Campaign of the Month: January 2011

Honour Among Thieves

Angels of Mercenary Session Three

Wherein the beginning is the end, if not the beginning of the end.

October 17, 2517

BOOM!

The thunderous explosion reverberated across the compound as the heavy iron gates of the Mission at Mission Hill were blown off their hinges, each reinforced door scything through the air, cartwheeling across the courtyard, throwing off bits of rusted shrapnel each time they impacted on the hard dirt surface.

One section of gate came to rest at the foot of the entrance of the white-bricked church, its vine-wrapped steeple standing defiantly against the blue sky. There were several outbuildings on either side of the church, and the compound, enclosed by a high stucco-covered wall, contained a few gnarled willow trees, their branches hissing in the wind.

The nose of an armored amphibious vehicle emerged from the smoke of the shaped charge, moving cautiously into the compound through the gap the explosion had opened in the mission’s protective wall. Its boat-like prow was jacked up on thick wheels to give it clearance over the ground. The driver sat in an elevated cab behind what looked like reinforced glass. The vehicle butted up against the flight of stone steps that led up to the compound’s main level, and the driver backed up a few feet and tried again.

A machinegun turret was located just aft of the main cabin, the barrel of the weapon protruding from a domed bulletproof canopy. The gunner was a man with skin the colour of charcoal and eyes that nearly glowed red with rage. He was searching for a target and didn’t look the type to fire a warning shot.

Flanking the vehicle as it negotiated the steps were two squads of red beret-wearing paramilitaries, their weapons held at the ready as they attempted to skirt past the ruined entrance towards the main buildings therein. The soldiers were armed with assault rifles and were grouped into squads of three, one on either side of the truck. Their uniforms were a mix of jungle greens and utilitarian khaki, and the squad leaders wore plate vests.

Then there was a horrendous sound of machinegun fire as the gunner opened up.

Worth, Jonah, and the Doc were standing flatfooted at the front entrance of the church, its heavy doors closed tightly behind them. They were standing beneath the Mission’s covered atrium, which was held aloft by several pillars, with a flight of stone steps leading down in front of them.

“I’m freaking out,” hissed the Doc.

Worth growled and rushed down the steps as bullets chipped stone at his feet to find cover behind a pile of concrete slabs nearby, probably meant to reinforce the more dilapidated sections of the mission’s wall. He crouched behind them and unlimbered Katrina, working her action. He took aim at the nearest attacker.

While the gun turret hurled suppressive fire in the direction of the crew, the point man of the first squad rushed forward up the wide steps at the mission’s entrance and fell prone against a low concrete bench, his assault rifle up and tracking. He was joined by one of his comrades, who crouched down next to him. The third man, wearing heavier armor, brought up the rear.

Jonah nonchalantly reached behind him and opened the church’s door, slipping inside. He came face to face with a surprised woman dressed in an embroidered blouse and long skirt, her eyes wide with fear, in the process of lifting a wooden beam to brace against the door.

“You told me to barricade the door!” the woman said in confusion.

“Yep, you’ve got the right idea, let’s get this door barricaded,” Jonah said as he looked about for inspiration.

Doc Tulsa stepped sideways and hid behind the pillar, fumbling for his pistol. He pulled it from his medical bag, and, bracing against the pillar, he aimed his weapon at an oncoming soldier.

The second squad moved out from behind cover in the general direction of the narrow schoolhouse that sat adjacent to the north wall of the mission’s compound.

The machine gunner turned his attention, and more importantly, his firepower, on Worth’s position. The hail of heavy fire gouged chunks of concrete from the pile of slabs, whittling it down. Worth grimaced as a few of the rounds punched through the concrete and struck his ballistic mesh, his ribs creaking under the impacts as he fell to the ground under the onslaught. The barrage kept up, bullets striking the dirt around him and kicking up puffs of it into the air, where it mixed with white dust from the disintegrating concrete blocks.

Worth grabbed a grenade from his belt and lobbed it with everything he had as he rolled away.

The frag grenade arced through the air and landed square in the midst of the approaching soldiers. Two of them seized the initiative and dove for cover over the edge of the concrete bench in an attempt to shield them from the blast, while the third member of the squad jumped back down behind the gap in the compound wall.

