Chapter Nine

 

Knowing they might have to depart with little notice, Marsh and Willis stayed on the ship keeping all systems on hot stand by and ready to lift in a moment’s notice. While on the planet, the rest of the crew split up into teams to gather information from the sources they were most adapt at reaching. William went with Chan as they went to every contact and ne’er-do-well they knew between them. Not to find work this time as they knew what the answer to that question would be, but to find out if there was a name attached to the word that dealing with the crew of the Lattimer’s Ghost would be bad for business. Cindy went with Xavier who was going to find an unsecured access node to see what the Cortex might have to say. While Li Ming put on something exquisite and went to talk to the gambling circuit and the contacts she knew that mixed with the high roller set.

 

“I have never seen port authority goons be so gorram dedicated.” Cindy managed to whisper in between wheezes as a pair of brutish looking officers ran past their hiding place and the two women reversed direction and we finally able to meld into the space port crowd.

“Yeah you think they were actually trying to earn their pay for change.” An equally winded Xavier replied in a similar whisper. “First they add three layers of watch dog ‘bots to the remote access node, then, they add in a quad-bank encryption matrix, and to put the kiss of death on our whole enterprise, the ruttin’ bulls are on top of their game. It’s a damn good thing that the optical bomb I used kept them from getting a visual on us, or our mugs would be flagged all over the Cortex by now.”

“Oh la-de-da for small flippin’ favors.” Cindy growled hotly.

“You know full well that is a big deal.” Xavier countered just as hotly.

“Yeah I know, sorry, no point in us fighting now.” Cindy sighed. “I just hate not knowing who needs a foot in their pi gu. Not being able to access the Cortex, means we’re humped as far as being able to help today.”

“Some times the cat eats the mouse; some times the mouse eats the cat. Come on let’s head back to the ‘Ghost.” Xavier replied nodding grimly.

“Yeah, let’s just hope the others are more successful than we were.”

 

“Fanty you are a lying sack of gos se!” “William thundered. “Why we even talk to you is beyond me.”

“I’m Mingo.” The twin replied.

“Does it look like he cares a tinker’s damn which one you are, you jing chang  mei yong  de cow turd?” Chan snapped as she stepped between the three men. “You owe me Mingo and don’t try and tell me you don’t remember why!”

“Okay, okay Chan you win. Far be it from me to argue with a lovely lady. Besides, our friend William here looks like he’s ready to come to blows and my brother is far too handsome to brawl.”

“This is true.” Fanty smiled.

“Yeah, I know you two are the best looking men in the ‘Verse, at least that’s what you keep telling each other. We’re not asking for work, cause we know we’re not welcome, we just want to know a name.”

Fanty’s smile faded and he checked to make sure no one was near, before he leaned in close. “Chan, I know you saved our bacon and if I knew the answer, I’d tell you. All I know is the rep from Blue Sun was a leg breaker on the upper end of the entry level and who ever gave him the word had him jumping. That means the orders came from at least a mid-grade supervisor. That’s all we know Chan, you know my brother and I pay our debts and the answer to what you seek would square our debt to you. We can’t spill what we don’t have.”

“Okay Fanty, that’s fair. We’ve got a couple other irons in the fire, we’ll see if any of them pan out.” Chan said and even managed a smile. “You two stay sharp and on top of the dirt, a woman has to have something to think about when she’s lonely.”

Chan gave each of the twins a kiss on the cheek before giving William the high sign that it was time to leave. When they were sure they were out of earshot, Chan stopped to gather her thoughts.

“Whoever we are looking for has done a fine job of keeping his hands clean. If Fanty and Mingo can’t give us a name, no one we know can.”

“Too true mei mei, We can only hope that the other’s have had more luck.”

 

“I’ll see your ten and raise you twenty. Time for the long pants gentlemen.” Li Ming all but purred as she leaned forward, tapping her cards against the table and revealing a tantalizing and breathtaking amount of her décolletage, but not even the slightest clue of what her cards might or might not be.

“How does she do that every time?” A distinguished gray haired man said in disgust as he threw in his cards.

“She does it McTavish by keeping you looking at her instead of the cards. She simply knows you are an incorrigible lecher and is keeping you off your game by having you concentrate on what might be instead of what is.” An equally distinguished gentleman wearing the red diagonal sash of the aristocracy replied, chuckling at his compatriot’s discomfort.

“Oh bugger off Fenwick!” McTavish growled.

This comment only made Lord Alfred Fenwick laugh harder and McTavish storm off in a huff. “Don’t take that old codger seriously Li Ming he’s never been a good loser. Not even when he was growing up.”

“I never take McTavish’s tantrums seriously. He’ll be his typical lecherous self again before he reaches the smoking room.” Li Ming winked lasciviously and gathered up her newly gained credits. I do however take you seriously Lord Fenwick.”

“Hmmm that sounds ominous my dear. I recognize that tone. What gives?”

“You know me too well old friend. I freely admit to having an ulterior motive.”

“Well that actually sounds intriguing”

“I admit to an ulterior motive, but that particular motive is not what brought me here today.”

“It’s not like you to equivocate Li Ming, pray tell what is on your mind?”

Taking a deep breath, which in the tight dress the lovely lady before him was wearing, was more than enough to catch Fenwick’s attention, Li Ming spoke quickly as if she would burst if she didn’t get the words out.

“I’ve taken up with a tramp freighter to broaden my circle of potential opponents. This ship has come on hard times because of an unfair outside influence and I need to know if you can tell me who exactly gave the order that has my friends in such a bind.”

“A tramp freighter? Li Ming, you simply must choose your friends better then than. You know you are a woman of substance, you should be the house gambler on one of the liners that ply the Core.”

“Alfie dear, please, I did choose my friends well and my reasons for choosing a ramp freighter over a liner is that I tire of the space set that frequent those vessels. I wanted to see the best and the worst the ‘Verse has to offer.”

