March 18, 2514
Blue Sun Cluster
This had to be one of the stranger meals Sully had ever sat down to, he thought to himself as he took a slice of bread and passed the plate on to the stranger next to him. Less than an hour ago, he had ducked aboard this ship while dodging bullets and sticks of dynamite; shortly thereafter, he had found a gun pointed in his face and had been forced to kill a man or be killed himself. Now here he was, with a one-way ticket to Persephone, being told he was working a passage he had not signed up for and, oh yeah, just maybe life-support would last the long, long three weeks it would take for the battered ship to get where it was taking them. One hoped the life-support lasted. One dearly, sincerely hoped so.
Captain Cooper had settled in a seat at the head of the table; Hoss, the big mechanic, had sat down at the opposite end. “Don’t be shy,” Hoss told everyone cheerfully, putting down a second plate of sliced bread and taking several pieces for himself. “There’s lots more, enough for seconds and thirds for everybody.”
The two womenfolk had settled in chairs across from Sully; his fellow pilot, “Halo” Williams, sat to his right, and the systems man sat to his left. “This is good!” he said -- Chang was the name, Marcus Chang. Chang was attacking his steaming bowl of soup with a healthy appetite. “Really good!” Chang said around his mouthful, making an effort to balance his manners and an evident hunger.
Everyone else around the table began applying themselves to the meal with equal sincerity, except for the lawyer, who was simply pushing her spoon around in her bowl. Sully was glad enough for the meal -- he had not eaten since arriving on Deadwood yesterday morning. And the bean soup was good, thick with onions, garlic, big burgundy beans and chunky red tomatoes which might have been recently fresh. There was even some sort of bits of meat it in -- probably really protein paste, but if so, it had been ground up fine and fried up just right so that it forgot what it was and had assumed a new identity. His mother had had a trick for that which Sully himself had never been able to duplicate. He had spent years surviving on protein paste, and had ruined many a skillet trying to make the stuff edible.
“What are the ingredients are in the soup?” the lawyer -- Abigail Baldwin was her name -- asked suspiciously, still poking at the contents of the bowl like something might come crawling out of it.
Captain Cooper looked up from her own meal and eyed the other woman with an expression that suggested she had consciously decided not to take insult. “Kidney beans, butter beans, a carrot, canned tomatoes, some protein curd fried up with onions and garlic, some pepper, vegetable broth, some salt, a pinch of herbs.”
“And the bread?” Baldwin asked, still looking dubious.
“It’s just a quick bread. Whole wheat flour, some salt, half a cup of sugar, a quart of buttermilk and a few teaspoons baking soda.”
The lawyer finally risked tasting the soup. “I do not mean to come across as needlessly finicky,” she apologized in the cultured tones of the Core, while dipping up a second spoonsful. “I am just sensitive to erythrosine and azodicarbonamide and a handful of artificial sulfides that are common in a great many processed foods. So if the meal incorporates any of those additives, preservatives or colorings, I’ll probably experience some unfortunate digestive distress.”
The big mechanic, Hoss, sat at the other end of the table. He chuckled at that. “If it’s processed, it’s probably too expensive for us. Gotta get closer in to the border worlds for that stuff. Almost everything we’ve got to eat on board is local, straight from the farm. Lots of the neighbors owed Cooper, and bartering’s a whole lot more common than cash-creds. I’m not sure how long it’ll take us to go through the root vegetables, but we’ve got bags and bags of beans and bags and bags of flour. We’ll run out of fuel before we run out of food.” He reached for the soup pot and refilled his bowl. “Anyone else want seconds yet?”
Sully was not shy about helping himself as the soup pot made another round. Folks went quiet again, intent still on eating -- evidently everyone had missed breakfast, at the very least, and the sweet cream butter on the chewy homemade bread was a novelty that had a certain seductive power to it. Even the lawyer was making up for lost time now, and evidently found the fresh bread and butter particularly to her liking, while the quiet little mouse beside her was tucking into a third serving of soup as if she had literally been starved.
Sully tried not to watch the two ladies too closely, although it was a challenge not to stare. Fatima Nahas, shrouded in her flowing yellow robe and veil, navigated her spoon deftly beneath the fabric and to her hidden mouth, not spilling a drop of chili or a crumb of bread as she ate. He could not help but wonder what the woman looked like under that robe -- burqas always had that effect on his curiosity, which always struck him as contrary to their intended purpose. There were faint henna markings on her delicate hands -- or maybe permanent tattoos? -- and her shy eyes were a smoky shade of green. Beside her, Abigail Baldwin was tall, strong-boned and curvy by comparison, with a thick braid of mahogany hair and strikingly blue eyes. She wore no make-up on her pale skin, and the more Sully looked at that lovely freckled face, the more convinced he was that he knew her from somewhere.
“Haven’t we met somewhere before, Ms. Baldwin?” Sully broke the general silence to ask her. Those blue eyes flickered up to his face and down again to her half-empty bowl with a curious reluctance.
“No,” she said, definitively.
“You do look an awful lot like someone I know,” said Halo, sounding equally perplexed.
“I know!” supplied Marcus Chang. “Clarissa Bow! You just just like the holovid star! Just like her, but younger. And with freckles.”
