Chapter Eight

 

Freedom to travel anywhere they chose however, did not give the crew of the ‘Ghost a plan on how to break out of their nearly penniless situation. Choosing to remain on the Rim gave them two options as far as a next destination, Lilac or Triumph. Knowing the backward nature of Triumph, Chan chose Lilac as at least some of the miners were prosperous or desperate enough to be willing to deal with them despite Blue Sun’s influence.

The arrival on Lilac after four days of travel from Beylix, once again, seemed to be for naught. The crew fanned out to find work and found that apparently, there wasn’t enough desperation to prosperity in the ‘Verse for anyone to buck the will of the megalithic entity known throughout the ‘Verse as Blue Sun. The three teams that went out to find work found essentially the same information from different sources. There would be no work for them, as unofficial Blue Sun reps had made it clear that helping a certain Firefly-Class mid-bulk freighter registered and doing business under the title Lattimer’s Ghost would result in no shortage of “lost business opportunities” and a greater than normal chance of “goods lost in transit” as these shadowy individuals put out to all the shadowy sorts of people Chan and company associated with. Cindy, William, and Xavier had even found that, word was, the “advisory” was directly related to the sudden shortage of Highleaf on the Rim. Whether it was the work of the advisory or annoyance at not have access to the popular drug was moot. No legitimate work was going to be available. However, the teams had each found an additional piece of information as they contemplated turning to a life of crime that evening around the dining table.

“I don’t like the sound of anyone going by so obvious an alias as Madam Black, paying as much as she is offering, but not wanting any questions beyond wanting to get to Beaumonde as fast as possible.” Chan said flatly rubbing her nose bridge in an effort to stave off what seemed to be like what was becoming a permanent headache.

“Two thousand credits buys a lot of silence mei mei, I don’t like it, but that is enough money to more than get us out of the bind we are in and even finance a run or two at those Blue Sun hun dan.” William replied his hands steepled in front of him.

“You all know I like coin, but you can’t spend it, if you are in the belly of a gorram Reaver!” Marsh all but spat in response. “Like what happened when her two buddies got snatched up the last time this bu hui hen de po fu[1] tried to reach Beaumonde.

“As much as I hate to agree with the little snot, he has got a point for a change.” Cindy chuckled. “I saw more than I want to think about during the war, but at least those were humans. God only knows what Reavers are, but they ain’t no kinda humans I want to run up on.”

“I know I am fairly new to the ways of life on the Rim, but you mean these ghost stories have some substance to them?” Willis asked in open disbelief.

“Never met anyone that met a Reaver that lived to talk about it, but back about three years ago when I was still running with my first crew, we had a cargo bound for Athens and we got a distress from a freighter out bound from Athens. They managed to say Reavers had snagged them with an EMP rig of some kind. Their mechanic had worked a miracle to get any sort of message out at all, but that was the only miracle they got. The last thing coherent thing they said before the transmission cut off was they were being boarded.” Chan said with an expression as grim as anyone on the crew had ever seen.

“Sounds like a bad situation, but that doesn’t make Reavers real captain.” Willis insisted.

“Yeah, but in between the sporadic gunfire, you could hear this howling that wasn’t made by anything human. It was this braying sort of sound that carried a kind of tortured frenzy not fit to talk about at the dinner table.” Chan’s whole body shook as a shiver ran through her during her recollection.

Willis nodded slowly, his expression pensive as his logic warred with his respect for Chan. “I can not say I am convinced, but I will keep an open mind captain.”

”Well ain’t he a zhen de shi tian cai[2]to have an open mind!” Marsh snorted and poured himself another glass of wine. “Believe what you want, a Reaver won’t care if you believe in him or not while he’s gnawing on your innards.”

“Have you ever seen a Reaver Marsh? As always you talk a lot, but can you back up that battleship mouth with that row boat ass of yours?” Xavier said staring hard at the pilot, clearly at her wits end from his constant needling of the quiet mechanic.

William sputtered into his own glass at this comment and Cindy broke out in uncontrollable laughter that soon had the whole crew, to include Marsh red faced in hysterics. “R-r-row boat…” Chan managed to choke out before losing out to the laughter that had her holding her sides and barely able to breathe. When the laughing finally died down, it was replaced with open mouth gasping as each member of the crew slowly regained composure amid a few chuckles that almost started the laughing again.

