Luck of the Dragon: Hobson's Choice© 2008 by Walter Reimer
(Songmark and characters courtesy of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
The black-furred paw wielded the chopsticks deftly, scooping up another mouthful of noodles as Shin enjoyed her lunch. It wasn’t quite dinner time, but she felt she needed a snack. While she chewed a shadow fell across her plate, and she smiled up at Tatiana as the sable took a seat across from her. “Hello,” the red panda said while touching her muzzle with a napkin. “What’s going on?”
The Russian sable shrugged. “One hears things, if their ears are open,” she said evasively. “I am enjoying a very pleasant afternoon.” A waiter approached, and she pointed at Shin and said, “I’ll have what she is having, p’zhalst.”
Shin frowned. “’One hears things’ – I take it that something’s going on?”
“Only with your family,” and the mustelid grinned. “What has been going on?”
“You’re going to be amazed when I tell you this,” and Shin related what she’d learned. When she finished, Tatiana sat back with a surprised look on her face.
“A policefur telling the truth is not unheard of,” the sable said finally. There was a pause in the conversation as she accepted a bowl of noodles and a cup of tea from the waiter. “Is an unorthodox tactic, to be sure. But this Stagg is an unorthodox man.”
“He’s as incorruptible as the Chief,” Shin grumbled, “and less violent – and a lot smarter - than that native fox who tags along with him. No wonder a lot of people on Krupmark pray for his early demise.”
“All they do is pray?” Tatiana’s tone was amused.
The Chinese girl grinned sourly, sipping her tea. While it was true that certain people did pray on Krupmark, what they did in the old church near the Hill wasn’t something she wanted to dwell on.
What she had seen of it looked like fun, though.
She set her cup down before replying, “It’s like this: We know that the Althing could ask the Naval Syndicate to wipe us off the map, and they’d do it cheerfully. So we try to avoid killing policefurs so close to home. One did try something – hired an assassin to bump Stagg off. Pretty good one. Brush sent his ashes back, and the guy who sent him died. Messily too, from what Brigit and I heard last New Year’s.”
“So that was what happened in January?”
“Part of it.” She glanced past the sable. “Uh oh. This can’t be good.”
“What is it?” Tatiana asked, certain muscles tensing as she prepared to throw herself out of her chair.
“Liberty. And she . . . she looks happy.” Both girls stared at each other as Shin stressed the word; it wasn’t usual for the New Haven girl to look so pleased without cause.
“There you are!” the half-coyote said. “I’ve been looking for you, Bryzov.”
Shin raised an eyebrow and slowly slid her chair back. If she was going to referee this fight, she wanted to be clear of the action. Of course, if she also wanted to take bets on it, she’d be in a good position for that as well.
Privately she gave Tatiana the better odds; she was at the right height to punch Liberty in the solar plexus before the New Havenite could strike first.
Tatiana regarded the canine coolly. “Oh?”
“Yes.” Liberty grinned. “I’ve just gotten the news that Comrade Trotsky’s disgraceful show trial at the paws of your precious Comrade Starling was shown to be what it was – a pure sham perpetrated by a revisionist cabal.”
“Really, Liberty?” Shin asked. “Tell me all about it.”
The half-coyote spared the red panda a glance. “Do you really care?”
“No, it’s just idle curiosity,” Shin said truthfully.
“I’ll remember that, Wo.” Liberty’s tail twitched as she said, “An independent commission collected all of the so-called ‘evidence’ and ‘testimony’ from the trial, and after going over it they proved conclusively that Comrade Trotsky was innocent of the crimes Starling charged him with.” She snapped her fingers contemptuously under Tatiana’s nose. “Hah! That for your degenerate reactionary Starling! The Red Bird’s lost a few feathers.”
Shin watched intently as Tatiana’s ears slowly stood back up, and the sable smiled. “I heard about that two months ago, Liberty.”
“Well?” the red panda asked.
“Da. It was called the Dewey Commission, and what Liberty says is true. But the commission met in New York.” The sable grinned maliciously. “Capitalists – bourgeois - exonerated your Comrade Trotsky. Wasn’t that mentioned by the child molesters on your Committee of the Nine?” she asked sweetly.
Liberty’s eyes went wide. Her jaws moved, but only a few strangled sounds came out.
“Like I said, I heard about it two months ago,” Tatiana said, “but I did not tell you – I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.”
The half-coyote suddenly tensed, then drew herself up and stalked away without a sound.
Shin regarded her watch. “Three, two, one . . . “ She laughed at the incoherent scream of rage from around the corner.
Tatiana smiled serenely. “I honestly didn’t want to tell her.”
Shin laughed all the harder.
Hei stopped dead in his tracks as he was leaving the casino. When he had entered he had been intent on finding out about the latest fight and how much damage had been done. Looking at the broken mirror over the bar hadn’t been necessary; he knew it was broken.