“Well, far be it from me to tell a grown woman how to live. What is it you do need my dear?”

“Just as I asked, I need a name of who in Blue Sun has put a lean on my friends’ business dealings?”

“Your friends are being leaned on by Blue Sun? I’ll take you word on your choice of friends, but you are diving in still waters Li Ming and I know you are smart enough to know that. What is the name of this ship?”

“The Lattimer’s Ghost.”

Fenwick nodded with a twinkle in his eyes as he stepped over to the Cortex terminal in a recessed alcove. Li Ming stayed where she was, to give Fenwick some privacy. She waited a good twenty minutes before her benefactor returned.

“My but that is a grim expression.” She said as he reached the table.

“Again I advise you that you are on a dangerous path my dear, but I know you well enough to know I can not talk you out of it, so here is what I found. Whoever is leaning on your friends, they are not a member of the pointy end of the corporate pyramid. I’m sorry my dear, that is all I could find. No one known to me was aware of any official order to make life difficult for a single tramp freighter”

“I understand Alfie, this is not the first dead end we’ve run into, but every piece of the puzzle is a step closer to getting to the finish. I do thank you for you’re the effort.”

“You are of course welcome nian qing de[1], I don’t get to see you often enough to suit me and if your humble servant can assist, assist I will.”

“‘Humble servant’ my eye and you know it! I’ll be lucky if leave here with my virtue unsullied.” Li Ming said in mock horror.

“You wound me milady.” Fenwick replied clutching his heart with great theatrics. “Seriously though Li Ming, please be careful. I’d hate to see anything happen to that lovely body of yours.”

“I will Alfie, I promise.”

“Good enough then. Now I must away to see if McTavish is calmed down from his earlier snit. I believe he is still distracted enough that I might be able to take him for a few more of those credits he seems to like to lose. Good evening” Fenwick sketched a polite bow and headed back into the country club’s parlor.

Li Ming watched her contact as he departed and sighed. “Merciful Buddha I hope the others have had more luck.”

 

“You know if I were the suspicious type, I’d think someone was out to get us.” Marsh said rolling his eyes as the data gathering teams went over the meager information they had found over yet another protein paste dinner.

“Well for once you are right, someone is out to get us, the only problem is we can’t bloody figure out whom in the ‘Verse that happens to be. Narrowing the culprit down to the thousands of middle management drones of Blue Sun is better than nothing, but that still leaves a lot of possible targets.” William growled in frustration.

“Seeing as how we have run out of leads here on Beaumonde, we are going to have to take a stab at what our next step is going to be.” Li Ming replied glumly as she stirred the remains of her portion of dinner around her plate with her fork.

“Since wishing we knew more than we do is pointless, we might as well go back over what we do know.” Chan said firmly to head off yet another argument. “This whole mess started when we got shanghaied into disrupting the Highleaf hijackings out of Greenleaf. We know for a fact that the pirates operated between Persephone and Greenleaf. Going off of that fact, it is a fair guess that our next step lies between those two points. Only thing left from that guess is whether we need to go to Persephone or Greenleaf as our next stop. My take is that Greenleaf suffered more from the hijackings that we did, so I say Greenleaf is as much a victim as we are and my spin is we go to Persephone first. Any one else think otherwise?”

There was a pause before anyone spoke, then Cindy stood. “Captain, I can’t say why I feel this, it’s just something in my gut, but I say that Greenleaf isn’t as clean on this thing as you think. That yu ben de[2] Baron was sure ruthless enough into forcing us to do his bidding, so I say there have to be folk just as ruthless to be willing to hijack their own kin.”

“She’d got a good point captain.” Xavier added. “Just because they were the targets, doesn’t mean they can’t be the source.”

“Won’t say as that couldn’t happen, but lets face it girls, Persephone has got the lock on the number of likely nefarious types that would be behind the hijackings. Greenleaf, if it has a dark side, they sure keep it hid well.” Marsh piped up.

“I’ll give you I hadn’t thought about how we were ‘convinced’ to help points to a harder side to the Greenleafers than meets the eye, but that is still a pretty big stretch. After all, as a Baron, Chang is pretty used to barking and peons jumping.” Chan persisted.

“Going by the number of thugs that call Persephone home, I’m going to side with the captain on this on.” William added weighing in after some serious thought.

“As if you’d make another choice.” Marsh muttered.

“I’ll be kind and pretend I didn’t hear that little man.” William growled dangerously. “Chan and I go way back and we were disagreeing on things back when you were still trying to figure out how to tie your sneakers. I agree with the captain this time because I think she’s right, not because I can’t think for myself.”

“I agree with our esteemed captain as well.” Willis said quickly to head off another pointless confrontation with the argumentative pilot. “If one reduces our situation to numbers and then calculates the odds, Persephone is clearly the logical choice.”

“As someone who knows a few things about playing the odds, I’m going to go all in with the captain as well.” Li Ming said adding her voice to the majority. “I won’t say it’s impossible to fill an inside straight, but the stakes are too high at the moment to be putting a serious bet on the long shot yet.”

“Well, I like to hear from all of you since your lives are as tied up in this mess as mind. Not that this ship is a democracy, but I’m not so set in my own brilliance that I can’t take a hint from my crew when needed, However, in this case, the majority is along my own way of thinking, so Persephone it is. Marsh, get us airborne.”

“Sure thing Cap, but I do think you are forgettin’ somthin’ important like.”

“And that would be?”

“He means my current difficulties with one Darius Nightblade.” Li Ming sighed.

Gos se, I must be getting addled from all this protein paste.” Chan said smacking her forehead.

“I’ve got an idea that can get us around that one.” Xavier said with a wicked grin.

“Then spill it sister!” Chan snapped.

“The last time we wanted to keep the lovely Li Ming here out of harms way while the rest of us waited for a cargo, we were going to have her wait in the shuttle on the edge of the system then join up with her later. That plan collapsed when the cargo didn’t show, but what I propose is to reverse the operation.”