“W-well, t-t-that was certainly w-welcome.” William, the first to recover, managed to say.

“Wasn’t exactly the effect I was aimin’ for, but glad to help.” Xavier replied still chuckling, then winked to the first mate and blew a kiss toward Marsh.

“Y-yeah, it was, but as much as I needed that, as we all needed that, we are left with the same question. Do we talk to this Madame Black or not?” Chan said bringing them all back to reality.

Li Ming was the first one to speak.

“I’ve spent most of my life on Core and the Border planets. I’ve heard the stories about Reavers and got the chills they were supposed to give. But when talking to some of the other gamblers out here on the Rim, they don’t think of them as ghost stories. If you remember Blondie and Dagwood from the Lucky Deuce on Whitefall, Dagwood said he saw what was left of a town hit by Reavers about a year ago and he couldn’t say anything more. Blondie of all people said. ‘Bad business’ and that was the end of it. The look on Dagwood’s face told me that there was more to these rumors than I had been led to believe.”

“Well said Li Ming.” Chan nodded, stood, and leaned forward placing both hands on the table. “I’m going to talk to the Madam Black woman. William is right about how two thousand credits would fix our problems. I know it is a risk, but if we don’t get any cash soon, we will be on the drift or planet bound due to something on the ‘Ghost giving out that even our own miracle worker Willis can’t put to right. Besides, since Reavers are all supposed to be ghost stories, you tell me if a ship named after a ghost isn’t perfect to make this run.”

The crew replied with a few nervous chuckles, suddenly aware that maybe there could be more truth to the rumors than all of them had been led to believe.

 

Two days later, the ship was fully fueled and as ready as Willis could make the ship be. Chan and William met with Madam Black, as promised, shortly after the crew meeting. The meeting gave both sides a chance to size up the other and neither side found a reason to back out of the deal. Chan made it clear the ship would need some basic maintenance before taking on such a potentially hazardous run and the enigmatic Madam Black agreed to the two day delay. Another side benefit of the delay was that it gave time for the crew to make inquiries around town and see what else they could dig up on Black.

Xavier burned the midnight oil trying to pull up information on their passenger, but for once, the self-described hacker found someone that had less information about them on the Cortex than was available about her. This was both a source of frustration and envy as Xavier prided herself on how completely absent from the Cortex she failed to register. Even after her arrests on Athens and Beylix, she had meticulously purged all records of her existence from anyone.

One thing there was in abundance on Lilac were rumors and the mysterious Madam Black was at the center of most of them. And Cindy, Marsh, Chan, and William all spent a large amount of time and a fair amount of their precious coin trying to figure out which of the swarm of rumors were closest to the truth. How Black and her friends got to Lilac was unknown, the rumors on that part of the story would never firm up enough. Among the popular stories floating around the bars were Black was a mine owner that found a big strike, but had been double-crossed by other partners that made off with the claim and her ship. She was a Registered Companion and she had been dumped by her patron who had so much dirt on her that she couldn’t call on the Guild to bail her out. There was even a story that she was part of a team of Alliance assassins.

Since how she got there was completely secondary to what had happened since she arrived, the crew let that story slide to concentrate on the more critical information of what happened to the first ship that tried to get her to Beaumonde. The most reliable story they could finally agree on was that Black with two other passengers boarded a transport with a crew of six just over three weeks ago. Five days later, one of the ship’s shuttles returned to Lilac with Black and two of the ship’s crew. The three survivors were so rattled by their experience that the only thing they could get out of any of them for several days was one word…Reavers. After the disaster of the first trip, Black was unable to get anyone to talk to her, let alone entertain trying to take her to Beaumonde. She kept increasing how much she would pay, but the locals had decided Black was a Jonah and were not interested in her money. This was all the crew could learn before Black showed up, exactly on time with only a travel case and a second high security case handcuffed to her wrist.

“Morning Madam Black, William will show you to your cabin. Since you made it clear that haste was of the essence, we will depart immediately.” Chan said with a sincere, if strained smile.

“Thank you Captain Wu.” Black replied tersely and turned to follow William.

Chan watched them depart, a sense of dread filling her as they went out of sight. She grimly hit the intercom. “Okay Marsh, take us out.”

“You got it Cap.”

“We are grateful for your business Madam Black” Said William, attempting to be a polite guide.

“No you aren’t Mister Lemont.” Black replied without rancor.

“Excuse me?”

