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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
A prequel to Hard Times: this tale begins over a year before the BDM, introducing some new characters to the Firefly ‘Verse. Some of these characters will turn out to have connections with our BDHs at some point in the not-too-distant future… But before that happens they’ve got some dark and disturbing times ahead of them.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 820 RATING: 9 SERIES: FIREFLY
Disclaimer thingy: Firefly/Serenity are owned by other folks and not by me, though I appreciate being able to write some stuff purely for fun inspired by the Firefly 'Verse.
First episode in a three-part prequel to Hard Times. It’s definitely not light and fluffy stuff, folks… But feedback, as ever, much appreciated!
For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For the want of a horse the rider was lost,
For the want of a rider the battle was lost.
The ship Mawu lay dead in the black. Around it the stars were bright points of light, but no lights showed from the craft which drifted as lifelessly in space as a piece of debris. If some cargo carrier or passenger ship passed by in this out-of-the-way part of the Rim, they would probably take it for just another piece of wreckage floating around in the ‘Verse. They might not give it a second look.
So far, so good.
Inside the ship, sprawled on his side in a darkened bunk, a figure lay heavily asleep. There was a soft sound and the cabin door slid open: a tall, dark-skinned man with close-cropped hair appeared in the doorway. For a moment the man stood motionless, then leaning over he reached out with one hand and took hold of the figure’s shoulder, giving it a shake. “Hey… Wake up, Leon. Wake up. Need your help.”
Leon twitched, then let out a muttered groan. “Uhhh… Wha…” Slowly he hauled himself up onto both elbows, struggling to open his eyes.
“Sorry to wake you.” The man spoke quietly.
“Uh… Thass okay…” Leon blinked into the darkness, and rubbed a hand across his face. “What… What time’s’it?...”
“Little after oh-three-hundred.”
“Guay…” muttered Leon, rubbing his face again. “I only been asleep a couple of hours, Jake...”
“I know.” Jake reached up and switched on the cabin light, flooding the cabin with its bright glow. The light revealed his crewman to be considerably younger than himself: a slight, black-haired youth whose dark eyes were frowning up at him from under heavy brows. “But we got problems. I need your help, now.”
“Problems?” Something in Jake’s tone woke up Leon more than the light. He looked up at his friend’s face and saw the tension there. “What kind of problems?”
“Main power feed again, what else.” Jake nodded towards the doorway. “I need your hands, and your head.”
“Shit.” Leon began scrambling out of his bunk, pulling on his clothes. “Those adjustments we made not working?”
“Not well enough. I’ve had to drop Mawu out of drive and let her drift so’s I can take another look at the damn thing. I need you at the helm to keep us out of harm’s way.”
“We’re drifting?” Leon followed Jake out of his cabin and down the passageway towards the cockpit. “Aren’t we kind of close to shipping routes to be sitting out here powered down?”
“Got no choice.” Jake’s voice was quiet, but Leon heard the strain in it. “We don’t solve this problem somehow, we’re gonna put so much strain on the converter it’ll burn out pretty soon. Then we’ll really be dead in the black, just sitting waiting for the first Alliance cruiser that happens along to pick us up. And that wasn’t in my plans for this trip.”
“Gos se…” muttered Leon, looking glumly down the passageway. Jake gave him a sudden grin. “Hey, it’ll be all right, di-di. We’ve got out of worse fixes than this.”
“Mm-hm.” Leon gave a wry smile back. Jake clapped him on the shoulder.
“C’mon, get your butt up in the driver’s seat and try to keep some way on her. I’ll work as quick as I can. Any trouble, you see any lights on the screen, just shout. I can hook the power back on-line and we can be moving before anyone gets too close.”
“Okay.” Leon headed off towards the cockpit, pausing only to let out a huge yawn. “But you owe me another shift’s sleep!”
“You can sleep all you like once we’ve got this fixed.” Jake watched his young crewman go, then turned and headed for the engine room.
Once in the cockpit, Leon dropped into the pilot’s chair and ran his eye quickly over the systems, then reached out and flicked on the intercom. “OK, Jake.”
“Right.” Jake’s voice sounded from the speaker. “Keep her steady, and I’ll get to work. I’ll let you know if I want you to power up again. But keep your eye out for company.”
“I will.” Leon clicked the intercom off, then looked over Mawu’s attitudinal controls. With her engine offline, only the little ship’s momentum was keeping her nosing through space. Leon checked the navcomp, making sure there were no imminent obstacles to watch out for. Then he turned to another screen, looking intently at the scan: no sign of another ship anywhere nearby. Carefully he adjusted the controls to increase the scan range, trading clarity for distance. Still nothing.
Good. That’s what we want. No-one coming noseying in to find out why we’re just hanging here.
Leon leaned back in the pilot’s chair and let his eyes raise to the small segment of space that was visible through the cockpit screen. He brought his feet up to rest on the edge of the control console, folded his arms across his stomach and let out a deep breath. It was going to be a long night.
Time passed and Leon felt sleep and his bunk calling him, making his eyelids heavy. He rubbed his eyes; got up and paced about the cockpit; checked the long distance scan again.
“Hey, Leon.” The intercom sprang into life, Jake’s voice crackling out of it. “You still awake?” Leon dropped back into the pilot’s chair and switched the intercom button.
“Everything still quiet out there? We got no interested neighbours?”
“Not a blip in sight. How’s it going?”
“Not great. I’ve boosted things up some, but I don’t reckon it’s going to be enough.” Leon heard Jake give a weary, exasperated sigh. “But it’ll have to do us. Fire her up, and I’ll see how she runs.”
