Campaign of the Month: January 2011

Honour Among Thieves

Nine Tenths of the Law Session Two

Engine trouble puts the crew on a collision course with old acquaintances

Shenmue was rattled from stem to stern, bucking as if it was a seagoing vessel in the roughest of seas. The crew had to fight to maintain their footing, and Quinn lost that particular battle, finding himself thrown to the deckplates. Fortunately he was alone in his quarters so nobody saw his embarrassing tumble.

Inside his quarters, the Doc held on for dear life, hoping against hope that this was merely an unpleasant side effect of his latest round of medication.

By happenstance, Worth had been rearranging his tools in the engine compartment when Shenmue shook violently from side to side. He cursed as his toolbox upended and scattered its contents across the floor. A terribly loud groaning, straining, and otherwise worrisome sound emanating from parts aft and above blasted his ears.

Worth checked the diagnostic console in the engine room and quickly surmised that Shenmue’s fuel compression stabilizer had gravely malfunctioned. Worth gulped; this was bad news. Shenmue’s liquid hydrogen fuel was stored under pressure at -423 degrees Fahrenheit by a complex cryogenic control system, of which the compression stabilizer was the linchpin. Any significant disruption in the compression system could result in a fuel leak as the compressed hydrogen began to expand out of control, which in turn could lead to the flash freezing of vital internal components, or worse yet, an explosion. Worth had to fight the sudden instinct to flee, and judging by the rattling of the deck plating beneath his feet, he wasn’t the only one on board struggling to stand his ground.

From his seat on the bridge, YJ snapped to attention as his console lit up with a kaleidoscope of warning signals. Indicators flashed, and YJ checked one such readout that was flashing an insistent shade of amber. He discovered that, seemingly of her own volition, Shenmue had thrown herself into hard burn, increasingly both speed and fuel consumption to distressing level.

“Worth, come in!” YJ shouted into the intercom. “What’s the situation back there?”

“Yeah, we’ve got trouble,” Worth shouted back. “The compression stabilizer’s let go!”

“Get on it!” YJ shouted back. Keying open the main channel, he said, “The rest of you, prepare for an unscheduled hard burn!”

“Better late than never!” Quinn shouted from his prone position in his passenger dorms, shaking his fist in what he hoped was the direction of the bridge.

Jonah had been eyeing Wild Sky’s sealed workshop when the trouble started, and he stumbled into the main cargo bay to inspect the shipment of rolled titanium sheeting. To his relief, he noted that the retaining straps and cargo netting had held up during the sudden violent acceleration, though he could make out bright fresh streaks where the rolls had jostled one another, marring the oxidized finish of the titanium here and there. The heavy-duty straps groaned under the stress of the ship’s irregular movements, but for the time being, the cargo hold was secure.

YJ flipped switches as he watched the engine thruster temperature indicators shift from green to yellow. “Worth, should we shut down the engines?” YJ asked the mechanic.

“Right now, the fuel’s taking the easy way out – through the engine pods,” Worth replied. “You shut that down, and it’s going to find another place to vent!”

“Good point!” YJ decided to open the throttle all the way to bring his manual controls into line with what the ship had already decided was the best course of action.

Worth grabbed his tool belt and decided that an inspection of the compression stabilizer was in order. He bolted from the engine room and rushed down the rear stairwell, intent on entering the service corridors that ran amidships and that were accessible from ladders in the passenger area. Not five seconds later, he heard an unholy noise from the engineering compartment – the sound of deckplates giving way, and a rushing, torrential whooshing sound. “That’s not good,” the mechanic said to himself.

YJ suddenly felt a slap of frigid air on the back of his neck, as if he had been struck with a cold towel, as a freezing wind rushed up the ship’s gooseneck towards the bridge. The pilot heard distant metallic crashing noises from the engine room. He risked a glance at Shenmue’s fuel display and saw a blinking red light indicating a sudden decrease in fuel levels.

“Worth, the fuel line just ruptured!” YJ shouted. “Jonah, get back to the engine room and seal off the compartment!” YJ then punched up Shenmue’s environmental control system, aiming to regulate the temperature in the engine room.