“As you have looked into my situation, I have done the same with you and your ship. I’m not sure how you have managed to get yourself so deeply in trouble, but that is your business. I know you need the money bad enough to be willing to risk taking me aboard your ship. We are partners of necessity Mister Lemont gratitude has nothing to do with our circumstance.”

“Madam Black, you wound me.” William replied. “Our situation is what it is, but regardless of circumstance, you are a passenger on our ship and courtesy demands I treat you with respect despite the circumstances that made this so.”

Black blinked in surprise and for the first time that William had ever seen, her eyes lost their hardness. “Well said Mister Lemont.”

“Please, call me William, but never call me Bill. I never liked being associated with a notice of debt.”

Black almost smiled at that, but was interrupted by their arrival at their destination.

“Here is your cabin Ma’am. Since you are our only passenger, I only ask that you stay off the bridge and out of the engine room unless escorted. You otherwise have the run of the ship. We have a tradition aboard this ship called the lift-day feast. It will begin at 1800 hours and you are sincerely welcome to attend.”

“I will be there Mist…um William.”

“See you then.”

 

The trip to Beaumonde would take six days based on the course Marsh plotted in an attempt to avoid another disastrous meeting with the Reavers. The first two days of the trip proved to be very uneventful. The lift-day feast was another fine meal, as William was actually becoming a cook of no small skill. The dinner was a little more awkward than usual due to Black showing up her high security case still handcuffed to her wrist, but even Marsh managed to keep from saying anything to ruin the event.

 

“Captain to the bridge, we got trouble!” The edge in Marsh’s voice was clear even over the intercom.

“Half bloody way.” Chan growled as she jumped from the dining table and bolted for the bridge. Cindy and Xavier right behind her.

As soon as Chan crossed the hatch to the bridge, Marsh began speaking rapid fire. “I’ve got a ship, runnin’ without core containment, on the scanners Cap. They’re a fairly decent range out, I doubt if I’d have seen them so soon if they had their emissions to standard.”

“Options?”

“We got lucky this time Cap, they are on a bad vector even if they do see us this far out. If we go to hard burn, they will never close the distance.”

“Do it.” Chan replied without hesitation and reached for the intercom. “All hands prepare for hard burn. We have some company that we rather not meet.”

The Lattimer’s Ghost leapt to her highest speed and while the flare from the burst of power of her hard burn gave them away to the Reaver ship, Marsh’s calculations on the trajectories of the two ships was correct. The Reavers pursued for nearly thirty-six hours before passing out of the maximum range of the scanners.

“Looks like we’ve lost them Marsh, good work.” Chan said wearily. The stress of the day and a half of pursuit etched on her face.

“I like to think so, in fact I…GOS SE!” Marsh’s face blanched in horror.

Chan whipped around to look at the scanners and her stricken look told William at the co-pilot’s seat things had gone from bad to worse.

“I didn’t think Reavers could coordinate a pursuit.” Marsh all but wailed.

“The last thing the ‘Verse needs is for them to start getting smarter as they spread.” William said grimly as he consulted the secondary scanner read out at his station. “Those gou cao de hun dan[3] have played the part of the hounds and driven the fox right into the hunters! And we fell for it like complete saps.”

“Yeah they played us good.” Chan reluctantly agreed. “You got any piloting tricks up those sleeves of yours Marsh?”

“Last one didn’t work as good as I thought it did Cap, but to answer your question, no, not this time. Any vector I take away from one of them and it will dump us right in the lap of the other one. We are gorram humped.”

“Well, I’m not ready to bend over and take it in the pi gu yet.” Chan growled. “Give me some damn options people!”

“Speaking of people Captain, I think we need to let the others know about the change in our situation.” William said.

Chan nodded and reached for the intercom. “Crew, this is the captain. Seems we weren’t as smart as we thought we were. The Reavers have managed to lead us into a trap. I will not go down without a fight, but I need ideas, please report to the bridge and we will try and suss out a plan. That includes you Miz Black, passenger or no, you are in this for a full measure as well and I want to hear from all of you.”

 

“Here’s the deal.” Chan said as soon as everyone was either on or in earshot of the bridge. “Two Reaver ships have us hemmed in. Any way we run, we end up in the sights of one of them. The one we dodged two days ago is far enough away, that if we can get past the one closing on us now, the other one will not be able to catch us.”

