what is turning out to be your lot in life, and I just needed to hear someone else go through the process and end up in the same place I did. Now, enough of this business stuff. Let’s have some fun! And if that happens to include…” Chan nodded her chin in Annie’s direction, who was at the bar sulking. “Then by all means you do so.”

“Actually mei mei, I have had enough time to rethink that course of action and if this run goes as well as it seems like it should, I think I may partake of two of her ilk on the Ariel end. After all, I’ll be a man of means then, and coin has a way of talking far more eloquently than I.” William beamed.

“You are into your cups William as no coin, and damn few people are more eloquent than you and you know it. Now, let’s see how Li Ming is doing.”

 

Marsh punched in the code to disarm the security on the ship, boarded and then reactivated the system. He stood in the cargo bay his head canted to one side listening to see if anything was out of place. Not even sure himself why he was so keyed up. Not sensing anything out of place, he decided to check on one thing before turning in. The ship’s resident passenger was standing next to her easel when he entered her cabin.

“Hey Xavier. How you holding up?”

“Not like you care all that much, but I’ve been in worse situations.”

“Yeah, me too, but anyway, I thought I’d see if you were okay.”

“More like you thought you’d check up on me. No I’m not going to go on any solo run or try to kill you all in your sleep.”

“Well since your mood is for gos se, I’m going to go.”

“My mood is for gos se? Exactly what mood do you expect me to be in? I tried to help the yu ben de[4] captain and crew and get all but banished for my efforts. You want me to pretend that everything is shiny and that I like being subject to being dumped on any qiang bao hou zi de[5] pit of the captain’s choosing if she takes it into her head I’m not living up to her new and unknown standards of behavior?”

“Okay, okay, I got it. I’ll leave you with your pictures and stuff. Night.”

Xavier stood stock still in anger as the door closed and Marsh left. She was so tense, that she heard her paintbrush crack in her hand and managed to relax before it broke. Not being allowed off ship meant the art supplies she had on hand would have to last and she didn’t have brushes to sacrifice to pique. She didn’t have the paint either and that was the only reason she hadn’t thrown any at Marsh. That and it really wasn’t his fault the captain had exiled her and it was her own actions that led to her current status. Xavier might not be able to tell the whole truth to anyone she knew, but she made up for that character flaw by being brutally truthful to herself. She forced herself to unwind and returned to her painting. As it had always been, it was her only escape from when the ‘Verse got too rough and she was particularly proud of this one. “My best yet.” She murmured and let her mind drift.

 

After the vandalism on Persephone the new security package Xavier created was set up to sound an alarm if anyone approached within ten meters of the hull or attempted to enter any hatch without entering a passcode. However, the protocols did not include if a hover vehicle approached from above and didn’t touch the hull. The two men on the hover mule slipped a hose into the life support intake vents that were open because the ship was on planet and not sealed. One of the men turned a valve on a tank in the back of the mule and a gas silently began to enter the ship Neither Xavier or Marsh realized anything was amiss even as they crumpled to the deck.

 

The next thing Li Ming was aware of was the sun beating down on the left side of her face. She didn’t try to open her eyes as she knew it wasn’t going to be pleasant. “Sweet merciful Buddha that was a long night.” She thought groggily and tried to think if there was a reason she needed to be awake at that moment. Li Ming lay there and made her mind piece together the likely chain of events. “Too much to drink? No doubt. Slept in long enough for the sun to reach her bed? Obviously.” That started a whole new train of thought as she tried to remember the last time she was awoken by real sunlight on her face while in a real bed. She was still laying there when she became aware of a rising amount of noise outside. “Voices. Loud Voices. Loud angry voices!” That last thought cut through the lingering fog and her eyes snapped wide open with the thought. She rolled to her feet and with her back flat against the wall, slid next to the window and quickly peeked out the window.

“Ta ma de!” She hissed when she saw the mob outside. “No good will come of this. Looks like it’s time to go.” Li Ming muttered and began pulling on her boots. She was still working the laces when there was a pounding on her door. Grabbing her derringer smoothly, she sidled up to the door.

“Li Ming wake up, big trouble outside!” Came the strained if comforting sound of William’s voice.

“I noticed.” She replied tersely as she unlocked the door and followed the big man down to the Presidential suite that Elam had insisted Chan occupy last night.

“You’re the last one up.” Chan’s voice came sharply as she entered the big room where the crew had gathered. “Not a good trait to be a heavy sleeper on a Rim world.”

“I’ll work on it. But I got a glance outside and my sleeping habits have got to be the least of our worries. Now what’s the deal?”

“I take it you haven’t looked out any windows other than your own?” Cindy snapped as she almost ritualistically caressed her Magnum-Arms automatic.

“No why would I?” Li Ming snapped back, irritated by the medic’s tone.

“Both of you relax!” Chan snarled to head off any further comment. “Cindy is right about looking out the window, not that you would have had a reason. It seems one of the local girls managed to get herself dead. The hun dan that did it thought it would improve the hotel’s décor to have her hanging outside the window next to William’s room.

“WHAT?” Li Ming shouted as she leapt to her feet and looked out the window. When she pulled her head back in her face was drained of color. “Tian xiao de[6]! Isn’t that…?”

“Yes it was the woman I was speaking to last night. Her name was Annie.” William said softly.

“And they think you did that?”

“The short answer is yes.” Chan replied flatly.

“More men in those black dusters are showing up Captain.” Willis said from his lookout post. “There has to be more than two dozen of them now. They have the whole place completely surrounded.”

“The Black Dusters!” Li Ming growled. “Dagwood mentioned them last night. Some sort of vigilante group that’s been pushing into town for the last couple of months.”

“That would be them. Seems like they think they are the local law and they want William’s hide for murder. Probably all of us for accessories going by how mobs like these guys think.” Chan growled as she paced the room.

“The ship?” Li Ming asked.

“No response on any channel. We are on our own with two choices yield or fight.” Chan replied with a hard stare. “You have any weapons?”

