Campaign of the Month: January 2011

Honour Among Thieves

The Purloined Payload Session Four

Wild Sky puts on a light show. The crew finds out who's behind the theft of their cargo.

As the hover mule crashed over the hurricane fence that surrounded the abandoned missile base where Hagan and his pirates had set up shop, the crew heard the popping sound of a magnesium flare going off, bathing the base in false daylight as the tiny projectile drifted overhead. A ragged alarm started bleating through rusted speakers, likely coming from the ramshackle command centre.

Confused shouts were followed by bursts of automatic weapons fire from the guard towers around the perimeter – orange tracer bullets streaming into the wetlands to hiss out of existence as they hit water. The overexcited guards were hosing the countryside with machinegun fire, which, while tearing up the underbrush something fierce, didn’t come close to hitting the escaping hover mule.

A second flare, then a third, joined the first in the sky, lighting up the darkened wetlands. Jonah and YJ had to cover their eyes in surprise as they were suddenly caught in the glare of a bright spotlight. They had been spotted by at least one of the guard towers.

On the ground, Hagan’s minions were bumbling about, shouting in excitement and confusion. A few of them took their cues from the guard towers and started firing bursts into every bush, mud puddle and knot of grass outside the base perimeter, but others appeared more on the ball, making a beeline for the collection of airboats sitting near the stagnant pond at the edge of the base.

“Wild Sky, I’ll give you ten platinum if you can take out that searchlight,” Jonah said into his multiband as he shielded his eyes against the glare. A steady stream of tracer fire from the guard tower was walking its way towards the fleeing hover mule.

Still nestled a safe distance from the base on a conveniently-placed piece of dry land, Akane aimed and fired off a shot from her sniper rifle, which went wide. The machine-gun operator felt a stab of heat near his head as the invisible laser bolt snapped past. Akane cursed and corrected her aim, sending a shot directly into the gun’s spotlight, shattering it.

Jonah grabbed Worth’s favourite gun, Katrina, while YJ swapped his clip of poisoned flechettes for the more mundane variety.

As Hagan’s men scrambled aboard the four airboats, Akane sighted down on the driver of the lead vehicle, who was strapping himself into the raised pilot’s chair, unaware of his target status. Akane exhaled slowly and pulled the trigger of her rifle, just as the pilot opened up the throttle.

The laser blast took the hapless driver full in the face, scorching skin, flesh and bone. The man’s hand went slack on the control yoke, and the airboat turned a slow, lazy circle while the other three leapt out into the water in search of prey. The two passengers on board the fourth vehicle did not notice the status of their driver, although one pirate thought he heard an echo from the swamp that sounded like a woman shouting “Banzai!”

Worth squinted and tried not the think of the bugs that were probably lodging themselves in his teeth as he steered the hover mule in Akane’s direction. His eyes widened as he saw a hammock of gnarled trees approaching out of the darkness and he hauled on the controls, swerving out of harm’s way. Well, almost – Worth and YJ were suddenly horsewhipped by thin branches and leaves as the mule sped through the upper limbs of the stand of trees. Assorted bits of greenery coated the starboard side of the hover mule and Worth found himself spitting out half-chewed leaves.

“Head’s up!” he coughed back to his passengers. YJ glared at him, rubbing the back of his head where a wicked welt was rising. “Thanks for the warning,” he snarled.

The sound of the hover mule’s engines and the whistling of the wind suddenly had some company. YJ cocked his head as he strained his ears, hearing a guttural buzzing sound from parts further aft. The buzzing soon turned into a roar, and several vehicle headlights snapped on at once. Both YJ and Jonah could see a trio of flat-bottomed airboats fast approaching. The roars were coming from the large caged propellers responsible for providing the thrust necessary to push the flat-bottomed hulls over the shallow waters.

Crouched on the rear seats, Jonah and YJ aimed their weapons over the back deck of the hover mule, above the thrumming turbines, which Johnson tapped for luck. They held their fire as they waited for the airboats to get in range.