“Are you sure about this Captain?” Willis said, clearly pained to be bringing up the topic. “We thought we were in the clear once and proven wrong, I would hate to take extreme measures only to find the Reavers have anticipated our move again.”

“That is always a possibility to my thinking my friend. We got hoodwinked good and now I’m not so quick to write off that Reavers aren’t as smart as we are, as they obviously are at least as smart as us, if not smarter. But, no need to buy trouble, we’ll deal with our current situation and if it happens to change again, we’ll deal with that then.”

“A wise course of action Captain, I withdraw my question.”

“Right. Ideas people, spit out anything you got, nothing is off the table.” Chan said, her gaze sweeping across the nervous faces around her.

“We could lure them into a hard burn flare.” Cindy suggested at last after the uncomfortable silence that ensued when Chan stopped speaking.

“Marsh?” Chan quizzed the pilot.

“The ship chasing us is too well armed to let them get close enough for that trick to work in the Black, now if we were in an atmo that would do the trick.”

“I have an idea, but it borders on insanity.” William said after running his hands back across his head.

“Nothing is off the table William.” Chan replied.

“I read this in an ancient Earth-That-Was novel-”

“Does anything you do not involve Earth-That-Was in some way.” Marsh interrupted.

“Not the time lover. Shut up and fly.” Cindy snarled.

“Thank you Cindy.” William replied through clenched teeth.

“As I was saying, this book was written by a David Bril…Brim…”

“Your point my friend?” Chan reminded.

“Sorry mei mei. The point is, this space ship was crewed by genetically altered and sentient dolphins-”

“What in the south side of Sihnon is a dolphin?” Marsh interrupted again.

“Boy you are trying my patience. Shut up and FLY!” William growled dangerously. “A dolphin was, well still is, an aquatic mammal. The important thing is this ship had the capacity to flood areas of the ship so the dolphins could work in their native environment. The ship was being hotly pursued in a solar system and they vented some of their water in the pursuer’s path which managed to disable their pursuer when-”

”-the water flash froze to ice! That could work!” Marsh interrupted yet again, but this time, his fingers began dancing across the controls of the ship.

“You are right William my friend that is insanity. It has to be if Marsh likes it.” Chan grinned broadly.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, very funny, the plan must suck if Marsh likes it.” The pilot groused, but his hands never slowed down. “This could work Cap, everything is going to depend on if our buddy Willis here can get the pumps to push that much water fast enough.”

“Um, how much water are we talking about here? We are still several days from Beaumonde or Lilac for that matter.” Li Ming said, speaking for the first time.

“All of it, the reclamation tanks as well.” Marsh supplied. “I like that last part the most. Dumpin’ a big steaming pile of da bian on a pack of Reavers sounds right fittin’ to me, serves them hun dan right. Trick will be to avoid that big honking Reaver grappler mounted on that monster followin’ us while we lure them in close enough to guaranty they hit the ice.”

“I thought you couldn’t let them get that close?” Cindy demanded.

“The area of a hard burn in a vacuum is pretty small; this ice thing has the advantage that it will cover a fairly wide area if I juke hard enough.”

“Can you do it Willis?” Chan asked.

“I’ll have to pull every safety on the pump system and it will probably cause some blowback, but yes, it can be done. I will require the assistance of Miss Xavier and Miss Schultz and about thirty minutes to get everything ready.”

“Okay then, get started, I want everyone armed and armored in the mean time. Maximum load out, I’ll even dig out my stash of grenades.” Chan rubbed her hands together with a savage grin. “Da bian and frags, should make for a right warm welcome. Okay people let’s get ready for unwanted visitors.”

Chan raced to her cabin to get armed and armored for the impending confrontation, then returned to the bridge and swapped places with William at the co-pilot station to let him do the same. Down in the engine room, Willis with the aid of his two requested assistants frantically made the changes to the fresh and waste pump systems to get their part of the plan ready before the Reavers could close. As each got a few moments, they too broke away to prepare for battle, each grabbing their heaviest weaponry. At precisely thirty minutes, the intercom squawked.

“Okay wiz kid, we need that miracle.”  An obviously tense William said.

“The bloody master safety valve won’t disengage Willis is in the access tube manually disabling it now!” Xavier snapped back, her rapid adjustments to the engineering control computer never slowing.

“We are running out of time you three. We are inside the grappler’s range! Make it happen!” Chan’s voice burst onto the channel.

