There was blood everywhere.
The payload bed of the hover mule was coated in a sticky layer of the stuff, its horrible cargo dumped to the deck in a tangle of gore-streaked limbs. Below, an ever-widening pool was forming as blood dripped through the grating on the cargo bay floor.
Bright fresh spatters marked the path that Jonah had taken to get to his wheelchair and drive to the infirmary, and curved swaths of blood shone under the harsh lighting of the corridor where Worth had hauled the still-living bodies of the Kid and Brade Sorgen onto a gurney. The gurney, covered in the vital fluids of the two unconscious gunmen, lay on its side in front of the infirmary entrance.
The infirmary itself was in even worse shape. The Doc was hard at work over the prone form of Brade Sorgen, whose head was geysering blood in regular spurts that splashed the ceiling of the portable field surgery unit.
The Kid, his hands bound, lay where he’d been tossed in a corner, after the Doc had judged his wounds to be superficial at best.
Jonah was squirming in his wheelchair, clutching his injured midsection and doing his best to jump the triage queue. “Doc, I swear, I can see a white light,” he blurted through clenched teeth, while eyeing the physician’s supply of painkillers.
“Save it,” the Doc snapped almost absently, “I’ve seen schoolchildren handle pain better than you!”
“Why the hell are you working so hard on someone who was about to shoot us down a few minutes ago anyway?” Jonah shot back.
“Because you brought an injured man on board, and he’s in worse shape than you, that’s why.” The Doc grabbed for a nearby artery clip.
Jonah glared at Worth, who was standing in the infirmary’s doorway, trying to ignore the blood drying on his forearms. “Whose bright idea was this? We aren’t running a charity hospital here!”
“Everyone whose brains aren’t leaking out onto the operating table is free to leave, now!” the Doc suddenly shouted. He tossed a surplus field dressing and a bubble pack of derms to Worth. “Press these on the crybaby’s wound, and get him out of here.” He paused. “I’ll fish the buckshot out of him once the headless horseman here is stabilized.”
Jonah rolled his eyes and triggered the wheelchair, being sure to roll over the Doc’s foot on his way out of the infirmary.
Shenmue shuddered as YJ guided her through Persephone’s upper atmosphere. The traffic controller had long since stopped trying to ream him out for his illegal takeoff.
“Folks, we’re clear out of atmo,” YJ’s voice came over the ship’s intercom. “Nobody’s following us, near as I can tell.”
“Let’s flush this garbage,” Jonah said to Worth as they moved back into the cargo bay. He leaned out of his motorized chair to start looting the corpses, but found that their pockets were already turned out. Worth whistled, a wide smile on his face, as he busied himself with the airlock controls. Jonah contented himself with one of Basimba’s ceramic throwing knives.
Worth hit the controls to open the outer doors of the bomb bay hatch, and then rolled the mostly headless corpses into the airlock while Jonah watched. “Clear sailing, Sundeen,” he muttered as the body of his former boss dropped out of sight with a thud.
YJ took note of the tinny sound of the airlock warning system, which sounded a fair bit like the flushing of a space toilet. “There’s a fine for littering, you know,” he said wryly into the intercom. He eased the ship into a stable orbit, then flicked the autonav to life.
Their gruesome task completed, Worth and Jonah headed up to the bridge for a quick conference with YJ.
“What are we gonna do about Wild Sky?” Worth asked as he dabbed futilely at the fresh blood on his jumpsuit with a blue paper towel.
“That’s question one,” YJ said as he spun his chair back and forth in contemplation. “Question two is, where are we going to set back down? Persephone traffic control isn’t exactly going to welcome us back.”
Jonah painfully eased himself into the navigator’s chair, having left the wheelchair at the foot of the stairs to the bridge. “Well, Persephone’s got a couple moons, doesn’t it?” He said, reading the navigational display. “Hades, and Renao.”
“We are not,” YJ said sharply, “going anywhere near a place called Hades. No how.”
