Campaign of the Month: January 2011

Honour Among Thieves

The Purloined Payload Session Two

Where to begin? Worth attacks a hospital, and the crew is haunted by demons.

Collecting themselves in the smoke-filled alleyway, YJ, Akane and Worth could hear the sound of approaching sirens dopplering in from all directions.

The sniper who had put paid to Bristow was either gone with the wind or holding his fire for the time being, so the three of them ran to the mouth of the alley and surveyed the situation. Roiling clouds of smoke were obscuring the wide avenue that ran between the warehouses that crowded one another, but by the sound of it the rescue vehicles would be screeching to a halt in seconds, blocking their escape.

Akane looked about and spotted a nearby sewer grating in the road. A thin trickle of Bristow’s blood ran towards it like a ribbon pointing the way to freedom. “There!” she shouted.

Worth quickly hauled the grating up to allow Akane and YJ entry into the murky depths. Then he hopped in just ahead of a wave of heat from the collapsing warehouse, replacing the grate and hanging from it for a few seconds before dropping down with an unpleasant splash.

Unpleasant did not begin to describe their surroundings. They were standing knee deep in what was ostensibly a storm drain, but from the rank odors choking the air, the sewer was definitely pulling double duty.

Akane stood in the shallowest part of the drain, having felt the pang of the loss of her boots’ warranty the instant she splashed down.

“Good call, Wild Sky! There’s virtually no feces down here,” YJ snarked. “Now which way are we headed?”

“Oh, so now you’re willing to take directions from a woman?” Akane snarked right back. Collecting herself, she mentally pictured the general layout of the city as she remembered it from the air.

“This way,” she said confidently, sloshing through the effluent. YJ and Worth traded a glance, and then began to follow.

Jonah stepped outside the Neon Tiger to see an orange glow in the warehouse district. Two heavy-duty spaceport crash tenders whizzed by on the main traffic artery connecting the starport to the rest of the city, emergency lights flickering rhythmically.

He started to hail a taxi, but then thought better of it and turned on his multiband, keying a channel open to Worth’s handset. “Say, friend.”

Worth’s gruff voice answered. “Don’t call me friend, pal.”

Jonah could play this game as well as anyone. “I’m not your pal, buddy.”

Listening to the exchange, Akane let out an exasperated sigh and grabbed for the multiband, dragging Worth’s arm along with it. “Get to the point, Jonah.”

“So, have you been lighting warehouses on fire?” Jonah asked innocently.

“Oh, you noticed our handiwork, did you?” Akane replied.

Jonah smiled. “Did you at least pick up the cargo first?”

“Oh, the cargo got out, safe and sound,” Akane responded. “Once we find it, we’ll be able to deliver it.”

“Wait, what?” Jonah shook his head. “Where are you?”

“Presently, we’re in a sewer,” Akane winced as she admitted the truth. “Of course, you’re probably in a harem den about now, aren’t you?”

“They’re called treatment centres, thanks.” Jonah said.

“Look,” Akane continued. “The cargo got out, just not with us.”

“Okay,” Jonah immediately retrofitted his worldview. “So we tell Badger we never made it to the warehouse.”

Akane’s voice sounded strained. “What I would suggest to you is, find our bus, go on a walkabout if you have to.”

Jonah sighed. “The bus is gone too? Who took it?”

Worth cut in. “Some paramilitary looking dudes, at least three of them.”

Akane would have stamped her foot in impatience, but she was afraid of splashing any more of the muck on her boots. “You do recall what our bus looks like, don’t you?”

Jonah disengaged the multiband and strolled back to Shenmue.

“Doc,” Jonah called out. “Looks like the rest of the crew has taken a hike through some mi tian gong.”

“I’ll prep the hoses,” The Doc called back.

After a few wrong turns through the river of foul-smelling effluent, Akane led Worth and YJ to a culvert near the starport where the sewer system drained into a brackish creek bed.

A chain gang picking up litter along the starport’s outer edge watched in amusement as the three emerged, brown from the knees down, and climbed the embankment to the approach apron, trying to look nonchalant.

