Chapter Seven

 

“Firefly-Class freighter Lattimer’s Ghost, this is Beylix approach control, you are cleared to land on pad two-seven delta.” The professional, if bored voice squawked over the ship’s communication speakers.

“Roger Beylix approach. Lattimer’s Ghost cleared to pad two-seven delta.” Marsh replied with an amused expression. After turning back to his flight controls he quipped. “You think they teach them that tone of voice in signal school?”

“Can’t be any different from how they teach civil servants how to wrinkle their nose when they look at you like they smell something they don’t like.” William answered from the co-pilot’s seat.

Marsh responded by laughing out loud. “Well what do you know? I always thought that was just me that they looked at like that!”

“Oh no my friend, that look is as ‘Verse wide as that controller’s tone of voice, and both have been skillfully crafted by generations of bureaucrats. I’m certain those idiosyncrasies survived the passage from Earth-That-Was.”

“I’ll believe you, what was isn’t as big on my list as what is, like findin’ work again.”

“I won’t dispute that with our current situation, a lesson on ancient history isn’t going to help us find the hou zi de pi gu[1] that is running the Highleaf operation of Blue Sun that has it out for us. Whoever it is has got themselves dug in deep.”

“Well Beylix is a good place to find stuff as what them as don’t want it would put it. Might take some sweet talk and some hard coin to get the right person to part with the right words, but this is good a place to look as any place in the ‘Verse. Beats Triumph by a long shot”

“That would be the dream young Marsh and why the captain chose to come here rather than the closer Triumph. Took us an extra two days to get here, so you can bet as soon as we have the cargo ramp down, we will hit the mean streets to see if we can find just the sort of person you mention.”

 

“So you are telling me they not only escaped, but they managed to shut down our primary Highleaf operation again in the process.” The man said in a voice approaching absolute zero and obviously not a question.

“Yes sir.” His assistant replied meekly knowing by her boss’ tone of voice that anything but a straight answer would result in her immediate termination, employment wise for certain, and literally was within the realm of the possible as she had never seen him so mad.

“How?”

“They had help getting out of the jail, but none of the surviving members of the operation knows who. The destruction of the train took out all of the senior personnel on Whitefall and a raid by locals took advantage of the disarray to destroy the growing facility. Again, there were no survivors to identify the raiders.” The assistant cringed at the man’s grimace.

“Well it would seem the boss and I have underestimated our quarry’s abilities. I’ll chalk the first set back to the pirates being surprised. They were a small crew and had gotten too cocky from too little resistance. But this Whitefall disaster is a completely different matter. Seven crew, only five at best fighters, eliminated forty-odd guards and every leader on that godforsaken moon. I will have to contact the boss and let him know that we will have to rebuild our entire operation from scratch. If I am still alive and working for Blue Sun after that conversation, I am going to devote the rest of my existence to ending the existence of the Lattimer’s Ghost and her crew” The man growled in a voice so fierce that it raised the hackles on the assistant’s neck by their complete and bone-chilling sincerity.

 

True to William’s word, as soon as the ship was fully powered down, everyone but Willis exited the ship to see what news or work they could find. The rest of the crew split into three teams with Chan and William, Li Ming and Xavier, and Marsh and Cindy fanning out to blanket the landing field to try and find business or info on Blue Sun.

Willis watched the others depart, sealing the ship up to perform a little maintenance and, more importantly, to provide security in case Blue Sun decided to take a more active role in the crew’s affairs. “Sweet merciful Buddha, guard over and guide your servants as they walk through the dangers of this world.” The somber mechanic prayed as the ramp closed. He turned to return to the engine room and silently added. “And letting them find any sort of honest work would be nice as well.”

 

“So tell me lovely ladies, why should you need to know such information? Surely there are better lines of work for women of your…talents” The oily little man crooned.

“Look Finn, all we want to know is do you, or do you not have work for us? Honest work you pile of ma da bian[2].” Li Ming replied sharply, her eyes hard.

“Oh Li Ming, you wound me.” Finn returned feigning dismay. “I am but a simple and honest businessman trying to make a living in a harsh and unforgiving ‘Verse.”

“Finn you are neither simple nor honest, but that is beside the point. I’ve got a good ship and a better crew and we just want to ‘make a living in a harsh and unforgiving ‘Verse’ as well. You got the goods or not? No need for the usual line of crap; just be square with me.”

Finn looked uncomfortable for a moment then leaned in close to Li Ming. “You didn’t hear this from me, but the word is that it’s not good for business to do business with you right now beautiful one.”

The two women exchanged a glance and Xavier nodded her head at Li Ming’s raised eyebrow before the gambler leaned in closer to Finn.

“What if we said we are not surprised to hear this news, would you be willing to tell us why doing business with us would be a problem?”

“That I have not heard.” The small man replied a little too quickly.

Li Ming responded by running her a finger gently tracing the curve of Finn’s left ear. “Come on now Finn, you’ve known me a long time, throw me a hint.” She all but purred.

Finn looked even more uncomfortable, his eyes darting to both sides and he looked over his shoulder as if someone might overhear before replying. “Blue Sun.”

“Thanks old friend, you have confirmed what we needed to know. We’ll make sure that no one sees us when we leave. You tell the misses I said hello.” Li Ming flashed a brilliant smile then motioned to Xavier to follow. The two women exited the seedy restaurant singly via the side exit before meeting back up two blocks away.

“Looks like Benevidez knew what he was talking about.” Xavier said after they had walked another two blocks.

“You have to wonder why a Corp as big as Blue Sun would take it into their head to make small fish like us sweat. We can’t be considered competition and we damn sure haven’t crowded their grip on the ‘Verse.”

“I couldn’t begin to tell you, but somehow we have and now we have to figure how to get them off our pi gu.”

“I’ve got enough problems with Nightblade, last thing I need is an even bigger fish wanting to make my life more complicated than it already is Xave. Being able to get out of the way before the da bian hit the fan has been a specialty of mine, for a long, long time, but this load is more than this one girl is willing to try and bear.”

“Captain will figure something out. If she can’t, I’ll have to come up with something.”

Li Ming stopped dead in her tracks to stare at her enigmatic partner. “You can’t be serious?”

“Why not? Just because Chan is the captain, that doesn’t give her an exclusive monopoly on ideas. My ideas have just as much merit as hers and I don’t have all the pressure on me like she does. Maybe I can see things more clearly than she can.”

“Well I will agree Chan has to be under a terrible amount of stress and I’m not going to enjoy being the one that tells her a rumor is a fact and that the biggest corporation in the ‘Verse has got it out for her.”

“Yeah, not going to be fun, but we will see what her response is before I start offering up my ideas.”

“Yes Xave, let’s just hold your ideas in reserve for now. What did your Cortex search find?”

“Nothing on Blue Sun, but that is not a surprise, I did find there is a guy paying nice coin for some sort of investigation.”

“Say what he needed figured out?”

“All the message said was ‘wanted: independent investigators to uncover mysterious occurrences during the course of business’ the name Darrin Coorvish and a contact number.”  

 

The three teams returned to the ship with two things in common, first, as with every other planet or moon in the ‘Verse, no one had any business for them. Second, the other two teams had found the same mysterious advertisement from Darrin Coorvish that Xavier discovered earlier.

“I have to assume that any place we try to go in the whole ‘Verse has got the word not to hire us at this point. I had hoped we might be able to get in front of the message by going deeper on the Rim, but that didn’t pan out.” Chan said while pacing in the ship’s dining room to the rest of the crew that had gathered for the post landfall sweep update.

“What about this Coorvish character Cap?” Marsh asked.

