Out of the pub’s speakers thumped rapid-fire beats, lightning fast rhythms and a string of Hindi lyrics so long and hurried that Penny could never tell when one sentence ended and where the next began.
“Oooh I love this one.” Amrah said, his head popping up to hear the song. “I haven’t heard these guys since high school.”
Captain Niazi gave him an impish grin. “While you’re up Corporal would you be so kind as to buy the first round?”
Amrah sighed. “Yes ma’am.”
“None for me thanks.” Penny said, raising her hand.
Amrah hesitated. “You sure? It’s your tax credits paying for it?”
Penny pointed at Wu sitting beside her. “I’m still on duty.”
“Well sucks to be you.” Wu laughed, raising his own hand. “I’ll have her beer.”
Amrah laughed. “Anyone else?”
“Just water for me.” Hae Lee said.
Her Majesty’s Finest was a marine bar deep within the green zone. Force Recon had taken it as their unofficial off-duty headquarters. The décor was stately and reminiscent of Imperial Britain. Flags of the former colonies were displayed on placards all around the pub as were replicas of the Brown Bess musket and the Lee-Enfield rifle. Penny, Wu and Hae Lee were seated at the back wall, boxed in by Recon Marines sitting shoulder-to-shoulder around them.
“So.” Niazi began as she lowered her pint from her lips. “If Wu is Penny’s prisoner, what’s your story little Miss?”
“Umm.” Hae Lee said, shrinking back slightly. “I’m uhh.”
“She’s my… friend.” Penny said.
“Oooh.” Niazi purred. “It’s like that is it?”
“Huhhhh…?” Penny said, stretching out the sound until the token dropped. “What? No?”
“Yeah.” Wu smiled, nudging Hae Lee. “Give the girl some credit, she’s got standards.”
Niazi pointed at Wu. “So she’s with you then?”
Hae Lee began laying the foundation for a little smile until Wu opened his mouth. “Well no… not like that.”
Niazi failed to hide the enlarging grin on her face. “So if she’s not Penny’s prisoner and she’s not Wu’s lover, who is she?” She turned to Hae Lee. “Come on sweetie, you tell me. These two are useless.”
Hae Lee cast her eyes around for a moment, like she was looking for a way out. She shrank back even further into her chair.
“She’s… shy.” Wu said.
“She’s also the mechanic of the ship I’m flying. Without her the whole thing drops out of the sky.”
Amrah returned to the table with a large circular tray with everyone’s drinks on it. The Recon marines around them turned, took their beers and returned to their own conversations.
Amrah put his Captain’s drink down first, she thanked him with a polite nod, then Amrah passed Wu two beers and a tall glass of water for Hae Lee.
“I got you an iced tea, since you ain’t drinking Ranger.”
Penny took the glass. “Much obliged.”
Wu put one of his beers down on the table and took a quaff from the one still in his hand. “Ahhhh.” He beamed. “That first beer after a long day’s work.” He took another drink.
Penny sipped her tea. “You’ve been sitting on your butt all day back on the ship.”
Hae Lee drew a sharp breath. “No he hasn’t, he’s been helping me maintain the Ravenwing.”
“Yeah.” Wu said in between mouthfuls of beer. “We’ve been very busy.”
“Whoo!” Amrah cheered. “High five my man!”
Amrah leaned in with his hand up for Wu to hit. Hae Lee turned bright red.”
“Busy fixing the ship Genius.” Wu narrowed his eyes at him.
“So Ranger.” Niazi said to deflect the mood. “Seeing as you’re not drinking tonight would you mind being our designated driver? Normally we have to draw straws after the first round.”
Penny smirked. “Only if you boys and girls are getting an early night. Some of us can’t party till first call like we used to.”
“Why not?” Wu asked.
Penny looked at him. “Because if I give you an inch you’ll try to escape. That’s why.”
“Yeah, but why do you care? You’re already breaking the rules just to be here. Why not have a beer on the job and some fun while you’re at it?”
Niazi regarded Penny with an amused look. “Ranger, what does our esteemed guest mean by ‘breaking the rules’?”
Penny opened her mouth to answer and hesitated. Four other pairs of marine ears leaned in to listen.
“I’ll tell you Captain, I trust a Force Recon officer to be discreet.”
Captain Niazi put a conspirational air into her sly grin and sent Penny a private chat request. [So tell me.]
Penny took a deep breath. [I’m not officially on the Rodgers assignment. I was pulled off it temporarily when I was ordered to bring in Wu and his master. I got Wu, but Sifu got away and I lost a valuable piece of Federation property when she split.]
Captain Niazi whistled in appreciation. [Nice to know you’re not all perfect Ranger.]
Penny rolled her eyes. [I was on my way back to Mars when another Ranger called me and told me Rodgers had been spotted. So I took a detour halfway across the spiral arm to come here.]
[Interesting.] Niazi nodded. [So what’s the deal with you and Rodgers?]
Penny narrowed her eyes at the Captain. [I already explained that.]
[But is that really all there is: He was your boss, he went rogue and now you’re just going to bring him in like any other perp? You disobeyed orders to be here Ranger, there’s got to be more than that.]