Dimestore Chapter 04 Part 2

Sheriff Rose led Penny into her office. An antique tea pot and matching cups sat on one side of the desk, next to the portoboiler. Two photos of a little girl dominated the opposite corner, though Penny couldn’t tell if it was two different girls or if it was the same girl at two different times of her life. Opposite that sat a stack of visitor ID badges.

On the shelves behind her desk the Sheriff had a few framed photographs. A group shot of her with her constabulary, her graduation picture from the academy, and what Penny guessed were some favourite holiday snaps. A thin layer of dust topped the photo frames.
Penny smirked and cast a teasing smile the Sheriff’s way. “Did your maid blow a fuse?”

Sheriff Rose made herself comfortable behind the big oak desk. “I never let it in here. Damn thing keeps moving stuff on me, I can never find anything once it’s done.”

Penny let her smirk become a smile and sat herself down in a chair.

“Tea?” Sheriff Rose asked.

“Much obliged.” Penny replied.

Sheriff Rose took a couple of pinches of loose leaf and threw it into the pot.

“So these two mysterious strangers of yours.” Penny began “Where they by chance an Asian couple?”

“Oh they weren’t a couple.” Sheriff Rose said as she filled the cups with boiling water. “I asked. She’s he’s Kung Fu teacher and he’s her assistant.”

Penny looked around the room. “Do you mind if I access your network?”

“Sure.” Sheriff Rose nodded. Penny’s personal network shook hands with the the Sheriff’s wireless and they synchronised.

Penny summoned a few pictures of Sifu she had in her system, including the picture from the speeder raid. “Were any of these her?”

Sheriff Rose’s demeanour cooled as she looked at the photos. She pointed to the speeder raid picture. “Where was this one taken?”
“Xing Shi.” Penny replied. “During a recent kidnapping.”

Sheriff Rose sighed and banished the photos. “So you’re saying she’s a Society girl?”

Penny blinked. “If by that you mean this society likes to wear black masks, then yes.”

“Damn it, I liked them.” The Sheriff sighed again. “I’ve got half of Mad Mac McCarty’s gang in my lock up right now because of them. They’ve been a thorn in my side for months.”

“They like to see themselves as modern day Robin Hoods, so amongst all the kidnapping, destruction of federal property and waging guerrilla wars against garrison troops they occasionally do some good.”

Sheriff Rose nodded. “I’m sure.”

“Do you know where they are now?”

“Once the doc was finished with the handsome one they tipped their hats to us and bade us all a fond farewell. No-one’s seen a peep out of them since.”

Penny propped up her chin with her fist, adopting the classic ‘thinking man’ pose.

After a moment she asked. “Do you mind if I put my feet up on your desk?”

Sheriff Rose looked taken aback by this. “Only because I seen how shiny you keep them boots Ranger. But don’t you let my constables see you do it, they’ll all want a turn.”

Penny leaned back in her chair and put her feet up. “It’s a brilliant plan.” She said after a while. “They arrive on planet and just start walking. Spend a night here a night there and keep moving. Even on a sparsely populated orb like this tracking them down while they’re off the grid would be your classic needle in a haystack.”
Sheriff Rose smirked, then she stopped and looked away, like an invisible person was talking to her.

Penny recognised the body language of someone getting a message over their nanoputer.

“This day just keeps getting busier. The father of the boy your friends rescued has come to pay us a visit. The hell’s he doing?”

Penny raised an eyebrow at her. “He not normally the social type?”

Sheriff Rose got out of her seat. “Not at all.” She said. “Lin’s more your right pain in the behind. He treats even a casual visit by one of my constables as an invasion of privacy, but when he actually needs us for something he’s hootin an’ hollerin’ about how we ain’t there fast enough.”

Penny got up and followed her out to the lobby. The robot receptionist raised its hand and waved at them as they came out. “Good day Sheriff Rose.”

Sheriff Rose gave a half-hearted return wave. “Yes, thank you.”

In through the doors strode a tall Asian man in a severe black business suit. The silk shirt underneath was a deep sapphire blue. Lin himself looked like he’d been handsome in his youth, but the permanent scowl on his face gave him some extra years. He held his hands together in front of him. They fidgeted constantly.

When he caught sight of Penny and the Sheriff he swallowed nervously and approached.
“Sheriff.” He said as if a charmer with a flute had to coax the word out of him.

“Lin Hui Tan.” Sheriff Rose acknowledged the greeting with a curt nod. “How may the Carsontown Constabulary serve you today?” Only the faintest hint of sarcasm slipped into her words.

Lin’s hands moved a little faster. “I have something I wish to speak to you about, in private.”

“Absolutely sir.” Sheriff Rose replied. “First I’d like to introduce you to Ranger Dreadful. I believe she would like to speak to you regarding the incident with your son yesterday.”

Penny stepped forward and shook Mr Lin’s hand. “It’s a shame we had to meet this way sir.”

Mr Lin’s eyes flew open for a moment. He quickly composed himself and cleared his throat. “Thank you for you assistance in this matter Ranger Dreadful.”

Sheriff Rose gestured towards the door. “Let’s step into my office.”
“I believe the two people who saved my son’s life are members of the Black Mask Society.”

Lin whispered it, like he was afraid of the words themselves. He wouldn’t look up at either of them anymore. Sheriff Rose cast a knowing look Penny’s way.

“They are.” Penny said. “That’s why I’m here Mr Lin. Do you know where they could be?”

Mr Lin forced himself to keep his hands still. “I am letting them stay at my compound. After they saved Jie’s life I thought it was the least I could do. But when I realised who they were I began to worry about the influence they have on my son.” Mr Lin’s fingers began to fiddle with each other.
“They’re heroes to Jie. I’m worried that he might want to be like them.”

“Don’t you worry sir.” Penny gave Mr Lin a warm smile and put a reassuring hand on his own. “With your assistance, and the Garrison’s manpower, I’m confident I can have those two terrorists out of your home and safely away from your son without letting anyone get hurt. I can even guarantee compensation from the Federated Government should you incur any damages during the raid.”

Mr Lin composed himself and looked up at Penny. “Thank you. Thank you Ranger Dreadful.”

“No. Thank you Mr Lin.” Penny said. “It was very brave of you to come to the authorities like this.”
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Dimestore Chapter 04 Part 1

Chapter Four

Penny looked out across the wide expanse of green earth pressing against the borders of blue sky and felt her body tremble as her fighter broke atmosphere.

Penny coordinated her fighter’s computer systems with Ernutet’s satellite network. The escape pod had come this way and appeared on the satellites’ network at the right time to have come from the jumpship. The jumpship crew had been less than helpful but still technically within their rights. They informed her that the fleeing terrorists had stolen one of their escape pods and had taken the time to disable its emergency beacon before jettisoning. So Penny had to do things the hard way. Taking note of the exact time the pod jettisoned and comparing it with the arrival times of any pods that had reached civilised systems within the pod’s range. Unless the pair had fled to an unofficial asteroid colony or simply been picked up by another ship this was most likely where they would be: The breadbasket planet of Ernutet.

