Jonah sagged back in the pilot’s acceleration chair and passed out, blood running from his mouth, as Worth and Doc Tulsa made their way to the bridge.
Worth holstered his pistol, a look of concern on his face. Jonah was their ticket offworld, and he definitely did not look to be spaceworthy at the moment. He was slumped in the pilot’s chair, his head lolling, as a nasty-looking knife wound along his abdomen oozed blood.
“I got this,” Doc Tulsa said as he shouldered past Worth, ignoring the nearly headless corpse on the floor as he rushed to the side of his wounded crewmate. He was already rummaging through his pockets to find a spare painkiller ampule. He estimated the correct dose and slapped the derm to Jonah’s arm.
Jonah’s bloodstream was hit by a speedballing freight train of endorphin. He sat upright, ignoring the gash in his side. “I’m okay!” he slurred confidently. “Let’s start preflight!” His fingers played across the glass control interface, leaving bloody smears in their wake.
The doc set to work staunching the flow of blood. “No, let’s not start preflight,” he said as blood squirted from the knife wound. It would do them no good for Jonah to bleed to death halfway out of the planet’s atmosphere.
“What, this?” Jonah looked down, and then wished he hadn’t. “That’s just a flesh wound,” he said through gritted teeth.
Worth fished for his ship-linked handset and called over to Shenmue. “Can you raise the control tower and get the landlock lifted?” he asked YJ.
There was static on the line, but no answer.
Suddenly, there was a flash of light outside, followed by a muted concussive boom. Quickly followed by another, and another.
The launchers positioned along the waterfront had started pumping fireworks into the night sky, which was now thick with dazzling explosions and smoke.
Despite the polarized windscreens of the two ships, the crews needed to shield their eyes in the false daylight as rockets and flares wheeled and burst in mid-air.
On Shenmue, YJ and Wild Sky watched from the bridge as the sky filled with multicoloured light.
YJ opened a communications channel and attempted to hail the control tower. There was no answer.
“Shu muh?” YJ said in confusion. He switched channels and tried to call Worth’s multiband. “Worth, can you hear me? Worth?” he leaned forward in concern. “It’s like the tower’s not picking up, what’s going on? Can you disable the landlock?”
There was nothing but static.
YJ frowned. “Wild Sky, I need you to stretch that brain of yours,” he said, turning to face her in his swivel chair. “Is there any way we can quickly get Desdemona out of landlock? Come on, golden child. Any ideas?”
“Um,” Wild Sky said, rubbing her temples.
YJ indicated the static piping from the bridge’s speakers. “Can we use this interference to disrupt the landlock?”
“I’m thinking, I’m thinking!” Wild Sky said, her eyes screwed shut.
“Worth, what’s the status?” YJ called over again unsuccessfully.
“If something’s jamming us, it can be jammed back,” Wild Sky murmured. “Frequencies. Reversed. Blanked out.” She straightened up. “If I can isolate the frequency that’s jamming us, by scanning it with the communications array, and then roll it through a scanner to find abnormal pitches, I can pump something out to counter-jam it that will clear the channel so we can talk again.”
YJ slammed his hand on the communication console. “Control tower isn’t picking up.”
Wild Sky turned her thoughts to the landlock. “If I can pull up some schematics on landlock firmware components, I can walk Worth through the process of disabling it.”
“Worth, can you at least close the gangplank so nobody else can get on board? Worth, can you copy?” YJ asked.
Again, there was no response from Desdemona.
On board the luxury yacht, the doc was struggling with Jonah’s injury.
Jonah started to do a preflight check, studiously ignoring the doc’s ministrations as he started running preflight checks within the limits of the landlock. Even with her vital components locked down, the yacht’s systems were smoother than butter.
“Maybe it’s the drugs talking,” he murmured, “but this is without a doubt the slickest ship I’ve ever stolen.” The controls were projected a few millimeters above the glass surface of the console, holographic images with haptic feedback capabilities.
Worth knew he should be doing something, but he didn’t want to leave the bridge until he was sure Jonah was stabilized.
