The repetitive noise of the rubber ball bouncing off the cheap apartment wall had become an annoying metronome. Attempting to keep time was the struggling whine of the old air-conditioning unit.
I sat at the apartment’s metal table trying to focus on the comms log terminal between Tai Sheng and myself.
I’d stared at the figures of our remaining ammunition, armour suits, and equipment for several long minutes but the depressing litany failed to reveal any new secrets and the characters merged in front of my tired eyes.
Across from me, Tai Sheng’s smart and professional bearing was slipping as she also struggled to find a way to keep the Strike Team operational without returning to the Yellow Fortress. She sighed and rubbed her eyes before looking across at me.
“Sir, we’re going to need to resupply soon. We’ve only got 2 HMGs left after Corporal Feng Bo caught the missile in the comms centre.”
“The med centres on the transports are low on plasma and haemostatic sachets. We’ll also need to service the suits with a proper armourer at some point. The engineers have been doing an incredible job but you know there’s only so much they can do in the face of the contacts we’ve been in.”
I nodded my agreement and sighed, leaning back in my plastic chair. A sudden jerk heralded the chair’s broken leg slipping out from under me and only a frantic grab of the table saved me from an undignified tumble. That was the third time this afternoon that I’d forgotten about the broken chair leg.
“Sergeant, I agree. However, you know it’s not just as easy as walking into the Quartermaster’s store and requesting several thousand rounds and a few machineguns. We’re operating without authorisation. We’d get the MPs on us before we’d finished signing the request forms. And Crane Liu Fe made it quite clear that the ISS assets are completely off-limits after the fiasco at Tranquility Oasis.”
I scrolled back through the list for the hundredth time.
“Look, you know I dislike the idea as much as you, but I think we’re gonna have to consider using Xu Heng’s old Black Market contacts. It’s the only way we can resupply our ammunition and get combat-grade equipment.”
Tai Sheng looked at me in silence with a flat disapproving stare. The cold judgement gusting across the table was answer enough for me.
“Fine. Just redistribute what you can. The transports are becoming too conspicuous, so we’ll have to ditch them soon. Lance Corporal Fu Lan, you said there was that Navy storeman who owed you a favour. What do you reckon you can get out of him without raising too many suspicions?”
“Emperor damn you! Will you cease throwing that damned ball!” Feng Bo roared, pulling the fallen lamp off his chest. He grunted in muted pain as he sat up from the tatty sofa he’d been resting on, clutching at his bandaged chest. Xu Heng flipped him the finger from where he lounged on the floor against the wall. Feng Bo’s swarthy face darkened further with fury, the scar on his temple standing out brightly, as the ex-Triad member picked up the ball and continued bouncing it off the wall.
“I said. Fucking. Stop. It.” Feng Bo enunciated slowly and threateningly. Xu Heng’s only reaction was a little smirk pulling at the corner of his mouth.
As the ball flew towards the wall once again Feng Bo surged to his feet and grabbed it out of the air. Xu Heng angrily jumped to his feet and the two quickly stood nose to nose, both bristling with poorly contained danger.
Everyone in the room stopped what they were doing and stared at the two soldiers.
“Give it back,” Xu Heng demanded in a quiet growl. Despite being a foot shorter than the brawny Zuyong, the wiry Jackal showed no fear as they stood toe-to-toe. Feng Bo was no idiot, but his anger blinded him to the tightening of the Hulang’s muscles, the subtle placement of his feet, and the way he’d begun fingering his ever-present knife.
“Make me,” Feng Bo hissed back.
“Corporal Feng Bo! Lance Corporal Xu Heng! Stand down immediately!” Tai Sheng ordered. Neither of the two stopped staring each other down. “That was an order! Don’t make me repeat myself soldiers!”
A long second dragged out before Xu Heng stepped back and spat on the worn carpet.
“Tschk. Fuck this dump. I’m out.” He grabbed his coat and a pair of dark glasses before storming out of the apartment.
