Campaign of the Month: January 2011

Honour Among Thieves

The Purloined Payload Session One

The crew takes a high-paying, low-risk job from Badger. What could go wrong?

The crew of Shenmue limped back into civilized space, recovering from wounds inflicted during a salvage operation that had turned into something out of their darkest nightmares. The physical injuries healed, but the psychological ones lingered.

Out of an uncharacteristically charitable sense of understanding, they shepherded the sole survivor of the massacre on board the Breaker Morant to her family on Paquin, then turned to the business of keeping their boat in the air.

The crew didn’t talk much about what they’d seen on board the derelict transport and what had later transpired inside Shenmue. The doc had his painkillers, YJ had the bridge all to himself, Akane toiled in her workshop while Worth convalesced in his bunk, and as for Jonah, he mostly sat in the ship’s common area, quietly seething over having been played like a musical instrument by a mark he should have been able to see right through.

Three weeks passed, and by that time Worth’s injuries had just about healed completely and Akane had managed to reconfigure her wardrobe so that the scars she’d received on board the death ship didn’t show.

A series of low-paying jobs led them to the Eavesdown Docks on Persephone, a network of landing pits and open-air markets walled in by a maze of shipping containers stacked three or four high. There a misunderstanding with the local Tong caused all legitimate job leads to dry up overnight. However, word of a Firefly transport sitting empty soon reached those who could find far more unseemly use for it.

And that was how Jonah, YJ and Worth found themselves standing in a regular den of thieves, down a warren of half-buried shipping containers where a fellow with a very fine hat held court. A fellow called Badger, whose necktie and fancy wool suit jacket were offset by a grimy wifebeater. Despite his mismatched wardrobe, it was obvious that Badger occupied a high standing on Persephone’s underworld – he was rich enough to afford to peel the skin off an apple, a fruit none of the crew of Shenmue had tasted in months, before eating it. It was the handle of that antique apple-peeler his fingers were twiddling as an armed goon ushered the crew into his office for an audience.

“So, I hear you’ve got a ship,” Badger said somewhat disinterestedly.

“That’s right,” YJ said.

“Your crew any good in a tussle?” he asked gruffly. Worth and Jonah were keenly aware of the glares his guards were giving them.

“We can handle ourselves,” Worth grunted.

“Might have need of your services, then,” Badger said. “I need a cargo picked up, from a close personal friend of mine on Athens. But I need it done right – full security, no slip-ups, see. You get it from point A to point B safely, and I’m willing to cut you in on the take.”

Jonah coughed. “How hot is this cargo?”

Badger’s eyes narrowed. “Warm enough to be worth something, but not too hot that you’ll get burned. What kind of question is that?”

YJ sighed. “Don’t pay him any mind. Where’s the pickup?”

Badger got back down to business. “This friend of mine, he runs a company called Outrider Shipping in Stanton Gap on Athens. Goes by the name of Bristow.”

“And the drop point?”

“Right back here.” Badger said. “Get it back before the end of the month and I’ll cut you in for forty per cent.”

YJ did some mental calculations, working out the fuel expenditures for a round trip to Athens. “So how big a take are we talking?”

“Your end could be a thousand square if you get the job done right,” Badger said. “Cash on delivery.”

YJ put on his game face. “Well now, I’m sure a fancy gentleman such as yourself wouldn’t be averse to fronting us something on the order of 15 per cent, good faith being what it is and all.”

Silence descended in the office, broken only by the flyover of a ship as it nosed in for a landing nearby.

He who speaks first, loses, Jonah thought to himself.

Badger blinked a few times, and then set his jaw ever so slightly. “What is it with Firefly transports and mouthy captains?”

He stood up from his comfortable chair. “All right Johnson, I’ll give you and your boys a chance to prove yourselves.”

He nodded to one of his underlings, who disappeared behind a curtain momentarily to return with a small sack of coins.

