Campaign of the Month: January 2011

Honour Among Thieves

Special Delivery Session Four
Wherein the hijackers discover that close only counts in cold steel and hand grenades.

“Three things are going to happen now,” Orser growled over the sound of the pressurization and fire alarms. “First, you’re going to surrender control of your helm to me. Second, you’re going to put Logan front and centre so I can see she’s still alive. And third, you’re going to pray to your God that there’s somebody out there willing to exchange coin for your sorry hides. Because if that’s not the case, you’re not going to like the fourth thing that’s gonna happen.”

YJ raised his hands in a placating gesture. “All right, sounds good.” He hit the mute button and turned to Wild Sky. “So, board his ship, start a gunfight, or use Logan as a hostage? Trouble is, if he calls our bluff we’re dead.”

Wild Sky wiped her blade clean on Cable’s pressure suit. “We have no idea what kind of numbers he’s got on that ship. So we could go on the offensive and board them or play defensive and fight them on familiar ground.”

“Yeah, but if the fight doesn’t go their way, they can just detach and fill us full of holes.”

“Fair enough.” Wild Sky said.

YJ turned back to the screen and tapped a few keys. “All right, Orser, you got a deal.” He released control of the helm to the pirate ship, much as he would to an Alliance cruiser or spaceport traffic controller.

“At least you’ve got some brains,” Orser said. “Now, where’s Logan?”

“I’ll go get her!” YJ said with exaggerated cheerfulness. He keyed off the vid screen.

Wild Sky fixed her helmet to the pressure ring around her suit’s neck. “Stall for time and stay alive as long as you can,” she said as she headed for the airlock.

YJ felt the familiar thud of Shenmue’s main airlock disengaging and heard the main engines begin to spin up. He put his plan into action.

He raced to the medical unit, where Jonah had parked his wheelchair. Grabbing the motorized chair’s control unit, he drove it back to the upper foredeck and parked it. Pulling his pistol, he warily opened the hatch to the crew quarters where Logan had unsuccessfully sought refuge. The air in the small cabin was still choked with smoke from the stun grenade, but as he descended the ladder, YJ could see Logan’s unconscious body half-hidden by a thin mattress. He got the pirate into a fireman’s carry and struggled back up the ladder, wishing that Worth was there to do the heavy lifting.

YJ heaved Logan into the wheelchair and produced a roll of heavy-duty utility tape. He set about wrapping the tape around the chair, securing Logan in place. He taped her limbs to the chair’s arm- and footrests and wound the roll of tape several times around her midsection and the chair’s back.

Now it was time for the final flourish. YJ rifled through the pockets of the nearest dead pirates – Cable and Vonn – and retrieved a handful of stun grenades, which he then set about taping to Logan’s chest.

Logan started to come to as YJ finished tying the grenades’ pins to a length of wire he could hold in his hand while the chair was in motion.

“Wh-what’s going on?” she mumbled. “What the hell are you doing?”

There was a screeching sound as YJ pulled out more tape from the roll. “Using you as a bargaining chip.”

“Great.” Logan blinked her eyes rapidly, trying to clear the cobwebs.

“Hey, it’s on you for letting yourself get captured, right?” YJ said, applying more tape to Logan’s upper works.

“I guess so,” Logan said with a grimace. “You guys aren’t as dumb as you let on.”

“Uh, thanks?” YJ said.

“Considering how easy it was to trap you guys,” she continued. “We weren’t expecting this kind of resistance.”

“Uh, thanks again?” YJ said.

Logan looked down at the row of grenades taped to her chest and her eyes widened. “Whoa, whoa, what’s this?”

YJ looked her in the eye. “Here’s a question for you, Logan. First off, if this goes bad, Orser says he’s going to kill us.”

“Yeah, and?”

“But, I’ve rigged you up,” he said, brandishing the wires connected to the grenades’ pins, “so that if I die, all the grenades taped to your chest get blown sky high.”

“What?” Logan blurted, her voice spiking up an octave as her gaze flicked between the grenades as they rose up and down with every heave of her chest and YJ’s face, an expression of disbelief on her face.

YJ chuckled. “I mean there’s no way you’re walking away from that.” He tapped the taped-up grenades for emphasis. “Oddly enough it’s in your best interest to see that these negotiations go properly.”

“I was wrong, you are as dumb as you let on.” Logan muttered, getting control of herself.

“So, what can you tell me about Orser that would help me out?” YJ asked.

Logan squirmed. “Well, he certainly doesn’t like watching his crewmembers getting blown up in front of him.”

“Well, we’re ahead of him on that one.” YJ said. “Should I start off real strong, or…?”

“What do you want me to say, he’s a pirate. He’s not exactly the warm fuzzy type.”

“You’d be surprised at how emotional he got when we told him we had you in custody,” YJ said. “He gave us a four point plan and you were at least point two on it.”

“Really?” Logan asked. “Wow, I’m flattered,” she said, shaking her head. “Point two,” she muttered. “You wouldn’t happen to have a cigarette, do you?”

“You’ve got a lot of pyro tied to your midsection, I don’t think that would be a good idea.” YJ said. “Chewing gum?” He pulled a bent piece of foil-wrapped gum from a pocket.

“Thanks, that’ll do.” Logan said. She attempted to shift her body in the chair. “He’s direct.”

“Uh-huh. You ever see him back down?”

“Not unless we were facing an Alliance cruiser or other insurmountable odds.”

“Inescapable odds,” YJ said.

“Are you going to blindfold me or something?” Logan asked, “Because I really don’t want to look at you any more.” She popped her gum.

“Let’s say you use those puppy dog eyes of yours and just open up every soft part of Orser’s heart, if he has them.” YJ said.

“You’re crazy.”

“Look, he said we’re dead otherwise unless someone’s willing to pay for us,” YJ said. “And I don’t know anyone that will pay for us, so this is really do or die for me. Rather than wait for Orser to put one in my head I figure, strap some bombs to somebody and see what I can do with that.”

“Well you’re creative, I’ll give you that.”

“Shall we have that reunion?” YJ said.

Logan tried to toggle the directional switch on the armrest until YJ taped her fingers down. “What am I going to say, no?”