Jonah and the Doc were waiting at the landing pad. Doc Tulsa had his arms full of antibacterial soaps and disinfectant. To add insult to injury Jonah put on a big grin, reached his arm around the bedraggled Akane’s neck and with his free hand snapped an image capture of the two of them.

After Akane, Worth and YJ cleaned themselves up, the crew held a conference in Shenmue’s common area. They filled Jonah and Tulsa in on the robbery and its aftermath.

“So what should we do?” Tulsa said.

“Check the hospitals for patients with nasty bullet wounds to the head,” Akane snarled. “Or the warehouse registries.”

“What would that do?”

“It would help us suss out whether or not anybody knew that Badger used Outrider Shipping. Was this a hit against Badger, or a hit against Outrider?” YJ asked.

“From the way they shot everyone and jumped on our bus, I’d say they were after the cargo.” Akane replied.

“We don’t even know what it was that we were picking up,” YJ said.

Worth grunted. “Well one of us should probably call Badger.”

“I’ll send him a wave,” Jonah said.

It would take more than six hours for a message to wind its way through the cortex from Athens to Persephone, so Jonah took his time crafting the text.

Badger old pal,

Got some bad news. Outrider Shipping has caught fire. It was attacked by mercenaries. If you want us to recover your cargo, we have to know what we’re looking for. If you want to hire us to reclaim the goods, it will cost another 10% to get your gear back.”

He left the bridge and rejoined the conversation.

“We need to find out who the big players are in town.” YJ was saying.

“These guys didn’t look like local boys,” Worth argued.

“These were top drawer operatives,” Akane said. “If this was a hit, the locals outsourced the work.”

YJ shook his head. “So now you’re a merc expert?”

“I guess you could say that,” Akane replied. “But you saw those fancy faceplates, those tactics.”

Jonah smirked, but saw both Worth and YJ nodding begrudgingly. “So what do we do next?”

“Maybe they abandoned the mule,” Akane replied. “If they’re smart they won’t hold onto it.”

“So we go looking for clues,” Jonah said. “I guess we’ll have to secure new transport until we find the mule.”

YJ agreed. “Let’s start at ground zero and drive around, street by street. Something will turn up.”

Exiting Shenmue, Jonah and YJ soon found a likely vehicle – one step up from a basic mule, it had an enclosed cabin and an oblong cargo box. Jonah nonchalantly picked the lock and held the door open while YJ slid under the dash and hotwired it. Then they were in business, and drove back to the scene of the crime.

The Alliance had the entrances to the lane blocked off. Armed feds were milling about as the crash tenders, their articulated extinguishing arms fully extended, blanketed the blaze in flame-retardant foam from above. They saw local media and crowds of onlookers behind the barriers.

The sky was filled suddenly by the sound of screaming jet engines, and a pair of ASREVs banked overhead, flying at full speed.

Driving around in ever-expanding circles through the warehouse district, they fought with the creeping dark in their search for clues. Finally, as they pulled back out onto the main parkway, Jonah noticed a section of hurricane fence that had been squashed flat.

Pulling the car over, he noticed fresh tire marks over the crushed fence, which dampened his spirits, but then noticed a yellow scrape of paint on one of the adjacent fenceposts, matching the shade of paint that coated their bus. “This way,” he said.

They drove through a collection of low-rising container hotels and condominiums. The road gave way to a concrete parking lot, with a few benches and children’s playground equipment dotting the moonscape. They parked the car and got out, searching for their next clue.

They found it first by smell, then by sound. They heard what sounded like someone having a fitful argument with himself in the shadows, and the clanking of metal on concrete. Looking closer, they found a disheveled hobo mumbling angrily as he tried to collect what looked like a thousand empty Blue Sun cola cans.

“Excuse me sir, can we help?” Jonah inquired.

“Go’way! These’re my cans!” The derelict snarled, waving his arms drunkenly.

“I’m sure they are. What happened?” Jonah asked gently.

”They tried to take my cans!” the homeless man protested, gesticulating wildly. Akane followed his waving arms and saw the remains of a shopping cart, crushed almost beyond recognition.