Badger dropped the sack on his table and glared at the trio. “But if you’re not here at month’s end with my goods, I’ll be taking this fifteen back, among other things, with interest.” He passed YJ a data chip. “Meet Bristow at his warehouse and he’ll sort you out. Now get out of my sight.”

While YJ returned to the ship to make preparations for liftoff, Jonah and Worth took a side trip down a particularly shady alleyway that made Badger’s warren look like a fed station. The narrow network of shipping containers was the home of a sizeable contingent of Shenzhou refugees, who had carved out an existence in the Eavesdown Docks in spite of Tong and Alliance pressure. Jonah signaled to his compatriots that Worth’s pockets were not to be picked while he traveled through Shenzhou turf. Jonah was after two things – a fence for the chipped Alliance gold bars he had found a few months back, and information regarding the whereabouts of a mad Alliance doctor who was now (hopefully) sporting a gimped arm.

Jonah’s suspicions about the bars were justified as none of his friends in low places wanted anything to do with stolen, eminently traceable government gold. According to his contacts, nothing short of a Newtech molecular furnace could scrub the gold clean of the Alliance’s nano-trackers. Regardless, Jonah put up one of the bars as a reward for information regarding Doctor Carver, or Doctor Cutter, or whatever alias he was traveling under. Task completed, he collared Worth and hustled him out of the Shenzhou enclave before he fell victim to the tattooed cutthroats.

Shenmue was fully stocked and ready for liftoff as the crew set about squaring things away. Jonah knocked on the sealed door of Akane’s workshop to signal that a departure was imminent. The doctor had kept himself busy arranging and rearranging the ship’s medical supplies while keeping track of the general ship’s fund, which was halfway to empty and gaining speed with every hour of fuel consumed.

Soon the Firefly was in the air, heading for Athens and a rendezvous with Badger’s contact in Stanton Gap.

The journey would take nearly two weeks at cruising speed, and the crew busied themselves as usual. Akane barely poked her head out of her workshop, where she was busy putting together a gunscanner/barrier field combo very much like the one that had ensnared Worth back on the Breaker Morant.

During one of her rare forays to the common area for a mug of piping hot green tea, Jonah decided to try his luck. “So, Wild Sky, I’ve got a bit of a problem. See, in my spare time I like to support charity – there’s an orphanage I send money to once in a while, and well it seems like the orphans are in need of help with a currency exchange problem.”

Akane arched an eyebrow.

Producing one of the gold bars, Jonah said, “The orphans, well, they asked me for help with this.”

At the sight of the gold, Akane felt the colour drain from her face. “I cannot even believe that you would keep something like this on board,” she snapped.

“Well, like I said, it’s for the orphans-” Jonah tried.

“How many and how long have you had your paws on this?” Akane said.

“A few, and for a couple of months.” Jonah replied. “I need your help to sterilize or neutralize the tracers.”

“Of course you do,” Akane hissed. She figured with the embedded tracking devices and ID tags the Alliance used to chip their gold bullion that if the crew so much as parked near a fed station or bank, alarms would sound off and a squad of Feds would be on them double-time. That was a degree of heat that she could do without.

Still, she wasn’t about to jump into the fire for Jonah. “Friends in high places or in low places will cost you. You need specialized equipment to take care of this stuff, equipment we definitely do not have aboard this wreck.”

“Fair enough,” Jonah said. “We can try a research complex or university; they might have the molecular rearrangement equipment you need.”

“Oh ho! I’m not going anywhere with that stuff,” Akane interjected. “If you want to get the job done, I’ll guide you remotely, but if the mi tián gòng hits the fan, I don’t know you, and you don’t know me, dong ma?”

“But think of the orphans!” Jonah said.

“Some things are more important than money to me. Taking a risk for something I don’t desperately need is not on my to-do list. You can keep that heat all to yourself.”

“Okay, but I’ll also keep the profit and excitement,” Jonah muttered.