Using the chair’s control unit, YJ maneuvered the mobility device up the stairs leading to Shenmue’s bridge. The chair’s articulated wheels allowed it to mount the catwalk stairs with ease.

Shenmue’s engine core thrummed loudly.

“So, where do you think Orser is taking us?” YJ asked.

“I’m not telling you that,” Logan said.

“Again, if these negotiations work out for me, they work for you.” YJ said. “If they don’t, I’m dead, and you’re hamburger from here-” he patted Logan’s ample upper works “-to here,” touching the top of her head. “And probably further down as well.”

“You guys,” Logan said with a hint of exasperation. “Do you ever think these things through before strapping grenades to people?”

“Honestly? Strapping grenades is Plan A.”

“Come on, there’s no reason to go through with all this,” Logan said as her chair climbed onto Shenmue’s bridge. YJ manoeuvred her around Cable’s sprawled corpse, which Logan eyed uncomfortably.

YJ positioned her in front of the vid screen and hit the hailing button. He was soon rewarded with Orser’s sneering face.

“Orser, we’re going to need to meet face-to-face.” He said.

Orser wasn’t paying attention to YJ. Instead he was focused on Logan, and YJ could tell from his rapidly decaying expression that he did not like what he was seeing.

“What have you done to her?” He growled.

“Just making sure we won’t have any more trouble, with the taking of guns away and whatnot,” YJ said.”

“You harm one more hair on her head and you’re all dead,” Orser said.

“Yeah, see, there’s a problem there and I want to talk to you about it, so why don’t you come over there and we’ll have a chat about it in our docking bay.”

“Here’s my counter offer,” Orser replied. “How’s about you plug up the hole in your ship so you don’t asphyxiate my crewmate, and then we’ll talk about a meeting.” He grinned, which did nothing to improve his expression. “You’re leaving quite a vapour trail.”

YJ eyed a nearby damage readout. “See you in 30 minutes.”

Orser cut the feed before YJ had a chance to do the same.

YJ turned to Logan. “So if your destination is less than 30 minutes away, this plan’s not going to work. Again, where is he taking us?”

Logan cursed him out for falling into this trap. “If I have to go, I hope you’re standing right next to me when I blow up.”

“Okay, fair enough,” YJ said, finally taping her mouth shut.

On Shenmue’s exterior, Wild Sky watched as the hulk of the Harriston dwindled to a tiny flickering dot in the starfield beyond.

She estimated that the Undercutter was holding position about 50 meters aft of Shenmue, and she could tell from the increased engine rotation that the transport was indeed underway to parts unknown. She could also see thin tendrils of vapour being left in Shenmue’s wake, likely emanating from a hole in the transport’s hull.

Wild Sky considered her options. 50 meters was quite a jump, even in zero-g conditions. She decided to head back in to see to the damage.

The skiff’s laser had lanced an ugly wound through Shenmue’s underbelly. They could smell burning insulation and the tang of superheated metal – two smells you never wanted to smell on board a ship. There was an ever-present whine coming from the atmofeed, and the roar of air being blown out into space. Shenmue’s fire suppression system was also sputtering globs of white foam in an effort to contain a fire that had spread to one of the passenger dorms.

The breach itself was nasty, but concentrated.

Wild Sky steadied herself against the torrent of rushing atmo. YJ slipped in the foam and began sliding towards the hole, coming to rest against a raised bulkhead.

YJ grabbed the nearest patch kit – there were always patch kits mounted on the hulls on tramp freighters like Shenmue – and tossed it to Wild Sky, who approached the rent in the hull. Working together, they managed to seal the breach in a matter of minutes. It wasn’t pretty, but it would hold.

“Time to get Orser over here for our chat,” YJ said. “As soon as his ship links to us, it’s your turn to go outside.”

“All righty,” Wild Sky said.

YJ returned to the bridge. Logan glared at him silently.

“All right Orser, we need to talk. Right now.”

“So talk.” Orser said.

“No, face to face.” YJ said. “I’ll be in the landing bay, and I’m going to get real squirrelly soon, so I hope for Logan’s sake you show up soon.” He cut the video feed and started moving Logan towards the cargo bay.

Wild Sky engaged the dorsal airlock and crept back out onto the exterior of the transport. As she watched, the Undercutter began to close the distance between it and Shenmue, dipping out of sight behind the transport’s stern. Wild Sky got a good look at the transport’s dorsal docking coupling and figured the Undercutter would use Shenmue’s bomb bay cargo doors to link up. As the ship slipped by, she also took note of a utility airlock behind the crew cabin.

Wild Sky clipped herself into the safety line and began to creep towards the underside of Shenmue. She had guessed correctly – The Undercutter was doing a dorsal-to-ventral docking configuration, linking up to Shenmue’s bomb bay doors.

“They’re coming in through the bomb bay,” she said to YJ through the comlink.

“You tell me when it’s time for a distraction and I’ll drop a smoke grenade into the ship right off this catwalk.”

“But I might be in the ship.” Wild Sky said.

“You’ve got a sword.” YJ said. “Put some smoke in there and maybe they’ll get spooked and shoot one of their own guys.”

“I’m going to disable that laser cannon,” Wild Sky said. “Since we can’t outrun them, we definitely don’t want to deal with more damage.”

“Or you could go in there and kick some ass,” YJ said.

“Good point.” Wild Sky said. “When I open the hatch on this side, it’ll make a noise, so I want to know when they’re opening your airlock. I’ll open simultaneously.”

“Got it.” YJ set the chair up on the main catwalk landing overlooking the cargo bay doors and stood next to Logan, holstering the pistol that he figured Orser would tell him to get rid of and concealing a second pistol he could grab if need be.

Wild Sky sidled up to the Undercutter’s sleek hull and began to work on the airlock access panel. She rewired the exterior controls and stepped into the narrow utility lock chamber. Sealing the exterior door behind her, she removed her glove and deftly reprogrammed the internal lock control, careful to keep herself out of sight from the airlock viewport.

YJ waited until he heard the pinging sound of the bomb bay airlock’s handshake protocol. “Now,” he hissed into his multiband.

The hatch in the cargo bay floor began to open. YJ tensed.