“I got ya!” Chan said snapping her fingers. “We keep the ship on the edge of the system and make the trip to the planet in the second shuttle.”

“That would be the plan.” Xavier beamed.

“Okay we have a plan and we are sticking to it. It’s a six day trip to Persephone from here?” Chan questioned and turned to Marsh for confirmation.

“Yep, six days at standard burn.”

“Alright then, we have six days to pull out every sneaky and underhanded trick we can cook up between us to keep ourselves off the radar. We need to get in, shake the tree as hard as we can, gather up whatever falls to the ground and git before the hijackers, Nightblade, or Blue Sun knows we were even in their backyard. Questions?”

There were none and the Lattimer’s Ghost lit her pulse drive on course for Persephone just under twenty minutes later.

 

“You know this is going to sound hokey as all get out, but regardless of how many times I see that view, I never tire of seeing stars. True enough, I forget to look more often than I like, but when I do remember they still remind me why I chose this life.” Chan said three days later as she flopped into the co-pilot’s seat and rubbing her eyes; fatigue seeming to ooze from every pore in her body.

“I hear ya Cap, I love the Black.”

“When this Blue Sun mess is over, remind me to sleep for about a week.”

“Will do Cap, I use some shut eye myself.”

“Well make sure you get some sleep, I need you sharp enough to thread a shuttle through the eye of a needle when we get to Persephone.”

“Um, Cap?” Marsh asked pensively.

“Yes?”

“Who exactly is going to pilot the ‘Ghost if I’m flying the shuttle?”

Chan blinked and dropped her head into her hands for a moment, then began cursing in a non-stop stream of invectives that lasted for the better part of five minutes. Marsh, for once, kept his mouth shut as the captain raged, but did admire that she never repeated herself once and made a note of a couple choice phrases he’d never heard before. Not sure of why Chan was as mad as she was, he was the very model of a professional pilot when she finally was aware he was in the room again.

“I am a ma de pi gu.”

“Captain, you may be a lot of things, but I wouldn’t ever say you were a horse’s butt.”

“I might as well be Marsh. I flat forgot that Li Ming is the only other real pilot we have besides you. I mean me and William can take a stab at it, but neither one of us are really what you could call a pilot.” Chan began counting on her fingers. “Cindy? No, she’s no better than William and me. Willis? Nope, same as the rest of us. And Xavier, I don’t think she could even go through the start up sequence. Well, thank you Marsh. Good thing you pointed out that flaw in our plan. Starting tomorrow, we will begin immediate piloting lessons for the entire crew. We won’t have to be good enough to join the Space Hawks, but basic piloting skills are a must.”

“SPACE HAWKS? Those tin plated Cortex hungry show offs? Like any of them know what real piloting is about.” Marsh harrumphed.

“Why Marsh, I believe you are jealous. The Space Hawks happen to be the most elite fighter squadron in the Alliance navy. Well at least they seem to think they are.”

“Good at frilly ‘wow the yokels’ flying is more like. I doubt any of them can make a Firefly sing like I can.”

“There, there Marsh, I was only using the Space Hawks as an example, no need to go and get all huffy.”

“Huffy-” The pilot began then stopped as Chan burst into laughter. “Oh right FUN-NY.” But Marsh chuckled in spite of himself. “Yeah Cap, you missed a real callin’ as a comedienne.”

“It’s a gift, but I will have to work out a rotation of flight sims for the shuttle and as much stick time as possible as co-pilot for all of us. You have accidentally made yourself quite a bit more work by pointing out the sorry state of our piloting skills, but all of us have got to be able of taking over the helm or operating a shuttle before we reach Persephone. Oh and in answer to your first question, Li Ming is good enough to pilot the ‘Ghost while we are sneaking around on the planet. Since she can’t go with us, she can more than earn her keep taking your place.”

Marsh sniffed at the very idea. “Cap she might be able to take my space, but even as hot as she is, she can never take my place.”

“I guess that’s fair enough. Now if you excuse me, I’ve got some scheduling to do.”

Chan hopped up from the co-pilot’s seat and left the bridge mumbling under her breath crew names and shifts.

“Take my place. Hah! As if!”  Marsh snorted then settled back into his typical routine he used whenever deep in the Black that allowed him to keep an eye on all the instruments, but still allowed him time to admire the stars.

 

Three days later the Lattimer’s Ghost was standing by with thrusters at station keeping on the far outskirts of Persephone’s orbit. One of the shuttles separated and pirouetted with great flair on a course that would take it atmospheric and to the busy Eavesdown docks on the bustling Border planet. True to Chan’s word, she had cracked the whip and had had the entire crew undergo as much pilot training as was possible in three days under the watchful eye of Marsh and Li Ming. As soon as Marsh had the shuttle parked on a landing pad in one of the more shady sections of the dock, the crew split into two teams. A heavily disguised Chan and William were going to see if any of their contacts might know more than what Fanty and Mingo were able to provide, while Marsh, Cindy, and Xavier would look for the same sort of information while making the rounds of the local hangouts.

“So you’re telling me, if I happen to have some merchandise that needs to be moved, this is the guy that can do it?” Cindy said dangling one of her few remaining ten credit notes tauntingly.

“Yes, yes, lady friend. The Lucky Day Pawn is the best shop in town to make coin for work done perhaps without the Alliance’s blessings.” The nondescript man nervously licked his lips, his eyes riveted on the money in front of him.

“You wouldn’t lie to me now would you?” Cindy put on her best sultry pout, but given her less than stunning looks, it was clearly the ten credit note that held all the allure to the man sharing a booth with the medic.

“No lying, no, no, no. I doing my best business with Lucky Day. You can doing too!”