Akane swept the base with her scope, searching for more targets. Her attention was grabbed by a sudden stab of light from a door opening at the ramshackle command centre. Through her scope, Akane took in the sturdy-looking roughneck standing agape at the mess surrounding him – men firing wildly into the night, corpses strewn here and there, and his guard towers showering the swamp with orange tracer fire.

Akane noticed that he was carrying a communications device in one hand and a carbine in the other. A hologram on his t-shirt twisted in the false daylight of the flares, but was partially covered by his camouflage jacket, so Akane couldn’t make out what the image was supposed to be. She wished she could read lips as he began shouting into the commo unit, but his body language was easy enough to interpret. Obviously this was the guy who, up until a few moments ago, was in control of the situation.

“Sayanara, Hagan-san,” she cooed indulgently as she lined up her shot. Akane pressed the trigger and instantly regretted it. Her rifle jumped in her hands and an unhealthy popping sound emanated from inside the weapon’s workings. She smelled ozone and burned wiring as a twisting finger of smoke streamed out from the rifle’s cooling vent.

“Sayaku,” Akane breathed incredulously as she pondered the cosmic significance of such a critically-timed failure. Her target forgotten, she began disassembling the rifle, immediately concerned about her quality control regime. From out of the darkness she could hear the faint sound of approaching engines above the chirping crickets and croaking frogs.

Inspiration suddenly seized Akane and her hands drifted towards her belt, where half a dozen metallic disks were secured.

“Guys,” she said into her multiband, “I have a plan.”

Each airboat had at least three pirates aboard, and even though the range was a tad long for their assorted weaponry, they blazed away at the hover mule to no effect. One of the airboats laid on enough speed to get within striking distance of their hovercraft, much to Jonah’s delight. He flicked the assault rifle’s fire selector to full auto, and waited until Katrina’s scope painted a nice red X on the chest of the driver. Then he let loose.

Katrina bucked in his hands as she spat hot lead death at the hapless airboat driver, whose chest was peppered with high-velocity rounds that knocked him from his chair with such force that it sent him crashing into the wire cage that surrounded the airboat’s propeller. The cage gave way under the man’s considerable weight and he was sucked into the spinning propeller, which instantly tore him to pieces, spraying raw humanity into the airboat’s prop wash as his remains were forced through the sides and back of the protective screen. There was enough of the driver left over for the propeller to finally snag and stall out, and the airboat immediately began to lose forward momentum, quickly dropping out of sight.

Elsewhere in the swamp, Akane began to search about for a pair of trees far enough apart for the hover mule and its pursuers to pass between. It didn’t take her long to find a place to set her trap. She detached the disks from her belt and began affixing them to the tree trunks, spacing them at different heights up the trees and aligning them so that the laser emitter in the centre of each one was facing its twin on the opposite tree. The devices were ALLAs, Amplified Laser Light Apparatuses – laser-based security systems of Akane’s own design. She quickly set each ALLA to its highest setting, which was enough to do some serious burn damage to anything that passed through the line of reciprocating beams now arcing between the two trees. She shut the beams off, then wired the ALLAs for remote activation and synced them to her multiband. She then set about setting the treetops on fire. “Head for the burning trees and try to lure your pursuers between them!” she said to Worth.

Worth could see two blossoming blazes in the distance ahead of him. “Will do,” he said in response.

The chase continued. YJ chanced a long shot on the driver of the second airboat. The pilot tried to twist out of the way, but YJ’s flechette struck home. The driver slipped into unconsciousness and it was several seconds before his passengers realized there was something amiss. As the airboat began to slip further away from its quarry, the two riders realized what was up and dropped their guns, trying to regain control of the airboat from its unconscious pilot. As they wrestled with the control yoke and each other, they failed to notice the hammock of sturdy, gnarled willow trees dead ahead. In an instant the airboat leaped from the shallow waters, up the bank and into the copse of trees, flying apart in a thousand pieces of fiberglass and aluminum. The hapless passengers were suddenly airborne, their arms and legs pinwheeling as they skimmed across the murky waters like flat stones.