“We gotta break this landlock,” Jonah said as the Doctor started closing his stab wound.
Worth nodded and thought about how to proceed. H knew the landlock was a signal broadcast from port control to activate circuits embedded in several important ship systems – power plant, engines, landing gear – that prevented a ship from taking off.
There were two generally accepted methods for removing a landlock. First, by manually overriding the landlock signal itself, which was a complicated exercise involving the ship’s computer and communication systems, and second, by removing the circuitry that inhibited the flow of power and activation signals to the systems necessary to achieve flight. While less complicated in a technical sense, it was a far more lengthy and labour-intensive process, because there were several independent sources of landlock activations in Desdemona’s guts. He would have to worm his way deep inside Shenmue’s systems armed with voltage meters, testing tools, and soldering iron to excise the offending modules causing the inhibition.
Either way, it was neither an easy or quick proposition. Because landlocks were government-mandated control devices, overriding the components was a highly illegal activity, and intended to be as difficult as possible. A successful landlock override was the holy grail of outlaw tech.
Worth scratched his chin. He’d seen it done before, once, back on Beylix, when his crew had been hired to boost a ship from a reclamation yard. Using the ship’s computer core, a member of his crew has created a spoofed “virtual ship” – a ghost that existed only in software form – and redirected the firmware so the signal thought it was still activating the landlock components. He wasn’t sure how to do it – tricking the firmware. But he knew it could be done.
He cracked his knuckles and sat heavily in the sensor operator’s chair, which protested under his weight.
He began to isolate the specific frequency used by the landlock, which would be hitting a dozen or so internal communication ports, built into each landlock component. He would have to isolate each incoming signal and then write a patch to redirect the signal to a virtual shell. He began to sweat. “Where’s Wild Sky when we need her?” he asked.
YJ shielded his eyes from the flash of the fireworks as he stared at the landing field’s port control tower, which was built to look like waves frozen in concrete. He could make out the spindly control signal antenna, studded with radar dishes and flanged aerials.
“Try to get through to Worth as soon as you can,” YJ said. “I’m working on a plan.”
“Do you remember if I had anything in my lab that would be useful?” Wild Sky asked.
“I don’t know, you never let us in your lab!” YJ replied.
“Or technology I might have used,” Wild Sky said, wincing. “You know what I’m capable of more than I am.”
“You fixed that damn Hello Kitty phone,” YJ said, exasperated. “Just get me Worth! I’m going to start preflight,” he said. “Tell them to be ready for takeoff on a moment’s notice.”
Wild Sky keyed open a channel on her multiband and got static in return.
“Maybe you want to high-tail it over there and tell them in person?” YJ asked.
Wild Sky gave him a look. She was wearing slippers and a housecoat.
There was feedback on the line, which was a welcome change from the hissing static. “Worth, are you there?” YJ called again. “Be ready to take off at a moment’s notice, that landlock should be coming off very shortly!”
He breathed a silent prayer of thanks that port control hadn’t slapped a landlock on his ship as well.
Worth heard static coming out of Desdemona’s comm unit speaker, as though someone was trying to hail them. But it was another noise that caught his attention.
It was the squeak of a shoe on deck plating from parts aft.
Worth, the Doc, and Jonah traded a look.
Worth stood up from the acceleration chair and pulled Wham out of its holster. Moving as softly as possible, he walked over and took up a position beside the entryway to the bridge. He listened intently.
Back on Shenmue, Wild Sky was about to try another comm channel, when she caught a reflection from the fireworks display from the windshield of an approaching vehicle coming towards the landing pad from Heaven Beach’s main drag. Her eyes narrowed.
It was a minivan, and judging from its paint job, it was a wheelchair-accessible shuttle bus from one of the resort towers. It was approaching at a good clip, the only vehicle on the road.
“Son of a bitch,” Wild Sky said. “It might be time to grab some weapons.”
YJ absently slapped the holster where his flechette pistol was secured.
Wild Sky watched the van approach. “You said something about lasers?”