“Fair enough, it’s being terraformed anyway.” Jonah replied. “So, Renao it is. We ditch our prisoners and find a safe place to lay low, while you guys take the shuttle back to Persephone and sniff out Wild Sky.”
“You think I’m going to leave you in command of Shenmue while we’re a world away?” YJ said incredulously. “You must think I was born yesterday.”
Jonah indicated his wounded midsection and gestured at the wheelchair to remind everyone of his condition. “Do I look,” he said slowly but sharply, “like I’m in any condition to fly off into the sunset?”
“YJ, we need you to fly the shuttle, and we need the Doc in case Wild Sky’s been hurt,” Worth argued.
YJ turned. “And what do we need you for?”
Worth patted the butts of his holstered pistols in response.
As Shenmue’s autonav handled the short hop to the nearby moon, Worth and YJ busied themselves with cleaning up the cargo hold, which was beginning to smell like a slaughterhouse at high noon.
Exhausted, the Doc stepped out into the cargo bay, wiping his hands on his surgical scrubs. “Patient number one is stable, for the time being.” He shrugged at the unasked question. “He’ll need pretty extensive surgery to get back on his feet. The other one, passed out from shock, but it was just a graze. He could wake up anytime.”
“Well first thing we’re going to put these two bozos back on their feet down on Renao,” Jonah said. “Set ‘em down in the middle of nowhere with one pair of boots between them, I don’t care.” He paused for a moment and considered. “Unless there are any outstanding warrants on them, that is.”
“I’ll do what I can to put Humpty Dumpty back together in the meantime,” the Doc said.
And so it was that Shenmue swooped in on one of the tiny settlements that dotted the scrubland surface of Renao, an event that the locals would be still be talking about in half a year’s time. Its cargo hatch opened, and two bodies were dumped unceremoniously at the edge of town. The transport ship didn’t even idle its engines, and was back in the air in no time.
YJ found a bare patch of land on the other side of the moon and set Shenmue down. He found Jonah in the infirmary and watched the Doc clean his gunshot wound.
YJ glared unsympathetically at Jonah. “Don’t mess with any of my settings while I’m gone,” he warned.
Jonah waved absently.
The Doc put his forceps down. “That does it for the buckshot. Now just take it easy or you’ll tear yourself a new one.”
“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Jonah said weakly.
The Doc replenished his medical kit, Worth reloaded Wham and Bam, and YJ resigned himself to the task at hand as they entered the shuttle and detached from the docking bay.
Armed with cigars and booze, Jonah worked the controls of the wheelchair to lever himself up the stairs to the bridge, where he wheeled himself behind the sensor console to keep tabs on Shenmue’s surroundings. He reclined the back of the seat and opened a bottle of fine Shenzhou moonshine he had picked up on Persephone and contentedly blew a smoke ring towards the atmo scrubber.
Worth, YJ and the Doc soon found themselves back on the busy streets of the Eavesdown Docks.
“Wild Sky, come in,” Worth whispered into his multiband as he shouldered his way through the crowd. He got no response.
“So where do we start?” The Doc asked.
“Let’s go back to the scene of the crime,” YJ replied.
And a crime scene it was. Metal sawhorses with blinking lights affixed to them held the unruly crowd aside as the three men approached the landing pad where, just a few hours before, they had been trading gunfire with the Sundeen Seven. Under the baleful gaze of some leather-clad dockside policemen, a half-dozen Federal Marshals were investigating the scene of the firefight.
“What the hell?” Worth muttered as he watched a pair of Marshals picking up shell casings with tweezers while another set up a laser triangulation system to calculate bullet trajectories.
The Doc scanned the surrounding area. The crowd was being diverted around the landing pad thanks to the sawhorses, and the occasional menacing glare from the dock cops, their chrome half-shell helmets at a rakish tilt under the glare of the afternoon sun. Pedestrian traffic had slowed to a standstill as passers-by rubbernecked the spectacle. It was obvious from the vibe coming off the crowd that this was not the usual police response to a midday shootout.
“Why are they taking this so seriously?” YJ asked aloud.