YJ and Jonah ducked as an earsplitting rifle report came from the third airboat. One of its passengers was hefting a massive rifle, and both men felt as well as heard the sound of the massive round flying overhead.

“Hell with that!” Jonah cried as he stood up, and with one foot firmly planted on the back deck, let loose with Katrina on full auto. He raked the third airboat’s driver with a blast of bullets and was rewarded with a howl of pain. One of his compatriots hauled the bleeding driver to the deck and hopped into the pilot’s seat, quickly regaining control of the vehicle. YJ didn’t hesitate to put a flechette into the replacement driver for his trouble.

Worth swore and mentally crossed himself as the hover mule hurtled towards the space between the two smoldering trees. “C’mon, c’mon in,” he muttered to his pursuers as YJ snapped off another shot.

As the hover mule whipped past her hiding spot, Akane thumbed the activation switch. “Shi-neh, bitches,” she intoned with pure satisfaction as three ruby-red laser beams winked into existence at heights of one, four, and six feet above the water line.

The airboat sped right into Akane’s trap. Only the rifle-toting passenger had the presence of mind to hit the deck as the vehicle was tri-sected by the three high-powered energy beams. The lasers scorched flesh and fiberglass alike, killing the driver and damaging the airboat’s propeller and steering vanes in a heartbeat.

The sole survivor roared with inarticulate rage as he got to his feet, aiming the gargantuan rifle at the rear end of the hover mule. The gun went off with a terrible boom and Jonah would swear to his dying day that he could actually see the massive projectile approaching as sparks flew from the end of the rifle barrel.

The round struck the hover mule along its starboard flank, leaving a gouge of bright fresh metal in its wake as it tore along the mule’s side panels. It took all of Worth’s skill at the controls to keep the hover mule on an even keel. The rifleman grinned and broke the single-shot rifle open, exposing the breech and extracting a spent shell the size of a Blue Sun cola can. He grabbed another cartridge from a bandolier across his chest and loaded it, snapping the action closed and hefting the rifle for a second shot.

Jonah was caught like a deer in the headlights for a moment as he stared at the wide muzzle of the smoothbore that seemed wide enough to stick his head into. Then he snapped out of it and emptied Katrina at the offending pirate.

Round after round knocked the desperado back as he danced a marionette’s dance of death before falling to the deck in a groaning, bloody heap.

With nobody at the controls, the airboat began to drift out of pursuit.

Akane watched as the hover mule disappeared into the night, waiting for the running lights to veer back. They did not. She was dumbfounded enough to lapse into Chinese rather than her preferred tongue. “Wa lao?” she asked the darkness in exasperation. When she got no response save for the croaking of nearby frogs, she shook her head and began to collect the ALLA units.

As the distance began to grow between the two vehicles, Jonah slapped Worth’s shoulder. “Take us closer to that boat!” he shouted over the whipping wind.

“Why?” Worth asked.

“I want that rifle!” Jonah shouted back.

Worth brought the hover mule alongside the speeding airboat, which threatened to careen out of control as the hull bounced off the watery surface of the swamp.

Jonah set Katrina down and pulled out his pistol, putting a few rounds into the prone passengers on general principles. From his seat nearby, YJ shook his head at Jonah’s brutal pragmatism.

Jonah took no notice of his crewmate’s silent criticism as he holstered his piece, and judged the distance between the hovercraft and the airboat. He steadied himself, and then jumped.

He almost made it.

The wind was knocked from Jonah’s lungs as he landed half in and half out of the airboat. The water was surpriringly cold and threatened to drag him all the way in, but with the last of his strength he heaved himself over the side of the careening airboat. On his hands and knees, he was suddenly aware that the driverless airboat was heading straight towards a tree-lined embankment. He scrambled towards the control yoke, cutting the throttle with one hand while steering out of the way with the other.

Satisfied that the airboat wasn’t going to collide with anything anytime soon, he turned his attention to the three dead occupants. He lifted two pistols from the corpses and a handful of platinum coins. From the third body he grabbed the anti-materiel rifle, which he recognized as a Buhnder. He pulled a bandolier with six extra rounds the size of heavy-duty batteries off the dead man, then considered for a moment. Keying open a channel on his multiband, Jonah spoke to Worth.

