“And why would Prentice have a beef with Worth?” YJ asked.
Jonah reached into his pocket and tossed one of the anti-Worth coasters onto the galley table. “Why don’t you tell us, ‘Worthless?’”
Worth grimaced as YJ picked up the coaster and examined the logo emblazoned on it. “It’s, uh, complicated.”
YJ spun the coaster back onto the table and placed a drink on it. “Well then, un-complicate it for us.”
Worth sighed. “A few years back I was working a grey-legal salvage operation under the nose of Unified Reclamation here on Beylix. Then they pulled the rug out from under us. I was set up by the authorities and a bunch of guys went to the lockdown while I was pretty much exiled and told never to come back planetside. I’m not a rat though, honest. It was a setup.”
Jonah smirked. “Look, speaking as one guy who’s been “set up” before to another-”
“Can it,” YJ interrupted. “So why didn’t you tell us you were the town pariah before we landed?”
“It’s complicated!” Worth repeated.
“Right. So I guess your nickname is ‘Worthless’ from now on. Okay, so how are we transferring this cargo?” YJ said.
Worth coughed. “Well, not only does Prentice run the best droid fights this side of Newhouse, he runs a clandestine warehousing operation out in the methane fields over yonder. Buried storage modules hidden all over the place. The plan is, you swing the ship over the fields, keeping it about a hundred feet off the ground so you don’t singe the methane balloons, and we winch the cargo down into one of his bolt-holes. Easy as lyin’.”
“We figured your piloting chops were up to the task of, you know, holding a ship in one place for more than ten seconds.” Jonah interjected.
“Great.” YJ said. “Well let’s get going.”
The crew set about preparing to make the cargo drop. Jonah and the Doc transferred the pallet of questionable goods from the secondary hold to the main one, while Worth checked the status of the cargo winch, ensuring the cable was intact and well-oiled. YJ was running a preflight check when he received a transmission from Prentice.
“All right, my crew’s in position. We’re turning on the beacon now. Stay about one hundred feet off the ground and you won’t trip any alarms.” Prentice’s said, his voice laden with static. “Now uh, we’ve got a bit of a complication at our end. Ever hear of a rust storm?”
YJ drew a blank.
“Yeah, all this junk sits here, rusting for decades, it kind of accumulates and can’t exactly get absorbed into the soil. So it just piles up, and when a big enough gust of wind comes along, well, you can imagine. Don’t poke your heads out without some kind of filter, and if you stay out there too long, kiss your paint job goodbye.”
True to Prentice’s word, there was an orange-red glow coming from the southwest illuminated by the setting sun.
YJ called down to Worth. “Hey, does this ship even have a paint job?”
Worth thought for a moment. “I think the starboard engine’s painted green.”
“Well, I hope you enjoy painting, you’re going to be doing a lot of it.” YJ responded, to Worth’s dismay.
As YJ coaxed Shenmue into the sky, Jonah finished rigging the cargo netting around the pallet of McKittrick’s hot goods, as Worth buttoned himself up with work gloves and goggles. Worth was familiar with the way Prentice’s crew worked and had volunteered to ride down on the cargo and connect the pallet to a grapnel fired up from the surface team in the methane field. The stabilized pallet would then be winched down in tandem and dropped into one of the many storage units buried beneath the methane bladders.
Jonah hit the bomb bay door release button, and immediately a howling wind pierced the cargo hold, along with more than a few reddish flakes of rust. The Doc and Jonah pushed the cargo pallet until it was swinging free over the bomb bay doors, Worth hooking himself to the winch cable with a safety belt. Meanwhile, YJ covered the distance between their takeoff site and the methane fields, mindful of the hundred-foot flight ceiling. The methane reclamation complex was spread out beneath the ship, hundreds upon hundreds of heavy gas bladders swaying noticeably now that the wind had picked up. He followed the weak beacon signal to its strongest broadcast point and hit the comm button. “Okay, we’re in position.”
“Dropping Worthless now.” Jonah said as he hefted the handheld winch controls. As the cargo pallet began to descend, Worth scowled at Jonah. “Why don’t you just broadcast my name across the cortex? If you’re going to call me something, call me ‘Travis Anders’.” Then he was out of sight, the cable swaying back and forth slightly as it played out. The Doc peered out over the edge of the bomb bay doors, watching as Worth and the cargo pallet he was riding was lowered steadily towards the surface.