The Doc took note of a short, stocky man standing with his arms folded near the landing pad. He was wearing a rumpled grey suit that gave him a definite Alliance affiliation, but there was nothing uniform about it.
The Doc turned to another bystander and asked, “Who’s the spook?” He nodded towards the mustachioed investigator.
“Word is, Interpol’s running the show. Went right over the heads of the dock cops.” The man, a barker by the look of him, replied in between worried puffs on a handrolled stogie. “This is gonna be bad for business,” he declared solemnly.
“Interpol?” The Doc repeated. He opened a channel on his multiband and called Jonah. “Jonah, who exactly did we shoot here?” He whispered. “There are cops all over the place.”
Jonah considered for a moment. “The Sundeen Seven are – I mean were – strictly small time. I only ran with them a short while but it was obvious they were about as sharp as a pound of wet leather.”
The Doc nodded to himself and turned to Worth and YJ. “It isn’t the Sundeen Seven they’re interested in, that’s for sure.”
YJ sighed. “So, Wild Sky then?”
Jonah heard the exchange over the open channel. “She must have had more heat on her than she was letting on,” He said thoughtfully, remembering her response when she saw his stolen Alliance ingots.
“She must have been pretty good at poker,” Worth said. “She didn’t exactly broadwave her troubles.”
“What kind of crazy woman chases a man while the Feds are about to swoop in?” YJ pondered. “If she was afraid of the Alliance, she picked the wrong way to go about keeping a low profile.”
Worth thought some more. “Remember when we found that fed on board that death ship a while back? Wild Sky wanted to off him, pretty much on sight.”
Despite himself, Jonah suddenly felt a deep welling of regretful respect as he realized that Wild Sky was as much a criminal misfit as the rest of the crew, despite the airs she put on.
The Doc noticed that the police investigation had not yet widened to encompass the narrow alleyway that Wild Sky had chased Teague Bowers into. “Look, those cops have missed Teague’s getaway. If we get over there first, we might find something out.”
“The longer we stay hidden in plain sight, the sooner someone’s going to finger us to these Feds,” YJ said. “Let’s get to work.”
They sidled around the barriers nonchalantly until they were deep into the red steel canyon of shipping containers stacked three or four high on either side. Checking about in the dusty depths, Worth’s sharp eye spotted the distinctive heel pattern of Wild Sky’s expensive designer boots, and soon gleaned a second set of tracks. The followed as best they could through the sharp turns and blinds of the shipping containers.
The trail ended in a dead end corridor, slightly wider than the rest of the maze, strewn with piles of discarded cargo pallets. The only sound was the buzzing of flies.
“Gorram,” Worth said sadly.
There was a worrysome amount of blood splashed on the ground and spattered on the shipping container directly behind them. Wild Sky’s boot prints were nowhere to be found.
“It looks like Wild Sky walked in here, but didn’t walk out,” Worth said slowly.
“Yeah,” was all YJ could manage.
The Doc stared at the blood patterns on the ground and walls. “She probably ran around the corner, and…”
“Yeah,” YJ repeated.
In one corner of what they had taken for a dead end was a narrow gap between the shipping containers that was wide enough for someone to squeeze through. Smears of blood led in that direction. YJ peeked out and saw the narrow passage that opened into a busy thoroughfare. “Okay, somebody had to see something.” YJ said.
He nodded to a vendor selling “Good Dogs” according to the poorly painted sign over the sputtering grill.
“Lovely,” the Doc sniffed in disdain.
The trio approached the vendor, who was touting the quality of his wares in a piercing tenor. YJ paid altogether too much for a heaping helping of good dog, which he promptly dumped in the trashcan next to the food stand. “So, you see anything out of the ordinary, maybe a few hours ago?” YJ asked the vendor, wiping his hands carefully on a napkin.
The vendor’s eyes narrowed and he looked furtively around. “Now, that kind of talk could get a man in trouble,” he said.
“Come on, you’d be doing a public service.” YJ said.
“Well, I see a lot of things, day in day out, you know?” The vendor replied.
“Now, now,” the Doc said smoothly. “Surely you don’t mind helping out a loyal customer.”