“My derringer and a pair of brass knuckles.”

“That gives us a total of four pistols and one hand-to-hand weapon, not exactly an even match against better than two dozen thugs with long guns.”

“Captain, it would be folly to try to fight. Survival is now paramount.” Willis said solemnly. “Logic would dictate we yield now for a chance to change the situation later.”

“These Black Duster types are not about logic Willis, but as much as it galls my very soul, fighting would only result in a bloodbath…ours. Added to the fact the ship isn’t responding, even if we pulled off the miracle of escaping this hotel alive, the Duster’s have to have taken the ship, so we have no where to run to even if we could break out. I haven’t felt this helpless since word reached my unit about the surrender at Serenity Valley.”

Cindy winced at the mention of the battle that ended the Independent’s attempt to remain free of the Alliance. “So you want to yield Captain?” She asked.

“’Want to’ no, but seems like we don’t have a choice. We have to lay down arms and do as Willis suggested, survive for now with the hope of turning the tables later.” 

Chan put deed to word and removed her gun belt. On seeing their captain disarming, first William, Li Ming, and finally Cindy followed suit and also disarmed. Turning to Chan the rest of the crew waited for her next move.

“Now we walk downstairs slowly with hands up and making no fast moves, we might, with an emphasis on the ‘might’ part, see the rest of the day. Willis hand me that sheet and that coat rack, I need to make a truce flag.”

Dang ran Captain.”

Once the make shift surrender flag was put together, Chan led the crew slowly downstairs. The group was met by several heavily armed men all wearing the expected black dusters that were the vigilante’s trademark.

“Any funny stuff and you die where you stand ya murderin’ jackals!” The front man barked, the sweat on his brow revealing his nervousness.

“No funny stuff here, Mister…?” Chan asked politely.

Chandler. And I’ll be askin’ the questions Missy. You are bound by law and to stand down for the murder of Annie McDaniels.”

“Lead on McDuff.” Chan snarled back.

The crew was thoroughly and in the case of Li Ming and Chan, overly, searched for any form of weapons, then bound and taken to the local jail. As they were tossed in the one large cell, they found Xavier and Marsh already waiting for them. After making sure that the group was solidly secure the vigilantes filed out and let the door upstairs slam loudly.

“Well now I know why you didn’t respond to the comm.” Chan said wryly as she watched Marsh lurch drunkenly to his feet.

“I-I-It’s…n-n-not…w-what i-it looks l-like Cap.” The pilot managed to slur.

“M-Marsh is right Captain, w-we were gassed.” Xavier added, also slurring, but not quite as much.

“Gassed?” William blinked in dismay.

 “I-I may have stuttered, b-but I know what happened. Must have tanked it right in the life support intake vent, we were down before we knew what h-hit us.”

“Damn, you think it’s Nightblade Li Ming?” Chan asked.

“I can’t believe he’s tied up with these dusters, not his style to use people he doesn’t employ directly and I don’t see him having this kind of reach”

“Then it looks like we have royally bent somebody’s shaft out of alignment. I hate being in the dark and…” Chan broke off and looked around the cell. She noted there was only a bucket of water, a block of moldy protein, and a second bucket for the aftermath of the first two items. She shuddered as she realized this was the extent of their accommodations. “Sweet merciful Buddha, this is going to suck.”

The only thing Chan didn’t know was how badly.

 

“Chunk of protein Xavier?” Marsh asked wearily, not really expecting an answer.

“God no, that crap was already moldy three days ago and it hasn’t improved with age.” She replied trying not to even look at the crew’s only source of food. “I can’t for the life of me understand how you can stand that gos se.”

“Let it go Xavier, no need to go down the ‘how can you eat that’ road again.” William grumbled.

“Shush up! I hear something.” Li Ming hissed trying to concentrate.

Despite the screaming urge to want to ask what the gambler heard, the rest of the crew managed to remain silent until they all heard the clank of metal on metal as a grappling hook snagged the bars of their cell.

“Get back!” Chan had time to snarl and everyone had just enough time to get away from the window as a sharp cry came from outside.

“Heeeeeyah burros estupidos[7]!” 

The snap of a riata was followed by the whinnying of horses and the sharper crack of the bars breaking free of the brick and crumbling mortar of the cell.

“Get moving amigas y amigoas[8] unless you happen to like la casa de infierno[9]!” A Hispanic man with a gravelly voice rumbled as he stuck his head in through the still billowing dust cloud.

“Isidro Benevidez! How is it you are here?” Willis gasped.

“For once, no time for talk mi amigo, save the questions for later. The Black Dusters may be as stupid as a bag of hammers, but even they will respond to as much noise as we have just made!”

“You heard the man move!” Chan barked and bolted up and out of the cell.  

Not about to miss their Deliverance the crew scrambled madly for freedom. Outside they found Benevidez and half a dozen other men had, in addition to the two powerful draft horses that had pulled the bars from the cell, enough riding horses waiting for everyone. Three of the men assisted those of the escapees that needed help getting mounted and as soon as the last person was in the saddle, the entire group thundered into the dark, with Benevidez’ companions taking up rear guard and flanking positions around the as yet unarmed crew. Riding hard they could just faintly hear the sounds of an alarm being raised as they crested a ridge and rode out of sight.

Spurring her mount to draw next to Benevidez, who not only rode a large stallion, skillfully led the draft horses behind him, Chan had to holler to be heard above the din of the pounding hooves. “We need to talk!” She roared.

“Not a problem, now that we are out of sight, that cowardly excuse of a sheriff will not try to follow us until dawn.” He replied and then emitted a piercing whistle as he reined in his horse patting the stallion’s neck as they came to an abrupt halt. “Okay señorita, what are these words you have that couldn’t wait?”

Taken by surprise by the sudden halt all but their rescuers had difficulty in coming to a stop so quickly. William’s mount, seemingly more skittish than the rest pulled up so short that the first mate was thrown, but despite his size, the big man snapped into a combat tuck and rolled right back onto his feet. Even in the dim light reflected from Athens, everyone could see he was blushing and for once even Marsh held his tongue.