Jonah bolted up the stairwell, sidestepping the burly Worth as he ran towards the aft sections. As he reached the upper deck, Jonah’s breath fogged and froze in mid-air as a rush of devastatingly cold wind drove it from his lungs. The deck plates immediately adjacent to the engine room bulkhead had gone bone-white with frost, and as Jonah watched, an intricate icy filigree etched itself onto the metallic surfaces of the rear corridor, propelled by the gusts of frozen air rushing out of the engine compartment, coating the hallway with a fine, if unreadable, scrollwork. Jonah lunged for the bulkhead doors as the slush piled up in the engine room, expanding to fill every bit of vacant space.

“Warning, abnormal drop in temperature detected. Check life support systems at once.” Shenmue’s safety warning repeated the message in Chinese as an alarm began to blare.

Jonah whipped his jacket off despite the cold and bunched it up to protect his hands as he wrestled the door latch to slam the bulkhead closed, sealing off the engineering compartment. He stared through the porthole as the frozen hydrogen continued to pile up. He watched the hydrogen slush creep up towards the spinning radion accelerator core unit as he hit the intercom panel outside the door. “Captain, I don’t like the idea of that slush getting into the ship’s moving parts. Can we do an emergency shutdown?”

“Not without dumping the fuel!” YJ replied. He checked the readings coming from Shenmue’s engine pods and frowned; both engines were running hotter than normal and would not be able to keep up for very much longer.

Jonah threw up his hands and ran back towards his quarters, intent on grabbing everything of value and making his way to the nearest shuttle. He began tossing items into a canvas bag, dumping his footlocker out and collecting the best bits.

Worth took the maintenance ladder two rungs at a time and couldn’t help but notice the rapid drop in temperature as he approached the sealed maintenance hatch. His sharp eyes made out a rime of frost fringing the edges of the hatch. He frowned, his breath fogging in the confined space of the ladder. Then he remembered the heavy-duty salvage worksuits contained in the supplies left over from their disastrous salvage operation some months ago. He slid down the ladder and double-timed it into the main cargo hold, popping open the utility crate and struggling into the bulky suit.

Even as the temperature on board began to noticeably dip, YJ mopped sweat from his brow as he examined the damage control readouts. He nodded grimly to himself and made a decision: he needed to shut the ship’s engines down to prevent a burnout, which required an emergency venting of the ship’s fuel tank out into the Black. YJ wanted to vent just enough fuel to keep it from spreading on board the ship.

“Jonah!” he shouted into the airlock. “Keep an eye on the engine room and tell me when it stops filling with slush!”

Jonah was in the process of firing up the shuttle’s startup sequence when he got the order. He sighed, forlornly flicked one last switch, and ran out to check on the engine compartment.

With considerable more difficulty this time, Worth climbed the ladder, confident his gloves and suit would protect him. He reached up and grabbed the lever that would force the hatch open. The lever snapped off in his hand, leaving precious little behind save for the bolt holding it into place on the hatch.

Worth cursed and instinctively grabbed for his cutting torch. Fumbling with it in his gloved hands, he prepared to fire it up and begin cutting through the hatch release mechanism. Then he recalled his safety training, and holstered the cutting torch. He climbed back down the ladder and again moved back into the main hold, searching for the hydraulic power prybars. He slung the backpack power supply over his shoulder and carried the heavy tool back up the ladder. He jammed the prybars into the seam of the maintenance hatch and fired the tool up, bracing himself in the ladder well.

Whitaker exited his passenger dorm and walked unsteadily to the maintenance ladder.
“What’s going on?” he asked as he took in the sight of Worth’s heavy-duty worksuit and power prybars.

“Routine maintenance!” the mechanic shouted.

With a final screech, the maintenance hatch gave way, and Worth was struck full-force by a torrential downpour of frozen hydrogen, which forced him down the ladder well. The slush spread out in a steaming puddle on the deck of the secondary hold, and Worth was thankful for his worksuit as he took note of the frost that suddenly covered every exposed surface.