“I don’t like how this ‘mysterious occurrences’ sounds. Last thing we need is to get into someone else’s problems considering our own situation.” Chan replied shaking her head. “If this thing were square, why haven’t the local talent done this investigation?”

“Not like we have anything else to do with our time Cap.” Marsh pressed.

“Well I did get the low down on what the mystery is about from a rather desperate sort of old coot for a pint of bitters Captain.” Cindy said quietly.

“Go on and spill it girl!” Chan snapped, then pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed. “I’m sorry Cindy, too much thinking and not enough cigarras on my part. I didn’t mean to get all fang on you.”

“I understand captain we have had to live in interesting times for far too long. What I learned was, it seems that hunting parties go out in search in the hinterlands for an animal he called a chimper.”

“Chimper?  William frowned. “He must have meant a chimpanzee.”

“The old guy said chimper, but I am sure you are right. Anyway, seems the chimpers are captured and sold on the Core as pets, apparently they are all the rage. Lately, it seems, the hunting parties have been ambushed with several wounded and a few dead. The last expedition had two dead and four severely wounded out of ten sent out. None of the locals are willing to go out anymore and this seems to be cutting into this Coorvish’s profit margin. Guess he wants to know who is putting a crimp in his chimper gig.”

Marsh rocked forward off the rear two legs of his chair and back onto all four before smacking the center of his forehead. “Da xiang bao zha shi de la du zi[3]! You can not be serious? You want to go looking for why the locals can’t find a bunch of monkeys?”

“Aw Sylvie, you don’t want to go to the family reunion or are you just ashamed to introduce me to your parents?” Cindy sniggered loudly at the pilot’s expense.

Marsh fixed the medic with a gaze hot enough to melt hull plating. “One day you are going to push that shaved orangutan thing too damn far!” He snarled throwing his cup across the room.

Bai tuo, an jing yi dian[4]! Last thing we need is a lover’s spat children. If you can’t behave, the captain is going to send you to your rooms without supper.” William growled, fixing each with a baleful gaze to make it clear that now was not the time for joking around.

“All I ever wanted was to be free to move around the ‘Verse and make some honest coin. Did I listen to my father and join the family business? No. Did I even look at any of the men he tried to get me hitched to? No. I had to go and become the owner of a tramp freighter.” Chan said rubbing her temples in the vain attempt to make the pressure building there subside. “Sweet merciful Buddha, but all this noise is giving me a headache. Damn how could use a good drink and a good lay.” She thought to herself before rejoining the conversation, thankful as always for William’s, once again, timely intervention. “Okay crew, as the First Mate has stated, time to cut the children’s chatter and act like you belong at the adult’s table.” She paused to make sure all eyes were fixed on her before she continued. “Since we all know that no other work is going to be coming our way, William and I are going to talk to this Coorvish character and see what he is about. If he doesn’t trigger William’s hun dan detector, we are going to take this job monkeys, chimpanzees, or orangutans. Dong ma?”

A chorus of “Yes captain” brought the conversation to an end and Chan turned for the bridge. “You want to make the call or should I?” She asked over her shoulder.

“I will.” The big man answered once they were out of earshot of the rest of the crew. “You do the talking once the meet starts. Until then, you remain the aloof and enigmatic captain. Why should this one be different?”

“Because I am beginning to wonder if I know what I am doing William. I led my first crew to near bankruptcy until they bailed on me and now it looks like I am about to run my second crew down the bankruptcy road as well.”

“Dammit mei mei you know things are different this time, don’t even try to go down that path with me!” William retorted hotly.

“How are they different this time?” She replied just as hotly.

“You didn’t have my sparkling personality the first time.” He replied with a hearty laugh, his instant of anger forgotten.

Chan didn’t manage to laugh, but she did smile for the first time since making planetfall on Beylix. “Thank you William. I needed that.”

“I can think of a couple other things you need as well, but those are not my place to arrange or even really talk about mei mei.”

“One thing at a time old friend, one thing at a time.”

 

“It is nice to meet you Captain Wu.” Coorvish said warmly as he shook Chan’s and William’s hands, inviting them to sit and offering refreshments in the businessman’s sparse office just under an hour later. “I will be blunt captain. I haven’t had anyone take me up on my offer in over a week, so it was a pleasant surprise to get your wave. I will also be straight to the point on what you want to know most. I propose a week long tracked ATVs safari into the outback. You must bring own weapons and supplies for a pay rate of five platinum per day per person for a total of 35 platinum each. The area in question is a heavily forested one and our task will be to find out who is making and to suppress the attacks on the hunters. Are you still interested?”

“Will we be to report to you while we are out checking on what is bushwhacking your hunters?” She replied.

“I should say so, I am going as well. I will have my own personal bodyguards and vehicle. I am not the sort that stays in the rear with the gear once I know there is trouble afoot. Your team will be fully autonomous when it pertains to the actual investigation, but I fully intend to stop these attacks and I will be there personally.”

Chan didn’t reply immediately and spared a quick glance at William who didn’t get a chance to comment before Coorvish continued.

“I see by your lack of an enthusiastic response that you are hesitant to have me along. Trust me Captain Wu, I hire good people and trust them to do their jobs. These attacks however, have grown in intensity and your team will not be strong enough to provide for their own security and still have enough firepower to conduct a worthwhile investigation. My bodyguards and I will form what is called your base of fire to free your group to concentrate on collecting the detailed information without being concerned for your survival.”

“These attacks are that deadly?” Chan asked growing cautious as what seemed like a simple mission was becoming more involved than she liked.

“Not yet, but the escalation of violence has increased. So far we have only lost a few killed, but the pattern and aggressiveness of the attacks clearly indicates that it is time to show whoever is behind the assaults that we mean business or they will assume they own the entire outback. I will not allow that, but I need help. Captain will you be willing to help if I push the pay to ten platinum per day?”

“Mister Coorvish, I run my crew and they know that, but for something like this I want to discuss it with them first. May I speak to you in two hours?”

“Certainly Captain, hear from you then.”

 

“…and that is the long and the short of it. The floor is now open for them as what has words.” Chan said as she finished briefing the crew on the potential job and knowing who would be first to speak.

“I don’t like it Captain.” Xavier said speaking first rather than Marsh and surprising Chan.

“Ditto Cap, this one reeks.” Marsh confirmed with a single nod of his head.

“Money is money Captain and we have gone for too long without proper maintenance.” Willis said with his typical somberness.

“Okay that is two against and one for. Li Ming?” Chan asked.

“I find myself in the strange position of agreeing with Marsh. There is much this Coorvish is leaving out of the situation and when the dealer isn’t being upfront, it is time to leave the table.”

“And I find myself in the usual position of disagreeing with Marsh. The only thing we seem to be getting any experience at is fighting, so we might as well take coin from them as what are willing to pay for that skill.”

“Since William and I are okay with this job enough to do it, then that makes it four to three in favor of taking the job. William, send Coorvish a wave telling him we accept his terms.”

Dang ran Captain.” William replied instantly, pivoting on his heel to head for the bridge.

“We are going to regret this.” Marsh muttered to no one in particular.

 

The next morning, Coorvish and ten other men arrived in two large ATVs. The surly driver of the crew’s vehicle exited without a word and joined his companions standing behind their employer and suspiciously eyeing the crew.

“Friendly lot.” Xavier muttered, fidgeting in her new ballistic mesh body armor. Cindy knew that the younger woman did not like guns or fighting, but that the nature of this new job would require more protection than Xavier’s typical jeans and a tee shirt garb she normally wore. Taking the computer expert into the market square, Cindy managed to locate the body armor at a reasonable price that Xavier still tried to balk at until Cindy explained the costs of medical treatments in relationship to that of the armor if the younger woman was wounded badly enough that she as medic could not heal. Once back at the ship, Cindy helped Xavier adjust the armor and the rest of her gear so that she didn’t look like a complete rookie.