Wild Sky hit the airlock control and stepped into the pirate ship’s interior. It was a cramped affair – barely wide enough for three people to stand abreast, with angled bulkheads that matched the ship’s aerodynamic exterior. Wild Sky drew her sword as she sighted her targets.

There were two of them. The first had his back to Wild Sky, standing on the deck arms raised with a pistol aimed upwards. The second man, who she recognized as Orser, was halfway up a ladder that led to the ship’s dorsal airlock. He had just swung the lock’s hatch open and was climbing up, a shotgun cradled in his arms. His sudden surprised glance in Wild Sky’s direction told her that either she’d mistimed her entry, or his ears were sharper than his companion’s. Orser opened his mouth to shout a warning, and Wild Sky swung into action.

She leaped forward, one boot slamming into the side of the bulkhead as she jumped into the air, swinging her sword in a silver arc. Orser had only a split second to duck behind the ladder as best he could – Wild Sky’s sword still caught him with a glancing blow across the arm that opened a nasty flesh wound. Orser shouted in pain but kept his hold on the ladder.

As Wild Sky let gravity do its work, she twisted the sword in her hands and put all her weight behind it, connecting with the second man – an Asian fellow with a crop of jet-black hair and a quizzical expression on his face.

He never had a chance. The blade sliced through his midsection, all but ignoring the ballistic mesh vest he was wearing and severing his spine in one fluid movement. Wild Sky’s heavy boots hit the deck as she followed through, a geyser of blood spraying up the deck and bulkhead. Her target fell to the deck in two pieces, his face frozen in a query that would now go unanswered.

Orser cursed in blind rage as he swung the shotgun down and fired awkwardly. Wild Sky threw herself into a somersault. The report of the weapon was deafening in the close confines of the cutter’s interior, but Wild Sky’s helmet protected her from the worst of it. The cloud of buckshot did not find its target.

Wild Sky deftly thrust her sword upwards at the man on the ladder. This time, her blade slipped into Orser’s body with only the slightest resistance as she impaled him where he was perched. He let go of both ladder and shotgun as his tirade of curses turned into a howl of agony, and fell further onto her sword, until his weight was too much for her to bear. She let him fall to the deck, pulling her sword out and flicking it clean of blood with a flourish, adding another spray of gore to the bulkhead behind her.

On his back at Wild Sky’s feet, Orser squirmed, pressing his hands to the wound in his belly as his heels beat a frantic tattoo against the deck.

Wild Sky looked up as she heard the sound of an explosion from above deck.

At the hissing sound of Shenmue’s bomb bay doors cycling open, Logan ripped herself free from her weakened restraints, twisting about in her chair and launching herself at YJ.

YJ recoiled in shock, but had time to realize that he’d left Logan alone just long enough for her to try something stupid like this.

YJ stumbled back as she tried to grapple with him for control of the strings connecting her grenades’ pins to YJ’s fist. He dodged out of the way of her swinging fist and jumped backwards down the catwalk stairs, coming to rest on the landing below.

Logan stood at the top of the stairs, cracking her knuckles, a triumphant expression on her face.

Until she took note of the fistful of grenade pins YJ held in his hand.

Logan looked down at the grenades taped to her chest, grenades that were now beeping in readiness. “Ta ma deh!” she started to curse as she grabbed for the tape securing them.

YJ shielded his eyes as the flashbangs flashed and went bang.

Angels of Mercenary Session Five
Wherein deals are made over hot tubs and hot coffee.

The crewmembers continued their walk through the oppressive heat of the Downriver night.

“I think Wong sees us as a threat, and the salt mines are a good way to deal with us,” Jonah was saying. “There have been other medical crews before us, yes?”

“Looks that way,” Tulsa said. “Tao Barker said as much.”

“Why would he consider us a threat?” Worth asked.

“He lures us out because we might blow the cover on Sawtooth Crossing,” Jonah said. “He also thinks we’re a reporter, a doctor, and a medical associate.”

“We think he thinks that.” Tulsa said. “Not to step too outside of normal our paranoia zone.”

Jonah stopped and turned to face Tulsa and Worth. “Maybe you’re right. He was terribly concerned with my discretion as a reporter. I feel like he’s bought the story,” he said. “Or he’s really slick and playing us.”

“Mm-hmm.” Tulsa said.

“He wants us to retrieve his business records since he’s unable to get them himself – apparently it’s a strongbox with a Magistrate’s seal. According to him those records are vital to the continued success of the mining operation.”

“Maybe he hasn’t got it in for us, if those records are vital to his personal financial survival,” Tulsa said.

“Those personnel records are the last piece of evidence, and he’ll need them to be able to doctor his reports and what have you,” Jonah said. “So we need to get the box and open the box and see what it’s worth to him. Once we get an idea of how much he’s taken, and that’s a basis for our extortion attempt. Creating a copy of data, or whatever.”

Tulsa nodded and resumed walking. “So we’ve got Sadat tagging along with us now, and we’ve got to figure out why these salt mines are off limits. Retrieving this from the salt mines, is that something that the Magistrate needs to know about, or do we have to ditch Sadat?”

The crew’s conversation wound down as they approached Shenmue’s landing bay. Alliance guards stood watch along the fence line that separated the starport and the Alliance quarantine monitoring station from the city proper.

They entered the ship.

“I don’t know when we’ll be seeing the hot tub next,” Jonah said. “Might be time to dip a toe in.”

As they entered Desdemona’s mid deck, Worth noticed something amiss. A pair of women’s high heel shoes were unstrapped and tossed aside on the deck plate.

Worth tapped Tulsa’s shoulder and pointed to the discarded footwear. “Which one of you has taken to wearing high heels?” he hissed.

Jonah quietly edged over to the nearest control terminal. “_Desdemona_, have we had any guests arrive since we departed?”

“The main doors were accessed 20 minutes ago,” Desdemona’s computer replied in a crisp tone.

“Hello?” Tulsa called out.

From the direction of the hot tub, a familiar voice purred back. “Hello, Doctor.”

Tulsa nodded to Worth and Jonah. “I’ve got this.” He walked into the hospitality suite.

Jessamyn Bradley was reclining in the hot tub, a bottle of champagne and two flute glasses nearby. Her slinky red dress was hanging over the back of a nearby chair.

The frothing water of the hot tub was obscuring the most arresting portions of her anatomy.