The grenade exploded with an angry crump, sending hot shards of metal into the bodies of the two nearest soldiers despite their attempts to take cover. One of the paramilitaries stayed prone, writhing in agony, while the other half crawled, half dragged himself to cover behind a pair of sturdy supply crates near a work shed on the compound’s south side.

The second squad of soldiers moved forward to cover as the machine-gunner kept Worth pinned.

Jonah helped the woman brace the heavy wooden bar against the doors of the church, and stepped back to get his bearings in the dimly lit narthex of the Mission. Beyond was the darkened sanctuary, where he could hear sounds of general distress – coughing, crying, and calling out to the Almighty. His eyes were drawn to a nearby antechamber, which held the stairwell to the church’s tower. At once he took to the stairs, grabbing a smoke grenade as his boots pounded the narrow steps two at a time, intent on getting to high ground.

Doc Tulsa aimed his pistol at the writhing soldier as the smoke from Worth’s frag grenade cleared, snapping off a shot that took the injured man square in the torso. His target stopped moving.

Tulsa’s elation at scoring a hit was cut short as the machinegun mounted on the amphibious vehicle swung towards him, a line of bullets walking their way across the compound and across the front steps of the church. The Doc ducked behind the pillar, which began to absorb damage from the high-velocity rounds. He closed his eyes as plaster and stone chips stung his cheeks, and he concentrated on making himself as small a target as possible.

The soldier who had ducked out of the way of the grenade attack rushed back out into the fray in the direction of his wounded comrade.

Worth took note of his severely reduced cover – a good six inches of concrete had been stripped from the uppermost slab. He no longer seemed to be attracting a hail of bullets, but that situation couldn’t last for long. He rolled over and felt the stock of the Buhnder anti-materiel rifle digging into his back. The heavy single-shot weapon was ideal for taking out menacing vehicles or perhaps just their gun turret, but it was inaccurate at range, so he needed to close the distance between him and target.

“I need suppressing fire to move!” Worth shouted into his multiband. “I need to get in closer to take that truck out!”

From his position ascending the stairs, Jonah answered back. “Give me about ten seconds and I’ll bring it to you!”

Worth craned his neck and looked for more cover closer to the oncoming vehicle. He could see a dilapidated work shed with a hole in its roof, and a pair of crates near its door. He saw a soldier approaching the cover from the opposite direction, and brought Katrina up to cut him down, thumbing her selector to burst fire.

The blast caught the soldier and knocked him off his feet.

The soldier’s comrade, wounded though he was, took it upon himself to return fire even as he coughed up blood onto his khaki uniform. Worth rolled back behind cover and the bullet smacked ineffectively into the concrete.

Jonah, his smoker’s lungs not co-operating as he worked his way up the steep steps, reached the belfry. His feet skidded on pigeon droppings as he encountered the heavy bells in the centre of the platform, ropes trailing down into the darkness. Several birds took flight as he made his way to the arches in the brickwork overlooking the mission’s compound.

“Two seconds!” he wheezed into his multiband as he pulled the pin on his smoke grenade, aiming to interfere with the machine-gunner’s line of sight. He tossed the grenade, which landed square in the middle of the compound, right where he hoped it would. The grenade began belching smoke.

Worth got to his feet, but as he broke cover, one of the members of the second attacking squad fired at him. His dodge turned into a somersault as the bullet cracked over his head.

The Doc was becoming increasingly concerned that the pillar he was hiding behind wasn’t going to last much longer, as chunks of stone were being knocked out by the barrage from the machinegun. Round after round slammed against the nearby doors of the church as well, the impacts sounding like a hundred angry congregants wanting to be let in. The heavy doors rattled.

Tulsa hurled himself from the church’s front entrance, leaping over a railing to land on the hard packed ground below as a section of pillar cracked and crumbled away to dust. He belly-crawled forward towards the cover Worth had recently left behind, and thanked his lucky stars that he hadn’t seemed to attract any unfriendly attention.

As members of the second squad penetrated deeper into the compound, the machine-gunner let off on the trigger as he sought after a new target. The church’s entrance was now a pockmarked ruin, shattered bricks crumbling to the ground in shards and entire lengths of vine hissing into piles as they detached from the sides of the building.