Jonah grinned at the Doc. “Think those boys down there are likely to mess with our good friend Worthless?”
The Doc grinned back. “You want to put some money on it?”
“Okay, we can see you now,” said one member of the ground team through a burst of comm static. “Get her down about halfway and we’ll send up the grapnel.”
Worth looked down at the methane reclamation balloons as they jostled one another in as the wind increased in intensity. He figured they might break his fall, or else he’d break them.
The Doc’s eyes narrowed as he surveyed the scene nearly one hundred feet down. He could barely make out a waving set of flashlights coming from a gap in between two large gas bladders. There were a group of shadowy figures standing in the gap, and one of them was carrying an oblong object in his arms.
On Shenmue’s bridge, YJ took note of another power drop coming from his port engine – apparently running without an intake manifold in the middle of a rust storm wasn’t agreeing with his ship. Suddenly a strong gust of wind took him by surprise and the Firefly dropped about thirty feet straight down before he could level her out again.
In the cargo hold, Jonah was able to take the sudden pitching movement, but the Doc, perched as he was at the edge of the bomb bay, lost his balance and teetered over the edge. Jonah had to reach out and grab the Doc’s belt buckle and haul him back, where he collapsed onto the deckplates, which he latched onto as hard as he could.
Jonah smirked at the shivering form. “My crew-rescue fee is five platinum. I expect prompt payment.”
YJ cursed and coaxed some altitude out of Shenmue as Worth shouted, “hold her steady, gorramit!”
There was another blast of radio interference from the ground crew, but only Jonah was able to make out one of the surface team members saying “watch me nail this worthless son of a bitch.”
Before Jonah could shout a warning the man raised the grapnel launcher to his shoulder and just as smartly as a federal marshal on a parade ground, fired the grapnel at Worth.
Worth wasn’t in any position to figure out if the man’s aim was too good or not, but he deftly dodged the incoming harpoon, reaching out and grabbing the rope as it whizzed by, half-burning the palms out of his work gloves in the process. He pulled up the grapnel hook and secured it to the cargo pallet.
The ground crew started up their portable winch, and Worth found himself at the centre of a tug-of-war between the air and the ground.
Jonah radioed Worth. “Listen, the minute that cargo’s secured, you shimmy back up the cable as fast as you can.”
Worth grabbed for his comm unit. “What, you think I’m going to hang around this rock any longer than I absolutely have to?”
By this time, the cargo pallet had reached ground level. The surface team disconnected its own rope and positioned the pallet over the bolt-hole, which was nothing more than a standard shipping container buried end-up in the rocky reddish soil. Worth was lowered into the depths of the cargo container until the pallet hit bottom. “Secure the cargo!” one of Prentice’s men yelled to Worth, who disconnected the cargo rigging and attached it to metal rings welded to the sheer walls of the shipping container. Then he re-fastened his safety line to Shenmue’s winch cable and told Jonah to start winding it up.
Then he was pulled out of the shipping container as Prentice’s men looked on. One of them smiled darkly at him and said, “Have a nice trip, Worthless.” Worth gritted his teeth and grabbed hold of the winch cable.
Back on board Shenmue, YJ called down to the cargo bay. “Is Worth clear?”
Hands shaking, the Doc grabbed his comm unit and stuttered, “y-yes, he’s c-c-clear.”
YJ pulled Shenmue up and away from the drop point as Jonah carefully reeled Worth in.
Worth watched Beylix’s surface drop away beneath him, but was suddenly distracted by a twang! from above him. He glanced upward and was horrified to see the winch cable fairly disintegrating before his very eyes – steel threads unraveling and twisting rapidly. There was about six feet of line between him and the break in the cable, and Worth wasted no time in going hand over hand.
Jonah felt the tone of the winch motor change and looked over the edge of the bomb bay, quickly assessing the situation. “YJ! The cable’s breaking apart!”
YJ blanched. “How is that even possible?”