“Okay.” Leon moved his hands over the console, keying in the engine start-up sequence. There was a pause. Leon watched the console with a frown, keeping a watchful eye for signs of anything going amiss. As the low hum of power rose, the ship slowly began to pick up speed.
“It’s holding… For now,” Jake’s voice came through again. “We’re back in business, partner.”
Leon’s face broke into a relieved grin and he silently punched his fist into the air. “Jing tsai, Jake!”
“Well, let’s not celebrate too much.” Jake’s voice sounded sober. “I’ll tidy away down here, then I’ll be with you in a couple of minutes. Keep your eye on her core temperatures.”
“Okay. Will do.” The intercom clicked out. Leon frowned at the console for a moment, then glanced at the power readouts. All holding steady. But the disquet in Jake’s tone had communicated itself to him. An unease began ticking away again in his guts.
The sound of footsteps heralded Jake’s approach. Leon turned in his chair, looking to his friend’s face. What he saw there made the uneasiness inside him intensify. Jake took a moment to check the readouts on the console; he paused over the engine readings, then glanced sideways at Leon. A quick smile warmed his face for a moment, but Leon wasn’t deceived.
“We’re screwed, right?” Leon clenched his hands then crossed his arms tight, jamming his fists into his armpits. Jake smiled again, amused at his young crewman’s unconsciously defensive posture: then he leaned forward and tapped the readouts. “Not entirely... We can keep travelling for a while longer. But you can see the news as good as me: the converter’s shot. I’ve jury-rigged her good enough to get us dirtside somewhere, but we need a replacement converter soonest.”
“A new converter?” Leon stared at the readouts. “We got enough to buy one?”
“Yeah. Seeing as how we get a new converter, or Mawu doesn’t fly any more. We can afford it, long as it’s a salvage job.” Jake touched the navcomp, bringing up a chart of the immediate area. “So here’s the plan: Beylix’s about ten hours off, we keep a steady speed and my repairs hold out OK. I’ll bring Mawu down someplace quiet, a few miles outside Lansing. You take the mule in and hit up a salvage yard for a new converter, while I get Mawu prepped. Then it should only take us a couple of hours to fit it, and we can be off and back in business before the day’s out.”
Leon frowned at the chart. “Hope we don’t attract any interest.”
“Not likely to.” Jake looked at the chart too. “No Fed outpost on Beylix as far as I know, just the local law… There’ll be some security round Lansing docks, but hopefully they shouldn’t be a problem.” He shot a grin at Leon. “Plus, I trust your innate ability to keep out of trouble, partner.”
Leon met his friend’s laughing eyes and after a moment, grinned back. “Trouble? Don’t know the meaning of the word.” Jake clapped him on the shoulder.
“Okay. I’ll take the helm now; you go get a few hours sleep. I’ll wake you a while before we get there.” Leon rose from the pilot’s chair, stretched and yawned, then headed for the passageway that led to the rest of the ship. In the doorway he paused for a second and looked back. Jake was sitting comfortably in the pilot’s chair, his hands moving surely over the controls as he set in the course for Beylix. He paused for a moment and looked over his shoulder: saw his young crewman standing watching him and smiled. “It’ll all be okay. Go get some rest.” Leon gave him a smile in return, and went back to his bunk.
Jake’s repairs held out well enough to keep the little ship moving: some hours later Mawu finally settled down onto the dusty ground of Beylix’s surface, a safe distance outside Lansing. Jake shut down the ship, slowly and methodically working through the powering-down process in the cockpit, noting critical readings as Mawu quieted and lapsed from a living ship to a silent machine. At last, all procedures done, he rose and headed out to the ship’s small hold.
At one end of the hold Leon was checking over their ancient mule. The youth looked up as Jake came in. “Fuelled-up and ready to go.”
“Good.” Jake handed him a money belt. “There’s three hundred in there. But get it for two hundred if you can.”
“Sure.” Leon clipped the money belt around his waist, then dropped his shirt and jacket over it to conceal it. “Which salvagers should I try?”
“There’s three big dealers in Lansing, as I recall.” Jake rubbed his lower lip. “Go to Sinni’s first, he’s likely to be the cheapest. Then there’s Wan-Lu, and Meredith. But Sinni should have what we need. Any converter from a T-6 up. Don’t forget to check for corrosion.”
“Hey, you think I don’t know a bad bargain when I see it?” Leon mounted the speeder. “I learned from the best, remember!”
“Flattery will get you nowhere,” Jake responded dryly, moving across to the cargo bay door control. “Just don’t get burned. You drop our cash on a dud converter, we’re going to have to rustle up some kind of trade to buy another one.”
“Hey, I’ll be careful, Jake.” Leon looked across at his friend, suddenly sober. “I know how tight things are. I’ll make sure I get an okay part, don’t worry.”
“Ain’t worrying,” Jake replied. He triggered the control and the hull door opened, lowering the ramp to the ground. Leon let the speeder drive forward and was about to descend the ramp when Jake put a hand on his shoulder. “But be careful anyway.” His dark eyes were suddenly serious. “Watch yourself in town. There shouldn’t be any reason for the local law to be sniffing around the salvage yards, but keep a low profile. Any sign of trouble, forget the converter and get the hell back here.”
“But you said we can’t keep flying without a new one.”
“Can’t keep flying without a co-pilot, either.” Jake gave Leon’s shoulder a shake then let go. “Like I said. Be careful.”
“Aren’t I always?” Leon gave him a grin, then revved up the mule and drove off down the ramp. Jake stood for a long time looking after him, watching the dark dot of the mule disappear into a spiralling trail of dust.