Baldwin gave the three men a sour look, and her milky complexion was growing flushed. “Thank you, I hear that from time to time,” she said, in a tone which did not welcome further discussion.
The social cue sailed over the systems-man’s head. “That must make it easy to dress up for costume parties,” Chang said cheerfully, in a nervous rush that suggested that maybe young Marcus didn’t often find the opportunity to speak with a pretty lady. “All you need is a little red dress just like the one from Companion’s Kiss, and a statue painted gold -- and bingo! There you are, a screen goddess!”
“Yes. Just like that,” Baldwin said, in a voice which dripped sarcasm. Chang caught it this time, and blinked rapidly as if searching his memory banks for how he might have erred.
“So you’re a lawyer?” Sully asked her, slipping in to Chang’s rescue. “I overheard you talking with the captain before all hell broke loose. You said you were a lawyer from Oxford-on-Carthage? That’s on Epeuva, isn’t it? How does a solicitor from the Jeweler’s Moon find herself in the filthy outback of the Blue Cluster?”
Baldwin glanced down the table toward the captain, obviously weighing her words. “I have a degree in law,” she said. “But I never sat for the bar. I grew disillusioned with the shallowness of it all. I wanted to do something much more useful with my life than writing torts and arguing obscure clauses in court. So after school, I went searching for something more meaningful.”
“Then how did you wind up serving in the Alliance?” Halo asked.
Baldwin hesitated in answering -- there were a lot of bitter losers at this end of the ‘Verse, and she was obviously trying to parse whether the pilot was one of them or not. “The Alliance made the war look very glamorous, so yes, I enlisted. As a medic,” she added, with a stress on that last word. “I was honored to care for patients on either side of the conflict.”
“Honored.” Cooper repeated the word drily.
Baldwin’s chin went up defensively. “Yes. Honored,” she repeated in a firm tone. Between them, the shy creature in the burqa seemed to shrink away within her robes, while at the other end of the table, the mechanic made a deliberate clatter as he refilled his bowl from the soup pot.
“Can I get more for anyone?” Hoss offered.
“I’ll take more,” Chang said, happy to pass down his bowl for a refill.
There was another uneasy silence. A look passed between the captain and the mechanic -- those two were practically eloquent with their eye-language, like a pair of old-marrieds. Or a pair of foxhole-buddies. “You two know each other from the war?” Sully asked, wondering which was which.
Cooper looked at him then, a dark, analytical stare, while Hoss did the talking. “We served together on a Firefly,” the mechanic replied happily enough. Not a shy bone in that one, Sully supposed. “The ISF Diamondback. She was a medevac ship,” Hoss added, with a hopeful look toward Baldwin as though making a goodwill offering.
“What about you?” Cooper asked, her dark eyes still fixed on Sully. “Which side did you serve on?”
“Me? Oh, I didn’t serve.” Sully presented up what he knew was a charming smile, glad to avoid that particular patch of quicksand. In some places, owning up to serving for the wrong side was a sure way to get your throat cut. “Some of us had to remain civilians.”
Cooper’s eyes narrowed and her expression of permanent suspicion grew darker. “You?” she snorted. “A civ? Like hell.”
Sully raised both hands as if she had a gun on him. “Really. I have always been just a civilian. That’s not to say that I didn’t have any private alligences… just that I had other priorities. The family business needed me, and I probably contributed more to the war effort as a civ than I would have in uniform.” He gave Baldwin a sympathetic smile. “I delivered a great deal of medicines and other necessary items to both sides during the War. I wager bringing comfort to our fine lads and lasses in uniform regardless of what flag they served under was a kindness, and the money I got in return was certainly equally spendable.”
“You worked the black market?” Chang asked.
“I prefer the term ‘gray market’,” Sully replied, with a fixedly deliberate good cheer. “Better yet, unorthodox entrepreneurship. That’s my favorite. And it paid good. I provided quality goods at fair prices, and as a result, all of my little nieces and nephews have shoes on their feet and school books in their hands.”
“No shame in that,” Hoss agreed, trading more eye-language with the captain across the length of the table. “There were a whole lot of times when we were grateful to the black market.”
“Best booze I ever tasted was thanks to the black market,” Halo offered.
Another uneasy silence settled. Sully buttered himself a second slice of bread, very alert to the current running lengthwise down the table between the captain and the mechanic. The big, muscle-bound wrench-monkey had enough tatts on display to decorate the population of half a tong. He was the one of the pair who looked on the surface like walking danger. But all of the danger-vibes Sully was picking up on came from the opposite end of the dining table. Cooper was a quarter of Hoss’s size, but her dark eyes were hard and she had a frown like a thunderstorm. Of the two of them, she was the one most likely to carry a knife, and never flinch to use it.
“So,” Sully asked, weighing good sense against curiosity. He knew which had killed the tomcat, but he had been been able to resist. “So. You said this ship will be running cargo for its owner. Van Hooven, right? This is just about my first visit out here to the Blue Sun Cluster. What’s Van Hooven got worth running halfway across the ‘Verse to Persephone twice a year, that wouldn’t sell just as well somewhere closer to home?”
Eyes like black ice regarded him sharply. “Ore ingots are what we’ve got in the hold. Van Hooven has friends on the Eavesdown docks he wants the load delivered to. All I need to know is that it’s a guaranteed profit and we aren’t breaking any laws in delivering it. That good enough for you? Or do you only like black market jobs?”