Penny had taken the time to look over the planet’s vitals while she waited to reach her destination. Besides agriculture, kerium mining was Ernutet’s principle export industry. A planet of farmers and miners didn’t sound like the most likely place for Triad terrorists to take refuge, but it made a good choice nonetheless.

Penny checked the satellites’ records for when the escape pod entered their network and which satellite had been closest. She discovered that the pod had flown around the planet before entering orbit and heading down. The network took a moment to fulfil Penny’s request to recreate the most likely point where the escape pod came down, given that it had to work out where the planet had been in relation to the satellites orbiting it at the time. The most likely candidate for their destination was Occidan, the smallest continent on the planet.
Checking records for businesses with known Triad connections revealed nothing, but she did learn that kerium mining was prohibited on Occidan, owing to possible environmental contamination that would disrupt the agricultural trade.

“Miners bowing to the needs of farmers.” Penny smirked.

A stray thought occurred to her and she called up the planet’s stats again.

The population figure was encouraging, barely twenty million souls called Ernutet home. Some skyplexes could gain that much over the tourist season. Penny checked the distribution of that population and found that a quarter of that lived in the capital on the largest continent, the rest were spread thin across the world. Especially on Occidan. Only a few key settlements had been established on the continent, the rest of it was all outlying farms.

Penny nibbled a little at her lip. She checked local blogs in case anyone had commented on some new faces turning up in town. A community this tiny would know everyone and a pair of tourists would stick out.

Penny had not expected to hit the jackpot this easily.

The main story trending across the entire continent was the robbery attempt foiled by two mysterious strangers.

Penny doubted at first that two fugitives would risk exposing themselves so, but was surprised to discover the descriptions matched.

With her targets practically gift-wrapped, Penny banked to the side and set a course for Carsontown.
Penny announced herself to the sheriff’s office and was informed by the robot receptionist that the Sheriff herself would meet her. Penny asked the receptionist to give her time to clean herself up and landed the Black Bess in the parking lot. As the ship came to a complete stop Penny disengaged from the neural link and sat up. Like the rest of the Black Bess’ line it has originally been designed for deep-strike sabotage operations, so the core of the fighter was a tiny living quarters that housed everything a frugal soldier would need. Almost everything pulled double-duty as something else, with Penny’s bed being the most versatile. When she strapped in and engaged the neural link it became her cockpit, when she pulled the sleeve across her and tucked in it became her bed and when she closed the dome and activated the water jets it became her shower.

Penny peeled herself out of her flight suit and decided she needed one of those. When she was in space she only needed to turn off the artificial gravity and fire the jets a little, then she could continue to rub the same tennis ball-sized bubbles of water over her until they became dirty and she vacuumed them away. On planet she’d actually need to go through quite a bit of her water inventory, still this was an agricultural planet, they would have water here.

Once she was dry Penny decided to forgo her armour for now. She wanted to come across as friendly to the local authorities. Not to mention she’d been stuck in the flight suit all day and swapping one form-hugging suit for another was not appealing right now. So she put on her camouflage fatigues instead, something professional, showed that she was here to work.
Penny kitted up, picked out a selection of day carry gear and got ready to leave. One last thing remained: Before Penny opened the pod she had to test her nanomachines. They’d updated automatically when Penny entered the planet’s satellite network and over reentry they had modified their programming and began producing updated nanites.

Penny took a breathing mask from its place on the wall and hit the button underneath. A sample of the atmosphere was sucked into a discrete vent on the star fighter’s hull and fed into Penny’s mask.

Ernutet’s atmosphere tasted a little arid and dusty, but otherwise breathable. Penny returned the mask to its place and popped open her craft.

As she climbed down to the surface a tall black woman in a leather duster approached her. She smiled up at Penny. “Ranger Dreadful?”

Penny stepped onto the surface of Ernutet and returned the smile as she offered her hand. “That’s me.”

“Sheriff Sharon Rose.” Sheriff Rose said as she shook Penny’s hand. “Funny how all the excitement happens at once. First yesterday’s daring do and now a Federation Ranger pays us a visit. To what do we owe the pleasure?”

Sheriff Rose lead Penny back towards her office. “I’mma thinkin’ it has to do with your daring do-gooders.” Penny replied.
“Wasn’t that just something? Two mysterious strangers foil a brazen daylight robbery.” The Sheriff caught herself and laughed. “Forgive a simple country cop Ms Dreadful. Most of my work comprises solely of the four D’s: Domestic Disturbances and Drunk and Disorderlies.”

Penny laughed with her. “I once met a Sheriff on Dagon who said much the same. He was happy just to arrest somebody he didn’t know for once.”

As they walked Penny got a good look at the sheriff’s office. It looked like it had been modified to serve as a fall-back point in case of a siege and then never converted back. The crumbling paint on the roof emplacements, especially the roof access up on the third floor, suggested the fortifications had been made during the Civil War, but none of it showed any signs of battle-damage. Ernutet, or at least Occidan, must not have seen real action during the war.
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Dimestore Chapter 03 Part 4

Sifu recognised the first strike of a nanohack sequence and brightened. “Very good.” She purred. “Let’s see what else you can do.”

Meanwhile on the floor Bristol gained mount position on Wu, he managed to pin both of Wu’s arms under his rifle and raised his free hand to rain punches down on Wu’s face. Wu pulled his head out of the way of the first hit and slipped one arm out from under the gun. By slamming that arm down on the barrel and shifting his hips at the same time Wu managed to swing the the stock of the rifle up at Bristol’s face. The stock didn’t quite reach him, but it did interrupt his ground and pound. Deciding the rifle was suddenly more trouble than it was worth Bristol threw the gun out of Wu’s reach. With both arms free Wu supported his shoulders on the ground and brought his hips up to wrap his legs around Bristol’s neck and left shoulder, locking him up into a tight triangle choke.

 

Sifu parried three chain-punches from Brook, retreating a step as Brook pushed forward. Brook changed tactics and swung a high hook to Sifu’s temple. Sifu ducked under the punch and returned with a liver-shot, which Brook blocked with her elbow before jabbing back at Sifu.

Sifu slapped the fist away and shot out a jab of her own. Brook went to parry but Sifu pulled the feint and lashed out at Brook with a push-kick. Brook rode the force of Sifu’s kick and cartwheeled away from her, then cartwheeled again to avoid Sifu’s round-house kick. As Brook came back up again Sifu caught her this time with a step-up side-kick.