Worth came up from his roll to see that the soldier he’d shot had gotten painfully back to his feet and had beaten him to the supply crates to come to the aid of his wounded buddy. The soldier’s face was locked in a rictus of pain and rage as he raised the butt of his rifle to slam it down on Worth’s skull. Instinctively, Worth’s hands slapped leather to draw Wham and Bam from their holsters, bringing the pistols to bear on both the standing attacker and the prone soldier at his feet.

Wham and Bam barked simultaneously, both handguns on target. The soldier menacing Worth was knocked backwards, his face a bloody ruin, and the injured man on the ground instantly sported a new, final hole in his head. A splash of blood sprayed across Worth’s dust-covered frame.

Smoke curled from the barrels of Worth’s very favourite pistols, and his face cracked into a fatalistic grin.

The first two members of the second squad had made it to within striking distance of the church, their weapons out and ready. From the bell tower, Jonah took aim at one of the approaching members of the second squad in the compound’s north section.

His target, completely unaware of his presence, walked right into Jonah’s ambush. Jonah fired off two rounds, the first of which caught the unsuspecting soldier square in the midsection, knocking him off balance, and the second put the man on the ground, the fight leaking out of him as quickly as his blood.

“Doc,” Jonah said into his multiband, “you’ve got a guy looking in your direction.”

Tulsa got to his knees behind the pile of concrete slabs, pistol in his hand. He could see the approaching soldier raising his weapon towards Jonah’s position in the bell tower, and, bracing his pistol arm on the concrete, fired. The bullet smacked into the crates that partially covered the soldier’s approach.

The machine-gunner elevated his turret towards the steeple as the second squad’s point man gestured frantically at the bell tower.

Jonah found himself staring down the barrels of the machinegun and for a split-second, the battlefield grew quiet.

“Ta ma de,” he said.

The machinegun opened up, peppering the bell tower with a hail of high-velocity bullets. They punched into the belfry, ricocheting off the bells and digging into Jonah’s body armor. The bells began to ring with each impact, a sustained drone that threatened to burst Jonah’s eardrums even as he stumbled out of the line of fire, painful bruises erupting across his chest.

Just as the Doc was about to peek over and fire a shot at the squad across the compound, a bullet struck the concrete just above his head.

The last attacker moved forward and took up a firing position behind some crates.

Worth holstered his pistols and drew the Buhnder rifle, confident that he was in nobody’s line of fire. He figured he was close enough to make a shot count as the vehicle made another attempt to clear the steps at the compound’s entrance. Worth broke the gun’s action, inserted a round the size of a Blue Sun cola can, and snapped the breech closed. He flipped out the rifle’s bipod and braced the weapon over the crate he was hiding behind. Lining up a shot on the vehicle’s machine-gun turret, he squeezed the trigger.

The Buhnder roared mightily, Worth’s feet skidding backwards under the force of the blast. The shot was a direct hit on the machine-gun barrel, splitting it, and sending sparks flying. The hail of bullets was suddenly choked off.

Worth strode towards the disarmed vehicle, coolly snapping the breech open and letting gravity pull the spent casing out before inserting a second round. Through the reinforced Perspex gun turret, he could see the gunner cursing a blue streak.

Jonah felt the vibrations from the heavy weapon attack fade, and pulled himself up to the nearest arched opening in the bell tower, which was now several inches wider thanks to the withering attack. He raised his weapon and looked for a target. Finding one, he fired twice. Both rounds struck home, and the soldier scrambled for better cover.

“You’ve got one more Worth, directly across from you, right through the smoke!” Jonah shouted into his multiband.

Tulsa readied his pistol and hoped to catch the soldier as soon as he broke from cover.

He was rewarded as the soldier edged out, his assault rifle aiming in Worth’s general direction. Tulsa pulled the trigger, but his shot went wide.

The soldier fired a burst from his rifle, which cut through the smoke pouring from Jonah’s grenade, but his aim was off.

Worth slung the Buhnder over his shoulder and pulled Katrina up, activating the rifle’s thermal targeting sight, which gave him a clear view of the heat signature representing the soldier who had fired in his general direction.