“Aw, no, wouldn’t go so far as to say that,” Sully replied, keeping his voice light and easy. “Just curious.” He could see the uneasy looks around him; they had all been dodging bullets and bomb-sticks just an hour ago, and clearly no one was comfortable with the chance of renewed hostilities. But gāisĭde! He’d been shot at and had had to kill a man today -- and he wanted to know why. “You warned us that we don’t want to get this Van Hooven fellow upset. I respect that. I respect that he’s the owner of this ship, and that you’re representing his business interests. I got no problem with that. I just think it’s a fair question what we’re getting ourselves into, seeing as his business interests took a few shots over the deck at us today. Is that going to be the regular way of things for this ship and crew? Y’know, in case I need to find myself a bigger gun.”
A cold, cold stare -- and a thinking one, as well. “Fair enough question,” Cooper allowed, a tight chill in her voice. “And no, that’s not how I intend to continue doing business.”
Sully took a sip of tea, then regarded the captain again. “You say Van Hooven has friends offworld. What about his opposition? Does the opposition have friends we’ll need to be watching our backs against?”
Hoss’s expression was outright dread -- the big man either was an excellent actor putting on a fine show, or else the big mechanic had not thought the situation through far enough to ask himself that question yet. Cooper’s stare did not waver, but the scowl had deepened even further.
“Not that I know of,” she answered. “I think if Darius had friends that far afield, he’d have deeper pockets. And if he had deeper pockets, his ploy to destroy this ship would have met with more success. But do I know that for sure? No. I don’t. If it scares you, well -- we’ll be at Persephone in three weeks. You can collect your reference and walk, no skin off my teeth. Lots of ships come and go at the Eavesdown Docks. Lots of other jobs to be had.”
“True enough,” Sully agreed with a single nod, eyes back to the tea leaves he swirled lazily in the dregs of his cup. Depending on the crazy here, that might be a fine alternative. He was adventuresome enough, but even he had his limits.
“That man down in the hold, he said that this Darius was paying to have you brought back to him,” Chang asked, sounding anxious about the question. “What was that about?”
“I disrupted a business scheme of his and wound up costing the man some money,” Cooper answered. “Darius is little more than a backwoods gangster. He thinks he’s a dragonhead. He’s not. He’s simply a petty sadist with delusions of grandeur. Chances are Van Hooven has already finished him, and the laundry woman’s pigs are even now flat on their backs in the mud, bellies swollen, kicking their little feet in the air and belching up clouds of Darius-fumes. I’m not worried about him.”
The lady doth protest too much, Sully thought. Either that, or she really, really detests the son-of-a-bitch.
“If the guy is such a peon, how’d he get the Foxbat?” asked Chang.
“How? Or from who?” Halo echoed.
Cooper shrugged off that concern. “Hell if I know. But if Darius had had the resources, he would have made a move against Van Hooven before today, and it would have been more decisive. Van Hooven has always tolerated Darius as a blunt-handed petty distraction: Darius makes enemies faster than friends and Van Hooven has been using that to his advantage, since Darius makes him look respectable by comparison. Darius would have had to have made some fresh connections in Yankton for that skiff -- and you tell me. Did that little maneuver you pulled destroy that skiff in our backdraft?” Cooper paused until she saw Halo’s nod of confirmation. Then she gave them all a tight, humorless smile. “Good. Then whoever Darius got the bird from isn’t going to be happy with him, are they?”
Sully considered that, He thought of the grey market price for an armed Alliances skiff, and found himself chuckling ruefully. “Good point,” he allowed.
“I’m not going to tell you this ship doesn’t have enemies,” Cooper continued. “The blunt truth is: I don’t know. I don’t know what business the previous crew was into. All I do know is that none of it followed them home to Van Hooven. I don’t know who Van Hooven’s business partners are offworld. I just have code words and have been told that they’ll contact us. So I won’t lie to you and promise rainbows and flowers and bank accounts overflowing with credit. I can only pledge to be straight up.” Cooper’s dark eyes traveled from face to face, her expression as sober as her words. “There’s a lot I don’t know. I wouldn’t be surprised if this ship finds some rude surprises waiting for us at some ports. The only thing I am confident of is that this ship’s finances will be extremely tight. Extremely so. A Firefly’s hold is too small for a high enough volume of goods to guarantee profitable runs, and there may be times when I can’t even afford to pay salary, because fuel and cargo will always be the priority. It is going to be hard work to keep this ship running. Hard work. But personally, I’d rather some hard work than none at all.” With that, she shoved herself back from the table. “Stack dishes in the galley sink for now. I’ll see to them. Cleaning supplies are in that storage cabinet right there, and you’ll find the laundry beneath the stairs opposite the lower-deck loo. Hoss, I’ll need your help below, join me when you’ve finished.”
“Wait,” said Baldwin, as the captain carefully picked up her cane, pushing off the bandana-sling to do so. “You were shot, you need medical care for that.”
“Seen to it already,” the captain replied as she limped for the port shuttle access hatch. “Finish your lunch and see to your quarters.” Cooper left through the aft hatch, heading for the lowerdeck stairs.
