Campaign of the Month: January 2011

Honour Among Thieves

Nine Tenths of the Law Session Thirteen

Wherein the crew faces the unkindest cut of all. Well, maybe just Jonah.

The crewmembers cooled their heels at their budget lodgings in Capital City, waiting for Declan Jenner to send for them. In the meantime, Shenmue had been transferred to a nearby repair dock courtesy of Tao Barker, who had also dispatched a bevy of licensed mechanics to give the freighter a thorough overhaul.

Wild Sky had let the repair crew on board, but kept out of their way as best she could. She was feeling quite a bit better. Her headache persisted, but her battered body was feeling less stiff and sore by the hour.

One day turned into two.

“Why don’t we get back to Jenner instead of waiting?” YJ said.

“Might as well ask when our ship will be spaceworthy,” Jonah said. “In case we decide to track Desdemona to Ariel or parts beyond.”

“Okay, but think about our situation here. What would a real government agent do?” asked YJ.

“Look, when a bureaucrat makes a request of an individual he’d like to see it resolved in a timely manner, rather than the other way around,” The Doc replied. “And one wouldn’t appreciate the appearance of an unwillingness to co-operate.”

“So you’re saying instead of waiting to be shaken down, we could get away with doing the shaking,” Jonah said. He thought for a few moments. “I wonder if there’s any harm in going in and stomping our feet and making a big show?”

YJ shook his head. “What if we just made a quick call, a courtesy call, and were polite about it? As in, ‘we’re calling to see if there have been any further developments as we’re under time constraints,’ that sort of thing?”

“Assume they’ll track our number,” Jonah said. “Where do we call from?”

“The port.” YJ said.

“From a public phone?” Jonah asked. “FAA agents probably go around using a company multiband, so let’s call them from a company multiband. There must be guys with them walking around the spaceport all the time.”

Doc smiled. “So, pick their pocket?”

Jonah nodded, warming to the subject. “Get a phone, make the call, and toss it into the trash afterwards.”

YJ grinned. “So, you do the thing, and we’ll be there ready to cover your ass? Why not just call them from a public cortex terminal? The government’s cheap, maybe they won’t pay for a personal multiband.”

“It’s nothing,” Jonah said, cracking his knuckles.

YJ frowned. “Famous last words.”

Jonah headed to the branch office of the Federal Aerospace Authority, located in a crowed administrative wing of a bustling passenger terminal. He quickly located a likely mark and began following him through the crowd, communicator unit holstered at his hip.

“Hey buddy, I’m really sorry, very clumsy of me,” Jonah murmured as he brushed up against the investigator. As the two men parted, Jonah juggled the communicator and the bureaucrat’s wallet. The wallet contained a photo ID, a multipass, and a debit card.

Leaving the crowded spaceport, Jonah tossed the phone to the Doc, who called up Jenner’s office.

His secretary answered the phone. “Iago Group, Declan Jenner’s office, how may I help you?”

“Yes, this is Inspector Redeker of the FAA, for Mr. Jenner. We met with him yesterday. Would I be able to speak with him please?”

“If you could hold please, Inspector Redeker.”

“Thank you kindly.”

After a few moments of waiting, Jenner came on the line. “Ah yes, Investigator Redeker, is it? To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Well this is just a courtesy call, we want to see if there have been any further developments in your situation, and whether or not you could provide us an ETA on when we could inspect the Desdemona.” Doc said.

“Oh yes, quite.” Jenner said. “Er, sorry you have put me a little on the spot. Of course we are interested in complying with the FAA, however as I said at our earlier meeting, the Desdemona is in transit, and we hope to have it in port in a few days’ time.”

Jonah reached over to cover the receiver with his hand. “Find out where it’s going,” he hissed.

“So our department as I’m quite sure you’re aware, has bureaucracy and even redundancy as its rubric, though I’m loath to say it myself,” Doc said. “Although we are here primarily to seek your ship, there are of course other affairs and ships that we have to take care of, but we really do need to move on as we are being paid by the people and we need to be efficient and timely with our resources. That said, the downside for you is if we have to move on without an inspection, we will have to kick this up to Tier Two, and when they arrive it’s not as pleasant an experience – there are usually fees and levies for bringing them into the matter, and we would like to avoid that for your convenience. The outside shot that we might be able to land upon is that if however on the current itinerary corresponds with ours we can meet up with it at another location within the next three days.”

Doc thought he heard Jenner gasp at the prospect of involving higher levels of inspection. “Well, certainly, there’s no reason we can’t work this out in the fullness of time, in a manner befitting your office. We are of course interested in complying. Are you gentlemen free in the next few hours to meet at my office to discuss this matter further?”

Doc frowned. “As it turns out, we are busy with other affairs. Our business is the ship, and that will be our next destination where we will gladly meet up with you and discuss your concerns, but we do have to attend to other matters in the meantime.”

“I do understand your position and I do wish to expedite the matter, and I feel that the expediting of this matter, would be best served with another face-to-face meeting, I do have some documentation that I believe will assist you in your deliberations.” Jenner said.

“Paperwork is all fine and dandy but it must be corroborated with a physical inspection,” Doc said sternly. “But what I will do is give you, say, another 12 hours to sort things out, and at that point if you are unable to provide us with the current location or destination whereby we could fit it into our itinerary, or when it will be next available on Osiris, we will have no option but to forward to Tier Two.”

“I see. Inspector Redeker, I will be in touch forthwith.” Jenner’s voice was hard as rock.

“Thank you kindly.” Doc said. He turned to his companions. “I’m not going to sit in his office to get the bum’s rush by a bunch of thugs.”

Jonah waved the phone at Doc. “He may call us back on this number. Is there a way to spoof this phone’s ID? Clone the number?”

Doc smiled. “Want to see if Wild Sky’s feeling better? This seems right up her alley, kind of.”

“Sure. Then we can return this to its rightful owner.” Jonah said.

They took Capital City’s efficient and clean public transit system to the repair dock, where they could see that Shenmue was at the centre of a hive of activity. Fresh components, still shrink-wrapped to their pallets were littered in the cargo bay as technicians moved about. Worth cocked an eyebrow until he saw the quality of the machinery that was being installed.