“S-sorry, it’s been a long time since I’ve ridden. That won’t happen again.” William muttered and grabbed his mount’s reins firmly, making it clear that regardless of the previous mishap that he was in charge.

“Well first of all thank you Mister Benevidez and Willis would you care to explain?” Chan asked with an arched eyebrow and also drawing attention away from her friend’s discomfort.

“Certainly ma’am. Isidro and I met three years ago while we were studying on Hera, we took to talking between classes and he became a member of my temple. We keep in touch by wave whenever we can. When we arrived on Athens, I sent him a message. It seems fortune was with us all that I did.”

“I arrived right after you were thrown in that pit of a jail. As soon as I heard that mi amigo Willis Thorton was being held by those worthless Dusters, I gathered as many of my best compadres as I could find on short notice and rode as fast as I could. It was those Dusters what framed you and there’s more going on that you don’t know, stuff that reaches way beyond a backwater like Whitefall. I can let you know more once we reach my ranch in San Melas.”

“Actually I think I have an idea.” William said, speaking for the first time since they stopped.

“Then let’s have it.” Chan replied.

“Rather than fleeing, which is what any sane group of escapees would do, since you say the sheriff will not take action and these Black Dusters are too incompetent to figure out anything complicated. Then, I propose you ride off with all these fine steeds, including this uppity filly here and make a trail the authorities can’t help but find. We in turn will sneak back into town on foot and see if we can regain control of our ship.”

“Good plan amigo, you think you can make it happen?”

William smiled and cracked his knuckles. “Don’t let my apparent lack riding skill make you think I don’t know how to deliver the goods, my friend.”

“Good enough then. You hand these Duster’s their heads and meet me in San Melas as soon as you can. I’ll let you in on the big picture when you arrive.” Benevidez smiled back.

“We will be there Mister Benevidez. We owe you much and if you can shed some light current events, performing a public service like eliminating vermin is well worth our time.” Chan added sincerely, her jaw set and her eyes hard.

“Please Amiga, call me Isidro. See you in a few days. Vámanos Muchachos[10]!” Benevidez spurred his stallion and he and his companions thundered into the night leaving a trail that no one could miss.

Marsh watched their rescuers ride off intently then turned to Willis. “What in the south side of Sihnon was that gibberish he was speaking?”

“Ah yes, he said it is an Earth-That-Was language called Spanish. The colony that Isidro was raised in still speaks it. He tried teaching me some, but I couldn’t see the use and my engineering classes really didn’t leave me much time for it.”

“We can save the history lessons for another time you two, we have work to do.” Chan chided before turning to William. “Okay, this is your idea, you got any details on how you want to make this happen?”

Dang ran Captain, but first I need to see how well the ‘Ghost is guarded. If the Dusters are as stupid and Benevidez thinks they are, they might not even have her guarded at all. Based on their dispositions we can adjust from there.”

“Everyone ready to be sneaky?” Chan asked, the silent nodding heads was all the indication she needed and with that, she lead off to circle back to come up on their ship from the opposite direction from the decoy trail left by Benevidez.

 

An hour later, Chan was crawling silently though the scrub brush west of the Lattimer’s Ghost. Their initial scouting detected three Black Dusters guarding the ramp to their ship. In response, William led Cindy and Marsh in from the east, while Chan led Willis, Li Ming, and Xavier in an approach from the other side. Moving in ten foot increments and then freezing, both groups got closer to the guards than they would have though possible.

“Stupid doesn’t begin to cover these clowns.” Chan said shaking her head in amazement as the three guards talked and smoked without the slightest clue that seven desperate people were within twenty feet of them. “I’m going to have to do something to get the attention of these jing chang mei yong de[11] Dusters.”

Crawling silently as the night itself, Chan moved close to the ship’s hull and on an angle away from where the other three members of her team waited. Once in place, she trilled an absolutely perfect call of a nightingale.

As the guards pivoted toward the noise, Marsh, Willis, and Li Ming were the closest and struck as one. Li Ming drove a palm into the nose of a man only slightly taller than she was and crushed his nose. Blinded by the pain, he was unable to defend against the combination to his solar plexus that left him on the verge of blacking out. Li Ming assisted him to his breaking point by grabbing the back of his head and snapping it downward to meet the knee she drove into his face. The man gurgled once and crumpled to the ground.

Marsh’s victim was still trying to unsling his rifle when the pilot grabbed the rifle stock and pivoted it upward around the guard’s own shoulder to deliver a bone crushing blow to the man’s face that knocked the hapless duster senseless.

Willis’ foe was the farthest away when the attack started and managed to twist away from the mechanic’s initial strike, and rather than try to fight, turned to run. However, with Li Ming and Marsh anticipating that very tactic, the man ran into ran into a flurry of fists and didn’t get five feet before folding to the dirt unconscious. 

The crew froze in silence save for the strangled panting of the combatants, straining their ears listening for any sign of detection. When no such indications were detected, Chan, Marsh, and William armed themselves with the Duster’s weapons.

“So far so good gang, let’s fan out and search the ship for any other guards.” Chan ordered and moved out toward the bridge, Marsh close behind and William splitting off on his own to check the engine room.

“Help me move these hun dan Dusters.”  Xavier growled as she struggled pulling the legs of one of the guards.

 “I have this one ladies; if you can get the others, there is some cord in the storage locket aft.” Willis responded, picking up another guard in a fireman’s carry.

Li Ming grabbed the shoulders of the man Xavier was trying to move, while the stockier Cindy was able to move the third guard on her own. The guards were quickly searched, bound, and locked in one of the aft passenger cabins. After they locked the door, they met William returning from the engine room.

“Clear.” William responded to the unasked but obvious question.

“Good. These clowns won’t be going anywhere any time soon.” Cindy said grimly.

“That’s good, cause we ain’t goin’ anywhere neither.” Marsh all but snarled.

“What now?” Li Ming winced.