This kick, which carried with it the full force of Sifu’s two strong legs and the momentum of her run up, snatched Brook off her feet and hurled her into the shop’s main window. The force of the woman’s weight coming into violent contact with the glass was too much. The window exploded into a shower of marble-sized crystals as she passed through and crashed down onto the street outside.

The shattered window brought Mac charging out of the kitchen. In an instant he took in the chaotic scene before him and levelled his pistol at Sifu.

“No.” Wu shouted. Scrambling to his feet he dived in front of Sifu as Mac pulled the trigger.

The hammer-shot hit Wu in the sternum like its name-sake. Sifu whipped her head around in time so see Wu fall from the shot.

Desperately, Sifu sprinted for the broken window. Mac tracked his aim after her, unleashing blast after blast from his pistol. Behind Sifu Mac’s aim destroyed a garbage bin, tore a hole through the back of a chair and caught the tail end of Sifu’s jacket before she dived out the same hole Brook made.

“Damn it.” Mac cursed. He moved to follow Sifu when he heard the sirens blaring from barely a street away. “Damn it all.” Mac hurried out of the shop and towards the loading ramp of his ship.

“Wat! Get us out of here.” He yelled as he disappeared inside and the ship rose into the sky.

Back inside Jie stood frozen still off to the side. His finger pointing at nothing and his mouth hung open.

Sifu walked back inside. Her hands bloody from where she’d landed on the glass. She carried a paralysed Brook over one shoulder.

Jie patiently waited until Sifu lowered Brook onto the floor before detonating in excitement. Just in case she did something cool again.

“THAT WAS THE. MOST AWESOMEST THING. EVER! OF ALL TIME.”

“Thank you.” Sifu breathed as though Jie had complimented her shoes. “Now could you help me with Wu. I think he’s dying.”

“What?” Jie’s mood did a one eighty, making him excited in a completely different way. “Oh my god, what can I do?”

Sifu knelt down to administer to him. “Find me something to elevate his legs on. I’m going to see if I can minimise his bleeding.”

“Alright.” Jie said breathlessly. “Okay. Umm.”

He saw a chair and rushed to bring it over to them.

Then another voice called from behind them. “What in all nine circles of hell happened here?”

A tall black woman with long, curly chocolate hair and a leather duster stormed into the room. She looked accusingly at the survivors for an answer.

“ONLY THE MOST AMAZING THING I’VE EVER SEEN IN MY LIFE.” Jie diplomatically began. “We were just sitting around minding our own business, when suddenly Whoosh! Mad Mac McCarty and his gang swooped in with their guns out. They started taking hostages and getting angry at Mr C. They took him out the back to steal some stuff and then BOOM! This chick starts kung fu fighting everybody and that dude leapt across the table and smashed that guy right in the face and…”
The Sheriff held up a hand to stop him. “Thank you Jie, I’ll read all about it when it comes out on ebook. Mr Choi, what happened here?”

Mr Choi shrugged at her and stared blankly. “Like the kid said. The gang turned up and took hostages and then this lady and gentleman fought them off.”

The Sheriff crinkled her nose at that. “Looks like it cost them.”

“IT WAS THE COOLEST THING IN THE WORLD!” Jie exclaimed again. Then a flash of realisation passed behind his eyes. “Oh wait, I have to find a chair.”

Jie grabbed the chair and brought it over to Sifu’s side.

“Thank you.” Sifu said. She lifted Wu’s feet up and placed them in the seat. Then she went back to performing gentle nanohacking motions on his torso.

“What are you doing now?” Jie asked, breathless.

“I’m trying to staunch his bleeding. On a willing subject a little manipulation here and there can encourage blood vessels to clot.”

The Sheriff peered over Sifu’s shoulder. “He going to be okay?”

Sifu did not take her eyes off her work. “I hope so.”
“So do I. Be a shame to waste a pretty face like that.”  The Sheriff turned and started to head outside. “Ambulance is here. You can give me your official statement on the way.”

A pair of android orderlies with red cross emblems on their torsos walked inside in perfect synchronises, they carried a stretcher between them.

Sifu got up off the floor to give the droids space to do their work. She joined the Sheriff outside. A cordon had been set up. Uniformed police kept the small gathering of locals at bay.

Sifu brushed her bleeding hands together and held in her wince. Just because your every movement caused you pain was no reason to admit weakness to the locals.

“So.” She said to the Sheriff. “Where is a good place to buy new clothes around here?”
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Dimestore Chapter 03 Part 3

A few minutes later Wu took a bite out of the first of his dumplings and was pleasantly surprised.

“These are home made.” Wu said between bites. “Back home these go straight from the freezer to the wok.”

“The iced tea’s not bad either.” Sifu remarked. “Not perfect but it takes the heat off.”

The growl of a speeder engine from around the corner signalled a new arrival long before the three-turbine convertible pulled up on the street outside. A skateboard poking out of the back seat.

The teenage owner hopped out of the car and strutted on inside the noodle shop. He was big for his age, almost as tall as Wu and wore an open button-up shirt for a jacket over a black tank-top that came down to thigh level and his hair was short, spiky and perfect.
“Oh that’s cute.” Sifu whispered to Wu. “Shame he’s wasted on the girls his age, all they care about are idols singers.”

The kid slinked over to the counter. “What’s up Mr C? How’re the buns today?”

Mr C shrugged. “Hey Jie. I’m out of the good rice wine, so I had to use some of the cheap stuff I use in the Gherkin salad. How’s school?”

Jie rolled his eyes. “Let’s not. Are Jun and Yang free?”

Mr C shook his head. “They got homework.” Then he pointed across to Sifu and Wu. “I got some people I need to introduce you to. They’re looking for the Shining sun.”

The kid cast an uncharacteristically nervous glance where Mr C pointed, then when he saw Wu and Sifu he brightened and came right on over.

Before he could take ten steps the roar of starship engines just outside the shop drowned out all other sounds. Jie grimaced and covered his ears as he looked out the window to see where all the noise was coming from.

Wu and Sifu similarly covered their ears and got out of their chairs.

Outside someone was parking a small-haul freighter on the road in front of the noodle shop. Mr C’s jaw dropped in horror. He dived behind the counter screaming “It’s them!”

The freighter’s loading ramp dropped down in front of the door to the shop and out from the belly of the ship emerged four figures.

The leader was a stocky caucasian man in a long brown duster. He already had his sidearm in hand as he pushed through the shop’s front door and strode inside. The one on the right was a black woman in a bomber jacket with a red bandana around her neck. She immediately turned her rifle towards Sifu and Wu and narrowed her eyes at them. On the other side strode a barrel-chested man with a merchant-navy tattoo on his thick bicep. He hefted an assault rifle with an under-slung grenade launcher and pointed it directly at Mr C.

Bringing up the rear was a firm caucasian woman in olive-drab cargo pants, a black singlet and electric blue hair tied at the back. The intense focus in her eyes was the only emotion her face conveyed.