“Hey, I think we’ve just found a new addition to the motor pool.”

Akane had to restrain herself from stamping her foot in impatience against the soggy ground as she waited for someone to pick her up. The six ALLA units had been reaffixed to her belt, their batteries almost completely drained.

“Fine, I guess I’ll just walk home,” she huffed, and prepared to negotiate the muddy depths of the marsh. A light buzzing sound distracted her momentarily. She slapped what felt like the hundredth mosquito from the back of her neck before realizing that the buzzing noise was in fact an approaching vehicle. She saw an airboat emerge from the darkness at low speed, but as she reached for her sidearm she took note of the three dead men arrayed like hunting trophies on the bow.

Jonah smiled as he pulled alongside Akane’s little scrap of nowhere. “Need a lift?” he asked.

“Whatever floats your boat,” Akane replied as she stepped aboard, hefting her dismantled sniper rifle. She chose the least bloodstained of the passenger seats and sat down.

Jonah fished through his pockets and came up with the platinum he had scored from the dead airboat riders. “Here’s what I owe you for that shot to the spotlight.”

Jonah and Akane rendezvoused with Worth and YJ and the two vehicles set out towards where they had parked Shenmue. Worth’s sharp eyes noticed something out of place as they approached. “Hold up!” he shouted, cutting the hover mule’s engines. Jonah immediately followed suit, though the airboat kept drifting forward for several meters. Jonah and Akane splashed their way back to the hover mule and climbed aboard.

“What’s wrong?” Akane asked.

Worth looked grim. “I don’t recall leaving Shenmue’s floodlights on when we left.”

The rest of the crew squinted into the distance. Sure enough, the Firefly transport had its external floods on, illuminating a wide patch of land around it. Surrounding the ship were a number of ground vehicles.

“Uh oh,” Jonah said as Akane fished around for her sniper scope. She peered through it and gave the landing site a once over.

There were five vehicles total. Three of them were small, mobile light cars – Tomcats by the look of them – with wicked-looking machinegun/grenade launcher combos mounted on their roofs. The two others were heavy trucks. The first was a wide-bodied pickup with an elongated cargo bed, which was filled up with a single-mount squat, heavy enough to blot Shenmue from the sky if it had to. The truck and the three smaller cars all shared the same corporate logo splashed on the side doors – Blackwell Security.

“Blackwell Security?” Akane wondered aloud. “Do they have beef with you guys?”

YJ shook his head. “They’re customs subcontractors. Gave us the once-over when we landed in town yesterday.”

Akane wasn’t listening. She was taking a hard look at the final vehicle. It was a luxury sport utility truck, its pristine white paint job looking showroom-clean even though the other vehicles looked as though they had all been dipped in chunky brown sauce. Its heavy armor and green-tinted bulletproof windows radiated Newtech excess, and Akane could only imagine what manner of security countermeasures were protected beneath its sculpted exterior.

“Are they the type who will kill you and take your ship?” Akane finally replied as she took note of the heavily-armed Blackwell security operatives, wearing blue uniforms and sporting top of the line assault rifle, who were standing guard outside the transport.

“Let’s find out,” YJ said, and opened a channel to the Doc, who had been left on board Shenmue to keep tabs on things.

“Uh, hello?” Tulsa’s voice came in loud and clear. “Where are you guys?”

“I see you have visitors,” YJ replied.

“Yeah,” the doctor said. “There’s a couple of gentlemen here who want a word with you.”

“They seem to have brought quite an entourage with them,” Akane said into the multiband.

“You let them on board?” Jonah said, perplexed.

“They were very persuasive,” Tulsa said, his voice somewhat pained.

“All right, how do we play this?” YJ asked as he turned off the multiband.

“I say we set Wild Sky up with a clear shot again and get down to business,” Jonah replied.

Akane shook her head. “My gun blew a capacitor. It’s down for the count until I can get to my workshop.”