Before going to Wild Sky’s workshop, Jonah rifled through the box of stolen multibands he had grabbed from the Resort until he came up with a teenager’s blinged-out Hello Kitty model. He grinned at the holographic cat that blinked sweetly and waved at him from its perch on the clamshell lid.

Wild Sky had spent as much time as she could stand in her workshop, trying to get a handle on her surroundings. She felt comfortable in the cramped space, but it wasn’t a sense of déjà vu as it was a sense of familiarity with the logic of the layout. Tools, equipment, and storage space were all in places where she’d expect them to be.

An insistent knock at the door interrupted her train of thought. She opened the door and stared at the Doc, Worth, and Jonah, who was holding a pair of multiband communicators in his hand.

“How are you feeling, Wild Sky?” Doc asked.

“Blank, as usual.” Wild Sky admitted.

“Well, maybe instead of trying to remember specific things, why not just exercise those parts of the brain and maybe they will start to work? Think of this as a logic puzzle,” Doc said, indicating the two multibands.

“Of all the multibands, you had to pick that one?” Worth asked. He shook his head. “I’m going to the galley.”

“Can you make it so that when someone calls this phone, we can pick up calls on this phone,” Jonah said. “Do you want a diagram?”

Wild Sky frowned. “I get it.” She said, and then shrugged. “All right, leave it with me, I’ll see what I can…” She thought for a moment, and gave Jonah a questioning look. “This what I do?” She asked.

“Well, that and you clean the ship, of course,” Jonah offered.

Wild Sky glared and closed the door in his face.

The men took the stairs to the galley and sat around the table.

“So if Jenner doesn’t co-operate, do we just go in there and take him hostage?” Worth asked.

“He’s just a secretary, what can he do?” Jonah asked. “Plus it will tip our hand.” He scratched his chin. “Is there any way we can figure out if Jenner is buying this?”

“Other than what we were told, that he sounded nervous on the phone.” Doc said. “He’s nervous for one of two reasons. One he’s hiding something or two, something’s being hidden from him that is out of his control.”

“He was nervous about us looking at the Desdemona specifically, this was a big deal to him. There’s something about the Desdemona he doesn’t want us to see.” Jonah said, leaning forward. “And I don’t care what it is, as long as we can get on the ship. If he’s off cleaning bloodstains off the dancefloor I don’t care as long as he did it before we steal – I mean repossess – the ship. So whatever unseemly thing is going on, as long as he’s willing to hand the ship over to us. Nervousness doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Based on when it departed, how long should a trip to Ariel take?”

YJ thought for a moment. “Given her specs, it shouldn’t take more than a day’s ride.”

“It’ll take Shenmue longer to make that trip,” Worth reminded the crew.

“And that’s if the flight path itself is legit,” Doc said.

“Do we know the Baron’s on board?” Jonah asked.

“Just that he’s indisposed and the ship’s out of town,” YJ said.

“Can we check Cortex records to see if the ship has landed anywhere? It should have landed at Ariel by now. Maybe we have friends nearby who could give us a visual.” Jonah asked.

YJ used his captain’s credentials to confirm that indeed the Desdemona had landed as scheduled. It made landfall 27 hours after departing Osiris. a further flight plan had not yet been filed.

Jonah sat up straight in his chair. “Wait. Guys, we’re the FAA. Why not just call Desdemona ourselves? Send them a wave, say that Jenner’s being difficult, and ask the Captain what his ETA is for Osiris?”

“Sure,” the Doc said.

They composed a text wave and sent it to the Desdemona based on the communications info provided in their repossession warrant.

Captain Maitlock,

As per Part 91, section 91.409 of the Federal Spaceflight Regulations, your ship has been selected for a random inspection. We require your ship’s itinerary in order to facilitate an inspection by Federal Aerospace Administration officials on Osiris at your earliest convenience. We require this information as soon as possible so to ensure that the inspection occurs before the close of the inspection window, which will result in an immediate escalation of the inspection to a Tier Two rating.

Jonah credited the outgoing wave with the cost of a return message.

Some time later, Wild Sky entered the bridge, armed with the Hello Kitty phone. “Done,” she said, tossing it to Jonah. The phone meowed as Jonah flipped it open. He smiled.

Jonah put down the multipass and debit card on the console. “Can you disable the tracers on these? As another learning exercise to help with your memory, of course.”

“What’s in it for me?” Wild Sky said.

“Wild Sky, your memory,” Jonah admonished her, tapping his head with his finger. “Not to mention I saved your life,” he continued.

“Maybe later,” she said. “I have to lie down.”

“Well then, I’ll just leave those in your workspace…” Jonah said.

“You stay away from my workspace,” Wild Sky said firmly, picking up the cards.

Suddenly the phone began meowing insistently.

On the third caterwaul, Jonah flipped it open. “Agent Mitch Stevenson here.”

“Inspector Stevenson,” Jenner’s voice replied.

Jonah smiled. “Jenner, good evening.”

“Good evening indeed although I’m not sure good is the correct term.”

“What troubles you?”

“Well, I just received the most troubling call from the captain of the Desdemona.”

“Yes?”

“I had assumed that your compatriot’s timetable would include an adequate time to respond to your request and instead you’ve gone over my head or around my shoulders and I do not appreciate being treated in this manner.”

“Mr. Jenner, I’m somewhat confused here. One of the functionaries was supposed to send a request for the itinerary. Once we didn’t receive that we figured we would go directly to the source. Did that paperwork not arrive? If you didn’t receive the request there must have been a mistake of some sort.”

Jenner made a strangled noise at the other end of the line. “No, we did not receive any official query other than the demands first indicated by Inspector Redeker. In fact, I would like to speak to him.”

“Just hold one second. Inspector Redeker’s here as well in my office.” Jonah handed the phone to YJ.

“Mr. Jenner,” Doc said. “I understand you are a little put off by something?”

