1600 hours, ship’s time
“This is a terrible plan, Johnson.”
“You say that every time, Letestu. It’s worked well before.”
Artem swiveled his head between the two of them like he was watching a tennis match. “I thought,” he started meekly, but Macy waved a hand at him imperiously and he stopped talking.
“It’s a good plan under some circumstances, I’ll agree with you. But at the moment, it’s a terrible plan.”
Jack looked around and had to agree with her. It was a terrible plan.
1400 hours, ship’s time
The thing was, it was a simple plan, as far as plans went. Jack liked simple plans, they allowed a much larger margin for error.
Macy, Jack and Artem would go ashore to meet with the customer, deliver the package, and collect the other half of their payment. Jack went because he was the Captain, and they were expecting him. Macy went because she was the fastest draw on the crew, and the best among them at close-quarters combat (not to mention everyone always underestimated the woman). Artem went because they needed a third person to help carry the package.
(The selection of the third crewmember to help carry the package had gone like this:
“Wiz, you have to stay with the ship in case we need to make a quick getaway.”
“Dubi, you’re supposed to be backing us up from a distance, you can’t go.”
“I can’t bring all three of you, we have to pick just one.”
“Let’s take Artie.”
“Why him? Why not me?”
“He’s bigger. He looks more intimidating. You two are tiny.”
“Aww, Macy. . . “)
After considerable pouting from Matt and Cammie, Jack had assigned Matt to be Dubi’s backup and Cammie with Wiz to watch the ship. Cammie had complained about being left out of the action until Wiz had pointed out that if the deal went south they would actually need someone on the ship who could provide covering fire, and it couldn’t be him. “Because I’ll be flying the damn thing,” he’d said. “And Bob can’t do it because he can’t shoot.”
Macy’s eyes had narrowed into slits at that. In the months since Sergei Bobrovsky had joined their crew, she had been engaged in a battle of wills with him that involved teaching him how to shoot. He maintained that he didn’t need to learn, because “Mechanic stay with ship, yes? No need. If bad guy come, good at hide, hit with wrench.” Macy was insistent that he needed to be able to use a gun in case of emergencies. Bob had nodded gravely, the first time she had given this lecture, and then managed to vanish every time she came looking for him. The rest of the crew was torn between agreeing with Macy - he really should at least learn the basics - and amusement at her reactions to their enigmatic mechanic’s vanishing act.
Cammie had finally agreed to be the final line of defense, after extracting a promise from Jack that she, Matt and Artem would rotate duties on the next job. Jack had thought about explaining that they didn’t use this plan on every single job, but eventually gave it up as a lost cause. They used it (or variations on it) often enough that it was probably useless to protest anyway.
1530 hours, ship’s time
The problem was that the plan hinged on two things - being able to arrive at the rendezvous point before the client, and cooperative terrain. They had managed the first, largely by being able to dictate the time the transfer was to take place. They were having a little bit more trouble with the second.
“This. . . is the middle of a jungle.”
“I can see that, Wiz,” Jack said patiently. “Unfortunately, this is also where we were instructed to make delivery.”
“I don’t like it,” Dubi said, standing at the top of the gangway and staring out at the jungle. “There aren’t any clean line of sights available at all.”
Macy stepped up beside him and shaded her eyes, looking around. “I agree with Dubi,” she said. “This doesn’t feel right to me.”
Jack heaved a massive sigh and looked around again, just in case something had changed in the last 30 seconds. It had not. He felt as though the jungle was staring back at him and shivered. “We need this job,” he said flatly. “We got half the money up front, true, but we need the rest of the money to buy parts Bob says he needs for the engine and to restock the ship’s supplies. Not to mention what’ll happen to us if Big Z hears we bailed. Especially if it turns out this one was legitimate.”
None of the crew looked happy at that reminder. The crew of the Blue Jacket took legitimate jobs as often as they could, but if it came down to a choice between providing for his crew and taking only legal jobs, well, Jack just didn’t see how that could be a choice at all. So when Bob had come to him while they were on Beaumonde with a list of parts that he’d need to repair their engine so she was in peak operating conditions, Jack had looked at their coffers and then gone looking for a job.
The only catch was, he didn’t know whether or not this was legitimate or a black market run. Big Z ran his gang with an iron fist, and no one asked too many questions about the origins of shipments. If you got caught asking too many questions, or you failed to complete your delivery - well. No one was sure what happened to you, but the general consensus was that it wasn’t good, and no one had ever come back from it. The risks of taking a job from Big Z were counterbalanced by the fact that he always paid and he never pulled a double-cross.
