Jonah Rothsay couldn’t believe his luck.
He thought his freewheeling days as a Shenzhou colonist, bouncing around from one end of the ‘Verse to the other as an interplanetary nomad, had come to an end when he was picked up by the Alliance on bogus nuisance charges. Turns out some government pencil-pusher needed a warm body to fill out the passenger listing on an unmarked Jailbird transport, and Jonah had fit the bill perfectly – as a member of the Shenzhou ‘colony,’ he was as close to an unperson as possible and would not be missed.
Things went south, however, when the Jailbird became the scene of a violent uprising fueled by some particularly unruly passengers with the skill and drive to see it off. Too bad the gravitational pull of Three Hills had gotten in the way.
Jonah survived the uprising and subsequent crash landing, and set out to do what he did best – look out for number one. So as the Boxers and other hardened criminals plotted to lure passing salvage scows with the promise of a quick score, he took a stroll towards the nearest settlement, a little patch of dirt called Evans City.
He wasn’t the only prisoner to do so, and things quickly got ugly in town. Jonah realized that his prospects for long-term survival were diminishing with every passing hour, and that he needed to get aboard one of the ships in the town’s shipyard. So the night before the raid on Evans City, that’s exactly what he did – sneaking past the security cordon around the town just as nice as you please, and entering the best-looking ship of the lot – a Firefly transport.
Only the gorram ship wouldn’t get airborne. Jonah tried every trick he knew, but there was something in the guts of the starship that wasn’t working right. Jonah would have left and tried another ship, but the Boxers had begun their suicidal frontal assault on Evans City, and he didn’t want to chance getting shot. So he found a quiet nook in which to hunker down and ride things out.
Meanwhile, Sai McKittrick explained the details of his proposed job to the newly-minted owners of that Firefly transport. It sounded simple enough – ferry a few pallets of sensitive cargo already stashed in the Firefly’s secondary hold to a remote settlement on the border planet Beylix, home to a business associate of McKittrick’s who had a knack for making things disappear. With only a short while until the Alliance showed up to clean up their mess on Three Hills and in Evans City, McKittrick needed to get his cargo out of town quickly. He agreed to forego the first month’s payment on the Firefly if the crew delivered his goods to Beylix.
Johnson was acclimatizing himself to the controls of the transport ship as they embarked on their shakedown cruise, noting the slight power drop in the port thruster that had to be compensated for while flying in atmo. The Doc had collapsed in one of the crew quarters where he planned to ride out the inevitable amphetamine crash. Worth was in the secondary cargo hold, having checked out McKittrick’s payload, which definitely looked like something that had fallen off the back of an Alliance supply truck.
The movement of the transport had shaken Jonah awake, and he was doing his best to stay out of sight and out of mind as he skulked about looking for something to quench his thirst. He snuck into the ship’s galley and starting opening and closing drawers as quietly as he could, grabbing a bottle of stale Blue Sun water and chugging its contents.
All four men suddenly had their attention grabbed as a tremendous explosion rocked the ship. Worth in particular was knocked clean off his feet by the unexpected shudder, which rattled the deck plates from stem to stern. Jonah heard a stream of curses coming from below deck.
At the controls, Johnson was only saved from being tossed out of the bridge by his seat restraints. He quickly noted that the port thrust had dropped from 95% to less than 5% output in less than a second. An alarm began to blare maddeningly. With the starboard engine at full thrust, the Firefly began spinning as it began a long, uncontrolled descent to the surface of Three Hills.
Worth quickly got to his feet and attempted to square the ship’s gravity with actual gravity as he made his way to the stairwell that led to the engine room.
Jonah cursed his luck. He had survived one starship crash and avoided being shot like a dog in Evans City only to hitch a ride on another crippled starship. He decided to make his way to one of the transport’s shuttle bays.
Johnson struggled to pull the throttle back, equalizing the starboard and port thrust, which minimized the spin, but did not reverse the transport’s rapid descent. As a result, Worth and Jonah found it slightly easier to move around.
