Campaign of the Month: January 2011

Honour Among Thieves

Nine Tenths of the Law Session Four

The trap is sprung, the journey continues, and secrets are revealed

“So I say we give Worth the Buhnder,” Jonah said. “And take out their vehicle first thing.”

“Sounds good to me,” Worth said.

Jonah hauled the anti-materiel rifle out of the hover mule’s bed and handed it and a bandolier of oversized shells to the mechanic.

“Now, the question is, do we kill them?” YJ said.

“Your call,” Worth shrugged.

“I say we shoot the vehicle, drive away and let Duster and his boys walk out. See how they like dodging the UR patrols.” Jonah said, a grin spreading across his face. “I’m thinking we don’t want to bother with the parts they’re bringing either. We wait until the exchange is done, and we’ll just take the money off them.”

“Okay.” YJ said. “Sounds less complicated.”

Jonah was warming to the subject. “If it looks like they’re going to leave at the same time, we pop a round in their vehicle, tell the customers to get lost, this is between us and Duster.”

“Ideally we’d wait until the customers have left, but it might not work out that way.” YJ said. He turned to the mechanic. “You’ve only got a split second to make that shot, Worth,” continued YJ. “Before they leave, that is.”

“You just say when and I’ll do my thing,” Worth said, testing the Buhnder’s heft.

The crew set about concealing the mule behind the large rusting hulk near the drop point. Worth disengaged the hover mule’s grav screening, gingerly settling the vehicle on its engines atop the sandy soil. Jonah and YJ scrounged up some pieces of scrap metal and discarded paneling and laid it against the mule, obscuring its profile in the shadow of the wreck.

Once they were satisfied that the hover mule was indistinguishable from its surroundings, the trio set about concealing themselves. YJ pulled himself into the intake of one of the engine pods, laying prone with his pistol at the ready. Jonah and Worth took up firing positions in convenient shadowy indentations in the rusted hull fragment.

The trio hunkered down, sweating the next few hours away as the time for the exchange drew ever closer. To YJ’s dismay, the interior of the engine pod quickly became a hotbox. As he mopped his brow for what seemed to be the hundredth time, he thought he heard a noise above the hissing of wind-whipped sand across the scattered pieces of debris.

“Sounds like someone’s coming,” he hissed into his multiband to his two partners.

Worth confirmed YJ’s suspicion. “From the east,” he said. “It’s go time.”

A few moments later, a familiar vehicle hove into view, cresting the ridge of ore tailings before barreling into the clearing ahead of a billowing column of dust, fishtailing on the uneven surface and scattering gravel before it came to a sudden halt. It was a tow truck with pretensions – painted cherry red, its cab chopped and replaced with a low tinted windscreen that would have not looked out of place on a speedboat. The truck’s bed contained several pieces of salvage tackle, including a towing boom and heavy-duty winch. A second articulated arm lay folded in on itself next to the swinging boom, and Worth’s sharp eyes picked out a crate wedged in between the pieces of equipment.

The driver and passenger were also familiar. Duster was chewing on yet another toothpick as he set his goggles atop his mane of shaggy hair. Riding shotgun was another fellow YJ recognized from their previous engagement: a glum-looking scrapper who looked like he had fallen headfirst into a vat of engine grease. The truck’s second passenger rode in back on a rear-facing jump seat attached to what remained of the cab.

Duster cracked open the door and slid out of his seat, hands on hips as he surveyed his surroundings. YJ tried to make himself as flat as possible in the confines of his nest in the engine pod as Duster looked in his direction. Seeing nothing, the scrapper nodded to his men and commenced a short walk around the truck, occasionally stretching his long legs with lunges in what would have been a comical fashion were it not for the compact assault rifle he was cradling.

His partners were less concerned with the flexibility of their limbs. The man who was riding shotgun stayed put, but remained alert, scanning the horizon for approaching vehicles. The thug in back stood up and wrestled the heavy crate to the rear of the tailgate in advance of the exchange. The trio carried themselves with the wary nonchalance of those who were up to no good, but weren’t expecting any trouble.

From his position in the shadows, Jonah watched Duster make his lazy, perfunctory circuit of the drop point, wary of the growing pit of anger building inside him. Steady, steady, he told himself, keeping the shotgun pointed at the ground.

It wasn’t long before both crews could hear the sound of two approaching vehicles from the southwest.

“Right on schedule,” Jonah muttered.

The newcomers were riding all terrain vehicles: powered trikes with two wheels in front and one in the back. One three-wheeler was being driven solo, and one had two occupants, and Jonah recognized the passenger as Duster’s client. The ATVs drew up close to the tow truck, and the client climbed off to greet Duster.

The exchange was typical. The client asked if Duster had been able to come up with the cargo, to which Duster responded with a curt request for a show of coin. The client flashed a small purse, and Duster ushered him around to the truck tailgate to make a visual inspection at the cargo.

“Took us some doing, but we found what you needed,” Duster said as his partner pried open the lid of the crate for the client’s benefit. The client climbed into the truck, took a look in the crate, and nodded his approval. He jumped down and handed the purse to Duster as one of the ATVs maneuvered around to facilitate the transfer between the two vehicles.

“Well, I guess that’s it,” the client said as his driver secured the crate with bungee cords to the back of the ATV.

“Yes, I guess it is,” Duster said, rifling through the coin purse. Satisfied that the payment was accounted for, he worked his toothpick around his mouth before adding. “I’d appreciate it if you boys ride out first. You know how it is.” Duster’s client nodded, and waited to hop on the second ATV as the first one, laden with the cargo crate, drove out from the drop point. The second ATV followed the first one out, leaving Duster and his cronies alone in a cloud of dust.