With a surprised yelp, Whitaker leapt back into his dorm and slammed the door shut.

Worth struggled to his feet and slogged through the knee-deep drifts to the base of the ladder. His gloves stuck only slightly on each frost-encrusted rung as he forced his way past irregular spurts of semi-liquid hydrogen that shot out of the maintenance crawlway. The maintenance hatch had split in two, and Worth took note of how brittle the remains of the hatch seemed, as if rapidly rusted out. Then he was into the mid-deck maintenance area, clearing away snow with one hand while tracing the break in the compression stabilizer with another. His heart sank as he realized that, all things being equal, this excess fuel should have automatically been vented into space by Shenmue’s safety override system. The fact that this was not happening was troubling to say the least.

Jonah peered through the porthole to the engineering compartment and did a double take. He saw something moving inside the hydrogen drifts. It looked like a blue liquid of some kind, coursing through the slush.

Jonah heard the sound of the Doc exiting his quarters and turned, waving him over. “Doc, what the hell is that?” He pointed to the liquid.

Heedless of the blaring alarm and reverberations from the straining engine thrusters, the Doc ambled over took a look. “Looks like the hydrogen’s pulling oxygen out of the ship’s atmo. It must be cold enough in there to liquefy the Oh-Two.”

Jonah gulped. “I’m no expert, but isn’t liquid oxygen, you know, volatile?”

The Doc was distracted by the course the blue liquid was taking through the solid hydrogen. “Look at that,” he pointed. “It’s being affected by Shenmue’s gravity field!”

The Doc was correct; the liquid was spiking along the lines of the invisible grav field, taking on the appearance of an angular drill bit as it twisted through the slush.

The Doc suddenly paled and turned to Jonah. “We’re carrying a load of titanium, correct?” Jonah nodded. “If that liquid oxygen comes into contact with the titanium, we’re going to have fire. A big fire.”

Jonah took one look at the Doc, and then took off running towards the shuttle.

YJ managed to convince Shenmue’s safety system to vent the fuel, which began escaping in a white plume from the dorsal intakes, giving the transport ship the appearance of a stricken comet. This gave him the opportunity to safely shut down Shenmue’s overheating engines.

Worth finally found the source of the onboard fuel leak and got to work sealing it.

The Doc made his way over to the open maintenance hatch, where he could hear the sound of Worth banging on something. “Worth, do you need any help up there?” The Doc shouted up the ladder well.

“Yeah,” Worth replied. “Go check on the engine compartment.” The Doc took the back stairs and encountered Jonah, a duffel bag slung over each shoulder, whistling nonchalantly as he walked towards the shuttle bay. The Doc moved on to the sealed bulkhead and took a look through the porthole. A miniature mountain range of white peaks covered all visible surfaces. “Looks okay, I guess!” he said over the intercom.

Quinn exited his quarters and took a look around. “Looks like you’ve got this well in hand,” he said to no one in particular as he gingerly stepped around the steaming slush to find himself in the main cargo hold. He took note of the open crate with various worksuit components hanging out of it, and decided to take the cue and begin suiting up.

Jonah stepped out onto the catwalk and noticed Quinn struggling with the survival suit, trying valiantly to step into the arms of the bulky torso rather than the pant legs. He rolled his eyes.

The Doc racked his brain trying to remember what he’d learned in his first-year chemistry classes at the MedAcad. “Listen guys, all this frozen hydrogen slush isn’t doing Shenmue any favours. The metals and ceramics are going to get weaker and weaker the longer this stuff hangs around on the deck.” He said over the intercom.

“The Doc’s right,” Worth admitted as he continued to work on the compression stabilizer.

“First thing we should do is turn up the heat,” the Doc said.

“Won’t that make the gases expand?” YJ asked.

“No, it’ll help diffuse the hydrogen that’s already soaking into the ship’s superstructure,” the Doc corrected. “Get the temp as high as it can go.”

“Jonah, make yourself useful and come up to the bridge,” YJ called out.