“When we last spoke, you said you valued transparency in a business partner,” Jessamyn said over the sound of the hot tub’s jets. “Well, this is me, being transparent.”

“You’re looking rather translucent from where I’m standing,” Tulsa said.

Worth raised an eyebrow, turned his back and walked away. Jonah reluctantly followed.

Tulsa walked towards the hot tub, disrobing and making splashdown.

“To what do I owe the pleasure?” he said.

“Well, doctor, I’m here because I’m looking around at this boat, and I’m looking at your companions, and I just can’t make two plus two equal four,” Jessamyn said.

“Well, mathematics was never my strong suit.” Tulsa replied.

Jessamyn poured Tulsa a glass of champagne.

“What’s really going on here besides this mercy mission?” She leaned in, handing him the glass.

“I’m not sure I follow,” Tulsa said, accepting the champagne. “If you mean our accommodations, I must confess that I was surprised. It’s a bid odd, I thought so myself when we were placed on board, but logistics like that are out of my job description. I’m a doctor. They pay me. Is it weird that I’m on board what looks like a mobile casino? Yes, but I find that people who tend to ask those questions wish they hadn’t. so I just do my job, stick needles in people, and get on with my day.”

“I see.”

“It seems to me like you almost want it to be more than it really is.” Tulsa said.

“You think so?” Jessamyn’s eyelids lowered a shade.

“Yes, almost you have a hope that there’s more to this than a dissatisfaction with something?” Tulsa offered. “Because if it were something more, it might be a point of leverage somewhere else, am I correct?”

“If the situation was more than meets the eye?” Jessamyn said. “I suppose that’s possible.”

Tulsa’s eyes wandered down to where the bubbling waters met Jessamyn’s upper works. This woman was a player, but she wasn’t about to let him know what game it was that she was playing.

“So,” he said, his mouth unexpectedly dry.

Jessamyn floated ever nearer. “Look, I get it. This is a business arrangement. You’ve been hired to perform a task. I’m also here to perform a task – Philip Wong sent me here to send you a message. His message is, “the Barking Fish serves a mean breakfast special.” I assume you’ll know what that means.”

“And how do you know Philip Wong?” Tulsa asked.

“Oh, Phil and I have had our dealings,” she said.

“Do you still have your dealings?”

“Well I’m here now at his request,” she said.

“How does he feel about you getting into hot tubs and being all…” he took another gulp of wine. “Transparent?”

“Well, what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him, or his ego.” Jessamyn smiled.

“Ego is everything, isn’t it?” Somewhere in the back of Tulsa’s mind, his inhibition meter was rapidly approaching nil.

“It is.”

“And how long have you been on this godforsaken rock?”

“Long enough that any new face, or other…parts, are a welcome distraction.” Jessamyn said, a submerged hand lightly pressing against Tulsa’s thigh.

“Are you looking to leave?”

“I’ll leave when circumstances warrant.”

“Is there anything we can help you with?” Tulsa said. “Everybody wants something.”

Jessamyn smiled. “We had a chat before about the efficacy rates of your company’s vaccine and the numbers and headcounts that may be required to get the economy on this little moon working again. So,” and she edged a little closer. “Any information about who’s sick and who’s healthy, I wouldn’t turn down.”

“Okay,” Tulsa said.

“And maybe this relationship can develop in a reciprocal fashion?” She said.

“I see,” Tulsa said. “Let’s say I happen to know something about that. What would you offer in exchange for that kind of information?”

“Are you propositioning me?” Her smile was blinding.

“Well, you want something from me, so you must have something to offer in return.”

“But what do you want?”

“I want to know what you’re selling. What currency you trade in.”

“Oh, you’re so sweet to couch it in those terms,” Jessamyn said. “As I said before, ‘human resources,’ and those can be as abstract or concrete as need be depending on the situation. But I am always on the lookout for prospects, especially those who are able straddle”—and with that she straddled Tulsa—“that line between the open market and the black market, as you demonstrate with your choice of travel companions and conveyance.”

“I’d be happy,” Tulsa said as Jessamyn lowered herself onto him, “to give you a private briefing on the subject.”

Jessamyn’s kiss was long, hard, and utterly professional. “But not too brief, I hope,” she whispered, nuzzling his ear.

The next few minutes were devoid of coherent conversation, with only the lapping of water against the hot tub tiles filling the hospitality suite. Then, Jessamyn pulled away, stepping out onto the deck and stretching in an almost feline manner. “Your quarters, then, Doctor?” She picked up her dress and headed for the crew section.

Tulsa splashed his way after her.

As he walked naked and dripping after Jessamyn, he passed Worth’s quarters, the door to which had been left open. He caught sight of Worth sitting in a recliner.

“Yeah I did,” he smirked and kept walking.

Worth rolled his eyes and left his quarters, heading back to the hospitality suite. He found Jonah running the clean cycle on the hot tub.

“Yeah, you probably want to give it a half-hour first,” he said.

Without breaking his gaze, Jonah slid into the hot tub.

There was little in the way of conversation to be had for several moments in Tulsa’s quarters, with the exception of Jessamyn’s gently firm commands, which he was only too happy to carry out with gusto.

Tulsa soon found himself arrayed on a mountain of pillows, Jessamyn’s long fingers tracing an intricate pattern on his chest. He sensed it was time to share what he knew.

“On August 19th, they started the vaccination protocol after the outbreak was confirmed. Treatments were distributed to the affected communities. Deaths from SNS continued to spike for two months following the first round of inoculations and then they started to decline. That’s why we’re here – because apparently the vaccine works. Sorry to disappoint, but there’s nothing exciting going on.”

“Oh, I’ve had excitement enough, that’s fine,” Jessamyn purred. “Do you have a total fatality count?”

“You are very concerned with numbers at such an early hour of the morning,” Tulsa said.

“It’s always business hours somewhere.” Jessamyn said.

“Close to 50,000 people were threatened with exposure to the disease, which had a 50 per cent mortality in the early stages and up to 80 per cent if left untreated. People appear to be able to survive with treatment.”

“That is good news. Very good news.” Jessamyn gave him a friendly, if ironically chaste, peck on the cheek and began to gather her belongings from where she had strewn them in the cabin.