“Did someone hit your cart?”

“Yes! Drove right through my park, gorramit!”

Jonah smiled and nodded. “Which way did they go? We’ll track them down for you.”

The hobo sobered up. “They went that way,” pointing to the south. Then he stumbled off into the darkness after a loose can.

The crew piled back into the car and drove south. Akane cracked open her briefcase and retrieved a powerful Newtech scope, which she used to sweep back and forth.

“Hold up,” she said. “I’ve got something.” The concrete parkland ended in a crumbling expanse of gravel, which gave way to rocky terrain. Off in the distance, the scope was picking up an image, some sort of vehicle parked in the darkness.

She zoomed in, and with a start realized that it was an XpressCargo truck, its running lights still on. The sight triggered a memory – of her looking across the street outside the Outrider Shipping warehouse while YJ was hitting the buzzer on the front door. A similar green-painted truck had been idling not half a block away from the warehouse.

“That’s the truck they used,” Akane said confidently. She began snapping together her sniper rifle.

Jonah parked the car and the crew disembarked, pulling out their weapons. Akane found a nearby outcropping and extended her rifle’s bipod. “Stay out of my line of fire. I’ll cover your approach.”

Worth, Jonah and YJ didn’t contest the point. Moving in half-crouches, they slowly approached the truck, their imaginations conjuring danger behind every pile of rocks or growth of vegetation.

Akane peered through the scope of her rifle, training it on the stationary vehicle as her companions inched forward. The rear doors of the cargo van were half open, as was the driver’s. Jonah and Worth came up on either side of the truck, their weapons trained on the cab.

“Empty.” Jonah said. “It’s clear.”

“Same with the cargo bay,” YJ said from the rear of the truck. “No sign of the mule, either.”

Worth inspected the cab. The keys were still in the ignition, and there was a bright splash of blood on the passenger seat. “Well, they bleed sure enough, anyways,” he grumbled.

“That’s not the half of it,” YJ agreed as he threw open the rear doors. The cargo bed was fairly painted with red bloodstains. “Doesn’t look good for whoever’s fluids are splashed back here.”

Akane and the Doc jogged up.

“Maybe we can take a sample of that blood, run some tests on it.” The Doc said.

“Why,” Jonah asked sarcastically. “Are we crime scene investigators, now?”

Undeterred, Akane and the Doc swabbed up some of the blood, using insulation from one of the seats.

Taking a walk around the parked truck, YJ took note of a nearby patch of ground. There were two very noticeable scorch marks marring the terrain, with most of the sand around them blown away to reveal the bedrock underneath.

“They’ve skipped offworld already,” he said, shaking his head. “Probably rendezvoused with their partners out here and took off nice as you please.”

The rest of the crew joined him and took in the blast marks.

“Okay,” Akane broke the silence. “I’m going to visit the Port Authority.”

“Why?” Jonah asked. “Since when do they care about warehouse robberies?”

“In a one-starship town like this, the port authorities will be tracking all registered transports, and trying to track all unregistered ones too.” Akane replied. “You saw those scrambled ASREVs earlier – they might have been after the ship that dusted off here. Someone will have filed a report.”

“I’m not walking into Alliance Central, thanks.” Jonah said, and both Worth and YJ nodded agreement.

“Fine,” Akane replied. “You guys go talk to some of the locals, see who runs things in town and check the gossip as to who pulled off the robbery. We’ll meet back at the ship.”

As YJ, Worth, Jonah and the Doc headed for the Neon Tiger, Akane returned to her quarters on Shenmue, booting up her sourcebox and sending a cortex message to one of her contacts, who she referred to as “AK.”

AK soon responded to her message; she was always on call. A voicechat window opened on the sourcebox’s screen. “Always a pleasure to hear from you, boss,” AK smiled at Akane, her voice piping out from the sourcebox’s built-in speaker.

“I’m going to need access to the local Port Authority on Athens, a place called Stanton Gap,” Akane said as she rummaged beneath her bunk. “I’ll need some kind of ID number, as a database systems analyst.”