“I have indicated my willingness sir to comply with the request and I am interested in providing you with the information but in the interest of security Baron Otello’s operations I must insist that you meet with me at the Iago Group office, and I can transfer the documentation to you there.”

“Forgive me, Jenner, but the contact made with the Desdemona by my colleague, my colleague was not abreast of my communication with you. So there need not be any offense felt on your part in this matter. He was acting with good intentions to do his job. If you wish to place blame, you could say it was for me not passing along the information. That said, considering that wave was sent out not that long ago, and you were in direct contact with the Desdemona and all we have requested is the itinerary, so if the response time is so expedient between you and your ship it’s a bit puzzling to us as to why you are so slow in passing us the information we have requested which doesn’t involve us physically showing up at your office again. Because documentation is what it is. We need to physically see this ship.”

“We want to go to his office,” Jonah hissed. “We can’t have him faxing this to the FAA!”

Doc nodded. “But since this is obviously getting off track, my colleague is saying that one of our appointments has rescheduled giving us time tomorrow at 1100 hours.”

“Yes of course I would be happy to entertain you at that time and provide you with the documentation as requested.” Jenner said.

“Very good. I am glad this matter is resolved. We will see you at 11AM tomorrow at the Iago Group offices. If there’s nothing else, good day to you Mr. Jenner.” Doc said.

“Good day.”

“So now we need our backgrounds spoofed.” YJ turned to Jonah. “He’s going to start making calls and looking us up.”

“If he wanted to check our backgrounds, he would have done it already,” Jonah said.

“That’s probably what this meeting is about. Call me paranoid.” YJ said.

“His reaction makes no sense though,” Jonah said. “If he knows we’re not really part of the FAA, then his nervousness and concern is a put-on, he wouldn’t be bothered with us.”

“He was upset that time.” Doc said.

“He was upset. Previously he was nervous.”

“Which means to me the jig is up. Otherwise he’d still be nervous that we would contact the Desdemona directly. Rather than indignant.”

Jonah shook his head. “I don’t read it like that. He was just annoyed that we went over his head. Made him look irrelevant.”

“Well we’ll find out.” YJ said. “But the way I look at it, it’s better to have a condom and not need it than need a condom and not have it.”

“Or you could just, you know pull out,” Jonah countered. “I say we go in, and get ready to punch our way out if need be.”

“On a Core Planet? This isn’t a backwater driftworld,” YJ said. “Besides, is our ship ready?”

“Getting there,” Worth said. “Repair crew knows their stuff.”

“Legally, what’s the worst thing he can do?” Jonah asked. “Accuse us of impersonating government officials?”

“It sounds bad when you put it like that.” YJ said. “Because if he decides to call our bluff, we can’t hesitate. If we hesitate it shows that we have something to hide.”

“That’s as simple as saying ‘this has been escalated to Tier Two’ and walk out of his office.” Doc said.

“We could give Wild Sky a phone and have her act as our supervisor.” Jonah said. He turned to the Doc. “How would you get info on a corporation or government agency or do a background check?”

“You’d verify their credentials first on the Cortex,” Doc said.

“We could put all those pieces into place, but this operation wasn’t supposed to take days,” Jonah said. He sighed. “Assuming the jig is up, what’s our plan?”

“Assuming the jig is up, security will come in and escort us to an interrogation room, or out of the building if we’re lucky,” YJ said.

“So maybe everyone shouldn’t go to this meeting,” Jonah said. He nodded in Tulsa’s direction. “He’s been in closest contact with the Doc.”

Doc frowned. “What did I say before about getting the bum’s rush?”

“If we have to pony up a rescue, the Doc’s the least useful, no offense.” Jonah reasoned. “And if we’re pressed for time, why would all four of us be going down there to meet with him?”

Nobody could find a compelling reason to argue that point, so the next morning Doc found himself being ushered into Declan Jenner’s office. Jenner was seated at his desk with a file folder open in front of him.

“Ah, Inspector Redeker,” Jenner said, leaning over his desk. “Why don’t lay our cards on the table, shall we?”

Doc swallowed.

“I must say that your inquiry these past few days has been highly irregular, especially considering the amount of money the Baron’s operation pays to the Federal Aerospace Authority – quite legally, mind you – to ensure that his operation runs with a minimum of interference from nosy bureaucrats. The Baron entertains heads of state, Members of Parliament, the nobility, and media superstars, all of who have a vested interest in maintaining security around their traveling activities. Not secrecy for secrecy’s sake, but for security’s sake.”

Doc let him keep talking.

“Now I realize that you may feel as I have not been as readily compliant or transparent and I realize that perhaps my behaviour could be interpreted in certain ways as-”

“Highly irregular?” Doc asked.

“As not befitting your office,” Jenner said. “But understand that I was approaching it from a spirit of confusion and not necessarily one of malice or a lack of cooperation. To that end, I have decided to clear the air and take care of this situation in a way that I think will be mutually beneficial. I have here, courtesy of our legal department, stating that the Desdemona’s affairs are in order. You will not have to slave over a hot navigational computer or worm your way into greasy maintenance crawlspaces in order to sign off on the veracity of her documentation and spaceworthiness. In any event, the results of Desdemona’s previous safety audit, performed, I might add, only four months ago and good for a year have been appended and replicated for your convenience in a single briefing note. In return for this timesaving exercise I have seen fit to compensate you for your time. You will find personal inconvenience benefit packages for you and your companions that are in line with standard bureaucratic labour rates for a few hours’ work.”

Doc raised his hand. “If I could stop you right there. I appreciate all the work you’ve gone through to try and make this as convenient as possible but I believe that we were very clear and straightforward when we set our expectations as to how we conduct our affairs. And the benefits you are offering, as generous as they are, are not something within the protocols of operation under which I am comfortable accepting.”

“Of course you haven’t heard my offer.” Jenner said with a knowing smile.