Duster waited until the two vehicles had disappeared and the sound of their engines faded away to background noise before commiserating for a few moments with his partners. From the grin on his face, the job’s take must have been good. He congratulated his men on a job well done, and proceeded to climb back into the driver’s seat.

“I can’t believe you get to be the first one to fire the Buhnder,” Jonah hissed to Worth.

“Let’s do this,” Worth grunted back, and stepped out from behind the hull fragment. He smoothly brought the oversized rifle to his shoulder, aiming for the truck’s engine compartment. Bracing himself, feet wide apart, he pulled the trigger.

The roar of the anti-materiel rifle was impressive, and Worth was nearly knocked off his feet by the recoil despite his considerable bulk, his booted feet grinding across the gravel as he was pushed back by the force of the blast.

At such close range, the effect of the shot was just as impressive. The round punched a large hole through the side of the truck just above the wheel well with such force that the hood popped open and hung askew, smoke belching out from the engine.

The crack of the Buhnder got the attention of the three men in the truck, each of whom shouted variations on “what the!?” The man in the back of the truck was caught flatfooted and gaping.

Worth slung the heavy rifle over his shoulder and came up with Katrina as he strode confidently forward towards the stricken truck.

Jonah followed Worth’s lead, darting out from behind cover and running towards the passenger side of the cab, his shotgun at the ready. “Hands, hands! Let’s see those gorram hands!” he shouted at his target.

YJ slid out from his perch inside the engine and hit the ground running, his pistol aimed at Duster’s surprised face. “Stand down, stand down!” he snarled at the scrapper.

Closing the gap between his hiding place and the truck, Jonah grabbed the handle of the passenger door and hauled it open as he stuck the shotgun in the face of Duster’s greasy companion. “Hands on the dash!” he ordered.

Worth aimed Katrina at the man in the cargo bed, threatening him with the red dot of his laser sight.

The sight of three armed men closing in on him galvanized Duster into action. He threw the truck in gear and mashed his foot down on the accelerator. With a squeal of protest from the damaged engine, the truck lurched forward, sending the loose objects in the cargo bed – including the heavyset thug – spinning out over the tailgate to scatter on the ground.

As the truck started to move, Jonah calmly corrected his aim and sent a round into the front passenger tire at point blank rage. It popped with a satisfying bang even as the tow truck accelerated, spraying gravel behind it. Jonah racked the shotgun as Duster’s passenger slammed the door shut and slouched down behind the headrest.

YJ aimed his pistol at the driver and fired as the truck pulled away. The flechette struck Duster’s shoulder and YJ was rewarded with a yowl of pain. Duster bit his toothpick clean in half as he tried to remove the dart with his free hand.

The scrapper left in the dust thought about getting up, but decided to remain prone as Worth stood over him with Katrina at the ready.

As the truck sped past him, Jonah chose to repeat himself by sending a second shotgun shell into the rear passenger tire. The rear tire wasted no time in deflating, and the truck took on a rather alarming list to the passenger side as Duster tried to get away on two rims.

Worth watched as the truck pulled away from Jonah and YJ. Sighing, he slung Katrina back over his shoulder and pulled out the Buhnder, cracking open the breech and letting the spent shell fall out. He took a fresh round from the bandolier and loaded it, snapping the breech closed.

There was the sound of returning fire from the tow truck. Duster’s passenger had apparently regained some of his courage, crouching on the back of his seat as he aimed a gold-plated submachine-gun that was a complete contrast to his otherwise disheveled appearance. Jonah felt a round smack home against his plate vest and grimaced.

YJ fired at the passenger, catching him in the neck with a flechette. He slumped back, dead, one arm flopping to hang outside the truck.

As Worth stepped past the prone thug, sighting down on the moving truck, the scrapper got to his feet and took off at a run towards the pile of ore tailings. Worth ignored the man’s retreat as he fired the Buhnder again. The shot dug deep into the truck’s insides and there was a flash as the power plant was knocked out of commission. The truck began to slow as it lost power, Duster hammering on the steering wheel in impotent frustration.

“Duster, get out of the truck and get your hands where I can see ‘em!” Jonah shouted as he ran after the dying vehicle.

Worth slung the Buhnder and fell into step beside YJ, running towards their quarry.

As the truck creaked to its final resting place, Duster crawled into the truck bed from the driver’s seat.

Jonah shouted, “Get your gorram hands up, or I’ll blow your gorram head-” He was interrupted by Worth letting loose with Katrina as Duster struggled to his feet, brandishing an assault rifle. The wounded scrapper barely got out of the way of Worth’s shot, which ricocheted off the salvage tackle in the back of his truck.

Swaying on his feet, Duster raised the rifle and attacked the closest target: YJ. YJ was able to dodge, and the shot kicked up some rusty dust next to him. He returned fire, snapping off a shot that struck Duster full in the chest. He staggered and spit a stream of blood into the cargo bed.

Jonah racked the shotgun again and fired at Duster. The buckshot knocked him backwards as he folded in on himself, falling to the cargo bed.

Jonah and Worth reached the truck at the same time. Heedless of the corpse sprawled in the cab, they hauled open the doors of the truck, intent on snatching the gold-plated submachine-gun, but Jonah managed to get a hold of it before Worth could grab it.

YJ hopped up into the truck bed and came up with the pouch of platinum that Duster had pocketed, along with some extra change in the unconscious man’s pockets.

Jonah picked up other bits of treasure – Duster’s assault rifle, and a box of toothpicks. YJ recovered the used flechettes from Duster and his grease-covered companion, wiping them down.

“We should haul ass,” Jonah said after he had collected the spoils of their victory. “We made a lot of noise.”

“Sure, but should we leave this guy for dead, or do we want him to live in humiliation?” Worth asked as they stood over Duster, who was breathing shallowly but regularly.