“Don’t worry about the captain,” Hoss said. “She was a trauma surgeon during the war. If she says she’s fine, she is. She’ll push herself harder than anyone, but she won’t be stupid about it.”
Sully refilled his tea, wondering if the big mechanic had any concept of just how contradictory that sounded. “So you’ve know the captain for a long while, then?” he asked, not afraid to fish for more information.
“Yeah,” came Hoss’s bass rumble of a reply. “Years and years. I was with the Greenleaf 4th Volunteers and got shot at that action at Starling Base on Paquin. I was evacced on the Diamondback, but she hit a mine and was crippled. Their mechanic couldn’t get the engines and drive grav restarted, but I crawled back there and got her up and purring like a kitten. Commander Sung was impressed and he and his XO got me requisitioned to their crew. The crew was packed pretty tight, four to a cabin, and Cooper had the rack above me. She helped fudge my medical records to keep me aboard at first, and taught me what I need to know to be a good orderly. She always looked out after me. She pulled strings to have me transferred with her after the Diamondback was decommissioned, and and she’s the only reason I got out of Serenity Valley alive. Our unit got bombed two days after she smuggled me out, and she’s the only one in the whole unit who survived it. Cooper’s always been a tough cookie and she doesn’t much care what people think. She’ll be the first to bite your head off if you’ve done something dumb. But she’s fair and she’s wicked smart, and I’d follow her to hell and back if she told me that’s where she wanted to go.” Hoss gave them a sheepish grin. “I know things on the ship are a mess right now, but it’s way, way better than it was even when I got here a week ago. The Jin Dui is a good old girl, and she’ll get us to Persephone just fine. I hope you’ll not hold all of the shooting and everything Darius did against us -- and that you’ll give the captain and the ship a fair chance over the next three weeks until we reach the Eavestown Docks.” He finished off his last bite of bread and stood up from the table. Hoss took his dirty dishes over to the galley sink and put them on the counter beside it. “One of you pilots needs to sit the boards after lunch, but as soon as the captain and I are done with what needs doing below-decks, the captain will come spell you at helm.”
“I’ll take her for now,” Halo volunteered quickly. There was a sudden general clearing of the table, as everyone else decided they were done as well. Sully acquiesced to Fatima’s silent offer to take his dirty dishes, while Chang cleared away the soup pot and the butter dish. “Chang and I will follow you down to the lower deck,” Baldwin said to Hoss, and those three went off down the aft corridor, while Sully reached the supplies locker which Captain Cooper had indicated held the cleaning supplies. He pulled out a battered metal pail, some rags, a handful of cheap vinyl gloves, a scrub brush and a broom, and was was spritzing his wrist with the cleaning spray when Fatima and Halo joined him.
“Ah, the lovely perfume of vinegar,” he smiled as he handed a second bottle to Fatima. “Do either of you have a preference for where you will bunk?” he asked.
Fatima shook her head no, while Halo shrugged the question off. “I don’t care, as long as there is a bunk. My last rack was a hammock that smelled like cat piss.”
Sully chuckled at that. “Well, if my memory of the Firefly deck plan serves, that door there to your left,” he said as he led them up the steps and into the bridgeward corridor, “this first one will be roomiest -- lots of closet space to be had, if you want to hang your closet. Fatima, let’s consider it yours. You just shove like this -- good, it’s not locked -- and the hatch swings open just so, and you climb down the ladder to your room. There’s a door down there that’ll open to the mid-deck gangway, and a shared shower. Bill -- why don’t you take the middle cabin, and I’ll go with the one up front? Unless they’ve modified the ship from its regular configuration, that’s the smallest of the cabins, so I know I’m making a sacrifice.”
“Some sacrifice,” Williams laughed, while Fatima disappeared down into her cabin. “You just want the smallest room, knowing we’ve got to clean ‘m!”
Sully laughed along, as if that were a joke and not the base truth. Williams continued on up onto the bridge, while Sully gave the hatch to his new cabin a shove. It opened after a bit of resistance, and Sully wrinkled his nose in distaste at the stench that wafted out. The smell alone was amazing. Rot and unwashed human, and a distinct coppery twang that made his brain alarm a little.
‘Once more, into the breach’ he told himself, before climbing on down.
The cabin’s single bare overhead bulb hung dark, leaving the cabin unlit except for the blue glow from the comm display just aft of the ladder alcove. Sully hit the lights panel, and when that failed to work, he reached up and physically gave the bulb a half twist, so that the connections were made and the light flared on. When it revealed the room, he kind of wished it hadn’t.
Sully had made his livelihood aboard junked vessels. He had seen abandoned crew cabins aplenty. Possibly some of them had even been worse than this… but this was still pretty awful bad.