“Just stare back hard and stop fidgeting. You are going to want those thugs to think you are too dangerous to mess with. Now hush” Cindy whispered back, making a point to crack her knuckles loudly and flexing her fingerless gloves for maximum effect.

“A fine ship you have captain,” Coorvish boomed. “a fine ship and crew indeed. We have a long way to go I do hope you are all ready?” He asked rhetorically.

“Of course we are Mister Coorvish, it will only take a few minutes to store our gear and secure the ship and we can depart.”

“Excellent! Klaus here will lead.” Coorvish replied slapping one of his men on the back, then turning to board his ATV.

Xavier engaged her newly enhanced security system as the rest of the crew got everything stowed on their ATV. Chan had insisted practicing this simple task to make it clear her crew were professionals and the rehearsal paid off, as the crew was ready to move in under five minutes. Coorvish was clearly impressed and sketched a two fingered salute to Chan before nudging Klaus to head out.

The trip to the Beylix outback turned out to be very scenic, very long and, after awhile, very boring. After ten hours of rattling along, the lead ATV finally called for a halt. Coorvish and his men set up one camp near their vehicle as the crew of the Lattimer’s Ghost set up a second camp of their own near their vehicle. Taking direction from Chan and Cindy, the crew had also began to set up a defensible perimeter when Coorvish, with two men approached the second camp.

“I see that I have chosen my companions well!” He exclaimed, clapping his hands together as he toured their camp. “Top notch precautions Captain Wu.”

“Given the unknown nature of attackers, it seemed prudent to be prepared.” Chan replied as she paused to wipe the sweat beading on her brow from the exertion of creating a shallow hasty fighting position.

“Quite so, Captain, quite so. My own men seem to be somewhat more complacent than you and your crew.” Coorvish cast a reproachful glance at his guards before continuing. “When I get back to my campsite, I will have my men follow your example and set up similar defensive works.”

“But sir, Jenkins and Chu have already…” One of the guards began.

“Jenkins and Chu have already what Adams?” Coorvish snarled.

“Uh…um…well, Jenkins and Chu went hunting sir.” Adams managed to stammer.

“Oh for the love of Saint Peter, we have plenty of rations, what is wrong with the rations that they had to wander off on their own?”

“Nothing is wrong with the rations that I know of sir. They just…well…they just…” Adams faltered at the near apoplectic expression on Coorvish’s face.

“Captain Wu, please excuse me, I have a few issues to take care of. I can see at least your crew has an idea of the nature of living in unfriendly territory and the necessary precautions and common sense required in such an environment. It seems I must impart some of that common sense into the rest of the team.”

Chan just nodded silently in acknowledgement and returned to her work.

“You two come with me.” Coorvish barked and the Chan caught a look of pure venom from Adams before he turned to follow his livid employer, who was striding back to his camp barking orders and clearly about to make life for his supposed bodyguards most unpleasant.

“I would take it that our illustrious employer has just discovered city thugs do not bodyguard make.” William smiled when Coorvish was far out of earshot.

“Yes and those thugs seem to think their lack of preparation is our fault.” Chan replied with a broad grin.

“Nobody likes the teacher’s pet mei mei.” William managed to reply without laughing.

“I doubt seriously if they are using the term ‘teacher’s pet’ my friend.”

“No I’m sure they will be thinking of us in terms that would make even a seasoned spacer such as yourself blush Captain.”

“Make me blush? As if.” Chan chuckled at that thought.

“Regardless, those bully boys are even more disposed to dislike the fact we draw breath, so it would be a good idea to keep an especially careful watch tonight.”

“I’ve already worked out the rotation. I’ll brief everyone as soon as the camp is ready.”

“I had figured as much. How much longer before the position meets your approval?”

“At least another hour.”

“The rest of the crew will be ready.” William answered with a nod and moved to check on the next position over, where Marsh was applying far less enthusiasm in his preparations than suited the first mate. “I’ll be certain we are ready.”

Chan nodded in return and reapplied her attention to her preparations knowing that William would see to everything, just as he always did.

 

William did not quite have everything prepared to his satisfaction yet, mainly due to the fact that one of the two men that had gone hunting stumbled back into the camp a bloody mess a little sooner than he had predicted. There was an outcry from the other camp that brought preparations to a halt as Cindy raced over to assist.

“Given what a pair of idiots you two are, I’m surprised either one of you managed to come back at all, of all the lame-brained, inbred, half-witted ideas on this side of the ‘Verse to take into your empty skulls!” Coorvish was thundering at the survivor as Chan and Cindy reached the second camp.

“MISTER Coorvish!” Cindy snapped as she quickly assessed the injured man. Her tone of voice caught Coorvish by surprised and made him pause long enough for the medic to continue.

“This man is in shock and has lost a fair amount of blood. The cuts although bloody are actually fairly shallow, so he will survive, but I will not have you haranguing him while I am working on him. Please hold your diatribe until after I have stopped the bleeding.” She then turned back to her patient, having clearly dismissed Coorvish.

“Sir, with your permission I have a search party ready to send out to try and locate the missing man.” Chan managed to interrupt before Coorvish could reply with fury that was clearly twisting his already livid visage.

“A what?” He managed to snarl at Chan, but fortunately her timely intervention had deflected his anger from Cindy and the wounded man.

“A search party sir.”

“Oh right to try and find the other idiot. Captain, at least somebody out here is a professional. Report back as soon as you know anything. Hopefully, by the time you get back, I will have whipped these gou cao de[5] goons into some semblance of preparedness.” 

“I’m sure you will sir.” Chan pivoted and raced over to their camp in time to catch William before he left. She found her first mate, Li Ming, and Marsh suited up and ready to go.

“We’ll be in constant radio communication. It will be full dark in less than forty-five. We will be back regardless by then.” William said tersely.

“Good plan, see you then.” Chan replied and moved to take her place in her fighting position.

The three quasi soldiers of fortune moved out quickly and were soon out of sight.

 

As promised, the search party was back in less than forty-five minutes. However, they had precious little new information. They managed to find despite the failing light the location where the would-be hunters were ambushed, but only found tracks, blood, and precious little else. They were unable to find the body of the missing Chu and returned to camp empty handed. Tensions in both camps were very high as they set the watch and bedded down for the night. Perhaps the preparations more than the unknown assailants were prepared to face, or more likely, they were satisfied by the casualties they had already inflicted, but whatever the reason, the rest of the night passed without incident. In the morning, a much calmer Coorvish, this time accompanied by four bodyguards, entered Chan and company’s camp.

“Jenkins is going to be fine.” He said without preamble. “Thank you Cindy and thank you Captain Wu for talking some sense into me. As you can suspect, I am under a fair bit of strain and all the events of yesterday evening came at me too quickly to respond in a reasonable manner.”

“Just keeping up my part of the bargain Mister Coorvish.” Chan replied warmly.

“After last night Captain, please call me Darrin.”

“Only if you call me Chan.”

“Deal. Anyway, since it is clear you know what you are doing in this environment, how do your suggest we proceed?”

“Whoever is responsible for these attacks is obviously very close, so I suggest that we take advantage of already having a solid base camp, to proceed on foot patrol. We will never find anyone rattling along in those ATVs.”

“Agreed. Who do you want to send on this patrol?”

“I’ll take five of my crew. A smaller patrol will be quieter and we’ll use your men as the rapid reaction force if we run into anything we can’t handle.”