“I’m fine with leaving him the way he is,” YJ said. “I think Duster’s gotten the message. You want to bring the mule around?”

“Yeah sure, I’ll just walk right back there and get it.” Worth said sarcastically. He jumped down from the tailgate and began to walk back to the drop point.

He paused for a moment, and then turned back to his partners, a smile on his face.

“Cigar, anyone?”

They made their way back to the landing pad and made preparations to depart Beylix at the earliest opportunity.

The Doc met them as they drove the mule into the cargo bay.

“Our passenger’s getting pretty antsy,” He said to YJ as the trio climbed out of the hover mule.

“Well, we were just leaving,” YJ said. “Where’s Quinn? He back on board?”

Worth pointed. “There he is.”

Quinn was running towards Shenmue’s open cargo bay doors, several yards ahead of what looked like an angry mob. Sighing, Worth stood beside the door controls and pulled out Wham, aiming at the crowd, who pulled up short at the sight of his hand cannon.

“I’m getting tired of this,” he muttered as Quinn stumbled up the ramp, poker chips and playing cards scattering in his wake.

“Thanks, Worth.” Quinn said, out of breath.

They wasted no time in getting ready to leave. YJ asked nonchalantly for clearance to takeoff, received it, and soon they had lifted off from Beylix, with a little more satisfaction than they were used to.

Jonah took a seat in the bridge opposite YJ and set about stripping his new acquisition, setting ostentatious pieces of submachine gun atop the console. “Did you see that shot I made?”

“Yes, I was right there.” YJ said distractedly.

In the galley, Worth dug through some protein packs, trying to find his favourite flavor of paste.

Whitaker wandered in from below deck. “So what’s our ETA on Lilac?” he asked Worth hopefully.

“Nope,” Worth said.

“What do you mean, ‘nope?’” Whitaker asked. “Nope, what?”

“Right.” Worth said.

“Why am I not surprised?” Whitaker said as he started walking up the gooseneck towards the bridge.

YJ and Jonah heard a knock at the entrance to the cockpit. “Permission to step onto the bridge, I guess?” Whitaker said from the bulkhead.

“Yeah, come on in.” YJ waved a hand absently.

Whitaker climbed the stairs to the bridge proper and paused for a second, taking in the sight of Beylix’s glowing horizon falling away as the ship transitioned from atmospheric to space flight. Then he remembered why he had come to the bridge. Turning to Jonah, he said “so did you buy me any food?”

In lieu of an answer, Jonah picked up the half-stripped firearm and pointed it at Whitaker. “Would you mess with a man holding a gold-plated submachine-gun?”

“I didn’t know you went in for that sort of thing,” Whitaker said. Ignoring Jonah’s faux-defeated expression, he focused his attention on the pilot. “So, Captain, I was wondering, given this little detour of ours while we put in for repairs, if you could give me an ETA on our destination?”

YJ did some figuring with the nav computer. “Well, we made it about sixteen hours before we had to divert to Beylix, which added about three days to your ETA. So no more than 72 hours behind our agreed-upon schedule.”

Whitaker nodded thoughtfully. “Well, as long as there aren’t any other side trips along the way that sounds acceptable.” Then he wandered off down the hall towards the common area.

“So, twenty days, give or take between here and Osiris, right?” Jonah asked YJ as he reassembled his new gun.

“Sounds about right.” The captain replied.

Jonah picked up his ship-linked handset and called Worth. “So, you want to go look at Wild Sky’s stuff?”

“What else we gonna do?” Worth said back.

“All right.” Jonah said after he switched channels. “Doc, prepare for trauma.”

“Why am I not surprised?” The Doc replied from the infirmary’s comm unit.

Jonah went back to his quarters and collected his tools and joined Worth in the secondary cargo hold.

“What’s that?” Worth asked while pointing to a squat cylindrical unit Jonah was carrying.

“Oh, just a mag charge,” Jonah replied. “Like a portable EMP.”

Worth grunted. “Think the Captain is going to let you set off an EMP inside the ship?”

“Well in all fairness, it’s a small EMP device.” Jonah said.

Worth slapped him across the face. “Give me that!” He lunged for the mag charge, his thoughts on the sensitive components in the engineering section just above their heads.

Jonah rubbed his jaw. “Fine,” he snapped. He turned his attention to Wild Sky’s workshop, circling it, looking it up and down. He noted what looked like a retinal scanner near the hatch that served as the entrance to the module. He turned to the burly mechanic. “Worth, you cut the power on this thing, right?”

“Yeah, about a week ago.” Worth said.

“Okay, then!” Jonah said. He pulled on a pair of goggles, ignited his cutting torch and aimed it at the barely-visible seam of the entrance to Wild Sky’s work module.

“I’m going to get a drink,” Worth said, backing away.

Jonah was soon sweating from the heat of the cutting torch, but did not see much in the way of progress. “Maybe the plasma cutter, it runs hotter.” He switched implements and continued, trying to cut through the hardened exterior of the workshop door.

On the bridge, YJ sat at his console, oblivious to the sudden coded signal that was now pulsing out from Shenmue’s position.

After a few hours, Worth came by to see Jonah still doggedly sitting at the door to the workshop, plasma cutter burning ineffectually against the door frame. “Strong stuff,” he observed.

“Don’t I know it.” Jonah said in exasperation.

Worth pulled up a chair and sat down heavily. “So, what do we know about Wild Sky so far?”

“Uh, she’s Asian? Korean or some sort?” Jonah said as he inserted a new plasma charge into the cutter and fired it up again.

“All the same, dude,” Worth said. “You’ve been with one, you’ve been with them all.”

