Sitting in the chair beside him, Dru watched his brother as he piloted Alice through the black. The Osprey made its fluid path around the rusty marble below, but the man at the helm wasn't looking at Ezra. His attention was focused on the steely skyplex that floated in orbit.
Ty's eyes rolled over to look at the other Kokezaru. "You know they can see us."
"Ships fly on and off this planet," Durden replied. "Niska isn't looking for us, isn't interested in us. We're nobody headed to a remote part of the planet..."
The pilot said nothing, the pair just looking at each other for a still moment. In that silence he could read his brother like book. With all the rumors that swirled out of the Battle of Sturges you could be damn sure that any ship landing around there would draw some amount of interest from Adelai Niska, Ezra's defacto governor.
Of course, on the ground the only real law was the man left standing.
"Just... fly casual."
Sitting behind and between the brothers, one hand draped over each of their shoulders, Vanya was the only one watching the planet. It was one of the least lovely destinations they'd ever approached, and she stared across the expanse of the planet as if she could find the stain of Sturges from this height.
"Such an inviting place." Jackson said as he looked at the dust ball. "So what or who is in the space station."
"You know that monster that hid in your closet or under your bed when you were a kid?" Ty asked without look back. He jerked his chin in the direction of the skyplex, "The fellow that runs this place is who that monster was hiding from."
"That makes me feel all shades of pleasant." Jackson shuddered.
Dru steepled his fingers between the armrests of his chair and leaned against them. "Niska doesn't believe in the buried treasure any more than the Alliance does." It wasn't really the truth, and he knew it, but he sold it anyway. "He's a confidant old man with all the resources a bloodthirsty mad man could want for. As far as he's concerned, if it were there he'd have found it by now.
So, we're just shopping for cattle," he said. "Just like every other transport that dares to land here."
"I think Joe and I should have the new sensor array on line too." He pulled himself from the wall and stepped further into the cockpit. "Once we land shouldn't be nothin' to attach her to the dormouse and give us the eyes we need."
Ty shifted the controls, sending Alice into a graceful arc and roll into their approach vector. "Whatever manages to get us off this rock the fastest..."
Durden popped the lock on his chair and pushed it's swiveling arm back. "That's your response to everything." He looked up to Vanya and Flashed her a wink.
"I believe you're brother is saying that you worry too much." Jackson said with a bit of a laugh. "On a planet where the bogeyman is in the sky, the ground is the only safe place."
Tyler grunted, "Not here it ain't."
They broke through the bottom cloud layer, but that was as close to the ground as Tyler would take the Looking Glass. After a while he pointed towards a dark patch on the horizon, "There's our happy hunting grounds. Sturges... or what's left of it."
The only real city ever to be built on Ezra, Sturges was now little more than a scabrous pile of twisted metal and concrete marring the landscape. A new settlement had sprung up on the outskirts of the ruined city, and it was outside this, that Tyler set Alice down in a billow of dust.
"Alright," as Alice cooled down, Durden jabbed the ship's intercom with a thumb. "Joe? Let's get the mouse prepped." He looked back over his shoulder to where Jackson was already heading for the doorway. "Get your gear and meet us out back. We'll put it on the ground and get to work. I hope you've got what you need. I don't think we're gonna find much in the way of supplies in town."
He looked back outside. The small town sat far enough in the distance that the small buildings barely stood taller than the heard of cattle that was being rustled between them. "I don't think this is the place we wanna get stranded for parts."
Tyler sat in the cockpit of the dormouse, going over the pre-flight check for the third time when a rooster tail of dust from the direction of Enola caught his eye.
"Da-shiang bao-tza shr duh lah doo-tze! Dru, we got company!" Tyler exchanged his datapad for his sidearm and headed out the hatch.
Joe stuck his head out from the open panel in the dormouse's floor. "Problem?"
The cabin was already empty.
Hearing the quick trotting of feet down the gangplank Jackson's head jutted out from under the shuttle's belly, where he had been attaching the array to the wires Alice's young electrician had been feeding him. "Problem?"