“WE’RE ON IT!” Cindy barked in response. “We’ll let you know when we are ready; the master safety valve is the last thing we need to over ride!”

“Understood, bridge out.”

“Bridge out, you bet you are bloody out of your yu ben de minds. All officers are the same, regardless of what situation or service.” The medic, dragooned into assistant mechanic swore viciously.

“We are all under far too much stress Miss Schultz, we are however-“

Willis was interrupted as the ship performed a gut wrenching maneuver that tossed the three mechanics around the engine room violently despite the gravity compensator’s best efforts. When the room stopped spinning, the intercom squawked again and this time Chan’s voice held the raw sound of desperation.

“Tell me you are ready, ‘cause that last trick Marsh just pulled will not work twice.”

“What the h-hell did t-t-that lunatic shaved orangutan just d-d-do?” Cindy croaked as she nursed a large bruise on her forehead.

“The Reavers fired their grappler. Marsh barrel rolled us out of the discharge at the last possible second, if I hadn’t have seen it with my own eyes I wouldn’t have believed it possible. The grappler will take about a minute to recharge. We are cooked if you aren’t ready.”

“We are ready Captain.” Willis replied sharper than intended.

“Willis remind me to tell you I owe you some sort of sexual favor later! Stand by!” Chan all but gushed in relief.

“You ladies should get ready to defend the ship.” Willis managed to reply, his face a deep crimson red of embarrassment.

“You might want to take her up on her offer Willis. You could do a whole hell of a lot worse than to get hooked up with the captain.” Cindy said over her shoulder as she and Xavier headed forward and the two women broke into giggles as the mechanic flushed even redder.

“You are terrible!” Xavier replied when they were out of ear shot.

“Yes, but couldn’t possibly expect me to pass on an opportunity like that!”

“True enough. I don’t even want to think about what will happen if this fails.” Xavier added nervously as they reached the lounge and strapped themselves in next to Li Ming and Black, who was still wearing the security case on her wrist.

“Then it won’t fail.”

“All hands brace for hard maneuvering!” Chan announced cutting off Xavier’s reply.

A second later, the Lattimer’s Ghost began to slew side to side with a rapid and sickening motion. Outside, the ship began to stream water, and something decidedly less identifiable that instantly froze into a wide patch of ice as the ship corkscrewed. Inside, it was hard to tell which sound screamed louder, the warning klaxons or the tortured pumps as they pushed more water than they were ever designed to handle faster than they were ever designed to do.

 

On the pursuing ship, the ravening hunger of nearly captured and helpless prey was reaching a fever pitch when the impossible happened. The open space between the hunter and the hunted suddenly opaqued and the ship slammed into a physical obstacle that shouldn’t be where it was. The ship began to tumble end over end and all thoughts of prey were over ridden by the only imperative more important than the Hunt…survival.

 

On the Lattimer’s Ghost, the three crew on the bridge Chan, William, and Marsh had a clear view as the Reaver ship impacted their surprise and not only saw the ship pitch end over end, but saw large chunks of their pursuer’s ship fly off in several directions from the impact.  

“WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” Marsh exclaimed as the Reaver ship spiraled out of control. “Tell me we got that on film! We’ll never have to buy booze again as long as we can show them THAT!”

“Yes Marsh, the recorder was active and we got…holy crap! We got company!” William said, starting one thought, then switching in mid thought as something on the scanners caught his eye.

“What do you mean company? We stopped ‘em!” Marsh wailed.

“EVASIVE MARSH NOW!” William thundered, but it was too late, the entire ship shook from a hammer blow as they were hit by something big topside.

“What the hell is going on?” Chan managed to ask, her mind still trying to catch up with the rapidly changing events.

“One of those big chunks we saw flying off the Reaver ship when they hit the ice was a qing wa cao de liu mang[4]shuttle! They’ve latched onto the upper airlock!” William responded going paler than Chan had ever seen him. William swore so violently that even the captain was taken aback. “Bloodthirsty beasties or not, they’re good! They’re halfway through bypassing our security and the hatch will cycle in less than a minute!”

Ren ci de Fo zu[5]Chan murmured softly and then, regaining her composure, toggled the intercom. “All hands BATTLESTATIONS! Bring your heaviest weapons, stand by to repel boarders!” She shut off the intercom and turned to face Marsh. “Is this it? Or will there be more of them?”