“Nice,” Jonah ignored Worth’s casual racism for the time being. “We know she was in the army.”

Worth nodded. “She was in the army, and she was pretty smart.” He took a look at the tiny burn mark that indicated the entirety of Jonah’s progress. “I don’t know if you’re going to cut through, but let’s say you do. Where would she have had this workshop before it came on board?”

Jonah shut the torch off. “Worth, what do you know that I don’t know?”

Worth coughed. “I’m just thinking, you got all excited about the EMP, which made me a little nervous. And that one time, she met up with a guy, made a delivery. She built her own rifle, and had some serious tech.”

“Well, you saw what it did to Cutter’s patients; I wouldn’t call it serious tech.” Jonah said.

“Let’s not fault the rifle for the skill, she was a terrible shot.” Worth admitted. “And remember there were those laser thingies she put on those trees on Greenleaf.”

“Right,” Jonah said.

“Think about it. She’s military, dealing with high tech stuff, making shady deliveries on the sly.”

Jonah nodded. “So you’re saying the stuff in there is probably really expensive.”

“There’s probably a lot of cool stuff in there,” Worth agreed. “What I’m saying is, what if she had built this in some kind of little basement fortress somewhere, and it’s designed so that if it’s been compromised, it waxes the entire lab. What if it just explodes or detonates when you breach the door?”

“I never took you for a pessimist before, Worth.” Jonah said, then considered for a moment. “Actually, I’ve always taken you for a pessimist. So what you’re saying is, you’re scared.”

“Scared?” Worth snorted. “Why not just wait until we dock, and then you can mess around with it? Take it off the ship and see what you can do.”

“Well, listen, you know this ship better than I do, what will my mag charge do to the old girl when we’ve got everything turned off?” Jonah asked. “We’ve got some days before we land, why don’t we set something up? The range on this mag charge is only ten feet in every direction.”

“No, not while we’re in flight.” Worth said sternly. “If we’re on docked a planet somewhere and you want to light it off, I’ll run full diagnostics afterward, be my guest, but not right now.”

“Whatever the repair costs are, I’m sure what’s inside here will be worth it.” Jonah said.
“Although, we cut the power off this thing days ago.” He put his eye up to the retinal scanner. Nothing happened. Jonah thought for a second, and then snapped his fingers as inspiration struck.

“Hey Whitaker, get out here for a second.” Jonah called to the passenger dorms.

“Why don’t we start small? Like with her luggage?” Worth said, reminding Jonah about Wild Sky’s sealed suitcases. “If we can figure out how to get in there, maybe we can get into her workshop.”

Jonah clapped a hand to his forehead in exasperation. “You gorram twitchy sonofabitch, you’re making me nervous now!”

“You called? What’s going on here?” Whitaker asked, taking in the discarded heavy equipment and the scorch mark on the outside of the module.

Jonah pointed at the retinal scanner. “Use your fancy glasses; see if this is doing anything.”

Whitaker took half a step back. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“It’s just an eyeball scanner. We all tried your glasses on already, by the way,” Jonah said. “We know they’re not, what do you call it, corrective.”

“I’m not – these aren’t-” Whitaker said, nervously pushing the glasses up on the bridge of his nose.

“Come on, use those high falutin’ glasses here on this thing. It’s an eyeball scanner, I wanna see if it’s scanning my eyeball.” Jonah persisted.

Whitaker shook his head. “Listen, I just need these glasses for-”

“Look, here’s the deal.” Jonah got up and stood toe to toe with Whitaker. “If you don’t do this for me I am going to dedicate the remaining twenty days of this trip to making your life an absolute, miserable hell.”

Whitaker let out a nervous chuckle. “Well, if you put it that way. But understand this, these glasses don’t really work like that, friend. Honestly.”

Jonah raised an eyebrow. “They don’t pick up power sources? What about light waves? Just look at me while I scan it and do a full spectrum thingamajig.”

“All right, all right, go ahead.” Whitaker fiddled with his specs as Jonah manipulated the scanner.

“Hmmm,” Whitaker said as he squinted at the workshop. “Huh.”

“Huh?” Jonah asked.

“Huh.” Whitaker repeated. “Yeah, I can’t say for certain, but there’s something very weak in the background.”

“Coming out of the eyeball scanner?” Jonah asked.

“Not from there, but from the box itself.” Whitaker said. “It’s like, there’s a low level power signature. Not that I’m an expert on the subject or anything.”

“So it’s probably on some kind of standby.” Worth said, scratching his head. “We already cut the power supply, but it’s got batteries or something. Could be a very, very long time before it runs down.”

“Fine, then I guess we’ll let it run down a bit more before trying anything else.” Jonah said. “Time to download some new security journals,” he said under his breath.

Whitaker took this opportunity to retreat to his quarters.

After he cleaned up his tools, Jonah decided to check in on the cargo. He inspected the straps holding the stacked rolls of titanium sheeting, and while he was tightening one of them, he noticed Whitaker entering the cargo bay.

The passenger observed Jonah’s work for a few moments before speaking. “You know, I never took Lilac for a big market for heavy duty high end metals.”

“Well, they need metal everywhere, right?” Jonah straightened up and dusted off his gloved hands.

“Yeah, I guess so.” Whitaker said absently. Then he turned and walked out of the cargo bay.

Jonah was satisfied that everything was in order with the cargo, but he wasn’t satisfied with Whitaker’s demeanor. He tracked Worth down in the engineering room, where Worth was trying to get a read on the gravity rotor.

“Say, Worth, Does Whitaker think we’re going straight to Lilac at this point?” Jonah asked.

Worth shrugged.

Jonah walked to the bridge and asked the same question of YJ.

“I gave him a ballpark ETA last time he asked. Seems like he might put two and two together at some point.”