“Are you sure five is enough? The attackers have hit groups much larger than that.”

“Yes, but they have only hit groups that were unprepared and we have something the others did not have…back up.”

“Fair enough, good luck Cap…er Chan.”

“Thank you Darrin.”

Chan waited until she was alone with her crew before continuing. “Xavier and Willis, we will leave you with the ATV, Coorvish’s thugs may be good at breaking legs, but they haven’t got a clue how to fight in this sort of setting. All five of us will have transmitters and if any one of us calls, we will need you to be the actual rapid reaction force. Dong ma?”

“Absolutely Captain, I do not trust these ruffians at all.” Willis sniffed; his disapproval of Coorvish’s men all too clear.

“Yeah these goons couldn’t find their way out of a Lilac Drop house.” Marsh snorted in agreement.

“I again find myself in the strange position of agreeing with Mister Marsh.” Li Ming added after a moment.

“Why is it so difficult to accept that I am not as stupid as you all think?” Marsh groused. “No wait, don’t answer that!”

“Yeah, time to work and last thing we need is to stir up bad karma.” Cindy said as she turned to face each of the cardinal directions with a charm held before her.

“Like that piece of glass is going to protect you.” Marsh laughed.

“This ‘piece of glass’ got me through the entire U-War with all my parts where are supposed to be, so forgive me if I place more faith in it than I do it you.” Cindy retorted hotly.

“Enough!” Chan snapped. “It is time to go. We will do this in a wedge. Cindy has point, William and I the trail, Marsh and Li Ming you will cover the flanks. Keep your transmitters at the ready, we are far enough in the wild that if it moves shoot it. Not orders I like to give, but too many people have had their butts handed to them out here to be askin’ too many questions, everyone ready?”

Knowing the question was rhetorical before she asked it, Chan didn’t wait for an answer, she simply moved out with the complete assurance that her fellow crew would be exactly where they were supposed to be.

 

The soft two tone whistle brought Chan to an instant stop, her shotgun at the ready, her eyes and ears straining to detect the source of disturbance the signal indicated. She could neither see nor hear anything, but her war years had taught her long ago that patrolling was a skill that required the use of all five senses. It was times like this when she cursed her smoking cigarras as she knew how much the habit dulled her sense of smell. Cindy appeared from ahead as silent as a shadow to report.

“Bad news ahead Cap, something has cashed it in. You can smell the blood and something less pleasant on the wind.” Cindy said grimly.

“Right. You know the drill, you three will form base of fire. William and I will move off to the right to establish the crossfire. I’ll give you two clicks when we are ready.”

“You got it Cap.” The medic nodded and disappeared just as silently as she had appeared.

As soon as Cindy heard the signal, she gestured to Marsh and Li Ming to advance. Crawling slowly forward, they soon discovered the source of the smell. In a clearing they found what was left of a campground. Silently Marsh and William took up over watch positions so the rest of the fire team could investigate.

“Whoever they were, they tried to put up a fight.” Cindy remarked as she knelt to examine one of the many congealed pools of blood.

“Didn’t do them much good.” Li Ming replied quietly as she swept through the shattered remains of the camp. “Whoever did this was out for more than blood, this is undistilled fury.”

“Yeah, this was personal, it looks like the attackers have managed to destroy everything they could get their hands on, even the tentage has been shredded, hell, even the tent poles have been broken.” Chan added surveying the damage with a practiced eye.

“At least four days captain, the owners of this stuff died at least that long ago.” Cindy stated flatly, moving to rejoin the other two women.

“Died? No chance they survived?” Li Ming asked.

“Not a hope in hell. Too much blood, look at the size of that pool there, there, and there. That is at least four liters each, that is half of total blood volume. Even if they survived the wound that took them down in the first place, they would have bleed out or died of gross system shock by now. No, whatever happened here is Shepherd’s work now. That is if we can ever find the bodies. I wish I knew why they take the bodies. God knows there are enough people in the ‘Verse that need killin’ but it takes a rare lump of ma da bian that doesn’t deserve a proper burial.” The medic shuddered and went silent.

“Damn, looks like the attackers have escalated their position.” Chan growled in frustration. “I’m going to contact Coorvish.”

While Chan signaled back to the base camp, Li Ming and Cindy carefully scanned through the wreckage for clues that might point them in any sort of direction or at least give them some sort of idea what step to take next.

“Hey I’ve got something!” Cindy shouted as she followed one of the blood trails.

Chan and Li Ming trotted over to where Cindy was standing to the left of Marsh’s over watch position.

“I knew that smell seemed worse over here.” Marsh muttered as he stood.

“This person was still alive when they were dragged through here. You can see by the blood splatter that the heart was still pumping. These savages are a real piece of work.” Cindy emitted a low growl after a close examination of the blood trail and indistinct tracks leading out of the destroyed camp.

Li Ming wasn’t looking at the blood or the tracks, as her focus was upward. The shattered camp had bothered her more than she cared to admit and she offered a small prayer for the dead, where ever they might be. When she opened her eyes, she blinked twice to make sure she was seeing what she thought she saw.

“I think they might be a little more savage than you think.”

“What are you talking about Li Ming?” Chan said a little sharper than intended.

“I think we’ve made a fundamental error in assuming we were looking for people trying to corner the chimper market. I think chimpers are trying to corner the human market.”

“Quit talking in riddles woman.” Marsh snapped. 

“If you take a look above you, that looks like brown strands of fur to me. If I remember from my visit to the Londinum zoo when I was a little girl, that Chimpanzees have brown fur.”

Ai ya huai le[6] she’s right!” Cindy exclaimed when she saw the tufts of fur caught in the branches along the path. “Chimpanzees are highly intelligent, strong, and adaptive. Buddha only knows what the cloning process done during the Exodus could have done to them. It looks like they have decided they don’t like being dragged off to the Core to be pets anymore and have decided to fight back.”

Wo de ma he ta de feng kuang de wai sheng dou[7]! You are not telling me a bunch of MONKEYS did this!” Marsh exploded. “Monkeys risin’ up in revolt is ruttin’ stupid! Cap, you can’t be serious about takin’ this Feng le[8] woman serious!”

“Calm down slick and bi zui[9].” Chan responded impatiently before turning to look the medic directly in the eye. “Okay Cindy, I need you to put aside all those fancy charms and half-baked thoughts that rattle around in that leaky brainpan of yours and think. Are you seriously telling me that you believe all these attacks have been by the chimpers them and theirs?”

Cindy took two deep breaths before replying in a surprisingly calm tone of voice. “Yes Captain I do. What little information there is on the attacks has never shown the attackers using weapons, I bet if you could do a ballistic analysis of the few spent cartridges there are, would all trace back to the weapons that belonged to the hunting party. The attacks only started after the chimper fad caught on and the numbers caught changed from one or two of the animals being taken to dozens. These chimpers are not the chimpanzees from Earth-That-Was. I did take some formal medical training before becoming a Browncoat medic and we touched on some of the medical experiments conducted during the Exodus. Those scientists had lots of time on their hands and have tinkered with the DNA of every animal that they brought with them. Most were simple corrections of genetic defects, but some of the alterations were more extensive and I will bet all I own, that they tried to make the Great Apes smarter.”

“My question is why would they let such a precious commodity loose in a Rim world like Beylix?” Chan asked.

“My platinum is on that one of scientists had a conscience. They probably wanted to give the critters a chance to live free.”

“Or wanted to see how they would do in the wild.” Li Ming offered. “I have to agree with the Captain, these things would be too valuable to just lose track of a mated pair or more.”