“Well, it’s not that,” the vendor said, still looking around. “It’s just that…” He flushed and tried a different approach. “My memory’s not that good.”
YJ held out another banknote. As the vendor reached greedily for it, YJ grabbed his wrist, holding it dangerously close to the red-hot iron grillwork.
“What the-” the vendor’s eyes widened in shock.
“Remember harder,” YJ snarled.
“What are you doing?” The vendor screeched. YJ lowered the man’s hand closer to the surface of the grill as a piece of dog popped, spraying hot grease on the man’s open palm.
“Okay, maybe I saw somebody,” the vendor babbled. “Real squirrely fellow.”
“What about a woman?” Worth said.
“Maybe, yeah, black hair?” The vendor said. “I didn’t get a good look at her, he had her in his arms, I figured it was just another human traffic deal!”
“Just another…” YJ said, and had to restrain himself from pressing the vendor’s hand directly onto the grill. “Did they just take a stroll down the street?”
“No, no, there was a vehicle, he must have called ahead. A silver dune buggy,” the vendor replied. “He pushed her in, and that was it! That’s all I saw!”
YJ released the vendor’s hand, and then turned away in disgust. The three walked on, and before they were out of earshot, they heard the vendor resume his singsong barking.
“Now who would have given Teague Bowers a lift? We shot all the other members of the Sundeen Seven, didn’t we?” YJ asked.
“Their pilot wasn’t in that fight,” Worth said. “Maybe he picked Bowers up.”
“If Bowers shot Wild Sky down, why wouldn’t he have just left her for the buzzards?” YJ asked. “Why not just leave her and run?”
“Maybe he was doing what we were doing, grabbing a corpse to dump in orbit.” Worth offered.
“Yeah, but if she’s still alive, why would he care?” YJ replied.
“Well, she was pretty.” The Doc winced.
“Jonah,” YJ said into his multiband. “What was the name of Sundeen’s ship?”
Jonah had put away a significant amount of Shenzhou moonshine, but not enough to make him forget the obvious. “Haruna,” he said. “An Osprey transport ship.”
“Okay, so we start looking for an Osprey parked nearby.” YJ said.
“Look, this still doesn’t make sense,” The Doc said suddenly. “How would the Alliance even know Wild Sky was here in the first place?”
“Well they haven’t found her blood yet,” Jonah said. “So maybe they’re operating on other info.”
YJ nodded. “Well the last thing we need is a ship with feds all over it.”
“Hey, looks like the Feds aren’t the only ones investigating,” Worth said, pointing to a pair of sharp-eyed hard cases trolling the crowd.
The Doc smiled. “I do believe those two gentlemen work for Badger.”
“Just the man I want to see,” YJ said. “Especially since he didn’t find it in his heart to warn us about the thugs who were waiting to ambush us.” He strode purposefully towards the nearest of the two thugs, who were scanning the crowd with great interest. As he stepped into the first man’s field of view, YJ saw the tough’s eyes widen in recognition.
“Top of the afternoon to you,” YJ said brightly. “You boys looking for someone?”
The thug’s eyes narrowed. “As a matter of fact,” he said as he swung the barrel of shotgun in YJ’s direction. “The boss wants to see you.”
“Yeah, shiny.” YJ said. “You boys got a car waiting? We’re pretty tired.”
“Get walking,” the second thug said.
They soon found themselves in Badger’s den, where the man with the very fine hat was obviously off his food – he wasn’t even contemplating the freshly skinned apple sitting before him, its skin coiled like a sleeping snake beneath the apple peeler.
YJ collapsed, uninvited, on the overstuffed couch opposite Badger’s office table, heedless of the armed bodyguard seated reading a magazine.
“You’ve got a lot of nerve strutting around in public after the mess you made at the drop point,” Badger started, choosing to ignore the serious breach of etiquette. “What the hell are you doing, starting fights in my backyard?”
“We weren’t looking for a fight,” YJ said. “It sort of found us.”
A familiar vein on Badger’s forehead started pulsating. “Really,” he snarled. “May I remind you who fired the first shot?”
