The thug’s fist struck Ying Johnson square in the face.
The pilot saw stars for an instant as he was knocked out of his chair, playing cards scattering across the table as the poker game dissolved into a brawl. As he hit the floor, Johnson tried to shake the stars from his vision, and then realized he was staring out a porthole in the hull of the space station’s entertainment module.
Johnson’s crewmate, Wentworth Evans, stayed seated at the table as the drunken lout and his friend got to their feet, snarling oaths in Mandarin that would have scandalized his mother back home on Beylix. He folded his hand and dropped the cards to the tabletop, then took hold of Johnson’s recently vacated chair and calmly swung it overhand into the nearest man. The cheap wooden chair shattered, and as Evans heaved his three hundred pound bulk to his feet, so did the thug’s bravado. The brute staggered back, stunned, as bits of chair tumbled to the deck.
Johnson scrambled to his feet as his attacker, who had taken an off-hand remark quite personally during the card game stood before him, fists at the ready. Johnson smirked and launched a kick into the man’s midsection. The thug clumsily tried to parry the blow, but Johnson’s boot made contact, leaving an imprint on the man’s already-dirty work shirt. The kick knocked the man back into the table, spilling the remaining drinks and poker chips to the tavern floor.
Worth stood a good foot taller than his opponent, but that didn’t stop the man from flailing at him. He managed to connect with Worth’s stubbled jaw. Worth shook his head almost regretfully, picked up his own chair, and smashed it over the man’s head. This time, the thug’s body hit the floor around the same time as the pieces of broken furniture.
Johnson was bobbing and weaving as the sweating, half-stunned brawler tried to connect with another meaty punch. Johnson managed to land a second kick, this one upside the lout’s head, before the ship-linked handset hooked to his belt began to squawk. Johnson’s opponent sprawled back against a pair of patrons standing at the bar, their attention on a nearby CorVue screen, catching them in mid-drink and sending suds sloshing onto their fancy duds. Shoving the dazed man aside, the two turned about, ready to mix it up.
Worth picked up a third chair, and the aggrieved parties took a step back involuntarily.
Johnson keyed his handset to receive the incoming message. “If you boys aren’t on board in ten minutes we’re hauling ass without you!” the voice of their boss, Ox Grant, threatened the shatter the handset’s speaker. “We just got a hot tip, so get back to Lock 16 on the double if you want a share!”
Johnson and Worth eyed one another, and then turned and bolted from the saloon, Worth pocketing a sheaf of bills he’d lifted from the pot during the ruckus.
The two men double-timed it through the dingy corridor of the fueling station’s docking module and made it back to Lock 16, where their ship, Ironmonger, was docked. First Mate Coburn Chang was waiting impatiently at the airlock controls, frowning as Worth and Johnson brought a whiff of trouble on board with them. He nodded to Johnson.
“Better see the Doc about that, YJ,” he said, indicating Johnson’s face, “then get to the bridge. Captain’s got us a job.”
YJ touched a hand to his face and pulled it away with a wince. Blood glistened under the hot lights of Ironmonger’s airlock. He sighed.
Ironmonger was a modified Hammerhead transport, a boxy rectangle with distinctive ablative heat shields and ailerons on the bow that gave it its namesake. A 4,200-ton beast converted to salvage and rescue duty, her crew was more qualified for the former than the latter. Oxford Grant, who was known as “The Ox”, captained the boat. A hulking, 350-pound bear of a man, his nickname came from the heavy-gauge ring he wore through his nose. Grant was a rogue scrapper who tried to keep one step ahead of Unified Reclamation whenever possible. He and his crew worked out on the rim, where the pickings were slightly less slim than elsewhere.
As Ironmonger disengaged from the fueling station, Johnson stopped by the medical bay. Doc Tulsa deftly closed the gash over YJ’s eye. The two made little in the way of small talk. Johnson, Evans, and Tulsa had all signed on to Ironmonger within a few weeks of each other – outsiders looking in on a fairly close-knit crew.
Johnson was a backup for Dash Irving, the primary pilot, who was rarely ever seen without a tankard of gin. Evans had joined a crew of scrappers – Tuck, Davis, and Liu Tan – who all did double-duty as muscle and gun hands. The Doc chose not to ask The Ox why the ship’s medic position had suddenly come open. The ship needed a medic ostensibly to lend a hand during ‘rescue’ operations, but more often than not, he ended up patching up members of the crew after their illegal salvage operations.