Jonah targeted the same soldier, snapping off two more shots as Worth opened up. Tulsa fired another round as well.

The soldier stumbled back, taking multiple hits as the three men bracketed him. Blood and bits of uniform splattered the ground as the paramilitary’s legs gave out from under him and he collapsed in a heap.

A revving engine cut through the sounds of the battle as the armored amphibious vehicle lunged forward, finally climbing the steps, and wheeled to one side, disgorging a third squad of heavily armed, and more worryingly, heavily armored troops from its oblong payload bay. The angry-looking man who had been at the controls of the machinegun led the reinforcements, striding overconfidently ahead. The tall warrior now gripped an oversized belt-fed grenade launcher that looked like it would normally have required a two-man crew to fire. He aimed the fearsome weapon at the church, death in his eyes, a dark smile on his face.

Worth, Jonah, and the Doc exchanged a worried look…

October 15, 2517, two days earlier.

Party music blared over Desdemona’s sound system as Worth and Jonah lounged in the hot tub inside the luxury yacht’s entertainment suite. The Doc busied himself behind the bar, mixing up another round of drinks. The men had lost track of the number of drinks they’d consumed since Doctor Travis Park and his Alliance Research and Rescue operatives had sealed them up inside Desdemona, pending decontamination.

If this was house arrest, they’d take it.

It had been several hours, if not an entire day, since their initial encounter with the men running the quarantine on Blackwood. Since negotiations had abruptly ended, they had heard nothing from Doctor Park or his minions, and wasted no time in availing themselves of the yacht’s many amenities in the meantime.

There was an underlying tension to the otherwise enjoyable waiting game they were playing. The longer a fancy yacht like Desdemona stayed parked on a moon like Blackwood, the more time there was for word of its location to somehow get back to Declan Jenner on Osiris. They needed to get a move on, but they weren’t about to hand over the payload of medicine to Park, not when they had a job to do.

A pair of soft chimes interrupted the music streaming from the ship’s library of funk music and Desdemona’s friendly computer informed them that someone was knocking on the yacht’s main hatch. A nearby wall panel turned into a holographic display of the scene outside Desdemona’s airlock, and sure enough, three men in full environmental suits were standing at the door, one of them pressing the exterior intercom button.

Jonah sighed and climbed out of the hot tub, grabbing a thick bathrobe and shrugging into it. “I’ll see what this guy wants,” he said, making sure the robe covered up his Shenzhou tattoos.

Doc Tulsa handed him a fancy drink with two umbrellas in it and Jonah took it without breaking stride.

Worth relaxed and added a few bubbles of his own to the frothing water.

Jonah left a trail of water droplets down the corridor as he approached the ship’s cargo bay and airlock. Taking a sip of his fancy drink, he backhanded the door controls and regarded the trio of suited men who marched into the ship from the sterile tube-like corridor connected to the airlock.

The first Research and Rescue man spoke, his voice muffled slightly by the full facemask he was wearing.

“Doctor Park wishes to speak with Doctor Horatio Tulsa,” he said.

“Okay,” Jonah said. “When?”

“At his earliest convenience,” the operative said.

“I’ll let him know,” Jonah said, taking a gulp of his frothy beverage.

“Thank you,” the operative replied, the breathing unit he wore giving his voice an odd modulation.

“No problem,” Jonah said.

There were a few seconds of uneasy silence. Jonah smiled engagingly. “So, you boys still on the clock? We do have a bar open.” He took another sip of his drink.

The only response was the heavy breathing sound from their facemasks. After a few seconds, the lead operative spoke again.

“If you could round Doctor Tulsa up, we’d appreciate it.”

“I’ll let him know.” Jonah repeated.

“Thanks. We can wait.” The operative said.

Jonah hit the intercom controls. “Hey Doc, apparently Doctor Park wants to speak with you.” He turned to the trio of AR&R men. “Make yourselves at home,” he said, and turned to leave. His drink empty, he casually tossed it against the bulkhead, shattering the glass as he exited the cargo bay.

In the entertainment suite, Tulsa turned to Worth and arched an eyebrow.

