The crewmembers compared notes. Akane told them that she had discovered the class of ship belonging to the robbers – a Mantis, that had dusted down, lifted off and evaded a pursuing flight of ASREVs before going to hard burn.
YJ, Tulsa and Jonah revealed their findings – the importance of the 14K Triad in local goings-on, the (temporary) survivor they encountered at the hospital, the erotic assassin, and the cryptic last words of the doomed burn victim – Chi’ang Shih.
“The Chi’ang Shih,” Akane whistled. “That’s the Chinese word for vampire.”
“You’ve heard of them?” Jonah asked.
Akane nodded. “Only by reputation. They’re a gang of mercs who get the job done, usually with a fair amount of collateral damage.”
YJ nodded. “I’ve heard of them too. Apparently they don’t like leaving loose ends behind.”
“That explains the red-haired firestarter at the hospital,” Jonah said.
“Sounds to me like they’re living up to their name,” Worth added.
Around this time Badger’s returning message arrived. The crew looked on expectantly as YJ punched it up on screen. Badger’s wave consisted of a recording of him glaring at the camera for a full minute, a vein bulging dangerously on his forehead just under his very fine hat. Then he cleared his throat. “In answer to your question,” he finally said in his gravely voice, “the cargo consists of a load of specialty vehicle parts. Nothing more.”
His eyes narrowed. “If you want to get paid in anything other than lead, you’ll recover my cargo immediately. And for heaven’s sake next time spring for a boosted cortex signal so I don’t have to wait six bloody hours to be insulted.” Then the image cut out. Attached to the wave was a text file detailing the list of vehicle parts included in the shipment.
“Now, I wonder what kind of customer would order up specialty vehicle parts from a bombed-out ruin like Athens,” Akane asked.
“An ex-military group of bloodthirsty mercenaries?” Jonah asked. “Maybe they didn’t want to pay shipping and decided to cut out the middleman.”
Akane started typing another message. “Okay, we know that this crew is using a Mantis-class ship, and that they’ve been tentatively ID’d as the Chi’ang Shih by one of their victims,” she said. “I’ve got another favour I can call in, see if we can’t get more details on this mercenary group,”
YJ nodded. “So we know who’s behind the hit, but we don’t know why, or who hired them.”
“Time to go out for some noodles,” Jonah said.
“The 14K?” YJ asked.
“If there’s a squad of high-powered mercenaries pulling heists in this city, the tong’s going to know all about it,” Jonah said. He turned to Worth. “Now we’re not going to suddenly find out the tong wants to kill you, are we?”
“Don’t think so,” Worth grumbled. “Beylix is Hip-Sing territory, not 14K.”
The Szechuan Noodle Supper Club was an all-night eatery and nightclub on the far side of Stanton Gap, away from the bustle of the starport and deep in the high-density residential district.
The Doc had claimed an aversion to spicy food, and remained on board Shenmue while YJ, Worth, Jonah and Akane found a table inside the restaurant, which was packed with young, rowdy tong gangsters and their significant others, all dressed to the nines. The nightclub’s décor was as loud as the music, leaning towards an overabundance of velvet and faux-bamboo trim inlaid with neon lighting that shifted from one gaudy shade to another.
The restaurant took up the front half of the club, with a large dancefloor and stage to the rear. A lounge singer strut his stuff on the stage to the delight of the crowd.
A waitress effortlessly spun a pot of green tea and four plates of candied fruit onto the Lazy Susan at the centre of the table.
YJ ordered a Tsingtao and beckoned the waitress closer. Using a dialect favoured by tongs and triads the ‘Verse over, he asked the server where the 14K’s dragon master could be found.
“Ah, you mean Mister Tan,” The waitress winked at YJ and pointed in the direction of the stage.