Jonah unlimbered the heavy Buhnder and passed it to Akane along with the bandolier. “Well, this thing may not have been built for dainty hands like yours, but…”

Akane felt the weapon’s considerable weight and snapped open the breech. “Nice,” she said wryly.

Jonah went about dragging the corpses on board the airboat into lifelike poses. He strapped the dead driver into his seat and set the air flaps in the general direction of the landing site.

“Let’s see if we can distract the heavies with this Flying Dutchman and sneak in afterwards,” he said by way of explanation.

“Worth a try,” YJ replied. He started up the airboat and hopped off as it gained speed. As Akane watched through her scope, the airboat drifted in the general direction of the landing site. As it sputtered by, she watched a couple of security men take notice, but the airboat and its dead payload attracted no further interest than that as it disappeared into the night.

“Damn,” said Jonah. “I really liked that airboat.”

YJ’s multiband beeped with an incoming signal. It was the Doc. “Uh guys, I’m supposed to tell you that playtime is officially over,” he said in a tight voice. “Your presence has been, ah, strenuously requested.” The signal cut off.

“All right,” YJ sighed heavily. “I guess we go in.” He looked at the rest of the crew. “You coming?”

Worth grunted his assent. Akane considered for a moment, and then shrugged with a smile. “All my kuso is on board that ship.”

Jonah grinned. “What’s the worst that could happen?” he said as he climbed aboard. “But if I don’t get a chance to say it later, it’s been an honour and a pleasure working with all of you.”

The crew approached their surrounded ship carefully, keeping their hands well away from their arsenal of weapons as the hover mule slowly passed through the cordon of sentries. It was dead quiet, save for the incessant buzzing coming from the clouds of insects swarming around the transport’s bright floodlights.

They parked next to the Blackwell Security truck, mindful of the heavy cannon that was tracking their approach. Standing astride the single mount was a hard case to end all hard cases – dressed in immaculate blue fatigues with ironed creases that look sharp enough to saw wood, he wore a matching blue beret and worked an unlit stogie around his mouth. The lopsided grin on his stubbled face dared them to try something.

“Evening,” he said in a voice well oiled by years of cigars and alcohol.

“Uh, hi.” YJ replied.

The mercenary nodded his head towards the cargo bay doors. “They’re waiting for you inside, in the common area.”

“Okay,” YJ said as the crew began to dismount. Jonah worked the controls for the main doors and Worth pulled the hover mule into Shenmue’s cargo bay.

Jonah turned back to the grizzled mercenary. “We’re likely taking off soon, so you may want to scoot clear of our engines, dong ma?

The merc smiled. “Noted,” he growled, and somehow Jonah knew that they weren’t going to be taking off without this man’s say-so.

Bedraggled, tired, and tracking mud behind them, the crew trudged upstairs to the galley to find out just what was going on. The only sound they could hear was the whistling of a teakettle. “Just let me do the talking,” YJ hissed in Jonah’s direction.

They saw the Doc first, seated at the galley table and chewing his knuckle in a manner that suggested he wasn’t under the influence at the moment and was very much regretful on that score.

The kettle’s high-pitched whistle trailed off as someone lifted it from its heating element.

“That was a fine bit of thieving you did back there,” said a voice from the corner of the common area.

“Very fine,” a second voice, identical to the first, added. But it was coming from the galley, not the corner alcove.

The crew turned to take in the man seated on the wraparound corner couch. Then they turned to take in the man pouring hot water into a fine china teapot that none of the crew recalled ever seeing in the galley’s cupboards before.

The two men were the spitting image of each other.

Akane noted that the pair was not exactly dressed for a tour of the swamp. Their outfits, such as they were, were well-tailored layers of assorted finery, however of a style that would be politely referred to as gauche on any reputable central planet. She mentally searched for an appropriate phrase to describe them, then hit on the great bard’s words: somewhere between a gangster and a fur-trader. Their accents pointed to Dyton Colony as a likely homeworld.

“We install a mirror in here I didn’t know about?” muttered Worth.