“Well if it isn’t the young Mister Lin.” The Leader bellowed as he strode in. He aimed his pistol straight at Jie’s face. “This must be my lucky day. Come ‘ere.”

Jie raised his hands in surrender. “Mad Mac McCarty.”

Mac beamed at him. “Well Mister fancy pants has heard of me.”

He grabbed the kid by the upper arm and pulled him in to press the barrel of his gun against his temple.
He then turned to his people. “Elena, Bristol cover the hostages. Brook, stand there and look creepy. Everybody else, put your hands in the air. None of you so much as twitches a way I don’t like or I will End this young man right here.”

Wu and Sifu raised their hands. Mr C cautiously rose from behind the counter with his hands up as well.

“Ah there you are Mr Choi. So good of you to join us. Elena.”

Mad Mac McCarty passed the kid to the black woman, who stuck the barrel of her carbine under Jie’s chin.

Then he grabbed Mr Choi by the collar and pulled him half over the counter. “Now how’s about showing me that nice big freezer of yours, my friends and I could use a good feed.”

“Al-alright.” Mr Choi sobbed. “It’s j-just back here.”

Without letting go of Mr Choi’s collar the leader walked around the counter and half-followed, half-pushed Mr. Choi through the kitchen.

When they were out of sight Elena turned her attention back to the rest of her hostages and found Sifu standing right next to her.

“Hello.” Sifu smiled.

Before Elena could move Sifu shot out her right hand and knocked the barrel of her carbine out from under Jie’s chin and followed up with a spear-hand strike to Elena’s throat.

Wu bounded across a table and thrust both feet into the big man with the rifle. The unexpected impact knocked him flying into the front counter.

While Elena gasped for breath Sifu quickly unleashed a flurry of blows against Elena’s vital points, ending with a double-fist strike that pushed Elena away as it completed her paralysis macro. In the next instant Sifu pulled her head out of the way of Brook’s foot.

Bristol recovered from the landing against the counter and brought his rifle to bear against Wu.

Wu rushed him, closing the distance in only a few steps before pushing down the rifle with both hands and smashing his forehead into Bristol’s nose.

Bristol growled from the pain. Wu tried to wrench the rifle from his hands when Bristol roared and charged into Wu, pushing him back into the dining table and knocking it over before they both crashed into a heap.

Sifu leaned back to avoid a fast spinning-kick from little Brook and tried to move in one her with some fast punches but Brook had already completed her turn and began parrying the incoming fists. On the third strike Brook batted Sifu’s arm aside and responded with a hammer-fist to Sifu’s face.

Sifu parried and returned with a back-fist only to be countered again. This time Brook successfully landed a Leopard-Palm strike to Sifu’s hip.
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Dimestore Chapter 03 Part 2

Wu called up the stream of the local topography. “We are currently facing the eastern hemisphere of Ernutet. Where would you like me to set her down?”

Sifu joined Wu at the nav screen. “You’re looking for a settlement called ‘Carsontown’. It’s on the smallest continent.”

Wu waved his hand across the screen and the planet rotated until he found what he was looking for. “Alright, Carsontown. I’ll swing her around and we should make planetfall in two hours.”

Sifu leaned in a little more and enlarged the view around Carsontown. “Try to land somewhere just outside the settlement. Close enough to walk in, but we’ll need time to disappear before the authorities come to investigate.”

“Alright…” Wu said, taking back control of the nav screen. “Looks like there’s a valley not too far from the settlement. Stashing the pod there should cost them some time looking for it.”

Sifu nodded. “Take us in.”

 

Wu took the pod around the other side of the planet and broke atmosphere. Keeping the pod steady through the turbulence he held off on deploying the parachute until they were well past the cloud line and then hit the switch. The loud ‘pop’ above them punctuated the chute’s deployment.
Sifu turned to the sensors and examined the world outside.

“Hmmm.” Sifu nodded approvingly. “They’ve done well to terraform the environment so extensively in such a short period of time. It’s amazing to see lush greenery so far out from the settlement.”

Wu watched the rapidly falling altitude numbers slow down a little but continue steadily.

“Hope I didn’t hang on too long.” He muttered. The wind picked up and blew them a little off course. The nav screen showed a river running through the middle of the valley and Wu was not a fan of swimming through it. Just to be safe Wu feathered the manoeuvring jets and they calmly overshot the water.

Finally, with an unceremonious ‘whump’ the pod reached the ground. Followed swiftly by the parachute completely blanketing the entire pod.

“Hmmm.” Sifu began. “Looks like we’ll need that machete after all.”

 

The trek out of the valley and towards Carson town went without incident. The sun hung high overhead, like an oppressive god decreeing the inhabitants had not yet begun to sweat. Wu was glad the camel pack on his back was as good at keeping cool from the heat as it was cushioning him from the ration packs in the main pouch.

After walking for an hour Wu turned to Sifu.
“I’m going to miss these shoes.”
Sifu glanced at Wu’s feet as they went. “What’s wrong with them?”

“They’re 200 credit Zero-Cools and now they’re covered in mud and the heel is digging into my skin. I was worried I’d have to replace them a week ago and now this walk has all but drug them out into the street and shot them.”

Sifu laughed. “I can top that. These are delicate and sophisticated city shoes trying to do the job of rugged and durable country boots. My toes are meeting in dusty cafe basements quietly plotting a coup.”

Another hour and they were walking through the outskirts of the settlements. The roads out here looked more well-worn than they did in Tang Xing. In most parts of colonised space ‘roads’ were little more than glorified speeder parking and natural divides between properties. In Tang Xing the average street was more likely to be an impromptu cricket pitch than a transport route between two places. In Carsontown it looked like some people actually drove on them.

“So where do we go from here?” Wu asked.

“We’re looking for an agricultural conglomerate called ‘Shining Sun’. Their headquarters is located somewhere in this town.”

“Somewhere?” Wu asked.

“Well I’m looking at the address that was listed for it but the satellite image shows it to be under construction.”
Wu glanced up at a street corner and noticed a small noodle-shop advertising a dim sum and iced tea combo meal.

“Hey look at that.” Wu pointed for Sifu. “Civilisation all the way out here. We can eat, give our feet a rest and ask for directions.”

“You had me at ‘Iced Tea’.” Sifu said and pushed on past Wu.

 

The little noodle shop was permeated by the small of chicken broth and fried rice, without the smell it could have been any take away food store or cafe in any small town across colonised space.

For a moment Sifu and Wu were worried this might be the only Chinese restaurant in town, seeing as it was trying to showcase every major Cantonese dish on the menu.

Things only seemed to get worse when they tried to order.

“Two plates of steamed pork buns and a pitcher of iced tea please.” Wu asked the man behind the counter while Sifu picked a table.
The proprietor, a rough, portly man with tanned skin an calloused hands, blanched. “Ummm, sorry, I no speak Mandarin.”