YJ craned his neck, following the waitress’s outstretched arm with his eyes. She was pointing at the lounge singer, a lanky Chinese man with a shock of unkempt black hair, dressed in a black suit with an unbuttoned white dress shirt underneath, its wide collar flapping with every exaggerated dance move. Drenched in sweat, he was belting out a remixed version of “The Hero of Canton” in a rich baritone while holographic images spun apart and reassembled in time to the catchy dance music.
“That’s the big, tough crime lord who runs this city?” Jonah said incredulously.
Eyeing a poster on the wall, Akane read, “‘Denny Tan Sings the Classics’?”
YJ took it in stride. “Wait until he’s finished singing,” he instructed the waitress as he slipped her a wad of cash. “Then send him a bottle of Maotai with our compliments, and-” he slipped back into the Tong dialect, “ask him if he would do us the honour of an audience on a matter of some urgency.”
A few minutes later Mr. Tan finished his set, slinging a towel around his neck as he waved to his appreciative fans, who were showering him with high-denomination bills and shouts of “ten thousand years!” He swaggered offstage, mingling with the crowd, and was met by the waitress, who held a tray with a bottle and a number of long-stemmed glasses on it. She whispered in his year, and he nodded at the crew’s table, and then nonchalantly jerked his head in the direction of the kitchen.
“We’ve been summoned.” YJ said, downing his beer and standing up.
The supper club’s kitchen had more bodyguards than cooks, standing resolute and unaffected by the steam and smells. A particularly large bruiser glared at the crew and ushered them to a surprisingly quiet corner of the kitchen, where a recessed booth with an immaculate linen tablecloth and formal table settings was arranged. Denny Tan was already sitting in the corner, his back to the wall.
“Gentlemen and lady, please be seated,” he said expansively, indicating the empty chairs. “Thank you for the show of your appreciation, it is always flattering to meet one’s admirers.” He smiled lopsidedly, showing off at least one diamond-studded incisor. “But I believe you have other business in mind than autographs, yes?”
YJ and the rest of the crew took their seats. “Mr. Tan, we come to you tonight as witnesses, witnesses to an operation that should concern you a great deal.”
Tan’s smile didn’t waver. “Go on.”
YJ continued. “Tonight we saw an elite group of mercenaries go out of their way to leave no witnesses behind.”
“Well, except us,” Worth added.
Tan nodded his head impatiently. “Yes, yes, right, right, the warehouse fire. Terrible thing, it’s simply terrible. And what’s this I hear about an explosion at the local medical centre? Ayah, what is this world coming to?” He frowned. “But why come to me to complain? I trust that you are not insinuating that I had anything to do with such wanton acts of vandalism.”
“Nothing of the sort,” Akane said. “But as they say around town, you’re the man, and you’ve got your hand in all sorts of things.”
“The man I may be,” Denny shot back. “But one thing I’m not is the Telofonix information service. Why should I be delaying my second set of the evening to speak with the likes of you?”
“Mr. Tan,” Jonah said. “We know the 14K runs the warehouse district. So if Outrider Shipping goes up in smoke, it must mean that it happened with your approval, or at least your foreknowledge. We’re victims here, and we just want to know why.”
“Again, why should I divulge anything to you, if there was anything to divulge in the first place?” Tan argued.
“Because we’re outsiders here in Stanton Gap,” YJ countered. “And since we are outsiders we might be of use to you, should you need something done without arousing suspicion from those who keep their eyes on you.”
Tan sat back, considering for a moment. Then he snapped his fingers and the nearest bodyguard drew a curtain across the booth where they were seated.
The lounge singing crime boss leaned forward. “A man comes to me. Says his name is Hagan. Offers me a sackload of money so that my nephews-” he indicated the gangsters seated in his club – “would look the other way while someone gets down to business in the warehouse district.”
“He was arranging clearance,” Akane observed.
Tan looked sheepish. “I am a businessman. I look at balance sheet. Outrider Shipping is worth a fair amount to me. And what good is their protection money if I don’t protect them?” He paused to take a sip of his Maotai. “But Hagan insists. Gives me another sackload of coin. I say, fine, but keep it neat and tidy.”