“All right boys, listen up!” The Ox growled over the intercom. “We got a wave from the Empress, a scrapper’s tug captained by a fellow named Carver. Seems a transport went hull-down on a border moon nearby – no distress signal sent yet, which means no Unified Reclamation nor the Alliance to worry about. The job’s too big for his piddly boat so he shared the wealth so to speak, first come, first served. We get in, give it a once over, and if there’s nobody needs patching up we grab what we can and git. And Johnson, git yourself up to the bridge, dong ma?”
Johnson joined the Captain on the bridge. The Ox was speaking with Chief Engineer Carl Finlow. At Johnson’s approach, the captain turned to face him, nose ring glinting in the starlight. “You’re driving today, Johnson,” he said. “Seems Irving is not at his best this morning.”
Finlow smiled. “Meaning of course our senior pilot is as drunk as a skunk. Captain’s just too polite to say so.”
Ox grunted. “Lay in a course for Three Hills and run it as hot as you can,” he told Johnson. “This hot tip I got from Captain Carver? Turns out he broadwaved it to a half-dozen other scrappers in the vicinity. I want us to be the first ship to make landfall. That way we’re splitting the take with one crew instead of seven.”
YJ figured that at hard burn, Ironmonger could make the run in about four hours.
He stayed at the controls for the journey, which took the salvage ship to Three Hills, the twelfth planet orbiting Georgia. Three Hills was known for its wide-open spaces, rolling prairies and arid uplands.
Johnson homed in on the coordinates Ox Grant had given him. In ones and twos, the rest of the salvage crew gathered on the bridge to watch as they buzzed the crash site.
“If we weren’t playing this so close to the bone I’d stop in on a client of ours, McKittrick. He’s got a yard over in Evan’s City, about twenty clicks west of here. He’s a stand-up guy. Maybe next run out this way.” Ox mused.
The site of the crash was a black scorch mark on the shore of a stagnant lake. The crashed vessel, or what was left of it, lay at the end of a furrowed debris trail and had gone hull down in every sense of the word – it had come to rest into a shallow lake and looked like a beached whale from Earth That Was. Its back was broken in several places as it laid half in and half out of the still waters.
“Now there’s poor luck,” Coburn Chang offered. “To be flying by, fall out of the sky and land smack dab in some water.”
The hull down was a badly battered Exeter-class transport, basically a command module and a standard engine unit separated by a rack of commercial shipping containers. Its dorsal stabilizer still proudly pointed skyward, angling slightly out over the lake. The ship’s superstructure was little more than an articulated spine with a control cabin at the fore end and an old-style engine cowling at the far end, with a few thruster nozzles like funnels sticking out of the stern. In between were modular cargo containers, 40 feet long apiece, space for 8 of them it looked like, but the crew members could only see seven – one might have broken off in the crash. The superstructure was twisted and blackened; it was obvious this ship didn’t make planetfall in the flight school-recommended manner and crashed through the atmo the hard way.
“It’s a good thing the Exeter’s a tough ship, otherwise we’d be picking up bits of debris from here to the horizon,” Ox grunted. He turned to face his crew.
“All right boys, this looks like a straight-up slice and dice op,” he said. “We take the command cabin, and the stern section, scoop up those cargo containers and leave the rest for the vultures.”
That was when YJ noticed the telltale blast markings on the ground near the ship on the lake’s gritty-looking beach. Another ship had gotten there first. He pointed that fact out to Ox, who swore darkly.
Johnson found a suitable spot on the shale-covered ground to set the bulky salvage vessel down.
“Finlow, Tuck, get on the bus. Worth, you’re the wheelman this run.” Ox said, referring to one of the ship’s heavy-duty utility mules. “Chang, you’ve got the bridge.”
Worth stopped by his quarters and picked up his very favourite gun, Katrina. He thought about it for a moment, and then strapped on his two pistols, Wham and Bam.
Chang nodded as the scrappers filed out and headed towards the cargo bay, where the utility mules were secured. He turned to Johnson and crooked his thumb towards the door. “Why don’t you let Irving sit in for you, YJ? It’s about time you got your hands dirty with a wreck.”
Johnson frowned. Mi tian gong still rolled downhill.
On his way down to the cargo bay, he ran into the doc, who was carrying his medical bag. “Captain Grant seems to think there might be survivors need tending to,” Tulsa offered. Johnson shrugged.