“Worth, you up for a walk? We’ll refer to you as my research assistant.”

“Okay,” Worth grunted and heaved himself from the hot tub.

Tulsa straightened his robe, flipping the lapels down and cinching the belt tight.

“The question is, can I conceal any weapons?” Worth said to himself, helping himself to a pistol from Jonah’s supply, which he had been fieldstripping on a glass tabletop nearby in between hits from a bottle of Ng-Ka-Pei.

Jonah entered, and without a word slipped back into the tub.

“Can I buy one of these off you?” Worth asked. Jonah nodded. Worth tossed a few platinum coins on the tabletop and proceeded to hide one of Jonah’s smaller guns in the usual place.

Worth and Tulsa headed down to the cargo bay. The three medical operatives perked up as they approached. The backup men trained their stun rifles on Worth.

“Doctor Park wishes to speak with Doctor Tulsa alone,” the lead operative said.

“Well, my assistant here certainly doesn’t have to come right inside,” Tulsa said. “He can wait outside.”

He was met with stony silence. One of the operatives turned to regard his comrades, his suit squeaking audibly. Another one shrugged.

“He can escort you to the observation area, but Doctor Park wishes to speak with Doctor Tulsa privately.” The lead man said.

One of the Research and Rescue operatives slung his stun rifle and beckoned Worth forward, frisking him while the other kept his rifle pointed at him. Beads of sweat popped out on Worth’s forehead as the operative came up with the compact handgun, holding it distastefully between a thumb and forefinger before laying it carefully on the deck.

“How’d that get there?” he grunted.

Satisfied that the research assistant had been disarmed, the lead operative ushered them into the umbilical corridor beyond Desdemona’s airlock hatch, the two rifle-toting men bringing up the rear. They were led through the tunnel, which featured taut white Mylar stretched over reinforced ribbing, with glowing tubes of light at regular intervals guiding the way. They approached, and were led through a series of reinforced hatches, until Worth was waved off to the side to wait with the two medical operatives, and Tulsa was ushered through a doorway marked “Isolation-Observation” by the Research and Rescue leader.

Inside the chamber was an array of medical scanning equipment, an examination table and a pair of chairs. Doctor Park was leaning against a stool, arms folded, a wry expression on his bearded face.

Park’s subordinate let himself out of the chamber, which sealed behind him with a hermetic hiss.

Tulsa noticed that next to the examination table was a tray, atop which was a full bubble package of derms from his favourite kind of painkiller.

“Doctor Horatio Tulsa,” Park said, standing up and beckoning him forward. He indicated the tray. “I took the liberty of writing you a prescription for your favourite brand. I have that right, don’t I?”

Tulsa tried not to salivate at the sight of his preferred brand of smack. “Yeah, that looks about right.”

Park smiled. “Well, in any case, that means that the conversation we are about to have is covered by doctor-patient confidentiality. I assume you’ve held onto that particular shred of medical ethics in your journeys?”

“We’re on the same page here,” Tulsa said.

“You see, I’ve done a little research of my own,” Park said. “I know your type. You took this job because you didn’t have a choice, or someone took pity on you. Is that it? Mr. Tao Barker, bigshot pharmaceutical entrepreneur, felt he had to throw you a bone? What did he do, offer to keep you topped up with pills, or was there something else at stake?”

“It was money. Quite a bit of money,” Tulsa said.

“Well, I like that you are so up front about it,” Park said, chuckling.

“I was actually wondering when you might call,” Tulsa said, rolling up his sleeve and popping a derm from the bubble pack. “I feel like we’re at a bit of an impasse. Obviously you wouldn’t want there to be any incidents, of course, but you would love to get this medicine.” He pressed the derm to the inside of his elbow and pressed down, releasing the painkiller into his bloodstream. “But we would lose all this cash if we don’t deliver it. Money we’ve already spent. So we really don’t have a lot of options. But I’ve been thinking about this, ever since it occurred to me that you might call. If it could be shown that we’ve done our due diligence, in making our best effort to deliver this stuff, ultimately, there comes a point where the medicine could fall into your hands, and we’ve done our best to deliver it all the same.”