“Oh?” Wu was taken aback by that. He swtiched languages “Uhh, Do you speak any English?”

The proprietor visibly relaxed. “Yeah that’ll be fine. You had me worried for a minute there.”

“So you don’t speak any Mandarin, are you Cantonese? Hokkien?”

The propriety shot Wu an unimpressed look. “Korean actually.”
“Oh.” Wu said. His cheeks burned from the blood rushing to them.

The proprietor smiled at him and shrugged. “Don’t worry about it, people make that mistake all the time, sometimes I just play along.” He waggled a finger between Wu and Sifu behind him. “Where are you two from?”

“I’m from Ao Kuang originally. I met my Sifu in Yewan Huar.”

The proprietor folded his arms. “Ah, city-boy eh? What brings you all the way out here?”

“We’re looking for a place called ‘The Shining Sun’ but there’s nothing there anymore.”

“Ahhhh.” The man said. “Stick around here a moment, the owner’s son likes to go skateboarding with my twins, I’ll introduce you. Can I get you anything while you wait?”
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Dimestore Chapter 03 Part 1

Chapter Three

Penny lay in the cockpit of her star fighter, which she had named ‘Black Bess’. She was surrounded by stars beyond number and an infinitely reaching void. The view allowed her to ponder the futility of her search. The passenger manifestos had not been helpful and the trail ran cold. The name she was looking for had not been on any of them and none of the vessels on the list belonged to any organisation she recognised. She passed the list onto Ranger Headquarters for the A.I.’s to pour over but she wasn’t confident.

Penny sighed and called for the simulation to change. Darkness washed over the infinite universe, replacing the twinkling stars for Penny’s custom loading screen. She closed her eyes as the text scrolled across her vision. She didn’t need to read it, she knew the words by heart.

“Live each day with courage. Take pride in your work. Finish what you start. Do what has to be done. Be hard but fair. When you make a promise, keep it. Always ride for the brand. Talk less, say more. Remember that some things ain’t for sale.  Always know where to draw the line.”

 

When she opened her eyes again she was standing in the middle of a windswept plain. A field of sunflowers ran down the hill below her, stretching all the way to the river. Penny sighed again, happily this time and sat down to admire the virtual view. Penny took a long whiff of the flower’s scent, but it didn’t help.

He got away again. Every time it felt like she was breathing down his neck it turned out she was barely snapping at his heels. And then he would just disappear.

An electronic chime interrupted the faint birdsong, announcing that she was getting a call from the dispatch office over the HPG link Penny reached out with her mind and pushed the flashing button.

A vidwindow displaying the electric blue face of Seera, the dispatch A.I. appeared in the screen. “Good Day Ranger Dreadful.” She smiled warmly.

Penny half-heartedly waved. “How you doin’ Seera?”

Seera perked up. “I am well Ranger Dreadful. I have new instructions from the Captain’s office for you.”

Penny cracked a smile at Seera. She still didn’t feel good, but it was impossible to be mad at that adorable face. “I’ll bet you do?”

Seera nodded. “A top-tier terrorist has been reported in your sector.” Another screen appeared beside Seera’s. On it were several pictures of an elegant Asian woman with long black hair and intense brown eyes. Some of the pictures showed her wearing a green slip dress under a business blazer, but the most prominent picture was a blurry, smoke-filled image of her in black combat fatigues and a breathing mask.

“The Captain wants you to suspend your investigation into Ranger Rodgers and divert your attention towards her. She is listed in our records only as ‘Sifu’. She is believed to be the Incense Master for the Tang Xing cell of the Black Mask Society.”

Penny peered at the photos. “She’s awful hands on for a lore keeper.”
Seera nodded. “So it appears. I’m sending you copies of every file we have on her. She is currently travelling onboard a jump ship called ‘The Diamond Star’ which is on a course for the Bes system.”

Penny nodded. “I’ll intercept them at Bes and see if this ‘Sifu’ is willing to give herself up. Let the local garrison know I’m on my way and what I need from them.”

Seera bowed. “Yes Ranger Dreadful.”

“That will be all, Seera. Dismissed.”

 

Lightyears away Wu sat at the controls of the escape pod, while Sifu checked over their emergency supplies. Discharging a fully-equipped escape pod was an expensive move, if this plan worked, all of the survival gear the pod was loaded with would go to waste. Sifu wanted to see if anything would prove useful.

“The rations are probably all we really need. Being able to feed ourselves will make us less of a burden on the local cell.”

“There was a pair of machetes back there.” Wu remarked. “Do you think they might be a good idea?”

Sifu shook her head. “Where I’m hoping to take us the terrain is flat grasslands and dark mountains everywhere you look. We’ll hardly need to hack our way through that. And the crime rate in the area is minimal, barring some recent trouble I read about online. I’d rather we resembled a pair of backpackers just passing through.”

“Backpackers?” Wu asked, giving Sifu a quick once-over. “Dressed like that?”

Sifu was still wearing her favourite emerald green cheongsam and her short business blazer over the top. Sifu considered his question. “Stylish backpackers. At any rate we might look unusual but we will still raise fewer suspicions if we are not visibly armed.”

Wu smirked and took in the image of the planet on the nav screen. He pointed at it. “Is there really a BMS cell on a tiny dust ball like that? I can already hear banjo music and we’re not even in atmo yet.” Wu pulled up another screen and looked through the data they had on the place. “It’s nothing but farms and mines as far as the eye can see.”

Sifu shrugged. “There’s a little more than that. The domes may have only just opened but the Ernutet cell runs a legitimate agriculture conglomerate for the Triad. It’s far from exciting but the funds we gain from them allows us to finance operations like last night.”

Wu shook his head. “I’d hate to be stuck doing that.”

Sifu patted Wu on the head. “Not everyone is cut out for the high-flying life of adventure you crave. It takes all kinds to run a revolution. Without people like Lin we loose our grounding in the everyday struggles against the Federation.”

Wu closed down the video screen in front of him and turned his attention back to Sifu. “Have you meet the guy before?”
“Only online at the annual meetings. He’s a quiet, hermit-type, but he pulls in an enviable profit for the size of the operation he runs.”

A beep from the nav screen informed Wu that they were in range of the planet’s satellite network.
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Dimestore Chapter 02 Part 3

As Wu led the two men down the ramp and into the docking bay a team of android technicians were already beginning to strip the speeder down for parts. Removing any trace of its existence.

At the far end of the hangar, just inside the bay doors sat their drop ship. In another hour, they would be on the next jump ship out and heading home.

At the foot of the ramp stood ‘Iron Fist’ Chen, the Triad boss for the Xing Shi cell.

Iron Fist Chen’s appearance was almost vampiric. His hair was slicked back and immaculate while his suit was always worn open over a wine-red shirt with the collar unbuttoned. Gold dragon rings with ruby eyes covered the fingers on his right hand, while the cold steel prosthetic on his left gave him his nickname.