Durden stood beside the ship, leaning against the dormouse's nose. "When isn't there?"
Squinting into the dirty cloud that was now rising high into the air ahead of them he could make out two horses flanking a mule bike. "We have ourselves a welcoming party." The sun hit one of the mounted riders with a familiar glint of almost blue light. A Herkimer carbine rifle.
Dru tucked his brown coat behind the hilt of his peacemaker. "It don't look much like they're bringing us muffins."
"That's a shame," Jackson said glumly, "I would kill for a muffin right now."
"Really thinkin' now's not the best time to use the k word." Joe's heavily muffled voice filtered through the ship between them.
"Can't be anything we can't handle." He grinned.
"Famous last words." The boy grumbled.
Following Tyler down the gangplank, though with far more grace, Vanya hugged a shawl around her shoulders as she watched the dust rise. "Well that didn't take long.".
"Not much to hide a boat outside of town on flat land like this." The clean shaven Kokezaru, looked her way. "I count us lucky if this is all the attention we warrant while we're here."
They were closer now. "I count four."
Though it sounded like an agreement, Dru knew his brother was calling sides. If things got hairy, it was always good to be sure you weren't shooting at the same man. He slipped a hand under his coat and drew his other pistol. "Jackson." He dropped it behind him onto the dusty ground and slid it back with his heel.
Jackson looked down at the gun in the dusty ground, and then to the back of Dru's head. His eyes then connected briefly with Vanya before he pulled his Python 6 LG from it's holster on his hip and shrugged at her.
With just the hint of a smile, the companion knelt to retrieve the gun. Crossing her arms over her chest, she tucked the weapon into the silk of her clothing and decided not to mention that if it actually did become necessary she'd be using her own gun. "Boys."
Jackson's eyes then turned toward their guests. "Four on four." He muttered as he walked up to Dru. "Even odds, but I don't think startin' this excursion with a blood bath is an alltogether brilliant idea."
"Ain't our plan. Ain't looking for a fight," Dru said, his eyes still trained on the visitors, "but I've been shot at enough to know I'd rather be prepared."
The rumble of hooves was upon them, falling into a slow trot in a low cloud of dry soil. The mule between the horses came to a stop with the choke of an old motor thick with dust. The rifleman's mount backed up with a few steps with a snort of its own.
"Afternoon, gentlemen." Dru spoke before any of them could. He looked from the Herkimer up to the polished silver star pinned to the man's vest. A cursory glance to the others found the driver and the other mounted rider similarly emblazoned. The mule's passenger was hidden behind the glare of of the windshield, but the math was enough.
They were Lawmen, and Ezra was famously lawless. The only law around here was the gun, doubly so since the war. Niska floating above, keeping any sort of order even the Alliance might bring at bay only made matters worse.
The mule's driver rose, revealing a double barrel shotgun. He leaned on the windshield.
Durden's arm hung beside his sidearm. "Something we can do you for?"
"You can go home." The driver, clearly a man of few words, turned his head slowly to meet Durden's face. His eyes, like his voice, were tired but he continued to lean against the windshield as if expecting them to comply as soon as the wisdom of his words sunk in.
"Now, that ain't friendly." Dru stared at the man. He gave him a smile that was pleasant enough. "We're not here to cause you no trouble. We just."
"We know why you're here." The mounted deputy on the left spoke tersely. "You can pack up and head out." His thumb clicked back the hammer of his pistol. "Or you can find trouble whether you're lookin' for it or you ain't..."
Durden's eyes narrowed. "Not sure where that hot tongue is comin' from, but I assure you we got no designs on you or your town. We'll be on our way before you know it." His fingers graze the handle of his Peacemaker. "And I would take it as a kindness if you ease up on that iron."
The driver sighed, a dusty exhale that seemed to quiet the area more than shouts. Or shots. "You'll be on your way now." His gaze traveled Alice's less than mint condition lines then, very deliberately, he turned his head to the tall, weathered trees that stood not far from the landing point. "We've seen more of our share of folks with no designs on our town. Hung more than a few of them right over there."