At first glance, all he saw was the trash. Layers of it -- generations of it -- heaped in piles with a single narrow footpath tracking through it between the ladder alcove and a bunk which was pressed up against the far aft corner. It looked as though the cabin’s previous resident had collected cardboard boxes and booze bottles for sport, except for the layer of scum coating everything. Sully was glad he had gloves. Crusty pin-up girls decorated the wall, along with a single, lonely wire hanger suspended from a bare shelf rack. Hanging from a heavy chain from the ceiling struts was a clear plastic bubble chair, its foam cushions liberally patched with duct tape. The narrow bunk itself was a metal cot with what looked like an unzipped sleeping bag for a blanket; a stowage trunk had been upended over the top of it, spilling out a sizable collection of porn. The debris on the table might include a partial set of gun-cleaning tools, but Sully would have to separate out all of empty pill containers, pizza crust ends, a very nice scale model of an Alliance A-48 aerospace gunship, discarded tissues, a dead potted cactus, and what might prove to be a fossilized sandwich. A wallet sat there as well, with the colorful edges of some bills poking out of it. A lot of the empty food wrappers and pizza boxes bore a common design advertising “The Meaty Yeasty” off of McCall Alley at New Canaan spaceport. Sully stopped in his tracks when something crunched ominously underfoot. He kicked aside empty soy packets, something petrified that might have been a rag (or might have been filthy underwear -- he didn’t want to pick it up to find out), and what he was afraid was a used condom to find that he had stepped on a pair of reading glasses, breaking the right lens.
Sully fished the glasses up cautiously and held the lenses before his own eyes. Pretty moderate near-sightedness -- these weren’t just reading glasses. Scowling, Sully pocketed the glasses, then took the final strides over to the bunk. Hetero-boy was here, the porn mags proclaimed, with an interest in hefty-sized trim. Sully up-ended the trunk and pushed it to the end of the cot, and began to toss the magazine collection back into it. It was then that he found the blood stain to match the morgue odor.
The indigo plaid of the sleeping bag had absorbed an enormous amount of blood in about a one-third-of-the-Shroud-of-Turin fashion. ‘Poor bastard had his throat cut,’ Sully thought, his nose wrinkling with distaste. He looked at the wall beside the bunk and saw the spray pattern that supported his theory, dappling the various smiling centerfolds taped there. Sully collected another handful of magazines, but didn’t see any bloodstained pages in what he rifled through. Huh. So the body laid here for a while before being moved… and then it looked like whomever had moved it had tossed the storage trunk, searching for something. Sully frowned a little harder and looked back toward the crowded junk on the desk, where the wallet sat unmolested. He reached after the wallet and pocketed it himself, then finished stacking the magazines back into the trunk.
‘Quite the collection,’ he mused as he hauled the trunk off the cot and onto the floor. He stripped the two layers of sleeping bag from the bunk and bundled them together, then trekked back through the debris field for the ladder topside.
# # #
“I just stepped on something,” called Chang, from the forward port-side berth. “I swear, it squeaked!”
“Máo ó” Baldwin wailed in reply. Her voice was very close -- apparently she had chosen one of the two starboard passenger berths “Come look at this! There are rows and rows of partially-filled vodka bottles here, and I am afraid they are not full of vodka!”
“Whatever you do, don’t open one for a taste-test,” Chang warned heartily.
“Horrors!” Baldwin was practically fizzing with laughter; she sounded like she were on the shaky-edge of hysteria, a feeling Sully could well sympathize with. “But steady on… oh dear, if these are lined up from oldest to freshest, I do believe Mr. Former Occupant either started eating a great deal of beets, or he began to pass blood in his urine. I would advise him to consult his physician, if I could -- chances are he’s developing a terrible case of kidney stones.”
Baldwin and Chang were both laughing uproariously at that. ‘Chances are, Mr. Former Occupant no longer has to worry about passing those stones,’ Sully thought to himself. He chose not to share that observation, or to interrupt their hilarity as he walked past the gutted Infirmary bay and on toward the hatch to the cargo bay.
Just past the hatch, was a cargo pod which apparently been re-purposed as a stable. The top half of the stable-pod door was open and the two resident goats inside stood there, floppy-eared, heads over the bottom door, watching everything with their golden devil-eyes as they chewed their cud. The pale one made a snorting noise and backed away with a scuff of hooves as Sully stepped through the cargo bay hatch and down the steps. The other goat, the spotted black one, held its ground and continued to stare at him as he walked past. He wasn’t about to offer it a hand, preferring to keep all of his fingers, thank you kindly.
Hoss and Cooper were working at the far end of the cargo bay. A line of naked dead bodies was lined up alongside the bomb bay doors, and Cooper was finishing stripping the last of them, adding to the heap which nearly overflowed the striped red horse blanket the cast-offs were piled on. “I just don’t think it’s right,” Hoss was saying. “We should at least wrap them in sheets.”
“We don’t have extra sheets,” Cooper replied. “Hell, I doubt we have enough sheets for racks for the temp crew.”
“We shouldn’t take their clothes, then.”
“We took a hell of a lot more than their clothes during the War,” Cooper muttered in reply. “They’re dead. They don’t need ‘m anymore. And we will.”
“A dead man’s clothes? No we won’t!”
“None of this will fit you, sure, but the rest of us may find use for ‘m. And if we don’t, we just patch ‘m and resell them.”
“But it just isn’t right!” Hoss continued miserably.
“What won’t be right is for us to run out of fuel somewhere in the deep black, or for that C02 scrubber to burn out before we can get those algae tanks back up stabilized and outputting! Hoss, we need every two-bit we can rub together to afford repairs, and whatever creds we earn from this cargo Van Hooven has sent us is going to vanish like air out the lock.” Cooper’s voice sounded weary and no little anxious -- Sully felt anxious enough himself, hearing that nugget about the algae tanks being out of operation. Ai ya! A three weeks on C02 scrubbers alone? Are they crazy?
