“The Ao Kuang skyplex.” Wu replied. “Out by Nezha.”
“That’s right in amongst the core worlds. How’d you get mixed up with the BMS?”
Wu put his beer down for a moment. “I wanted to. The periphery should be allowed to do what it wants.”
Penny rolled her eyes. “The periphery was always allowed to do what it wanted. Right up until they attacked Saint Lucy, everything that happened next was their fault.”
Wu sighed. “No the Pantheon of Saints struck first. They were a bunch of isolationist nut jobs who got scared because of the way the Federation kept expanding.”
Penny finished a long pull on her beer that she’d started while Wu was still talking. “The Federation wasn’t out to settle the whole spiral arm, all the systems that joined up back then did so of their own free will.”
“It’s not free will when your only other option is shut your own colony down. Back then if the system next to yours joined the feds their prices for everything went down and the strength of their currency went up. Suddenly the price for everything you’re exporting is being undercut and you can’t compete. Your options become sign on with the feds or pull the plug.”
“That’s no reason to attack Saint Lucy.”
Wu picked up his beer again and looked down the bottle. “And what the Pantheon of Saints began, the rest of us were doomed to finish.” Wu took a pull from his bottle. “What about you? You join up right out of high school?”
“I did.” Penny said. “I was bored tired of Bast. I wanted to see the universe and what I could do in it.”
She took another mouthful of beer. “I got a lot less excited about it when my friends started dying around me. I got lucky and what was left of my unit got absorbed into another company. My new C.O. took us all under his wing, taught us his code, made a family out of us. I followed that man all the way to the gates of Hades.”
Wu looked up from his drink. “You were at Hades?”
Penny eyed him suspiciously. “Yes.”
Wu blanched. “I’ve heard bad things about that battle, from both sides. Fighting on a primordial, volcanic rock like that. You were in hell for a week before you even realised you were dead.”
Penny nodded. “After the war I stayed on, there was still unrest amongst the periphery. I felt I needed to keep doing my part. To ride for the brand.”
Penny thought about how to phrase it. “In the early days of the old United States of America, one of the more romanticised jobs of the era was that of the cattle rancher.”
Penny took another pull on her beer. “If you were out herding and the group was attacked by outlaws ‘riding for the brand’ meant standing your ground and fighting off the bandits, protecting not just your employer’s livelihood, but your own, rather than escaping with your life and having to look for work elsewhere. So after the war, there were still insurgents out there, still causing trouble for people. I became a ranger so I could ride for the brand.”
Penny’s face darkened and she looked down into her bottle.
Wu shrugged. “Sounds like you’re doing it because you don’t know any other way to live.”
“Ha!” Penny barked. “You’re the one still fighting a war you already lost.”
Wu put the bottle down and looked Penny in the eye. “I may have lost and planets may have changed hands. But like you said, there are still thousands of insurgents out there opposing Federal occupation every day. One army may have surrendered, but the periphery’s war is far from over.”
Penny held Wu’s gaze. For a few moments the two of them sat in total silence save for the rush of the wind in the distance.
Penny looked down into her bottle. “I’m empty.” She said. “You should finish up too. It’s time we got some sleep.”
Jie sighed and checked the time in his nanoputer again. They were late.
Jie was getting tired of the darkness and lack of noise. He leaned up against his speeder, parked as it was in the middle of a box canyon and opened up his AR games menu. A ball of yellow light appeared in his hand and he threw it up into the air. When it landed down in his hand Jie’s nanoputer told his brain he felt a tennis ball land in his palm. Jie summoned another one and began passing them between his hands.
Then in the distance he heard the faint sound of a sublight engine and banished the balls from his display.
The sound grew louder and louder until the ship the engines belonged to appeared in the sky above him.
With practiced ease the pilot positioned the ship directly above Jie and descended into the canyon. Jie watched as the landing gear unfolded and touched down on the rock all around him.
Wat landed the ship in the exact spot so that Mac could lower the loading ramp and Jie and his speeder would be right in front of it. Jie smirked. How Mac talked a genius pilot like Wat to work for a two-bit outfit like his he’d never know.
Of course, Jie thought as he caught sight of a certain quiet, blue-haired girl, Mac’s pilot wasn’t the only impressive member of his crew.
Jie had to make himself take his eyes off Brook. Especially when she smiled. He’d never met a girl who smiled like she was knew exactly what he was thinking before.
Mac strode down the ramp with his thumbs in his gun belt. “Young mister Lin.” He said, his voice the same effortless boom as always. “I can’t help but notice you don’t have my payment for me.”
“Dad’s dealing with that.” Jie said. “I called you out here because I had a favour I wanted to ask you.”
Mac stopped at the end on the ramp and loomed over Jie. “Really? This outta be good.”
Jie subtly shifted his place on the speeder so he could look over Mac’s shoulder and keep his eyes on Brook. She gave him that smile and his heart revved up a notch.
“Dad’s not happy with you. The robots you took came out of the mine. That’s tipped off the Sheriff and now she and that Ranger are looking for it.”
Mac subtly moved one hand from the front of his belt to just above his gun. “And your Dad thinks he can somehow not pay me? And he sends his only son to deliver this news?”
Jie brought his attention right back to Mac. “No. Dad is going to pay you. He’s not paying you yet because he has one more job for you, but he is going to pay you extra for this job.”
Mac leaned in extra close to Jie’s face. “So what’s this favour you want?”
Jie swallowed. “Dad wants you to kill them. When he talks to you next he’ll let you know the plan, but whatever it involves I want you to spare Wu. He’s a member of the Black Mask Society like my Dad, only he’s way higher up the food chain.”
Mac pulled his head back. “And what’s this favour worth?”
Jie looked Mac in the eye. “Dad’s not going to be the head of Shining Sun forever. You scratch my back now and I’ll look after you when the time comes. Besides, all I’m asking you is that you not kill a guy. I’m sure that won’t be too much of a burden.”
Mac leaned in so close to Jie’s face the young man thought he was going to bite off his nose. Mac snorted at him. “Kid. Don’t you ever waste my time with small fry stuff like this again. I got things to do that don’t involve you ogling my crew.”
Mac turned around and headed back up the ramp. “Alright Wat, get us out of here.”
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