“You got it, boss,” AK never balked at any request and wasn’t about to start now.

Akane found what she was looking for – a nondescript garment bag. She unzipped it to reveal the neatly pressed greys of an Alliance officer’s uniform.

“I thought you said you weren’t going to wear that ever again,” AK said.

“I say a lot of things,” Akane said, and began to undress.

Half an hour later, Lieutenant Akane Arai strode purposefully into the port authority building at Stanton Gap’s spaceport, armed with a datapad and a no-nonsense disposition. The port office was in a state of controlled chaos. Understaffed and overdriven, a motley collection of Alliance officials and civilian contractors was all that stood between a well-run spaceport and anarchy. To Akane’s trained eye, the battle was not going well.

She marched smartly towards the first poor soul she felt she could get her claws into – a harried-looking desk sergeant who was trying to sort out a misfiled stack of purchase orders. He looked up at her with glazed eyes. “Uh, can I help you?”

Akane felt herself lapsing into full-officer mode and hoped she wasn’t too out of practice. “Sergeant, set that paperwork aside, you’ve got a much bigger problem on your hands now. I’m here to conduct a full database analysis.”

The sergeant swallowed his gum. “I thought that wasn’t scheduled until next week!”

Akane sighed. “I can see that your mastery of scheduling as on par with your mastery of the chain of command, sergeant,. When a lieutenant asks for access to your database, you don’t check the schedule, you tell her where the mainframe is, understand?”

“Of course, Lieutenant. Right this way,” The sergeant dropped his sheaf of papers and led Akane into a small room nearby. Akane slid into the proffered chair as if she knew what she was doing. The sergeant hesitated, then punched in the access code to the port authority’s database system, and stood back, unsure of himself.

”And can you at least get me a coffee?” She said, looking over her shoulder at the bumbling sergeant.

The non-com blanched. “I was just going to order one up.”

Akane’s eyes narrowed. ”I was just going to order one up, sir.”

The sergeant gulped. “Yes ma’am, I mean, sir!” and disappeared as quickly as humanly possible, in search of fresh coffee.

Akane plugged her datapad into the mainframe and slid an earpiece into position. AK was waiting as the connection was established.

“I want to focus specifically on traffic control data,” Akane said. “All comings and goings for the last 12 hours to start with.”

“Sure thing,” AK said.

The listings filled the screen. Akane scanned them, looking for anything out of the ordinary. Most of the traffic at Stanton Gap was commercial – heavy bulk loaders with cargoes from Corone or Unified Reclamation. She took note of Shenmue’s” arrival, then kept scrolling.

“There’s too much to go through. Let’s narrow the search to just illegal traffic.” Akane said as AK worked her magic.

The data set was replaced by a shorter list of reports, albeit with a longer time frame than the last half day-cycle.

Here we go, she thought as information regarding an illegal landing and takeoff on the outskirts of town, bearing a very fresh timestamp, rolled in. A flight of ASREVs had been scrambled in pursuit of the craft, which touched down outside of town and was identified as belonging to the Mantis class of evac and resupply vessels. According to the report filed by the ASREV commander, the ship evaded pursuit and went for hard burn at the first opportunity. Distressingly, the ship had not been broadcasting a transponder signal; identification had to be made visually and no data about the ship’s registration had been collected.

“So they identified a ship, but didn’t catch it. Too bad,” Akane said, almost to herself as she downloaded the contents of the report to her datapad. Then another entry caught her eye.

It was dated nearly a month ago, dealing with an illegal landing near a bombed-out city ruin a few kilometers to the southwest, involving the Alliance War Graves Commission. The War Graves Commission? Akane thought to herself. Don’t they just tend to gravestones and re-inter dead bodies? She tried to get more information, but the file had been heavily redacted.

She called for the hapless desk sergeant, who showed up with the coffeepot in case she wanted a refill.

“Please tell me there’s someone who outranks you on duty here tonight,” Akane said.

The sergeant looked almost relieved. “Yes sir, that would be Lieutenant Mitchell.”

Akane paused for a beat and arched a perfectly trimmed eyebrow.

