Desdemona and Shenmue continued their speedy departure from Santo.
Doc Tulsa retrieved a stretcher from Desdemona’s well-outfitted medical bay and with Worth’s assistance got Jonah extricated from his blood-soaked pilot’s chair. They wheeled Jonah to the infirmary.
Shenmue received a wave from Wesley Ferris:
Mr. McKittrick congratulates you on your acquisition. You are instructed to deliver the item to Sherrod & Sons Repair Dock on Bedford Island, New Melbourne at your earliest convenience. Contact details are appended to this message. Please give Sherrod & Sons advance warning of your arrival, and, as always, please exercise discretion in the discharge of your duties.
Wesley Ferris, Esq.
“Okay then,” YJ said. “So we have our destination.”
He pulled up navigational data. Both ships were currently in the White Sun region, with Shenmue’s shuttle in a bit of deep space near Osiris. Lilac, the crop moon that was Whitaker’s preferred destination, was located near Blue Sun – a considerable haul from the Core – while New Melbourne could be found in Red Sun.
“Maybe Desdemona can resupply our friends in the shuttle on their way to New Melbourne while we chug along behind.” YJ said.
Onboard Desdemona, Worth manhandled the wine casks from the Desdemona’s shuttle airlock and pondered them for a moment before heading back to the bridge.
“So, YJ,” he said over the comm. “Might have a little bonus for us here.”
“When you say bonus, what calibre do you mean?” YJ asked.
“Highly lucrative, highly profitable, highly…” Worth said.
“We’re not talking about guns, are we?” YJ said.
“We can make a lot of money selling this stuff,” Worth said. “But it’s not necessarily of the pharmaceutical grade of medication.”
“Trinkets, you found trinkets?”
Worth grinned. “Maybe ingots.”
“And you want to move some trinkets from Desdemona to Shenmue because you like them for trade? Are you talking about cold medication?”
“That’s what it looks like here.” Worth said.
“That’s the sort of thing we can sell to farmers and settlers.” YJ replied.
“Yeah,” Worth said, sniffing at the powder on his fingertips. “I think this stuff would work on their horses.”
“Horse cold medication? Brilliant. We’re on our way, YJ out.” He said. Shenmue altered its course to rendezvous with the yacht.
“So Wild Sky, how is your research into small creatures that sometimes stow away on spaceships?” YJ asked.
“You mean earwigs?” Wild Sky winked. “The kind that infest and nest on board?”
“Right, earwigs.” YJ nodded.
“There might be an earwig problem on the ship,” Wild Sky said.
“We haven’t done a fumigation in a long while. Maybe it’s time to fumigate this ship as there’s less crew on board at the moment.”
“Tried to do that earlier but wasn’t successful,” Wild Sky said. “There may be something wrong with our fumigation system so I’d like to run some diagnostics to see where the power is going because something might be normal and something might not be normal.”
“Cleanliness is next to godliness. Let’s get this ship sterile.”
“I like sterile,” Wild Sky said. “Speaking of which, do we have to bring what’s-his-face back on board?”
“Which one?” YJ said, smiling. He could see Desdemona within visual range, a silvery needle shining against the Black.
“Does it matter?” Wild Sky said. “I know I’ve had some head trauma but I swear I saw Jonah watching me sleep last night.”
“Gross,” YJ said as he keyed open a channel to Desdemona. “Come in Desdemona, this is Shenmue calling, come in.”
Worth hit the return key. “Yep,” he said.
“We’re coming up on your starboard side. No, your other starboard,” YJ said.
“You do your flying thing, we’re just going to keep going in a straight line.” Worth replied. He rustled up a hand truck and stacked the wine casks on it.
YJ made it look easy, bringing the Firefly transport in to dock with the sleek space yacht. There was a gentle bump as the ships’ airlocks made contact.
In Desdemona’s infirmary, the Doc worked on his patient. He put Jonah under so he could do his job in peace, cleaning the wound and repairing the damage done to his insides.
Satisfied that the two ships were secure in their link, YJ prepared to board Desdemona.
“So Wild Sky, so now there’s less crew on board, think you could stand to run your diagnostics?”
“Uh huh,” Wild Sky said. She began typing commands into Shenmue’s onboard computer, cursing the rudimentary operating system.
YJ walked through the cargo bay airlock. The doors opened to reveal Worth, carrying a load of wine casks on a hand cart.
“What the hell is this?” YJ asked. “We going to sell wine now?”
“Yes, wine.” Worth said.
“Even if it’s expensive wine, who are we going to sell it to? Who do we know that drinks expensive wine or who are willing to pay for it?” YJ asked as he stepped into Desdemona’s spacious cargo area. Shenmue’s airlock cycled closed behind him.