A few days later, the ship entered Athens’ airspace. They plotted a course for Stanton Gap. Their course took them over some of the infamous battlefields left over from the Unification War, where the Alliance had initiated carpet-bombing missions over the planet’s urban centres to break the spirit of the Independent-minded civilians who lived there.

“I’d forgotten how sad this place was,” Akane said as she stared out the bridge viewports at the bombed-out ruins. “We should burn some incense for the departed before we leave here.”

“Way ahead of you,” Jonah said as he lit a cigar.

Stanton Gap was the biggest port on Athens, a central point for salvage operators, farmers and miners to transfer their wares off planet. Located near some of the largest open-pit marble quarries in the ‘Verse, the city straddled a major pass through the equatorial mountain range.

They didn’t need to stick their heads out the viewports to know that the air quality was poor. The city was coated by a haze of pollution, most of which was coming from the impossibly tall smokestack at the centre of town. The profile of the smokestack surrounded by knuckle-shaped mountains made it look as though Athens was giving the rest of the ‘Verse the middle finger.

The place had boomtown written all over it. It was a chaotic mix of Corone Mining Consortium personnel, Unified Reclamation employees, representatives of the agricultural cartels, and the many denizens of the fringe who facilitated their interactions. The air was thick with an acrid tang of burning rubber and plastic that instantly coated the crew’s airways as they stepped out into the sweltering sunlight.

Akane didn’t have to point out the town’s centerpiece – the Big Stack, a two thousand foot chimney that stood over Stanton Gap’s sizeable smelting complex, operated jointly by UR and Corone. Slag from bombed-out cities was trucked in and melted down into something more usable, while the mining consortium used it to refine minerals carved from its planetside holdings.

Ringing the smelting facility was the warehouse district, a shadowy network of shabby go-downs, used mule lots and machine shops. Beyond that was the spaceport, a collection of landing pits and refueling facilities that catered mostly to the corporate bulk lifters that constantly loaded and unloaded. YJ made note of the high level of Alliance security – he could see at least half a dozen ASREVs parked on private approach aprons flanking the blockhouse-like customs house. On the outskirts of the city, as far away from the Big Stack as you could get while still being in the same county, were the rooming houses, dormitories and capsule hotels that catered to those forced to live and work in close proximity to the health hazards of Stanton Gap.

Jonah took a look at the Big Stack and thought about those gold bars.

Worth, Akane and YJ hopped aboard the hover mule and drove towards the address provided by Badger while Jonah elected to try his luck at a local watering hole, to see if there was some way of gaining access to the machinery needed to launder his precious metals. Akane had considered accompanying Jonah for the briefest of seconds, but then decided she didn’t need to get involved, not yet anyway.

Jonah sniffed out the nearest den of iniquity, a dive called the Neon Tiger that bordered the warehouse district and was a favourite of dockworkers, and most importantly smelter complex drudges. Aside from the dodgy holographic billiards tables lining one wall and a cluster of video lottery terminals in the centre of the room, the only entertainment seemed to be the enormous Corvue screen hung up over the well-stocked bar. Wallet in hand, Jonah sought out the first likely mark and moved in.

The rest of the crew hopped on to the main artery connecting the smelting complex to the spaceport, weaving between heavily-laden flatbed trucks and bleating taxicabs. Taking one of the many exits into the warehouse district, they entered a maze of ramshackle go-downs; some fenced in by razorwire, others standing empty and unguarded.

The sun was starting to set through the haze belched out by the Big Stack as they parked in front of the sealed entrance to Outrider Shipping and found the buzzer. They waited for a few seconds before a tiny hatch slid open in the main garage door and an inquisitive set of eyes gave them the once-over.

“Yeah?”

“We’re here for a pickup, courtesy of our mutual friend Badger.” YJ spoke into the grill.

The garage doors unceremoniously opened, and Worth steered the bus inside. The doors slammed shut again.