“What, were you watching?” Worth blurted.
With considerable effort, Badger wrenched his eyes off YJ and planted them on Worth. “No, but as you can see, word travels fast in the Docks. You can’t just start a firefight in the middle of the street with the first people who happen along. It’s bad for business.”
“We’ll remember that for next time,” YJ said.
Badger grimaced. “You’ve got to get offworld now and stay gone, you’ve brought too much heat down for my liking.”
“We’d love to,” the Doc replied. “But we can’t just yet.”
“Yeah, I notice you’re a few men short, and the Alliance is shaking the trees pretty gorram hard,” Badger said. “Which is it, the woman, or the jerk?”
YJ smiled. “They’re kind of one and the same.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Badger said. “Hard luck, that. But you stick around, and I’m sure the Alliance is going to find what they’re looking for.” His eyes iced over. “You could say I have that feeling.”
“Listen,” YJ said. “A few hours ago you said that our good follow-through was why you liked us. That’s what we’re doing here, following through.”
“If you’ve got a point, you’d better make it quick.” Badger snarled, his voice like gravel.
“We’d be more than happy to take the heat with us when we go,” YJ continued. “Just do us a favour and tell us where we can find the transport ship Haruna.”
Badger clenched his jaw, and then nodded to one of his underlings, who disappeared behind a curtain and reappeared a few moments later with a piece of active paper in his fist.
Badger reviewed the printout, and then smiled. “Well, well, it’s my lucky day. Haruna cleared out of here hours ago, and like you, didn’t file a flight path. I suggest you follow their lead.”
“Pleasure doing business with you, Badger.” YJ said, heaving himself off the couch. Worth and the Doc filed out behind him.
Worth absently chewed on a length of apple peel as the trio marched back to where they had stashed their shuttle. “Jonah,” YJ said into his multiband. “What can you tell us about the migratory habits of the Sundeen Seven? Where would they go to hide out after a job went south?”
“All the jobs we pulled when I was with them went south,” Jonah said. “But they said that if they ever scored big and needed a place to ride things out, they’d go to a place called The Resort.”
“The Resort?” YJ repeated.
“Yeah, but it’s no garden spot. And it’s nowhere near here,” Jonah said.
“Well, it’s the only lead we’ve got, and…” YJ trailed off as he spied a trio of angry-looking thugs standing in the road ahead, the surrounding crowd doing its best to clear away.
The men had the look of the Tong about them. They were dressed in high-collared black jackets and matching parachute pants despite the heat, with scarlet sashes cinched at the waist and flashy medallions advertising their ranks on their chests. YJ recognized them as enforcers – a Red Pole with a pair of Blue Lantern thugs backing him up.
The Doc sighed, closed his eyes, and pinched the bridge of his nose as if warding off a headache. “Is there anyone on this planet we didn’t piss off?”
“Hey you,” the Red Pole, a short, mean-faced street tough, said, one hand on his hip while the other pointed accusingly at YJ. “What do you think you’re doing roughing up street vendors in our neighbourhood?”
“Please, that guy wasn’t hurt,” YJ said blandly in Tongspeak.
The short thug snorted. “No, but he’s suffering from a loose tongue.”
YJ exhaled sharply. “We don’t have time for this,” he said, pulling out his flechette pistol and aiming it just above the first man’s belt buckle. “Somebody try something,” he snarled.
“I see you’re pretty quick to start a fight,” the Red Pole said, showing a gap-toothed smile.
Worth opened his jacket and put his hands on his hips to reveal Wham and Bam in all their holstered glory. “We’re quick to end them, too.”
One of the Blue Lanterns took an involuntary step backward.
“Listen, there’s an easy way out of this,” the Doc said. “Nobody’s got any permanent injuries, the Docks doesn’t need another gunfight today, and as luck would have it, we were just on our way offworld.”
The Tongs considered this for a moment. “Fine,” the leader said. “You go now, you don’t bother any more street vendors, dong ma?” The three backed away, their bravado melting.