Marsh looked up from the intensive scan he was running while Chan was on the intercom before replying. “This is it Cap, their mothership is still spinnin’ and ventin’ atmo. If there were any other shuttles, they didn’t make it through the ice.”

“Okay then, we won’t have to blow the fusion plant.” Chan intoned with a voice flat and cold.

“No Cap we won’t, but I think I can get those hun dan off our backs.”

“How?”

“You don’t really want to know.” Before Chan could press Marsh for more detail, he had activated the intercom. “Folks belay that last order. Hang on and hang on hard, strap down and hope you don’t lose your lunch.” He hung up and glanced at Chan. “You too Cap, this is going to be rough.”

The initial inclination to argue clearly marched across Chan’s face, but realizing time was too short, she nodded curtly and strapped herself in.

As the captain was still cinching her seatbelt, Marsh pitched the ship’s nose up then yawed hard to port. As he fed power to the engines, the ship started to rapidly roll perpendicular to their direction of travel. The incredible stress was felt by everyone as a crushing weight on their chests and heard as a howl of groans throughout the ship as the Lattimer’s Ghost seemed to give voice to her ill treatment by the deranged maneuver. After thirty seconds, with alarms screaming warnings of imminent disintegration, there was a horrific rending of metal and Marsh fought the ship back into stable flight.

 “H-H-Has th-th-the insanity s-s-stopped?” Willis stammered over the intercom. “If I-I-I d-do not g-get a few m-m-minutes t-to m-make adjustments, the engine is going to r-rip itself off its m-mounts.”

“W-William?” Chan asked weakly, but when she saw the big man was in worse shape than she was, she shakily managed to bring her eyes into focus and once she got the equally shaken external viewer online, the Reaver shuttle was cart wheeling away with the ventral hatch ripped open and obviously suffering from an explosive decompression.

“G-Go ahead W-Willis.”

“Captain, th-the airlock is s-still cycling!” Li Ming screamed.

Ta ma de! All hands repel boarders!” Chan croaked and staggered to her feet, lumbering unsteadily off the bridge. Responding to the captain’s order and their own ingrained sense of survival, the entire crew shakily grabbed their best weapons and rallied to defend their ship.

 

If not for suffering some of the same effects of vertigo as the crew, the pack of Reavers that had entered the airlock of the prey’s vessel might have had easier than usual pickings. However, the violent shaking in the confines of the airlock had battered the pack even more than the prey and the Hunters were less steady than was acceptable for a pack about to strike.

 

Chan and William were to the left of the airlock guarding the corridor to the bridge. Cindy, Li Ming, and Xavier were directly across and spread from the lounge to the galley, with Madam Black cowering in terror the corner of the lounge. Willis stood alone to the right of the airlock guarding the corridor to the engine room. As the first Reaver lurched out of the airlock, it was met with a hail of gunfire from three directions.

 

The point crumpled to the deck from the prey’s gunfire, but the wild frenzy of the Hunt would not let such a trivial matter stop a feast. Four Hunters broke free of the confines of the portal, braying their endless hunger and streaming their red as they absorbed the prey’s attempts to stop the feast. Three Hunters turned left to face a single prey, while the hungriest ran directly forward to face the greatest number of prey.

 

The din of the battle was a wild kaleidoscope of strobe bright sights and raucous hammering sounds. For even a battle hardened veteran like Cindy, this fight was beyond even her U-war experiences. “It’s that infernal screaming that is different.” She thought as dropped behind the galley counter to reload her sub-machine gun, Li Ming’s shotgun blazing away to cover her. “I mean curses, orders, the cries of the wounded are one thing, but this…this…damn I don’t know what you call the noise these things are making, but it ain’t natural.” She popped back up and found one of the horrors directly in front of her. For several milliseconds, she had time to register the mauled remnant of a face, the unholy gleam in the thing’s feral eyes, and most of all the unnatural howling the thing was making before the command from her brain reached her trigger finger and the Reaver slammed to a halt as an entire magazine punched through its chest.

 

“Out of the portal, get into the open!” Was the clear imperative that screamed deep in every one of the Hunters. “Close on the prey! FEAST!” Burned in the Hunter’s red, but these prey were fighting harder than most. The hungriest one was down and the three that turned to feed on the lone prey to the right had been driven back by the prey’s stingers, blocking the pack from clearing the portal. “FORWARD!” The Lead raged in hunger and frustration as one of the prey threw a round object into the portal. Not many prey had these objects, but the Lead recognized the danger to the pack, but his nearly subsonic ‘great danger’ scream was cut off when the object detonated.