Cursing, Jonah stepped out of the now fully-loaded shuttle and made his way up the gooseneck. He began messing with the ship’s climate controls, finding a setting between “Sauna” and “Desert.”

With one last strike with his pipe wrench, Worth was satisfied that the fuel leak had been sealed off at the source. He turned his attention to salvaging the compression stabilizer itself. He attempted to patch it back together, and failed. His curses reverberated throughout the ship. The part was beyond repair, shattered from end to end, and would definitely need replacement.

Slowly, Shenmue’s internal temperature began to rise, much to everyone’s discomfort. The Doc pulled open the engineering hatch door, and the hydrogen drifts stood chest high. A thick fog, lighter than air, spilled out along the ceiling; evidence of the boiling-off process that was already underway.

Those members of the crew who had not yet suited up could smell bitter almonds – the odorant added to the hydrogen fuel as a leak warning. Shenmue’s life support warning changed slightly. “Check oxygen levels at once. Jien-cha yong-chi gong yin.”

Jonah checked the environmental controls and pursed his lips. “The hydrogen’s boiling off faster than the atmofeed can scrub it out of the air,” he told the rest of the crew.

“We need to suck up the hydrogen from the engine room!” YJ said into the intercom as he fitted an emergency mask over his face. He thought for a moment. “Jonah,” he turned to the thief. “Seal everything leading to the galley and prepare it for venting.”

“Why?” Jonah asked.

“Hydrogen’s lighter than air and it’s going to collect in open spaces on the ship’s upper decks. The galley and common area will fill up the fastest, so if we pop the airlock there, it will blow most of the hydrogen out into space.”

Jonah dutifully ran to the galley and started battening down every available hatch, locking compartments and ensuring that the furniture was bolted the deck. He then pulled the inner airlock door open in advance of YJ’s override signal.

“Galley’s ready for venting!” Jonah shouted.

“Venting galley!” YJ replied. He manipulated the airlock controls. A cyclone of boiling hydrogen was forced out into space, along with some cutlery and a few protein packs Jonah missed.

Shenmue’s life support system beeped cheerfully as the atmo returned to more breathable levels.

Whitaker joined the rest of the crew on the bridge, having stripped down to a t-shirt and boxer shorts in the unbearable heat. “Why’s it so hot?” Whitaker asked. “You guys really like extremes on this ship, don’t you?”

“The diagnostic on the temperature system is complete,” YJ said offhandedly, eyeing Whitaker’s underclothes.

“All that rough flying shook the compression stabilizer loose,” Worth said by way of explanation. “We had a leak, but we took care of it.”

“Okay,” Whitaker said. He drifted off to find a cool drink of water.

With a heavy heart, YJ decided to check the fuel gauge. His suspicions were confirmed. “We’ve lost about 150 hours’ worth of fuel,” he gulped. “Some from the leak, but most from the emergency venting.”

“Do we have enough left to find a place to put down for repairs?” Worth asked. “I think we’re looking at replacing some parts here.” He held up a sizable chunk of embrittled compression stabilizer and squeezed his hand, crumbling it.

“We’ve got about 115 hours left in the tank,” YJ said. He scanned the charts. “Worth, you’re not going to like this, but we’re within range of Beylix.”

“Worthess, you mean.” Jonah cracked.

“It’s about three and a half days’ ride,” YJ said. “We’ll be on fumes when we get there, but we’ll get there.”

“Ghost is closer,” Worth argued.

“Yeah, but it’s also in the wrong direction,” Jonah argued. “A backwater moon won’t be any good for us.”

“And it’s too close to the heat our passenger is trying to avoid.” YJ said. In the background, Whitaker nodded in agreement.

“I ain’t going there,” Worth said flatly.

“You don’t have to leave the ship.” YJ said.

Worth shook his head. “I’m going to be the one getting the parts.”

“And I have a fake moustache,” Jonah countered. “Now listen, there’s no possible way you’re hated on all four corners of this planet.”

“Sho-Je Downs?” Worth tried again. “What about Constance, or Verbena?”