“Li Ming, I know you have spent time in the Core, but one thing about laboratory scientists everywhere, they are a sheltered bunch. They are so focused on their theories, that they usually forget there is a real ‘Verse out there. Scientists are used to hard facts or data that does not lie or change, if someone took it into their head to steal some of these animals, I doubt if anyone would have caught them if they had even a halfway decent plan.”

“Now I still ain’t believin’ this story about super monkeys yet, but if this was an experiment, wouldn’t someone have shut down the poachin’ once they started showing up in those fancy Core worlds?” Marsh asked his skepticism all too clear.

“Well escaped, set free, or part of a larger experiment in chimpanzee development, these things are here now and we have to tell Coorvish of the new evidence.” Chan said after a moment.

“Captain, that hun dan started the chimper fad, he will want to kill them.” Cindy pressed.

“And lose his golden goose, I doubt it. Either way, I have to report, now hush Cindy.” Chan replied raising a hand to forestall any further argument.

“I’ll go let William know what is going on.” The medic replied and stormed off.

 

An hour later, the two ATVs joined the advance party at the ruined hunter’s camp. Coorvish had ordered the expedition regroup before continuing the search. On arrival, seven of his remaining bodyguards fanned out to provide security before Coorvish dismounted and marched directly to where Chan was standing, motioning for her to join her in a private conversation.

“Captain Wu, now that we can speak without others listening in. Do you want to show me what constitutes the evidence of this preposterous notion that genetically enhanced chimpers are behind these attacks?”

“Certain Mister Coorvish, my crew and I have taken the time for you to join us to prepare our case as it were.” Chan replied smoothly.

After thirty minutes, Coorvish looked decidedly less skeptical, but was now looking correspondingly much more uncomfortable. “This is insanity Chan.” The fact he had used her first name again, let her know that she had gotten through enough that Coorvish was no longer outright hostile as he was when he first arrived.

“If I hadn’t seen the evidence with my own eyes, I would have doubted the facts myself. However, the claw and fang marks on the hunter’s belongings are unmistakable. Add the blunt force damage to the vehicles, clearly made by clubs wielded with great strength, makes it fairly clear that this was not the work of humans.”

Coorvish nodded to himself as if reaching a decision before continuing. “Captain, I want your crew to lead off on foot as you have clearly demonstrated your expertise in this area. The ATVs will follow in the middle. My vehicle has a gun ring and I will have the light machine gun mounted to provide added covering fire. I will have my bodyguards follow on foot to provide rear security.”

“Sounds like a decent plan, I just hope the ATVs don’t scare the critters into hiding.”

“It can’t be helped. If the chimpers have indeed chosen to go on the offensive, we will need the firepower to stop them.”

“I’ll need five minutes to brief my crew.” Chan responded, obviously unhappy with the direction the investigation was going however, Coorvish either did not, or chose not to notice her discomfort.

“My men will be ready as well captain. Good hunting.” He then turned and moved to rejoin his bodyguards.

If this man had the brains Buddha granted a doorknob, he’d end this.” She thought as she walked over to the rest of the crew. “But noooooo, I’m the Great White Hunter, fear me!”

“What is the plan Captain?” William asked disrupting Chan’s internal conflict.

“Marsh, I want you to take over as ATV driver, the rest of us will take the lead of a grand hunting caravan.” She quickly outlined Coorvish’s plan before adding a few details of her own.. “We will take up a diamond formation. Cindy you have point. Li Ming you will continue to cover the right flank. Willis, you will take Marsh’s place on the left flank. William and I will continue to cover the rear. Xavier, you will be between William and me. Any questions?”

“Captain, what are we going to do if we find where the chimpers are holed up? You know Coorvish will want to exterminate them.” Li Ming asked softly.

“Honestly Li Ming, I am trying not to think that far ahead. If Cindy is right and these critters are as smart as she thinks they are, they will avoid a group as strong as ours.”

“I have an uneasy feelin’ about all this.” Marsh grumbled.

“Agreed, but we signed on to do a job, we have to follow though.” Chan responded, but not with her usual conviction. “Move out people, it’s time.”

 

The grand caravan moved slowly through the heavy woods, carefully and skillfully crossing open areas and on guard for trouble. The problem was, their adversary was small and wily and could be anywhere, but regardless of personal feelings the crew of the Lattimer’s Ghost pressed on, taunt as tripwires.

Did I listen to my mother and settle down with some handsome doctor? No I didn’t, I just had to see the ‘Verse first hand.” Li Ming thought savagely as she pushed through yet another clearing. “Here I am pushing though the woods after some sort of super chimps swinging through the trees like… what was his name? Tirezon? Treezan? ” Her musing slammed to an immediate halt in a moment of clarity so pure that it could only be classified as an epiphany. Her daydreaming had forced a forgotten piece of information dancing at the edge of her recollection snap into place with an almost audible click – chimpanzees could brachiate! Her remembrance brought a hypersensitivity to her surroundings that allowed her mind to assemble a pattern she would have otherwise overlooked, leading her to see a patch of brown in the trees as something other than a collection of dead leaves.

“ABOVE YOU!” She barked and her shotgun moved in a fluid motion that tracked that patch of brown the instant it stirred. She fired as the creature leapt silencing its piercing shriek in mid point as the shotgun blast took it full in the chest, causing the animal to crumple to the ground, stone dead from a fist sized hole blown completely through where the heart had once been.

Li Ming’s frantic warning gave the rest of the crew a split second to react as the rest of the chimpers attacked. Cindy instantly realized the instinctual nature of the chimper’s response to the encroachment by humans and managed to switch from an equally instinctual response to shoot to a perfectly timed vertical butt stroke that struck the chimper leaping down on her right between the eyes. The creature managed a strangled squeak and slumped to the ground unconscious from the powerful blow.

The crew’s diamond formation quickly degenerated into a wild melee of shouts, shrieks, and scattered gunfire Willis managed to snap off a quick badly aimed shot from his rifle that grazed his attacker. The animal landed off balanced, but still manages a potent backhanded blow that left the mechanic stunned.

Chan had been struggling with what to do about the chimper revelation ever since Li Ming and Cindy advanced the theory. Faced with a life or death struggle Chan surprised herself, by choosing not to fire as a chimper leapt toward her. She had always been good with her fists, a legacy of having three older brothers, drove a fist into the chimper’s gut. The animal managed to stay conscious however and lashed at Chan with a series of punches, most of which she managed to block, but she quickly realized this creature would pummel her to death if the exchange lasted much longer.

As Chan fought for her life and to preserve the chimper’s life, William again belied his large size and dodged the chimper attacking him initial leap. Firing from the hip, he managed a snap shot that left the animal wounded and dazed. He managed a quick glance around the ambush site and was not surprised to see the decidedly non-combatant Xavier was in trouble. It was hard to tell if the woman or the chimper attacking her was screaming more, but despite not being able to strike a blow on the beast, she had at least managed to avoid the worst of its attacks on her as well.

Li Ming paused to check that the first chimper was indeed dead, before movement from in the corner of her eye made her whirl around and bring her shotgun firmly into the pocket of her shoulder. “Ren ci de Fo zu[10] please guide my hand.” She whispered as she squeezed the trigger. Whether Buddha chose to intervene or not was, of course, a moot point. What did matter was that her aim was true and the chimper that had reared up to finish off the dazed mechanic fell to the ground as dead as the first creature she’d fired on.

Just as abruptly as the fight started it was over, when another chimper charged Cindy only to be driven into the ground by an all her might overhead crushing blow. Having lost more than half their number dead, unconscious, or wounded, the surviving chimpers proved they were indeed intelligent and scattered into the forest.