“Neat and tidy?” Those mercs blew in, blew up, and blew out!” Akane countered. “The Alliance has an open file on them already!”
Tan gritted his teeth, diamonds glittering. “Yes, yes, I’m not impressed with how things turned out in the end. Now I have to send nephews to Bristow’s widow, get her to pay up, while reassuring the rest of our clients. Perhaps a donation to the medical centre for a new burn unit will be required. Not how I like to do business, not at all.”
“Maybe we could even the score for you with this Hagan,” YJ offered.
“Maybe you could,” Tan countered. “But I’m not about to give you clearance to act the fool in Stanton Gap like Hagan did. Maybe you take care of Hagan for me, and I grant you some privileges. Maybe not, we’ll see.”
“It would be our pleasure,” Jonah said. “So where can we find this Hagan?”
Tan smiled. “That, my friends, is a very good question.” He stared at them for a beat, then downed his glass of rice wine and stood as the curtain was pulled back. “Now, do you have any requests? I’m back on stage in five.”
“So did we actually learn anything of value back there?” Akane asked as the crew departed from the supper club, weaving between the luxury cars belonging to triad heavies in their boosted truck.
“Well, apparently this Hagan person got clearance from the 14K to do a hit on Outrider Shipping,” YJ replied.
“So Hagan’s somehow connected to the Chi’ang Shih,” said Jonah.
“Maybe he’s their booking agent,” Worth muttered.
“Maybe,” Akane agreed. “Or maybe Hagan hired them to do his dirty work here on Athens.”
By this time they had returned to Shenmue, all except Jonah, who took the stolen utility vehicle on a one-way trip to a deserted section of the warehouse district and promptly torched it.
Akane entered her workshop and checked her sourcebox. As she had expected, there was a waiting message from one of her contacts, an ex-special ops veteran named Chev. The wave consisted of a text file – a confidential Alliance dossier on the Chi’ang Shih. Akane smiled. Chev never said how he managed to get his info, and she never asked.
Akane downloaded the file to her databook and digested the contents of the report while the rest of the crew sat arguing around the common table. They were debating whether or not to pay for a boosted high-speed cortex signal to see if Badger had a beef with anyone named Hagan.
“Interesting,” Akane said as she finished analyzing the report.
“You want to share, Wild Sky?” Jonah, who had returned from his little detour, asked.
“It says here the Chi’ang Shih have been active since the end of the Unification War,” Akane summarized. “It looks like they were some kind of resistance group – they assassinated Alliance military commanders, pro-Alliance militia leaders, police officers, and the like, but they also killed high-ranking former Independent officers, and some of the Independent Faction’s supporters amongst the core aristocracy, not that there were many of those.”
“So, they were equal opportunity assassins, eh?” Jonah commented.
“They were active for three years following the end of the war. They firebombed trade stations, broke prisoners out of the Penal Moon not once, but twice, and committed acts of piracy and murder,” Akane continued, then stopped and looked around at the crew.
“Do any of you remember the Siege of Hospitality District 15?”
YJ blinked. “Yeah, on Santho, about four years ago, right? That was them?”
“According to this file, yes,” Akane said. “They attacked an officer’s club during the Unification Day celebrations, killed a few of them, but didn’t figure on the enlisted men crowding the beer tents nearby to come to the aid of their superiors.”
“It was a major shootout,” YJ recalled. “Half the troops were too wasted to shoot straight, and the other half thought it was a live-fire exercise.”
“By the time the Feds sorted everything out, the bar had burned to the ground and there was no trace of the attackers – somehow they had escaped. But evidence suggested that one or more of the mercenaries may have died during the siege.” Akane read from the report. “Then for almost three years, nothing.”
“Sounds like they were laying low,” Jonah said.
“The started back up about a year ago,” Akane said. “But the jobs they were pulling were no longer political, they were greed jobs.”
“Like what?” Worth asked.
“Killing fences, ambushing smugglers, stealing contraband, and get this, burning down warehouses. Sound familiar?” Akane said.