It was a good hour’s drive over rough terrain to Lansing. By the time Leon hit the shanty-town which ringed the town’s outskirts, he was gritty with dust and every joint in his body ached from the jolting ride over unforgiving ground. He slowed as he weaved his way into town through the narrow unpaved streets lined with the makeshift dwellings of Lansing’s urban poor: houses built from sheets of wood, metal panels, tent frames stretched with tarps, often a combination of all three. Children roamed the narrow streets and Leon was careful to keep an eye out for them straying into his path. At one corner a knot of boys ran after him on his mule, laughing and calling out insults, eager to pick a fight as a distraction from the bleak boredom of their everyday lives. Leon kept his eyes front and steered past them, not looking at the barefooted youths in their dust-coloured clothes. The street kids were trouble, hard and unforgiving as the mean neighbourhoods they grew up in…Neglected by adults who were forced to work every hour they could, adults who took out their frustration at being doomed to slave out their lives in dirt and penury on the children around them. Street kids like these grew up hard if they grew up at all. Many would get into drugs and gangs as soon as they got an opportunity: the ones that didn’t would end up like their parents, working themselves into a dusty early grave and numbing the off-work hours with local home-brew that switched off the brain for a few blessed hours. Or sometimes permanently.
And I was one of them, Leon thought. Until Jake gave me a way out. If it hadn’t been for him I’d still be back in Eavesdown, living on the streets. Or not living at all. He frowned at the thought and accelerated as much as he safely could, putting the slum streets behind him as quickly as possible.
Sinni’s salvage yard was easy to find: it lay on the nearest side of town, between the market and the docks. As Leon drove past the docks he noticed that there were security men manning checkpoints on docks barriers, watching the passing crowds impassively. Leon gave them a wide berth. - Nothing more dangerous than a bored man in a uniform, Jake always said. He took care to ride slowly and with attention, keeping his eyes on the frontage of Sinni’s salvage yard ahead. As he passed the guards he felt their unsmiling gaze rake the fine hairs on the back of his neck. Yeah, look all you like, you hwoon dahn. I’m not carrying a gun or anything else that you can scan me for, so you can kiss my exhaust.
Parking the mule and code-locking its ignition sequence, he swung himself off and headed in through Sinni’s gateway. A tall muscle-bound Chinese security guard whose face and bare arms were decorated with fine tattoos eyed him stonily then nodded him onwards. Leon walked down through the piles of accumulated scrap and metal hangars that housed Sinni’s scavenged wares. An overalled worker walked past, pushing a heavy load of parts on a powered trolley: Leon called to him. “Hey! Got any converters, T6 or the like?” The worker scratched his cheek with a grimy finger. “Yeah… Reckon so. Try looking in that second building, over yonder.”
“Thanks.” Leon headed towards the ramshackle warehouse indicated by the man. Stepping through its doorway he was instantly in a shaded gloomy world of machine cadavers. Great heaps of dismantled engines lay everywhere, some rusted and almost lost in the furthest corners of the space, newer and more viable ones closer to the door. Leon ran his eyes over the rows of salvaged machinery, then let out a heavy sigh. “Fei-oo… Ta ma duh!” Unslinging the rucksack from his back he took out a tool and headed into the gloom to see what he could find.
If the security guards on duty at the docks didn’t appear overly active, the same was not true of the squat grey-walled building near the centre of Lansing which served as a base for the local law. Constructed for functionality rather than elegance, its few windows were covered by heavy security grilles. Inside an unsmiling man sat behind reinforced glass at a processing desk: beyond him a passage led away into the building interior. Where current Lansing sheriff Elton Nash was about to have his day turn up something interesting.
Nash was sitting at his desk putting together the weekly reports. It was not a job he enjoyed. The tediousness of recording the information was bad enough, but what really rubbed him raw was the knowledge that no-one was likely to give a jackrabbit’s fart about the petty trials and tribulations of the backwater that was Lansing. He ran his eyes over the information he’d just entered into the databook and let out a long, heavy breath.
A knock on his office door made him look up: the face of Charlie Somers, one of his subordinates, was visible in the door’s window. Laying down the databook, Nash signalled him to come in.
“You got a minute, chief?” Somers sounded hesitant, which got Nash’s back up straight away. Some piece of legal gos-se he isn’t sure about, needs me to hold his hand. What I’d give to have men working for me with a little initiative. Better still, what I’d give to be working off this godforsaken scrapheap planet, as a Federal Marshall getting a shot at some real action. Aloud, he just said, “What’s the problem, Charlie?”
“Well, could be nothing. But one of the securecams down at the east docks has flagged up a possible capture of a Category One fugitive.”
“Category One?” Nash felt his irritation at being interrupted rapidly lift. “Show me.”
“Yessir.” Somers led the way out of Nash’s office through to the coms room, where a row of datascreens flickered along one wall. Somers sat in front of one console, pulling his chair away slightly to allow Nash a clear view of the screen. “Came in a little while ago, just part of the routine docks securecam surveillance.” He tapped the screen, bringing up an image: a slightly blurred security camera capture of a figure driving a mule along one of Lansing’s dusty streets. Somers keyed in a command, zooming the image in. For a moment the picture appeared blurred, then pixels resolved and sharpened, producing an enhanced capture of a face. “System says it’s an 87% recognition match.” A pop-up window appeared, scrolling information. “Cortex lists him as Leon Rachid. Bound by law twice, for juvenile charges…”
“You got me in here to look at some petty little street thief?” growled Nash.