“I’m all ears if anyone has a better plan,” Jack said. When no one volunteered any ideas, he nodded sharply at everyone. “Well, then, let’s get set up. We’ve got about 30 minutes before we’re due to get visitors, so everyone grab your gear and the goods and get going.”
There were some dark mutters from Dubi and Matt, who were looking at the trees surrounding the meeting place with the resigned expressions of men who recognized that the best surveillance locations would involve a lot of climbing and balancing, but the crew scattered to do their jobs.
1605 hours, ship’s time
“I told you this was a terrible plan,” Macy hissed, as the delegation they were supposed to meet materialized out of the trees, hauling a very much the worse for wear Matt and Dubi, who both made apologetic faces at him. Jack tried to keep his face as blank as possible, but his hands started sweating. The looks on the faces of the delegation promised nothing good.
“So,” said a tall, lean, bearded fellow, who seemed to be the leader. “You thought you’d double-cross us, hmmm? Take the payment and the goods?”
“No, sir,” Jack said, swiftly, shooting a look at Macy. Her hand had flown to her holster as soon as she’d seen Matt and Dubi with guns pointed at them, but she hadn’t drawn. Now she removed her hand from her holster slowly, but her expression promised that she could have her gun out and shooting if the locals so much as looked at Matt or Dubi the wrong way.
“Then I don’t suppose that these,” he kicked Dubi forward, and Macy’s gun hand twitched again. Dubi snarled a little at the kick but subsided when Jack sent him a warning look as well, “are yours. Found ‘em sitting up in some nice little sniper’s perches, sitting pretty and just waiting to shoot us all. If they aren’t yours, then, suppose I’d be doing you a favor if we took care of them,” and he pulled his gun from his holster and cocked it, aiming it right at Dubi.
“No!” Jack shouted, reaching out a hand. Macy snarled wordlessly beside him, her gun out and cocked and pointed right at the leader. His men all pulled their guns right back, which made Artem fumble around with his holster. He’d never been in a real firefight before, Jack remembered, even though he was a good shot, and he put a restraining hand on Artem’s shoulder. The last thing this situation needed was more guns.
“So I guess they are yours, then,” said the leader, smiling nastily and swinging his gun around to aim at Jack. “Which means you were telling me a lie, earlier, when you said you weren’t planning on pulling a double-cross. I don’t take kindly to liars, boy,” he said, cold, and Jack felt his spine lock up.
“I wasn’t lying, earlier - look, just let me explain, don’t hurt them!” he said, hurriedly, when the leader turned his gun back on Dubi. Matt, behind him, looked completely frozen in fright, and Jack felt a hopeless flash of fury in his gut. That was his crew, they were threatening his crew, he had put Matt and Dubi into unnecessary danger - and now it was up to him to get them out of it, if he could. He swallowed down his fury and looked straight at the leader, trying to communicate his utter sincerity. “We always post lookouts, standard business practice. They were just lookouts, though, we had absolutely no intention of double-crossing you, I swear to you,” he said, hearing his voice go pleading at the end as the bearded man looked unmoved.
“That may be true, or it may not be true,” he said. “No one can know what was in your own mind except for yourself, and I’m inclined to believe that you’re more likely to be lying to save your own skin.” He jerked his head at Matt and Dubi. “Kill ‘em,” he said. “Then kill them all.”
“No, no, wait!” Jack yelled. “Wait, please, we’ll trade you for them.”
The leader cocked his head at Jack and looked at him quizzically. “And just what do you think that you have that I would want?” he said.
Jack swallowed. “This cargo,” he said, indicating the boxes that he, Macy and Artem had hauled down from the ship as Dubi and Matt had selected trees to climb, not 30 minutes ago. He looked over at the leader. “You can have it - we’ll put the guns down, back away. Just let them go, we’ll go away and you’ll never have to see us again.” The leader looked a little more interested at that, so Jack swallowed and repeated. “We’ll put the guns away, give you the cargo - no payment necessary, just give me back my crew, please.”
“Now that is an interesting proposition,” the leader said. “I’m even willing to entertain the possibility - but first, of course, you’ll have to put down your weapons.” Macy twitched at that, and directed a look of pure venom at the entire delegation, but she slowly uncocked her gun and put it away in her holster. She raised her hands in the air as well and deliberately took a step backwards. Her lips were pressed into such a thin line that it was impossible to see them, and her eyes were dark and haunted looking.