“We are landlocked. We are stuck here.” Chan answered with a heavy sigh.

“I wouldn’t have believed there was enough authority on Whitefall to be able to impose a landlock.” Said William.

“Well somebody can, ‘cause somebody did. We are royally humped.” Marsh replied.

“There is some good news.” Chan said trying to lighten the mood.

“One can but beg to ask mei mei.” William smiled.

“All our gear they grabbed when we were arrested is sitting on the dining room table.”

“Be still my beating heart.” William snorted.

“I happen to be thankful for the small favor. I happen to love that little derringer and am glad it didn’t end up in one of these nia shi de du gui[12] pockets.” Li Ming added.

“Then thank the Buddha for the blessing.” Chan said coldly. “It is time however, to move to phase two.”

“Phase two?” Xavier asked.

“Clearing Durango of the rest of these hun dan for our friend Benevidez. It is time to gear up people we have some Black Duster ass to kick.”

 

It took the crew less than fifteen minutes to meet in the cargo hold ready for battle. Chan, William, Cindy, and Li Ming each wore full body armor and in addition to their sidearms, they each carried a pump-action shotgun. Marsh, despite his reputation for getting into fights, did not have armor or anything heavier than a pistol, but he made up for the weapon short coming by taking one of the captured Duster’s lever-action rifles and he was ready to do his share.

“Marsh, you think you can channel some of that fury of yours for the powers of good tonight?”  Chan quipped as she made a final check of her equipment.

“You bet Cap! These Duster jokers have it comin’!”

“I concur.” A voice added from the rear of the cargo bay.

“Willis! You sure?” Li Ming replied with a start. “This isn’t exactly your forte.”

“This is also true, but this is my ship as much as all of the rest of you and if some violence is required to free her from those who have seized her illegally, then I will do what must be done to assist.”

“Me too.” A second voice replied.

Chan looked hard at Xavier as she stepped into the light. “You think you have a place in this?” She asked quietly.

“Captain, I know I made a mistake, but regardless of outcome, it was not for selfish reasons. The ‘Ghost is as Willis said, as much my ship as all of the rest of you, despite my current status. I wish to help.”

“You know how to operate that pistol of yours? You’ve never struck me as a fighter.” Chan pressed.

“I am not a good shot and no I am not a fighter. However, I am sure there will be things that need to be done in preparation that do not require an experienced fighter. I am certain I can do these sorts of things and I am determined to re-earn my place on the crew even if I can’t re-earn your trust.”

Chan looked at the younger woman hard and long before replying. “Well said missy, now let’s see if you can make good. You can help, but if you screw up neither God nor Buddha will save you from me.”

“Fair enough Captain. Now what can I do help?”

“First you can set a code lock to keep these hun dan Dusters off the ship while we are gone.”

“And second?”

“You help Marsh and Willis loading spare magazines.” 

 

The grand clash with the Black Dusters turned out to be more of a grand anti-climax as the Dusters proved to be every bit as stupid as Benevidez thought they were. The only sentry posted was asleep at his post when the crew entered town and died in his sleep on Chan’s knife without even knowing he was in danger. With the only guard out of the picture, the crew was able to get into position near the block of buildings the Dusters had taken over.  In a pathetic attempt at protecting their turf, the Dusters had lined up barrels all around their block as cover. Li Ming spotted that the barrels were whiskey barrels commandeered from the various saloons in town. The rotgut quality of the locally brewed whiskey meant the Dusters had surrounded their base in incendiaries. 

The resulting “battle” was more of an embarrassment than a fight. A single rifle shot by Chan into the front of the main building started a stampede of Dusters into their “fighting” positions around the block. Waiting until they were in position with only a handful of pot shots to keep the illusion of an attack to draw as many Dusters into the kill zone as possible, the crew waited for Chan’s next signal. Keeping up the pretense of an all out attack until it was clear that no further thugs would arrive, Chan then had Cindy let loose with several long bursts from her sub-machine gun that split the barrels in several places and allowing the highly flammable liquid to pour out. Pausing for a few seconds, William and Chan tossed a pair of grenades and there was a massive whoosh of displaced air and a brilliant burst of flames that lit up the night for miles. The mop up was all too simple and by morning there wasn’t a single Black Duster left in Durango. The crew gathering up some of the many now surplus ex-Duster horses in town, and by riding hard, they arrived in San Melas by late in the afternoon of the following day.

 

“It’s like this amigas y amigos you have gone and made the wrong set of bastardos mad at you. A few months back, a group of Core Worlders set up a real on the down low operation back in the hills south of here. It is supposed to be a big secret, but they hired local manual laborers and I just happened to be one of them. They paid real good to be quiet, but no amount of coin is enough to make me sell out mi amigo Willis.” Benvidez paused to exchange a smile with the mechanic before continuing. “I got a look at the main jefe[13], a real piece of work named Robert Ghallager. He is some kind of scientist sent in to set up growing Highleaf in hydroponics vats. It is Ghallager that is also the one backing the Black Dusters as well.

“As you know the Dusters are muy estúpidos[14] and they talk too much when drinking. So I picked up a piece of information a couple weeks back. Seems some do-gooders on some Firefly-class transport broke up a sweet deal they had of hijacking Highleaf straight from the source at Greenleaf. These two Dusters were going on how the ‘Corporation’ was putting the squeeze on the ones what screwed up their money maker, so it seems this here ‘Corporation’ had put out the word to poison any work these fine hard working citizens might try to find. I worked those two for the rest of the night earning enough good will by buying drinks until the spilled the name of that Firefly, which as you have probably figured out by now is your ship. So it turns out your recent turn of bad luck wasn’t an accident, it was engineered and since I knew the name of the corporation from my earlier work, the group in charge of the raiders near Greenleaf and who has made your lives miserable is none other than Blue Sun!”

The crew was completely silent, the only sound was the crackling of the logs in the fire as the sat in Benevidez’ living room near the large fireplace on the chill night, each member of the crew eyes grew harder as their friend spoke until every one of them had a gaze as hard as flint. 