“Yes, you shoot them.” YJ replied, checking engine coolant levels and nodding as they went from red to orange. He began to spin up Shenmue’s engines. “Hold onto something, it’s going to get very bumpy.”
Back on Desdemona, Worth cocked his head and his pistol.
Meanwhile, Doc closed Jonah’s wound with a medical sealing foam. It would hold, provided Jonah didn’t perform any acrobatics.
“Are you using duct tape?” Jonah hissed.
“You’re no longer bleeding to death,” Tulsa replied. “So does it matter what I used?”
From the hallway aft of the bridge, Jonah could hear the sound of approaching footsteps, then a heavy thump, followed by the sound of retreating footsteps. He relayed that information to Worth through some complicated hand signals.
Worth shrugged and decided to peek around the corner.
He was rewarded with a barrage of submachine gun fire.
In the instant before sparks flew and he jerked his head back behind the bulkhead, Worth took in the scene.
A slightly-built Asian man dressed in a steward’s uniform was partially concealed behind a doorway several metres down Desdemona’s main corridor, armed with a small-bore, compact submachine gun, which he was using to spray a liberal number of bullets in Worth’s general direction, screaming a war cry in pidgin Chinese.
The bullets hit the outside edge of the bulkhead Worth was peering around.
In the centre of the floor there was an open access hatch, its heavy metal door facing the bridge. Worth thought he caught a glimpse of a second person running back into another chamber beyond the hatch.
Worth jumped back, exhaling sharply. He yanked his second pistol from its holster. Then he stepped out into the corridor, firing a quick burst with one pistol in the direction of the hatchway the shooter was hiding behind as he walked towards the nearest cover. He hit his target squarely, the man shouting in surprise and pain as he sagged back against the bulkhead. He leaned out, unsteadily, to return fire.
Worth barely winced as a round from the submachine gun grazed his side as he continued to advance, guns akimbo. The hit threw off his aim, and his next shot missed before he got to cover against the ribbed corridor.
Worth’s suspicions were correct – there was a second man in the game. Another steward rushed out in a half-run, half-crouch, bent over as if carrying a heavy object. Worth’s line of sight was obstructed by the open floor hatch, but the man ran forward, pitched something down the hatch, and then spun about on his heel, sprinting back towards the chamber he had just exited. If Worth didn’t no better, he would swear it was the galley.
The van screeched to a halt at the edge of the landing pad. Its sliding doors opened. Out of the doors shuffled an endless parade of tough-looking men, like a clown car from hell. They ranged in age from teens to senior citizens – some young and fit, wearing waiter’s and porter’s uniforms, but others were old, tanned, balding, and wearing golf shirts with gold chains around their necks.
The van’s back doors opened, and the first man out started handing weapons to the occupants.
The driver of the van also exited the vehicle. She stood out in contrast from her Asian passengers – a fiftyish, stout woman with a round face and an immaculate white apron tied around her full figure. Her matronly appearance was marred somewhat by the bulletproof vest she wore over the apron, and the long pump-action shotgun she pulled from a rack behind the driver’s seat.
Jonah stared out Desdemona’s windscreen and noticed the van for the first time. He whispered a curse as he noticed the parked van and recognized the driver – it was Gemma Stonestreet, proprietress of the Bei Ling Tea Shop.
YJ was confident that the sound of the fireworks had covered the sound of Shenmue’s engines warming up. He opened the throttle and nudged Shenmue skyward, but only barely, angling deliberately towards the van and the hit squad surrounding it. He was aiming for the port control tower, but his course would take him right overtop the parked vehicle and the men milling about beside it.
The sudden approach of the Firefly transport caught the group off guard. Gemma Stonestreet’s eyes widened with understanding and she dove for cover, trying to put the body of the van between her and the approaching starship. The men, checking their weapons and steeling themselves for battle, had less warning. The knot of armed men had only seconds to react.
YJ toggled the controls for the starboard thruster, aiming its exhaust downward as Shenmue passed just a few meters above the van. Then he gave the thrusters a little juice.