“Okay hon, here you go, try not to shoot it all up in one place.” Cindy said as she handed over the money and watched the junkie bolt out of the pub in search of the nearest pusher he could find. She finished her drink then nodded discretely to her partners at a booth across the room. Cindy stood and exited the bar, Marsh and Xavier followed a few minutes later and met up in near by alley.

“We in business?” Xavier asked her eyes darting side to side, clearly uncomfortable in such a rough neighborhood.

“You bet we are. It took me nearly four bloody hours and cost me the better part of a hundred credits, but I have the name of the local fence, the Lucky Day Pawn.”

“Not exactly an original front for a fence now is it.” Marsh replied equally unsettled at their surroundings.

“That’s the pawn broker’s problem not ours. Let’s get back to the docks. I need to see if there is a bit less security on the Cortex access nodes here than they use on Beaumonde.”

“Fine with me, I don’t mind slummin’ most times, but damn Cindy, you have found the bottom of the barrel here.” The pilot said as they exited the alley and headed for the transit tube that would take them back to Eavesdown.

“Yeah, girl, I’ve been on the outside looking in at them as what has most of my life and this place is about as ugly a boil on the butt of the ‘Verse as I have ever seen.” Xavier agreed with complete sincerity.

“This is deeper in the muck than I like to go my own self, but this is where the trail led and I had to stay on the trail while it was still hot. It was just one of those ‘well, I don’t know personally, but I know I guy that might know’ sort of things.” Cindy said and even she was walking a bit faster than normal until they had boarded the transit car. Since they had some time before they reached the docks, she carefully went over what the next step of their little data mining expedition would be.

 

“You know something mei mei?” William said as he and Chan sat on a park bench taking a much needed rest.

“What’s that?”

“It has been many a year since I actually walked long enough to get a blister.”

“Do tell?” Chan snorted derisively. “Yeah I guess we all have sacrifices to make.”

“Yeah I guess, but it would be worth it if we’d found anything. Maybe we should try another tack?”

“Like what?”

“We catch a transit car back to the shuttle and call it a day.”

“You might be on to something there my friend. We obviously aren’t on top of our game today, hell we aren’t even in the game.”

“Looks like mei mei. I say we just mosey back to the shuttle and wait for the others.”

“Mosey William? I don’t recall as ever seeing you mosey before.”

“Well at least I didn’t say sashay.”

“I don’t think the ‘Verse is ready for that, but I do agree, we have shot our bolt, no point in us beating a dead horse any deader. Let’s go my friend, there is the transit car.”

Chan and William trotted over to the transit station with groans that spoke volumes for how tired they were and headed for the Eavesdown docks.

 

“Just one…more…security flag…and…we’re in!” Xavier announced after a long twenty heart stopping minutes of hacking a Port Authority access node she’d found after by-passing two doors marked “Restricted Access” and climbing into a maintenance shaft. Cindy and Marsh were on guard right outside the shaft, alert for anyone who actually had a right to be in the area just happened to show up.

“Yes, yes, YES, that’s it…that…IS…IT!” Xavier murmured as her hands flew across the keypad. She was in one of her rare fusion states, when she felt she had melded with the Cortex and was the Cortex. These fusions didn’t happen often, but when they did, she knew she could do anything. She ran freely along the Cortex and found the subnet she was looking for. Security? Pah, that was for mere humans, she was so much more than that right now. She slipped past the security subroutine and even looped it back on itself. There would not even be a trace she was here. She traced the hum of the subnet and locked onto the specific dedicated source box she needed. Firewalls? Passwords? Why bother? She was the Cortex and these things were not just merely trivia, they were trivial. In minutes she was backing out just as tracelessly as she went in. She hated to break from her fusion state as they were so rare, but she knew she had to and with the last keystroke she was Xavier again, just Xavier. She shivered for a second then crawled out of the maintenance shaft.

“Going by the look on your face, everything went well.” Cindy said with a knowing smirk. “Orgasmic is the word I think that covers that look” Was what she thought impishly. However, she was kind enough not to mention that now. That and that the only time she’d seen that same look on her own face was after one of the better romps with Marsh.

“Oh you have no idea Cindy. I got the goods let get back to the shuttle!” Xavier replied barely able to contain her glee.

“What gives Xav? You mean you aren’t gonna tell us what goods you got?” Marsh asked as they quietly exited the restricted area of the docks.

“Not until we get to the shuttle, Sylvie. A girl has to be in the right mood you know.”

Before Xavier could reply, Cindy burst into laughter, both at the outraged look on the pilot’s face and from her own thoughts about the mood Xavier was in.

 

When Cindy, Xavier, and Marsh reached the shuttle, they found Chan looking glum and William with his boots off and massaging his feet.

“Please tell me you found something. We struck out so bad it isn’t funny.” Chan asked as soon as she saw the others.

“We got something, but cupcake here won’t spill.” Marsh answered angrily, angry because Xavier and Cindy laughed most of the way back to the shuttle and he was certain it was at his expense, he just didn’t know how.

“Okay, okay, I’ve had my fun.” Xavier replied blowing a kiss in Marsh’s direction before continuing smugly. “Captain, not only is the Lucky Day Pawn receiving regular payments from the Santo branch of the Blue Sun legal department, the name on those checks is one Lloyd Flannery.”

Chan jumped to her feet so quickly that Xavier took a step back in alarm, but the captain threw her arms around the younger woman too fast for her to escape, but instead of doing the great bodily harm she expected, Chan hugged her fiercely.

“Hot damn Xavier that is outstanding work! Thank you!”

“G-Glad to help captain.” Xavier managed to stammer.

“Marsh, get us off this rock, we finally have a name!”

“You sure you want to bug out so fast Cap? I think this pawn broker needs talkin’ to.”

Chan hesitated for a moment as she thought through Marsh’s plan, then she shook her head before continuing. “No if we lean on this guy, he will almost certainly warn this Flannery guy, no we head for Santo and see what we can find there.”