As the speedball roared through his system, Tulsa leaned back on the comfortable examination table. “So let’s say for example that our quarantine gets lifted, and we attempt to make a delivery, but perhaps the potency isn’t quite there, or maybe we drop the shipment off, and it just goes missing.” He continued. “Ultimately we couldn’t be blamed. We did what we had to do, but if it was stolen, it becomes a criminal matter that we couldn’t be held accountable for. How would you feel about that?”

“How would I feel about that?” Park repeated, rubbing his chin. “I must say, you’re singing quite a different tune now than you were yesterday.”

“Well, the captain has certain expectations. He definitely wouldn’t go for something like this, which is why we’d have to keep it very quiet.” Tulsa said. He was working an angle on Park, attempting to set him at ease with the promise of a handoff he had no intention of making.

“On the one hand, your employer is concerned that if I were to confiscate this medical shipment and administer it myself, that this would somehow corrupt the process, is that right?” Park asked, looking down on the reclining Tulsa.

“Yes,” Tulsa said, putting his hands behind his head. “It was made quite explicit that we had to deliver this medicine ourselves, that there were to be no intermediaries.”

“No intermediaries.” Park said, lost in thought for a moment. “Speaking of which, have you asked yourself why the local constabulary wasn’t here to greet you and perhaps shake you down while performing a customs inspection on your precious cargo?”

Tulsa smiled. “Well, I was under the assumption that you were running things down here, that it was your guys checking things out, not the constabulary anymore.”

Park leaned over him. “You’re gorram right I’m running things. The Alliance Research and Rescue has federalized the port authority on this little moon in order to monitor all incoming and outgoing traffic for infection. The orbital enforcement platform in stationary orbit over this hemisphere makes that a very simple proposition. And there are other simple propositions. If I wanted to, I could demand and collect significant surcharges over and above what Magistrate Martinez and his customs thugs would normally charge a tramp freighter making a delivery to this backwater. Now, Barker is probably worried that if I confiscate the medical shipment and administer it myself, I would charge for each dose. And if I thought I could get away with it? I would. But it’s not that simple.

“See, the Alliance takes disease outbreaks very seriously, insofar as they may spread through the spacelanes from one planet to the next. Individual communities suffering on a single, isolated moon, on the other hand, not so much. So, when your pockets are as deep as the Magistrate’s you can afford to pay for the very best in medical quarantines, as well as private firms who need investments to fund research into medicine for the very disease you’re facing.

Park folded his arms and smiled darkly. “For all your employer’s bluster, Mr. Barker is about as much of a humanitarian as I am. He’s just making his money on the research side. But, if the medicine doesn’t get administered to the sick, especially them as can’t pay for it, it can become a very expensive problem, for the Magistrate, and in the event that the quarantine fails, the Alliance.”

“So I think we may have gotten off on the wrong foot here. You may have misinterpreted the situation on the ground.”

Tulsa’s head was swimming. “Fair to say.”

Park clasped his hands behind his back and slowly circled the examination table. “But if the locals were to get their hands on this medicine, if it fell off the back of your truck, it’s fair to say that they would stockpile it for the magistrate and his entourage, and they’d let the innocent victims on the other side of this fence burn.” He turned and gave Tulsa a severe glance. “And Martinez’s gun thugs would not stop to offer you a deal before grabbing the goods. So I don’t think Barker has got it through his thick skull that this is the kind of thing his delivery crews are up against every time they show up here, because you’re not the first.”

Tulsa processed this bit of information.

“So,” Park said, finally coming around to his point. “I’m not the guy that you mouth off to, I’m not the guy that you threaten, or misdirect, like you were trying to earlier, I’m the guy you buy.”

Tulsa swallowed.

“So let’s talk a bit more about this deal of yours.”

“All right,” Tulsa said. “Like you said, it’s as simple as we’ve got to show to Barker that we did everything expected of us to make this delivery. Ultimately once we’ve placed it, if his people on the other side can’t pick it up, or maybe, they go to grab it and perhaps get held on something, maybe the travel forms they were given weren’t as good as they thought they were, and maybe end up with the medicine. Or quite honestly maybe we just do a switch.”

“A switch?” Park arched an eyebrow.