Outrider Shipping was one of those front operations that barely tried to keep up appearances. Worth took note of the four stevedores loitering near a pallet of shiny-looking crates that looked fairly out of place in their shabby surroundings. Akane noticed the armed guard leaning against the stairs leading to a side entrance, half-asleep.

The only work being done was by two other crate-busters who were lazily packing shipping boxes with the best bits from a large pile of scrapware near the rear of the warehouse. No doubt concealing something illicit with a fine coating of junk.

There was a small office just beyond the pile of scrap, and its door swung open to reveal a portly, balding gentleman with watery eyes and limp lips, who seemed to shop at the same thrift store as Badger. He waddled towards the crew as they stepped down from the bus.

“So you’re Badger’s delivery people, eh? Kurt Bristow, at your service.”

“Yes, it’s a real pleasure,” YJ said with a smirk.

The four layabouts got off their duffs and began to half-heartedly load the crates from their pallet onto the bus.

“Well, let’s not waste valuable time,” Bristow said, “not when there’s drink to be shared!”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Worth said.

Bristow ushered them into his office at the rear of the warehouse. A transparent piece of plastic served as a window, and a loudspeaker nailed above the door served as employee motivator.

“Have a seat,” he motioned to a couch that seemed to be bleeding stuffing from a number of knife wounds. Worth and YJ took the proffered seat, while Akane chose to stand, as far away from the dodgy couch as possible.

“So, I didn’t catch your names on the way in,” Bristow said as he arranged himself in his chair.

“That’s because we didn’t give them,” Akane replied.

“Fair enough,” Bristow said with a half-smile. “So, what’s the news from Badger?”

“The news is pretty good, as far as this run’s concerned,” YJ said, wondering when the small talk would cease and the drinking would start.

Bristow sat back and his chair gave a creaky protest. Paying it no mind, he produced a bottle from a desk drawer. Rummaging around for a moment, he plunked down four grimy glasses in the middle of his messy table. He sloshed the liquid into the cups, spilling a bit of it on the desktop.

YJ was pretty sure he saw smoke rise from the table where the alcohol had splashed, but said nothing.

“Worked with Badger before, have you?” Bristow asked.

“Not really,” YJ said.

“Well word to the wise, you might not want to take this cargo back through customs on your way out, if you get my meaning.” He said smugly.

“Thanks for the advice.” YJ replied.

“No offense intended, but I don’t know why Badger sent a crew of first-timers on this run,” Bristow said as he poured another round. “The word is, he’s been losing cargoes left, right and centre lately. Bad luck, I suppose.”

Akane frowned. “I deal in numbers, Mr. Bristow, and when someone has a string of bad luck it’s not usually a random occurrence.”

“I wouldn’t know anything about that,” Kurt smiled. “Not a numbers man, myself.”

Worth picked up his glass to knock back another mouthful, and Akane was pretty sure she saw a glowing red dot fall into his drink. She grabbed it and poured it out onto the office floor.

“Shu muh?” Bristow said sharply.

Akane wasn’t sure what Bristow’s angle was in this supposed deal with Badger, but she was getting a bad vibe off him. Time to try another angle, she thought.

“Well, I was just thinking,” Akane said, slipping into something of a purr, “that maybe you’ve got something better to drink than this swill. I know Worth wouldn’t mind something that goes down a little smoother, and neither would I.” She took a glance at the stain on the floor, seeing nothing obviously suspicious.

YJ and Worth traded a glance. They hadn’t heard Akane speak in a friendly tone of voice before. Something must be up.

YJ too noticed something was not quite right. He watched a tiny glowing ember drift into his field of vision to rest on the shoulder of Bristow’s jacket, and he was pretty sure the desktop was still smoking slightly after having booze sloshed on it. He mentally traced the ember’s trajectory back until he was looking up at the air vent in the office’s ceiling. Sure enough, tiny flecks of glowing red ash were catching the breeze and falling into the office.

Akane leaned over until her face was within inches of Bristow’s. “I bet you like to party, don’t you, Mr. Bristow?”