“Ghallager you say.” Chan said after a long silence, her flat tone made it clear it wasn’t a question. “Where do we find this hydroponics lab you mentioned?”

“I know what you are thinking senorita, but I have a better idea. This scientist has some kind of Alliance backing in addition to being on the Blue Sun payroll as they have a regular train running between San Melas and the spaceport at Corazon del Fuego. If you can destroy the train with the scientist aboard, it will break the Highleaf trade and then I can get the landlock on your ship lifted. There is a crusty old bird named Patience that runs a large chunk of this moon that hates the Dusters and what Ghallager is doing to Whitefall as much as I do. You destroy the train and kill that scientist and she has the pull to get that landlock lifted.”

“Any chance we can make a different deal with this Patience woman?” Li Ming asked.

“Patience is not a friendly woman under the best of circumstances and at the moment, she’s more ornery that usual. She wants the Dusters and Ghallager gone that is the only thing that will get her to help.”

“Why she all bent out of shape?” Marsh grumbled.

“Seems a ship captain, and more unfortunately for you a Firefly captain at that, beat her out of some platinum she didn’t want to pay about a year back, so she is not going to be willing to do any favors or special deals for anyone in a Firefly any time soon.” Benevidez chuckled. “I’ve never seen the old buzzard that mad ever, it did my heart good to see her get bearded like that.”

“Okay, so we have to destroy a train. You got any idea how to go about doing that? We only have a few shotguns, rifles, and a hand full of grenades. Not exactly the sort of firepower to stop a train.” William queried while pinching the bridge of his nose.

 “Smart man amigo, I doubt if even the Blue Sun enclave has that sort of firepower. It just so happens that I actually learned some of that engineering that Mister Thorton loves so much while we were in school.” Benevidez chuckled and shot a glance over to Willis again before continuing. “I wrangled a ride on the train before it was fully operational and discovered through observation of the locomotive and talking to the engineers that if the brakes are applied with the engine locked open, the overpressure in the hydraulics will blow the train. How you make that happen is up to you, but I’m sure you smart people can handle the details, one more bit of important info is that the next run is in three days, so you better get to planning.”

“You don’t think small Isidro, I’ll give that.” Li Ming smiled.

“No I don’t bonita[15] this is a hard place to make a home on and that Highleaf mierda only makes it harder. Too many of the young ranch hands are getting hooked on that poison and I want it stopped. Willis is like one of my brothers and it pains me to have him put both his life and beliefs on the line, but this has to be done and I know he wouldn’t be on a crew that couldn’t get it done. I’d do it myself, but I have already put myself, my family, and my land at risk breaking you out of jail and telling you what I know. If word got to the Duster’s or Blue Sun they’d find me and my family picked over by coyotes, so I can’t risk being seen or even closely associated with you regardless of how I might feel, but if you can kill Ghallager, then it will be worth it. Now I will leave you good folk to work out your plans as they involve your lives and I should not influence you any more than I already have. Hasta mañana[16].” Their friend sketched a jaunty salute and departed humming an equally upbeat tune until he faded out of ear shot.

 

“Okay crew, we are short on options here, so anything that doesn’t involve how to take out this train is off the table. I need to hear how we are going to make this train job work.” Chan said concisely to forestall any debate.

“I’ve got an option Cap.” Marsh offered

“Spill it.” Chan replied.

“I ride back to the ‘Ghost and get the hover car. That will get us some speed and let me recon the train route. If I can find a good ridge, I can use it to drive the hover car onto the top of the train while it is in motion. It will give us a quick and easy access to the engine without having to fight through guards.”

The rest of the crew blinked almost in unison at Marsh before Cindy managed to reply. “That is a surprisingly good idea. Reckless perhaps, but a good idea nonetheless”

“I might not know about Earth-That-Was stuff, but I do know how to fly and I am not as stupid as the rest of you think I am.” The pilot replied indignantly.

“I like the idea my own self, but I rather use the small hover mule.” Said Chan.

“Marsh’s plan is not without merit, but I think we might want to leave less to chance when it comes to boarding the train in motion. I think we should take advantage of the fact the train has paying seats and board as passengers. It means getting through guards, but if anything goes wrong with the hover car, we will still have a means take over the engine, even if it is an old fashioned Earth-That-Was style plan.” William said while pacing the living room..

“I have to agree with Cindy and say Marsh’s plan is best. It is an all the eggs in one basket plan, but as long as the hover car is up to the task, there are fewer things to go wrong.” Li Ming responded after some thought.

“I can ensure the hover car can meet the demands. In fact I’m certain I can not only boost the anti-grav for a short jump like Marsh envisions, but to carry three people for the trip as well.” Willis said nodding his head, his mind obviously thinking furiously about the mechanical adjustments the stunt would require.

“If the majority thinks the external approach is best, so be it, but I must continue to argue for including an internal element as well.” William insisted.

“I am going to go with William on this one. This is too important to risk to one method of attack. Only question left is who is going to do what?” Chan answered with a single nod that signified her decision.

“Since it is my idea and I am obviously too heavy to be on the hover car, I volunteer to board the train.” William replied.

“You can’t go alone William, it is too dangerous to go without someone to watch your back.” Chan countered immediately.

Mei mei you will not be able to accompany me as we will need a light load in the hover car and that means you will have to go with Marsh.”

“I will go with William.” Li Ming responded. “I think I have certain ‘assets’ that might make getting past the guards somewhat easier without tipping our hand by having to resort to violence to do so.”

“The lady is correct.” William replied with a big smile.

“Then that means I am going with the Captain.” Cindy added with finality. “I might not be the lightest thing on two feet, but in this case, I think I am small enough for the task.”

“Um, I know I’m not much in a fight, but there has to be something I can do.” Xavier said speaking for the first time.

“William and I are going to need a means to get away from the train quicker than we can run. If you were to bring in some of these fine horses, it would be much appreciated as due to both of our physiques, neither William nor I care for running.” Li Ming said with a twinkle in her eye.