“No, sir!” Somers quickly brought more information up on the screen. “Rachid’s only charge record is for small-time stuff - but he’s also recently been identified as associating with a Category One fugitive: a one Jacob Yossou Ryder. There’s a priority-level warrant out on the Cortex for Ryder. The authorities want him for war crimes.”
“War crimes?” Nash leaned in to the screen, his brows drawing down as he looked at the face shown in the security camera capture there. “How do we know this Rachid’s linked to Ryder?”
“Previous security cam capture puts them together as associates.” Somers selected an icon which opened some frame-by-frame security camera footage, subtitled with date and location. “Cortex had this from four months back, on Paquin. That’s Rachid, and that’s Jacob Ryder on his right. System made a positive ID on Ryder, but by the time anyone there noticed he was long gone.”
“Hmm.” Nash’s eyes coldly took in the blurred security camera capture his subordinate had brought up on-screen, focussing on each detail. “But our securecam on the docks has just tagged this Leon Rachid? There’s no sign of Ryder himself?”
“No, sir.” Somers brought the original security camera image back up onscreen. “Just Rachid so far.”
Nash stared at the capture. “How long ago?”
“Not long, sir. Maybe twenty minutes.”
“East docks area…” Nash straightened up. “All right. Notify the nearest security team to bring him in, right now. And I want the docking logs gone over for everything that’s touched dirt in the last twelve hours.”
“Yes, sir. Uh, should I be looking for anything in particular?”
“Check on the Cortex for whatever information there is about what kind of ship this Ryder flies. Unless he’s stupid he won’t have used the docks; but we’ll run things by the book. We’re not going to let this one slip away. Put a lift embargo on everything sitting dockside till we find out where Ryder is. Start running a groundscan too, from the town perimeter outwards. Put every available man on it, I want that ship found.”
“Right away, sir.” Somers glanced at the screen, then back at his superior. “Uh… Groundscan could take a long time to locate his craft. Especially if he’s powered down.”
“I know that, Charlie. So you’d best start running it now, hadn’t you?” Nash took one final look at the screen, then moved swiftly away back to his own office. Stealing a quick sideways glance under his eyebrows, Somers opened a com-channel. “Docks east gate, this is Control Centre: we have a security alert, require pick-up.”
“Docks east gate responding, Control. What’s the problem?”
“Target is a young white sub-adult male, tagged as one Leon Rachid: identified by security camera zero-nine at your location, riding a mule northwards approximately twenty minutes ago. Request you pick him up and bring him in, soonest.”
“Roger that. You say we got a capture of him?”
“Transmitting picture now.” Somers keyed in the command.
“Okay, Control. Coming through nice and clear. We’ll take care of it. He likely to be armed?”
“No information on that. He is flagged as Category One so you guys might want to take due caution and use full non-lethal restraint.”
“Clear on that, Control. Out.”
* * * * *
It had been fiddly work getting the converter out, compensated for by its good condition. Now Leon had the hardest part of the job to do: bargaining Sinni down to a fair price. The big bearded salvager regarded the part sagely. “Ah, T-6 converter. Beautiful condition. Like new. Worth every penny of five hundred.”
“Yeah, right!” Leon grinned. “Seeing as how for five hundred it would be a new converter and I wouldn’t have had to hammer it out of your junkyard myself.” He nudged it dismissively. “I’ll give you one-fifty.”
“You may be a babe in arms but it’ll take more than your sweet young face to talk me into giving my merchandise away.” Sinni folded his arms. “Even if I was to let it go for four hundred I’d be running myself out of business.”
“This piece of gos-se is barely worth two hundred, and that’s being generous.” Leon shrugged. “Maybe I’ll go see what Wan-Lu’s got in his yard.”
“Heh, that crook!” Sinni snorted. “You think that bag of bones handles anything of this quality? He doesn’t know how to look after his stock, tries to swindle everyone who walks in through the door… The man isn’t a salvager, he’s a grave-robber!”
“Bet he’ll sell me a coil for two hundred, though,” insisted Leon. There was a moment’s silence… Then Sinni threw up his hands. “Run-tse duh fwo-too… You’ll be the ruin of me, boy, but two hundred it is. Platinum.”
“Surely.” Leon took the cash from his money belt. “Wrap it up, ey.”
“Liou mahng…” Sinni growled as he placed the converter into a protective sealer-bag, pausing only to tuck away the money that Leon held out. Leon took the wrapped converter and stowed it safely in his backpack, then slung it on. “Thanks for doing business.” Sinni waved him out, clearly too disgusted by the transaction to speak.
Stepping out into the sunlight again, Leon allowed himself another grin. That went fine and shiny, now I’ll just head back to Mawu and we can get on the move again. He stepped around a mound of scrapped machinery and stopped dead. From his viewpoint he could see straight out of the salvage yard gate, to where he had left the mule. It was still there – but standing next to it were two security guards, checking it over. A cold wave flooded over him and he swung back out of sight, flattening himself against the scrap. “Guay - ” He stole another quick glance: the men were discussing something, pointing at the mule. Then one gestured at the salvage yard.
“No no no no no.” Leon pulled back out of sight and looked around wildly. “Goddamn fat-arsed local law would have to choose right now to get nosey - ” Then he spotted the salvage worker he’d spoken to earlier, climbing up into the cab of a haulage truck. Tightening the shoulder straps of his backpack, Leon ran across the yard, heading towards the big vehicle. It started as he drew close: the worker, intent on the controls, didn’t see Leon as he swung himself up onto the truck’s side. Getting a secure grip, Leon pressed himself close to the grimy metal. Slowly the truck lumbered forward. It trundled through the salvage yard gates, shielding Leon from the view of the security guards, then turned down the street, bumping onwards and leaving the men behind.