“But Cap-”

“Not this time Marsh, I know it is tempting to want to start lumping on anyone and everyone we find, but that will just make things more difficult for us in the long run. No we head for Santo and see where that takes us.”

“Okay Cap.” Marsh sighed heavily then plopped behind the controls of the shuttle. “Fasten your seatbelts gang, Marsh airlines is ready to lift.”

The shuttle docked with the Lattimer’s Ghost in just under an hour and was under standard burn for Santo less than ten minutes later.

 

The Lattimer’s Ghost was restricted from using Hard Burn except for a dire emergency as it cut into their dwindling fuel supply something fierce and the crew’s cash reserves were just too thin to support moving that fast. This restriction meant the trip to Santo was going to take seven days and that was with Marsh shaving every corner possible. The up side of the long trip was it gave the crew plenty of time to work out their plan for what to do when they actually reached the planet. The downside of the long trip was that it gave the crew plenty of time to work out their plan for what to do when they actually reached the planet. The opportunity to offer proposals, nearly endless debates, counterproposals, and nearly endless arguments made the week trip seem much, much longer than the actual seven calendar days that elapsed. Eventually the options boiled down to two choices, either a direct confrontation with Lloyd Flannery, the lead Xavier had discovered or to place the man under surveillance to see if he led them to any bigger Blue Sun fish.

“Okay crew, the captain has asked that I chair this meeting regarding our final decision on what our course of action will be when were reach Santo in two days.” William said from the head of the dining table. “After nigh on infinite lip wrangling, we have two options before us and we will stick to these two and only these two options. Is that clear?” The first mate waited until everyone at the table nodded their agreement before continuing. I know we went though some hard times to get to where we are now; I just hope we don’t have any lasting hard feelings. The captain asked me to be chair tonight as she didn’t want her opinion to make others think she was already set on what we would do. So, now that part is out of the way, who wants to go first?”

“I will.” Li Ming said without hesitation. “You all know I play cards for a living. One of the first rules of any game of chance, especially one you haven’t played before is to get a good look at what the other people at the table are doing. I say we need to put eyes on this Flannery and see how the hand plays out from there.”

“I to not pursue games of chance like Miss Wong, but wisdom only comes to those who are patient enough to wait for it, I must agree with the lady. Observing Mister Flannery is the most prudent path for us.” Willis said nodding slowly as he spoke.

“Cards and wisdom are both nice, but sometimes you just have to gut it out. This Flannery has made our lives miserable or he knows who exactly has made our lives miserable, so I say we bring some of that that feeling to his hide as soon as we get our hands on him.” Cindy all but growled, her flashing eyes revealing her pent up frustration.

“My line of work is just a different way of observing someone without them knowing about it, so I’m all about the check this Flannery out first.” Xavier added receiving a baleful glare from Cindy in return.

“I can see the logic of what those who want to eyeball Flannery are saying, but I have to still agree with Cindy and now that we have a solid target, we need to teach this guy a lesson and learn something in the process.” Chan said firmly.

“This is one time I am going to have to disagree with you mei mei, you know more about war than I do, but I’m sure somewhere along the way you learned about the value of reconnaissance and intelligence during the war. We have got to check this guy our first.” William said after the slight pause when Chan finished speaking. Turning to Marsh who had yet to speak he waited expectantly for what the pilot had to say.

“Ya’ll know I’m more of doer than a thinker, but goin’ by the number of times that has led me into more whupass than I could bring, for once, I have to go with checkin’ the guy out first. We will only get once chance at this before Blue Sun unloads on us. If we don’t have our ducks in a row, we will get buried.”

There another longer pause at Marsh’s uncharacteristic caution before William spoke again.

“Okay that is five to two in favor of setting up surveillance on Flannery. Captain, I think it is time for you to take the floor now,”

“Thank you William.” Chan said as she stood and moved to the spot vacated by William at the head of the table. “I said I would hear you all out even though I thought leaning of Flannery was the best option, but Marsh brought up a surprisingly good point. We do just get one shot at this, if we lean on our only lead, he could easily warn anyone he might be able to tell us about, so unless we resort to kidnapping or murder, we will buy more hurt than we earn. So, I guess that settles it. When we get to Santo, we go in quiet and learn all we can without tipping our hand first. Get some sleep everyone; we will be on the ground in just under forty-six hours.”

 

The crew broke into chatter as they went about their in the Black duties that were a big part of a spacer’s life and spent the next couple of days honing their parts of what was going to be an interesting time once they hit the planet. Landing on Santo exactly on schedule, the crew again split up into teams with Willis staying to do what maintenance that he could, given the budget shortage the lack of coin placed on him. Chan and William, as they typically did, sought out their underworld friends, while Cindy took first watch on Flannery. Marsh went with Xavier to cover her back as she attempted to tap the local Cortex, and Li Ming got dolled up to make the rounds of the high roller tables at one of the  casinos that were Santo’s ‘Verse-wide trademark.

“You know, I had forgotten how mind-numbingly boring sentry duty could be.” Cindy murmured to herself from here perch across the street and four doors down from Flannery’s office. The abandoned building made for an excellent observation post, save for the smell from some of the activities of the illegal residents of the building. Cindy and Chan had cased the whole block and found this to be the best place to keep an eye on the office, while remaining unseen themselves. She glanced at her watch. “Great only fifteen more minutes to go to liven up the wonderful time I’m had.” The last part of Cindy’s shift however, turned out to be no different from the first part.

William showed up five minutes early and let her know she hadn’t missed much. “Nothing worth the time we spent looking. The captain is getting pretty frustrated. She’s been a spacer for a fairly long time and it’s just not making sense that no one knows anything. You’d think one of the people we knew had something, but we got nothing. Anyway, enough of the good news see you in a few hours.”

“Okay William, this place is a pretty good spot, just watch your back, the natives might get restless with someone invading their territory.”

“I’m on it Cindy, thanks”

 

“I don’t believe this!” Xavier gasped in surprise and causing Marsh to yelp and claw for his pistol.