“How much do you want to bet that these smugglers, fences and warehouse operators answered to Badger before getting offed?” Jonah interjected.
“You’re not suggesting Badger was ripping off his own people, are you?” YJ asked. “Wouldn’t it be cheaper to just pay for his deliveries than to hire a crew to steal his payloads?”
“No, if anyone did the hiring, it was this Hagan guy.” Akane said. “Maybe he’s got it in for Badger and decided to give a worn-out mercenary crew another shot at the big show.”
“So what do we do now?” Worth asked.
“Why don’t we try to bait them, bring them out of hiding. Arrange another cargo transfer with Badger and see if we can turn the tables on them,” Akane offered.
YJ shook his head. “I’m not putting this ship in harm’s way.”
“Then we get ourselves another ship,” countered Akane.
“Too expensive, or too risky,” Jonah said. “If it was that easy to get a starship I wouldn’t be flying around with you clowns.”
“Fair enough,” YJ said with a half-smile. “No, all we have to do is figure out where their base of operations is. Let me see that file.”
Akane slide her databook over to YJ, who gave it a quick read. “The one constant is that they’ve been using a Mantis-class ship for all their major operations, right?”
“Right,” Akane said.
“So let’s look at the greed jobs they’ve been doing this past year,” YJ continued, “and apply that to the standard range of a Mantis.” He did some figuring, which took long enough for the other crewmembers to start eyeing one another and grinning.
“Okay,” YJ said as he finished his math. “Looks like every job they’ve pulled recently has been within one tank of gas of Greenleaf.”
Jonah smiled. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
It didn’t them long to suss out Hagan’s location. Upon landing at Greenleaf, they were subjected to a perfunctory search by one of the private security firms contracted by the Alliance to screen for illegal narcotics transfers. Afterward they hit the streets looking for intel. A few questions posed to the right people provided profitable answers – Hagan and his stable of “pet pirates” worked out of an old decommissioned Alliance missile base deep in the swamps that ringed the rainforests, a leftover from the costly Battle for Greenleaf during the U-War. Figuring that an infiltration was required, the crew stocked up on grenades of all kinds.
Then it was a simple task of orbiting Greenleaf, dodging Alliance anti-smuggling patrols while they scanned the swamps until they found what they were looking for – a triangular section of cleared ground with the now-familiar profile of a Mantis-class ship parked in the middle of it.
Figuring their hover-mule was still in the hands of the Chi’ang Shih, the crew parked Shenmue a safe distance from the base and hiked through the wetlands until they found a likely spot for Akane to set up her sniping nest atop a small hill nearly a mile from their target.
Akane smiled as she peered through the targeting scope of her Newtech sniper rifle. Her targets weren’t going to have a chance.
Concealed in a custom chameleon suit on one of the few patches of high, dry ground in Greenleaf’s equatorial swamp, Akane was aiming her rifle at a guard tower that made up part of Hagan’s base of operations. She was covering the approach of Worth, YJ, and Jonah as they waded through the hip-deep marsh towards the decommissioned missile base the pirates called home.
The base didn’t look like the kind of place a gang of high-class mercenaries would call home. It was distinguishable from the swamp that surrounded it, but only barely – its edges were getting fuzzy as the plant life and water reclaimed ground dredged and cleared years ago. The base was supported by a thick concrete underpad, but it was breaking down at its perimeter, chunks of concrete supported by twisted, rusted threads of rebar leaned down into the murky wetlands, a controlled collapse in slow motion.
There was only one road to the base, a barely-maintained, rutted affair built on an embankment that had all but been swallowed up by the swamp. Emerging from the foliage like an abandoned sandcastle was a weathered checkpoint not far from the fence line. A chain-link gate had been erected across the main path into the base, topped with fresh razorwire and sealed with a knotted nest of heavy chain.