Worth took the back hallway stairs two at a time, and as he reached the back hall, he was aware of movement in the corner of his eye. He turned and gawked suddenly at the sight of a sunburned, dirty man wearing a cutoff orange jumpsuit moving out of the galley towards the foredeck. Jonah cursed his luck again as he realized the jig was up.
As Worth’s expression changed from astonished surprise to paranoid anger, Jonah thought he’d try the obfuscating approach. He shouted, “Are you the captain of this ship? I’m with the Port Authority, and you just took off without clearance!”
Worth responded by yanking one of his oversized pistols from its holster and aiming it at Jonah, even as the ship shuddered and shook. Jonah laughed nervously and tried another approach. “So, you guys are taking on passengers, right?”
Meanwhile on the bridge, Johnson attempted to use the ship’s 5% thrust to slow its descent. Suddenly he heard Worth shout from the foredeck, “Johnson! We got a stowaway!” Johnson turned in his pilot’s chair to take in the disheveled Jonah with disbelieving eyes, even as the horizon continued to do flip flops outside. “Who the hell are you?” he shouted.
“I hate to bring this up, but aren’t we falling from the sky right about now?” Jonah asked innocently. Worth shrugged, holstered his pistol and took off like a shot for the engine room. Jonah was about to saunter away, when Johnson shouted, “listen friend, I’ve got a poison dart gun aimed at you right now, so why don’t you come on up here and sit down?” Seeing that the ship’s pilot indeed was holding a gun on him, Jonah sighed and marched up to the bridge. “So, are you guys taking on passengers or what?”
Johnson fumed. “The barrel of my gun says otherwise. Now sit yourself down.”
Worth made his way into the engine room where all manner of sparks and smoke were belching about. He quickly surmised that the port engine’s intake manifold had come loose and fouled the thruster. Fixing the problem would be as simple (or as complicated) as cutting the fuel to the engines and then performing a hot restart to clear the thruster. Worth quickly located the level that controlled the fuel line, but found to his dismay that it was stuck in the open position and he was going to need help to push the lever and close off the fuel line to the damaged thruster.
“A little help!” Worth shouted up the hallway. Jonah turned to Johnson, who was half struggling with the controls and half covering the stowaway with his pistol. “You know, I could give him a hand…” Johnson grimaced and put his pistol away. “Fine, but don’t try anything funny.”
Jonah made his way carefully back to the engine room, wary of the rattling deck plates and pitching centre of gravity. He approached Worth and immediately grabbed hold of the lever. The two men strained and with some difficulty got the lever into the “off” position. On the bridge, Johnson was preparing for a crash landing as the rocky surface of Three Hills filled the viewports. He saw the port thruster finally flame out as the fuel supply was cut. He exhaled nervously.
Worth and Jonah waited until they were sure the fuel had stopped flowing, and then worked to force the stubborn lever back into the “on” position. There was a whooshing sound as fuel was restored to the thruster, and the pair moved from the lever to the auxiliary control console to hot-start the port engine.
Johnson was in the process of saying his prayers and working feverishly to arrest the Firefly’s descent when a green light began flashing on his console indicating that thrust had been restored. With only a few hundred metres to spare, Johnson kicked in both thrusters to maximum and sent the transport ship back towards the black.
Amid the hoarse cheering, the Doc climbed wearily out of his cabin. “Something wrong?” he said groggily.
Jonah was about to give Worth an encouraging slap on the shoulder when he saw that the burly engineer once again had one of his hand cannons pointed right at his nose. Jonah sighed and let Worth march him back to the galley.
Satisfied that the Firefly had escaped the gravity well of Three Hills once and for all, Johnson activated the autopilot and strode to the galley, where Worth, the Doc, and Jonah were standing, eyeing one another suspiciously. “Now,” Johnson said. “Give us a reason not to toss you out of the airlock.”
“Well, for starters, I just saved your ship, didn’t I?” Jonah exclaimed.
“And yourself in the process. That buys you nothing.” Johnson replied. “Who are you and what are you doing on this ship?”