“And I’m sure your legal team has done its due diligence but as is consistent with FAA safety regulations, random inspections are simply that – random – as that is why it seems irregular to you because it is not consistent with a regular schedule and I just work here. I don’t write the laws, I report to those above me and my job is to eyeball the ship and then sign the documentation stating that I physically saw it. This is how to do my job. I have to honestly say I’ve seen it with my own eyes and then sign off. That’s all I have to do and once that happens, we’ll be out of your hair, and the good news is, as consistent with the scope of the regulation, it will be another lifetime before your ship falls under that again.”

“I see.” Jenner said dully.

“So I apologize if this seemingly random act of bureaucracy is inconveniencing you, but everyone is subject to the same execution of the law. So I will take the documentation that you have presented, and under our previous arrangement you will still have the subsequent three hours to provide me with an itinerary or ETA at which point I will be on my merry way, it will be off my plate and I will kick it to Tier Two, and you can take it up with them, but between you and me, I’m much more pleasant to deal with and though money doesn’t seem to be a problem here, you didn’t get rich by writing cheques.”

Jenner let out a long sigh as he sat back in his chair. A silence hung over the office.

“500 credits,” he said, finally. “For you and each of your companions.”

Doc stiffened involuntarily. “I’m sorry, are you bribing me?”

Jenner smiled a catlike smile. “Not at all. I am merely indicating the degree of personal inconvenience fees that I am willing to append. And by the way, the offer has gone up to 600 credits.”

Doc pursed his lips. “It’s not about personal inconvenience. I’m on the clock and I am being compensated quite nicely by my employers, and since you are a taxpaying citizen are already paying for, so you’ve taken care of that for me so I will politely and courteously decline your offer at this point. I will, however, accept your document submission.”

Declan Jenner sighed so deep a sigh that he seemed to slightly deflate. “Very well. Please understand. Desdemona keeps to a strict but regular schedule. She will be visiting Santo, the closest her route comes to Osiris on her current journey, in just a few days’ time. I can give you the contact information necessary to interview the captain and pilot when they arrive in Heaven Beach, which has landing facilities and all the appropriate infrastructure you would need to conduct an interview and I do apologize for dragging this out unnecessarily.”

“Thank you,” Doc smiled. “That was very easy. I will bid you zai jian.”

He was allowed to leave Jenner’s office, the Iago Group office building, and make his way back to Shenmue. Gesturing triumphantly, he said “Santo. Heaven Beach, in 3-4 days, that’s where it’ll be.”

Jonah nodded. “Do you believe him?”

Doc shrugged. “Do we have a choice?”

“Like, is he walking us into an ambush?” Worth asked.

“No, I think he’s telling the truth, even though he tried to bribe us off.” Doc said.

“He tried to bribe us?” Jonah asked. “That’s good. If he tried to bribe us, I think that means he bought it. If he thought we were full of it, he wouldn’t offer us money to go away. He’d just threaten to all the cops. So the question is, will Shenmue be ready to fly in time to get us to Santo?”

“Probably less than a day,” Worth said.

YJ did some figuring. “At hard burn we could get to Santo in a day and a half, or about 50 hours at cruising speed.”

“So we get to Santo, we jack the ship, and make sure the authorities know this is a simple repossession,” Jonah said.

“We do have the documentation,” Doc said.

“And then we have to go hard burn to the shuttle where Whitaker and Quinn are hanging out, then drop Whitaker off, then send a wave to McKittrick saying we’ve got Desdemona, and then be done with this whole business.” Jonah said. “Sound like a good plan?”

“Yes, a good plan, as long as it involves swinging back around to Osiris so I can punch Jenner in the face.” Doc said.

Once the repair crew departed, YJ asked for and received clearance for departure. Shenmue’s engines purred like a pair of kittens. She was running better than she had in months. Of her internal damage there was no sign, and the replacement hull plating was seamless. Overall, he and Worth were both impressed with the craftsmanship. He pulled Shenmue into the nearest departure corridor and laid in a course for Santo.

Along the way, they determined the final details of their plan to repossess the Desdemona.

“So we get on board, someone distracts the captain with a long interview while Worth goes and checks on the engine room, and makes sure we can take off when we need to.” Jonah offered by way of plan.

“Why don’t we just provide them with an itinerary of what we’re going to go through? Asked YJ. “Tell them they’ll hear their engines spin up and test, that sort of thing.”

Jonah nodded. “A preflight check, effectively.”

YJ nodded. “And we’ll provide them with their own documentation. Ask them to provide us with an initial tour of the ship where they explain any modifications, and afterwards they can step off the ship while we conduct our investigation. And we present these instructions to them in a nice document that syncs with the stuff Jenner passed us.”

“We need to muscle them into staying off the ship,” Jonah said. “What if we make them fill out a bunch of forms as part of our investigation and tell them that that portion of the interview is to be done off-ship for some reason. Because once we’re ready for takeoff, we need to make sure nobody’s hanging around.”

“Simple as sending a wave,” Doc said. “We have all the documents we need on this guy’s own letterhead. They’re going to listen to us, we’re FAA agents. I don’t see them putting up a fight. We’re being ‘transparent.’ We’ll just outline what we’re going to do in bureaucratic doublespeak for them.”

“I imagine before we take off, we can contact the port using their communications array, fire a quick signal to them and let them know that we have a legitimate repossession order.” Jonah said. “Tell them we’ve taken possession of the ship and we’re taking possession of the ship and we’re taking off. Head off the complaints of theft that we’ve quite legally taken possession of the ship. Get our clearance and very casually take off.”

He leaned back in his chair. “So that only leaves one question. Who is going to be flying Shenmue and who is going to be flying Desdemona? We’ll take off in tandem, anyway.”

“I’m not letting you fly Shenmue, Jonah.” YJ said.

“Great, so I’ll fly the Desdemona then,” Jonah said.

Jonah spent some time working with the Doc to research and download as many starship regulatory documentation they could conceivably work into a long form that would need to be filled out by each member of the crew.

They traveled to Santo and made ready to land at Heaven Beach.

Heaven Beach was a seaside resort – all palm trees, white sandy beaches and gift shops. The town itself was squeezed into the narrow space between a steep ridge and the coastline. As resorts went, it was fairly out of the way from Santo’s urbanized bustling entertainment districts. The crew figured that was part of its charm.