“Verbena’s got its own problems.” Quinn said. “It’s crawling with Alliance.”

Worth threw up his hands. “Fine,” he said. “But don’t blame me if you all end up getting beaten up again.”

“Remember what happened last time? We were sold out when we tried to do a deal, so we’ll all be motivated to keep a low profile,” Jonah said. He was thinking this was a perfect opportunity to get his own back against the creeps responsible for the Unified Reclamation ambush.

YJ laid in a course for Beylix as Worth stomped off.

Jonah began collecting his gear from the shuttle. As he worked, Whitaker poked his head in. “I take it we’re going to have to put down for repairs somewhere?”

“Just some minor environmental problems, we can get it fixed quickly.” Jonah replied.

“Fine, as long as it’s not too populated,” Whitaker said.

“You planning on walking around Beylix while we’re there?” Jonah asked.

“I don’t want to set foot on any soil that’s not on Lilac, if it’s all the same to you.” Whitaker replied.

“It is all the same to me,” Jonah said.

Whitaker nodded. “How long do you think this detour will take?”

“As long as it takes,” Jonah said, and turned to go.

He got halfway down the catwalk before Whitaker’s voice stopped him. “Hey, I think I’d like to buy that gun now.”

“Okay,” Jonah said. “I’ll sell you the ammunition once we set down on Lilac.”

Whitaker smiled. “I thought so.”

Due to Shenmue’s increased speed, carefully managed this time, they made it to Beylix in just over two days.

During the trip, a thought occurred to Jonah. Some of his more recently-acquired goods, including the police ID badges and stun pistols, were likely tagged and coded by the Alliance, and the kind of scanners that were found all over the place on core worlds like Osiris would probably sniff them out. He placed the stun pistols aside, intending to toss them out the airlock. He wasn’t quite as ready to part with the Fed badges, however. But first things first. Jonah decided to work up some phony documents for Whitaker and Worth.

Worth grumbled to himself as he mopped up the last of the hydrogen slush pooling in the engine room. He danced out of the way as a brittle deck plate chose to collapse beneath his weight, and added that to the growing list of parts necessary to bring the ship back up to code.

The port of Newhouse was home to several licensed scrap dealers who would likely have the parts that the crew needed. The city streets were laid out as a series of concentric circles with a park at the centre, a rare spot of green in an otherwise rust-red landscape. The port was hemmed in on all sides by piles of scrap metal and shipping containers.

As the ship descended towards the landing platforms at the southeastern corner of town, YJ could make out the shapes of large tracked salvage vehicles the size of capital ships hard at work disassembling the hulks of derelict freighters behind the immense wall that separated Newhouse proper from the scrapyard that stretched to the horizon.

YJ brought Shenmue in for a landing at Newhouse’s spaceport. “Unidentified Firefly transport, you are cleared for landing on docking platform D-24,” the traffic controller said. “Prepare for a boarding and inspection after landing.”

“Terrific,” YJ said to himself. “Acknowledged, traffic control.”

“There’s going to be a welcoming committee,” YJ told the rest of the crew. “Quinn and Doc, you’re with me.”

YJ, Quinn, and the Doc strode down the ramp to greet the waiting port officials. YJ recognized the customs agent. It was none other than Inspector Rifkin, the affable bureaucrat who had shaken them down the last time they landed at Newhouse. From the ever-widening grin on the customs inspector’s face, he could tell that the recognition was mutual.

“Morning, Rifkin.” YJ said.

“Captain Johnson, so nice to again make your acquaintance.” Inspector Rifkin rocked back on his heels as he spoke. “Tell me, what brings you to the fair city of Newhouse on this fine day?”

“Other than the sights, you mean?” Johnson replied.

“That goes without saying.” Rifkin smiled.

“Just a little rest and refit.” YJ said.

“Well, you’ve come to the right place.” Rifkin hefted his notebook.