The sergeant’s eyes widened. “I’ll go get him for you,” then he disappeared, sloshing coffee on the floor in his haste to escape.

The rest of the crew hit up the Neon Tiger as promised in their attempt to gather information about the robbery and firebombing. They quickly learned that the 14K Triad controlled everything in town that wasn’t already under the thumb of Corone, UR, or the Alliance, and quite a few things that were.

“For a robbery like this to take place out in the open, someone must have been paid off,” observed Jonah as he, Tulsa, Worth and YJ held a quick conference over a game of holo-pool.

“So what, we just gonna knock on the 14K’s door and ask them if they allowed this robbery to happen?” Worth asked.

“Something like that,” YJ said. “I hear they’re headquartered at a place called the Szechuan Noodle Supper Club across town.”

“I ain’t dressed for dinner,” complained Worth.

“Wait,” Jonah said distractedly. His eyes had been drawn to the Technicolor blur of the Corvue screen that dominated the bar. The warehouse fire was still the lead news item, and video footage of the fire was still cycling repeatedly. “Turn up the volume!” Jonah shouted to the bartender.

The local newsreader looked polished and prim as he read the copy. “Authorities confirm that seven people are dead after gang violence swept the warehouse district this evening. Witnesses said that a gun battle erupted at a go-down owned by Outrider Shipping, a local import/export business that police suspect has been a front for underworld operations.”

“Naturally,” YJ said.

Oblivious to the commentary, the news anchor continued. “An unverified number of assailants opened fire on the occupants of the warehouse, stealing an unspecified amount of cargo before setting fire to the building to cover their escape. A starship of unknown class was spotted in the area.”

“Vague enough for you?” Worth cracked.

“A single survivor was rescued by volunteer firefighters and has been placed under guard at the Zhang Zhongjing Medical Centre pending an investigation by local police. His condition is unknown.”

“Ahso,” Jonah smiled triumphantly. “A survivor. What say we deliver some flowers to the afflicted and see if he knows something? Then we can go get some noodles.”

“Sounds good,” YJ agreed.

Lieutenant Mitchell walked into the port authority’s database room, the polar opposite of the harried desk sergeant – calm, cool, and collected. He gave Akane a once-over and frowned. “To whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?”

“Lieutenant Arai,” Akane said. It was obvious that unlike the desk sergeant, this Mitchell wasn’t going to be a pushover. “Headquarters sent me to perform a surprise audit.”

“Indeed,” Mitchell said, his frown deepening. “I see they also dispensed with the courtesy of an introduction to the officer on watch.”

Akane tried another tack. “I’ve been looking over your database entries, Lieutenant. I must say you run a tight ship here at the Port Authority.”

Mitchell replied, “Well, for the shifts I’m on as supervisor perhaps, but I’ll take your compliment under advisement.”

Akane indicated the list on her screen. “I’m curious about this spate of illegal landings near the city limits. Are they connected?”

“Well, illegal salvage and transfer of illegal goods are two of the most common crimes here in Stanton Gap, but no, there’s no link between them,” Mitchell said.

“I’m particularly curious about this case four weeks ago where the War Graves Commission got involved. Why was it redacted?”

Lieutenant Mitchell’s frown reached new depths. “Well, you’d have to ask your predecessor, Lieutenant Arai. It was your department that did the redacting.”

Akane smiled. “Indeed,” she said smoothly.

“If everything else is in order, I have a crisis that’s in danger of boiling over to attend to,” Mitchell said, turning back to his station.

“Certainly,” Akane said to the lieutenant’s retreating back. She unhooked her datapad from the mainframe, but not before leaving a pre-set backdoor code for AK on the chance she’d ever have to return to the port’s computer system. Finishing the rest of her coffee, she got to her feet and cleared out as quickly as she could.

The desk sergeant watched Akane leave the database room, a curious expression on his face.

“Okay, here’s how it’s going to go,” Jonah said as he, Worth and Tulsa stood outside the medical centre. YJ was keeping an eye on the medical centre from the driver’s seat of their stolen utility vehicle.