“Once the hover car modifications are completed I will be free to assist Miss Xavier with this part of the plan. In this way no member of our crew will be working alone” Willis responded.

“Okay people it looks like we got us a working plan. Willis and Marsh will ride back to the ship tomorrow at first light. I suggest we all get some sleep tonight as it is going to be a busy time until we meet with that train.” Chan concluded.

The plan outlined, the crew were content to take their Captain’s advice and broke up into males and females with each group heading to their section of the bunk house space Benevidez had provided and one by one quickly dropped off to sleep.

 

Driven by their three day deadline, the crew took to their assigned tasks with a vengeance in order to be ready in time. Marsh and Willis had the longest task with another hard ride back to the ship that took them rest of the day to reach the Lattimer’s Ghost by early that same evening.  Knowing how critical the hover car would be to the entire operation, Willis worked long into the night, taking nearly five hours to carefully modify the vehicle to suit the demanding needs of the mission. Despite knowing the need for every minute of practice, the pilot and mechanic chose not to push their luck and drive back to San Melas as soon as the hover car was ready, instead waiting until morning. In addition to the much needed rest, the best part of the drive back was the chance to give the modifications a solid test and thanks to the higher speed of the hover car, they only needed an hour to reach San Melas. 

Once back at the Benevidez ranch, Willis joined Xavier in practicing the riding skills they would need for their part of the plan. As the two riders honed their proficiency, Marsh used the time to get a better feel of the boosted hover car. After Marsh felt comfortable with the changes, Chan and Cindy joined him to practice boarding and disembarking under a variety of conditions and speeds. As the others worked on their part of the plan, Li Ming and William worked on their disguises and how to best conceal the weapons they would need for their close assault part of the operation. Knowing from hard experience that it was possible to practice too much, Chan called a halt to the preparations at sundown so everyone could get a good meal and a good night’s rest.

 

“Tickets! Tickets please!” The conductor asked as he entered the car that the two non-descript passengers were riding. William handed over the boarding passes and the conductor punched them without a second glance as he moved efficiently on with his task.

“Well that went easier than I would I thought.” Li Ming exhaled a breath she didn’t realize she was holding softly to her partner.

“Never doubted it for a second my dear. We aren’t known in these parts and no reason for them to suspect anything. I just wish we could have got a seat closer to the baggage car. There are five cars between us and were we need to be and I don’t like it one bit.”

 “Allllllllllll aboooooooooooooord!” The Conductor shouted and the train began to move. Unlike the Earth-That-Was trains of old, the modern mag-lev design rapidly and smoothly accelerated and soon San Melas was lost in the distance. 

“Maybe I can do something about that.” Li Ming murmured and approached the two men guarding the platform that lead to the next car.

“Good morning fellahs tell me, are you as good with those guns as you look?” She sighed with great exaggeration, which even her loosely fitting clothing accentuated her sensuality.

 “Uh we…damn straight Miss.” The shorter of the two men replied.

“Ooh how fascinating. Are you two the ones in charge? That ratty old conductor doesn’t carry a gun and he was no where near as handsome.”

“Er, well we are in charge of this car Miss…uh Miss?”

“Desiree Duvalier and who might you two be?”

“I’m Pablo.”

“They call me Ham.” The second man replied, speaking for the first time, his eyes never leaving Li Ming.

“Mmmm I’d like to hear the story behind why they call you Ham. Maybe we can have a drink when we reach Corazon del Fuego?”

“I’d like that Desiree.”

“I have a better idea sweet lady, how about you tell us who’s that fat slob you are traveling with?”

Chester? Oh he’s my indentured, dense as a brick, but loyal as a dog. Now Pablo hon, you want to join Ham and me in town for that drink. I am a woman of certain needs and one man usually isn’t enough to satisfy them.”

“Uh…er…you bet Desiree. I know a couple nice places in town.”

Li Ming clapped her hands in delight. “Wonderful! I’m sure we will all have the best time.”

“It will be a night you won’t forget.” Ham replied all but drooling.

“I’m sure it will be special, but may I ask you just the tiniest favor?”

“Spill it sister.” Pablo leered.

“This car is a bit further back than I prefer to sit. Is it possible to move to the next car? I will be ever so grateful and promise to make it worth your trouble.” Li Ming purred coquettishly and batting her eyes.

“Pablo, I don’t know…”

“Shut up Ham, you want to miss out at this fine woman you go right ahead. If any one man can satisfy ya hon it will be me and me alone it seems.” 

“Oh no you don’t Pablo, I know you think I’m stupid, but I know a good thing, when it’s standing in front of me!” The tall man growled.

“Okay, okay Ham, don’t go getting’ buggy! You go right ahead hon and make yourself comfortable, but Desiree?”

“Yes Pablo dear?”

“Do not get it into that fine frame of yours to skip out on our meetin’ I can be a very ornery man when I’m promised somethin’ and don’t get it, dong ma?”

“Oh I certainly do. See you in town.” Li Ming winked lasciviously then turned back toward her companion. “Chester!”

“Ma’am?”

“Get your plentiful pi gu moving! These gentlemen are giving us an upgrade!”

“Yes Ma’am.” William ambled up to Li Ming playing the part of a lackey to the hilt.

“Thank you again guys. You will both get something to remember, I promise” She blew them both kisses then sashayed with an abundance of hip motion onto the platform and into the next car, William tagging along like a proper servant.

“That is one fine woman Ham.” Pablo smirked.

“She sure is. I can’t wait to get to town now.”

“Yeah you got that right.”

 

The guards in the next car were no smarter than the first two and using her tremendous allure to the fullest Li Ming played the role of the temptress like a pro. Long practice with using her natural beauty to take advantage of men’s lust, she worked her way forward using her charm and working her magic to get herself and William closer to the front of the train. The guards on the second car back from the baggage car, proven more resistant than the others, but a carefully placed caress was enough to work past that obstacle. After half an hour of a stunning virtuoso performance, the two of them were in the car right behind the baggage car. 