“Artie,” Jack said under his breath. “Take your hand off your holster too, and go back and stand with Macy.”
With great reluctance, Artem put his hands in the air and stepped back to stand next to Macy. He remained tense, though, and Jack knew that he’d probably try to throw himself in front of Macy at the first sign of trouble.
“We’ve done what you asked,” Jack said, his voice remaining steady even though he could feel the fear bubbling in his chest, waiting to break through into his voice. “Now, give me back my crew.”
“Not so fast, boy,” the leader said. “First, give me what you promised. Kesler, Burrows, Raymond - go and check the cargo.”
Three of his crew stepped forward and crossed the brief distance between the two parties, keeping their guns trained on Macy and Artie. Jack kept his own hands in the air, just in case someone had a jumpy trigger finger. They opened up the boxes and checked the contents thoroughly.
“Everything’s here, boss,” one of them reported. “No problems.”
“Good,” the leader said. “Bring them back here, then, and I’ll let your crew go.”
The three men picked up the boxes and carried them back across. As soon as they reached the group, the leader motioned at Dubi and Matt.
“Go on,” he said. “But no funny business, or it’ll be the last thing you ever do.”
Dubi glared at him, but turned and started across the way. Matt remained frozen for a split second, then hurried to follow him. Jack held his breath the entire time they spent walking towards him, and when they finally reached him he felt it escape him in a massive rush of relief.
“Thank God you’re okay,” he said, reaching out to thump Dubi on the shoulder. Dubi made a face at him.
“They made us coming into the clearing, Jack,” he said, low. “We never saw them coming. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry, that was my fault. I shouldn’t have sent you guys out there.”
“No, you should have,” Macy contradicted him, coming up beside him and scowling fiercely at both Dubi and Matt. “They should have picked better spots.”
Matt looked subdued. “Sorry, Captain,” he said, almost in tears. “I know we needed that money.”
“We did not need that money more than we needed the two of you,” Jack said firmly. “Artie, get on the horn to Wiz, tell him we need pick-up. Let Cammie know that covering fire is not necessary, please, I’d rather we didn’t get killed in an unnecessary shootout after we’ve already avoided one.”
“Yes, Captain,” said Artem, turning to fiddle with the combox. Jack felt his face pulling into the reflexive scowl - he still didn’t feel like a captain - but he let it go. Macy and Dubi appeared to be having an argument, but they were keeping their voices low enough that he couldn’t make out what they were saying. He turned back to Matt.
“Are you okay?” he asked Matt, looking him over. “You guys didn’t get hurt, did you?”
Matt shook his head. “Just bruised a little bit getting out of the tree, Captain,” he said, wiping at his eyes surreptitiously. “They didn’t even smack us around, really.”
Jack felt a bit of weight lift off his shoulders. “Good. It wasn’t your fault,” he said, reading the look on Matt’s face. “Not a bit of it. I am so sorry that I got you into this whole mess.”
“It wasn’t your fault either, Captain!” Matt protested. “It’s a good plan, usually, it keeps us from getting double-crossed!”
Jack smiled wryly. “That’s what I was telling Macy earlier. It looks like it probably would have been unnecessary, anyway - they didn’t seem like they were the type of people who go in for double-crosses.”
“That’s entirely true,” came an unfamiliar voice from behind him, and Jack spun around, his hand going to his holster before he consciously thought. One of the men from earlier was standing behind him with one eyebrow raised, looking amused. “I come in peace,” he said, raising an empty hand. “And I have something for you. Henrik is an honorable man, and he would not let you leave without your payment.” He tossed a sack that clinked to the ground in front of Jack. “And Big Z wouldn’t like it if a crew he sent didn’t get paid,” he said, flashing a swashbuckler’s smile at them before melting back into the jungle.
“They’re on their way, Captain,” Artem said, looking up from the combox. “What was that?”
“Our wages,” Jack said, bending to pick up the sack. “All of them,” he added, opening it up and looking inside. “Looks like we’ll be able to afford those parts Bob needs after all,” he said, feeling lighter than he had in days. “Let’s not go back to Beaumonde for a while, though. I’d rather not take another job like this again anytime soon.”
“Agreed,” came the chorus from his crew, then the welcome sound of the Blue Jacket’s engines as Wiz came to pick them up.