As they chatted, Rifkin’s subordinates began a quiet but efficient search of the cargo bay. One of them examined the titanium sheeting, and nodded to his superior. Rifkin asked for the shipping manifest. He took a cursory look at the documentation, and then glanced at the shipment of titanium. His smile grew almost impossibly wide.

“You wouldn’t be delivering this cargo to a customer on Beylix, would you?” the customs inspector asked, almost rhetorically.

“Not on Beylix, I’m afraid not.” YJ said uneasily.

“Interesting,” Rifkin said, tapping his stylus against the shipping manifest. “As much as I’d like to take your word for it, there are certain import duties for that particular product given the planetary government’s interest in protecting its native industries.”

“Isn’t there some sort of favoured customer program where we can bypass this whole business?” YJ asked. “We’re sort of pressed for time.”

“Well, ordinarily,” Rifkin continued. “We would have to secure this cargo in a bonded warehouse to ensure that you do not inadvertently leave it behind while you are resting and refitting, because we would hate to see you accidentally violate the laws of celestial commerce that are in effect in this planet’s jurisdiction. Certainly there are ways to ameliorate the process,” the customs inspector smiled.

“What’s the alternative?” Johnson asked.

Rifkin beamed. “Well, there would be a cargo transfer tax, a paid duty officer fee for the men guarding the warehouse, a warehouse occupation levy, and a transshipment duty, and so on.”

“I see,” Quinn stepped forward. “Well, Inspector Rifkin, that sounds like an awful lot of paperwork, and a man like you has better things to do than push a pencil around, not when there are so many other incoming ships to inspect and personal inconvenience fees to collect. We’ve put down for repairs here in Newhouse; your men can inspect the damage for themselves if you’d like. As soon as we have the parts we need, we’ll be back in the Black, and you won’t have had to open a new file on us in the meantime. We’re here to save you some of your valuable time.” With that, he placed a sheaf of credits atop Rifkin’s clipboard.

Rifkin nodded and opened up the notebook, revealing its false bottom. The wad of bills neatly disappeared inside. He bowed slightly as his men stepped back into formation. “Once again Captain Johnson and cohorts, it has been a pleasure doing business with you. I trust you will stay on the right side of the wall while you are here in Newhouse, as the Unified Reclamation anti-poaching patrols are not as forgiving as we poor civil servants, and are conspicuously better armed.”

Johnson and the Doc laughed a little too loudly in reply as the customs inspection team marched down the ramp.

After YJ took care of the port fees at the control tower, the crew bickered over which scrap dealer to visit first.

“Sing Skyworks?” Worth said. “We’re just going to pay a friendly visit to the guy who sold us out last time we were here?”

“It doesn’t figure that Sing would have sold us out, because he was on good terms with the guy who hired us, that Farnsworth fellow.” YJ said. “But he certainly put us on to the guy who put us on to the guy who ripped us off.”

“All the same, there’s no rule against carrying guns in Newhouse,” Jonah said.

Worth dug out his most conspicuously inconspicuous hat and donned it, much to the amusement of his crewmates.

“You might as well draw a target on your back for the fashion police,” Johnson laughed.

“You know, Worth,” The Doc said cheerfully. “I have been meaning to try my hand at some cosmetic surgery.” Worth backed away.

“Doc’s got a point. I’ve got a disguise kit, can you give me ten minutes?” Jonah offered.

“I’ll try anything,” Worth said.

Jonah smiled and proceeded to obscure Worth’s features while ensuring that he looked like an overgrown transvestite. He made sure Worth didn’t see his reflection during the process. “Thanks man, I really appreciate this,” Worth said from beneath the tresses of his platinum blonde wig. “You’re a good friend.”

Sing Skyworks was a large fenced-in work yard, full of half-scrapped and half-rebuilt vehicles (though it was difficult to tell which were which), with a dilapidated trailer serving as an office and staff lounge in the centre of the scrap piles. The crew was not molested by the burly work gang banging away at the hull of a derelict suborbital shuttle and they entered the trailer without any trouble.

YJ swung the door open, rattling its hinges, followed by Jonah, and Worth brought up the rear.