The fenceline itself was more or less intact, running around the base grounds in a rough triangle. The fence itself was as dilapidated as the rest of the base, but the razorwire spiraling atop the chain-link barrier looked plenty new, and sharp at that. Spaced at strategic observation points were thick concrete pylons, some fifteen feet high, atop which squat rusty platforms, partially enclosed by leaky roofs and railings. Akane could see that the towers within her line of sight were manned, and the long snouts of heavy machineguns poked out from the railings ominously, offering the guards an impressive field of fire.
The road from the main gate was only slightly better preserved than the road leading to the gate. It followed a generally southerly course, and then curved eastward. At the bend in the curve was a cracked expanse of asphalt that at one time was probably a parking lot, and overlooking that was a dilapidated three-storey building, its walls pockmarked with either bullet holes or areas where plaster has fallen away in chunks. Reddish-brown water stains ran down from the dodgy-looking roof, and a drainpipe was connected only by association to one of the walls. There were a few narrow windows on the first and third floors, like firing slits. In the darkness of night, a wan yellow glow could be seen from the lower level windows.
One corner of the base had almost been fully reclaimed by the shallow waters of the swampland, so much so that the fence line itself sagged beneath the waterline only to emerge again a few meters away on the other side of a stagnant pond. Parked near the nasty weed-choked lake were a few flat-bottomed airboats – low tech scows with large propellers encased in cages, with steering vanes attached to them.
There were only three other buildings of note still standing on the base. They were simple, prefab warehouse units that had definitely seen better days – their corrugated roofing had been peeled back by the wind, and they were almost completely rusted through. One of them looked to have been heavily damaged by fire in the recent past, but the other two looked weatherized at least, with patches welded into place on the walls and roof, likely salvaged from the remains of the burned module.
Dead centre in the base sat the Chi’ang Shih’s ship, crouched like its insect namesake on a blast-scorched section of concrete. As Akane watched through her scope, a group of stevedores half-heartedly shifted cargo out of its hold, including the crew’s yellow hover mule, into the sturdiest-looking of the three warehouses. Akane could see the Outrider Shipping tags on the crates loaded in the bus’s cargo bed. “It looks like they’re driving our payload straight into the storage unit,” she said into her headset.
“Okay,” whispered Jonah from his hiding place near one of the guard towers. “So we jack our goods back and then fight our way on board the ship and high-tail it out of here.”
“Yeah that sounds feasible,” YJ said sarcastically.
Suddenly the whine of engines warming up could be heard as the Mantis came to life, lifting up off the concrete pad, its articulated thruster arms moving independently as it stabilized in mid-air before shooting into the sky, leaving a sonic boom in its wake.
“Guess that improves our odds slightly,” Akane said. “None of the base occupants look anything like the Chi’ang Shih we encountered on Athens.” It was true – everyone Akane had observed through her sniper scope was disheveled, undisciplined, and downright low class. Whoever Hagan’s other employees were, they were not tricked-out mercs sporting Newtech military hardware and the will to use it. Or if they were, they certainly disguised themselves well.
“Fair enough,” Jonah said. He readied his cutting torch. “Wild Sky, we’re in position.”
“Roger that,” Akane said, taking a few deep breaths to steady her nerves. She shifted her rifle slightly, zeroing in on the head of the bored-looking guard who stood astride a machinegun with a large unlit spotlight attached to it.
“Sayonara,” she whispered as she squeezed the trigger.
Akane’s custom-built sniper rifle was a laser weapon, configured to fire bolts of energy in the non-light spectrum so as to obscure the source of her fire. For the briefest instant, Akane could imagine a solid line of laser light connecting her to her target, invisible to the naked eye. Then, the only sound was a wet pop as the laser blast, which had penetrated the guard’s skull, heated his brain to the boiling point, causing it to explode. As the headless corpse slumped to the floor of the observation post, Akane didn’t pause to admire her handiwork – she scanned the base to see if anyone noticed the quiet death of the solitary guardsman.