Leon held on for as long as his hands would support his weight – then when the truck slowed at a corner he dropped hard into the dusty road and scrambled sideways out of the path of its heavy wheels. One or two passers-by eyed him curiously, but there were no signs of pursuit. Hitching his backpack more securely on, Leon turned and headed into the market crowds.
Back in the salvage yard, Sinni was being questioned by a none-too-patient security guard. “So have you seen this fugitive?” Sinni squinted at the data screen with its security camera capture of Leon. “Uhh, maybe…”
“Yes or no, you flabby piece of crap?” demanded the guard.
“Yes, yes.” Sinni was sweating freely. “Yes, he was in here, maybe five, ten minutes ago. Cheated me on a deal!” He offered this last in a plainitive tone, which the guard ignored. “Took a converter for half its worth but I wasn’t going to argue with someone like that.”
“He say where he was headed?”
“No, no, just took the converter and left.” Sinni sweated some more.
“Goddamn it.” The guard gestured at the doorway. “All right, search this junkyard, let’s find the little sonofabitch.” His comrade headed out to search whilst he spoke into his com. “East docks security team to Control, we got a possible runner on your fugitive. We located him to Sinni’s Salvage Yard, but now he could be on the move somewhere nearby.”
“Understood, east docks. Will advise accordingly. Out.” Snapping off his com, the guard moved to join his colleague outside.
In a dark gap between two market traders’ stalls, Leon squatted in the shadows, watching the street and trying to think clearly. They made me, somehow. So now they’ll be watching for me. And I’ve got no goddamn transport to get back to Mawu. He chewed his lower lip. So that’s the priority. Find some transport. And make a swift exit without meeting up with any more law. Easy. He grimaced involuntarily, then stood up. Clock’s ticking. The more time the law have, the harder it’ll be to slide out. So best to go now. Looking right and left, he plunged into the crowd.
Back in the control room, Somers was frowning at the screens in front of him, which were displaying the so far unsuccessful results of the groundscan. Suddenly the com beside him crackled into life. “Control, this is docks northside, our securecam has a visual on your fugitive, heading our way.”
“Copy that, northside: request you intercept.”
“Will do, Control. How many pieces you want him in?”
“Nash wants him for interrogation, but he’s Category One. So play nice, guys; but make sure he’s disabled before you pick him up.”
“Roger that. Northside out.”
Leon threaded through the people thronging the street, eyes constantly scanning his surroundings for anything he could use to get out of town. Just need someone to be a little careless parking their mule and a few seconds’ work, then I can be out of here. Hell, even a horse would do. I can get back to Mawu and then the law won’t see us for dust. Jake’ll get us off this dirtheap before they manage to get a trace on us, and we’ll be flying free.
A noise in the crowd behind made him turn his head. People were shifting sideways, calling out protests – then the unmistakeable uniforms of the dockside security guards shoved their way through.
Leon’s head snapped forwards and he broke into a flat run, taking off down the street even as he heard the shouted warning from behind. “Halt! Leon Rachid, you are bound by law to stand down!”
No shit, Leon thought grimly, dodging through the crowd. People still thronged the street ahead and he had to weave through the human traffic. He saw an alleyway on the left and swerved into it, hearing the heavy pounding of the security guards’ pursuit behind him. Run – You can’t let them catch you –
The blast of the sonic rifle hit Leon squarely in the back, throwing him violently forwards. He hit the ground and skidded on his face, the world suddenly slamming down on him in a harsh swirl of grit and noise and pain.
“Nice shot, Morris.” One of the security guards nodded at his colleague; then they both advanced on the youth lying stunned on the ground.
Slowly Leon lifted his head, a ragged breath catching in his throat. He was lying on his stomach on the dusty ground, one arm underneath him, blood taste in his mouth. He closed his eyes for a moment, breath catching at the ache in his back; then opened them again and stared dazedly ahead. Tah ma duh… They took me down. He heard sounds, footsteps close behind him. No. Get up. Get UP. His head swam and he was winded, couldn’t breathe.
“Leon Rachid, you are bound by law.” The crunch of booted feet sounded close behind him, then a man’s weight pressed him down, forcing his face back into the dust. He felt his arms yanked back, cuffs go round his wrists. His mouth filled with dust and he choked, spitting out grit as the guard’s weight drove what little air he had left out of his lungs. “Okay, on your feet.” The weight shifted away and a grip tightened on his shoulder, hauling him up off the ground. Leon staggered as his head came up, bringing his eyes into focus – then wrenched himself free from the guard’s grip, lunging across the alleyway.
“Goddamn it! ” The guards moved more swiftly than the still-stunned youth: one caught Leon by the shoulder, dragging him to a halt. Leon swung around under the force of the man’s grip – straight into the fist the other guard levelled at his stomach. The youth doubled up with a sharp grunt of pain, swaying on unsteady feet. While his head was still down, the second guard punched him in the head and Leon fell to the ground.
The two guards paused for breath, standing over the youth lying motionless at their feet. When Leon stayed unmoving, one of them took out his comlink. “Control, this is docks northside detail, we’ve secured your fugitive. Bringing him in for interrogation.”
“Roger, northside. Out.” The guard glanced down at Leon.
“OK, let’s take him in.”
“…So I figure: I got stuck with this dust-sucking job, but I ain’t gonna break into a sweat for Nash or no other two-bit local lawman.”
“Ah, Nash ain’t so bad.”
“He’s psycho, man. One of them guys wants to get himself noticed, bucking for a cushy fed job. Kind of man that gets you killed, you don’t watch out. Me, I plan to watch out.”
“Worse places to be than Beylix.”