“What? WHAT!” The startled pilot growled.

“Oh nothing, I just got in easier than I though, second time I’ve fused.”

“Fused?” Marsh’s face screwed up in confusion, but his partner was so engrossed in what she was doing, she didn’t respond. “Damn feng li[3] woman.” He muttered and settled back to keeping watch.

What Marsh could not see and probably wouldn’t understand if he could was that while Xavier was breaking into the local Cortex node, she had entered what she called her fusion state again. She was amazed that it had happened again so soon after her Beaumonde experience, normally months, if not years passed between the rare events. Regardless of the unusual happenstance, she was going to make the most of it. The latest in security protocols seemed almost laughable as she danced around every roadblock to the data she wanted.

Flannery’s home address? There it is! Too easy…challenge me. Something useful…like his private access code.” Marsh could only hear the tappity-tap of her keypad as she entered the commands. “One private access code coming up, Xavier girl you are awesome, let’s see what else he’s got here…my, my, my, what’s this? Why looks like our little friend has a home on Bellerophon. Her thoughts flowed in a stream of consciousness very similar to how she flowed through the Cortex. “A mid-level corporate lawyer should barely be able to afford visiting such a place let only have property there. I wonder if he’s being a good citizen and paying all his taxes like he should. Should I call an Alliance auditor and find out? Call, hey now there’s an idea! I bet I could…” She paused for only a fraction of a second as she weighed the risks of what she wanted to try and then seamlessly inserted four modified lines of programming code. “EXCELLENT! Should I keep digging? Like mebbe for instance something really useful like his bank account?” She paused again, this time longer than before. “No, no, no too risky, people what has money watch what they have more than them as what don’t, plus the bank hacks might object. Time to pull the plug.” Xavier carefully backed out of the Cortex and disconnected her equipment, sighing with deep content.

“Damn girl was it good for you?” Marsh snorted at the look on the hacker’s face.

“As a matter of fact it was more than good. Let’s get back to the ship and let the others know what we got!”

“Sounds like a plan.”

 

“So, just as the fei fei de pi yan[4] was about to spill what he knew he fills an inside straight and wins the biggest pot of the night. He was so busy letting everyone know he was the big winner that he only had time to toss me a five-credit chip and blow me a kiss before he was mobbed by his new found friends sharing his good fortune and booze he was buying like it was going out of style.” Li Ming fumed, clearly unaccustomed to being cast aside by anyone.

“The surveillance hasn’t turned up much of anything either.” Chan added grimly. “And neither did William and me.” The crew, less Willis who was currently watching Flannery, was at the dining table sharing the results of the day’s information gathering efforts. “You two have been unusually quiet since you got back, go ahead and spill, to my thinking, you can’t have done any worse than the rest of us.”

“Once again, you’ll have to ask buttercup over there, all I can tell you is we didn’t get caught and ever since she finished she’s been grinnin’ like…like…”

“The Cheshire Cat?” William offered. “Before you ask, it’s from a book. Never mind which one, you haven’t read it. Come on Xavier what are the goods?”

“Well perhaps, if you all follow me, I can show you.” The enigmatic woman didn’t give anyone a chance to say anything else as she was through the hatch leading to the bridge before anyone had a chance to speak. Curiosity got the better of the crew and she waited until they all had gathered around her. She activated the communications array and typed in a couple of commands.

“Okay Xavier, we’ve seen the comm before.” Chan said irritably.

“True enough Captain, but…” She hit on more key and flashed a brilliant smile. “You’ve never seen the comm track all outgoing and inbound calls to one Lloyd Flannery before!”

 There was silence for almost two full seconds as what Xavier had said sunk in, and then everyone started talking at once.

“You didn’t!”

“How-“

“Genius, pure genius!” William bellowed above the din and pulled Xavier into a big bear hug that lifted her off her feet.

“Okay, okay, okay now, please a little quiet and William put her down before you break her ribs!” Chan roared to make herself heard and continued when the crew calmed down. “Xavier, I don’t know how you did it, but you have just made our lives here one damn sight easier. What exactly did you do?”

“I was able to hack Flannery’s access code, and using that, I was able to plant a tracer that would allows us to monitor who he calls and when.”

“Damn fine work Xavier, damn fine. Now all we have to do is wait for Flannery himself to help us catch him in the act!”

 

The only problem with Chan’s plan was that Lloyd Flannery had a vote in what happened. While the tracer made things easier, the crew thought it best to maintain their surveillance on the Blue Sun lawyer. However, the following day of watching his every move did not yield anything of substance. Neither did the third day, except for a nearly disastrous moment, while Marsh was on watch and trying to follow Flannery when he went to lunch. The lawyer surprised his unseen tail by stopping short to admire a nice looking woman strolling by. Caught in the open the pilot had to hop onto the bumper of a passing garbage truck to avoid being spotted. He waited until the truck turned a corner then quickly ran back to take up trailing Flannery again. Once again Marsh’s ability to beat the odds saved the entire crew from the disaster of tipping their hand.

Chan was seriously doubting the wisdom of the surveillance plan, but William convinced her to wait one more day before confronting Flannery. As fate would have it, it just so happened that it was Chan herself on Flannery’s tail when the crew got their big break. While not so rigid as to be predictable, Flannery was a creature of habit. He only ate in one of three restaurants, he went to the same shoe shine stand, and the bank at the same time every day. When he left the bank and went a different direction than usual, Chan was instantly suspicious. Flannery was a man who liked his comforts and always insisted on the top of the line. When he turned into what was at best a second rate tobacconist’s shop, Chan immediately followed him inside. As she pretended to examine the various brands of cigarras, she saw Flannery pass something to a rather seedy looking man that was obviously someone of Flannery’s nature would never be seen in public with, now Chan was certain she was onto something. She purchased some of the cigarras since she really was running low on her stash on the ship and hurried out of the store. The two men had split up and gone different directions forcing Chan to make a quick decision.