"Lovely place this." Jackson muttered to Vanya as he rubbed his neck.
The companion gave him a quick 'shhh' then leaned a little closer to whisper, "I'm sure it's not the worst you've seen."
"Remind me to tell you about the moon where they juggle geese." He winked.
Tyler stepped up next to Dru. "We were hired to do an aerial survey of the ruins," he lied, "with any luck this is only contact with the ground our folks will need to be requirin'."
The man on the mount laughed. "Hired? Hired by who." He leaned over on his horse. "Alliance got no interest in this place 'n any thing or one on it no more."
Ty fixed the rider with a steely gaze. "As I don't see any authority about you other than that burner you're itchin' to use, I can't see how it's any of your gorram business. If our employer," Ty's eyes flicked briefly to the sky above, "didn't see fit to notify the locals... well, that's not really our problem is it?"
It was a bluff, one Ty hoped they wouldn't call. He watched the mounted lawman on the right. He clearly looked nervous at the implication. A feeling of relief had almost begun to settle in when the driver of the mule spoke.
"This badge is all the authority we need." He flicked the silver star on his chest. "And as such we've seen every ship that's paid a visit to these grounds; that includes the devil above. Niska's done his speculatin' and moved on. And never once did his people bring a lady." He shook his head, cocking the shotgun in his hands. "Now we've asked you nice. We ain't going to ask you again."
"And if you raise that there shot gun I promise you there won't be any hangings, but there will a few fresh holes to dig." Durden's hand was on his pistol, but kept it in its holster. "We've been polite and considerate, but you're testing my patience. Would've been nice and easy to put you lot down while you came up, but that's no way to make friends. You don't know me from Adam, but I tell you now as you sit there on your horse... you don't not wanna be friends right now."
There as a cold silence there in the dusty field. It hung there for a moment before being broken by a low, almost gravely laugh. "I'll be a goddamned Ai Chr jze se Duh Fohn Diang Gho..."
The man seated beside the driver gripped the lip of the windshield that blocked him from view and pulled himself up. He was an older man, his dark hair cropped short to mask his balding faded right into the salt and peppered beard. On his left the sleeve of his coat hung loose and empty. His lip curled in a thin grin as he looked at Looking Glass' crew. "The Kokazaru brothers..."
Durden blinked. "Wong ba Duhn..." His hand fell off his pistol.
"What?" The mechanic's hand itched the butt of his gun. "Is this a good Wong ba Duhn or a bad Wong ba Duhn? And why do I feel like I need a scorecard."
The man in the mule stepped out onto the ground. He was a bit on the tall side and a little stocky, the way a man tended to get when he let himself go a little with age. He stepped out into the middle of their circle and surveyed Alice and then her crew.
"And this is your bird..."
Dru walked toward him, shaking his head. There was a tense moment of quiet then the two clapped an arm around each other, laughing. "Captain Doyle," he said, shaking his head and stepping back an arms length, gripping the older man by the shoulder. "What the hell are you doing on this godforsaken rock?"
"War's done, sergeant. Just Wen now. Though," he tapped the golden star on his coat, "Sheriff will do, if you can't let go of the formality."
Vanya hid a smile as she leaned over to whisper to Jackson again. "In case you're still wondering, that was a good Wong ba Duhn."
"I figured that part out thanks." Jackson rolled his eyes. "So, I take it you know each other?"
"You could say that." Dru was grinning at the man. "This old buzzard was my commanding officer for a good part of the war." He looked off to the wreckage of what was once the planet's capital. "Including a rather ugly stint here..."
"Yeah, I heard about what happened here." Jackson heaved a heavy sigh.
"Wasn't much about the war that was," Tyler said, gripping the man's hand warmly. "Though I do recall with some fondness your ugly mug working a search and rescue mission for a certain downed flyboy."
"Not much choice in the matter." The older man's scarred face turned up in a rather lopsided smile. "I had a good sergeant who was planning on running one by himself, orders be damned. Couldn't let one of my decent men going off half cocked and getting himself killed."
"I appreciate that."