In his angry exit he nearly barged into the lithe frame of Crane Liu Fe as they passed at the doorway. The Crane Agent raised a delicate questioning eyebrow at me at the sound of the main door slamming shut.
“Yao Chen, follow him and make sure he doesn’t get in to too much trouble.” The sombre-looking Hulang nodded slightly from under his shaggy mass of lank black hair. He stood up from the corner in which he’d been reading his treasured dog-eared book and tucked it into on the one of the many pockets of his shapeless grey duster. Grabbing his long, chipped sword, he pulled his hood up and forward, casting shadow over the scarred mess of his forehead. Silently the jackal slipped from the room to follow his partner.
“Corporal Feng Bo, sit down and put that ball down before you burst a blood vessel. We’ll discuss your actions later.” The large Zuyong had been staring at doorway, his huge muscles straining as he squeezed the rubber ball in his hand. Startled out of his reverie he looked over at me then down at the ball in his hands.
“Sorry Boss.” He replied sheepishly before gently lowering himself back down onto the sofa.
Crane Liu Fe swept in to the room, glancing around the dingy apartment with a faint frown of disapproval. He eyed the chair Tai Sheng swiftly vacated and offered him with distrust before delicately perching on it.
“He won’t endanger the team, will he?” Liu Fe asked with a slight nod to the door.
“No,” I sighed. “Probably not. Xu Heng is a grade-A pain in my ass but he’s not a complete idiot. He’ll probably just get blackout drunk in some dive-bar. Yao Chen can look out for him.”
Liu Fe took a sip from the glass of water Tai Sheng fetched for him then leant forward, resting his elbows on the scratched table. “There has been a development in my investigation,” he paused as he stared intently over his interlocked fingers. “I have reason to suspect a conspirator in the Imperial Service is on Paradiso. They go by the moniker, ‘White Fox’, and I have discovered intel that they’re operating in the Yingxian Province.”
I could see the excitement burning in Liu Fe’s eyes. “I hope I don’t need to spell out how important it is for my investigation to capture one of the conspirators.” I nodded, feeling some of the Crane-rank’s zeal catching on. Finally, a definite lead!
“There is… one little problem,” Liu Fe reluctantly admitted as he leant back in his chair. “Yellow Fortress has recently released an urgent directive warning of potential Shasvastii infiltrations on Satori. This calls for Imperial Service forces be allowed to inspect all spacecraft docking at Shouhuxing Orbital Station and shuttles flying into or out of the Yellow Fortress.”
Liu Fe paused to let the full implications sink in. Yellow Fortress was the only proper spaceport on the moon and likely crawling with Imperial Agents searching for us. Even if we managed to get off the moon then Shouhuxing was the only sanctioned Orbital Station that spacecraft could dock at. The enthusiasm I’d so recently gained fled and left me feeling deflated as I considered our prospects.
“I’m going to see if any of my contacts at the Yellow Fortress can assist. However, I suggest you and your team begin searching for an alternative way off planet as well.” With that Liu Fe stood up and made his way out, leaving a heavy silence as we all contemplated our predicament.
“Well, fuck.” Feng Bo muttered. I wholeheartedly concurred.
Frustrated, I picked up the team inventory once more but after a few seconds I threw it back onto the table.
“Damn it! With those inspections going on there’s no way we’ll get within a mile of any of the armouries.” I looked up at Tai Sheng and saw in resigned expression that she knew what I was going to suggest next.
“We’re going to have to go to the Black Market now. They’re the only ones who can get weapons and equipment in under the noses of the…” The dawning light on Tai Sheng’s showed she’d reached the same realisation as I had.
“The Black Market! They’re bound to have a way to smuggle their gear on and off the moon!” I leapt to my feet, causing the damaged chair to collapse behind me. I grabbed my jacket off the counter and checked the pistol under my arm. Feng Bo started to struggle up from the sofa, but I stopped him with a pointed finger.
“No. You stay here and help Tai Sheng organise the team for an off-planet move. I’ll call Crane Liu Fe and tell him we’ve got a plan. Fu Lan, you’re with me. Let’s go find our own favourite ex-Triad.”