Satisfied that he was outside of the range of any bugs on board his ship, YJ glared at Worth. “Seriously man, how about next time you tone down the pharmaceutical talk when we think there’s an audio bug on board our ship?”
“Umm,” Worth said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He pointed to the keg. “There’s a little damage on this keg, if you’ll notice.” He said, indicating the yellowish powder around the bullet hole.
YJ’s eyes widened. “Shit man, what if we get caught with this?”
“What if you get caught with this? I just work here.” Worth said.
“If we have to jettison this in the middle of space, you’re going with it,” YJ said.
“Do I get a suit?” Worth asked.
“Seriously, what is this stuff?” YJ said.
“Seriously, do I get a suit?” Worth said. “The Doc called it Chrysanthemum Blonde. Known for its hallucinogenic mind-altering properties. So if you want to go on a vacation, have a little taste.”
“Man, these drugs are above our social status,” YJ said. “So who are we going to sell this to, to get any money?”
“Well, I know this stuff makes a lot of money, and I don’t know, I just saw everything that Jonah went through, getting cut up like that, and I felt like I owed him something…” Worth looked at YJ, who was rolling his eyes. “You’re not buying this, are you? There’s got to be somebody who wants it. That’s all I know.”
YJ thought for a moment. He knew that Chrysanthemum Blonde, in its natural state was a common ingredient in any number of legal pharmaceuticals. In its concentrated and processed form, however, it was one of the most popular recreational substances in the Core. Transporting with intent to distribute was a serious offense.
Worth gave the damaged wine cask the once-over. He surmised that the cask had a false middle surrounding an hourglass shaped container, which could hold enough wine to keep up appearances. The resinous narcotic was packed in a ring around the narrowest part of the container.
“That one that’s broken, let’s dump the thing. We’ll take the rest of the casks on board and make sure no one can ever finds it,” YJ said. “Also, Wild Sky is working on our earwig infestation so she might need a helping hand. I’ll check things out here, and we’ll see how Doc and Jonah are doing, and I’m sure this ship has the Cadillac of autopilots so we’ll set it up and drop off this baby with McKittrick’s boys and then we’re going to come back after the fumigation to come back for our passengers.”
“Okay,” Worth said. “Fair enough.”
“And make sure to get rid of the busted one, because if somebody ever gets on board…” he shaped his fingers into a gun and pulled the imaginary trigger.
Worth nodded, and then wheeled the casks into Shenmue’s cargo bay. His mind was working. By his figuring, the street value of six kilos of product like Chrysanthemum Blonde was probably 6,000 credits, or 15,000 platinum. He set aside the broken cask, but gave it a sidelong glance after a few moments. He sighed, checked to see that nobody was watching, and began scooping the narcotics out into a container.
YJ stepped into the infirmary, trying to hide how impressed he was with the ship’s amenities. Inside the surgical suite, Doc was hard at work stitching up Jonah’s wound.
“Doc, before we give this bad boy back to its rightful owner, maybe you would like to keep a couple of essential medical instruments and/or supplies?”
The Doc cast a nervous glance over to a couple of boxes he had already stacked near the exit. “Way ahead of you. I mean I don’t know what you’re talking about.” His coat pockets rattled with pill bottles.
“Have you been to our infirmary lately?” YJ continued. “Make sure you bring something besides your own provisions. Our infirmary could use some refreshing, and I don’t mean a coat of paint.” He thought for a moment. “Incidentally, if you do happen to find some paint…”
With that, YJ proceeded to Desdemona’s bridge.
Worth contacted the Doc on a private multiband channel.
“That Chrysanthemum Blonde, is it addictive?” Worth asked. “How much is a typical dose?”
“Why, you planning on taking a trip?” Tulsa replied.
“Har har.” Worth said. “But it’s a mind-altering substance, right? So is it hallucinogenic, do people see things that aren’t there, or does it affect cognitive abilities? And if you give someone a hit, are they addicted?”
“No, it’s not one-and-done,” the Doc said.
“Is it water soluble?” Worth asked.
“I’m going to go with no,” Tulsa said.
“Okay. I’ll figure it out.”
Worth went off in search of an empty gel cap.
YJ made it to the main corridor and came across the pile of bodies.
“What the-?” he said at the splashes of blood and gore streaking the luxury décor. “Did you guys try to give each other transfusions without the proper equipment? What’s with all this blood?”
He studied the bodies. A muscular man missing most of his head caught his attention. The corpse was wearing formal black trousers and a blood-spattered tank top. What YJ initially took for a second undershirt was in fact a full-torso tattoo in an intricate style, done in prison-issue blue ink.