He beamed at their captives as Wu brought them down to him.

“Gentlemen.” Chen all but purred at them. “It is so good to see you in the flesh at last. I trust our companions were gentle with you?”

The Police Chief’s eyes burned with impotent hatred at Iron-Fist Chen. Who only smiled wider in response.

Sifu smiled at the Dragon Head. “Alive and unharmed sir.”

“Excellent.” He gestured for two of his soldiers to take them away. Another black speeder sat off to one side with its side door open. The two principles were quickly hooded and taken away.

Iron Fist Chen watched them go. His smile lost its theatricality and replaced it with warmth.

“You’ve done very well.” He told Sifu “You and Hiro both.” Hiro nodded curtly. “With the Chief off the streets, the case against Mr Henderson can proceed unimpeded. With Mr Henderson off the streets, he cannot bribe the Chief’s replacement. We should only need to keep them spirited away for a few months at most while the evidence is resubmitted. Then when the trial is ready to go ahead we’ll release them.”
Sifu nodded respectfully. “As you desire sir.”

“Do you have anything else to report?”

Sifu glanced towards Wu to bring him to Chen’s attention. “Wu performed especially well. His quick thinking prevented an unexpected complication from becoming a problem.”

By habit, Wu saluted Sifu, but as soon as he realised what he’d done he took his hand down. “Thank you Sifu.”

When Sifu turned her attention back to Chen, Ukyo prodded Wu and made a talking motion with her hand. [Yes Sifu. Thank you Sifu.] She nanospoke. [Sometimes I think those are the only words you know.]

[Hush you.]

Ukyo stifled a giggle.

Chen offered Sifu his hand, Sifu gripped it firmly as they shook. “Give my sincerest thanks to Brother-Dragon Han for me. I’ve never been so glad to be talked into accepting outside help before. If you require anything further before you leave consider it done. I have instructed my aides to extend you every courtesy.”

“Thank you sir. I will let Mr Han know you were grateful for his assistance.”

Iron Fist Chen released her hand and turned away, his assistant falling into line behind him.

 

As Wu had hoped. Within the hour the drop ship had attached itself to the Jump ship and was heading out. Wu kicked up his feet in the rec room and idly flicked through a magazine on a virtual tablet. Through Wu’s nanoputer Wu could hold and swipe the tablet as though there were a physical object in his hand. On the couch next to him Ukyo lay with her feet dangling over the side. She played with a set of virtual miniatures arrayed on a computer generated battlefield before her. If Wu chose to log out of the personal area network he would see her reach out into empty space and manipulate objects on an invisible board.
For all he understood of the game he may as well have. Only the satisfied tug at her lips told him she was winning.
Off to the side Hiro and Sifu sat at a table covered in virtual reports. They were going over the operation they’d just completed. Successful or not the execution needed to be checked over for mistakes. Perhaps something they’d missed. New strategies would need to be put in place to prevent them from happening again.

 

Almost on cue a vidwindow containing an HPG call alert  appeared in the air in front of Hiro’s face.

Hiro reached out at the virtual screen and pressed the ‘Answer’ icon.

“We have a problem.” Began Iron Fist Chen as his face filled the screen.

“What is it?” Hiro asked.

“It appears one of Mr Henderson’s staff was able to take a photo of Miss Ling and upload it to a social network. The local police have already passed it onto the Federal Authorities.”
Sifu let out a long sigh. “I’m sorry sir.”

Hiro leaned in closer. “Did they get any pictures of the rest of us?”

Chen shrugged. “Nothing conclusive.”

Hiro grimaced and looked to Sifu. “You’ll need to go into hiding.”

“I understand.”

Wu banished his virtual tablet and got to his feet. “I’ll go with you.”

Ukyo rolled her eyes.

Sifu smiled at him. “Thank you Wu.” Then she turned to Hiro. “Wu and I will get in an escape pod and draw attention away from the rest of you. They’re likely chasing this vessel already.”

Hiro’s jaw tightened, but his eyes grew softer.

Sifu’s own expression softened. “It appears we must part ways again.”

Hiro cleared his throat and his expression hardened again.

“Good luck out there.” He said evenly. “It will hurt to loose you.”

Sifu smiled slyly. “Thank you for your concern.”

Hiro flicked his eyes towards their assistants for the briefest of moments. “The Black Mask Society needs its best people. It would be impossible to replace you.”

Ukyo stood up beside Wu, she was failing to suppress a cheeky grin.

Sifu cast a knowing look at Hiro. “Many things are impossible to replace.”
She retrieved her sword from her pocket. Taking the handle in both hands she presented it to Hiro. “While I am away it would honour me if you were to look after ‘The Moonlit Thorn’. But I’d also like you to practice with it as well. Should I require your vengeance it would mean a lot if you would have my ally at your side.”

Hiro looked deep into Sifu’s eyes and slowly nodded his head. “Thank you. I will do as you ask.”

Wu nudged Ukyo. [Can you believe those two?]

Ukyo patted Wu’s hand and hissed. [Quiet. This is my favourite show.]

Without breaking eye contact with Hiro Sifu spoke up. “Wu?”

Wu started like a high school kid caught napping. “Yes Sifu?”

“Gather our things. We need to be packed and ready to leave as soon as possible.”

Wu saluted again. “Yes Sifu.”
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Dimestore Chapter 02 Part 2

A figure burst out of the cloud suddenly and barreled into Wu. As Wu caught the man and pushed him back he absently noticed the uniform of Xing Shi’s municipal police. Wu’s hands were already moving to their targets and he began to nano-hack. Catching the man at the wrist before he could stumble away Wu struck at the side of his neck with a pecking-fist hook, followed by an elbow to the gut and a series of three quick punches of his solar-plexus, sternum and floating ribs. The strikes hit their mark, completing the sequence of macro commands necessary for Wu to transmit his paralysis virus into the policeman’s nanomachines and cause his body to seize up and collapse. No sooner had Wu dispatched the policeman than one of Mr Henderson’s assistants shambled out of the fog. Already riding the rush from flying through the air and paralyzing the policeman Wu exploded at her, delivering the lightning-fast macro commands and seizing up her body before she could raise a hand in her defence.

Wu returned to his ready stance and looked around for his next adversary. His breathe echoed back to his ears through the respirator’s mask. The gas was already clearing, revealing Sifu, Hiro and Ukyo standing amongst the bodies of the fallen.

Hiro scanned the faces before him. [Everyone ok?] Over the rush of the wind outside and their breathing masks it was easier to simply nanospeak their communications.

Everyone nodded.

Hiro caused his own sword to retract into its handle, black against Sifu’s white.

[Excellent.] He said [Find the Chief and Mr Henderson and let’s get out of here.]