Heaven Beach appeared fairly new, with nice wide boardwalks, a gleaming monorail station at the head of town, and curious towers spaced regularly along the beach that they first took for anti-aircraft emplacements, but quickly deduced that they were in fact fireworks launching assemblies. The spaceport was located near the water’s edge.

The ridge that marked the outskirts of town was hidden behind terraced condominium complexes that rose up like manmade steppes. They could also see a large concentration of luxury watercraft in harbor slips along the shoreline.

As YJ powered down the engines, he turned to Jonah, who was sitting in the co-pilot’s chair. “If we’re going to do the interview with the crew off-site, we’re going to need a legit address. What about a conference room at a nearby hotel?”

“Think there’s something close by?” Jonah asked.

“There’s gotta be, this is a resort.” YJ said.

They departed the ship and made their way to the nearest hotel, which fortunately was quite close to the landing facilities. Its conference rooms were all booked, but the concierge recommended the Bei Ling Tea House up the boardwalk. It had a number of private rooms that could be reserved for large parties.

“This is great,” Jonah said when he checked a tourist map of the resort town. “The Tea House is down the other end of the main drag, so the crew will be separated from their ship.” He used Shenmue’s comm system to call ahead to the tea room.

A matronly-looking woman with a friendly smile answered his video call. “Bei Ling Tea, House Gemma Stonestreet here, how may I help such a strapping young lad as yourself?”

“You’re very kind,” Jonah said. “I need to book a meeting and the hotel recommended you.”

“Oh, ain’t that sweet of them.” Gemma smiled.

“It is awfully nice. Do you have private rooms?” Jonah asked.

“Sure sugar, we’ve got semi-private, private, whatever you need.”

“Great, I’d like to book a private room for about 4 hours with refreshments.”

“Certainly, honey.”

“Now I’ll be running a little late, our company will be running ahead of us. Captain Arlen Maitlock is his name, he’ll be at the head of that party.”

“Captain Maitlock, certainly.”

“So as soon as he and his party arrive, please show him in, tell him we’ll be along presently, and see to their needs for refreshments, whatever they’d like. Can we run a tab and pay it off once the meeting has been concluded?”

Gemma smiled. “I think you’ve got a trustworthy face, boy. So what is the name I should open the tab under?”

“That would be Mitch Stevenson.”

Gemma made a note off-screen. “We will roll out the welcome wagon for your friends, certainly. And I look forward to meeting you, Mr. Stevenson.”

Jonah smiled. “Look forward to meeting you too.”

Gemma winked. “Aw, you’re making this old girl blush.”

YJ checked the port. They told him the Desdemona was scheduled but hadn’t arrived, but that she could contact them when it made landfall. YJ handed her their comm frequency.

“Let’s start that tab early,” Jonah said. “If we’ve got time to kill, we can set things up in our private room over at the tea house.” He hefted his printouts, done up in quadruplicate. “After all, we’re the most thorough office in all of Parliament.”

“Just make sure you guys don’t reek of alcohol,” YJ said. “That would be very unconvincing.”

Doc stayed on the ship to run another round of tests on Wild Sky and did some research on neural rejuvenation.

Jonah slipped his brass knuckles in a pocket before he and Worth set out for the tea house. Walking along the boardwalk, Jonah kept an eye out for obvious signs of law enforcement or gun scans. The only law enforcement vehicle looked like an SUV with a surfboard tied to the top and the police logo emblazoned on the door.

The Bei Ling Tea House was a beachfront property made up of single-pillar pagodas ringed by a porch with a slanted slate roof, surrounded by a stand of tall oak trees whose leaves rustled in the ocean breeze. The front doors were accessible by a stairway that cantilevered out over the water. They opened the doors and entered.

“Well, look what the ocean breeze blew in!” Gemma Stonestreet said as she stepped from behind the bar. She was a fiftyish, stout woman with a round face that was all smiles. An immaculate white apron was tied around her full figure.

“Ms. Stonestreet, so nice to meet you in person,” Jonah said.

Gemma showed them to the private rooms, screened in with rice paper walls and sliding doors, along the far wall of the main level of the tea house. “These rooms can seat up to six,” she said, indicating the low benches around the wooden table. “They also have retractable floor-to-ceiling walls in case you and your part want to take in some of the delightful ocean breezes.”

Jonah nodded. “I’m just going to drop this paperwork off if that’s okay. I assume the room’s not needed before our booking?”

“Oh, certainly,” she said as Jonah arranged the forms in piles around the tabletop.

Jonah then went to the bar and ordered a drink with vodka in it. Gemma stepped behind the bar and mixed two Osaka Dries.

Jonah accepted the cocktail. “So, got a question for you.”

“Shoot, sugar.” Gemma said.

“My friend here is into skeet shooting,” Jonah indicated Worth. “He brought his shotgun, a Core Armatech MS-417, and-”

“A what?” Gemma asked, confused.

“Sorry,” Jonah said. “I do tend to ramble when it comes to guns, but what I was wondering was, what are the rules here at Heaven Beach? If we wanted to take it to a shooting range, would we be able to transport it around town?”

Gemma frowned and wringed out a dishcloth. “Well, I don’t know, a lot of the folk up in the hills are retirees, they don’t take too kindly to shotgun blasts.”

Jonah waved his hand. “Assuming we can find a secluded spot, then.”

Gemma nodded. “I don’t keep up on firearms ordinances myself, but I have heard the sheriff in the past chastising some whippersnappers for bringing long guns through town. That’s for certain. This is a gambling town, you know. People like to protect their winnings. But certainly not with streetsweepers and doorknockers and hand cannons, if you catch my drift.”

Jonah nodded.

Gemma leaned forward slightly. “But if you were going to go up into the hills to do some skeet shooting, I’d kinda like to see that,” she winked coyly at Worth.

Worth knocked back his Osaka Dry as if it were a shot of something strong.

Jonah took the opportunity to get in the way of Gemma’s advances. “If I wanted to contact the sheriff to make sure everything’s on the up and up, how could I reach him?”