The twin exited the galley, carrying a tray with pot and teacups as he joined his brother (or clone, perhaps, thought YJ) at the alcove. “Poor Hagan, now, he didn’t know what hit him, did he?”

“Hagan,” YJ repeated in a tone he hoped was nonchalant. “Is that who we were stealing from?”

Jonah blinked as he recognized the pair of interlopers. On Beaumonde, they were known as Fanty and Mingo, twin brothers who had their many fingers in many pies.

“Don’t play dumb, precious,” Fanty, or perhaps Mingo, shot back. “You had to do a fair bit of digging to find out exactly where and when to pull this little heist of yours.”

“Take the credit where it’s due you,” the brother added, absently pouring tea from the china teapot into two exquisite teacups. He then reached into a vest pocket, retrieved a silver flask, and added an unhealthy amount of alcohol to his drink.

The first twin continued. “We had ringside seats for the whole show. Quite entertaining, it was.” He paused, his eyes narrowing as he took a closer look at Worth and Jonah.

“Well, uh, thanks for the glowing review,” YJ replied.

The second twin shrugged as he took a sip of piping hot tea, and then winced as it burned his lips, from either the temperature or the alcohol. “Of course, we’ll be needing the goods now,” he said apologetically, then trailed off as his brother tapped him on the shoulder.

“Do our eyes deceive us, Fanty,” the first twin said, “or are these two gents here the ones from the Davies job?”

Jonah and Worth suddenly became very uncomfortable.

“No, Mingo,” the second twin replied as his gaze turned from one of confusion to recognition. “Our eyes don’t deceive us.”

Well, Jonah said to himself, at least that settles the question of which one is which.

Both brothers suddenly broke into huge grins. They stood up in unison. The first one, Mingo, clapped his hands. “Quite a job you did for the Davies brothers a few weeks back, wasn’t it?”

Fanty joined in the applause. “Or should we say, quite a job you did to the Davies brothers, eh? Eh?”

YJ and Akane shared a look of total confusion. “Er, care to enlighten us?” He said as he glared at Jonah, looking over Fanty’s shoulder as the gangster stepped in to shake the surprised Shenzhou colonist’s hand.

“You didn’t know?” Mingo clapped Worth on the shoulder and turned to address YJ. “Back on Beaumonde, these two guys get hired to move a bit of product from one Davies brother to another, and end up shooting them both in the bargain!” he explained.

“Is that why you borrowed the shuttle without asking?” YJ blurted out. Worth and Jonah didn’t meet his eyes.

“With their operation in such a sorry state we were able to walk right in and take over,” Fanty continued his brother’s explanation. “We always wanted a piece of the pachinko racket, and thanks to these two, we got what we wanted.”

Mingo stroked his goatee and looked thoughtful for a few moments. “Right,” he said, nodding his head as if he’d made a decision. “You guys are okay. Keep the goods, you’ve more than earned them.”

“After all, you can’t put a price on eliminating our competition, now can you?” his brother exclaimed.

The twins turned as if to go, and the crew was suddenly aware of the fact that the hard case from the truck and a phalanx of security men had crept into the common area quietly during the conversation. One of the security guys began cleaning up the tea service as the hardassed leader stood watching the proceedings disinterestedly.

“Next time you’re on Beaumonde, stop by the Maidenhead, and we’ll see if we can’t find some more work for you to do.” Fanty said.

“Or some people for you to do it to,” Mingo smirked.

“Hey now,” YJ said. “We’re not a hit squad, so don’t get the wrong idea about us. We’re honest thieves.”

“Of course,” Fanty said. “But from what we’ve seen of your operation, collateral damage is your stock and trade.” He spread his hands across his vest expansively. “Now then, Mingo and I have to go speak to Hagan about his lax security.” At that, the Blackwell security officer grinned so sharply he almost bit his cigar in two.

The security entourage departed, and the twins walked towards the rear stairwell. Mingo stopped in the doorway and looked back at the crew pointedly. “And when you see Badger, tell him no hard feelings, yeah?”