Wu caught his breath and looked around. The paralyzed body of Mr Henderson lay just a foot away from him. Sifu retracted her own sword back into its handle and started taking off her belt to ready the principals for extraction. Wu squatted down between Mr Henderson’s feet and slipped the cable ties from his sleeves. Working fast Wu looped one tie around his left ankle and began daisy chaining a few more towards his right. As his hand fell into the familiar routine Wu noticed something strange out the corner of his eye. Quickly snapping his attention towards it, Wu relaxed when he realised it was just the spent tear gas grenade.
With a smirk, Wu went back to work.

Then he heard the door to the cockpit fly open and saw the pilot shakily jam a pistol through the doorway. “ALRIGHT NOBODY MOVE!” He screamed.

Sifu and Hiro spun to face him and Wu thought he saw him go to fire.

Wu gasped, grabbed the spent tear gas grenade and hurled it at the pilot. The man saw it fly and quickly pulled his head aside.

Wu leapt to his feet to rush the man, but before he could even stand up Sifu covered the distance in a single bound and slammed her foot into the pilot’s gut with a side-kick.

Before he could recover from the shock Sifu grabbed his gun arm and yanked it up, overbalancing him and exposing his body to a series of finger-spear strikes to his arm-pit, solar-plexus and ribs, infecting him with her own paralysis attack.

Wu released his breath at last and went back to tying up Mr Henderson. Soon he and Ukyo had the principles trussed up and their belts looped around them.

Ukyo held up her thumb to Hiro. [Ready.]
Hiro and Sifu helped their assistants lift the awkward weight of their captives. When they were upright again Wu and Ukyo held them tight from behind, stepped out into the open air with them and retracted the lines.

Wu felt the night wind rush loudly past his ears as he slid up the infinite darkness and back to the speeder.

Sifu tarried downstairs long enough to have the nav computer return the luxury speeder to base and then jumped out into the night after them.

Hiro met Sifu at the door and closed it behind her as she stepped inside. He moved to stand beside her, unable to hide the smile from his face. “Well done everyone. Weeks of reconnaissance, training and rehearsals, it all came down to this moment and everything went off without a hitch.”

Wu looked up from Mr. Henderson. “After tonight I feel like I could take on the whole Federation myself.”

Ukyo looked up at Wu and smirked.

Hiro nodded at Wu. “You read my mind.” Then Hiro’s eyes turned towards Sifu.

Sifu was already sitting down, her gaze turned inwards to monitor the police dispatch.

Hiro cleared his throat. “That’s right.” He moved to the pilot’s seat. “The job isn’t over yet.”

Wu and Ukyo worked to tie their captives up for transport. Binding their hands together in front of them so they would be easier to lead around. They had been paralyzed through manipulation of their nanomachines’ software, but that virus would soon be removed by a full reset. Before that happened the principles needed to be properly bound and gagged. When the principles were secured Wu collapsed into the chair next to Sifu.
He thought about joining her in the computer to watch the radar sensors and the wireless channels, but he decided against it. Sifu never missed anything.

A few minutes later they were on the other side of the main habitation dome, docking at a private hangar owned by the Black Mask Society.

Once the speeder began powering down Wu got out of his chair and moved over to the principles who were already starting to struggle against their bonds.

Wu considered administering another paralysis attack, but decided against it. There was a one in a million chance that the recipient’s software would crash, which in the day-to-day was nothing, but when it crashed while the subject was forcibly gagged there was a real possibility of choking to death. Wu wasn’t about to let weeks of work go to waste for a minute’s convenience.
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Dimestore Chapter 02 Part 1

Chapter Two

[Target on visual.] Wu Gang Shu announced to his passengers. [Beginning approach vector.]

Wu gently banked the stolen speeder-cab into an intercepting arc. He was impressed with the manoeuvrability of what was essentially a flying brick. It was about the size of an old-earth subway carriage, allowing for plenty of standing room and benches. Their team had boosted it right off the streets of Xing Shi and concealed it from the transport network.

In the seat beside Wu sat his Sifu. Like him, she reclined in her seat, her mind turned inwards. But while Wu’s mind was focused on driving the speeder, Sifu was concentrating on their target.

[No unusual wireless activity.] Sifu said, her face a mask of serene concentration. [Attempting signal intrusion.]

The speeder crested quietly through the night air as it closed in on another speeder. The skyplex of Xing Shi spread out beneath them, erupting in golden light like a sea of glittering coins.

Sifu took in a slow, deep breath and released it in a long exhale. Inside her mind she was carefully monitoring the wireless traffic within the target for anything unusual, while at the same time she delicately manipulated the data it was receiving to keep their own speeder from appearing on its radar and collision-detection sensors.
Their target was a deluxe limousine speeder. Yet its design more closely resembled their public speeder than the stretched luxury sedans of yesteryear. Wu was thankful for that. When they’d rehearsed their assault, the cramped confines of the smaller limos they’d practiced in had been a nightmare to move around inside.

Wu gently increased his speed, knowing that each rise in temperature made it harder for Sifu to conceal them on the radar. But he needed some more altitude to stay in the target’s blind spot, so he gently warmed up the jets.

[Easy now.] Sifu warned, her tone was soft, taking her own advice.

[I’ve got it Sifu.] Wu assured.

[I know.] She said.

With a precision honed through weeks of simulated flights Wu brought the speeder in until it was right above their target.

[We’re in position.]

[Change over to automated control.] Sifu ordered before both she and her assistant opened their eyes.

Sitting across the speeder from them was the other half of their team. The tall well-built man was Masamune Hiro. He sat in his seat with his arms folded, his gaze turned towards the view outside. His assistant, Tekashi Ukyo, lay sideways in her chair, bouncing one foot off the other while she waited for something to happen. Both of them wore the same all black fatigues as Wu and Sifu, with rigid armoured vests over the top.

Hiro noticed Wu and Sifu return out of the corner of his eye and turned back to them. “Have we confirmed that both targets are in the car?”

Sifu nodded. “Both the Chief of Police and Mr Henderson are on board.”

“Bodyguards?”

“The usual retinues, two bodyguards and three advisors.” Sifu explained. “With one new addition: Something must have made the Chief nervous. He’s added a pair tactical officers in riot gear to his entourage.”

“That’s unfortunate.” Hiro sighed. “I was hoping to avoid bloodshed.”

Sifu nodded again and her features softened. “As was I, but they leave us with no choice. Unless we choose to do nothing.”

Hiro shook his head and looked back out the window. “No. We act.”

The faintest hint of a smile warmed Sifu’s gaze at Hiro. “Yes. We will.”

Hiro turned back towards her. “Let’s get started. Masks on.”

Ukyo swung her feet down to the front of the chair and sat up straight. Even she took this seriously. As one the team activated the custom software that modified their nanomachines, causing a small army of microscopic robots to appear in a black mask-like pattern around their eyes.