“You wanna talk to Sheriff Beltram?” Gemma said, refilling Worth’s drink.

“Assuming we decided to make arrangements to go out and shoot some skeets.” Jonah said.

Gemma cocked her head in the direction of the harbor. “The police and coast guard station is just that little cottage up by the spaceport.”

Jonah resisted an urge to scowl in impatience. “Suppose we wanted to call him on the multiband. What would the frequency be?”

Gemma consulted the emergency list taped next to the cash register and gave him the number. “You know, that sounds like a sensible idea.”

“We’re sensible guys,” Jonah said. He and Worth downed a few more drinks and then left the tea house. “Come back soon,” Gemma called to them.

They went back to the ship to gather their ‘investigation equipment’ into nondescript looking bags. They loaded the bags with everything they thought they’d need, from electronic lockpicking tools to the best bits of Worth’s arsenal.

“Why don’t we just assume that we can do this one without weapons?” YJ asked.

“Contingency plans,” Jonah explained. “Someone in coveralls outside the ship, doing an inspection while he totes a duffel bag. Doesn’t come inside unless there’s an emergency, or moments before liftoff. Not to mention that if we clear the ship it won’t matter anyway.”

It was decided that Worth, Jonah, and Doc would board the Desdemona while YJ and Wild Sky hung back inside Shenmue.

Jonah and Doc went out to wait at the landing platform where the Desdemona was scheduled to arrive. Just before they were about to give up, a sleek shape appeared in the night sky. The space yacht was even shinier in person than it was on paper. It flared expertly and wheeled into a perfect three-point landing. Obviously someone skilled was at her controls.

Jonah walked over as the yacht’s boarding ramp hissed down smoothly. He got his ID ready as the Doc stepped up beside him. Worth hefted his duffel bag, lanyard around his neck showing his FAA mechanic’s ID.

Down the gangplank strolled a dashing figure wearing a high-collared flight jacket, flanked by a slim woman wearing a no-nonsense jumpsuit and a dandyish man with a suspicious expression on his face walking a few steps behind.

“Which one of you is Captain Maitlock?” Jonah asked.

The first gentleman traded a look with the woman. “What is this, some kind of welcoming committee?”

“My name is Inspector Redeker, this is my counterpart Inspector Stevenson, and this here is Inspector Singh.” Doc said. “We have some documentation here as provided by Declan Jenner, requesting your assistance in inspecting your ship as consistent with the following bylaws and articles of FAA regulations.” He handed the captain a printout. “This is the inspection itinerary, Captain, that indicates how this will be done: You will provide us a tour of the ship, point out any modification from its original specs, after which you and your crew will exit the ship and we will conduct the following itemized inspections including a preflight warm-up so you’ll hear your engines spin up and shut down.”

“Excuse me, Inspector Redeker, you won’t,” Jonah interrupted. “We have a private room set up for you at the Bei Ling Tea House, where Inspector Pratchett will be carrying on a brief interview for each member of your crew, and once that is done you will be free to go on your way.”

“Well that’s a lot of caveats and addendums there, innit?” the Captain said, stroking his red goatee. His expression hardened. “Another gorram inspection?”

The black-haired gentlemen to the side spoke up. “Oh, come now Captain, these gentlemen are obviously just doing their jobs,” he said in a patronizing tone. “Besides, they’ve got a tea room booked for us, that sounds delightful.” He stepped forward. “Of course I’d be happy to give these gents a tour if you and Chase wanted to go ahead to the tea house.”

The woman stiffened slightly at this.

Maitlock frowned. “Fine, let’s get this over with. You make sure to give them the ‘full tour,’ this time, Chief Bowes.”

Bowes smiled. “Of course.”

“Inspector Singh, if you wanted to begin your external inspection,” Jonah indicated Worth. He turned to the dark-haired man. “Now, Chief Bowes, what is your function on board?”

Bowes preened and stood a little straighter. “Chief engineer, of course.”

“Excellent, whenever you’re ready chief. I assume this is all your crew and passengers?” Jonah said.

“Not at all.” Bowes said.

Jonah frowned. “We’re actually going to need the ship cleared for the inspection.”

“That’s highly irregular.” Bowes said.

“Actually it isn’t.” Doc said. “If you look at our documentation.”

“All right, all right,” Maitlock said, stepping in front of Bowes. “I’m the captain here, you don’t need to distract our Engineer from his regular duties any longer than necessary. Let’s see this alleged documentation.”

“You’re holding it,” Doc said. He pointed out a few relevant clauses.

“Oh, of course,” Maitlock said. “I don’t believe this,” he sighed. “All right, we’ll have the crew out momentarily.”

“And you do have a crew list, I presume?” Jonah asked.

“Of course,” Captain Maitlock said. “There are six of us.”

“That’s consistent with what I’m seeing here,” Jonah said.

In a few moments, the remaining crewmembers were assembled on the gangplank. There was a glum-looking fellow wearing a knit cap and heavy parka despite the warm evening air, a scrawny, fastidious man who wore a pistol at his hip that would have looked ridiculous were it not for the fact that he obviously knew how to use it, and a boy just out of his teens who wore surplus fatigues and a tight green t-shirt.

“You all are more than welcome to join the command crew at the tea room,” Doc said to the newcomers.

“Right, where’s that?” The Captain said. Jonah handed him a business card from the tea room he had picked up.

“I’m sure you can appreciate my position here,” Maitlock said. “I’m not just going to allow you gentlemen to have free reign of this thing while we go drink some tea, and it will probably be in your interest to have someone here to give you the lay of the land. So why don’t we leave Vance, our space hand behind?” He indicated the young man wearing the green work clothes.

“He’s free to hang around the port but he cannot be on the ship during the inspection.” Doc said firmly. “But if you wish to stand and watch what we do from a distance while we do what we do, that’s fine.”

Maitlock paused, then shrugged. “Okay then, just give me a minute and we’ll have everyone out.” He strode back up the gangplank.

“And of course we have to see everyone’s work permits and documentation.” Jonah said loudly.

The crew started to grumble as they fumbled for their ID papers.