“Better places to be, too.”
The voices echoed their way into Leon’s head, buzzing pain like ripples spreading through water. He felt the pain drag him awake, until he felt a cold metal floor under his cheek and an ache in his arms and a low roaring vibration penetrating through every part of him. The floor seemed to jolt and sway and the low roar checked; then resumed with a lurch. A shift in the world eased him sideways a little and he realised he was moving, in an open vehicle. He tried to move his aching arms and felt the cuffs at his wrists. Letting out a breath, he twisted his head, squinting up into dazzling light.
“Hey, he’s waking up.”
“Then keep him quiet. We’re almost there.”
“Yeah, yeah.” There was a shifting near him, then suddenly the sole of a boot pressed against his neck. “Keep still, you little hwoon dahn. Unless you want to make peace with your god.” Leon held still against the jolting floor. “Yeah, that’s right. Nice and quiet.”
When the vehicle came to halt Leon was grabbed by his shoulders and yanked to his feet. He staggered as the guards manhandled him down from the vehicle and in through a narrow doorway flanked by steel shutters, into a fluorescent-lit corridor and then on down into the building beyond. The floor was shiny grey and the air felt cold after the bright dusty heat of outside.
The guards yanked him to a halt by a high desk behind a plexiglass screen. One of the guards said, “This is the fugitive control asked us to bring in.” The man behind the screen glanced at Leon, then thumbed a control on his desk. “Okay. Take him through.”
Leon was led down the passage to a doorway, then through into a small brightly-lit room where a stocky uniformed man waited beside a table. “This him?”
“He give you guys much trouble?” The man sounded amused. “Woulda thought you could’ve handled one this size, Morris.”
“Hey, anytime you want to go on docks patrol in my place you’re welcome, Miles.” The man called Miles just grinned, then looked Leon up and down. “Okay, let’s do it. Strip him.” The guards moved in and one unlocked the cuffs from Leon’s wrists: as soon as he felt his arms free, Leon lunged away towards the door – but the two guards had been expecting this move and they were on him at once, getting a neck-lock on him and forcing him back until he choked. Over by the table, Miles whistled softly. “Need any help, guys?”
“Ah, fuck you, Miles – “ The guard called Morris drove a punch hard into Leon’s stomach. “Don’t need no help for a piece of gos-se like this - ” His fist landed again and Leon sagged in the other guard’s grip. The guard let him go and Leon fell to his knees, white-faced and gasping. Quickly and efficiently the two guards bent over him and stripped off his clothes and moneybelt, tossing them to Miles who searched through them on the table. Leon finished up kneeling naked on the floor, trying to get his breath.
Miles finished searching the clothes, then tossed them into a secure box. “Nothing there. He’s clean.” He took some grey clothes from the table, a rough shirt and some trousers, and threw them down onto the floor next to Leon. “Get dressed.” Leon looked at the uniform, then up at Morris and the other guard standing over him. With one hand he pulled the clothes towards himself and began to put them on. As soon as he was done the two guards shoved him out of the room and onwards into the building. They paused at an alcove manned by another uniformed guard, who motioned Leon forward. He was pushed into place and his chin and forehead pressed against a cold metal rest, one eye set against a scanner. A bright light flashed and blue light flared in his vision. As a hand on his shoulder jerked him back he thought, Retinal scan, and the cold fear settled in the pit of his stomach began to grow.
The two guards took him to a cell and left him there. It was a small windowless room with a bed-shelf and nothing else. As the door locked the light inside the cell switched off, sending everything into darkness. Leon groped to the bed and sat down on it, resting his arms on his knees and letting his head hang down. He stared into the dark, feeling the floor cold against his bare feet. After a moment he lifted his hands to his head. Inside his mouth his tongue explored gingerly, finding a cut where the guard’s punch in the alleyway had driven his lip against his teeth. On the side of his face where the punch had connected there was a warm, throbbing glow. Had worse. You can take it. He let his arms drop to his aching ribs, focussing on the pain, because he didn’t want to think about what was coming next. Retinal scan. So they’ll confirm my ID. Only got juve stuff on record, nothing they can bust me for now, but they know who I am. Kao. But why’d they pull me in? They can’t know about Jake, about me working with him. Can they? How would they know that?
He sat there motionless, staring into the darkened cell. After some time the cell light flickered back to brightness and he looked up at it. Then his gaze switched to the door as the lock released with a click and it opened to reveal two security guards. “Get up.”
Leon stood slowly, eyes wary as one of the guards entered the cell carrying a set of cuffs. The man pulled Leon’s wrists together in front of him and cuffed them tightly, then shoved him forwards out of the cell. They escorted him down the passage, stopping in front of another door. At the guard’s push in his back Leon moved into the room. Like his cell it was grey-walled, low-ceilinged, and windowless; near the far wall stood a narrow table, supported on two low trestles. Leon’s attention shifted quickly to something closer to hand: a large desk with an empty chair facing it. Behind the desk sat Elton Nash, reading information from a databook. He didn’t look up as they came in, taking a while to finish his scrutiny of the text in front of him. After a minute he laid the screen on the desk and looked up at Leon with cold grey eyes. “Sit him down.”
Leon felt one of the guards grip his shoulder, push him down to sit in the chair in front of Nash’s desk. Nash rested his hands on the desktop, fingers interlaced. “So. Leon Rachid, I believe. Or so the records say.” His gaze surveyed Leon steadily. “I’m Sheriff Nash, chief of security on Beylix. And I’d like to have a little talk with you, Leon.”