“It’s just that he seems kind of gorram twitchy around me.” Jonah said.

YJ’s eyes narrowed. “I’m gorram twitchy around you!”

“Seriously though, is he not supposed to know about our stop on Osiris?” Jonah asked.

“We were just looking for jobs on the way,” YJ said. “But as far as he’s concerned we’re heading straight to Lilac.”

“So what’s the word then, Captain?” Jonah said.

“What harm could it be if he did know other than he might throw a hissy fit and we’ll have to slap him around?” YJ said.

“I enjoy a good hissy fit.” Jonah smiled.

“Yeah, I don’t care.” YJ said. “Tell him we’re making a quick pit stop to pay some bills.”

Jonah wasted no time in getting to the passenger dorms. He knocked on Whitaker’s door.

“Yes?” Whitaker said as he slid the door open.

Jonah couldn’t keep a straight face as he said, “Just to make sure you’re in the know here, we’re stopping off on Osiris, right?”

Whitaker said nothing for a moment, and then chuckled dryly. “You almost had me there, Mr. Rothsay. You’re quite a joker.”

“Oh, you think I’m funny?” Jonah said.

As Worth strolled by, he added his two cents. “No, we’re actually going there.”

“You’re serious?” The colour drained from Whitaker’s face.

“Yeah.” Jonah smiled, taking pleasure in Whitaker’s discomfort. “What, did you get a girl pregnant on Osiris or something?”

Whitaker spluttered and his face reddened. “I need to speak to your Captain.” He pushed past Jonah, unsure of the quickest way to the bridge. “Right away!”

Jonah got back in front of Whitaker. “I’ll relay a message, what is it?”

“No, I need to speak with your Captain, now!” Whitaker dodged Jonah, found the nearest stairwell and took it. Jonah followed close behind, eager to see more fireworks.

“Just a word of advice, Whitaker, you have to be real tough with the Captain. He says no the first time, you stick to your guns, let him know who the boss is, okay? Remember, you’re a paying customer, gorramit. He hasn’t been showing you your due.”

His fire stoked by Jonah’s gleeful verbal accelerant, Whitaker was ready to explode by the time he approached the bridge.

“Captain!” he shouted as he took the steps to the bridge double-time.

Johnson swiveled in his pilot’s chair to confront the steaming passenger. “Yes?”

Whitaker tried to compose himself, but failed. “Captain,” His face reddened as he spoke. “We had a deal, Captain Johnson. That deal was one all expenses paid trip to Lilac courtesy of the funds in my money belt. Now what’s this that I’m hearing from your employee here, that-”

“Now which money was this?” YJ interrupted, throwing Whitaker’s rant off track.

“Er, several thousand credits, Captain.”

“And, what planet did we pick you up on again?” YJ asked.

“You picked me off a train on Beaumonde, Captain.” Whitaker said through clenched teeth.

“Right. If we hadn’t picked you up, you would have been, what?”

“I would be having a conversation of a different kind,” Whitaker said.

“With people more pleasant than us?” Jonah asked.

Whitaker ignored him. “Captain, a layover in the Core was not part of our arrangement!”

YJ pretended to consider Whitaker’s words. “So,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “We’ve got to get you from Beaumonde to Lilac, and exactly how far is that?”

Jonah smiled behind Whitaker’s back. “Try a rough estimate, Mr. Whitaker, you know, what with planetary orbits and all.”

“It is quite a ways.” Whitaker admitted.

“Right. And hey, Captain, how much does a trip like that cost?” Jonah asked.

“Why, I don’t know,” YJ replied. He turned to the ship’s mechanic, who had followed Jonah and Whitaker to the bright. “Worth, how much does a trip like that cost?”

“Well you’ve got a fuel cell that takes, about a hundred tons of compressed hydrogren, and runs at about-”

“So an express trip isn’t even possible, is what you’re saying Captain because we don’t have enough fuel to make it without stopping.” Jonah added.

“That’s not-” Whitaker set his jaw. “I paid an exorbitant amount to you gentlemen with the understanding that we were going to Lilac.”

“And we are going to Lilac, if you’ll recall.” YJ said.

“I did not sign on as a passenger on board this ship to play second fiddle to a cargo hold!”

“One, you should read the fine print. Two, I wasn’t aware that you’d signed on for anything, but we picked your ass out of hell in a handbasket.” YJ said.

Whitaker faltered. “Yes, and I appreciate that, but-”

“So there’s lots of protein packs in the kitchen.” YJ continued. “Feel free to enjoy those.”

“And we haven’t exactly been asking you to pull your weight around here,” Jonah said. “It’s been a real cushy trip for you so far.”

“What?” Whitaker exclaimed.

“So unless you can somehow enlighten us as to why a stopover on Osiris would be tantamount to the end of the world for us,” YJ prompted.

“Well, at the very least a hissy fit,” Jonah said. “Tantamount to a hissy fit, as far as I can see.”

“This is outrageous.” Whitaker almost stamped his foot in frustration. “Absolutely outrageous.”
“What’s outrageous is the fact that you think-” Jonah shook his head. “How much do you think a trip across the gorram Verse costs?”

“According to you, it costs 3500 credits, one-way.” Whitaker said.

“Well there’s still the outstanding debt for the exfiltration. Which by the way, was no easy matter. Might I remind you about the knife fight on the roof of the speeding train?” Jonah said. “You think we did that for free?”

“Yes, yes, of course, of course.” Whitaker said. He exhaled loudly and stared at the ceiling. “Captain, I cannot go to Osiris. I cannot.” He then fixed his gaze on YJ. “Why do you think I’m out here on the edge? I’m trying to lay low, not take a ride right into the-”

“So what if we stash you under a deckplate? You just wait there until we make our delivery, which would take a couple of hours at most, and then we come back, knock on the plate, let you out and it’s like you were never there.” YJ said.