“I think this is the beginning of a very fruitful relationship,” and laid her business card on the dresser. “I’ll leave you with a little parting gift.”

Tulsa straightened up.

Jessamyn faced Jonah with her hands on her hips. “Ask yourself whyever a border moon baron who works his employees near to death, would ever allow a news reporter to accompany a medical team into the backwoods.”

Tulsa blinked.

“Just take care, sweetie.” Jessamyn turned around and walked out of the quarters, her dress slung over a bare shoulder.

A few moments later, a voice crackled over the intercom. “All right, Tulsa. Details.” Jonah said.

Tulsa grinned and threw some clothes on. Before long he was in the galley with Jonah and Worth, debating how much to tell about his evening’s activity with Jessamyn.

“She said to think long and hard about why a magistrate would allow a reporter to go along on a vaccination tour.” Tulsa said.

“Any idea what she’s talking about?” Jonah asked.

“Nope. But I was not surprised. And quite sleepy.”

“So she’s in HR.” Jonah said.

“That’s what she says,” Tulsa said.

“She’s really shy about what exactly she does. So what’s she hiding?”

“The only thing that makes sense to me is that we’ve got the Alliance here running the show, and there was a guy who used to be King of the Hill, and now he’s no longer king because the Alliance is here, I can see him actually wanting us to break a story that would create political pressure that would create some release on his end that would help him get back in control by showing what’s really going on. That’s best case scenario.”

“Worst case – look what a terrible job he’s doing.” Jonah said.

“If it was a terrible job he wouldn’t want you going along, which means that the people we think of as our friends like the Doc might not be on the up and up. And it could be that if Jessamyn’s aligned with Philip…”

“Then she’s not loyal to the magistrate,” Jonah said.

“Unless Philip screwed her over and she’s looking for revenge – see, there’s a million ways you can cut this,” Tulsa said. “We pose a threat to him.”

“To Wong? Not just yet. Not if he thinks we don’t know what he’s up to. We’re in a position to grab this evidence. If he knows that we know, then we’re a massive liability.”

“That magistrate doesn’t like paying his guys.” Worth said.

“So Jessamyn wants to fill spots. That’s why she wanted the mortality rates. She wants to be able to fill the quotas and set him up with workers again. Is she a slave trader? Or a human resources specialist.”

“You might have cracked this one wide open,” Tulsa said.

“In which case, Philip Wong being the administrator does the hiring. He’s the one who picks who they contract through to replace lost workers.”

“So who should we be looking out for, then?” Tulsa asked.

“Who are we concerned about? Everyone.”

“So we have to be steady on the trigger,” Worth said.

“So we definitely have to be concerned with Wong,” Tulsa said. “Who else?”

“The magistrate’s only got a serious case of the Money,” Jonah said. “But his enforcers, on the other hand…”

“We should keep them in front of us,” Worth said.

“How are we going to get rid of Sadat? Does Wong want us grabbing this strongbox quietly?” Jonah said.

“How good at you at forging documents?” Tulsa said.

“Exceptional. Pretty good. Exceptional.” Jonah said.

“Here’s how I figure we do this,” Tulsa said. “You whip up a mandated order from the Alliance asking us to investigate the salt mines as a source to investigate the Mines as the source of the outbreak, but it has to be kept on the downlow because it is based on speculative data and we were sent in to confirm.”

“I can do that. In which case, Tulsa, can you work up a convincing story as to why it might be the source of the outbreak? Help me make it sound like a doctor wrote this note.”

“A combination of minerals, bacteria, fungal, based from samples we’ve collected, a Molotov cocktail for infection,” Tulsa offered.

“We can share this order with Sadat while we’re on the road.” Jonah said. “But we might need to jam their communications somehow.

“Do we want Park knowing that we’re taking a detour?”

Tulsa pulled up a search on a number of studies on some mineral and fungal sections, fudging the data. “I’m thinking that we get Park to actually approve the trip. Make it a convincing argument. Solve the riddle to where the SNS outbreak is coming from.”

“I’ll do you one better,” Jonah said. “Why don’t you contact Khonsu Medical Ventures to authorize the excursion? Either or. Depends on how official you want it.”

Tulsa grinned and used Desdemona’s communication system to contact Tao Barker.

“How are things going, Tulsa?” Barker’s voice was scratchy on the other end of the audio connection.

“Fine, we’re acclimatizing ourselves to the local environment and we’re beginning preparations to distribute your vaccine,” Tulsa said. “But I was curious and started going through the background materials you provided for us and I think I might have found something worth following up. I’m concerned that the salt mine might have been the flashpoint for the entire outbreak, and I’d like your permission to detour to the site to take a few readings and see whether my hypothesis is correct.”

“There’s the old Tulsa I remember!” Tao said. “The young go-getter before his unfortunate predilections got the better of him.”

Tulsa rolled his eyes, but kept his tone enthusiastic. “Can you send the authorization?”

“I will send this warrant to both you and Doctor Park,” Tao said. “By Jove, I am excited to see you back on the case. I look forward to your results.”

Tulsa turned to the crew. “How do you like me now?”

Around mid-morning, Travis Park arrived with all the necessary travel documents. “I got an interesting message from our mutual acquaintance, Tao Barker. What’s your hypothesis there?”

Tulsa cleared his throat. “About five years ago when I was doing some research on New Melbourne, we ran into a really anomalous infection that stemmed from a combination of minerals in the soil and fungal growths on the trees. People harvesting vegetation would get cuts and scrapes from forested area where the growth was, the open cuts mixed in the soil, it turned into this crazy infection. It took us a while to discover this, until workers from other areas not in the fields started coming down sick.”

Park nodded.

“So I’m thinking the Salt Mines might be ground zero. We go in, collect a few samples, swirl it around in a few test tubes and infect some mice and see what happens.”

“Happy to put our facilities at your disposals at the other end.” Park said. ‘You’ve got my go-ahead, friend.”

The humidity cast a foggy pall over Downriver. With the updated documentation in hand, they traveled to the Barking Fish.

The place couldn’t be more of a dive it if were below the waterline. Cheap wood paneling adorned the walls, and the uneven floor was crusted over with damp sawdust and peanut shells, and the place smelled of sour booze and sour dispositions.