“It was just business,” added Fanty.

Then the brothers were gone, and from outside the opened cargo bay doors the crew could hear the sound of vehicle engines warming up.

Jonah expelled a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.

YJ turned to Worth and Jonah. “Now, about this side deal of yours…”

Choosing their words carefully, Jonah and Worth filled the rest of the crew in on their recent misadventure, which had taken place while Shenmue was grounded on Beaumonde.

They had found work with a local gangster by the name of Kingston Davies, who ran, among other things, a particularly garish pachinko parlour in the Atoll Plaza. The job was supposed to be a milk run – a short hop between Beaumonde and its closest orbital companion, Ghost. Cash on delivery. Jonah and Worth “borrowed” Shenmue’s shuttle to complete the deal while the rest of the crew was out looking for work.

But things didn’t go smooth: their contact on Ghost bootstrapped them into a shootout with local police but got himself killed in the bargain. Jonah and Worth tried to complete the deal but when they showed up at the pick-up point without their contact, violence ensued, and when the dust settled everyone else but them was dead.

A deal was a deal, however, and they picked up the cargo as ordered. When they delivered it to the drop point, Kingston Davies was waiting with an armed escort. Turned out the crew they had shot to pieces on Ghost had been led by Kingston’s younger brother, Hinton, and the elder Davies wanted payback, which involved another desperate shootout that Worth and Jonah managed to come out on the right side of. At the end of the day, they had only the half up-front in their pocket, and a lot of bad memories.

Around that time, they rejoined the crew for their visit to Wes Ferris, met Wild Sky, and then got hired for another supposed milk run – a deep space salvage job, and the rest was history. Or so they thought.

They wrapped up their retelling of the tale over dinner, after a course had been laid in for Persephone and the ship was well on its way.

“Quite a story,” Akane said. “But I think we should be more concerned with just what it is we were hired to transport to Badger. Why did this Fanty and Mingo want it so bad?”

“Agreed,” YJ replied.

They cracked open one of the crates, and true to Badger’s word, it was filled with miscellaneous vehicle parts. Akane grabbed one of the parts at random and took it to her workshop for a round of molecular spectroscopy.

What she discovered surprised her. The metal was not, strictly speaking, solid. It was a kind of liquid alloy infused with a nanotech webbing that effectively forced it to retain its shape. If prompted with the right resonance frequency or other input, the nanowebs could be induced to alter the metal, rearranging it into a new form. She’d heard of this technology before – mnemonic poly-alloy – but was not aware that it had progressed beyond anything but an academic theory found in engineering journals.

Right now, someone had “cast” the poly-alloy to match the shape of ordinary automotive parts, parts that would pass the inspection of any Alliance customs patrol – or petty thief, for that matter as not being worth a second glance. But this metal could be changed into just about anything – armor plating, tubing, hull patches, and so on, without having to be melted into slag and re-forged at high heat. This material wasn’t supposed to be available on the open market just yet, and it was worth its weight in gold.

“So what, it’s like a liquid metal you can freeze into any shape you want?” YJ said as Akane explained her discovery to the rest of the crew.

“Essentially, yes,” Akane nodded. “No wonder Badger was so adamant about recovering it.”

“Speaking of which, we’re on track for a rendezvous with Badger at the drop point. Guess he wants to oversee delivery personally,” Jonah said.

The delivery had been scheduled to take place on the outskirts of the Eavesdown Docks, about as far from the central landing pits and maze of shipping containers as one could get while still getting clearance for landfall. Here, the stacks of shipping containers began to give way to residential condominium units and paved roads separated by low brick walls.

Badger and his minions were waiting for them as YJ brought Shenmue in for a landing. One of his men drove an open flatbed mule up in front of the open cargo bay doors as the crew walked out to meet their employer.

Badger stood, hands on hips, waiting impatiently at the foot of the cargo ramp as they approached. Then his face cracked into a lopsided grin.

“I like you guys. Good follow through,” he said as his men began loading the crates onto the flatbed. He tossed YJ a sack of coin.