Ironmonger’s engines were still spinning down as the bus exited the freighter’s cavernous cargo hold with Worth at the controls. Once it was out of the shadow of the ship’s superstructure the men had to shield their eyes against the bright noonday sun. The hover mule set out along the shoreline towards the crash site.
The hover mule pulled up and the men disembarked, striking out across the wreckage-strewn beach towards the downed craft. The ship was listing to port as it stretched half in and half out of the stagnant lake, the surface of which had taken on an oily rainbow hue as a slick drifted away from the wreck.
The sound of the hover mule’s fans bled away, and an eerie silence took over. As the crew spread out to do a perimeter check before entering the vessel, they noticed that the transport was lacking in markings of any kind and was sporting extra armor plating not normally seen on the utilitarian Exeter class. The armor kept the ship more intact than it otherwise would have after going hull down, but one of the eight standard shipping containers had still broken off.
Grant, Johnson and Evans entered through the starboard entry hatch on the command module and split up to see what they could see. Evans and Johnson headed towards the bridge and found an unpleasant scene.
The pilot was dead, still in his chair, and the bridge was thoroughly trashed, though not all the damage came from the impact. The pilot looked to have been cut on something fierce, and a second body, stripped to his skivvies, was found laying half in and half out of an escape pod hatch, similarly brutalized.
A third body was entangled in the wreckage of the command console as if hurled at great speed into the instrumentation. There was an electrical tang in the air that Wentworth identified as a telltale sign of an EMP “fast-wipe” module. Johnson checked the ship’s computer that although read as intact had no information in its memory banks, and Worth ducked under the command console and after a few minutes of digging came up with the fast-wipe, which had been deliberately wired in to a dead man’s switch at the pilot’s station. Where this ship had come from or where it was bound for was going to remain a mystery for now.
A shout from aft got their attention and they left the cockpit, not before Johnson noticed a ransacked weapon locker near the escape hatch. Grant had been walking down the articulated spine of the transport that featured airlock access to the ventrally mounted shipping containers and had literally stumbled across something. Another corpse, also stripped, lay sprawled in the dark corridor. This one bore stab wounds and bludgeoning damage. Bullet holes in the floor and wall further down the corridor suggested gunfire, and blood spatter here and there further indicated that some sort of fight had taken place onboard. Grant entered the nearest airlock chamber and opened the hatch in the floor to take a peek down into the shipping container. He blanched and waved the two over for them to take a look. He shone his flashlight into the depths below as the crew looked inside.
What they saw were bodies. Lots of bodies. All wearing orange jumpsuits and shackled onto metal benches that ran the length of the shipping containers in four rows. This container was taking on stagnant water from the lake but the men looked to have been dead long before that. They all appeared to be wearing identical orange jumpsuits. The bodies were barely intact, mangled from the force of impact. Dried blood obscured their eyes, mouths and noses.
“We’ve got ourselves a Jailbird,” Ox said what the others were thinking. Despite the lack of official markings, this ship was an Alliance prison transport. Most of Ironmonger’s crew had spent enough time in lockdown to recognize the obvious.
Sunlight spilled into the shipping container from the far end as the Doc opened the swinging doors from outside.
“There’s more like this in the adjacent container,” the Doc said. “And a couple are almost empty.” The doc noted that the ship had room for far more passengers than there were dead around the crash site.
“What the hell is going on here?” Grant said as the trio disembarked from the transport. “Nobody’s even picked over these bones yet.”
“There’s the eighth cargo container,” Tuck said, pointing to the oblong brown box a bowshot’s distance from the main wreck. He and Finlow set out for it, prybars in hand.
The doc had moved on to a grouping of corpses outside, half-hidden in the shadow cast by the ship’s hull. They too were garbed in orange jumpsuits but Johnson’s keen eyes noticed that a couple of suits were inside out, their white laundry tags a telltale sign.
As he took a closer look, Grant’s eyes widened. “Holy Hell, that’s Reggie Carver,” Ox exclaimed as he examined the body. “It was someone from the Exeter who tipped us off about this hull down in the first place! Gorram it, what’s going on here?”
Finlow and Tuck reached the isolated cargo container. “Lock’s been blown off,” Finlow said as he inspected the swing-out doors. “This should be a cinch."