YJ sucked in his breath. The tattoo marked the dead man as belonging to a tong known as The Assembly, a criminal group active on the Central Planets.
“What the hell did we get ourselves into?” he said to himself. Opening a channel to his crewmates, he said “So it looks like our Baron Otello had friends in low places. I’m not sure if you guys are aware, but it looks like we just separated The Assembly from their hard-earned cargo. This could go one of two ways – if they catch us, when they catch us, we’re hailed as the saviours of their cargo. Alternatively, we’ll be hailed as horse-thieves, which will earn us a quick trip out the hatch without our EVA suits.”
“How bout that,” Worth said. He kept stowing the illicit cargo in an out of the way nook deep inside Shenmue’s guts.
If the ship’s infirmary impressed him, the flight deck of the luxury yacht brought YJ near to tears. With its Newtech navigation and control interfaces, and holographic displays, this ship was absolutely wasted on a pilot of Jonah’s limited ability.
“So guys, you think if we dropped off Shenmue and told them it was Desdemona they would notice?” YJ asked. He sighed wistfully and called up the autopilot controls through the glass interface. He did some quick figuring and surmised that a ship of Desdemona’s speed class could make the trip from Santo to New Melbourne in about five days, while Shenmue would cover the same distance in ten. He shook his head at Desdemona’s advanced propulsion systems.
He programmed the autopilot for a trip to New Melbourne, wiping Jonah’s blood off the pilot’s console.
On board Shenmue, Wild Sky was rubbing her temples, trying to concentrate as she evaluated the Firefly transport’s rudimentary diagnostic systems.
She figured there would be an archive of diagnostic logs saved in the ship’s computer core. If she found a log from before Shenmue had been boarded by the Alliance, and then compared it to a log made more recently, she could identify and isolate any key differences in emissions, be they radio, magnetic, or otherwise, thus locating the source of the tracer bug signal.
“Say, Worth?” YJ asked. “Any possible way to get some rigging to attach Shenmue to Desdemona and use Desdemona’s burn to power ourselves to New Melbourne at a faster speed?”
“Nothing that I’d care to try,” Worth said. “Neither ship is a tug. I have one idea but it would take more time.” After trying out Desdemona’s weapon systems he had been pondering combining the targeting systems with the autopilot, letting the ship lock on and follow another.
“We need to get to New Melbourne on the double,” YJ said. “Keep at it, people.”
Worth finished his job hiding the stolen goods and returned to Desdemona’s bridge, intending to use the yacht’s superior sensor system to scan Shenmue for bugs. He didn’t find anything.
On Shenmue, Wild Sky was preparing to set a scan to the power grid and evaluate emission types. She had a mind to develop a scan protocol based on the information from the historical logs, an algorithm that compared the difference between two recorded readings from different log dates.
Sweat began to bead on Wild Sky’s forehead as she tried to cut through the mental fog and make sense of the incoming data. A droplet of blood fell from her nose and splashed on the console.
Wild Sky didn’t notice, and it was only blind luck that she didn’t strike her head on the console as she passed out, sliding out of her chair and falling to the deck.
Onboard Desdemona, YJ did some figuring to determine how much atmo Whitaker and Quinn had left. About two days, if that. Time was getting short.
“We’ve gotta go pick them up, that’s the bottom line,” he said to himself. “How long will it take Desdemona to get there?” He checked the nav computer.
“Wild Sky, how are we doing on that infestation problem?” He said into his multiband.
There was no answer.
“YJ to Worth,” he said. “Aren’t you and Worth working on our infestation problem?”
Worth cleared his throat. YJ whirled around, having not noticed him sitting at the communications console.
“Did we miss somebody?” Worth said. Without answering, YJ bolted out the hatchway and ran towards the airlock. Worth quickly followed.
Wild Sky opened her eyes.
She was no longer on Shenmue’s bridge.
“Ta ma de,” she whispered. She screwed her eyes shut against a sudden onslaught of glittering bright lights. Then, as she was able, she opened them, trying to focus.
Her eyes widened as she realized that somehow, she was suspended in mid-air.
Beneath her, hundreds of feet straight down yawned a steep ravine.
“Ta ma de,” she repeated hoarsely.
Then, in an instant of terror-induced vertigo, everything shifted into place. She was sprawled on the glass floor of an opulently decorated apartment, the exterior of which looked like a glass box edged in the thinnest frame of matte steel. Floor to ceiling windows gave her a wide view of an ocean of glittering light that stretched out from the steep face of the ravine she was kneeling over. As far as her eyes could see, a cityscape with hundreds of skyscrapers and tower spires stood glowing against the darkness of evening sky. Air cars, spacecraft, and other vessels shot between the spires, warning lights blinking.