Gerald Sing was behind his desk, pouring himself a cup of tea from his dragon-shaped teapot. He looked up and blanched, the spout of his teapot drifting away from the mouth of the teacup, spilling hot tea onto his desk blotter.

“Jao gao! It’s you!” he sputtered. His eyes had grown about as big as the saucers beneath his china cups.

Johnson took the first seat in front of Sing’s desk. “So Sing, do you know why we’re here?”

“L-look, if it’s about what I asked you to pull out of the Yard, let’s let bygones by bygones, eh?” Sing stuttered. “I mean, I’m not sore about it or anything.”

“Of course you’re not sore, you didn’t almost get pinched!” YJ said. “What do you have to be mad about?”

“Well, I didn’t get my stuff!” Sing tried a little indignation to cover his fear.

“Yeah, so you got your empty crates back, did you?” Jonah smirked.

“What are you talking about?” Sing asked.

“Barnes didn’t get back to you?” Jonah said.

“Barnes gave me some song and dance about nobody showing up to transfer the goods.” Sing explained.

“Yeah, well we showed up all right, but Duster tried to get the drop on us and it turned out the crates were empty.” Johnson said.

“Duster? Barnes always told me that Duster was solid.” Sing leaned forward, pressing both hands against the desktop as if he was fighting to retain his grip.

“Somebody wasn’t solid,” YJ countered. “Sounds like Barnes was doing a lot of lying.”

Worth had hung back during the conversation, trying to make himself invisible. He happened to glance out the window of Sing’s office. It looked like three or four of Sing’s employees had abandoned their jobs as if beckoned by a signal, and were walking purposefully towards the front door, swinging pipe wrenches and other blunt objects at their sides.

“Hey, check this out.” Worth said to his companions. He nodded in the direction of the window and his crew mates took in the sight of the approaching thugs.

“Worth, you want to lock the door?” Johnson said casually.

Sing straightened up. “Wait, what?”

“Call off your bruisers.” Jonah said.

“What bruisers?” Sing asked

“The four salvage workers headed this way,” Johnson said. He walked over to the window and noisily cleared the slat blinds out of the way. “Do you see what I’m talking about?”

Sing slumped in his chair and reached for a microphone stand on the table behind his desk. Pressing a button, he spoke into the mic and his amplified words spilled across the scrap yard. “Take five, boys.”

The salvage crew slowed their pace at the sound of Sing’s voice and looked at one another questioningly.

Johnson shrugged. “Despite all of this, Sing, we came here to talk business, preferably the non-backstabbing kind.”

“What kind of business are you talking about?” Sing asked warily.

“We need some parts.” Jonah said.

“Well, hey, parts I’ve got.” Sing said a little too cheerfully.

“I don’t think we should trust this guy,” Worth hissed to YJ.

“That all depends on his prices.” YJ whispered back.

“I’m a reasonable man, what do you need?” Sing was saying.

“A compression stabilizer and some deck plating.” Worth said.

Sing squinted at Worth’s outfit. “Say, aren’t you…?”

“Never mind that,” Jonah snapped.

“Okay, you guys sail in a Firefly right? I think I can scare up something.” Sing said. “I can let the parts go for, say, 175.”

“175 and I want that dragon teapot.” Jonah said firmly.

“Why, did you lose yours?” Sing blurted. “Well, uh, look, this teapot is display only. I’ll knock another fifteen off, and maybe you guys can have a drink.” He swept his hand across the sodden desktop.

“So 160 it is then.” Jonah smiled.

Sing poured what was left of the tea into another pair of cups. “I swear, I had the best of intentions with that job.”

“Well, road to hell and all that.” Johnson said.

“That’s not what I meant. I haven’t worked with Barnes since. I wouldn’t want to get a reputation. I thought his operation was solid.”

Jonah took his cup of tea and blew on it noisily. “In case we have some spare time, where might we find Barnes?”

“Barnes captains a salvage factory unit out in the Capital-Y Yard, but to get in the Yard, there’s a lot of paperwork. He sends his boys out every once in a while for meetings and the like, I mean, you’ve seen Duster. I mean, he wasn’t too happy after that last deal, either.”