I felt the bead of sweat ponderously dripping down the back of my neck. I dared not shift a single muscle as I kept my gaze and pistol trained on the Red Lotus goon in front of me.
He was dressed in a white shirt and tight black suit with an embroidered lotus on the breast. His black hair was oiled and slicked back dramatically and shaved close to the skull on the sides. A well-chewed toothpick hung precariously out of the corner of his mouth. More eye-catching than his dubious sartorial choices, however, was the business-like shotgun aimed point blank at my chest.
“I thought,” I muttered harshly out of the side of my mouth, “that you said these guys were old friends?” In my periphery I could see Xu Heng on my right shoulder, both submachine guns tracking more goons and a manic grin on his face.
“We are!” he hissed back. “It’s just… I may have won a bit of cash off these guys last time we played cards.” Toothpick scowled and racked his shotgun. “Okay, mebbe it was a lot an’ mebbe there was some debate over what constitutes ‘cheating’.” I heard Fu Lan let out a low groan on my left.
Without taking my eyes off the goon in front of me I took stock of the room. Regardless of how I counted it, the odds weren’t looking pretty. Fu Lan, Xu Heng, Yao Chen, and I stood back-to-back in the centre of the dingy underground bar backroom. Surrounding us, seven Red Lotus thugs stood illuminated by the cheap flickering yellow lights. A haze of tobacco smoke filled the room; years of inadequate ventilation and long poker games had stained the ceiling and walls a sickly yellow. The muted thrum of the music from the bar behind us squashed any desperate thoughts of calling for help.
I was judging whether I’d be able to dive behind the table in the room before the goon got off his shot when the furthest door in the room opened. A slim, serious-looking man in the same lotus jacket, but of a much better quality, stepped out and eyed us dismissively.
“Please, gentlemen, lower your weapons.” When no one moved a muscle, the new entrant turned to Toothpick and frowned. Reluctantly the goons all lowered their weapons, although they kept them in hand. Slim turned back to us and put on an ingratiating smile.
“There, you can rest assured that no harm shall come to you until Master Long has spoken with you. Please, lower your weapons.”
“And after he’s spoken with us?” I asked, not really wanting to know the answer.
The slim Red Lotus’ eyes twinkled as he replied, “Well, I should imagine that depends entirely on what you have to say to Master Long.” He stepped aside and gestured through the door in to a luxurious study. I slowly lowered my pistol and nodded to the rest of my team. As we approached the door the Red Lotus thugs stiffened and raised their weapons once more. We halted immediately and I looked over at Slim.
“I’m afraid only yourself and Xu Heng have been invited, Captain.” Slim smiled apologetically before continuing, “There is also the issue of your firearms. I’m afraid you will have to relinquish them in order to enter. Don’t fear, I shall look after them as if they were mine.” The last sentence he finished with a slight smirk.
Not seeing another way out of the situation, I reluctantly handed over my pistol and motioned for Xu Heng to do the same. He grumbled but acquiesced, passing over both submachine guns and a small assortment of knives. Once Slim was content we were weapon-less he motioned once more to the door to the office.
The first thing I noticed when I walked in to the office was the huge fish tank on the far wall and the highly illegal Man-o-War inside it. As clichés go, it was pretty high up there, but I have to admit I was impressed nonetheless. The relentless thumping of the bar’s music was silenced as Slim shut the door behind us with an ominous click. A thick carpet further muted the sounds our footfalls as we walked in. The man sat behind the ornate wooden desk dominating the room leant back casually in his chair, watching us approach with a subtle smile.
A quick glance explained where the inspiration for the lackey’s fashion choices had come from, however, the man in front of me managed to pull off the embroidered velvet jacket. Casually elegant, Master Long was in his early thirties and fully aware of his appearance. Perfect white teeth flashed as he gave us a broad smile and stood.
“Come, gentlemen! Welcome to my humble place of work.” He gave the slightest inclination of his head to me before gesturing to a pair of chairs. He moved round to lean against the front of his desk “Xu Heng, so good to see you again.”