“Look, I just needed a ride off Three Hills in a major way,” Jonah said. “As for who I am…”
“He’s a Shenzhou colonist.” The Doc suddenly exclaimed, having recognized the distinctive half-moon tattoos on each of Jonah’s forearms. “That’s right.” Jonah said. “Any of you heard of the Shenzhou?” Worth and Johnson drew blanks. “Well then, you should know that we’re a trustworthy bunch spreading a message of peace throughout the Verse…”
“Please.” The Doc interrupted, having been burdened with an overabundance of schooling when compared to the other two. “The Shenzhou are grifters, thieves, and con artists who overstay their welcome wherever they make planetfall. Stop me if this sounds familiar.” Turning to Jonah, he continued. “Now, it’s a damn shame that the Shenzhou had their planet yanked out from under them thanks to corrupt terraformers, but that’s no excuse for…”
“Enough.” Johnson said. “The question is, what are we going to do with you?”
Jonah decided that it was time to play his trump card. “Well, if you make me walk the airlock you’re going to miss out on the score of your careers. Have you ever heard of the treasure of Captain Mott?” Again, blanks were drawn by the less-formally educated members of the crew. The Doc, however, spluttered. “You mean Captain Kevin Mott? The Scourge of the Spacelanes? The notorious privateer who was captured by an Alliance task force near the end of the War? Nah, never heard of him.”
Jonah grimaced. “Yes, that Captain Mott. I happen to be in possession of the coordinates of one of his treasure troves. We’re talking big money here. I’m willing to cut you guys in on it in exchange for passage. How about a seventy-ten-ten-ten split between me and you guys?”
Johnson smiled darkly. “Nice try. If there’s treasure we’re all getting an equal share.”
“Fine,” Jonah said. “All I need is passage to Fuel Station A-21 to pick up my personal effects, which include the coordinates to the treasure.”
“Shiny. That’s where we need to go anyways to get this intake problem sorted out,” Johnson said. “Plus I want to have a word with McKittrick about this ship, and that word is fei-oo.”
Johnson suddenly had an idea. He reached down to his belt and found one of the magazines for his flechette pistol. Easing one of the darts out of the clip, he said. “All right, we’ll shake on it to seal the deal.” As Jonah reached out his hand, Johnson suddenly stabbed it with the dart.
“Ouch! Ta ma de! What the hell was that?” Jonah jerked his hand away, rubbing it irritably.
“That was a poison-tipped flechette,” Johnson said, “that just released a toxin into your bloodstream. If you don’t receive an antidote in seven days’ time, you will die, simple as that.”
Jonah was aghast. “Are you kidding? Is this seriously how you guys operate?” He cursed as he examined the pinprick on his palm, a tiny point of blood rising from the wound.
“Yeah,” Johnson replied. “In about a week’s time you’ll start getting the shakes, and then it’ll be all over.” “What happens after I start shaking?” Jonah said. “Don’t worry, it’s a neurotoxin.” Johnson said in response. “So, you take us to the treasure within a week’s time, and we administer the antidote. Just to keep everybody honest.”
“I don’t believe this,” Jonah muttered almost to himself. He turned to the Doc. “Can I at least have your word that the antidote’s safely stowed on board?” The Doc grinned. “You think we’d stick someone without having the antidote around?” Then he grinned again.
Jonah blinked. He couldn’t believe what he was getting himself into. Shrugging, he said. “Sounds like you’ve got a deal. The name’s Rothsay, by the way, Jonah Rothsay.”
It was about a day’s ride to the fuel station. Jonah, with the Doc keeping careful watch on him, took a tour of the Firefly and familiarized himself with the layout. Worth started making a list of things that needed to be repaired, starting with the port intake manifold. It didn’t take long before the list got worryingly long.
The fuel station was a slapdash collection of habitation and storage modules arrayed around a central spar, anchored by a large ‘carrion house’ scrap assembly. The scrap shop was run by a man named Farnsworth, a regular client of the crew’s late boss, Ox Grant. Johnson docked the Firefly with little difficulty. The Doc elected to stay aboard the ship to “catch up on his sleep,” so rest of the crew made their way to the nearest cortex terminal to send a wave back to Sai McKittrick on Three Hills.