“Xavier, Willis, and Cindy, you stick with the wounded chimpers! William, Li Ming, follow me!” Chan said in a rapid staccato of orders before speaking into her transmitter. “Marsh, you follow in the ATV. Pursuit!”

However, before the crew could follow those orders, Coorvish behind a wall of his bodyguards approached. “How are the wounded?” He asked as he snapped his head from side to side surveying the battle scene.  

“No human casualties. Two chimpers out cold.” Cindy replied automatically.

“Well two are better than none. Klaus, Felix, load the beasts in the cages on my ATV!”

“Mister Coorvish, in light of the change in status of these animals, are you certain that is the best course of action?” Chan asked her voice tightly controlled.

“Captain Wu, they are still bloody animals, certainly much more dangerous than I initially suspected, but they are nonetheless still only animals. We’ll truss up these two and continue the hunt to get the rest. I heard you giving orders for the pursuit as I arrived I would suggest that you return to that endeavor.

“Captain you can’t…” Li Ming spoke first, but only by a half second before several of the crew voiced their dismay as well.

Ni men dou bi zui[11] ! You have your orders move!” Chan snarled her flashing eyes enough to silence any further protest.

The two guards Coorvish ordered to carry the unconscious chimpers slung their weapons and roughly began to drag them toward the ATV. This turned out to be a yet another mistake by the poorly trained guards as halfway to the vehicle, rough handling jostled the two stunned animals awake. The guards panicked and went for their weapons.

“Kill them! Kill them!” Coorvish howled in his own panic.

The entire crew of the Lattimer’s Ghost were so keyed up that they responded to Coorvish’s command faster than his bodyguards could and that ignited a firestorm. Li Ming fired almost faster than the eye could follow and her shotgun again thundered with two blindingly rapid shots taking out two of the inept thugs. The chimpers seemed to sense the change in their situation and both began raking the two guards still struggling to unsling their weapons with all four of them going down in a tangle of arms and legs.

“You inbred idiots! Damn it! Damn it! Damn it! Never mind the monkeys, kill them!” Coorvish railed and tried to redirect the fire of his bodyguards at the Lattimer’s Ghost crew, before he suddenly realized how exposed he was and ran for cover

“Cowardly excuse for a human!” Xavier screamed as she fired as rapidly as the weapon would cycle at one of the guards. Her fire was more enthusiastic than accurate, but one of her shots managed to graze the man she was unloading on.

Chan could only stare in open mouthed amazement as the situation spiraled out of control, but her combat experience kicked and she opened fire on the biggest threat facing her crew, the guard manning the light machine gun on top Coorvish’s ATV, but distracted by the complete breakdown of her crew’s discipline, her quickly aimed shot missed, but at least forced the man to take cover.

 “Oh the da bian has hit the fan now!” Marsh gasped out loud when the firing started. He knew he couldn’t add much to the fight my trying to dismount the ATV and fire, but he had an idea that he figured would be much more useful. “Hang on guys, help is on the way!” He yelled as he accelerated the ATV to move its imposing bulk between the two lines of firers, crouching low for cover as bullets began to strike the unarmored vehicle.

Cindy’s submachine gun chattered unrelentingly through Coorvish’s bodyguards, wounding two of them. William realized that Xavier had run out of ammunition from her wild burst of inaccurate fire and that the man she had wounded was drawing down on her to get even. Taking careful aim, he fired and killed the man before the bodyguard could fire. 

Marsh, in a fit of pique, managed to crush all of the wounded as he pulled the ATV into position almost at the same time that Xavier realized she was out of her league and dove behind the ATV, grateful for the cover and fumbling to reload her pistol. “What in the hell do I think I am doing!” She said out loud, her voice several octaves above normal.

“The wisest course of action available to you Miss Xavier.” Willis commented dryly from where he too was sheltering from the hail of bullets striking the ATV.

“Damn you Willis you damn near scared me out of my skin! Why aren’t you in the fight out there?” Xavier demanded once she could make her voice work.

“While I agree in the noble principle with defending creatures that are only acting to defend themselves, I could not bring myself to fire on fellow humans to do so. Since my skills with this,” He paused to indicate the rifle across his lap. “leave much to be desired, I figured I could best serve the crew by keeping myself out of the line of fire.

“I can’t argue with that logic, I almost got my fool head shot off trying to fight it out with trained gunman. If not for William, well, let’s just say you wouldn’t have to share a cabin with our pilot.”

“Mister Marsh is not so bad a room mate as you might think.”

“I don’t want to find out personally, so I will take you at your word.”

 

Okay you ignorant little gopher, stick your head back up.” Chan almost crooned as she patiently waited to take another shot at the machine gunner and the man did not disappoint her. The man popped up behind the weapon and directly into Chan’s line of sight. As she squeezed the trigger, he must have felt the brush of death and he snapped his head toward the woman with the bead on him. He managed to let his legs drop out from under him and avoid having his skull split by the shotgun blast, but enough of the pellets hit him that when he hit the floor, he was able to make the best decision of his life and communicate that thought to the driver. “Drive, you dumb ass!” He managed to croak before he blacked out.

Seeing the ATV pull away, Chan was first tempted to stop it from escaping, but checked that thought to see where Coorvish had managed to run and began to curse a violet streak as she saw Coorvish disappearing on a grav bike at extremely high speed. She turned to see if their ATV was still mobile and saw one of the guards that was wrestling with a chimper finally get his weapon free just as the chimper managed to close its hands around the man’s neck, there was a muffled shot, but it did not cover the audible snap as the man’s neck broke and both fell over each of them dead before they hit the ground. 

The last chimper staggered away from the last of the bodyguards and it was clear that the chimper, despite its wounds, had gotten the better of the fight. The creature looked at Chan with an unreadable expression, but one that implied much more than animal intelligence, before it slowly hobbled in the same direction its comrades had taken when they fled before the standoff had turned into a bloodbath.

Chan could only shake her head in amazement. “No one will ever believe me.” She muttered.

“You’d be wrong about that mei mei, I saw it too.”

“That is of some comfort, but we are so royally humped that it will small solace if Coorvish has us all arrested.” She replied, visibly tired and pinching her nose bridge to try and stave off the headache building there.

“That’s only if he manages to escape mei mei, we will have to figure out a way to see that he doesn’t.”

“He’s got a faster vehicle and a hell of a head start.”

“Details, only details.”

“Right, details. Okay everyone, mount up, we are changing the name of the game, from chimpanzees to a big fat rat.” Chan shouted to get the crew moving.

“Cap you do realize this tub is never going to catch a grav bike don’t you?” Marsh said leaning out of the shattered window of the ATV.

“Yeah and it wasn’t possible for intelligent chimpanzees to be the source of the attacks either. I think we have seen that anything is possible, so let’s get moving.”

“Sure thing Cap. I guess it is only fitting you ride shotgun.” Marsh smiled as William and Chan boarded.

“Yeah fitting. Let’s go.”

 

A gravitic vehicle is usually notoriously difficult to track, but Coorvish’s panicked attempt, left enough damaged vegetation, that once she figured out the pattern, Li Ming was able to do so with surprising ease. With the gambler playing the role of bloodhound, Chan exchanged places to give Li Ming the best view of the path through the woods. However, even with Li Ming’s guidance, Chan despaired of even catching the man for despite being able to follow Coorvish, that didn’t change the speed difference between a grav bike and an ATV. Chan sat behind Li Ming and tried to stave off the depressing thought of being bound by law when she got back to what passed for civilization on Beylix.

“Hey Captain, there is something ahead.” Marsh’s voice broke Chan’s revelry.

“Okay that’s a useful report.” She answered irritably. “What sort of something?”

“Looks like the wreckage of a grav bike.” Marsh grinned from ear to ear.