Then she heard a voice, in finishing school-perfect Japanese, address her.
“Are you going to spend the rest of the day on the floor, or are you going to pick up the playing piece and get back in the game?”
The voice, eerily familiar, belonged to a young woman seated at a beveled glass table from which Wild Sky had apparently slipped away from.
In confusion, Wild Sky looked around, and sure enough, there was a game piece, a black Go token, floating against the reflected megalopolis beneath it. Instinctively Wild Sky reached out and palmed the piece.
Then, conscious that she was still on her hands and knees, she turned and looked towards the source of the voice. As she did so, her vision was distorted by the prismatic edges of the finely crafted crystal tabletop, but she could make out neatly folded legs, woman’s legs, emerging from a silk skirt, arrayed on a chair beneath the table.
Through the facets of the table, Wild Sky could make out only vague features belonging to a young woman with dark hair. She did, however, make eye contact as she struggled to get back into the vacant chair opposite the stranger.
The woman, seated at the table, was staring down at her with something like a smile on her face. Then she spoke.
“Huh,” the young woman said softly. “They’re right. It is like looking in a mirror.”
Then Wild Sky woke up. Again.
She was kneeling on the hard metal surface of Shenmue’s deck, drops of blood dripping onto the plating.
Worth and YJ barged onto the bridge, guns drawn, and stared down at Wild Sky, whose milky features were marred by a nosebleed.
YJ holstered his pistol and gently helped her into her acceleration chair.
Wild Sky opened her hand. There was no playing piece there. But something felt different, like a puzzle piece had fallen into place inside her mind.
“What happened? Was somebody here? Did you get hurt?” YJ asked.
“No, I…” she was distracted by the blood running down her face. “What’s going on?”
“I was just typing at the keyboard, and felt dizzy, and then I don’t know if I had a dream, or a vision, or a memory, or…”
“That’s pretty messed up.” YJ said.
“I just remember, I was on the floor.” Wild Sky said.
“We found you on the floor.” Worth pointed out.
“I was looking for a piece from a game I played when I was a kid.” Wild Sky said.
“On this floor?” YJ asked. He turned. “Worth, go get some water and maybe some ‘Aspirin.’”
“There was another girl,” Wild Sky said. “But she looked…I couldn’t make it out. It was blurry, like I was looking through a translucent table.”
“Did that ever happen to you before?” YJ asked.
Wild Sky shook her head. “But she asked me if I was going to lie on the floor all day or get back in the game, and then she said, ‘huh, they’re right, it is like looking in a mirror.’ Then I woke up.”
“This is messed up,” YJ said. “Promise me you didn’t take anything from the Doc’s stash.”
“The Doc has a stash?” she asked.
“Is the Pope Catholic?” YJ said.
Wild Sky shook her head to clear it. “What did the scan come up as?” Heedless of her nosebleed, she turned to the computer console.
The scan that she was working on to compare and contrast various recorded readings from Shenmue’s diagnostic logs, showed no anomalies between September 15 to the present, with the exception of the very low-level signal that they had detected from her workshop between the 17th and 19th.
“One of two things is true. Either there is nothing, there are no earwigs on this ship, or we need better technology than what we have available right now,” she said.
YJ handed her some Kleenex. “That means that…”
“We have to roll the dice,” she interrupted.
“Let’s check with the Doc,” YJ continued. He helped Wild Sky get to her feet.
Wild Sky closed her eyes against the sudden, raging headache that rushed in to fill the new void in her head.
After he helped Wild Sky cross the threshold and got her into Desdemona’s infirmary, where the rest of the crew had gathered, YJ got down to business.
“So here’s the thing. Desdemona needs to go and pick up our friends from the shuttle, and Shenmue is going to follow behind to pick up the shuttle itself, and then Desdemona is going to ferry the passengers to New Melbourne while we try to figure out if people there can help us with our infestation.”
“Let’s get decoupled and let’s get going,” he said to Worth and the Doc. “I’ll program the shuttle’s co-ordinates into Desdemona’s autopilot and she’ll take you straight there.” He turned back to Wild Sky. “You’re with me, once the Doc checks you out.”
The Doc had taken a break from his surgical activities. He nodded to the unconscious Jonah. “He’s going to need about a week to get back on his feet.” He then gave Wild Sky a quick checkup and found nothing amiss. She was still healing from her injuries, but had not incurred any new damage.