Doc shook his head at Jonah, who nodded. “Oh wait, sorry, but Inspector Pratchett will take care of that at the Tea House. He’ll be along in a few minutes.”

“What do we do at the tea room then?” Captain Maitlock asked.

Jonah smiled. “The owner knows to expect you, just give her your name. She’s been told to expect you specifically. She’ll usher you into one of the private rooms, papers have been laid out, if you wouldn’t mind beginning that, and Inspector Pratchett will be along in a few minutes to begin the interview phase of the inspection. In the meantime, please help yourselves to some refreshments when you arrive.”

“All right.” Maitlock said. He and the rest of the Desdemona’s crew started off walking up the boardwalk towards the Bei Ling Tea House.

Worth kept his duffel bag close as Jonah and Doc started walking up the gangplank. As soon as they were out of sight of the boardwalk, they started running.

They found themselves in Desdemona’s cargo bay, which was immaculate and empty save for a pair of cargo pallets netted securely to one of the bulkheads.

The Doc gave the cargo bay a once-over. There were two lifts – a passenger elevator at the aft end of the cargo bay, and a large platform-style cargo lift that could lower to the ground as well as travel upwards to the next level.

“This place reeks of hidden panels and concealed guards,” the Doc said.

“Or robots with machineguns attached to them,” Jonah replied.

“Worth can check the engine room for those.” Doc said.

Jonah couldn’t contain his glee. “Once we’re sure the ship’s secure, we hit the autopilot, then we hit the pool or the discotheque. We’re on Team Excellent here because we get to fly on the good ship.”

Beyond the passenger lift was a corridor leading to the engine room.

“I’m going to check for places to stash stowaways. After all, we had those little nooks on our ship.” Doc said.

“You had one stowaway, and I think I worked out pretty well I think,” Jonah protested.

“Why don’t you search, I’m going to head up to the bridge and get things going for right now.” Jonah took the passenger lift upstairs, leaving Tulsa to search the cargo bay for hiding spots.

On the second level, Jonah found himself in a smaller cargo hold, which was stacked with luxury consumables. An inviting smell of cooked food wafted in from amidships, making Jonah’s stomach rumble. That’s an awful lot of food, he thought to himself.

He started walking through the corridor ahead to the command deck. He passed through a well-appointed galley, where an industrial dishwasher was in full operation, and steam was venting from a number of culinary gadgets. There were racks full of fine china and wine glasses at the ready.

He stepped past a second bulkhead. Beyond the galley was a main corridor with yet another service lift that could be passed through without stopping. Hatchways that looked like they gave way to crew quarters were on either side of him as he walked through a third set of bulkheads. Then he walked into what looked like the bridge.

Jonah whistled. This was the shiniest starship bridge he’d ever set eyes on. The crew’s swivel seats were finished in plush leather, the instrumentation was housed in streamlined consoles coloured just the right shade of neutral off-white, and no expense had been spared for the ship’s styling. The pilot’s station was a fully glassed interface, with curved touchscreens at just the right ergonomic angle. Wide, angular viewports gave Jonah a commanding view of Heaven Beach’s skyline.

“Let’s start the preflight,” Jonah said to himself, taking the helm. He touched the ignition panels and the console’s screens came to life, bathing him in multicoloured lights from the ship’s many system status displays. One such light, coloured red, drew his attention.

Landlock.

Jonah frowned as the indicator beeped at him insistently. He knew that a landlock was a signal sent by authorities, usually port control, that could remotely shut down key firmware components inside a starship, preventing takeoff unless the signal was interrupted or terminated. He could spin the engines up all he wanted until they burned out, but Desdemona wouldn’t go anywhere.

This was bad.

“We’re landlocked. There’s two options here,” he said over the multiband. “We could try to finagle our way out, or call Port Authority and the Sheriff’s office, give them the repossession notice, and to tell them to reverse the landlock, and get a flight plan out of here. Why blast out, when we can talk our way out? What we’re doing is perfectly legal and we got the crew off the ship.”

“Sounds good,” the Doc said into his multiband as he rode the elevator to the second deck. “Do it.”

Jonah tuned his multiband to the Tea House, hoping to connect with Gemma Stonestreet. He wanted to tell her that there would be a ‘small delay,’ and that ‘Inspector Pratchett’ would be along in twenty to twenty-five minutes.

There was no answer at the Tea House. Either that, or he couldn’t get a signal. He paused, and then dialed for Worth.

“Worth, how’s your ‘inspection’ going? We’ve got a landlock on this ship.” The signal was pretty scratchy. “What should we do, sneak our way out or call the Sheriff’s office?”

“Call YJ so he can wave the data over to the sheriff.” Doc replied.

Just as Jonah was about to do that, he heard the sound of a boot scraping on the deck plate behind him. Jonah turned in his chair.

A bald, Asian man was standing in the threshold of the bridge. He was wearing pressed white slacks and a white tank top that didn’t completely hide complicated tattoos he wore like a second shirt underneath.

Jonah got to his feet and slipped a hand into his pocket, closing it around the brass knuckles. He extended a sheaf of paperwork with his free hand at the gentleman, who was staring at him with an expression of dull menace on his sweat-sheened face. He was leaning against the bulkhead with one hand, but the other was hidden behind his back.

Jonah put on an expression of bureaucratic annoyance. “I was told this ship would be cleared. FAA regulations state that no crew can be aboard the ship during an inspection.”

The man took his hand from behind his back, revealing a chromed meat cleaver, the blade of which seemed impractically overlong. Jonah’s eyes widened as the man growled and rushed forward, whipping the chromed blade overhead as he ran at him.

Paperwork flew through the air like a vortex of autumn leaves as Jonah skipped to the side at the very last possible moment, feeling the blade slice the air next to him.

Jonah’s attacker, fully expecting to have buried his weapon into Jonah’s torso instead of cutting nothing but empty space, followed through too far, overextending himself as Jonah brought back his brass knuckled fist and drove it deeply into the man’s exposed midsection.