Sing picked up the microphone stand again and spoke. “Uh, boys, can you scare up a Firefly-compatible compression stabilizer, preferably one with less than 20 million miles on it?”

His workers shrugged and shuffled off towards the nearest pile of spare parts.

“Look, I trust you’ll be satisfied with this, it’s not like last time when I didn’t have it in stock.” Sing smiled.

A flatbed mule soon came out with some parts arrayed on it – components for the compression stabilizer.

“Well Sing, until next time.” Johnson said as he handed over the money.

“Next time, sure.” Sing said nervously. “Just, uh, give me a call before you come next time. Don’t be a stranger.”

The compression stabilizer was transferred from one mule to the other, and they drove back to where their ship was parked. Worth set about installing the new component. It was a major job, but Worth preferred working aboard ship, out of sight and out of the minds of his many enemies on Beylix.

“Let’s ask around for Duster,” Jonah said.

After checking in at a few various shady locations, he found out where Duster was holding court, at the Planetfall Bar. The Doc spent his time stocking up on medical supplies.

The crew held a quick conference chaired by Jonah. “I found out where Duster, he hangs out at the Planetfall, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s unfinished business.” Jonah said.

“Well,” Worth said. “I’m busy here, so whatever you want to do, best of luck.” He walked off to the engine room.

“So how long until we can get out into the Black, boys?” Whitaker asked, squeezing protein paste from a rolled tube onto a square of toast.

“How’s that protein paste?” Jonah asked.

“Really?” Whitaker said. “Thanks for that.”

Jonah feigned a servile tone. “Do you want me to grab anything out there for you?”

“Something with a little flavour would be nice.” Whitaker said.

“Four plat,” Jonah said, his hand out.

“Great.” Whitaker handed over the money.

YJ, Jonah, and the Doc entered the Planetfall Bar a few hours later. The bar was quite dingy, the perfect place for clandestine meetings between grey-legal salvage operators and those clients who wanted to get some unlicensed salvage on the side.

The trio looked through the smoky bar for their quarry. They soon found him seated at a table about halfway back, with his ever present toothpick set in his mouth, chatting up an equally disheveled gentleman whose back was to him.

“Making another deal, eh?” YJ whispered to his companions as he nodded in Duster’s direction.

Jonah sidled towards the table, keeping to the shadows. Duster’s attention was focused on his client and Jonah took advantage of the man’s focus, getting far closer than YJ would have thought possible without tipping either man off.

“Sure I can get that for you,” Duster was saying. “But it’s going to cost you.” He slid a small slip of paper across the table to his client. “Show up here on time, and you’ve got yourself a deal.” The client nodded, obviously ill at ease.

The Doc sidled up to the bar and to his surprise was able to order absinthe. He soon engaged the green fairy in an intense conversation.

As the meeting broke up, Jonah shadowed Duster’s client, keeping a good distance. He waved YJ and the Doc over after he was sure Duster had left the establishment.

“So there’s a drop going on,” Jonah said to his companions. “That guy over there’s the recipient, and there’s a slip of paper in his pocket telling him where and when the drop is going to happen. What say I lift that piece of paper off him?”

“That worked so well for you last time,” YJ said.

“Or do we bust this guy as Allied Enforcement officers and do a bit of a shakedown?” Jonah said.

The Doc was too focused on his drink to answer.

“I say the pocket,” YJ said. “That is, if you can do it right. But aren’t you more of a burglar than a pickpocket?”

“Watch me.” Jonah picked up the Doc’s absinthe and smoothly stepped into the path of Duster’s client.

“Hey, I just bought that!” the Doc protested.

Jonah promptly spilled the drink down the front of the man’s coveralls. “Terribly sorry,” he said, patting the man down and pulling the slip of paper out of his coverall pocket. “So sorry,” he said over his shoulder as he walked away, handing the empty glass back to the Doc.

“Not as sorry as I am,” the Doc sulked.

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