Doyle nodded, turning back to the mule. "Why don't we take this pow-wow back to town." He shuffled back toward his ride, now showing the slightest limp. "I can get you all a little hot meal and a drink, and you all can share with me just what it is you're really doing outside of my town."
Raucous laughter echoed throughout the small saloon in what had been a near continuous roll since the sheriff and Alice's crew arrived. Food and drink flowed freely on a river of memories that had nearly unrestrained laughter bubbling from Vanya and had Joe hanging with rapt glee on the edge of every word.
"So then these two," Doyle waved a hand between Ty and Dru, "tear off chasin' a squad of purple bellies down this narrow ravine, hollerin' like a couple of maniacs."
Doyle starts to chuckle so much, he has to stop his tale. He downs his laughter along with a shot of whisky before he can go on. "Anyway, they come around this blind corner and what do they find waiting for them?"
Another shot glass slams down on the table, "A whole gorram regiment is what."
"Sounds like the two Sa Gwas I hooked with." Jackson ran his hand through his closely cropped hair. He laughed as he took another shot.
Resting her cheek against delicately folded hands, Vanya's eyes sparkled as she watched the table. No matter what the reason, or how random the circumstances, it felt good to see the twins laugh. It hadn't happened enough lately. Reaching out under the table, she hooked her foot behind Dru's leg. The story telling would come to an end soon enough.
Durden's eyes rolled over to Vanya's and she smiled back, a couple vibrant curls dropping in front of her cheek. His own smile was hidden behind the rim of his glass as he drank.
"So," he took a deep sighing breath as he leaned back in his chair and dropping his emptied glass heavily on the table, "Sheriff Doyle..."
Across the table the older man's face turned up in a half smirk. He shook his head just a little, as if he'd heard that tone a hundred times before.
Durden gave the waitress a pleasant smile as she refilled his glass from an opaque pitcher. "Sounds to me like you've had a bit of trouble dealing with treasure hunters. Enough trouble that you and your band of merries over there," he gave a jog of the head toward the bar where two of their greeting party still stood, "felt the need to come down with a greetin' party armed to the teeth."
The old soldier grunted. "We've had every rotten bastard in the black come down this way, trying to scavenge what they can from that gorram war." He shifted, leaning over the table on his elbows. "These are good, hardworking folk, and the spoils of war ain't no basis for tourist trade we don't want. Pirates and brigands and every manner a' wei shian dohn wu."
Doyle's gaze drifted away from the table. He looked over the handful of people that sat in the tables around them. "When their prospecting comes up empty they come to town and take out their frustrations on my people." He picked up his drink. but didn't drink it. "In bits and pieces we've rebuilt this whole town three times over in the past seven years..."
Vanya's head inclined slightly, watching Doyle as he watched his people. "Three times. That says a lot for the resiliency of your town, Sheriff." Her lips curled in a smile. "Of course, if there were any truth to the rumors about treasure, you'd have used it to help with the rebuilding."
He nodded. "We looked a few times ourselves." He looked her in the eyes. His hand absentmindedly rubbed the empty left sleeve of his jacket. "There's no hidden treasure, just the remnants of a bloody war. But if you know people, you know there's no tellin' them. All they hear is how it ain't been found yet."
"Or worse, I imagine." She didn't look away as his hand traveled over the ghost of his arm. "Any denial from you just makes them certain that you're the one's who've found it and hidden it from them. All the more reason for them to take their anger out on your town." She paused and reached for her glass, holding it near her lips in a small toast. "It makes the fact that you stay all the more impressive."
"Yeah," Jackson nodded, "for what you have here, you've really made a good home here."
Doyle laughed derisively, "This place is a piece of gossa, son," he took a long pull off ale from his glass, "we're falling apart at the seams here, but we're doing everything we can to make this place a home." He looked around at the people in the bar again. "The worst part is what's in the sky." His voice was nothing more than a whisper.
Both the Kokezaru brothers both nodded with recognition.
"The sky?" Jackson questioned in the same quiet tone that Doyle spoke in.
Doyle nodded, but didn't say anything. He took another pull from his drink.