Jonah could feel the crunch of a rib breaking beneath his fist, but the man’s malicious expression didn’t change with the impact. Even as he doubled over, he didn’t take his glaring eyes off Jonah, who felt a sudden chill.

A professional, Jonah thought.

“What was that?” The Doc asked into his multiband. He was walking through the galley towards what he hoped was the bridge.

He heard the sound of footsteps from the steam-clouded recesses of the galley. A man walked out of the steam, wearing a white steward’s uniform, with a bit of a lopsided grin on his face. He held what looked like a bundle of sticks in his hand. Extending his fist, he let the first stick go. It dangled from a chain connecting it to a second shaft, which he also released, revealing that it too was connected to a third by a similar length of chain. He began to swing the two lengths of wood in a slow arc.

Doc reached out and grabbed a cast-iron skillet off the nearest countertop. “Let’s rock,” he said to the steward, while pressing a derm to his chest, releasing some liquid courage.

The steward’s grin widened and he bowed in a mock salute. Then he whipped the sanjegun out towards the doctor. Doc ducked, barely getting out of the way as the end of the shaft whipcracked passed him.

“Screw this!” Doc Tulsa shouted as he hightailed it towards the passenger lift, still gripping the frying pan tightly. “Worth!” he shouted.

One level below, Worth unzipped the duffel bag as he strode up the gangplank.

Back on the bridge, Jonah’s attacker spun beneath him and slashed violently upward. Jonah arched his back and tried to twist out of the way, and gasped in shock as he felt the razor-sharp edge of the blade bite deep into his abdomen and cleave sideways in a white-hot ribbon of agony. Blood rained on the deckplates from the slashing wound as Jonah staggered backwards, holding his stomach and gritting his teeth to keep from screaming.

The man’s expression turned to one of smug satisfaction. He straightened up as blood dripped down from the cleaver onto his clenched fist.

Jonah stumbled forward, putting everything he had into a reinforced jab to the man’s prominent chin. He connected, but not as strongly as he needed to. The man’s head snapped back, a tooth shattering in a spray of white shards, but he remained on his feet, spitting a stream of blood out as he rocked on his heels.

Elsewhere on the ship, the steward gave chase, swinging his three-section staff in an effort to trip the Doc up. Doc managed to get into the passenger lift ahead of his pursuer, and he slapped frantically at the ‘down’ button. The sliding doors hissed closed, but at the last second, the butt end of the sanjegun staff swung between them, keeping them from sealing shut.

Worth stepped onto the cargo lift and hit the handheld control to raise it to the deck above. The lift quietly rose on oiled tracks.

Doc put all his weight against the lift doors, trying to hold them place while his pursuer attempted to leverage them open. The Doc’s boots squeaked against the nonslip lift floor as he began to lose the battle – inch by inch the steward managed to force the doors open. Soon he’d be able to elbow his way into, and Tulsa didn’t like his chances. The steward’s eyes were visible in the gap, fiercely glaring at him.

Worth found himself inside the smaller cargo bay on the second deck, and heard the sound of struggle behind him. Several feet away, a man in a white jacket was trying to force open a pair of elevator doors, cursing and grunting with exertion, oblivious to his presence.

Worth reached into the duffel and extracted first Wham and then Bam. He raised one of the heavy pistols, thought of something witty to say, then shrugged and pulled the trigger.

The report of the pistol was overpowering in the small space. Doc felt a blast of wind near his face and the sound of the bullet burying itself in the other side of the lift with a ricocheting ping. The steward’s eyes widened for a split second before the impact spun him about. Blood ran red down his steward’s jacket front and back and the man coughed wetly, a dollop of gore flecking his lips.

Calmly, he wiped the blood off his face as he stared at Worth, and then wrenched his sanjegun out of the elevator door and spun it unsteadily, as he slumped against the lift’s sealing doors before pushing himself off. Half-running, half-falling towards Worth, he intended to tangle his weapon around Worth’s firing arm.

Worth raised an eyebrow. And fired again.

The bullet stopped the steward in his tracks. He dropped in a tangle of loose limbs and sanjegun sections.

The sound of the two shots echoed up the corridor and bounced around the bridge, where Jonah was struggling to stay out of his attacker’s range.

“You have about ten seconds, buddy,” Jonah gasped. “Ten. Seconds. Think about what you’re going to do.”

The man snarled and bit off a curse in Mandarin.

Jonah was feeling light-headed from blood loss, but thought he would press the issue. “Want to bring a knife to a gunfight? I’ve always wanted to see someone do that. Keep going, let’s see what’ll happen.”

The attacker squared off and flicked the knife with a turn of his wrist, spraying Jonah with his own blood. Then he swung his meat cleaver, barely missing him.

“Worth, I got one for you over here!” Jonah shouted.

The Doc stepped out of the elevator as Worth holstered his pistols. “We gotta find Jonah,” he said. The two men took off towards the bridge at full tilt.

As Worth pounded the deckplates, he could see that there was a single corridor that led to the bridge. As he got closer, he could see a struggle going on in the space of the corridor hatchway – the glint of an edged weapon and the sound of shouts.

“Drop your weapons! This is the Port Authority!” Worth shouted as he ran.

Undaunted, Jonah’s attacker launched a booted foot at Jonah, trying to stomp him out of the fight. Jonah lunged out of the way and tried to punch him with every ounce of his sapping strength. His fist caught nothing but air, and the exertion brought him down to one knee.

He stared up into the hate-filled face of his attacker. The man smiled darkly as he raised the shining blade over his head, ready to carve Jonah in two. Then the crown of his bald head disappeared in a welter of blood and bone. Jonah winced as he was showered with a wet slap of gore. The sound of the gunshot rang in his ears.

In the corridor, Worth pulled his arm back from full extension and blew the curling smoke away from Wham’s barrel. “That’s a good girl,” he whispered.

Crazed eyes locked on Jonah even as blood poured over the fringe of his ruptured skull to make scarlet tracks down his face, the burly attacker slowly sank to his knees and toppled sideways to come to rest on the deck. The meat cleaver clattered as it fell out of his hand.

Jonah found the strength to give the corpse a swift kick out of spite before collapsing.

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