There were a couple of holographic pool tables in the centre of the room. Even at this early hour a game was in progress, with a willowy brunette bent over the table at just the right angle. Her opponent was an older man with short hair and an expression on his face that suggests he was too damn tired to even check out the woman’s rear end as she lined up a shot. He was wearing a faded brown jacket and rumpled work pants. There was a satisfying crack as the cue ball strikes the red, and the man winced and lay down a banknote on the edge of the rail as the ball was knocked smartly into a corner pocket.

A bar was off to the side. No one appeared to be tending it at the moment, though the sounds of clanging pots and pans could be heard from the kitchen beyond. The smell of protein paste being fried into something resembling pancakes wafted through the door.

Beyond the pool tables was a mess of chairs and circular tables that looked more like kindling than furniture. A couple of morning drinkers, half in the bag, were occupying the sturdier-looking chairs.

Philip Wong sat with his back to the wall, half in the shadows. The collar of his work coat was pulled up in an almost comical way to shield his identity while at the same time broadcasting his intentions to everyone in the room.

“Good morning,” he said, pointedly not taking a sip of the jet-black coffee in a grimy ceramic mug sitting before him.

“We almost didn’t see you at all,” Tulsa said, eyes wide.

“I trust you slept well, inside your air conditioned cabins,” Wong said. “A luxury few on this moon can afford, let me tell you.”

“We did have to crank it thanks to the humidity from the hot tub area.” Jonah said.

“Moisture is the essence of wetness.” Tulsa chimed in.

“So you have heard my offer gentlemen. 350 platinum, apiece, for the safe return of my hard copy backup records. Do we have a deal?”

“What are the terms and conditions?” Tulsa asked.

“What do you mean by that?” Wong asked.

“It’s never just as simple as ‘go and get a box,’ is it?” Tulsa said.

“Take a seat,” Wong gestured to the tangle of chairs nearest him.

“Now, 350 seems fair, and I’m sure Mr. Sadat will have no problems with us doing the job.” Jonah said.

Wong’s eyes narrowed. “What?”

“We’ve got a babysitter to make sure there aren’t any problems with the local wildlife.”

“I wasn’t aware of that complication.”

“Yeah, well the question is, how will Sadat feel about not getting cut in on this? And if he’s not getting cut in, this makes things more complicated.” Jonah said.

“I was under the impression that you and Sadat were acquainted.” Tulsa said.

“Oh, we are, of that you can be sure,” Wong said. “Well, you appear to have left an opening there in your counter-offer, Mr. Ferguson. What would it be worth to you if Sadat was not cut in or made aware of this particular side mission?”

“I feel like 550 each would help us do a little magic trick and he’d have no idea that anything had been moved around.” Jonah said. “The tricky part is that we’ve got no business transporting anything that has the Magistrate’s seals on it, so I’m thinking that we transfer the contents of the strongbox into something else. We’ve got to ditch the box.”

“I’m going to have my sample kit,” Tulsa said.

“Now, hang on a second,” Wong said. “I need that box intact and unopened. That is non-negotiable.”

“See, that’s what I was waiting for – terms and conditions.” Tulsa said.

“That’s complicated,” Jonah said. “Doable, but more complicated.”

“The way I see it you’re carrying a large amount of medical supplies into the woods,” Wong said. “I don’t recall the exact dimensions, but there should be room for this magic trick of yours once you’ve depleted your supplies.”

Worth grunted. “Here’s the thing. It’s not uncommon for us to be offered these types of contracts in the line of work we do. We reserve the right to transfer these things the way we find appropriate because the best laid plans often go to waste. If we have to open the box and redistribute its contents in order to transport it, we have to do so otherwise the whole operation goes tits up and nobody gets anything. Those are our terms and conditions – that the mode and method of transport is left to our discretion for the safety of all parties concerned.”

Wong frowned at Worth’s wordy riposte.

“I don’t care what’s in the box. I just care about staying alive.” Worth clarified.

“I feel like Sadat is not someone who regulates his emotions very well,” Jonah said. “When he blows his lid because he thinks something’s up, he’s going to get spun and spun and spun until things are completely out of control.”

Wong folded his hands. “Seven hundred platinum. Apiece. For the intact, unopened box. That sounds to me like it should buy enough of your magic.”

“Let’s check out the pool tables,” Jonah said.

Wong picked up the coffee and made as face as he took a sip.

The three men conferenced by the vacant pool table.

“So are we milking him or are we worried about opening the box?” Tulsa asked quietly.

“I’m milking him,” Jonah said.

“I’m concerned about what’s in the box,” Worth said. “But I don’t think we’re at odds on this.”

“Especially since we can milk him and open the box,” Jonah said.

“If we open it and find what we need to incriminate him then it doesn’t matter whether we opened it.” Jonah said. “Obviously the incriminating evidence is in there – he’s too desperate. The problem is, if we open it and try and access it and we trip something and lose the information, then we’re all kinds of screwed.”
“That’s when we say ‘hey, you weren’t there, shit got real, and that’s what happened.” Tulsa said.

“And blame it on Sadat.” Jonah said. “All right.”

They headed back to Wong’s seat.

“So, I’m incredibly reluctant based on my experience to accept these terms,” Tulsa said. “We’re a little divided here. But, at a thousand apiece, I’m willing to forego my principles and tactics.”

Wong’s eyes narrowed. He cleared his throat. “Well, it sounds like your principles are indeed flexible which is advantageous in such a negotiation. I would ask you to flex a little further down and accept 800. I think that’s at the top end of reasonable for this type of endeavour or else I’ve misjudged you gentlemen altogether.”

“Here’s the thing,” Tulsa said. “I’m sitting here right now because of my principles and tactics. Every man has his price in terms of safety and value I’ve made a modest offer when we consider what’s at stake here.”

“Understand, you gave me the impression this was a totally above-board job to retrieve business data. That’s not what’s going on. The efforts you’re going through to make sure Sadat doesn’t know what’s going on, means that you don’t want the Magistrate to know what’s going on, am I right here?”

Wong deflated. “I think we’re getting a sense of the other’s measure. I could do 850.”

“It’s getting late, isn’t it?” Tulsa said. “We should get on the road.”