He set the prybar in the hinge and put his weight into it as Tuck did likewise. “Wonder if this is fulla dead guys too?”
There was a rusty creaking sound as the tall doors swung out. Finlow and Tuck had time to shout in surprise as an orange tidal wave swept over them. Their exclamations were drowned out in a hail of gleeful battle cries.
The sudden mayhem caught the rest of the crew’s attention.
“What the hell?” The Ox exclaimed.
A mob of desperate men clad in prison jumpsuits had rushed from the cargo container, overwhelming the engineer and scrapper before they had time to clear their sidearms. The convicts were armed with shivs, lengths of chain, fire extinguishers, and whatever else they could use to cause damage.
“We’ve been set up!” Ox shouted. “Get back to the gorram bus!”
The mob split into two groups. One broke away from the melee outside the container’s opening, leaving reddish stains of twisted clothing and raw meat in the sand that looked like it could have been Tuck and Finlow as they made like bandits towards Ironmonger’s open hatches.
The second group rushed pell-mell towards the men near the derelict, looking to overwhelm Captain Grant, Johnson, Tulsa, and Worth.
Grant was shouting orders into his ship-linked comm unit, telling Chang and Irving to get Ironmonger into the air. Johnson, Tulsa, and Grant scrambled aboard. Worth got the hover mule in gear, but true to its name, the bus was sluggish. They could only watch helplessly as the rampaging mob further up the beach surged aboard Ironmonger.
But the gang of snarling convicts that was running towards them was of more immediate concern. Grant pulled his sidearm and started shooting even as he was bellowing into the comm unit for Chang to do something gorammit. He dropped a handful of onrushing convicts but couldn’t thin the herd fast enough.
The nearby foothills were coming alive with taunts and war whoops as Worth tried to get the bus up to speed. Johnson had his pistol out, but he was no sharpshooter.
“Chang, Irving, come in!” Grant shouted. “We’ll take the bus up into the hills, so you can pick us up once we’ve put some distance between-” he was saying when suddenly the crack of a rifle echoed across the beach, and the captain took a spin off the deck of the bus, a bullet lodged in his brainpan. His communicator fell onto a nearby seat.
Johnson’s eyes widened.
Ironmonger lifted drunkenly into the air, its engines unevenly throttled. From the discarded communicator came sounds of fighting – desperate cries, the occasional gunshot. Ironmonger listed to port in mid-air, angling out over the stagnant lake. Then it faltered and dove downwards. Churning water rushed into the still-open access bay, fairly dragging the ship to a dead stop. A geyser of steam erupted skyward as Ironmonger’s engines, still blasting, met the cold water, obscuring the doomed ship in a cloud of white.
Another rifle round sent seat upholstery flying and the trio opted to head for the hills. Worth opened the throttles and the bus lurched away from the oncoming mob, driving forward up into the hillside. A few cons were caught in their superheated fan-wash and a few more were knocked out of the way by the utility mule’s forklift prongs. Those who made it close enough threw rocks and murderous catcalls, which banged off the plated flank of the bus. One of them took an acrobatic leap off a rock outcropping and landed on the deck, a sharp piece of hull plating in his fist.
Johnson was handy with his pistol at close quarters; he dispatched the raggedy attacker with a steel flechette. The dead man tumbled over the side and hit the rocky turf with a wet thud.
Curled into the fetal position on the deck, the Doc whimpered.
Then they were past the raging group of escapees and into the wilderness of Three Hills.
Following a dry creek bed for a few miles, the trio let their heart rates return to normal as they contemplated their sudden loss of employment and off-world transportation.
And that’s when the Law arrived. A sheriff and four deputies, all on horseback, rode out into the creek bed from the surrounding hillsides and fired warning shots that forced Worth to cut his speed. The sheriff, a haggard-looking fighter hefting a Newtech rifle, told them to reach for the sky. Worth was about to reach for his guns instead but a quick glare from Johnson stopped him from doing so.
“Y’all buzz that hull-down a few clicks west of here?” The sheriff shouted. When the crew didn’t respond, the lawman shouted again, “Let’s see some ID, fellers.”
As Johnson and Doc reached carefully for their wallets Worth groaned as he realized his ID, along with most of his personal possessions was now probably submerged in brackish lake water.
“You didn’t bring your ID with you?” Johnson asked his crewmate incredulously.
“I didn’t know we’d be crashin’ today!” Worth shot back.