The two ships disengaged and Desdemona vaulted ahead. It would take just over a day for the sleek yacht to rendezvous with the drifting shuttlecraft.
Worth found the cleaning supplies and began cleaning up all the blood. “My share’s going up,” he muttered to himself as he pocketed 20 credits from the pockets of the dead stewards.
After disposing of the bodies, Worth alternated between availing himself of Desdemona’s amenities that included a full bar, hospitality suite, and an infinity pool, and watching the ship fly itself.
Onboard Shenmue, Wild Sky peppered YJ with questions about what he remembered about her before her incident. YJ answered her the best he could.
“I guess I need to concentrate on something, see if I can bring up another flashback,” Wild Sky said.
“Do whatever you need to do to trigger more memories,” YJ said. “Run diagnostics, check power levels. We’ve had problems with thrusters firing, that sort of thing.”
Wild Sky fired up another terminal and started working on something. Anything.
Onboard Desdemona, Worth was sitting in an onsen module, pondering his next move, when he heard a soft, gentle pinging noise from a nearby terminal, inlaid in the marble finish of the hospitality suite. It was more of a subtle reminder than an announcement.”
“We are arriving at our predetermined destination,” the ship said in a sweet female voice.
“Jonah?” Worth said from the artificial hot spring, and then remembered that Jonah was still flat on his back in the infirmary. Cursing a blue streak, he emerged from the pool and pulled on a thick bathrobe with a thread count higher than his annual salary. Grabbing a towel, he rubbed his head as he walked, dripping, to the bridge.
The yacht had come to a stop. Doc was already there, waiting.
“Hail the shuttle,” Worth said.
“What shuttle?” Doc said.
There was nothing but starfield in all directions. Not a scrap of metal, or the floating residue from a dumped septic module. There was no trace that the small spacecraft had ever been there.
“Huh,” Worth said. He double-checked the co-ordinates. Desdemona was exactly where she was supposed to be. The shuttle, on the other hand, was not. He opened up a channel to YJ.
“So, YJ…” he began.
“Yeah, what’s going on, Worth? You enjoying the good life?” YJ asked.
“So I’m there.” Worth said.
“So pick up the boys and I’ll pick up the shuttle.” YJ said.
“Sure!” Worth said, a little too cheerfully. “You know what, sometimes I’m a little slow and I think I punched in the wrong coordinates. Can you confirm the destination?”
“That would be weird, seeing as I punched in the co-ordinates,” YJ said. He gave Worth the co-ordinates. “You should be right on top of them.”
“So, there are no technologies that, you know, tear the fabrics of universes apart and have objects fall in and vanish right? They’re not here.”
“What do you mean, they’re not here? Are you sure you’re looking out the right window? Just fire up a proximity detector and extend the range!” YJ said.
Worth did so. He found nothing within Desdemona’s sensor range.
“Try to hail them!” YJ said.
Worth tried. Nothing.
“Well that was fun,” Worth said. “What do we do? They’re gone.”
“Where the hell?”
“There’s no debris floating around, so either there was a big enough gun that it vaporized them, in which case we don’t want to stick around, or whatever it was that got them was big enough to swallow them, in which case we don’t want to stick around,” Worth said.
YJ rubbed his forehead. “It’s a shuttle, it was short range. We must be able to figure out if it could have gotten anywhere.”
Wild Sky was on it, typing in parameters into the computer.
“Given the elapsed time, upwards of seven days, the shuttle, at hard burn, could have made it to Santo, Rubicon, or Gonghe, not to mention Osiris itself,” she said.
“Or, they could have been picked up by the Alliance, or pirates,” Doc said.
“Or Reavers,” Worth said, shuddering.
“Okay,” YJ said. “Let’s get on the Cortex and try to find out it our shuttle has docked anywhere. If you land on a planet, unless you’re doing a guerilla landing, Port Control will pick you up and you have to register with some authority.”
Wild Sky did so. She couldn’t find anything on a first pass using available citizen-level channels. “No hits,” she said.
“Okay, I’m going to make the executive decision as Captain,” YJ said. “We’re going to return Desdemona, and then we’re going to come back and find our freaking shuttle.”
“It’s not just the shuttle,” Doc said. “Quinn’s gone, Jonah’s gold bars are gone, plus anything else we stashed on board to avoid Alliance searches.”
“If they’re captured or vaporized, then there’s nothing to look for, and clearly they aren’t dying from lack of air out here.” YJ said. “They’re somewhere. It may be difficult to find them, but I want that shuttle back.”
He turned to Wild Sky. “Send a ping to Sherrod and Sons, and then we’ll hard burn our way there.”