Leon met Nash’s grey eyes, but said nothing. The sheriff leaned forwards slightly. “You’ve been in trouble with the law before. Got quite a little history of misdemeanours. Petty theft… Handling stolen goods… Hardly a credit to society.” Leon still kept silent. “Still, those minor infractions happened a while ago, according to the Cortex. But now you have something far more serious to worry about, Leon. Associating with and assisting a known federal fugitive and war criminal, in fact.”
Leon kept his gaze doggedly on the sheriff, face revealing nothing. Nash watched him for a moment longer… Then leaned back in his chair. “This can go one of two ways. You can co-operate and answer my questions fully and truthfully. That’ll stand you in good stead when you go before the authorities; they’re likely to look more leniently on someone who demonstrates that they’ve seen the error of keeping bad company.” He smiled a small, brief smile. “Taking into account your youth as well, they may be inclined to favour you with a short sentence. You could be free within twelve months.”
There was a long silence. Then Nash leaned forward, and when he spoke again every trace of humour was gone. “Or it can go the other way. Mess with me… and I will break you. I will break you and you’ll tell me what I want to know. Then I’ll make sure you stand trial and never see daylight again.” His voice was soft but cut through the silence. “A young prisoner like yourself, sentenced to one of the federal high security prisons… No doubt you’ll be very popular.” Now the voice had a mocking edge. “I imagine the long-termers will give you a while to settle in, wait to see how tough you are. Then one day someone’ll make their move. Wait until the guards are busy elsewhere and jump you in a dark corner and rape you. And if you put up a fight they’ll beat you, and then they’ll rape you.” Leon kept his eyes in the captain’s face, not looking away. “Happens all the time. The guards look the other way, so I’m told. And once those kind of men have had a taste of you, they’ll come back for more.” He leaned his elbow on the desk, then rested his chin on his fist. “You’ll be in there a long time, Leon. Maybe the rest of your life.” He let the words hang a moment. “So tell me. Which way do you want it to be?”
Leon swallowed, then his lips parted. Nash looked expectant; then Leon spat out a short reply. “Chur ni-duh!”
Nash’s eyes flickered, then he let a thin smile cross his face. “All right.” He looked up at the two guards. “Fix him up.” They moved quickly and efficiently, hauling the startled Leon up from the chair and shoving him across the room to the low narrow table near the wall. Before the youth could react the guards pushed him to lie back on the table. Leon struggled to sit up but one guard pinned him down whilst the other secured a length of rope across his chest. It was pulled tight, then they started to hold down his wrists, bringing another rope around to secure him to the table. Leon kicked out with his legs, letting out a wordless yell. A blow landed in his stomach: his legs were grabbed and forced down to the table, then tied down like the rest of him.
“This’d go a whole lot easier if you just co-operated, Leon.” Nash had left his desk and moved across the room, to stand near the head of the table.
“Hwoon dahn – Let me go!” Leon strained against the ropes binding him to the table.
Nash smiled. “Patience, son. We’ve got as much time as it takes. How long it takes, is up to you.” He nodded at the guards: moving together, they bent and removed the trestle supporting the end of the table where Leon’s head lay, then lowered that end of the table to the ground. Leon felt the jolt as it met the floor, the blood rushing to his head; stared upwards to where Nash’s face was suddenly in his view. “What the hell - ”
“Sometimes a little shift in perspective can put a whole different spin on things.” Nash pulled up the chair and sat down. “Something about being upside down, can make a man feel… vulnerable.”
“Hell with you.” Leon’s heart was hammering, but he tried to keep his voice steady. “What you gonna do, give me shiatsu?”
“No.” Nash rested his hands on his knees. “But as you’re lying there comfortably, Leon, I’ll make the picture a little clearer for you. The federal powers-that-be grant local law enforcers absolute authority to deal with suspected serious criminals. As sheriff here I’m empowered to use whatever means I deem necessary to achieve security. And Beylix is kind of an outpost.” He smiled. “Core worlds have their quota of bleeding hearts who whine about civil liberties, but out here there’s a certain – flexibility – about the methods used to maintain order.”
“Like torturing anyone you don’t like the look of?” Leon strained against the ropes pinning him to the table.
“You chose this way, Leon. Too late to cry about it now.” Nash folded his arms. “Unless you’re ready to see sense… And tell me about your associate, Jacob Ryder.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” answered Leon.
“Yes, you do.” Nash picked up his databook, keyed in some commands. “We know you hang with Ryder. We have the two of you recorded together on Paquin four months ago.” He held up the screen, with its security camera capture.
“Half the ‘Verse passes through Paquin, one time or another,” replied Leon, not looking at the screen. “You could get a picture of me there with just about anyone.”
“You and Ryder,” said Nash, tapping the screen. “How do you know him, Leon?”
“I told you - I don’t know him.”
Nash laid the databook down and regarded him steadily. “On the possibility that you may not be in possession of all the facts, I’ll fill you in. Ryder’s a war criminal. He’s wanted for involvement in the deaths of innocent civilians, as well as Alliance soldiers. He made a pretty penny trading in arms during a war which cost the lives of thousands of people. So if you have any misguided thoughts about shielding your friend through loyalty, I’d advise you to think again. This is no dashing smuggler we’re talking about: Ryder is scum. He’s a profiteering lowlife who built his fortune on top of a mound of dead people. And I’d hate to see you throw away your whole future on some misguided attempt to shield him.”
“Thanks for the advice.” Leon stared straight up at the ceiling, keeping his voice steady. “If I had any idea who this guy was I’d stay away from him, but as I don’t - ”
“If I were you I’d stop wasting time, Leon. We know you know Ryder: it’s a matter of record. Denying it will just buy you pain. You were with him on Paquin.”