Worth snorted in disgust as he walked by.
The shuttle ride back to Renao was a quiet one. After they linked up with Shenmue, the Doc went to check on Jonah’s status, YJ walked to the bridge, and Worth made a beeline for Wild Sky’s living quarters in the foredeck. He swung the ladder/door open and climbed down.
Wild Sky’s quarters were neat and spare. The metal deckplates had been covered by tatami mats, and a simple futon served as a bed. Her sniper rifle lay partially field-stripped on the dresser, which was devoid of other decoration.
The Doc, followed very slowly by Jonah, climbed down into the quarters after Worth.
“Why do I feel like a graverobber?” Worth said quietly.
“Look, the more information we have about her, the better,” Jonah said reassuringly.
The three men began tossing the place.
The Doc felt around underneath the futon mattress and his fingers grabbed what felt like a coat hanger. Pulling on it, he revealed a simple garment bag. Hanging it on an exposed cable, he unzipped the bag and pulled it open to reveal the clothing inside.
It was a uniform. An Alliance officer’s uniform.
“What?” The Doc exclaimed. He recognized the rank insignia as belonging to a First Lieutenant.
Worth’s sharp eyes caught something sticking out of a half-closed dresser drawer. A handful of static image captures. He picked them out and flipped through them.
All except one were group photos of military units. Wild Sky, a few years younger, was present in all of them. Like her companions, she wore an Alliance battle dress uniform. Worth tapped the caption button along the edge of the image printout and small letters winked across the captures.
“Boros May 2507. Athens January 2508, Du Khang August 2508,” Worth read out loud.
“She got around,” Jonah said, rifling through a stack of engineering journals.
The last two photos were of a much smaller unit, a squad of some kind. Their outfits, however – heavy body armor and face masks – were unlike anything the crew had ever seen. In the second capture, the soldiers had their imposing metal faceplates lifted, and Wild Sky’s face beamed out of one of the overpowered gorilla suits.
“What the hell is this?” Worth said. “Those don’t look like any purplebellies I’ve ever seen.”
“Well, this answers the question as to why the Alliance was after her,” Jonah said.
“Does it?” The Doc said. “That show back in the Docks was a criminal investigation, not a rescue mission.”
Jonah pulled out a small wooden hinged case from Wild Sky’s wardrobe. Cracking it open, he whistled as he took in the military decorations pinned to a velvet cushion.
“Anyone recognize these?” He asked, holding up the medals.
The Doc pulled his encyclopedia out and snapped an image of the decorations. “The Order of Blue Sky and White Sun,” he read after the encyclopedia matched the capture to its onboard database, “it’s a combat valour badge.”
“Combat valour?” Jonah repeated. “Wild Sky wasn’t exactly a crack shot.”
The Doc read the second entry. “Efficiency Improvement Medal.”
“Seriously?” Worth exclaimed.
The Doc continued. “According to this, the last one’s a Distinguished Service Medal – Research and Development.”
“I’ll bet the Alliance handed those out to anyone who could read the instructions on a light antitank weapon,” Jonah quipped.
“Well, these group photos don’t look like regular infantry,” the Doc observed. “More like combat engineers, I’d guess.”
“Okay, so she was given a few medals and made First Lieutenant,” Jonah summarized. “That doesn’t have to mean she was tight with the Alliance, right?”
“Well if she’s not with the Alliance now, whey are they so interested in her whereabouts?” The Doc asked.
Jonah shrugged. “I don’t know, but I’ll wager the answer’s inside her workshop.”
“The same workshop she warned us all was off-limits?” Worth said.
“I don’t back down from a challenge,” Jonah said.
The trio left Wild Sky’s quarters and marched to the secondary cargo hold where the modular workshop was set up behind the infirmary and beside the remote command unit.
As Worth worked his way underneath the deck plating to disconnect the cables linking the workshop to the rest of the ship, Jonah eyed the imposing entry hatch. He cracked his knuckles and examined his lockpicking tools. “Time to go to work,” he said.
The Doc shook his head. “I’ll prep the infirmary.”