Fan credits: creation of Penglai Federal Reserve script goes to William T. Pace, Browncoat extraordinaire; Chen’s Throat Emporium & Honest Austin’s Scrapyard created by QMX
April 8, 2514; approximately 9 hours outbound from Persephone, White Sun Cluster
The captain woke with the sound of the end of the world still echoing in her ears. Cooper sat up in the tangled sheets of her rack, one hand gripping compulsively after the old wound, the other clenched over her heart in the fabric of the tank top she slept in. She straightened those fingers and smoothed out the cotton, then felt after her jugular pulse. Her heart rate was soaring in the nightmare’s wake. Cooper micro-focused her attention on her pulse as though it were a meditative mantra, shutting out every other chaotic memory and thought until nothing else existed and that wild horse gallop had eased to a steady, normal pace.
For a long time, Cooper listened to the near-silence, hearing only her own ragged breath and the whisper of fans through the ventilation ducts, and under that, the faint thrum of the ship’s engines. Her cabin's main light was out, but the two blue emergency lights -- one beside the door to the crew quarters corridor, the other at the top of ladder to the bridge hall -- provided their dim glow. When her heart-rate had calmed to her satisfaction, Cooper groped after the PDA unit Chang had cobbled together for her, which lay on the edge of the let-down writing desk just beyond her rack. The hand-held’s display was filled with a broken spiderweb of cracks, but the screen still activated at her touch. It was 0327 Sihnon standard time. Zero-dark-thirty indeed.
There was no red flashing priority notification in the display's upper-hand corner. Cooper had looked for that at the same instant she had sought out the time. Even with port call at Persephone due in less than 9 hours, nothing had developed during her off-shift that the night watch thought merited the captain's immediate attention. Cooper could risk taking a little more time for herself, she judged. She dragged herself off the edge of the rack. The back of her desk chair provided support enough. She leaned against it for a moment, carefully gauging her balance on her crippled leg. The bad hip throbbed, but pain had become such a constant companion she could hardly remember what life had been like without it shadowing her. Cooper managed one step, then a second -- a third got her as far as the cabin door, where her makeshift cane rested in an empty, rusted milk barrel. She reached for the length of battered metal pipe as she triggered the door open, then hobbled out into the dim-lit corridor, limping for the loo at the aft-end of the hall. The tiny closet of the shared loo smelled of bleach; the yellow lights triggered on as she limped in and closed the hatch behind her. She dropped her tank and cargo shorts and stepped into the shower, closing the watertight cubicle door firmly behind her. It was a narrow space -- certainly a tight squeeze for someone tall and broad like Hoss -- but she could lean against the shower wall with little fear of an accidental fall. Cooper turned on the water and lifted her face into the spray. It always started with a lukewarm blast, but then heated up quickly. Eyes closed, Cooper reached after a bar of soap. She scrubbed and scrubbed until her skin stung from the caustic lather; the lye-based soap was especially cruel to the puckered fissures of the twisted burn scars of her crippled hip. But Cooper had little patience or mercy for herself, and driving away the stink of memory-woven dreams was a necessity. Once she finally felt clean, Cooper allowed herself to simply stand there, leaning against the wall of the shower cabinet wall, until the hot spray of water had washed away the last of the clinging nightmare-memories of rot and death and burning flesh. Only then did she let the drying cycle kick in -- and Cooper allowed herself the luxury of standing through three of those.
It was a profound pleasure, to have access to soap and unlimited hot water, a secure shower-unit, and the freedom to soak for as long as she wanted. Of all of the privations Cooper had endured over the years, this was perhaps the one most missed. She had not had such freedom, abundance, or the security to enjoy either since before the first years of the war, when it had seemed like maybe, just maybe, the Alliance might roll over and go back to sleep and hand the Independents a win. Eyes closed and head tilted back wearily, Cooper pushed the button for a fourth drying cycle, and let herself bask in the baking jets that followed.
From a clinical distance, the doctor could diagnose herself easily enough. Hell, any child learning her letters could. Post-traumatic stress was as common as spit among the survivors of the War. The Alliance had the resources to treat their own for it. For the war’s losers, it was something to simply be endured and, if possible, overcome. Cooper prided herself on having a rational and analytical mind; that she even still drew breath and remained lucid was a source of private accomplishment, a credit to her iron will. The nightmares could be endured. During the first difficult months after Unification, Cooper had worked out a weary agreement with her own monsters -- she ruled her tautly-controlled waking hours as best she could, and the nightmares owned her sleep. She got little enough of it, after all, so Cooper considered herself the winner in that deal.