“You won’t get much for second hand clothing on Persephone,” Sully said, startling them both. He gave them an apologetic shrug as he joined them. “Too much new available on the market
there. A better bet is to hang on to any surplus and wait until you’re back out on a Rim world like Deadwood, where there’s not much new to be had. You’d be surprised what you can get in barter for a good pair of boots.”
Hoss still looked pained, while Cooper regarded him coolly. “But who am I to lecture a resident of a Rim world about barter rates on the Rim?” Sully said with some amusement, figuring he could practically read her mind on that. “Captain’s right,” he said to Hoss. “If you’re going to just jettison the bodies, you’re wasting resources to send them out clothed. You could use heavy garbage bags --”
“If we had them. Which we don’t.” Cooper said grimly. “And if we did have them, it’d be a waste.”
“Well, those will be much cheaper at Persephone, if you decide to lay in a supply for next time.” Sully shook his head in dark amusement. “More immediate of a question should be -- where and when will you dump them?”
Cooper and Hoss eyed each other again. By Alliance law, it was illegal to dump anything (much less bodies) in a space lane, because of the hazard posed to passing traffic. “Midway to Persephone, at the cluster’s edge,” Cooper replied. She scowled further, eyeing the disordered cargo bay around them. “We need to shift the bodies onto that cargo netting, then secure them down the in bomb bay airlock. Open the lock and freeze them solid, without letting them drift off.”
“I’ll do it,” Hoss said. “But only if you get up to the bridge and sit a watch at helm. You got shot. I know you’re hurting,” he said, bulling over the top of Cooper’s objection. “You gotta sit down for at least a little while now. I can see that arm is hurting you, and you know the strain you’re putting on your leg.”
That earned a deeper scowl from the captain, but the little fact that the stubborn woman did not dismiss her friend’s concerns outright left Sully thinking she was likely hurting worse than she let on. “I’ll go sit a shift, but I’ll clean the gallery on my way there,” she responded. Cooper’s tone suggested it was all the agreement Hoss was going to get, while Hoss grinned at her concession like he was taking a victory lap.
“Freeze them in the lock, just like we were back aboard the Diamondback,” Hoss said cheerfully, walking off to collect the cargo netting.
“I’ll help, Hoss’ll need another set of hands with that,” Sully offered. He began to follow after Hoss, then stopped and turned back to the captain. He fished the leather wallet from his coat pocket and handed it over. Cooper looked at it for a moment before taking it, but did so without any questions.
“What happened to the other bodies?” he asked, remembering her earlier remark to Hoss. ’We took a hell of lot more than their clothing during the War,’ she had said.
“Other bodies?” she prompted him.
“The former occupant of my cabin died in there. From the stains and splatter, I’m guessing someone cut his throat.”
Cooper winced, but did not look shocked… or even decently surprised. “Van Hooven’s man Earl is famous for his bladework. From what I overheard, he came aboard at night, while the previous crew were sleeping. The bodies were gone when I got here, maybe a week or so later. But there were enough puddles left behind to see how it went down.”
Sully considered the wording of his next question very carefully before asking it. “Did Van Hooven ask you to keep your eyes open for anything left onboard?”
Cooper had been opening the wallet Sully had found. She stopped in mid-count of the bills, and looked up at him with an expression that shifted fluidly from questioning to flinty assessment. “Did you find something else I should know about?”
Sully shrugged. “I’ve only just skimmed the surface of the cabin -- but it looks to me like the room was tossed after the killing.”
“And whatever Earl was looking for, it wasn’t a loose wad of cash?” Cooper eyed him grimly for another moment. “No,” she said then, in answer to his original question. “If Van Hooven was looking for something aboard, I was not included in that information loop. Chances are, whatever it was, Earl found it.”
‘Or Van Hooven doesn’t trust you enough to tell you about it, whatever it might be; if they didn’t find it and we do, it’ll be a test of you to see whether or not you hand it over to him,’ was the other thought in Sully’s head, but he did not share that one. Cooper seemed a sharp enough blade to being thinking it for herself already -- certainly her scowl had gone deeper in the last few seconds.
“It sounds like Hoss has his hands full with repairs,” Sully said. “As a boy, I was apprenticed to my Uncle Slim’s scrapyard business. I’ve worked on a number of Fireflies over the years. I can be of help.”
Another sharply assessing glance from the captain. “Scrap yards and black markets, huh? So just how did you find yourself on Deadwood as a hire-on?”
“My uncle is still in business on Beylix. I decided to go independent. I had my own ship -- the Carolyn Jane. She was a little Gnat class -- but she was beautiful and she was all mine. I was making a delivery to the terraforming station at Seventh Circle when I ran afoul of pirates. Carolyn managed to get me away with my skin on one piece, but her engines were mortally wounded. I wound up adrift in the Uroborus belt. Some asteroid miners caught my life pod signal before my air ran out, and ever since that, I’ve been working my way from job to job through the Blue Cluster.”