"We'll explain later." Dru said with a look that told Jacks that he should leave it alone.
Jackson nodded. "Hooo-kay," Jackson took another swig. "So if you all have looked for the load before," he said changing the subject "any suggestions of where not to look?"
The old war horse laughed. "Every where. I'm telling you. There is nothing there. It's a gorram legend, son."
"Hrm..." Durden looked down into the circle of his glass at its contents. His face reflected back at him in its dark brown liquid. "We've got reason to think otherwise."
Doyle looked across the table. "Do you now." His tone was a little cooler than it had been just seconds ago.
Dru nodded. "We've compiled some... information at the behest of a few independent sources, and it appears to add up."
The older man's mouth twisted. "You're playing with fire this town doesn't need."
"Maybe." He took a drink from his glass. He gave a cursory look around them. "And maybe we're digging up a fire this town could really use."
"If I may be so bold, sir." Jackson leaned in closer as his voice became a whisper, "You love these people and this place, I can tell. But this planet is barely habitable; these people are barely scraping by. If we find what we're after, I'm sure I speak for my shipmates when I say that I'm sure we could spare some of the proceeds to help you revitalize this area."
The sheriff was considering what the men had been saying. "Don't think I haven't considered it." He rubbed his empty sleeve absentmindedly.
"We're not askin' for help here, Sheriff." Ty leaned on the table. "Just your blessing."
Wen Doyle was grumbling. Even if it was out of the resignation of knowing who he was dealing with he seemed about to agree when a bright young voice called through the bar.
"Wo Bu Shin Wo Dah Yan Jing!" The eyes around the table swiveled to find a young man standing over them. "The Kokezaru brothers? Is that your Osprey outside town? What the hell are you doing here?"
He was thin, almost gangley, and wore a smile nearly as wide as he was tall. His bright brown eyes which flashed over to the sheriff. "They here to help out?"
"Tom?" The recognition flashed across his face. It had been so long since he had last seen Tom Patrick that he didn't recognize him at first. He was just a boy then. Too young to fight. Too young to live with the the things he had seen. "Tommy P?" When he went missing that night the whole company was certain he was dead.
He flashed a look at Wen Doyle. "How?"
Doyle shrugged, a small smile coming back. "Just showed up one day with a small group looking to settle down."
"Another old war buddy I'd wager?" Jackson stood and offered his hand to Tom.
"More like a drowned puppy we pulled outta the river and wouldn't quit followin' us," Dru half stood as Tom shook hands with him, "but he was a hell of a kid. Where did ya get off to?"
Tom sat down next to Durden and hung his head. "I was banged up pretty bad everything went black an' the next thing I knew I was in a purple belly prison camp hospital. Spent the rest of the war in that gorram place." A dark shadow crossed his young face.
Jackson was feeling more uncomfortable for by the second. He had definitely been on the wrong side of the war.
A gentle hand came to rest on his arm. Vanya gave Jacks a soft curl of a smile before returning her hand to her lap. "I was very sheltered from it. But I know there were so many horrible places to spend the war. And I haven't heard half the stories." For a moment the light in her eyes was somewhat distant. Then she shook the curls back from her face and turned the smile to her brothers. "But I'm sure I will if we spend more time here."
Tyler shook his head, a small, amused smile on his face. "I think that's Mei Mei's polite way to say we need ta get back ta the subject at hand." Dru drained his glass and ordered another round. "So you alright with us doing our business, old man?"
Doyle took his time answering. He looked down into his mug of beer like he was trying read tea leaves. He, Doyle, looked up at Tom and the to the two brothers. A worried smile crossed his face, the wrinkles around his eyes deepening. "I can see there's no talking you boys out of this so I ain't gonna." Doyle shook his head. "You lads just keep your part of the bargain."
Tyler leaned back in his seat, fixing Dolye with a mock look of shock and bewilderment. "C'mon, Wen, how many times have we let you down?"
Doyle chuckled, "Since I've only got one hand to count on, I guess that means I need to kick off my boots - both of them - to give an accurate number."