“Do you really think that kind of penny-ante shenanigan that is seen on the Cortex every day would actually work? This is the Alliance we’re talking about here!”

“Do you remember how we got you off that train?” Worth said. “Were you there? We beat up some Alliance officers and then we impersonated them.”

“We have a spare cryopod on board,” Jonah said. “I’m basically a cryologist, I’m sure I could figure it out. We could put you on ice, and they’ll never even know you’re on board. If you’re frozen, they can’t scan for you.”

“Oh, come now,” Whitaker exclaimed.

“Or I suppose we could just drop the stuff off. Or hell, we could hire a subcontractor to take it from the ships and land the goods on Osiris in our place. We won’t even land, we’ll fly by.”

“Mr. Whitaker,” YJ said. “Up to this point in the conversation we’ve been fairly rational.”

“Extremely rational.” Jonah agreed.

“It gets to the point where I’m just running out of rationality.” YJ said.

“Right now, it seems to me that we did the exfiltration pro boner,” Jonah said with a straight face.

“And I’m just thinking at this point, what are you really going to do if we say no? Burn a hole in our hull in the middle of space? See, the problem with negotiations is that you have to have something to leverage. And right now all you have to leverage is my irritation. So this guy right over here-”

“Hey,” Worth waved.

“He’s going to start irritating you in a minute because we’re just going there, it’s non negotiable. So turn around, cry about it, scratch your head.” YJ said, and then pointed to himself and flashed his winning smile. “We’ll take care of it.”

“You don’t get it, Captain. I’m not getting through to you. The minute I step foot in the core, I’m a dead man, and so are you. That’s a fact.” With that, Whitaker turned around and fled the bridge.

Jonah followed him, straining to catch up. “What are you talking about, Whitaker? Dead man’s confession, if it has to be. What are we dealing with here?”

“You want to know what we’re dealing with? You’ll find out soon enough if you so much as flirt with any of the Core planets,” Whitaker shouted over his shoulder.

“What, you have some kind of chip sensor in you?” YJ called after him.

Whitaker laughed bitterly and continued through the common area.

YJ turned to Worth. “Let’s get the Doc to strap him down and scan him.”

Jonah returned to the bridge. “Let’s get the Doc and Quinn up here for a sit-down.”

Once everyone was in the bridge, Jonah spoke first. “Captain, this might be a bad time to tell you this, but I sold him a gun.”

“You sold him a gun?” YJ said.

“Yeah. Just a little one, but I held off the bullets until we got to Lilac.”

“Great.” YJ said. “He cuts us down, does he even know how to fly a ship? I don’t really see any alternative here,” said YJ.

“We stop out system, get a sub-contractor to take it the rest of the way in-system?” Jonah said.

“That would make collecting our fee a little tricky,” Worth said.

“Yeah, and then we lose money.” YJ said. “Shuttle couldn’t transport it, eh?”

Jonah shook his head.

YJ turned to Quinn. “I don’t think he thinks you’re with us that much, that you’re kind of a bystander. Why don’t you go down there and do that verbal diarrhea thing you do, and you know, try and side with him and scheme and plot and see what you can find out.”

“All right,” Quinn smiled. “That sounds like fun.”

“The more information we have, I don’t want to be flying blind. If it’s a clear and present danger that we’re actually flying into.”

“We could go to him and say if he’s going to die if we go to Osiris, tell us what you’re dealing with, convince us, and if it is that crazy, if we all agree it’s crazy, then we won’t go.” Jonah said.

“We could just put him in a safe house in the meantime.” Worth said.

“Put him in a shuttle.” Jonah said. “Protein packs, a narrow-band beacon. Tell him to wait it out.”

“Would you get in that shuttle? I wouldn’t hang out in space in a shuttle unless I knew I could get to a planet I could trust.” Doc said.

“We could present that as a solution. If he thinks he’s a dead man if he drops on Osiris, a shuttle might seem appealing.” Jonah said.

“What if we just put Doc or Quinn on a shuttle with him, and send those two down to a moonbase or something like that, and we go do the drop on Osiris and come back.” YJ said.

Jonah slid into the co-pilot seat and punched up the star charts, looking for a moon near Osiris not covered by Alliance. “This is what I’m thinking. We stop well out of the way, do the delivery, come back, pick up the shuttle, continue on our way. We don’t even need a border moon, just leave him on the shuttle, as long as it doesn’t take more than four of five hours. Leave Whitaker off the beaten path. Only question is, if we leave him alone will he try something crazy like fly off?”

“We could leave Quinn with him.” YJ said.

“Give me a deck of cards and I’m sure we can pass the time,” Quinn replied. “Throw in half a bottle of your local rotgut and you’ve got yourself a deal.”

“Okay,” YJ stood up. “Now we just have to convince Whitaker this is the right thing to do.”

“Yeah, let’s give him a talking to,” Jonah said. “We need to know why he’s dead set against going to Osiris.”

YJ, Jonah, Worth, and the Doc paid a visit to Whitaker’s quarters while Quinn stayed in the galley so as to keep up appearances. Worth knocked on the door to Whitaker’s passenger dorm. After a few moments, the door slid open.

“Listen, Whitaker, you need to tell us what’s going on.” Jonah said.

Whitaker shook his head. “I’ve already said too much.”

“What does it matter if you’re going to die anyway?” YJ said.

Whitaker glared at YJ. “Look, I can’t hide from my pursuers in the Core, Captain. It’s impossible.”

“Do you have some kind of tracking device on you?” Worth asked.