“Well, we aim to please,” YJ said noncommittally.

“Tell you what,” Badger continued. “Stop by my place later, I might have another tricky job for you.” Whistling, he turned to step up into the shotgun seat of the flatbed as the last crate was heaved aboard.

“Oh, there was one other thing,” Jonah said to Badger, cutting him off in mid-whistle.

“Yeah?” Badger replied, arching an eyebrow.

“Fanty and Mingo want you to know it was nothing personal, just business.”

Badger’s demeanor suddenly bottomed out. “Those backbirths…” he hissed, almost to himself. Then, after a few tense seconds, he nodded curtly to his driver.

The flatbed’s engine sputtered as Badger and his crew rolled out, leaving a cloud of dust in their wake. As the dust cleared, the crew could see that dust wasn’t the only thing Badger and his gang had left behind. There were five silhouettes standing resolutely in the street, which had suddenly gotten very quiet.

“Well, well, look who’s come to dinner,” said the first of the shadowy figures in a voice tinged with an electronic buzz. The voice wasn’t familiar to any of the crew, but the man’s face certainly was as soon as the dust settled. It belonged to Phil Sundeen, who they had last seen laying face-down in the depths of a fueling station’s storage room with a poison dart in his throat.

The hole was still there, though cleaned up some – a stoma left behind by a tracheotomy. The edge of the hole was rimmed in black plastic, and there was a shimmering membrane held in place over it, keeping dust particles at bay. That was where the sound of his voice was coming from – the button-like device was an electronic voice synthesizer. Sundeen was leaning quite heavily on a graphite forearm crutch, but the muzzle of his pistol, pointed directly at Jonah, wasn’t wavering in the slightest.

The other members of his gang were spread out in a loose line on either side of him – Teague Bowers, Brade Sorgen, Mister Basimba, and a short wiry man Jonah didn’t recognize, who sported a shock of curly red hair and an angry dusting of freckles across his nose. All of them had their guns trained on the crew, ready to dish out some payback.

Jonah turned on the bravado. “Well Phil, you’ve certainly seen better days, haven’t you?”

Sundeen wheezed with a digital gasp as his lips twisted in a grim smile. He turned to YJ. “Guess I have you to thank for my new necktie.” He craned his neck, giving everyone a better view of the hole in his throat. “That dart of yours took out my vocal cords, and then some.” His eyes glittered with barely-suppressed anger. “Yep, you pretty much killed me, boy. Only fair that I return the favour.”

The thin redhead next to Sundeen wrinkled his nose in a hateful grimace. He had two pistols out, one in each hand, each tracking a potential target. “Which one do I plug first, Phil?” he snarled.

“Well, kid,” Sundeen replied. “I reckon you can just take your pick.”

At Sundeen’s other shoulder stood Brade Sorgen, who held a large shotgun in his hands while he fairly shook with rage. He nodded at Worth. “You’ve got some payback coming, feller.” Then his crazy eyes focused on Jonah. “And I told you last time, I have a score to settle with you, Rothsay.”

Mister Basimba was standing nearby, a fistful of throwing knives in each hand. “Not if I get him first, Sorgen,” he intoned darkly, fixing Rothsay with a look that could cut sheet metal. It seemed like he was still favouring the leg that Jonah had put a bullet into.

Teague Bowers, the brains of this mostly brainless operation, smirked as he hefted a grease gun in the crew’s direction. “I gotta say I’m surprised to see you’re all still one big happy family. I figured Rothsay would have double-crossed the rest of you eight ways from Sunday by now.”

“Don’t think I haven’t tried,” Jonah replied, and YJ shot him a dark glance.

Bowers noticed Akane for the first time. “Ah so, maybe Mr. Rothsay’s found a compelling reason to stick with you yokels.” He tipped his hat in Akane’s direction, adding “Ma’am.”

“You know, you guys sure talk a lot for a bunch of stone killers,” Jonah shot back to Sundeen. “But once again, your oratory’s got a convincing ring to it.”

“Well then,” Sundeen snarled. “Let’s get down to it.”

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