Summoning every last bit of strength, Worth grabbed for the unbroken portion of line above the unraveling section, grimacing as his gloved hands were suddenly flayed by a dozen ultra-fine steel needles. He held on with both hands as the cable snapped once and for all, the six feet falling away only to snap back against his safety harness.
“Hang on, Worth!” shouted Jonah as he worked the winch controls. A few agonizing seconds later, Worth was drawn into the cargo bay, and Jonah hit the bomb bay door button, closing up.
Worth dangled in mid-air, refusing to let go of the frayed cable for several tense moments before collapsing to the deck. Jonah immediately jammed two cigarettes into the corner of his mouth, lit them both, and stuck the second one between Worth’s lips.
Then Prentice’s voice came ringing through the ship’s comm. “Well, that seemed to go off without a hitch. Why don’t you rendezvous as the Fighting Den for a little celebration and I’ll give you the beacon co-ordinates in person, just to be on the safe side. Good work, everyone.”
YJ brought the transport in for a landing not far from the Taros city limits. Then he strode into the cargo bay where Worth was collecting himself and the Doc was still sprawled on the floor, shaking.
“What the hell happened out there?” YJ said.
“Dunno,” Worth said. “The winch cable was fine when I checked it earlier.”
“This makes no sense. That cable’s rated for more than 5,000 pounds, and should have held up Fatso here’s weight.” YJ remarked.
“Hey!” Worth shouted, patting his belly involuntarily.
“You’re telling me the cable was intact before we played it out?” YJ asked Jonah.
“Yup, the whole line was smooth and intact the whole time it was running out.” Jonah said.
YJ picked up the frayed end of the cable and pulled it close, yanking Worth towards him. He examined the broken cable and confirmed his suspicion: the line had obviously been bitten once or twice with a sharp-edged tool of some kind, either bolt cutters or a laser saw. “Wow, they really, really don’t like you here, do they?” he said to Worth.
The crew prepared to debark. Just as Worth was climbing into the bus driver’s seat, YJ said, “uh uh, you’re not going anywhere near town.” Jonah volunteered to drive the bus, even though he was a little shaky behind the wheel when it came to hovercraft. The Doc crashed in his bunk, his brush with death still fresh in his mind.
Jonah and YJ drove back into town and descended into the fighting den. “Okay, we’re going to get the receipt from Prentice and get out of there as quickly as possible.” YJ said. Jonah grabbed every piece of anti-Worth paraphernalia he could lay his hands on – coasters, beer cups, and so on. The pair were ushered into Prentice’s private chambers, where he was once again chatting up a beautiful woman.
Prentice smiled at the two of them. “Well, I see you didn’t bring Worthless with you this time. I guess you wanted me to break out some of my finer wine after all. Have a drink.”
YJ and Jonah were both handed flutes of white wine. “So,” Prentice continued. “You boys did some good work out there. Everything seemed to go pretty smooth.”
YJ took a sip of his drink. “Well, we almost lost a man during the transfer.”
Prentice’s expression didn’t change as he took a sip of his own. “That a fact.”
“Well, let’s just say some pretty odd things can happen during a rust storm, and leave it at that.” YJ replied.
Jonah interjected. “Speaking of leaving…”
“Of course,” Prentice said. He tossed a memory stick to Jonah. “Here are the coordinates for McKittrick’s goods. Give him my regards.”
“Will do,” Jonah replied as he and YJ were led out of Prentice’s quarters and back into the cacophony of the droid fighting den. They worked their way through the crowd as they made their way to the exit.
“Hey!” someone shouted at them from the bar.
“Just keep walking,” YJ whispered to Jonah under his breath.
“Hey, you with the ugly-ass tattoos!” the rough voice called out again.
That was enough for Jonah, who was sensitive about his heritage. He wheeled about and took in the mean-looking scrapper standing at the bar a few feet away. The sides and back of the man’s head was shaved, leaving a shock of red hair on top. He was wearing coveralls stained with hydraulic fluid and various others kinds of grease, but the really ugly thing about him was the expression on his pockmarked face. He slammed an empty mug of beer down on the bar and stepped forward. “Where the hell is he?”
“Who?” Jonah asked innocently.
“Funny. We know you’re the ones who brought Worthless Evans back planetside. Now where is he?” The man repeated.