“Did you see the ship we flew in on? 850 is not going to blow our hair back,” Jonah said. “You knew we weren’t going to come cheap.”

“All right. Nine.”

“Maybe it’s my accent, but where I come from it’s pronounced ‘one thousand.’” Tulsa said.

“I assume half in advance is fine?” Wong asked.

“They might take half, I’ll do three-quarters,” Tulsa said, and then broke out laughing. “You’ve got to have a sense of humour, Wong. The stress is going to kill you, along with that coffee.”

“All right.” Wong said, suddenly all business. “So what do you need to know about the mine?”

“Where do we find this box?” Jonah asked.

“The box is located in an emergency shelter on the fourth and lowest level of the saltworks.” Wong said.

“One does not simply walk into the fourth level of the Saltworks,” Tulsa said.

“That’s fair,” Park said. “The mine is completely closed down.”

“Nobody’s there?” Jonah asked

“Support services, power, pumps, they are running at emergency backup only, enough to keep the infrastructure intact while the shutdown order is in effect. Apart from the occasional security patrol, the place is completely deserted.”

“Security patrol, of course,” Worth muttered.

“What I mean by that is, there’s nobody patrol the mine, but they do drive by once in a while to make sure the fence hasn’t been knocked down,” Wong said. “There’s a lot of ground to cover in that quarantine zone as you know and Salazar Cain’s men have better things to do than guard a deserted mine.”

“Uh-huh,” Worth said.

Wong handed Jonah a display pad that showed a map of the facility. “I find these shelters to be quite useful in protecting important documents and shipments to the saltworks. I can give you a keycode that will allow you to gain access to the emergency shelter.”

“The lockbox, does it contain paper?” Jonah asked. “In other words, if I drop this thing real hard, how much of a problem are we dealing with. Is it paper or electronic?”

“It’s rugged, you don’t have to worry about rough handling,” Wong said.

“What sensor scans is it susceptible to?” Tulsa asked.

Wong frowned. “Well the box itself is metallic, but there’s nothing organic that would be affected by a sensor scan.”

“Does it give off any radio frequencies?”

“No, you don’t have to put it in a Faraday Cage if that’s what you’re asking,” Wong said. “It’s fairly prosaic in terms of its contents, which is more than you need to know. With your travel papers, which I understand were expensive to come by, you’ll be able to travel freely in the quarantine zone, and you’ll be compensated once the strongbox is back in my possession. We can meet here. I’m not fussy. Although, with you taking half in advance, there’s not a lot of places to spend that money in the quarantine zone. What there are, are a lot of desperate people.”

“I’m sure an individual of your resources can figure it out,” Tulsa said.

“Fair enough.” Wong popped open an attaché case and handed over a brown paper bag after making a few calculations.

Tulsa handed it to Worth. “Count it.”

“I’m good for it, you’re looking at 1,500 square. Half in advance.” Wong said. “Contact me when you’re back in the world.”

“Sounds good,” Jonah said. He slapped down a platinum coin on the table. “Coffee’s on me.”

“Thank you,” Wong said.

“That’s coming out of your share,” Worth hissed to Jonah.

The crew returned to find that their hover mule had been loaded with the shipment of medicine – several ruggedized hard cases with warning labels, secured with cargo netting.

The crew added their arsenal of weapons and tools to the cargo bed.

“Best of luck friends. Don’t let the garfish bite,” said Park. “And keep in touch.”

“Will do,” said Jonah.

Just outside the city limits, a fifteen-foot hurricane fence topped with fresh-looking razor wire that spooled off in either direction. There was a large checkpoint – also new looking – that looked a bit like a car wash if a car wash was a reinforced concrete bunker. There was a harsh jet-like sound and clouds of moisture emitting from the mouth of the checkpoint, and a sharp tang of disinfectant was in the air.

On their side of the fence, parked at the gate, was a large truck-like vehicle. It was amphibious, with a boat-like prow jacked up on rugged wheels featuring an elevated cab with what looked like reinforced glass giving the driver a clear 180-degree view. Behind that cab was a machine-gun turret, twin barrels pointed skyward and safetied. A squad of paramilitaries sat in the long payload bed of the truck.

Standing before it, a wide grin on his dark face showing too-bright teeth, was Sadat Nazir. He was dressed in forest-camo fatigues over top of which were bolted panels of armor. He was wearing a jaunty red beret atop his head, and what looked like a battle helmet under his arm.

“Good morning to you, sirs! Are you ready for your tour of our magnificent little moon?”

“Yeah, why not.” Worth said.

“We will be commencing our journey shortly as soon as the checkpoint is clear.” Sadat indicated the shadow of a large vehicle rolling slowly through the disinfectant cloud. It was a monstrous heavy-duty truck, with a box-like cab in olive-drab green that sat high off the ground beneath thick, bulbous tires – eight of them.

This particular truck, however, no longer bore eight working wheels. It had been recently damaged – one of the tires was nothing more than a teardrop of melted rubber hanging off the rim, and at least one of its axles was broken and grinding. The green body of the truck near the damaged wheel was blackened – something had struck it squarely amidships.

“Are you sure about that?” Worth said.

“Ah, think nothing of it,” Nazir said. “The mine road is treacherous on the best of days. Which is why we won’t be using it unless absolutely necessary.”

“Sorry, did you say mine road?” Tulsa asked, eyeing the damaged truck.

“That’s what I heard,” Jonah said.

“Well yes, that’s what we call the highway,” Sadat smiled again.

“And there are mines on it?” Worth asked.

Sadat laughed a booming laugh. “That’s funny. No, not a ‘mined road’ but a ‘mine road’ for mining. For transport.”

“Ah, I see, I just saw the damage there and then you mentioned mines…”

“Very astute, I can see how you might get confused.”

“Yes, you wouldn’t want to get confused out there,” Tulsa said.

“Do not worry, my squad will keep an eye out for trouble as we go,” Sadat said. “Shall I ride with you?”

Jonah, Worth and Tulsa exchanged a look.


Special Delivery Session Three
A close quarters battle, with no quarter given.

Wild Sky could feel half-forgotten reflexes coming online, like a sudden torrent of water through an open floodgate. A tingling sensation rippled down her limbs, which now brimmed with newfound strength.