Of course, that “little juice” resulted in a scorching blast of jetwash directed straight down, compressing the van’s roof downward and blowing out all its windows in an instant. The downdraft knocked the van sideways, its tires screeching. Three of the men standing nearest to the van were slammed into paste. Then the heat from the expended drive plasma struck, turning another handful of would-be assailants into living cinders. The more agile of the van’s passengers, who managed to get out of harm’s way, found themselves bowled over and blown roughly across the tarmac in a flurry of shattered limbs and road rash.
Jonah nodded grimly as he watched Shenmue take off, scorching the van and its passengers.
Worth did the math – two guns and two targets. He stepped out from behind cover and tracked both targets with Wham and Bam. He pulled both triggers simultaneously.
Bullets from Wham’s barrel rattled up the gun-wielder’s chest with the final round striking him full in the face. The force of the gunshots knocked his body back against the corridor wall, spraying it with gore before he fell sideways, his submachine gun hitting the deck.
Worth’s second burst caught the retreating steward square in the back. The man arched his back in agony, trying vainly to reach for the open wound with his hands, before stumbling out of sight into the galley.
YJ pivoted Shenmue on its thrust point and shot towards the control tower, opening all comm frequencies so he could shout, “Mayday, mayday, loss of port thruster!” Shenmue then connected with the antenna with a resounding krong. The
The transmitter mast was torn from its moorings and spun end over end into the waters beyond the control tower as Shenmue banked over the beach and shot skyward.
In an instant, the jamming and landlock signals were cut off.
“Not gonna lie to you,” Wild Sky said. “That got me a little wet.”
“It’s alive!” shouted Jonah as his controls suddenly came back online. He hit the thrusters and pulled up on the controls. Easy as you please, Desdemona slipped into the sky.
Twin sonic booms overpowered the sound of the fireworks as the two ships roared into the night sky, flying into a storm of light and colour.
Worth walked towards the hatch. He knew from checking Desdemona’s technical schematics that it was likely the access point for the yacht’s luxury runabout shuttle.
To Worth’s surprise, the steward he had just shot reappeared, carrying what looked like a wine cask in his arms as he stumbled towards the open hatch, intent on staying on his feet.
Worth kicked the hatch closed and arched an eyebrow at the steward, pointing a pistol at him.
Without breaking stride, the steward hurled the barrel at Worth with a defiant cry.
Worth casually fired, his shot penetrating through the barrel before striking the steward and knocking him flat.
“Damn, I wanted to interrogate that guy,” Worth grumbled.
“Worth, you usually ask questions first, and then shoot,” Jonah snarked.
The wine cask fell and rolled to a stop near the now-sealed hatch. Worth’s eyes narrowed. No wine appeared to be flowing from the bullet hole, but he could hear liquid sloshing inside.
Worth took a closer look. A yellow, powdery substance was spilling out of the puncture.
“Wild Sky, try to raise Desdemona,” YJ asked. Wild Sky opened a channel.
“Jonah,” Wild Sky said. “Are you good at math?”
Jonah was in his element. “I’m good at everything right now!”
“Then can you put two and two together on this one?” Wild Sky asked.
“What?” Jonah said.
“Fly, you idiot!” Wild Sky shouted.
“Where we going?” Jonah asked.
“We’ll figure it out,” YJ said. His immediate concern was the planet’s satellite surveillance grid. Desdemona and Shenmue were both pumping out ID data via pulse beacon, and if anyone official were after them, a satellite ping would be the first place to start.
“Worth, it’s time to swap out Desdemona’s pulse beacon,” YJ said.
“Jonah, follow my lead,” YJ said. He began to scan for weaknesses in the planetary satellite grid.
“What’s going on in there, boys?” he said. “Has Worth rigged the decoy transponder yet? I think we have two friends in a tin can in space looking for a pickup on a nice limo. I’ll get McKittrick on the line.”
He turned to Wild Sky. “So tell me, how well do you remember your wave communications protocols? Let’s hail McKittrick.”
“McWho?” Wild Sky asked.
YJ shook his head. “Just send him a wave and ask for the rendezvous co-ordinates.”