Tulsa nodded. “Sure, take some extra test tubes, cut it a bit, reduce the potency, still enough to effectively treat someone, but create more doses, as philanthropists trying to spread the medicine around.”

Park pursed his lips. “Yes but aren’t you worried about contaminating the results of this little field test your boss is asking you to perform?”

Tulsa shrugged.

“I’m curious,” said Park. “Some of Barker’s earlier crews felt like they were performing a mission of mercy, at least at the beginning.”

Tulsa got up on his elbows. “I don’t know the other crews, but I’ve had to deal with too much at this point to believe in that sort of with that perfect philanthropy. There’s always a bottom line. And I don’t object to it, but there comes a point where it’s not worth the trouble. I get it, you’ll keep us under quarantine until you get the stuff, so let’s do it in a way that benefits everyone.”

“Let’s talk about benefiting.” Park said. “You’re the ones who stand to benefit by working out something that’s mutually satisfactory in the here and now. I’m exactly the kind of person you want to have in your pocket in a situation like this, because when your little delivery goes south, and mark my words, it will, I may be the only friend you’ve got on this mosquito-bitten moon.”

“Good to know,” Tulsa said.

“See, around town, inside the fence, I can get away with being the Law, but you venture out into that swamp, you’ll find that you’re facing a very different set of rules.” Park said. “So, the way I see it, we can be friends, or, I can let you go, and you’ll find it pretty lonely.”

“All right,” Tulsa replied. “So how do we get to become friends?”

“Well, I’m glad you asked,” Park said. He picked up a manila folder and spread the contents across the tray in front of Tulsa. It contained a sheaf of very official-looking paperwork – a landing fee bill, customs inspection waiver, import/export duty levy, decontamination charges, and interestingly, a landing quarantine waiver and overland travel clearance papers – all waiting for a signature and a credit application right in the corner.

Tulsa did the math. It looked like the going rate for Park’s friendship was 400 credits.

“Well, if that’s the cost to get this done…” Tulsa said. It was his turn to raise an eyebrow at Park. “And you say this is the price of your friendship?”

Park smiled. “Well, we can be friends, good friends, or acquaintances, someone you see at a party and nod at but don’t talk to, that sort of thing.”

“Let’s talk friendship.” Tulsa said. “Like inviting each other out to the cottage for the weekend type of friendship.”

Park chuckled. “You don’t want to be hanging out at any cottages around here, believe me. The way I see it, you can party on board your ship until the booze runs out, or you can get a move on with my good name to help speed you on your way.”

“Yeah, I think you know what I’d prefer, so…” Tulsa put his thumb on the credit transfer icon.

“Excellent. I’m going to arrange things to allow for a quiet exit so you can get on your way soon with all the intelligence you’ll need to get the job done.” Park said, smiling.

Tulsa and Worth were escorted back to Desdemona. After a few more hours of waiting around, there was another knock on the hatch. It was Doctor Park and a second man.

“Gentlemen, you have a visitor,” Park said. “May I introduce to you Mr. Philip Wong, representing Magistrate Adalberto Martinez.” He ushered the man into Desdemona’s cargo hold.

Wong was a thin man of Chinese heritage, late 40s, with worry lines etched across his forehead. He was wearing a transparent environmental suit that enclosed a well-tailored suit of silk and linen. He was wearing a hopeful smile on his face. The suit squeaked hilariously as he shuffled in.

“Thank you, Doctor Park. On behalf of the people of Blackwood, and on behalf of Magistrate Martinez and his family, I would like to welcome you to Blackwood,” the man says. “My name is Phillip Wong, and as Doctor Park said, I represent the Magistrate, who is keenly interested to hear about Khonsu Medical Ventures’ latest research and progress, and who also wishes to welcome the representative from Action Cortex News personally.” He bowed in Jonah’s direction.

“And so, I would like to extend to you, ah, gentlemen-” he regarded Worth skeptically “-a formal invitation to a gala dinner being held in your honour this evening.”

Behind him, Park nodded pointedly, his eyes on Tulsa.

“Yes, well, we’d absolutely love to attend,” Tulsa said.

“Excellent,” Wong said, passing out the invitations. “We will see you there.”

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