Whitaker shot Worth a surprised look. “That’s, ha, ha, that’s preposterous!” he laughed nervously. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“So where is it?” Jonah said.

“Where’s what?” Whitaker said.

“Why do you have that twitch every time we ask you about the tracking device?” Jonah asked.

“What twitch? You’re imagining things.”

“You’re twitching right now.” Jonah said. “Did you guys see that?”

“I’m not afraid to go in there and get it,” Worth said.

“No, no, wait a minute.” Whitaker said.

“Actually, we have a doctor who can do that, so unless you can’t quit lying…” Jonah trailed off.

The Doc remembered Whitaker’s strange scarification. “I think we should run a few scans on him.”

“That’s completely uncalled for.” Whitaker protested. “I’m not an unreasonable man, and certainly I understand your points of view in this discussion. I’m just trying to state very clearly that it is my express wish that we do not travel through the Core, or tarry at any core-world planet, it’s as simple as that.”

“Go Hwong Tong!” Jonah interrupted him.

“Yeah, Doc, go fire up the infirmary.” Worth said, grabbing Whitaker.

“Now wait just a gorram minute!” Whitaker squirmed as Worth wrestled him towards the door.

“You start leveling with us or we’re going to start getting real unfriendly.” YJ said.

Jonah grabbed Whitaker by the collar and pushed him up against the wall. “This isn’t about you getting pinched, this is about our hides now, and your troubles be damned. You’re going to start telling us what’s going on.”

“Okay. All right,” Whitaker said, visibly deflating. His hands shaking, he took off his glasses and tapped a few buttons on the side of the frame. He handed them to Jonah. “Put them on and look at me.”

Jonah put them on. What he saw through the eyetap computer as he looked at Whitaker was not the bookish man wearing a disheveled dime store suit, but an eight-foot tall, black robotic dragon wearing ornate samurai armor. The armor sported a battle standard that extended the projection’s height by several feet. Jonah could see Worth and the Doc in his field of vision, but their appearance was unchanged. Whitaker was still slightly visible, but just an outline; he was otherwise subsumed by this jarring projection.

Jonah handed the glasses to the captain. “This some kind of joke?”

“What the hell is that?” YJ said as he looked thorough the glasses.

“I’m not about to explain what this means, but what I’ll tell you is that there are people looking for me through these kinds of glasses all over the Verse, but there are more of them in the Core than out in the Rim and the Border.” Whitaker said.

“So turn the dragon picture off.” Jonah said.

“I can’t, don’t you get it?” Whitaker said.

“Why not?” Worth asked.

“No I don’t get it because you haven’t explained anything to us.” Jonah said.

“You can’t turn it off?”

“It’s not something you can turn on or off, this is part of who I am.” Whitaker said.

“So you’re telling me that if we put you under the knife the doctor couldn’t remove this?” YJ said.

“Not without completely removing my skin,” Whitaker said.

“Is it electronic in nature?” Worth asked.

“What if we were to cover you up, every inch of skin?” Jonah asked.

“I’ve got a better idea,” Worth said. “Why don’t we just use that EMP of yours and fry it?”

“Sounds all right to me,” Jonah said.

“You guys are way off,” Whitaker said as he reached for his glasses.

“So if we put you in some kind of weird spandex,” Jonah said. “Does the signal pass through surfaces?”

“Basically,” Whitaker said.

“Would it pass through the ship?” Jonah asked.

“I don’t know.” Whitaker said. “All I’m saying is, these glasses I’m wearing are not the pinnacle of objects for people who are looking for this sort of thing.”

“And an EMP wouldn’t kill it?” Worth persisted.

“It’s designed to be reactive to light,” Whitaker explained. “It’s not a matter of frying a power source or circuitry, it’s something to do with the ink, I don’t know.”

The Doc nodded in understanding.

“All I’m trying to do is live out my days some place where very few people with this kind of technology that will see my alternate self, if you will.” Whitaker said.

“Now here’s the 10 million platinum question. Now what would possess a man to cover himself in a giant dragon tattoo?” Jonah said.

“I didn’t have much choice in the matter. Most people like me don’t.” Whitaker said.

“So who gave you the tattoo?” Jonah asked.

“I can’t tell you that.” Whitaker said.

“I’m pretty sure you can,” Worth said.

“What’s the worst that will happen? We’re going to tell people, all the joo fuen chse we’re into, that we’re going to gossip with folks about your troubles?” Jonah said.

“Well you did rescue me from that train.” Whitaker mused. “Okay. You could say that I fell in with the wrong crowd, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate.”

“I’d say so, if you got tattooed up like that.” Worth said.

“Thank you.” Whitaker said. “I was born to the wrong crowd. The tribe to which I belong, using the phrase organized crime doesn’t even begin to describe what it is. But the more I tell you, the more you’ll wish I hadn’t, that’s the takeaway from this, gentlemen. I just want to get to where I’m going and to be left in peace and you can still walk away from this without having the people who are on my tail become the people who are on your tail. Understand?”

“Knowing doesn’t make us a target.” Jonah said.

“Doesn’t it?”

“They don’t know that we know.” Jonah said.

“They don’t…” he repeated in exasperation. “You left one of those assassins alive on that train, correct?”

“One of the two.” Jonah said defensively.

“Who knows what she saw, how much she saw, how much she remembers or what she took down while you were flushing her head down the toilet on board that train. If they find a way to trace me back to you, or you to me, it’s going to end up being a whole world of hurt.”

“So we’re already deep in it anyway, is what you’re saying.” Jonah said.

“Yeah at this point it wouldn’t matter. That’s beside the point.” Worth agreed.

The Doc thought for a moment, then cleared his throat and spoke up.