The captain stared at him in reply. She seemed to have three expressions: frown, scowl, and deeper scowl. And Cooper was damn good at absorbing data-flow without returning signal of her own. It kept him busy trying to figure out what might be going on in that pretty head. Sully rubbed the back of his neck and gave her a sheepish smile, beginning to think that if he were in her boots, he’d worry someone like him might be in the opposition’s pocket. A good little backstory combined with such a helpful skillset, almost too good to be true, right? Damn right he’d worry, based on what little he’d heard so far of the rivalry between Van Hooven and Darius. Those dark eyes studied him and, like black holes and card sharks the ‘Verse over, gave him nothing back in return.
“How long you keep your Carolyn Jane in operation?” she asked, as Hoss came back to them with the bundle of Tex-Flex in his arms.
“Six and a half years,” Sully replied, with no little pride in that accomplishment.
Cooper nodded brusquely at that. “Hoss, Sully here says he knows Firefly systems. When the two of you have finished with those bodies, show him your to-do list, and your list of prioritized repairs. Suss him out.”
“Sure thing,” Hoss replied. “You gonna go sit that watch now, captain?”
“Yes, mother,” she retorted. Cooper limped away, heading for the lower deck hatch, and it seemed to Sully that she was leaning more heavily on her cane than she had before.
“The captain gonna be okay?” Sully asked Hoss, hoping the friendly mechanic would spill.
Hoss was clambering down into the open bomb bay. He unfurled the roll of cargo netting like he was spreading out a picnic blanket. “She’s going to be fine,” Hoss replied, with a knowing glance back at Sully -- big and friendly though Hoss might be, that look said he wasn’t entirely naive. “The Diamondback had a modified coldbox instead of a port side shuttle,” he said conversationally, refusing to gossip about the captain. “We had stacks and stacks of patients in here, so we bagged the ones who died and took them out to the coldbox through the mid-deck airlock. I used to hate that walk.”
“I’ll bet.” Sully dragged the first of the bodies over to the edge of the bomb bay, and Hoss hefted it in turn pretty effortlessly. “The captain find much of value on the bodies?” Sully asked.
“Not much in terms of pocket-stuff, but almost 500 all in all in credits,” Hoss said, laying the deceased out and then standing to receive the next.
“Then I suppose piracy does pay, after all,” Sully said. “Hoss, you strike me as the honest sort. So tell me the truth -- how straight and narrow is Cooper going to be?”
That earned an unhappy look from Hoss. “How honest a ship is the Jin Dui going to be? Is that what you’re asking?”
Sully rolled another body to the edge and into Hoss’s reach. “It’s a fair enough question. I know who owns the ship, and it’s not every honest ship that has to dispose of near a dozen bodies quite so blithely. Cooper sounds like she has some economic grasp of what she’s getting into: a Firefly is a hard-working little ship, but she doesn’t mass enough cargo to compete easily against all of the big corporate freight haulers out there. What kind of business venture is it that we are all being asked to sign onto here?”
Hoss was frowning mightily by the time Sully had finished that question. The big mechanic seemed like a nice, decent, fundamentally good sort of guy. It was exactly the just too damn nice aura that Hoss radiated that made Sully want to ask the question -- because Sully had had his full in life of being shot at, and of losing the things he cared for. It was a big damn ‘Verse, and there would be other jobs aplenty waiting to be found at the Eavesdown Docks. A smart man would would keep his head down, would stop asking questions -- hell, a smart man damn well would not want know any single damn thing more about this ship, the owner of this ship, her captain, or any other detail of the Jin Dui’s business dealings. Damn no. Sully would be happy to play deaf, mute and stupid, except…
The Van Hoovens and the Dariuses of the ‘Verse did not pull into their orbits the nice, fundamentally decent sorts like Hoss. Sully had seen enough scummy sorts in his time, and neither Hoss or Cooper seemed scummy. Yeah, the captain had her own set of issues. She was clearly cautious enough not to show her hand, but it wasn’t a shifty sort of caution, it was the hard-won kind.
Hoss was still chewing on the question. “Do you mean -- are we going to be bad guys?”
“Yeah, pretty much,” Sully replied.
Hoss was still frowning deeply, as if that question hadn’t been something he’d sunk much consideration into. “Van Hooven owns the ship, and he’s a criminal. But Cooper’s not. I’m not, either. But… ” Hoss paused in his work to rub the back of his neck, his thick black dreads swinging. “We may have to take some jobs that are iffy, but we’re not going to be pirates. We’re not thieves. And we’re not killers.”
“I wouldn’t take you for one,” Sully said with a chuckle, feeling pretty confident Hoss’s dockside-scary look was no more than a superficial, defensive armor. “I’ll be honest with you -- and I know whatever I say to you will eventually go straight to the captain’s ears, as it should,” Sully said. “If I were in the captain’s boots, I’d be damn worried just about now. Everyone on board is a stranger, none of us necessarily are her choice of hire-ons, and any one of us could possibly be working for the enemy. She’s damn right to worry -- though just sayin’, maybe only time will tell, but I don’t think any of the others on board strike me as dangerous types. If any of us were plants, my money would be on the burqa lady -- because can you get any more obvious than that? She might not even be a lady under those robes.”
Hoss’s frown had turned into a sheepish sort of smile. “The captain already said as much,” he agreed. “Though she was more worried about you, except for the fact that Darius’s hireling had you under a gun with the rest of us, and that you then killed one of them.”