“Didn’t expect to hear from you so soon,” McKittrick said as Johnson gave him a call. “How’s my payload?”
“It almost didn’t make it out of Three Hills, thanks for asking.” Johnson growled. “I want to talk to you about this lemon you sold us.”
“What, the Firefly? You’ve heard of the phrase caveat emptor, haven’t you?” McKittrick said slyly.
“If you want your payload to get to Beylix in one piece, you’re going to front us some cash so we can make repairs on this boat.” Johnson said. “The gorram ship nearly fell out of the sky on its first run.” McKittrick’s expression darkened. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you boys were trying to renege on our deal. Threats don’t become you, son.”
“Not in the least,” Johnson said. “The fact is, this boat’s falling apart and it’s in your interest to get it at least ship-shape enough to get to Beylix. For starters, we need a new intake manifold.”
“Hmm, point taken.” McKittrick said. “Farnsworth’s a client of mine. You tell Farnsworth that if he ever wants to receive another shipment from me, he’ll give you guys the MRSP: the McKittrick’s Recommended Sale Price. He’ll know what that means.”
That settled, they made their way through the shabby fuel station to Farnsworth’s repair unit. The affable mechanic recognized them from his dealings with Ox Grant. “Hey Johnson, I didn’t know that Ironmonger had made port. How’s Grant doing?”
Johnson let out a sigh. “Well, last I saw of Ox Grant he had a hole in his head wide enough to fly a Trans-U through. We got bushwhacked on Three Hills checking out the hull down that had everybody excited a couple days ago, and the ship got jacked.” Farnsworth was visibly shaken. “That’s a hell of a thing. That hull down sounded like a prime score. Grant wasn’t the only one who checked it out. Things happen, I guess.”
“Yeah, but it worked out for us,” said Johnson. “We’ve got ourselves a new boat and we’re working for Sai McKittrick. This brings me to why we’re here. We need a new intake manifold and McKittrick says to put it on his tab.”
“I’d love to boys, but I don’t have one in stock at the moment.” Farnsworth said. “It’s kind of ironic. I worked out a deal with Ox Grant to bring a load back from Beylix just to restock my supply. Guess I’ll have to find another crew to finish the job.”
“Look no further.” Johnson said. “We’ll finish the deal, in memory of the big Ox. Beylix is where we were heading anyhow.”
“Well, seeing as I already paid Ox in advance, that’s mighty generous of you. I don’t expect he’ll be in a position to spend that any time soon.” Farnsworth smiled. “Tell you what. You boys pick up the cargo on Beylix and I’ll install it free of charge. In the meantime I’ll have my robots scrub your port intake and patch you with something that should hold at least temporarily.” That sounded satisfactory to Worth and Johnson.
With business settled, Jonah led the pair to a near-abandoned section of the fuel station and took a ride on a dangerous-looking elevator into the bowels of the facility. They made their way down a long corridor strewn with packing crates into a dimly-let chamber. The deck plates on this level were vibrating beneath the soles of their boots – they were pretty close to the station’s power core here.
Beyond the corridor the narrow chamber opened into a larger area, with more crates stacked waist and chest high in places. Tanks for liquid storage were placed in the centre of the room, with a bank of turbines on the far wall keeping temperatures regulated. Along the north wall, on a raised catwalk were a shabby row of personal storage lockers arrayed from floor to ceiling.
“Are we supposed to be down here?” Johnson asked as the trio mounted the catwalk and Jonah began fiddling with the lock on one of the storage units. “Definitely not,” Jonah replied.
Jonah opened the locker to reveal a pair of battered duffel bags. “I stashed these down here before I got pinched by the Feds.” He explained as he shouldered the heavier of the two bags.