  Once in place, William sent a single pulse signal and the entire crew sprang into action. Chan sent a single tone reply to announce the start and this set William and Li Ming into motion.  They each drew their hidden pistols and fired on one of the two guards on the car. Li Ming’s target went down immediately, shot through the heart, giving her time to rush forward as William downed his target with his second shot. William ran to the door heading away from the baggage car and used a small drop of Scrapper’s Gel to fuse the lock and prevent reinforcements from arriving from the rear of the train. 

Li Ming killed the first guard from the baggage car to open the door to their car with another well placed shot and took advantage of the opening to toss in a grenade. The blast killed one guard instantly and wounded the other six. She immediately rushed to the door and killed another guard as she burst though the door of the baggage car. Moving with a feral smoothness and grace, the one woman assault felled two more guards by the time William reached the hatch. As the two entered a badly wounded man through up his arms to surrender and to make sure it wasn’t a ploy, William laid him out with a single punch. One of the two remaining guards tried to shoot William while he was occupied, but Li Ming saw the guard move and shot him down before he could fire. William no longer in a mood to take prisoners, pivoted and shot the last guard before he could shoot or surrender. 

“Well that was downright exhilarating!” William exclaimed as he kicked the weapons away from the dead guard to make sure there would be no surprises.

“Yeah, good thing these Dusters are a stupid as they are or this might have been a challenge, now let’s find the hun dan in charge of these idiots!” Li Ming replied breathlessly as she slapped a fresh magazine into her pistol, her eyes sweeping the baggage cars for movement.

“Ladies first.”

“I don’t think that is necessarily the gentlemanly thing in this situation.”

“Humor me, you are by far more agile than I and I need all the help I can get.”

“Right.” Li Ming then returned to her combat stance and started moving toward the front of the baggage car.

As the two on the train fought, Marsh was fighting a battle of his own. As soon as the front of the train reached his innocuously placed guide marker, he gunned the engine as he had several dozen times before, and raced forward at full acceleration to hit the make shift ramp perfectly. Marsh’s timing and arc were flawless however, despite the all of the modifications made to the hover car and all the practice runs he’d made the day before, when the smaller vehicle hit the slipstream from the train Marsh found himself in trouble. 

The hover car skidded sideways and pitched to one side alarmingly and, by pure instinct, Marsh steered into the skid while pulling back sharply on the throttle control. This straightened out the hover car, but caused the nose to pitch downward even more alarmingly that the first sideways tilt. As Marsh reached for the throttle control again, Chan lost her balance and fell forward, her hand landing on the pilot’s and driving the accelerator forward far past Marsh’s intended mark. This fluke turned out to be an incredible stroke of luck, as the already boosted thrust hit a speed not even Willis intended and made the nose of the hover car hit the slipstream at the perfect angle to bring the hover car down safely on top of the train. Chan, Cindy, and even Marsh sat white knuckled for a second as they realized how close they had come to disaster.

“Remind me to take the bus next time!” Chan yelled to be heard over the roaring of the train.

“I’ll send you the wave myself” A very chagrined Marsh replied. “Go get ‘em Cap!”

“You bet!”

The two women duck walked out across the top of the fuel tender toward the engine. Despite having practiced for this situation, the noise and vibration was far worse than either expected. 

“Sweet merciful Buddha guide my path.” Chan prayed fervently as she slowly inched forward on the swaying train. She was still nearly three meters to the engine when she heard a piercing scream behind her. Wheeling about by pure instinct, she just managed to catch Cindy’s flailing arm before she went over the side.

“Jesus! Buddha! Hera! Freyda! Save me!”  The medic howled in terror.

“None of them are here at the moment you stupid cow! Concentrate and help me help you!”

Cindy’s eyes locked on Chan’s and some of the terror faded replaced by anger, but most importantly, comprehension. She nodded her head and got her free arm on the railing of the tender. With a ponderous slowness the two women straining against gravity, vibration and fear managed to pull the medic onto the top of the tender. Cindy opened her mouth to speak, but Chan silenced her with a gesture and pointed toward the cab of the engine. Cindy nodded and using each other for stability, the two women managed to reach the engine. 

 

In the baggage car, William and Li Ming advanced carefully looking for the scientist Ghallager. William thought he heard something in the latrine and after silently signaling to his partner kicked the door open to find the scientist cowering in abject terror. Frightened and pathetic, neither William nor Li Ming could find it in them to shoot the wretched man, instead choosing to seal him in the latrine with a drop of Scrapper’s Gel to fuse the lock.

 

On the top of the train, Cindy and Chan dropped into the cab, but as they did, one of the engineers spotted them as the shaken Cindy landed badly and made too much noise. Chan fired her shotgun twice instantly killing one man and wounding the second. As the survivor reached for the controls, Cindy fired a burst from her submachine gun and killed him before he could stop the train. With the train under control, Chan reached for her comm.

“Riders up!” She said signaling for Willis and Xavier to approach.

Cindy worked feverishly and quickly figured out how to disable the brake cut outs to bring the train to a stop while keeping full power to the engine. Cindy and Chan fairly leapt back to the hover car on a now stationary train with the warning klaxons screaming behind them, Marsh blasted free of the train at maximum speed.

Willis and Xavier bolted out of their hiding place at Chan’s signal and brought their mounts in close before the train even stopped. “Looking for a free ride big guy?” Xavier quipped as soon as she saw William.

“A gentleman never turns down a sincere offer from a lady, but right now, moving is better than talking.” He replied as he and Li Ming climbed into the saddles of the extra horses, the warning sirens from the building overload providing all the incentive they could want. All four spurred their mounts and raced away as fast as the horses could run. A few sporadic shots from a couple of the brighter Black Dusters shooting from the windows of the train, forced them to take an evasive course until the afternoon was shattered by a massive explosion.

“Jesu Christu!” William said recoiling from the blast and resulting shower of debris landing all around him and the other riders. It took several seconds for the riders to get their terrified mounts under control. When they looked back, the engine, tender, baggage car, and the first passenger car were completely destroyed with the wreckage fully engulfed in flames.   