Using the bulk of the concrete pylon to shield his activities, YJ fired up his cutting torch and peeled a section of chain link fence away from where it was secured to the guard tower. Then he, YJ and Worth were through onto the base grounds, running in half-crouches towards the warehouse.
The dull concrete platform was covered in all manner of detritus – dead leaves, lengths of frayed wire, yellowed scraps of paper and bits of broken plastic from what looked like computer hardware tossed from a great height.
There was a series of concrete channels built into the concrete pad at various points near the warehouses, like a trench system. Along these channels were the rusted remains of the missile batteries that had given this base its original purpose a decade prior. There were no boosters or warheads left over, just a tangle of thick orange pipes and hoses that at one point supported the rockets as they were brought up from buried, reinforced magazines and transferred to the firing assemblies by robotic graspers. The trio of infiltrators steered clear of the remains of one of the underground elevators used to bring up the missiles from their subterranean bunkers. The elevator platform was nowhere to be seen, leaving behind a black, dark pit.
Skirting that hole in the ground was a sentry completing a lazy patrol of the base. He gaped at the three men for a split second before fumbling for his pistol. Jonah stifled a curse and wished he had packed a silencer as he raised his shotgun in return. Then suddenly a wicked burn creased the side of the guard’s face, setting his greasy hair ablaze and knocking him flat on his back, unconscious.
“I seem to recall you setting a crewmate-rescue fee a while back,” Akane’s voice said through Jonah’s earpiece. “I expect your payment promptly.”
Worth rolled the badly-wounded man into the empty elevator shaft and didn’t pause to hear the sound of impact. The three men ran up to the warehouse and took up positions on either side of the door. Worth stood in the centre, Katrina in his burly arms, as Jonah and YJ hauled back on either door handle, sliding back the heavy metal warehouse door with a rusty squeal. Bright light spilled out into the darkness of the pirate camp.
Three workers stood in the warehouse. One was aboard the bus, crowbar in hand, ready to break into the Outrider crates. The other two were commiserating near a pile of crates behind the hover mule, sharing a hand-rolled cigarette.
Worth strode into the warehouse as the three pirates stood agape. “I’m here to catch the bus,” he snarled. Worth let Katrina go, firing a burst at the flatfooted crate-buster, who had dropped his crowbar and was trying to unlimber a shotgun from its back holster. He walked a line of machinegun fire up the man’s torso. He flung his hands into the air and pitched over the side of the bus, leaving a bloody mist behind as the crowbar hit the ground with a resounding clang.
Jonah and YJ stepped into the warehouse as well, firing at the other two men, who ducked behind the crates.
Akane could no longer track her crewmates since they were outside her field of view, but the primitive crackle of small arms fire reached her nonetheless. “So much for a quiet evening,” she said to herself as she waited for the base guards to react to the sudden noise.
Without missing a beat, Worth hopped into the driver’s seat, cursing as he had to jack the seat back to make room for his considerable bulk. “Aww, they messed with the controls!” he complained.
“Well un-mess them!” Jonah shouted as he and YJ scrambled aboard.
Worth got the hover mule into drive and they started to pull out of the warehouse, slowly but surely. Jonah saw a head appear from behind the pile of crates, and grabbed a smoke grenade, tossing it into the warehouse’s interior. Grey smoke began pumping out of the cylindrical grenade, covering their escape as they drove out into the open.
“Punch it!” YJ shouted as Worth coaxed more speed out of the bus.
“Think we can clear the fence?” Jonah shouted, grabbing Katrina from where Worth had set her down.
“No harm in trying!” Worth shrugged as he fed more power to the hover mule’s thruster fans.
The loaded-down bus inched higher, ever higher, as they headed towards the heavy-duty fence. Then there was a hideous screech as they cleared the fence, but not the razorwire. A section of wire dragged behind them for an instant, slowing them down, but then it snapped and they were thrown forward into the swamp.
“We’re gonna make it!” Jonah said exultantly.
Then suddenly behind them the base erupted like a hive of angry bees.