“Well, uh, wait a minute now,” he stuttered.

“Mr. Bristow,” YJ asked slowly. “What’s on your roof?”

Bristow tried to look away from Akane’s piercing gaze, but couldn’t. “M-my roof?” He spluttered. “It’s just a roof, why?”

YJ scowled. “I’m wondering why it appears to be on fire.”

“Wait, what?” Bristow asked, dumbfounded.

Akane smiled sweetly. “You know something, Bristow, I think you missed your true calling as a fertilizer salesman, because yán fèn tu yě!” As she said this, she swiftly drew her pistol and drove it into Bristow’s gut, slowly working it upwards until it pointed under his chin. Bristow tilted his head back to avoid the gun barrel, and it was at this point he noticed the cinders being blown into his office by the ceiling vent.

“My roof!” he shouted. “What the devil’s going on here?”

“You’re the one who has to start answering questions, Bristow,” Akane snarled. “Starting with this so-called ‘bad luck’ Badger’s been having.”

YJ and Worth got up off the couch and walked out into the warehouse, turning their eyes skyward. The roof was definitely on fire. A steady rain of cinders was falling from the air vents in the ceiling, and the spaces between the unevenly-applied sheet metal panels were glowing red-hot. The upper third of the warehouse’s interior was beginning to disappear behind a veil of roiling brown haze. The sprinkler system, if it existed, was evidently not concerned enough to engage.

Worth was about to shout a warning to Bristow’s men when the front doors of the warehouse crumpled inward with a bang.

Backlit by the sun setting through the pollution haze wafting to the southeast stood six silhouettes. Dressed in black tactical gear, they trained Iskellian assault rifles on the occupants of the warehouse as the reek of ChemPlast explosives filled the room.

Bristow swore and slapped Akane away, struggling to his feet.

The crate-busters aboard the crew’s bus froze in surprise. The guard at the back steps started forward, only to draw up short as he counted the number of potential opponents.

An electronically-modulated voice warbled through the cavernous warehouse interior. “Everyone get your gorram hands in the air!”

Bristow’s employees at the front end of the warehouse complied as the black-clad team moved forward over the bent wreckage of the front door, their boots scraping on the twisted metal.

The obedient stevedores were rewarded for their compliance with a barrage of automatic fire from the invaders’ rifles. Four men died in as much time as it took to tell. A burst knocked two of the crate-busters off the deck of the bus, while aimed shots dropped the guard and the stevedore next to the hover-mule. As the men fell like rag dolls to the concrete floor, their killers wasted no time; two of them hopped up onto the bus to secure its payload, two covered the front door, and two moved forward, sweeping their rifles from right to left and back as they took up firing positions.

“Jao gao!” Bristow hissed before the firing had abated, and ran pell-mell for the back exit. Akane, who had sized up the opposition and wanted nothing to do with them, quickly followed. Worth nonchalantly stepped back into Bristow’s office and slung Katrina around to the ready, and YJ ducked down to join two more of Bristow’s men behind the pile of scrapware they had been packaging until moments ago.

Worth’s sharp eyes cut through the gloom as he took a closer look at the invaders. They were marching in like they owned the place. Try as he might, however, he couldn’t get a good look at any of their faces. It wasn’t for lack of trying; they were wearing form-fitting masks that seemed to twist their features and change colours in a very unsettling way. He blinked repeatedly and fought off a wave of nausea.

Bristow half-ran, half-crouched, and hit the panic bar on the side door, sliding out without looking back. Akane crept afterward, trying to catch the door before it banged shut. She was about to dive out into the alley beside the warehouse when something caused her to freeze.

It was Bristow, who was leaning against the warehouse wall not three steps from the slowly-closing door. His eyes wild, he was looking at Akane, trying unsuccessfully to form words as he slid down the wall, his knees buckling. Akane looked on in astonishment as she saw the wound right below the knot of his silk tie. It was glowing as if something inside Bristow had caught fire, and smoke was drifting out of the man’s gaping mouth. Incendiary round, her training told her. She let the door close and flattened inside the limited space provided by the cinder block door frame.