 

CRUMP! The sound of the grenade was somewhat muffled by the confines of the airlock and most of the remainder was absorbed by the bodies of the Reavers still stuck in that small area. Chan’s throw had been perfect and the effect was deadly, the three Reavers that had been driven back by gunfire were blown forward again, but they were the only ones to exit the airlock. The close quarter explosion decimated all the others. However, the blast had rolled one of the Reavers into the lounge right next to Madam Black. The other two wounded Reavers turned on Cindy and Li Ming, blocking their attempts to assist their terrified passenger.

Cindy’s foot lashed out and caught the Reaver square in the solar plexus. She knew that the normally immobilizing blow would barely faze the horror, but that wasn’t her goal, the kick had already succeeded in what she wanted and that was to back the Reaver up enough so she could get her sub-machine gun into play. Because of the close proximity of Li Ming and Black, Cindy had to keep her burst short, but with the barrel all but touching her target this wasn’t a problem. Her knowledge of anatomy put the exquisitely controlled burst directly through the Reaver’s heart, killing it instantly.

“Steady on man, steady on.” William whispered to himself as he took aim at the Reaver closing on Li Ming. The rifle barked and the bullet split the Reaver’s skull killing it before it hit the ground.

Li Ming had time to sketch a grateful nod William’s way then turned to help Black. “Damn, I can’t tell who is screaming more, her or the bloody Reaver.” Was all she had time to think as the wounded Reaver brought its axe up in an arc that threatened to cleave Black in two. Li Ming’s shotgun was still swinging around in what seemed like hopelessly slow motion as that axe began its downward motion. “I’ll never make it.” Li Ming wailed internally as Black finally unfroze.

The woman hit a button on her security case, popping it open. Black reached in and pulled out a Newtech pistol of some sort.  She managed to step far enough back to avoid being cut in half, but the motion of her hand coming up, brought it directly in line with the falling axe. However, Black managed to fire the instant before the axe hit and a brilliant beam of light drilled a hole through the Reaver before the axe cleaved through Black’s hand and the weapon slicing both in two. Both had an instant to stare in shock, then the laser exploded.

”Sonofabitch! She was packing a gorram laser!” Chan growled as Cindy pushed the Reaver’s carcass off of Black.

Wo de ma![6]” Cindy said when she saw Black’s wounds. “Li Ming, Willis, help me get her to the table!”

“Willis, lock both your hands around her wrist to stop the bleeding on this stump, she’s got sucking chest wounds and her airway is clogged with blood. The rest of you, quick, I need plastic wrappers, some sort of tube, and get me one of the paring knives!”

The crew reacted rapidly and managed to find the items Cindy needed, but Black was too badly wounded. Black gurgled as Cindy successfully performed the tracheotomy, but even as she got the mangled woman’s airway stable, the last of her air, bubbled out of the shrapnel wounds in her lungs.

Chan watched helplessly as Black wheezed her last and died. Her eyes sparked with anger as she now knew what was so important that Black was willing to risk everything to get back to a Border world and that they had failed to deliver. “Willis, please conduct whatever repairs the ship may need and let’s press on to Beaumonde.” Chan sighed deeply and turned toward the bridge. “William please supervise the clean up. I need a moment.”

Dang ran Captain.” The first mate replied quietly.

The crew silently went about their tasks of spacing the bodies of the Reavers, repairing the relatively minor damage, and cleaning up the aftermath of the fight. They had survived, but the loss of their passenger had taken the wind out of their sails. With their entire water supply gone, they had to use some of the emergency supplies in the second shuttle, but that was only a trivial detail. Since a painstakingly thorough search of Black’s meager belongings failed to produce any of the credits promised them, Xavier took it upon herself to see if she could figure out just who employed Black.

En route, Xavier had found enough marker tags on the case that held the laser and a careful examination of Black’s fake ID to prove she worked for Iskellian. On arrival on Beaumonde, Chan and William went through the motions of contacting the high tech arms company, but despite Chan’s best efforts, the corporation flatly stated that any business of this woman was between her and the crew not Iskellian and even if this woman did work for Iskellian, which they refused to accept she did, the crew failed in their task and thus any contract would be void. Once again the crew was not going to get paid.