But it had caught his eye, and he turned to look.
He smiled. “Ahh, yes,” he muttered, “something new has been added.”
The cheetah femme in the worn painting was fairly young, and definitely a healthy member of her species. Her pose illustrated that she was comfortable with herself and comfortable with others looking at her.
But the face . . . the face was familiar, somehow, and he thought back momentarily if Peng had hired or had any cheetahs working in the past.
Finally he recalled where he had seen that face, and he laughed all the way back to his office.
She didn’t know whether to scream or cry, but one thing was certain: she wasn’t going to go back to the Embassy and tell them. Morale was crucial, and it wouldn’t help or further the Revolution to deflate her comrades. She would keep the news to herself, no matter how it hurt her.
And she wouldn’t give the others the satisfaction, either.
Images of what she could do to Tatiana played in the back of her head, and for a while she just leaned against a wall and daydreamed of how satisfying it could be to see her blown to fragments along with her entire Embassy.
After a few minutes she straightened up and drew a paw across her nose. She squared her shoulders.
She was not going to be deterred by some bad news.
She was Liberty Morgenstern, Daughter of the Revolution.
With her training and what she was learning at Songmark, nothing would stand in her way, and nothing would stand in the way of the worldwide Revolution the Red Fist had pledged to foster.
Besides, it would be fun to see Bryzov’s inevitable comeuppance when the world finally rejected Starlingism and embraced Trotsky’s teachings.
It was the second week of June, and Shin was starting to feel nervous. She had put in her application and resume at the Pilot’s Union Hall nearly five weeks earlier, and so far she had heard nothing.
She had gone so far as to loiter around the building on her days away from classes.
At least said classes were going well, and she was confident that she’d pass the finals and practical exams for the end of term. There were times when she could almost see the third bar on her Songmark uniform.
A grizzled bear opened the door to the building and said, “You Wo Shin?”
Hearing her name made her sit up. “Yeah.”
“Come on in. I think ya got a sucker – er, a employer,” and the ursine stepped back inside.
Shin gathered up her logbook and went in after him, hardly daring to hope.
Once inside the bear waved her toward a table set along the far wall. Two men were seated there; a feline and an avian wearing cheap gray suits. The feline’s fur color was a calico pastiche of brown, white and red, and the bird had light gray feathers. Probably a pigeon.
She hoped they’d both prove to be that.
Their suits were identical, and she noticed that they both had the same kind of tie tack, a small round and curving shape in silver. She estimated that they were worth about five dollars American, since there was no engraving or gemstones on the objects.
She recognized the symbol after a moment, from her chemistry classes at Althing Gate.
A chemist’s retort.
An open briefcase sat on the table, and the two were arguing about something when the bear walked up to them. “Here’s th’ girl you asked for,” he said, indicating the red panda before he turned and walked back to his desk.
The girl they asked for? she thought, instantly on her guard for a kidnap or assassination attempt as the two stood. Outwardly, she smiled while inwardly she started trying to figure out if they were from Krupmark, Kuo Han, or some Tong or other. Neither were showing distinctive Tong markings, but that wasn’t a sure sign.
Neither looked as if they’d fought a day in their lives, either. Unless they had some muscle standing nearby (very close by), she could kill both of them if either tried for her.
“Hello, gentlemen,” she said in her most businesslike tone. “I’m Wo Shin. I was told that you asked for me?”
“We’ll get to that in a minute, ma’am,” the feline said. “First, I’m Alan Fisher, and this is Edmund Cobb.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Wo,” said the bird, and there were pawshakes all around before Fisher offered Shin a seat. She sat down as Cobb took out a pair of glasses and lifted a sheet of paper. “I’m told that you just got your license.”
He nodded, and Fisher asked, “May I see your logbook, please?”
Shin placed the small ledger on the table and the two studied it briefly. They looked at each other, and Cobb nodded. Fisher looked pleased, and the red panda asked, “I was asked for?”
The feline smiled. “Yes. As soon as Edmund and I saw your resume we knew you were particularly qualified for what we have in mind. Your logbook confirms it.”
“What Alan’s trying not to say, Mrs. Wo,” Cobb laughed, “is that your being from Krupmark Island – and the number of hours you’ve logged flying back and forth between here and there – means that you’re familiar with the area. A definite plus.”
They’d been asking around about her, and there were probably a few pilots in the union who had seen her, or knew of her family. “There are surely more qualified pilots – “ she started to say. It wouldn’t hurt to show a little humility, in the interest of gathering more information.
“There are,” Fisher said matter-of-factly, “but we’re willing to hire a junior pilot – please excuse the term – since none of the others will accept our contract.”
“Oh? You want me to fly you to Krupmark?”
The cat and the bird looked at each other, and finally Cobb said, “No. We want you to fly us to Cranium Island.”