“WHAT!” Chan roared then wedged herself forward between the pilot and Li Ming to see for herself. Sure enough, not fifty meters ahead of them was the broken remains of a grav bike.

The crew cautiously dismounted and fanned out to search the area, but all they could find was a fresh blood trail and now that they knew what they were, indistinct chimper tracks leading back deeper into the woods.

“Well Captain, it would seem that Coorvish has been hoist on his own petard.” William laughed at the newest turn of events for the day.

“If I knew what a petard was I would agree, but if you mean the hun dan got what he had coming to him, then, yes he did,” Chan replied thoughtfully.

“Yes mei mei that is exactly what I mean.”

“I guess since Coorvish got his just rewards, I guess it is time for us to go back and face ours.” Chan said, her shoulders drooping in defeat as she contemplated their probable fate.

“The future will bring what it brings Captain, you know we are all behind you and will face anything you face. You are not alone.”

“Thank you William that is a kindness.”

“Only doing my job Captain.”

“And let’s see if you get to keep doing that job.” Chan managed to smile.

“One thing at a time mei mei, one thing at a time.”

On returning to the landing field in Plymouth City, the crew found that the other ATV had got there first and there were Federal marshals guarding their ship. Rather than have a scene that could only be used against them, they drove straight to the marshal’s office and turned themselves in. Bound by law for murder, they were immediately taken in front of the magistrate in the biggest case to hit Beylix in a long time.

“Wu Chan Juan, captain of the independent freighter Lattimer’s Ghost and ex-private in the Independent army. How do plead to the charges before you?” The apathy of the magistrate was clear even though this was the most interesting case to come before him since being exiled from Ariel for refusing to be lenient on a parliament member’s son for drunk driving.

“I speak from my entire crew sir and we all plead self-defense.”

This managed to make the magistrate sit up in interest. “Really now, self-defense you say, please make your case.

“Well Lord Magistrate, the late Darrin Coorvish was essentially poaching animals and exporting them off world. These animals known as chimpers in the Core where they are a popular fad are descendents of chimpanzees from Earth-That-Was. We conjecture that these animals had been genetically altered during the Exodus and are more intelligent than the original animals, an animal already noted for being extremely intelligent to begin with I might add and evidence gathered in the field proved that these creatures have turned on the hunters attempting to take them off world. When Coorvish attempted to cage two of the chimpers my crew managed to subdue, there was a miscommunication when the animals attempted to break free. Coorvish shouted ‘Kill them’ and my crew thought he was directing his bodyguards to open fire on them. My crew, turn opened fire in self-defense resulting in the deaths of five of the seven bodyguards. Chimpers were responsible for the two remaining bodyguards and Coorvish.”

“Well captain, I can say you have presented the most original defense I have ever heard.” The magistrate replied with an amused expression. “Super intelligent animals turning on mankind and a ‘miscommunication’ resulting in the deaths of nine men, yes indeed most original. Do you perhaps have the slightest shred of evidence to support the preposterous story?”

“The only evidence is at the site where the fight took place. We can show you the hunter’s camp wiped out by the chimpers, where we ourselves were attacked, and where Mister Coorvish met his end.”

“Magistrate, you can not be seriously considering this nonsense!” An irate voice shouted from Chan’s left. She didn’t need to look to see it was one of the surviving bodyguards who comprised the primary evidence for the prosecutor.

“You interrupt these proceedings one more time and you will find yourself bound by law for contempt. Do I make myself clear?”

“Uh yes sir.” The man flushed and sat down angrily.

“Captain Wu, since you have managed to entertain me, something no one else in the twelve years since I’ve been consigned to this god awful planet has managed to do. I am willing to let you present this supposed evidence. However, before you get your hopes up too high, I will give a fair warning. If your evidence proves to be a waste of my time, I will exercise my rarely used privilege of in loco and in case you don’t know what that means, it means I get to sign your execution order myself without review by a higher court.”

“We welcome the chance to prove our defense magistrate.” Chan replied calmly.

“Lord Magistrate, please may I speak.” The prosecutor asked.

“Certainly advocate.” The Magistrate replied after a thoughtful pause.

“Sir, this course of action is extremely irregular. The plaintiff has sworn a valid complaint and witness statement as to the actions of the defendants. In return, we are supposed to believe in semi-sentient animals and fairy tales?”

“Advocate, it is based on the strength of your witnesses’ statements that the defendants were bound by law. You know Alliance law clearly states they now have a right to prove their actions. Since the evidence is at the scene of the crime and your department does not have the resources to bring that evidence to the court, the court must go to that evidence or would you deny these citizens their rights?”

“Absolutely not Lord Magistrate! My objection is based on the preposterous claims the defendants are making and that the chances of finding such evidence are nonexistent.”

“However, it is I on the business end of this bench and not you. I have already stated what the penalty would be if this proves to be a waste of time and yet the defendants are still standing by their claims. That is enough to peak my curiosity and why I have made my ruling. Your objection is noted and overruled. Bailiffs prepare the defendants and this court for travel.”

The magistrate’s gavel sounded with a resounding crack and any further discussion was ended.

 

When the court reconvened in the mid-afternoon of the following day, the gallery for press and spectators was standing room only. The use of hover trucks, heavily escorted by bailiffs and marshals cut the travel time to the site of the crime scene down to just over two hours. This gave investigators plenty of time to sweep the remains of the devastated hunter’s camp and what the advocate called the primary crime scene. At Chan’s insistence, there was enough time to briefly recheck the crash site of Coorvish’s grav bike. The evidence gathered there was such a shock that the advocate had asked for the delay to mid-afternoon even though the defendants were ready to speak early that morning.

The magistrate entered and took his seat. He impaled the advocate with a hard stare before speaking in a voice that made it clear he was not in a good mood. “You’ve had your delay advocate. I hope you are prepared.”

The advocate stood slowly and nervously ran a hand through his hair before he began. “Lord Magistrate, the defendants were hired as quasi-mercenaries to do a job. When they balked at the details of that job, rather than simply quit, they viciously turned on their employer and set about trying to kill him and every other employee they could slaughter to prevent them from speaking. Fortunately, their plan failed. These two traumatized survivors managed to escape and were able to stand witness for the other nine men who can never speak again. Do the defendants deny their actions? No they do not, rather they attempt to obfuscate the facts with a fabulous mixture of the history of Earth-That-Was and the Exodus with b-grade melodramatic science fiction of wild DNA experiments gone mad and capping it off with a clever opportunistic ‘misinterpretation’ of their employer’s final words. Do not let this admittedly unique crafting of lies hide the core truth of what happened. These seven men and women conspired to kill their employer and eight other employees. Lord Magistrate there can be only one verdict. Guilty as charged.”

The advocate sat down and calmly met the magistrate’s gaze with confidence. The magistrate then turned to face Chan. “You have heard the arguments against you and your crew Captain Wu, you may now present your final defense.”

“Thank you Lord Magistrate.” Chan replied confidently as she stood to speak. “I do not deny that we were appalled by what Mister Coorvish wanted to do with the animals known locally as chimpers despite the undeniable proof we presented him on their intelligence. Proof I might add that was demonstrated to these proceedings yesterday. At the moment Mister Coorvish spoke the unfortunate phrase ‘kill them,’ he was so caught up in his incomprehensible need to prove that he was the superior being that he failed to take stock of the tension in the air at that moment. There were fourteen heavily armed men and women faced off in what, I can assure you that, my crew and I perceived as a life or death moral dilemma. Regardless of his intent, the only clear part of his words was to light the fuse of a powder keg of pressure that was far past the boiling point.