Worth decided to solve the mystery of the yellow powder later, as he had a pulse beacon to swap out.
YJ kept up the false mayday until he was sure he had found a hole in the satellite network. Conveniently, it was big enough to fly a ship through. Two ships, in fact.
Jonah followed the Firefly’s trajectory, aiming for the tear in the sensor net blanketing Santo.
“We’ll make a pilot out of you yet,” YJ said, as Jonah followed Shenmue through the planet’s upper atmosphere.
Doc Tulsa walked down the corridor and took in the scene. He shook his head at the sprawled bodies and discarded weapons, but his attention was grabbed by the growing pile of fine yellow dust collecting on the deck plate as a substance leaked from the wine barrel.
Tulsa had a wider experience with narcotic substances than most people; he had worked in Newtech laboratories synthesizing the latest in designer pharmaceuticals, and he had swapped cash for a quick score in back alleys across a dozen worlds. The substance on the floor from the rent in the wine cask twigged his experience in the latter than the zformer.
Tulsa bent down and took a fingernail’s worth. He tasted it.
“Chrysanthemum Blonde,” Tulsa said, to no on in particular. “Oh yes.”
Chrysanthemum Blonde was one of the most popular proscribed recreational substances in the Core. This was the kind of stuff that core-world heiresses and celebutantes got off on. Its use was strictly regulated, especially in the core. It was an ingredient in any number of legitimate medications, but in its pure, concentrated form, it was a powerful psychoactive agent, and its use was strictly regulated. Transporting it in this form, with or without intent to distribute, was a serious violation of Alliance statutes.
Tulsa lifted the wine barrel, grunting with the effort, and did some quick figuring. He placed it back on the deck and then opened up the hatch below. He could see an airlock chamber with an inlaid ladder leading downward, and below that what looked like the entry hatch for the ship’s luxury shuttlecraft. Down at the base of the shaft were four slightly dented wine casks.
“Well, this is a bit of a quandary,” Tulsa said.Worth continued to disconnect Desdemona’s pulse beacon. He fished around for his preprogrammed replacement beacon.
Meanwhile, Jonah and YJ concentrated on putting as much space between them and Santo as possible before McKittrick contacted them.
A minute or two later, Desdemona’s sensor system began pinging a warning, so subtly at first that Jonah almost didn’t recognize it from the general background noise of the ship’s control systems.
He frowned. Data from the yacht’s long-range sensors had picked something up.
Shenmue’s proximity alarm, more primitive than Desdemonda’s, did not react.
Jonah used the holographic interface to pull up the data.
“Warning. Approaching vessels,” the ship said in a helpful tone.
Jonah got on the comm. “We’ve got company,” he told YJ.
“Say what? What company? You picked up company already? I told you not to stop anywhere!” YJ said.
“No, I mean, there’s company,” Jonah said. He fed the sensor data to Shenmue.
“I’m confused.” Worth said from the bowels of the ship.
Jonah pulled up a high-res visual that represented several kilometers of space immediately aft of Desdemona. A slower ship, Shenmue was following behind. Jonah marked her as a friendly, and then, using hand gestures to manipulate the data, zoomed further back to see what the long-range sensors had discovered.
There were three sensor hits.
“You want to run a scan there, Wild Sky?" YJ asked as he routed the incoming data from Desdemona to the co-pilot’s chair. "Tell me what’s going on. Use that genius brain of yours.”
Wild Sky muttered a curse. But she ran the scan anyway, pulling up a visual.
The vessels were very small, little more than a cockpit and power plant. Their power signature was way too hot for their mass – they were either over-muscled or over-armed with ordinance.
Wild Sky and YJ recognized the vehicles as Attack Bugs. Kit-built fighter craft, they were highly illegal, so much so that there was a standing shoot-on-sight order enforced by the Alliance. They had been favoured by the Independents during the war due to their low cost, and now that the war’s over, criminals favoured them for the same reason. The plans to build Attack Bugs had gone open source and underground.
They were quick and dirty killers, and they were definitely aiming to misbehave.