“Rothsay!” a harsh voice suddenly called from behind the group, and Jonah’s blood ran cold. The three spun on their heels as a group of men emerged from a shadowy sub-chamber. Jonah recognized his old boss, Phil Sundeen, his trademark red cigarette dangling from lips twisted in a sneer. Behind Sundeen was the rest of Jonah’s former crew: Dave Flynn, the gang’s squirrelly pilot, Teague Bowers, the brains of the operation (even though it wasn’t really a brains sort of operation), Brade Sorgen, a deadly hired gun, and Mister Basimba, Sundeen’s second-in-command. Only Sorgen had his gun out, but it was one hell of a gun – a combat auto shotgun fed by a drum magazine.
“Well, well,” Sundeen smirked, “Ain’t this a familiar sight, eh Jonah? Drury had the same expression on his face when we caught him trying to hold out on us. Now, are you going to hand over the coordinates or are you going to follow Drury’s example?”
Jonah cracked a smile of his own. “Sundeen, you da shiong la se la ch’wohn tian, I was wondering when you were going to show up. I’m just trying to make good on what I stole from you fair and square.”
Johnson let out a sigh and fixed Jonah with a look that had the stopping power of Sorgen’s shotgun. “I don’t believe this.”
Sundeen chuckled and turned his attention to Johnson and Worth. “So Jonah, I see you got yourself a new crew.” He said to Johnson, “You sure you want to roll with this backstabber?” he nodded in Jonah’s direction. “This huen dahn betrayed us the first chance he got!”
“I wasn’t the one who shot Drury,” Jonah said. “I believe in an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. You broke the deal.”
“You want to talk deals?” Sundeen snarled. “Hand over that memory stick or we give you the same deal we gave Drury. Several ounces of lead delivered at high velocity. Whaddaya say?”
“You know what, Sundeen? Your oratory’s convinced me. Sounds like a good deal after all.” Jonah said as he reached into his duffel. He then pulled out not the memory stick, but a loaded pistol. Leaping from the catwalk, he snapped off a shot at Sorgen, the gunman. The bullet slapped into the ballistic mesh Sorgen wore beneath his black duster, and unfazed the gunslinger fired back, the shotgun round sending sparks flying as it smacked into the storage tank Jonah had landed behind, just inches from his head.
Cursing, both Johnson and Worth jumped off the catwalk in the opposite direction, finding cover behind one of the thrumming turbines. Worth unlimbered both of his heavy pistols and Johnson made sure his gun was loaded with the poisoned flechettes.
Sundeen and Bowers both drew their sidearms while Flynn, a nervous wreck any place other than a ship, faded into the darkness. Mister Basimba cracked his knuckles and dove for cover, working his way towards Jonah’s hiding place.
Jonah snapped off another shot at Sorgen, who didn’t appreciate all the attention. “Rothsay!” he shouted, thumbing the fire selector to full auto. “I’m coming for you!”
The two-fisted Worth leaned out from behind cover. “No you’re not,” he said as he let loose with both handguns. The double blast knocked Sorgen off his feet and he crashed backwards into a pile of packing crates, his shotgun spinning out of his hands.
Johnson aimed a shot at Sundeen’s neck as the leader of the gang finally got his pistol out. He fired, and the flechette struck home. Sundeen’s legs went out from under him as the poison did its work, and he fell to the floor, limbs twitching spasmodically.
With their leader and best shot out of the fight, Bowers did the smart thing and dropped his pistol, raising both hands. “All right, you got us, Rothsay.”
Jonah got to his feet. “Mister Basimba, let’s see those hands.” With a sour grimace, Basimba stood up and raised his hands. He waved his pistol at the two thugs. “Turn around and face the wall.”
Bowers and Basimba obliged as Jonah collected his things. He picked up Sorgen’s shotgun, which lay near his unconscious form and shouldered it.
“Now, to make sure you don’t follow us…” Jonah said and casually fired a round from his pistol into Basimba’s calf. The muscle-bound thug roared in angry surprise. Collapsing, he spun around and lunged at Jonah, grabbing him. In a fierce whisper, he said, “this isn’t the last you’ve seen of us, Rothsay,” before falling to the floor, cursing alternately in Mandarin and Swahili.
Johnson shook his head at Rothsay’s cold behaviour. “Jonah, we aren’t letting you out of our sight for a second until we find that treasure.”
On the floor, Sundeen coughed wetly and died.