“You know, knowing that was going to happen did soften the blow some, but only slightly.” Chan sighed as William drove back to the ship after the failed meeting with Iskellian.

“Yeah I know what you mean mei mei, but we both know Iskellian is second hand news. It’s time to make a choice Chan.”

“I know it William. I had hoped to avoid this moment, but it was unavoidable the second Black died.”

“How do you think the crew will take it?”

“Can’t say for sure, haven’t known them long enough, we’ll find out soon enough.”

“That we will mei mei, that we will.”

 

“Okay folks, I’m going to speak straight and I’m going to ask the same of you.” Chan said after the crew had finished dinner that evening. “Once I’ve said my piece, them as you that has words can speak your mind as well. You all know we got hosed again today. You all also know we are getting desperate low on coin to keep us in the Black as well. And finally you all know why we are in the situation we are in. It is time to face facts and make a decision, on what to do about our situation. I see we have two choices, either we find a way to get Blue Sun off our backs, or we can resort to taking other than legitimate work to make coin. You all know I was a Browncoat, so taking on long odds is in my nature. My vote is to take to Blue Sun and break the Highleaf Cartel’s freeze on us.

“William has already told me he supports that plan as well. I need to know which option each of you wants, but since either course is going to put us in a place that could cost us much more than coin, I’ll give you all a chance to cash out your share and walk away with no hard feelings of any kind.”

“I have no problem with taking from them as what has too much already Cap.” Marsh said speaking first as usual. “Gorram Feds try to keep folk from having what they want. Lots of coin to be had getting’ stuff to them as what is willin’ to pay for it.”

“Captain, my background is not in shall we call it ‘speculative ventures’ or in revenge as I prefer to follow what the Buddha has shown us. I desire neither material wealth or to strike back at those who have wronged us. I do however, wish to remain in the service of this ship and in your service. Since I have been given your leave to speak my mind, I would prefer not follow a path of lawlessness. Given we only have two choices if we stay with the ship, if this leads us into conflict, then so be it.” Willis said in his typically formal manner.

“Li Ming? You have a legitimate, well semi-legitimate self-employment of your own. I can understand if you choose not to continue with us.” Chan smiled.

“You can’t get rid of me that easy Chan. I like filling an inside straight as well. Count me in on the ‘take to Blue Sun’ group.”

“I always hate, petty much like all of us do, when I find myself agreeing with Marsh, but long odds is one thing, taking on a monster like Blue Sun is another. I’m no stranger to helping separate a mark from his coin. I say we leave the monster to them as what likes slaying dragons.” Xavier added after some thought.

“Okay we have two for going after Blue Sun and two against. Add William and I to the anti-Blue Sun group and we have four to two; that leaves you Cindy.”

“Take it to Blue Sun all the way.” The medic said with a big grin. “You know us Browncoats have to stick together. I’ve never liked being pushed around, by the Feds or anyone else. If I’m going to go out, I want to go out swingin’.”

“Okay Marsh and Xavier, the vote is five to two for going after Blue Sun.” Chan said after waiting a moment to see if anyone else would speak. “Since this is not the course of action you would want, the offer to cash out and walk away is still open.”

“Cap, you asked me what I wanted. Vote didn’t go my way. Oh well, the ‘Verse goes on. You hired me as pilot of this boat and until you tell me to pack my gos se and leave. I’m not leavin’ the pilot’s seat.”

“Xavier?” Chan asked with one eyebrow arched.

The self proclaimed hacker tugged at her nose ring, which she did unconsciously whenever she was deep in thought, before she replied. “I think going up against Blue Sun is a sucker bet, but the ‘Ghost is my home. If I cash out, I would not only have to find a new crew to run with, I’d have to give up a place I have let get to me. Besides, if I bailed on you, who do you think could get you inside places people think you shouldn’t be? Hell count me in too.”

Chan had to take a moment before she could reply. She had to clear her throat twice before she could rely on her voice to work right. “Okay then, we take it to Blue Sun. We’re going to have to get more info to follow up on besides “Blue Sun” and Beaumonde is as good a place to find that information. Sleep well people, tomorrow we begin to see what we can see.”

 



[1] Remorseless harridan

[2] An absolute genius

[3] Dog humping bastards.

[4] Frog humping sonofabitch

[5] Merciful Buddha

[6] Mother of god!