“Worth, you’re going to go off your meds in the waiting room, and during the confusion Tulsa and I are going to visit our patient.” Jonah fiddled with a fake moustache that he had grabbed from his disguise kit and smoothed out the collar from his borrowed white coat. The Doc’s disguise was a little more realistic, seeing as he actually held a medical degree.

“Will do,” Worth said, who was twitchy enough on a good day. He swaggered his way through the set of double doors into the medical centre’s lobby.

“This ought to be good,” Jonah said as he and Tulsa followed from behind at a discreet distance.

It didn’t take long for Worth to cause a ruckus. He assaulted a Blue Sun cola vending machine in a particularly disturbing manner, and threw folding chairs like a professional wrestler. Two tired-looking security guards moved in for the kill, when Tulsa said in his most authoritative voice, “Find this man’s doctor at once!”

One of the guards obediently spun on his heel and headed for the emergency room. Tulsa and Jonah followed closely behind him as he ran a passkey through a slider that allowed him access to the emergency room floor. Jonah saw a likely mark standing next to a bed reading a chart, and ran over, grabbing the lapels of his lab coat.

“One of your patients is out of control in the waiting room!” he said theatrically. As the doctor bolted out of the emergency room towards the sound of Worth’s cursing and smashing of things, Jonah opened his hand to reveal the ID badge that he had expertly snatched from the man’s white coat. He tossed it to Tulsa, who put it on, and the two of them started upstairs.

As expected, a pair of armed guards, Federal marshals by the look of them, were posted at the door of the med centre’s burn unit. Jonah adjusted his white coat and let Tulsa do the talking.

“We’re here to check on the patient’s status,” Tulsa told the feds as he flashed the doctor’s ID badge. “Can’t have him passing away before the investigation’s over, can we?”

“Get in line. We just let the nurse through about five minutes ago,” one of the marshals said.

“Yeah boy, I almost wish I needed some medical attention myself,” the other one smirked. His partner laughed and nodded in agreement.

Then the door opened, and the aforementioned nurse stepped out into the hallway. Tulsa and Jonah both caught their breath as the reason for the marshal’s salacious comments became clear.

Her auburn hair framed a milky white complexion and her piercing green eyes evaluated the two of them with clinical precision as she quietly closed the door behind her. As she passed Jonah, the barest hint of a wink and a smile crossed her face, and then she was past him, striding down the hall towards the nurse’s station, her white uniform pulled tight in exactly the right places.

The two feds watched after her longingly, not bothering to hide their leers.

Jonah shook his head and pushed Tulsa towards the door of the burn unit. They entered to the sound of a number of Newtech devices designed to keep someone alive against Nature’s will. The patient was in a bed against the far wall, swaddled in bandages and coated with salve. Instinctively, Tulsa checked the man’s chart.

Jonah took a quick image capture of the patient’s face and sent it to YJ’s multiband. In the car, YJ took a look at the image and recognized the man, barely, as one of Bristow’s crate-busters, the man who decided to hide rather than flee.

“He was one of the guys loading scrap in Bristow’s warehouse,” YJ said.

“What’s the prognosis, doc?” Jonah quipped.

“Not so good. We should have brought flowers,” Tulsa said. “He’s suffered severe burns.”

“Well he did have a flaming warehouse fall on him,” Jonah said wryly.

“They’ve put him in a comatose state while the regenerative salve does its work,” Tulsa said. “He might make it, if he’s very lucky.”

“Look at him, Doc,” Jonah said as he started rummaging through the cabinets, pocketing medical supplies. “Luck isn’t exactly what brought him here.” He found some amphetamines and tossed them towards Tulsa. “You’d better wake him up,”

“That’s not advisable,” Tulsa said. “This guy’s hanging by a thread.”

“Look, the whole reason we’re here is for information. He’ll be okay,” Jonah argued. “There are plenty of trained professionals around here.”

“Fine,” Tulsa hissed, fiddling with the man’s IV. “First do no harm, eh?” he muttered to himself. He injected the uppers into the man’s bloodstream. They didn’t take long to do their work. The man started twitching and groaning in a few seconds.