“Tsai boo shr…” Leon shook his head, his mouth set in a stubborn line. Nash smiled briefly. “You were with him on Paquin. I think you’re part of his crew. Which means he’s set down on Beylix somewhere and sent you into town on an errand.” He smiled slightly. “Buying a converter… So Ryder has engine trouble. Which means he’s waiting for you to get back before he can take off. Isn’t that so?” Leon kept his jaw set. Nash leaned in closer. “If I were you, I’d start talking.”
Leon lifted his gaze and turned it on the sheriff. “Tah mah duh hwoon dahn jiou cha wen!” Nash narrowed his eyes. He sat back and jerked his head at one of the guards. The man bent to one side, out of Leon’s field of sight: when he reappeared he was holding a bucket. Nash smiled down at Leon. “I think maybe we need to wash out that mouth of yours, son.”
The guard tipped the bucket and suddenly cold water was flooding into Leon’s face, blinding him, filling his mouth and nose. He choked, twisting his head to one side: the water followed, pouring steadily down on him. He couldn’t hear, couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe -
Then the water stopped. Leon coughed and spat, air catching harshly in his lungs. He managed to open his eyes. The guard was backing away with the bucket, giving room for Nash to lean in close to him. “Wake you up any?” The sheriff was smiling. “Feel like talking now?”
“Wah tsao duh liao mahng - ” Leon’s retort was cut short as the guard stepped forward again with the water. This time it went on for longer: Leon ran out of air and inadvertently gulped water as it poured into his nose and mouth. He choked and felt water burning into his lungs. Panic surged through him as he began to gag, his body jerking against the ropes that held him down.
Then once again the stream of water stopped. Leon was shaken by coughing, then managed to draw in a sobbing gasp of air. Nash spoke close beside him, low and harsh. “There’s plenty of water, Leon. We can keep this up as long as you do. Is that what you want?” He gestured at the guards behind him. “This doesn’t stop till you start co-operating. Dong ma?”
Leon swallowed, his body shivering against the table. His eyes lifted to Nash’s. After a moment, gulping a shaking breath, he said in a wavering voice: “Jien tah-duh guay - ” He swallowed again. “Go tsao duh hwoon dahn - ”
Nash leaned back. “All right. If that’s the way you want it.” He nodded at one of the guards, who stepped forward with a cloth. The man bent down over Leon’s head and pulled the cloth tightly over his face, despite the youth’s efforts to twist his face away. Blinded by the cloth, Leon could only hear the movements of the man above him - then the water poured down again, soaking through the cloth, forcing it against Leon’s mouth and nose, cutting off the air. Panic locked his throat tight as he fought keep the water out of his lungs, tried to breathe out through his nose. Then all his breath was spent and he began to drown.
Nash watched dispassionately as the youth jerked and struggled on the table, all the muscles of his body fighting uselessly against suffocation. He let the guard continue pouring the water until Leon’s convulsions began to weaken; then he made a brief gesture. “Enough.” The guard set aside the bucket, then reached down and roughly dragged the soaked cloth from Leon’s head. The youth drew in a strangled, whooping breath, then began to cough up water. After several seconds he lay shuddering on the table, breath sobbing in and out through his open mouth.
Nash waited for some time, watching the young crewman: at last he spoke. “Let me tell you something, Leon.” Leon’s head turned unsteadily to one side: water drenched his face, which had become a sick white. “We’re going to find your friend Ryder anyway. We’re running a groundscan right now; it’s only a matter of time until we locate his ship and pick him up. So it doesn’t matter whether you talk or not.” He spread out his hands, palms upwards. “You could tell me where he’s landed and that’ll save some time and trouble. But whatever you do, Ryder’s not getting off this planet.” He smiled at the youth. “So there’s no point in you doing this. It won’t help Ryder. But if you start co-operating, you could help yourself.”
“…No…” Leon shook his head unsteadily, his voice ragged. Nash looked down into the young crewman’s face. “Don’t be so quick to make your mind up, son. You’ve the rest of your life ahead of you. Don’t throw it away by making the wrong decision here. Take your time.”
“Don’t need…time.” Leon managed to lift his head to meet Nash’s gaze. “I’m not talking… to you, or to any other fed ass-kissing tzang-huo - ”
“Okay, Leon. You think you can play games with me? You think that because you’re young I’ll go easy on you? Think again. You’re an associate of a known war criminal and smuggler. Under the rule of law, you can face the full penalty. And I’ll make sure that you do.” With that Nash turned away, gesturing at the guard who forced the cloth back over Leon’s head, choking the youth’s protest into a muffled cry.
Nash watched impassively, eyes cold as Leon’s body convulsed under another stream of water. This time the youth began to gag and struggle more quickly, his body jerking uncontrollably against the ropes. Nash let it continue for longer, sitting with arms folded. As the seconds passed Leon’s movements began to grow weaker; then they stopped. Nash let out a grunt, then nodded at the guard.
This time when the cloth was pulled away from Leon’s face he lay motionless, his face white, eyes shut. The guard checked at Leon’s neck for a pulse, then looked up at Nash. “He’s out cold, sir.”
Nash let out an irritated breath. “Put him back in his cell.”
“Yessir.” Both guards began to unfasten the ropes holding Leon to the table, whilst Nash collected his databook from the desk. He tapped a button on his comlink. “This is Nash. What progress have we made with the groundscan for Ryder’s ship?”
“The scan’s continuing, sir. We’ve covered two quadrants so far but no readings yet.”
“Then put more men on it. I want that ship found before it gets dark.”
Sunday, February 3, 2008 9:19 AM
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