“‘Ghost, ‘Ghost, ‘Ghost, Shadow lead here. I think we just got our chance, our boy just made a suspicious looking drop with a real piece of work. I am following the new guy. I need someone to pick up the tail on Flannery. Over” She said discretely into her multi-band as she smoothly followed the unknown man.

“Xavier here Shadow lead. I was monitoring Flannery’s comm traffic. I’ll grab the next transit car and pick up the tail at his office. Over.”

“Outstanding Xavier, Shadow lead out.”

The man was good, but Chan completely outclassed him when it came to tailing somebody without being seen. It was obvious he was not in a hurry, and after twenty minutes of what was supposed to be idle window shopping, but was just as obvious to Chan as the man’s sorry attempt to throw off a tail, the man finally entered a poster child example of a seamy pawn shop. Chan nodded and discretely spoke to her multi-band again.

“‘Ghost, ‘Ghost, ‘Ghost, Shadow lead here.” She said softly.

“‘Ghost here.” William replied instantly.

“Round up the rest of the crew and meet me in the alley between Eighth and Ninth streets on Hobart Way. Have Li Ming and Willis keep the store on hot standby and Xavier on our boy. Over.”

“On the way Shadow lead, be there in less than ten. How much hardware should we bring?”

“Nice and quiet ‘Ghost, no point in alarming the locals or the constabulary.”

“Understood, day wear only. ‘Ghost out.”

Chan became a quiet place in the shadows, keeping a sharp eye on the shop, and waiting for the cavalry to arrive.

 

As promised William, Cindy, and Marsh arrived in the hover car just under ten minutes later. Marsh parked nose out in the alley in case they would need to make a quick exit. The four of them entered together and Chan walked up to the two men behind the counter. One was the man she’d trailed, thin and greasy looking with a bedraggled beard. The second man was taller, balding, and had a gold tooth with what looked like a red stone set in the middle. A third man was restocking shelves at the front of store and talking to what looked like a couple of legit customers. The tall man kept a suspicious eye on the others as the greasy one smiled at Chan.

“Help you?”

“Um, yes, you see…I well, why doesn’t matter.” She pulled the multi-band off her wrist, but held it tightly as if it was far more valuable than it was as she showed it to the man. “I need to pawn this, I…I need some coin and it’s all I have.”

The man grunted, half looking at the device she held and half trying to look Chan up and down without getting caught. “Well bao bei this here thing might not be all you have.” The man leered.

“Sir, please! I am here on business. I know these sorts of places are not to be found on the likes a properly civilized planet like Sihnon, but at least attempt to be professional!” Chan gasped, playing the role of affronted lady to the hilt. “How much will you give me for this top of the line multi function unit?”

She is good.” William thought and hid a smile at Chan’s antics, watching the two real customers leave the store. He nonchalantly moved to where he could intercept any move by the man stocking the shelves.

Cindy hung on Marsh’s arm and cooed over the merchandise as if she were angling to get her reluctant boyfriend to buy something he didn’t think was worth the time of day. She acted as if something behind the counter had caught her and she moved next to Chan.

The greasy looking man guffawed at Chan’s discomfort. “Five platinum, take it or leave it.”

“I’ll take it.” She replied making a casual gesture.

The man was surprised as he expected her to haggle, but the gesture brought an instant reaction. “Robbers!” He barked and went to reach behind the counter.

Realizing they had been made, both Chan and Cindy reacted at the same time and in the same way, lashing out with fists at each of the two men catching both by surprise and driving them back from whatever weapon was under the counter.

William moved to block the front door, but the man stocking the shelves proved to be stronger and faster than he looked, successfully driving a fist into William’s face, drawing blood, and leaving the first mate reeling.   

Before the man could hit William again, Marsh hammered him with a pile driving punch to the man’s temple that caused to drop to the floor as if pole-axed. “Never underestimate the little guy!” Marsh quipped as the man collapsed, before turning to assist the women. William was only able to nod in thanks, as he waited for the room to stop spinning.

Chan followed up her first attack by vaulting the counter and throwing a quick combination at the man’s gut, but the greasy shopkeeper proved to be every bit as slippery as he appeared and somehow managed to block both strikes. Marsh saw the balding man drawing his fist back to strike Cindy after she had hit him. The wiry pilot growled deep and low, taking a running leap he vaulted the counter driving both feet into the man’s side, hard enough that the sound of the cracking ribs was clear to all. The man slammed against the rear wall of the shop and slid down the wall in a puddle at Marsh’s feet.

The remaining shopkeeper spun at the sound and again managed to block the two strikes from Marsh who was moving as fast as a cobra. However, with his eyes on Marsh the shopkeeper failed to see Cindy’s attack coming, which consisted of the brutally effective method of grabbing his hair with both hands and slamming his face into the counter, shattering the glass and the man’s nose in one move. Still stubbornly on his feet, Chan delivered a one-two rabbit punch that finally knocked the surprisingly tough man unconscious.

“Now let’s see what our friend Flannery dropped off.” Chan said as she patting the shopkeeper down. “Well looky, looky.” She said holding up a data crystal.

“I guess Miss Xavier is going to have a little homework to do this evening.” A red faced William said.

“You bet she does, now let’s get.” Chan replied, dumping the crystal into her pocket and heading for the door.

“You still look a little woozy William, you go with Marsh. Cindy and I will catch the next transit car.”

“I can walk.” The big man snapped. “I’ve taken a punch to two in my life. I’ll be alright if you just give me a minute.”

“I know you will, but you’ll get that minute in the hover car. Don’t argue William. Go!”

Still miffed, the first mate let the pilot lead him to the vehicle. Marsh gunned the engine and the two men quickly were out of sight.

“Come on Captain, we need to move.” Cindy said and the two women cut through the alley and into the busy streets of San Carlo.