“Oh, Worthless? He took a flying leap out of our ship a while ago, so don’t worry about him.” Jonah said offhandedly and turned to leave.
“Wow, you’re a real comedian.” The tough snapped his fingers and four similarly-attired goons fell into step on either side. “You think you can just give the Betrayer of Beylix a ride home and then walk away like nothing’s happened?”
Jonah’s nose for trouble started working double-time. Not only were this guy’s friends trying encircle both he and YJ, but at the first mention of Worth’s name, a ripple of tension had moved through the crowd, and now the confrontation was drawing a lot of attention from the bar’s denizens.
YJ stepped in. “Listen, we just did a deal for Prentice, so why don’t you just-”
“This has nothing to do with Prentice,” the tough snarled. “Now, you’re going to take us to Worthless, one way or the other.”
Jonah sighed, fishing around in his pocket with one hand while his other hand slowly drifted towards a concealed pouch in his jacket. He came up with a low-denomination silver coin, which he contemptibly flipped towards the tough. “You know, your breath is stinking something fierce, boy. Why don’t you go buy a breath mint and take care of that?”
A wicked grin split the tough’s twisted face. “Suggestion noted,” he said as he clenched his fists and took another step towards Jonah.
In an instant Jonah reached inside his jacket pouch, extracted a collapsible baton which he snapped to full extension, and laid it across the tough’s midsection, knocking the wind of out him and sending him staggering back against the bar. The crowd roared its disapproval at the sudden maneuver.
One of the nearest toughs took a swing at YJ, who ducked it easily and said, “listen, why don’t you just calm down and we’ll talk about this like rational – oof!” and doubled over as a blow from a second ruffian caught him off guard.
The first tough bounced back off the bar and kicked at Jonah with a heavy steel-toed boot. Jonah deftly hooked a nearby barstool with the end of his baton and spun it into the path of the oncoming boot, blocking the attack.
YJ caught his breath, smiled at his attackers and said, “well, you had your chance,” and delivered a roundhouse kick to the nearest man’s head, which snapped back as it took the full force of the blow.
Jonah turned his attention to the next attacker, hammering him with a number of body blows with his stun baton. The tough got a fist through the flurry that caught Jonah and made his teeth rattle.
Tossing the barstool out of his path, the first tough went for Jonah, teeth bared. Jonah ducked and nailed him again with his baton. The fight drained out of his opponent as he slumped to the floor, but Jonah didn’t have time to celebrate, as another uppercut from a nearby ruffian blasted him. He rocked back on his heels, somewhat punch-drunk.
YJ also took another body blow that left him tasting yesterday’s lunch, and it took all his remaining presence of mind to hook his attacker’s leg and send him sprawling before he heard the tell-tale sound of a stun rifle being powered up by someone behind him.
Two of the fighting den’s security guards were now on the scene, pointing their weapons at the group of brawlers. “All right, that’s it!” one of the bouncers shouted. “Time to take this upstairs and outside, if you know what’s good for you!”
YJ and Jonah were both grabbed by the collars and frog-marched upstairs. Jonah couldn’t help but notice that a rather large crowd of bar patrons was following the bouncers upstairs. As the bouncers heaved open the pressurized doors at the top of the stairwell, Jonah shouted to YJ, “run for it!”
Sure enough, the angry crowd surged after them as the two half-stunned men stumbled towards the hover mule. Jonah opened up the throttle and they took off towards their ship as a torrent of beer bottles and anti-Worth cups rained after them.
Worth was standing guard outside Shenmue as the hover mule approached. He immediately noticed the bruises and welts on both YJ and Jonah as they parked the bus. He followed the pair they made their way to the ship’s galley for a refreshing drink. “Guess it was a good thing I stayed behind, eh?”
“You know, we took these lumps on account of you, and maybe we should arrange a transfer.” Jonah shot back as he dumped ice in his drink and then some ice in a rag, which he then balled up and held over his swelling eye.
“You guys need anything for those shiners?” the Doc asked innocently.
YJ shook off the pain and collected himself. “Like there are any painkillers left on board.”
Worth smiled. “Let’s get the hell off this rock while the getting’s good.”
His two battered crewmates couldn’t have agreed more.