“Easy, son,” Tulsa said, using his best bedside manner. “You’re in the medical centre now, safe and sound.”

The man started babbling, mixing Chinese and English in scattered phrases. ”Sh-shenguai… he mumbled over and over.

Jonah frowned. “What was that? ‘Demons?’ Ask him who hit the warehouse!”

Tulsa leaned over the man’s bed, peering intently at his face. “Listen carefully, son. Who was it that attacked your warehouse?”

The patient rolled his eyes in terror. “Chi’ang Shih_…they were _Chi’ang Shih…”

Just then Jonah noticed something out of the ordinary. Though the windows of the room were sealed tight, the curtains were flapping slightly. He took a closer look. The hatch to the room’s oxygen supply line had been left ajar slightly. He moved over and opened the hatch all the way.

The valve on the supply line, which connected to the medical centre’s repository of bottled O-2, had been opened all the way, sending a pressurized stream of oxygen into the air of the burn unit. Jonah moved to seal the valve but stopped suddenly as he saw a tiny black cube attached to the open valve.

“What the hell?” He asked nobody in particular. Then he heard a soft clicking coming from the little cube and his flight reflexes kicked in.

He knocked over a cart full of bandages in his haste to grab Tulsa by the collar and head for the exit, and the door to the burn unit opened, the two feds looking in inquisitively.

“What are you-” the first fed had time to say before the room exploded. The oxygen supply valve suddenly became a ten-foot jet of flame, fueling a raging fireball that rolled through the burn unit, consuming everything in its path. Jonah and Tulsa hit the floor and rolled, bowling over the surprised feds, whose shouts suddenly turned to screams as the conflagration spread inexorably. Then the sprinkler system kicked in, showering the hallway with water but doing little to stop the giant Roman candle that spewed into the burn unit.

Slipping and sliding two steps ahead of the flames, Jonah and Tulsa scrambled to safety, down the stairs, even as panic began to spread through the medical centre. Alarms began banging loudly as the pair reached the waiting room.

Worth was under a pile of security guards but still putting up a fight when they let him go, as the sudden fire was a much bigger problem than one raging bull in a china shop.

“Worth, let’s go!” Jonah shouted, not bothering to slow down as he hit the first set of doors. Worth got up and lumbered through the wreckage of the waiting room.

YJ was staring in shock at the flames curling out of the second storey of the medical centre. “What the hell is going on?” He said as Tulsa, Jonah and Worth climbed aboard.

“Guess Tulsa and I evened the score on the fireball front,” Jonah said. “One for you, and now one for us.”

Worth stomped on the gas and they peeled out as the now familiar sounds of sirens drew closer.

Akane had stowed her Alliance uniform back in her quarters, grateful for a deserted ship, and was on the bridge checking to see if Badger’s response had reached them yet, when she noticed a second orange glow on the city’s skyline, much brighter than the fading remains of the fire in the warehouse district.

Minutes later, the stolen utility vehicle careened into view, discharging the wet Jonah and Tulsa, YJ and Worth. YJ and Jonah were locked in the throes of an argument.

Akane met them in the cargo bay. “What happened?”

“We just came from the city’s medical centre,” Tulsa said. “It turns out there was a survivor from the warehouse fire,”

“Was?” Akane replied. “As in, past tense?”

“There was this nurse,” Jonah said. “Red hair, green eyes, a stunner. She must have gimmicked the oxygen line in the burn unit, rigged it to blow. We barely got out of there ahead of the fireball.”

Akane looked at Jonah’s disguise. “So you impersonated a doctor, walked in to visit a patient who was no doubt under Alliance surveillance, and walked out after a fire started in the patient’s room?”

“That’s about right,” Jonah said.

“How do we know the Feds won’t link it back to you?” Akane said.

“I wore a moustache!” Jonah protested. “They’re going to be looking for a man with a moustache, and as you can see,” he said, theatrically pulling off the phony lip ferret, “I am not that man.”

“I’m going to sleep peacefully tonight,” Akane said bleakly.

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