 

“And what have we got here?” Marsh said as they rounded the curve that led to the landing docks and found several cars in front of them being searched by security officers.

“I’m too much of a cynic to buy that the port authority just happened to pick now to institute a random sweep of vehicle and pedestrian traffic. I bet I know exactly what they happen to be looking for.”

“Yeah, I’m ahead of you. How do you want to play this?”

“One hundred percent legit, I’ll do the talking, but if I say ‘tan my hide’ you floor it.”

“Will do boss.”

The security officers worked they way down the line of vehicles and soon reached the two men’s hover car.

“Trouble officers?” William asked cheerily.

“Depends, what is your business here?” The port authority sergeant said.

“Why to see my nephew off to college.” William smiled indicating Marsh who managed a creditable smile. “Nothing but the best for my lad Jacob here, Londinum musical academy, first chair saxophone.”

“Really now?” The sergeant replied only half listening. “Mind if we search your vehicle?”

“Well we are in a bit of a hurry, but proper citizens of the Alliance have nothing to hide, please go ahead, but I must remind you tempus fugit my good man.” The sergeant looked at him blankly. “‘Time flees’ my good man, ‘Time flees,’ ancient Earth-That-Was language called Latin. Now please hurry if you must to this.”

The two officers searched the vehicle quickly, pausing only when they opened the trunk.

“Bound for Londinum did you say?” The sergeant asked calmly, but William could see that the two men had tensed.

“My nephew is indeed. Is there a problem?”

“Then where is his luggage?” The younger officer said, speaking for the first time.

“My good man, does it look like my nephew and I need to stoop to manual labor? My nephew is first chair saxophone, he does not carry luggage like some carpetbagger. And just looking at my physique should clearly demonstrate that do not do physical labor either. My manservant Cassidy took the baggage to the liner Calypso earlier. I am simply seeing my nephew on his way. Now unless you have reason to have us bound by law, you will be hearing from my barrister if you make him miss his ship.”

The sergeant looked like he was the rough and tumble sort, clearly not the type given to excess thought. He looked the two over again and between the youthful appearance of the small one and the wed fell bulk of the larger he made a decision.

“No, no sir, no problems noted, please have a safe trip.” And the two officers moved on to the next vehicle.

The two climbed back into the hover car and disappeared into the busy landing docks. William waited until they were out of sight before breathing a sigh of relief and running a hand through his hair. “That was closer than I like. I know this gets your jaw out of joint, but it is a good thing you look as young as you do, or I don’t think he would have brought that sack of gos se I was peddling.”

“Yeah, I guess. What are we going to do about the captain and the others?”

“Just drive. I’m on it.” William spoke quickly into his multi-band. “Mei mei, come in please.”

“Yes William?” Chan replied almost instantly.

“Big problem at the docks, not sure who put out the word, but the port authority goons are shaking everyone down. I managed to spin enough yarn to get past them, but the bulls are swarming from all sides. I don’t think you’ll be able to slip through.”

“Damn. Okay, we are on a transit car, we’ll get of at the next stop and I’ll see if I can think of something.”

Mei mei, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I wasn’t taking take of my captain now would I? I already have a plan.”

“This I have to hear.”

“Hang on for a moment we’re just pulling into the ship. LI MING GET YOUR PI GU DOWN HERE!”

Chan winced as William’s booming voice came over the speaker of the multi-band held so close to her ear. There was a pause and a few muffled voices before the first mate spoke again.

“Okay Captain, we need you to head for the Imperial Paradise Towers. Li Ming tells me that’s the tallest building in San Carlo. I’ll wave Xavier and have her meet you there. We need you to get to the landing pad on the top.”

“Why do I have a bad feeling about this plan of yours?”

“Oh ye of little faith, trust me mei mei this will work.”

“A fair plan at the right time is better than a perfect one too late. We’ll be there. Chan out.”

William turned to Li Ming as the sounds of the ship’s engine’s spooling up could be heard as Marsh got the Lattimer’s Ghost ready to lift.

“You have probably figured out your part in this plan by now.”

“I’m going to go with using my shuttle to pick them up and then meeting you someplace.”

“You are every bit as brilliant as you are lovely my dear.”

 

An hour later the shuttle docked with the Lattimer’s Ghost. William’s plan had gone like clockwork, except perhaps for a few ruffled feathers and a pair of security guards at the Imperial Paradise Towers that were going to have to live down being beat up by a couple of girls. Chan, Cindy, and Xavier were waiting when Li Ming brought the shuttle in and they’d met up with the ship just like they’d planned. Once safely in the Black, Xavier had a chance to take look at the data crystal with the proper equipment from her cabin.

“Tell me it’s the coordinates to their hide out.” Chan asked the instant Xavier looked up.

“Not going to be that easy Captain.”

“Figures.” Chan replied he shoulders slumping. “You have any idea what it is?”

“Some kind of very high level security code and no I don’t know what for yet.”

“How long to figure it out?” William asked.

“Honestly, it could take days.”

“Damn, we are going to need a place to hole up then.” William added. “Captain?”

“Verbena, I’ve got more contacts there than anyplace else in the ‘Verse.”

“Verbena it is then.” William walked over to the intercom.”

“Marsh, set a course for Verbena, best speed you can manage without going to Hard Burn.”

“You got it. And the answer is…four days.” Marsh replied with his typical self assuredness.

“I know, I know I have four days to crack this thing. That should be plenty of time.” Xavier replied tersely.

“Then we’ll let you get to it.” Chan said as she and William left her cabin.

Xavier looked at the crystal and could see a tiny image of herself in the reflection. “They say third time is the charm, so if there is another fusion state left in there, now would be a good time for it to show.” Not expecting and not receiving an answer, Xavier settled in for what was certain to be some serious work.

 



[1] Young one

[2] stupid

[3] Loopy in the head

[4] Baboon’s asscrack