Sully had to laugh aloud at that. “Yeah, well, I do hope we’re all just what we appear to be. Because if this Darius fellow didn’t think the ship could take off in the first place, why would he bother with contingency operations? If he didn’t think she would fly, stealing her wasn’t an option. Am I right?”
Hoss nodded. “I think so. And I think the captain thinks so, too. She just worries, though.”
“Yeah, well, a little worry is a good thing. It keeps you on your toes.” They were shifting the next-to-last of the dead bodies down into the bomb bay, and Sully wanted to shower. It was an ugly reminder of just how close he himself had come to death, only an hour and a half or so past. He considered himself to have a broad range of tolerance, but dying was a smidgen outside his comfort zone. What he really wanted was a decent, honest piloting job -- not some chancey position aboard a dubious merchanter where body-disposal was ever included on the duties list. Yet where on the Rim could he go, and find a straight-up job which was both honest and safe? There was always farming, Sully supposed. And he’d had more than enough of that already in life, thank you very much.
They were down to the last body. Sully grasped cold hands and dragged the dead, boneless weight as far as necessary to get it within Hoss’s wide reach. “All right. Listen -- the captain says we’re all working passage to Persephone, and that she’ll make her hire-on decisions then. But I’ll tell you this. The more I look around this boat, the more I am sure of something. You and the captain need are going to need me.”
Hoss gave him the look that statement deserved, before setting the last body down with the rest and beginning the chore of wrapping the bodies securely in the excess netting. Sully jumped down into the bomb bay itself and began to clip the colorful carabiners to the regularly-spaced safety rings, testing each one to make sure none of them were damaged and would give way at the shock exposure to vacuum. “I can do general fix-it, no problem. I intend to start with the gorram lights in my quarters, and after that, I bet I could work 20 hours a day, every day, on this ship till we get to Persephone, and even then, you and I both will still be finding little crap needs fixin’. Am I right?”
Hoss chuckled at that. “I bet you’re right.”
“So there’s work aplenty onboard for me -- if I decide I want to stay on. I’m still making my mind up on that point, because I did just find a large pool of blood in my cabin, obvious evidence of the previous occupant’s having parted ways with the management short of a healthy severance package, dong ma? I would kinda like to avoid dying in the near future, and if dying’s a high possibility, I’d like to know so I can factor that into my decision to stick around or not.”
Hoss had finished. He climbed out of the bomb bay, and reached down a massive paw to offer Sully a hand up. “I don’t want to die either, and the captain is looking out for us. She’s the one who will deal directly with Van Hooven, and she’s gonna keep him happy.”
Sully accepted Hoss’s hand and jumped; Hoss effortly lifted him out of the chest-deep bay and onto his feet on the deck. “Glad to hear that,” he said. “And I’ll have you know -- I have a real soft spot for Fireflies, I’ve been on a bunch of them since I was a kid and I got to know ‘em pretty intimately. This girl’s seen some hard time, but she feels mostly still sound. I’d love to get under the panels and see what she really looks like under these dirty skirts. There are about a dozen standard smuggling holes that custom agents might think to check -- and I know an easy half-dozen others which they won’t.”
“Captain will appreciate that,” Hoss said.
“I’m being frank here -- I think your captain is going to find she needs me. I know how to keep a ship operational in the chancy business out here on the Rim. I don’t want to work as a full-time smuggler again. It’s a hazardous business. I’ve burned out seven of my nine lives already, which was why I came here looking to interview for what was advertised as a straight-up flying job. So, long story short, I’m less concerned about staying above-the-board, because I know in order to keep operational at this size, there’s a lot of competition at that level, and you have to go into the gray market level to keep solvent. So my question here is more - you seem to know Cooper pretty well -- how far outside the lines do you think she’d color, even desperate?”
Hoss stood and thought that over some. “We might smuggle a little if the captain thinks the gain greatly outweighs the risks. But she doesn’t take foolish risks. I know her. I know how she thinks. There’s what’s right and what’s wrong, and then there’s the Law. The Law is all very well and good for the Core, and even for much of the Border. But out here on the Rim, you gotta survive, and sometimes that means being a little grey around the edges. Do you understand what I’m trying to say?” the big man said earnestly.
“Aye,” Sully said. He let go a breath he hadn’t been aware of holding. He liked what he heard. And despite himself -- he really liked this big, puppy-dog eyed lug of a mechanic. Sully couldn’t help think… having lost his own ship, if he really had to settle for working for someone else again, then he wanted a job on a ship with folk like Hoss. Hoss was exactly the sort of nice guy you’d want as a shipmate during long, lonely hauls in between ports. Straightforward, friendly, maybe entertaining if he was lucky, and -- dared Sully even hope? -- potentially capable of baking up the chocolate cake Hoss had earlier promised? And if Hoss was devotedly loyal to a flinty-eyed creature like Captain Cooper, well, that said something in the woman’s scowling favor. Sully found himself suddenly, whole-heartedly, wanting this berth, no matter how bloodily the last crew might have left it.
He clapped the big mechanic on the arm. “I hear what you’re saying, and that’s good enough for me. For now, at least. So. Did I overhear the captain saying something about the algae tanks being offline? Do you mind if we get started there?” he asked.
Hoss grinned a happy smile, and picked up a blank-wrapped bundle to deposit at laundry on their way back through the lower-decks. “Right this way,” he said. “Just follow me.”