When it was done Hiro gave the word “Let’s go.”

Wu joined Sifu on the port side of the speeder, while Hiro and Ukyo moved over to starboard.

Wu reached down to the hidden fold at the hip of his belt and withdrew a thin, high-tensile line from a reel concealed within the strap. He attached this line to a pick point on the inside of the door and pulled at it to test he was secure. Then he took the breathing mask from its hook on the door and pulled it over his face, before taking up the ram-hammer.

“Ready.”

Hiro, his own mask securely fastened, raised his hand. “Attach!”

On Hiro’s command the A.I. that had taken over from Wu earlier released the magnetic tethers from underneath their speeder. The lines slapped against the roof of the target and latched on fast. Wu and Ukyo opened the doors on their respective sides and the four of them dropped down onto the target, the high-tensile reels on their belts spooling out additional tether as they needed it.

 

Wu landed on the roof first and immediately moved in position for the next phase. Ukyo landed holding a machine in her hands that looked like a cross between a miniature oil drill and a wingless mosquito. She planted this machine in the middle of the target’s roof and activated it before readying her own ram-hammer.

The drill bore a hole through the speeder’s roof big enough to emit a soup can, then the drill opened up and deposited a tear gas grenade inside.
As soon as the grenade was away Hiro waved his hand. [Go, go, go.]

Wu grabbed the side of the roof and swung down to the door. Firing his ram-hammer as he hit the window and shattering the plexiglass. On the other side, Ukyo did the same.

The next moment Sifu and Hiro swooped through the shattered crystals and into the cramped, gas-filled speeder. From a device in her hand that looked like a white control wand Sifu extended a three-foot double-edged sword. Without a moment’s hesitation Sifu plunged through the tear gas and impaled the nearest of the chief’s tactical officers. Her long blade piercing the rigid plates on his armour as easily as a screw driver through cardboard.

Wu discarded his ram-hammer and swung into the cloud of tear gas after Sifu. He landed in the puffy whiteness, most of which rushed passed him as it tried to follow the wind out. Wu raised his hands to fight and waded through the fog.

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Dimestore Chapter 01 Part 3

He struggled beneath her, trying to get his gun turned back towards her to get off a shot. The Stranger pinned his wrist to the ground with her armoured knee, snatched her baton off the body of his friend and put him to sleep.

Balthazar finally saw his chance, his pistol had landed on a table at the far end of the bar. He’d been crawling across the floor so as not to be noticed, but when he realised that all the shooting was happening between himself and the exit he’d decided to circle around.

Now, finally, all he needed to do was grab his pistol, set it to ‘Spear’ and put a bolt through the meddlesome stranger.

But just as Balthazar reached the table he realised the Stranger had already caught up with him.

She stood on the other side. Her pistol and shock baton back in their places on her armour.

Balthazar looked up at her and began to pant with fear. He glanced down at the pistol, then back up to the Stranger. She crossed her arms.

“I wouldn’t.”

Balthazar tried anyway.

The microsecond before Balthazar’s fingers touched it, the Stranger’s heel landed hard on her end of the table, tipping the opposite edge into Balthazar’s chin and launching the pistol up into the air.

The Stranger ignored the pistol as it sailed past her ear and landed somewhere on the floor behind her. Balthazar crumpled onto the ground, nursing his aching jaw.

The Stranger popped open her helmet, revealing the face beneath. She had short, fire-engine red hair and demin-blue eyes that could cut diamonds. A small scar marked her face just below her left eye.

“Now.” She said. “A wise man once told me to be hard, but fair. I’ve been hard, now I’m gonna be fair, but if y’all don’t tell me what I want to know, then I’mma go right back to being hard and y’all ain’t gonna like none of that.”

Balthazar considered his options. It didn’t take long. “What do you want to know?”

“Who sold you the Fighter?”

Balthazar swallowed. “One of yours. He wore Ranger armour, tall guy, dark hair. He wasn’t eager to keep it, I’ll tell you that, let me bargain him down to a song.”

“He give you a name?”

Balthazar shook his head.

“When was this?”

“Last week. Tuesday.”

The Stranger narrowed her eyes at something for a moment. “He gave you his ship, is he still on-planet?”

Balthazar lowered his hand from his jaw. “I doubt it. He left with his Chinese friends. They didn’t look like they were from around here.”

The Stranger clenched her jaw at that. Balthazar shifted uncomfortably on the ground.

She uncrossed her arms. “Alright, you can go.” She reached out to him. “Just hand me the key to his fighter and we’ll call it square.”

Balthazar’s bruised mouth dropped open. “You’re not going to charge me?”

“Hard.” the Stranger said. “But fair.”

 

In the decontamination chamber Penny closed her helmet over her head again and waited for the atmospheres to equalise.

Once the red light went out the door slid open and she stepped outside.

On her way out she summoned Seera, the dispatch A.I., and a feminine form in glowing blue appeared in her augmented reality vision.

[Good day Ranger Dreadful.] Seera smiled enthusiastically as she fell into step beside Penny.
[How may I be of assistance?”]

[C’mon Seera, don’t give me that formal talk, please. Call me Penny.]

[I am sorry Ranger Dreadful, but Headquarters have determined that informal interaction leads to unprofessional behaviour.]

Penny sighed. [Let ’em know I said that’s a stupid idea.]

[Complaint acknowledged].

[Fine.] Penny said. [I need a local ambulance response to The Drinking Hole at Horowitz Starport, Hangar 17. Multiple concussions, some minor electroshock injuries and one fatality, suggest at least three ambulances.]
Seera nodded. [Very well Ranger. As per procedure: we will be expecting a copy of your feed regarding the incident for evidence and personnel review purposes.]

[Understood.]

[On what charges shall you be arresting the perpetrators?]

[None.] Penny said. [I am choosing not to press any charges at this time, but I’d like you to prepare the paperwork for one charge of possession of Federal Property Exceeding 5 million credits, one charge of Obstructing Justice and one charge of Assaulting An Agent of the Federation for a Mr Balthazar Rosario just in case someone needs it. Include my feed in the evidence.]

[Understood Ranger.] Seera nodded. [Is there anything further that you require?]

Penny pursed her lips in thought. [Yeah, actually. I need a full list of all drop ships coming and going from Horowitz Starport over the last 14 days. I’ll also need their full passenger manifests.]

Penny hoped that would be enough. Anhur was about as far out on the edge of the periphery as you could go without giving up on all human comforts. The lack of ships coming and going made picking out the unusual ones a lot easier.

A dull pain in her shoulder reminded Penny of the hits she’d taken back at the bar. By the time she made it to her ship it had only got worse.
[One last thing Seera.] Penny winced. [Call an ambulance for myself. I think the adrenaline’s done worn off.]
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