“Let it never be said we do things half-assed.” Marsh said pulling the hover car next to the mounted crew. “I’m not sure what I was expectin’, but that was awesome!”

“Friend Marsh, we did what we had to free ourselves from a situation forced upon us. Do not take pleasure at the deaths of so many!” Willis hissed in uncharacteristic anger.

“I have to agree with Willis on this one. We did a rotten job, but we shouldn’t be celebrating too much.” William nodded after a couple seconds.

“Yeah well, it was still an awesome explosion. Let’s see if Benevidez can deliver his end of the deal.” Marsh grumbled before engaging the drive of the hover car and heading toward their friend’s ranch.

 

Muy bravo amigas y amigos[17] the explosion was visible for miles! I knew you could do it.” Benevidez exclaimed when the crew rode up to the ranch house. He hustled everyone into his home and broke out several bottles of wine. Once everyone, even the reluctant Willis had a glass, the rancher raised his own. “To a job that needed to be done and was done well!” He downed his glass in a single gulp and passed the bottle around so those that wanted more could refill their glasses.

“I want you to tell me everything, but first, I talked to that old bag Patience and the landlock on your ship is lifted, you can go as soon as you fill me in.”

“I’ll field this one.” William offered and launched into a highly animate description of the events of the day, supplemented by the rest of the crew when it came to the parts he hadn’t personally witnessed.

When the story was over, Benevidez wore a huge smile. “Yeah that sounds like Ghallager, sniveling little wimp. The ‘Verse is a better place without him.” He raised his palm to Willis to forestall whatever the mechanic was going to say. “I know amigo what the teachings are, but sometimes you have to do bad things to make some better things happen. Whitefall might not be much, but it is my home and getting rid of that Highleaf basura[18] is a step in the right direction.”

“This has been big fun, but I need to get to the ship and get it moving before anything else can go wrong.” Marsh said standing and heading toward the door.

“I know Whitefall isn’t for everyone and you need to get moving, but hurry back “

“I’ll go with him.” William added. “Not a good idea for anyone to be out and alone. I won’t feel safe until we are in the Black”

“Always thinking Señor William, good idea though.” Benevidez replied with a hearty laugh.

“The ‘Verse has a way of eliminating those that don’t do enough thinking. We’ll be back as soon as Marsh here can work his magic.” The first mate replied and headed out the door and boarded the waiting hover car.

 

Less than an hour later, the crew could hear the sweet sound of their ship approaching, everyone went outside and Marsh brought the Lattimer’s Ghost in with his typical panache. He lowered the cargo ramp, but kept the engines at full. The crew each made their goodbyes, with Benevidez pulling his friend Willis into a big bear hug before letting him go.

“Well Isidro, our ride is here, we’ve got to go.” Chan said stopping at the bottom of the ramp for one last look at the harsh landscape.

“I understand bonita, thanks again and remember, for you my friends never forget that Blue Sun has got your number. Vaya con Dios![19]

Gracias mi amigo.” Chan replied with a sly grin.

Benevidez’ mouth hung open for a second before letting loose with a booming laugh. “Perfecto bonita perfecto, you have made this a day to remember. Watch your backs.” He stepped back to get clear of the downdraft as the ship soared upward and then returned to stand with his wife and watch the ship disappear into the distance.

 

“Well I guess the first question Cap has to be where to?” Marsh asked smiling broadly at being behind the controls of a ship in the Black again.

“What’s closest?”

“Anticipating that answer, that would be Triumph.”

“How far?”

“Also anticipated and that would be 42 hours.”

“Do it.”

“Done.”

 

Later that evening, the crew was completing their traditional Lift day meal, albeit a sparser one than usual due to the lack of a chance to buy any fresh food, but regardless of the precise components, just being on their own ship and back in some sort of control made the meal taste better than canned food normally did.

Before the crew could leave Chan stood and cleared her throat. “I’ve got words that need to be said before you go and in front of all of you.” The crew sat up straighter all eyes riveted on the Captain as she normally was never so formal. “Even though it seems like it was a long time ago, I made a bad call and I want to both reverse that decision and apologize to the person I wronged.

“Xavier, I judged you too harshly. You got pinched while trying to change our dry spell and I thought you’d screwed up our chance for a deal on Athens and it turned out there were forces in motion that would have led us to Whitefall even if you had brought home half a million credits.

“Even though I made you an outsider, you stepped up when it came to defending and fighting for our home. You have proved yourself to be every bit as much a member of this crew as the rest of us and I hope you will forgive me.”

Xavier sat quietly her expression nearly unreadable, but the quivering of her lip. “I…uh” She started her voice cracking. “I…would be lying if I said I wasn’t surprised. Thank you Captain. I am grateful to be back as ‘crew’ instead of passenger. Thank you.”

“Well that was another bit of good news mei mei. Now we need to know what the plan is about the hun dan Blue Sun he chu sheng za jiao de zang huo[20] riding our backs?”

“I don’t have an answer to that yet Lao peng you[21]. I will have to cogitate on that and get back to you. We can’t go against a corporation as big as Blue Sun alone and it seems they have made us unwelcome where ever we go, but there has to be a way to get some information on exactly who is running the Highleaf trade, so I guess that is our first order of business. I’m sure you can guess what the second order of business would be.”

The feral grins that swept the table was all the answer Chan needed to know she’d gotten her point across.

 



[1] Herb rice wine

[2] stupid

[3] Like hell

[4] stupid

[5] Monkey raping

[6] Name of all that’s sacred

[7] Stupid burros

[8] ladies and gentlemen

[9] Hell house

[10] Let’s go boys

[11] Consistently useless

[12] Piss soaked pikers

[13] chief

[14] Very stupid

[15] beautiful

[16] Literally see you tomorrow, but frequently used as good bye.

[17] Very brave ladies and gentlemen

[18] Garbage

[19] Go with god

[20] Filthy fornicators of livestock

[21] Old friend