Xu Heng’s jaw clenched at the comment as he stared intently at the carpet. Tendons in his neck stood out clearly and he practically vibrated with tension as he perched on the edge of his chair. Anyone who could put the mouthy Hulang on edge warranted a great deal of caution and I reassessed the man lounging in front of me.
“So, Captain,” I stiffened at the casual reference to my rank, “If I may call you that.” Long continued with a knowing smirk. “I must say I was intrigued when Mister Chao brought me your request. A previously unknown private client wanting to discreetly ship a great deal of high-grade military hardware and personnel. Very peculiar.” Long drummed his fingers on the table pensively. “As I said, this puzzle intrigued me. So I did a little digging.”
Long swept round the table and dropped into his padded chair with a self-satisfied smile. I felt a pit form in my stomach as I watched the situation spiral away. He steepled his fingers in mock contemplation and continued.
“Imagine my shock when I discovered your organisation to be an elite Invincible Army unit supposedly stationed on Svalarheima! Normally I’d have had you shot for undercover operatives, and poor ones at that.”
I shifted uneasily in my seat, fully aware of the glaring absence of my pistol.
“So why didn’t you?” I asked, moving my weight on to the balls of my feet and discreetly looking for something in the room I could use as a weapon. “Why are we sat here wasting each other’s time?”
“Easy now, Captain. No need to be so hasty. Two things stopped me. One. Our mutual colleague, Xu Heng here, and I go way back. I was most shocked to find out he’d joined our nation’s great military, more so that they’d taken him on. Two. Once I realised there was an IA unit operating covertly on Satori it didn’t take long to connect the dots with the recent furore. You’ve really poked the hornets’ nest on this one. It’s making business much harder for my organisation.”
I tensed once more but Long chuckled and waved at me in a placating manner.
“Complications also provide opportunities. My syndicate, as you may have noticed, is a humble affair. I, however, have ambitions to move up within the Red Lotus organisation. Already, my syndicate has gained influence by succeeding in moving certain desirable commodities under the heightened watch of the Imperial Service. Up until recently Madame Wu has monopolised this aspect of our organisation’s operations. My successes have weakened her position, but she still maintains dominance. I don’t have the manpower to take her syndicate on directly, nor would I be foolish enough to do so. That’s where you and your team come in.”
“I am not getting involved in mob warfare,” I growled through gritted teeth. “As you correctly surmised, we are the Invincible Army, not your own personal mercenaries.”
“Paragons of honour and integrity, I’m sure,” Long responded dismissively, “however, that’s not what I require of you. Madame Wu also controls the movement of products on and off Satori. I can get you access to the shuttle and details of the next Nomad freighter link up. If you steal the shuttle and hijack the freighter then her position will crumble. The Red Lotus Council will have no choice but to remove her for her incompetence.”
“And then you sweep in to seize her operation. So, we take all the risk and provide you with complete deniability? Sounds like a dreamy deal.”
“May I remind you that you are the ones who came knocking on my door, not I who approached you with this proposition. You are more than willing to go direct to Madame Wu, although I can assure you, she won’t be nearly as hospitable as I have been.”
I considered our list of options as Long watched on intently. It was a short list. I sighed and nodded. Long bound to his feet beaming, “Fantastic! Mister Chao will deal with the details. It’s been a pleasure doing business with you, Captain. Xu Heng, be seeing you.”
I felt drained as we were ushered back into the shabby waiting room and returned our weapons. Fu Lan looked up from where he and Yao Chen were seated under the watchful eye of the Red Lotus goons. “We good to get out of this dive, Boss?”
“Yes. Grab your weapons and take down this information from Mister Chao.”
“Boss. Ya know Sarge is gonna kill ya when she finds out you agreed to this?” Xu Heng muttered beside me.
“I’m trying very hard not to think about it right now, thank you Xu Heng. Instead I’m trying to focus on more manageable things. Like, stealing a ruthless Triad’s smuggling shuttle from under their noses.”
“Good idea Boss.”