She caught YJ’s eye from across the warehouse. He had a look on his face that said, We staying? We going?

She gave him the hand signal for no joy. With her other hand, she drew her Newtech pistol from its holster and aimed for the nearest target.

YJ swore as the two crate-busters scrambled for the side exit, knocking enough scrap off the pile to make a regrettable racket.

“Contact!” one of the masked robbers shouted through his voice modulator. His automatic rifle barked as a short, controlled burst flattened the first runner. The second one skidded to a halt next to the metal staircase, and chose to dive beneath it, rather than chance a breakout.

Akane snapped off an aimed shot that creased the head of the nearest attacker, shattering his facemask and sending him sprawling. Worth stepped out into the office doorway and engaged Katrina’s thermal target lock on the first available robber.

Akane’s target fell on his back, and immediately started crab-scuttling backwards, heedless of the blood flowing down his plastic-coated face. His comrade stepped over him, covering his retreat with a blast of his rifle. Akane pressed up against the door as bullets gouged wide holes the cinder blocks nearest her.

Worth fired Katrina at another robber on the other side of the warehouse, and then stepped back into Bristow’s office just ahead of a hail of bullets that splintered the transparent plastic window. Worth’s target wobbled from the hit and then found cover behind a stack of crates.

The two robbers aboard the bus wasted no time throwing it in gear and backing it out into the street. Meanwhile, the warehouse roof made groaning noises, and a panel of roofing tile fell inward, trailing flames.

YJ fired his pistol, keeping his target’s head down behind cover.

Worth gritted his teeth as he saw his prize hover-mule being stolen right in front of him. He strapped Katrina to his back and pulled out Wham and Bam, shouting “Hold that bus!” as he stomped out into the fray. YJ covered him as the hulking man ran forward, pistols akimbo.

He caught an incredulous robber flat-footed and pegged him, but a burst from another black-clad mercenary pounded his ballistic mesh and knocked the wind from his lungs. He cursed impotently as he saw his bus gain speed and disappear from view.

Akane took aim and put another round into her stumbling quarry. But the team of criminals were conducting a textbook-perfect fighting retreat, backing out behind the bus and laying down suppressing fire to cover their exit. It was perfectly choreographed, and smacked of some kind of military training.

Then the metal roof, heated beyond stress levels, began to collapse, and all thoughts of recovering their payload fled their minds. Akane kicked open the door and dove out into the alley, sniper be damned, as YJ tore across the warehouse floor just ahead of the descending fireball. Sections of corrugated steel roofing tile began to ring out as they impacted on the floor, followed by a red-hot I-beam that struck so loudly it made his teeth rattle.

Worth steadied himself and ran full-tilt towards a weakened section of wall, putting his shoulder into it with all his might. The burly man bashed through into the alley as the whole building began to fold in on itself, just as YJ jumped out the side door. The three collected themselves and took off down the ash-ridden alley as sirens began to trill in the distance.

“No way did they just steal our payload,” YJ said between deep gulps of fresh air.

“We got jacked,” Worth said mournfully.

Akane just scowled as she ran.

Inside the Neon Tiger, Jonah had just ordered another round for a lonely Unified Reclamation secretary who looked just about ready to give in to any request he had in mind, when he caught sight of a breaking news item on the gargantuan Corvue screen over the bar. The bartender had turned the sound down, but the news ticker running along the bottom of the screen gave him an update: FIRE IN WAREHOUSE DISTRICT. WITNESSES REPORT HEARING SHOTS.

The camera focused on the front façade of a warehouse that was enveloped in bright orange flames. Jonah could clearly read the name of the business stenciled over the gaping front door. Outrider Shipping.

He was gone from his stool so fast that his date’s head, which had been resting pleasantly on his shoulder, bounced off the polished surface of the bar.

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