It dawned on her that although her and YJ’s situation was precarious, they were by no means in mortal danger.

Beside her, YJ figured that even though he was on his knees, he wasn’t about to take death lying down. Time to make a play, he thought.

“Mr. Singh, sir?” he said. “I really need to go to the little boy’s room.”

Singh smirked. “Boss says you’re to stay put and shut up, so stay put and shut up.”

“You don’t really want me to do my business down here,” YJ said. “It’s going to smell real bad, even if you kill me.”

“I kill you, you’re going to do your business in your pants regardless, so shut up.” Singh said, running a hand through his wavy black hair.

“All right,” YJ pursed his lips, sighed inwardly and let his bladder go.

Special Delivery Session Two
Wherein things get a mite piratical.

Wild Sky spun on her heavy boot heel and ran as fast as she could away from the ambush. No sooner had she done so than she heard a muffled shout behind her and the armored rattle of approaching attackers.

Her bulky spacesuit didn’t help matters as she turned the corner back into the main corridor. She pushed her way past hanging tangles of torn wire as she bolted down the corridor towards the airlock. Judging from the noise her pursuers were making as they ran towards her, they were all in the same boat.

She flinched as she heard the report of a shotgun. Sparks flew as buckshot scored a section of bulkhead next to her.

Special Delivery Session One
Wherein Wild Sky and YJ discover that no good deed goes unpunished.

After parting ways with Desdemona, Ying Johnson and Wild Sky spent the better part of a week on board Shenmue with the hidden cargo of Chrysanthemum Blonde as they made their way to New Melbourne to deliver the goods to Sai McKittrick’s contact.

With a skeleton crew of two, it took all of Johnson’s considerable skill to keep the boat flying. He divided his time between staying on the bridge to keep an eye on navigation and the status of the freighter’s many systems, and patrolling the ship, doing visual checks on the engine room and life support systems.

When she wasn’t helping the Captain with odd jobs either mechanical or technical, Wild Sky was busy searching her bunk for any clue as to her identity and background.

Angels of Mercenary Session Four
Wherein the crew attends a shady shindig.

Doctor Park was as good as his word, providing Tulsa with the necessary travel papers that would get the crew into the quarantine zone, and updated information on the quarantine and progress to date on the previous rounds of inoculations in the quarantine zone.

As the gala drew near, Tulsa read over the SNS briefing documents and briefed the crew.

“It’s a sclerosis, it’s necrotizing, and it’s systemic, hence the name,” he said. “It’s bacterial/fungal, so we may see fever and skin rashes that turn into blisters full of necrotized tissue. Painful eruptions follow. Think giant cysts. As it progresses it infects and disrupts internal organs, causing disruptions, internal edemas, blisters…”

He looked up at Worth and Jonah. “This is a fun one!”

Angels of Mercenary Session Three
Wherein the beginning is the end, if not the beginning of the end.

October 17, 2517


The thunderous explosion reverberated across the compound as the heavy iron gates of the Mission at Mission Hill were blown off their hinges, each reinforced door scything through the air, cartwheeling across the courtyard, throwing off bits of rusted shrapnel each time they impacted on the hard dirt surface.

One section of gate came to rest at the foot of the entrance of the white-bricked church, its vine-wrapped steeple standing defiantly against the blue sky. There were several outbuildings on either side of the church, and the compound, enclosed by a high stucco-covered wall, contained a few gnarled willow trees, their branches hissing in the wind.

Angels of Mercenary Session Two
Wherein deals are made, and the crew is divided.

The star field surrounding Desdemona twinkled and shimmered as the space yacht continued to take sensor readings in search of Shenmue’s lost shuttle.

Worth and the Doc chose to confer with Jonah, who was still flat on his back but very much on the mend, in the ship’s infirmary, while they awaited Shenmue’s arrival. Worth rigged the ship’s comm system so they could converse with YJ and Wild Sky.

“I’m thinking, if I were them, and I’m stuck there, I would be ‘we’ve got this amount of time left, which gives us enough time to get to the closest planet…’” Jonah said from his infirmary bed once Worth explained the situation to him.

“Maybe they panicked.” YJ said over the ship’s comm.

“And there’d be a now or never moment where if we don’t leave now we’re not making it,” Jonah said. “And we told them we were coming back, but for all they know we got shot up, or in prison.”

Angels of Mercenary Session One
Win some, lose some.

Desdemona and Shenmue continued their speedy departure from Santo.

Doc Tulsa retrieved a stretcher from Desdemona’s well-outfitted medical bay and with Worth’s assistance got Jonah extricated from his blood-soaked pilot’s chair. They wheeled Jonah to the infirmary.

Shenmue received a wave from Wesley Ferris:

Mr. McKittrick congratulates you on your acquisition. You are instructed to deliver the item to Sherrod & Sons Repair Dock on Bedford Island, New Melbourne at your earliest convenience. Contact details are appended to this message. Please give Sherrod & Sons advance warning of your arrival, and, as always, please exercise discretion in the discharge of your duties.


Wesley Ferris, Esq.

“Okay then,” YJ said. “So we have our destination.”

Nine Tenths of the Law Session Fifteen
Wherein a getaway is made.

Desdemona and Shenmue streaked away from Santo, engines straining as they fought to escape the planet’s gravity well. They were followed by three attack bug fighter craft, engines flaring blue-white as they attempted to catch up.

Worth continued to extract Desdemona’s pulse beacon from its recessed housing deep in the guts of the luxury yacht, surrounded by shiny Newtech control systems that weren’t just top of the line, they were above the line.

Doc Tulsa remained in the corridor, cleaning up the spilled narcotics from the wine cask.

Jonah rode the wave of numbness pulsating from his midsection and fought to keep his head clear as his hands played across Desdemona’s slick control surfaces. He could tell from the power levels and throttle settings that Desdemona was a fast ship – certainly the fastest he’d ever flown. He was reasonably confident that she would be able to outrun the attack bugs if need be. He fed more power to the ship’s thrusters and easily pulled ahead of the approaching craft.

YJ gritted his teeth as he watched the streamlined space yacht slip ahead of his decidedly lower-performance vessel. He played with the idea of going for hard burn, but he hadn’t even decided on a course heading.


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