“Once the command was given, it was too late to stop it. Each side reacted as they thought best to survive the situation. Again unfortunately for Mister Coorvish, his choice of using second rate thugs to enforce his petty empire resulted in them being no match for a hand full of experienced combat veterans and properly trained professionals. Yet we were not responsible for viciously turning on our employer. The shooting was over in less than fifteen seconds and Mister Coorvish was still alive at that time and would still be alive now had he chosen not to flee at that moment.

“You yourself saw the evidence at the grav bike crash site. We had been in custody for a full twenty-four hours prior to returning there and could not have staged anything that occurred there. It was the chimpers themselves that chose to show themselves. We all watched in awe as they appeared in the distance, simply observing us. Even though they outnumbered your bailiffs and marshals, they remained silent and unthreatening. It was your own calm words Lord Magistrate that coaxed that one chimper to approach. You saw the intelligence in its eyes as he laid that cylinder in front of you then slowly ambled back to his extended family.

“Given the chimper’s previous track record of destroying every piece of human equipment that they captured, can you honestly state for the record that it was a coincidence that the only piece of technology to be returned from chimper possession undamaged just happened to be Coorvish’s own personal data recorder?

“Voice print analysis by the advocate’s own crime lab has positively confirmed that the voice on that recorder is that of the late Darrin Coorvish. I can honestly say I had no idea of the extent of Coorvish’s desperation to remain in total control of the chimper trade and that once we had proved how intelligent the creatures were to him that at that point he considered us a direct threat to his livelihood. At the time it occurred, I thought his command of ‘kill them’ was just a terrible choice of words, but having heard that recorder, I am not so sure that his choice of words was a mistake at all.

“Lord Magistrate, my crew and I are simple itinerant traders who have been down in our luck. We took this job against my better judgment as we were sorely in need of cash. However, faced with the true nature of the chimpers, I am glad that we took this job. I do not know if another crew in the same dire straits as we are in would have responded with the morally right choice to act to protect these magnificent creatures. The advocate was the one who mentioned the term ‘b-grade melodramatic science fiction of wild DNA experiments gone mad’ whether that is true or not, I don’t know if any records from the Exodus can prove any of that or not. All that is certain is that these chimpers are more than meets the eye, This fact is even more amazing considering the fact that they have evolved, or progressed, or whatever you want to call their enhanced intelligence on Beylix, a planet known as the garbage dump of the ‘Verse. This planet may have consigned twenty-five percent of its surface to landfills and the storage of the collective junk of our entire civilization, but to borrow an old expression, you seem to have produced a ‘diamond in the rough’ regardless of the circumstances. Such things are beyond someone like me and are more the purview of a Shepherd, but while I have yet to be convinced they are actually sentient, they are obviously much more than their ancestral chimpanzee archetype. Whether they will one day amble out of their woods to make contact with us as equals is far beyond me, but given their already established capabilities, I would not scoff at the prospect.

“Lord Magistrate, based on the evidence collected at the three crime scenes and the words of Mister Coorvish, I would ask no less than you find my crew not guilty of the charges against them, for they acted under my orders. If I may be so bold I would further ask that if the law allows, I would humbly ask to be also exonerated by the events that occurred during the contract with the late Darrin Coorvish. Thank you.”

“I will return to my chambers to deliberate. Bailiff you will return the defendants to their cells until that time.” The gavel sounded and the magistrate departed.

 

“Captain, you were brilliant.” William said once they were secured in the planetary lockup. “You were as eloquent as any Earth-That-Was or Sihnon barrister has ever been. I was nearly moved to tears.”

“Oh come on you big lug, you are making my head swell. You keep that up and they might have trouble getting a large enough noose.” Chan actually blushed slighted.

“He’s right Cap, them was right fine words.” Marsh nodded in agreement.

“I think William is speaking for all of us Captain. If your words didn’t save us, then I guess we are guilty.” Cindy added as she nervously paced her small cell.

“Yeah well, we will see what we will see.”

There was a clatter of keys and three bailiffs entered the holding area tense in case the prisoners decided to make a last second attempt to escape “Magistrate has a verdict. You know the drill now, single file and nothing funny.” The senior bailiff said.

“No funny stuff, you can count on it Bailiff Huang.” William responded as he and the crew filed out to meet their fate.

The crew of the Lattimer’s Ghost stood as the magistrate entered and remained standing is a nervous silence as he got settled behind the bench, his expression an unreadable mask carefully sculpted from years of practice.

“Wu Chan Juan, William Lemont, Sylvester Marsh, Cindy Schultz, Willis Thorton, Wong Li Ming, and the woman Xavier. You have presented these proceedings with the most momentous decision since the founding of the Alliance. Are you a band of murderous thugs or are you the first humans to realize a that an animal is be more than what they appeared and acted to protect that discovery and those animals?

“When you first presented these absurd assertions, I was amazed anyone would enter such statements into the record of their own capital proceedings. Your claims of self-defense based on the undiscovered intelligence of a native animal bordered on laying the ground work for a later insanity plea. However, when confronted that such a later plea would not be forthcoming and if found to be a hoax, you would face execution without the chance of magisterial review, you stood by your original claims.

“While compelling, the evidence discovered at the hunter’s camp and the primary crime scene were not enough to convince me of self-defense. However, my own personal contact with, for lack of a better term, the chimper envoy and the revelations of the intentions of your late employer Darrin Coorvish, I am compelled to rule that, while irregular in the extreme, you and your crew acted with an admiral amount of restraint until forced into a situation with no good solution. I can not fully condone your actions, but I have clearly found they were not done with malice aforethought and that I must find in favor of the defense. The defendants are ruled not guilty and are free to go.”

A final crack of the gavel and the magistrate swirled out of the chamber. The crowd exploded in shouts and the advocate fixed the crew with a baleful stare before storming out as well. The two surviving bodyguards stared at Chan with a look of unadulterated poison before following in the advocate’s wake.

 

Mei mei we can go.” William said after Chan didn’t show any signs of moving.

“I know what he said Lao peng you[12], I’m just having a hard time to get my feet to believe what he said.”

“I think it might be okay if, just this once, if you were to take my arm honorable Captain and allow me to escort you back to our ship.” The first mate said with great formality.

“Just this once.” Chan echoed and allowed William to lead her from the court room, the rest of the crew following behind her, each beaming with pride and relief. Less than an hour later, the Lattimer’s Ghost was in the Black and putting as much distance between the ship and Beylix as she could without doing a hard burn. After the Coorvish deal went south, saving their necks had taken over as their primary concern. Getting back at Blue Sun or even making coin had become completely secondary to that all important goal. Since they were still cash poor a hard burn was not an option, but Marsh had the ship running as hard as the ship could run without using the fuel a hard burn would cost. Their next stop was still something they would think about later. Along with other things like making coin and getting back at Blue Sun.

The most important task at hand after breaking atmo was getting to the Lift Day Feast and this time, Chan and William made certain it was exactly that, a true feast. They made sure to grab the most elaborate foodstuffs they could get their hands on in the short time they had before leaving Beylix as they wanted to celebrate not only the ship’s traditional fine departure meal, but to also celebrate their collective freedom. Their stop on Beylix had nearly cost them that most valuable commodity of all and Chan was bound and determined on making sure that everyone recognized that they had managed to win back that most precious of freedoms, the freedom to travel where ever they chose to go.

 



[1] Monkey’s butt

[2] Horse sh-t

[3] The explosive diarrhea of an elephant

[4] We will enjoy your silence

[5] Dog humping

[6] Sh-t on my head

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

[8] Loopy in the head

[9] Shut up

[10] Merciful Buddha

[11] Everybody shut the hell up!

[12] Old friend