“Come on, fellows. You’ve all heard the rumours, the kind of stories that crooks like Badger will get into after a few rounds of liquor. They’ll speak in hushed tones about some shadowy, overarching group that makes the Triads and tongs look small time. They’re known by many names. Take the Alliance, for example, our benevolent totalitarian overlords, even they’re not immune to talk that there are dark powers behind the Parliament.”

“Rumours,” said YJ. “More like conspiracy theories.”

“But here we have a living specimen, a guy who’s obviously part of some organization that dares not speak its name, in the flesh.” The Doc pointed at Whitaker. “He’s afraid of what’s waiting for him in the Core. He’s decked out with reactive, subcutaneous tattoos of some kind of ancient-yet-modern samurai dragon, that identify him as part of something bigger for those who are in the know, and now we’ve been brought right into the middle of all that.”

“You’re a very perceptive man,” Whitaker said. “You must have paid attention in crime school.”

“So, Whitaker here’s what we do. We drop you in one of our shuttles, and get Quinn to babysit you. We go off to Osiris, drop off our cargo of titanium, come back, pick you guys up, and we get on our merry way.” Jonah said.

“Wait, what?” Quinn said, a little theatrically.

“I suppose I could live with that.” Whitaker said. “As long as you can conclude your business in good time.”

“Know any good vacation spots on Osiris?” Jonah asked.

“None that I’d prefer to tell you about.” Whitaker replied.

“We’ll find an appropriate distance, not so far that the trip out and back wouldn’t see you run out of oxygen before we get back.” Jonah said.

Days passed. During the journey YJ and Jonah set about determining where best to leave the shuttle, taking into account Alliance patrols and the life support capabilities. Eventually, they reached the dark corner of nowhere where they believed it was safest to leave the shuttle behind.

Worth pulled Jonah out of earshot. “If what Doc is saying is true about this guy, if he’s deep into a huge secret society, I’m just thinking, how far a list of names could serve us in the future? You never know when that’s going to come up. If we ever needed to call in a favour or exploit a contact..”

“I think we could make a list totally for protection only.” Jonah said. “I don’t see us calling these folks up and threatening them. Listen, if a man called me up, threatened me, if I had it within my means I’d try to kill him before I’d pay. Make sure he doesn’t try and get any more out of me. I like the idea of calling up list of names, but we keep it in a safe deposit box secured somewhere just like in the Cortex vids. ‘Open in event of my death’, that type of deal.”

“Question is, how do we get that list out of him? We have any truth serum?” Worth asked.

“Yeah, right in my spy pack, hold on.” Jonah said sarcastically.

“I don’t have anything like that,” the Doc added.

“Surely you can whip something up!” Worth said.

“I’ve got some rotgut booze, let’s get him absolutely smashed. We could try that,” Jonah said. He thought for a moment. “What about getting Quinn to talk it out of him while they’re cooped up in the shuttle?”

Worth nodded.

Jonah leaned in close. “But we’d gorram well better agree that nobody ever, ever mention these names. This isn’t something to cash in unless they come looking for us. This ain’t like robbing a men’s clothing store or something. This is serious. These are not folks you extort.”

“No, we don’t want to extort them. We want to let somebody else buy the list from us.” Worth said.

“And then when they’re ramming screwdrivers and whatnot into his legs to make him tell them where he got the list from, you think he’s going to play it real honest?”

Worth shrugged. “I still think we should keep a list. We don’t have to decide what we’re going to do with it yet, we should just have that list.

“And who’s going to hold onto it?” Jonah asked.

“Give it to YJ,” Worth said. “It’s not like he’ll know what to do with it.”

“YJ, can I talk to you for a second?” Jonah called to the captain. “Worth had possibly the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard. I didn’t think he could surprise me any more.”

“Oh yeah?” YJ said.

“Worthless here is talking about extorting some of these Illuminati folk.” Jonah said.

“Yeah, I don’t know if I want to get involved in that too much.” YJ said.

“You’re crazy man, you’re missing an opportunity here. You’ve got nothing to lose.” Worth said.

“Except for our lives!” Jonah said.

“Because we have a list of names? Look, we put the list in a box, and when we absolutely need it or we’re absolutely strapped for cash, we could fence it.”

“It’s about as sensible as selling off your lungs and kidneys for a little bit of extra pocket money. You’ll never get to spend it.” Jonah said. “Listen we’re doing just fine robbing simple folk who deserve it. Why get involved in this kind of mess?”

“Yeah you’re right.” Worth said, and then winked at Quinn.

Jonah looked at Worth and sighed. He could tell Worth was just giving him the shove-off.

“See you guys later,” Worth said, and then took off and corralled Quinn the first chance he got, explaining his plan to him. “Get a list of names from that guy while you’re in the shuttle.”

Meanwhile, Jonah told YJ that Worth was full of crap. YJ and Jonah pulled Quinn aside as Worth went to prep the shuttle. “Whatever crazy notions Worth has been trying to put into your head, believe us, it’s too dangerous.”

“Way ahead of you,” Quinn said, shuffling his deck of cards. “I’m going to let the cards do the talking.”

The crew laid in some food and booze in the shuttlecraft, and Worth gave Quinn and Whitaker some pen and paper, “in case you want to play Pictionary.”

Whitaker and Quinn boarded the shuttle. Almost as an afterthought, Jonah dumped his Alliance gold bars inside. “Quinn. Here’s some gold bars. Amuse yourself.”

“Okay!” Quinn’s eyes lit up.

“By the way there’s a molecular tracker on these, so don’t try and shave anything off for your pockets,” Jonah said.

“Noted,” Quinn replied.

The airlock door cycled closed, and the shuttle disconnected from Shenmue. YJ fired up the ship’s engines and left the smaller vessel in his wake as they continued on to Osiris.

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