Eventually, the drying jets had warmed her all the way through. Cooper toggled the jets off and cautiously made her way out of the shower. She dressed carefully -- even now, three years after the mortar shell that had crippled her, pulling on a pair of pants could still prove a losing campaign. Once dressed, she stepped out of the loo closet and headed back toward her cabin. She needed fresh clothes and to gather up her hand-held before she headed to the galley and got started on her day's work. It would be a long and difficult day -- after three weeks of transit, the Jin Dui was finally reaching port at the Eavesdown Docks. No matter what, Cooper trusted things would not go smooth. Things never went smooth. But they were quiet enough for the moment -- there would be time enough for a bracing cup of tea, and to see how much Cooper could get accomplished before the first goatcluster inevitably arrived on her deck.
# # #
Fatima sat listening for the whisper of sounds from the open all-ship comm channel. Around her, the Jin Dui was closing in on the planet of Persephone -- for the last few days there had been increasing ship traffic after their long, lonely transit from the Blue Cluster and through the fringe of the White. More traffic meant responding to more hails, with less leeway than she liked because this ship's comm range was limited by a worn-out transmitter. It also meant lots of nervous double- and triple-checking of the ship's automated systems. Early after their departure from Deadwood, the pilots had discovered that two of the Jin Dui's starboard RCS thrusters were dead, but that some ghostly bug in the computers was reading them as active. The nav comp was calculating their projected actions as live ones and adjusting accordingly. That required a regular eye on helm readings and steady trimming from port to keep them steady on course. It was busywork for a pilot, and a source of annoyance -- but it had also been something regular to do, during the tedium of the long dark between the clusters.
Through the open all-ship, Fatima had heard the scuff of footsteps, not too long ago. The irregular step and the accompanying tap-tap of a cane had told her it was the captain -- even without those now-familiar tells, she would have guessed as much anyway, based on the hour alone. No one else was ever active this early, not willingly. Fatima had volunteered for the night watch on the bridge, grateful for the solitude and isolation. The rest of the crew slept through Fatima's waking hours; she generally interacted with them only during the breakfast meal and the dinner meal. Only the captain ever seemed to be awake and active during the hours of Fatima's lonely shift. Cooper retired to her cabin late, almost always after spending time practicing with her violin in the cargo hold. That meant that music usually filled the first hour of Fatima's shift -- and sometimes, too, at the end of Fatima's shift as well, for those times when the captain woke even earlier than her farmer's dawn habit and began the day with a practice session as well. The captain had never turned off the all-ship comm to keep her violin private, even though sometimes, the poignant music she played sounded to Fatima's ears like an intimate conversation to which Fatima was eavesdropping.
Now, she overheard the sounds of work being done in the gallery. Fatima sat and listened, trimming up the ship's course almost as though on auto-pilot herself. She realized her hands on the controls were trembling. Fatima took a deep breath, then whispered a prayer in supplication. As she opened her eyes again, she heard the approaching tap of a cane and footsteps, up the corridor bridgeward.
The captain arrived without fanfare, setting a safety-capped cup of tea on the edge of the pilot's station before settling on the edge of the co-pilot's console, sipping at a cup of her own. Fatima took a grateful drink from the cup she had been provided. Green tea, with a touch of cream -- the captain had learned how Fatima preferred it and made this her habit, a brief, unacknowledged kindness as she sought a watch report. "No trouble during alter-day," Fatima said, holding the warm cup tightly to hide the tell-tale shaking of her hands. She was pleased that her voice sounded steady to her own ears, and gave no hint of the sour, roiling fear that had consumed her for this entire watch. Not my last, please no, may Allah be merciful, not my last. "We've had comm contact from Persephone -- standard communications, nothing irregular enough to disturb your sleep with. Dockmaster's office confirms our scheduled approach and landing at 1215, Berth 808D-12 West. We've had some chatter from other ships in-system, just friendly hails, nothing more. System traffic is getting more busy, but I’m seeing nothing unusual."
Cooper was giving a pre-occupied nod as she listened; she stabbed at the co-pilot control board and was reading screens for herself, Fatima's words just one of a number of incoming data streams. "Persephone was a home port for your last ship," she said, repeating what Fatima herself had told the captain, weeks ago after the Jin Dui had launched unexpectedly from Deadwood.
"Yes," Fatima said simply, while her belly clenched and she tasted bile in the back of her throat. Under the concealment of her veil, she did not have to worry about her face giving away her fear, and clutching her cup close hid the tremor in her hands. It was only her voice that could betray her, and Fatima had learned too dearly how to control that. "Parysatis's regular run was Londinium to Persephone to Beaumonde. We favored the Gateway and Nemecek Docs over Eavesdown, but the in-system approach is no different."
Cooper was nodding again, although this time in response to information scrolling across the co-pilot station's secondary screen. "We'll have a bit of a quiet stretch before things get really busy, it looks like," the captain said. "I'm heading back to the cargo bay to take care of the stock. After that, I'll get to the galley before Halo's up to take his shift. I'll have secondary comm shunted over to me then and there."
"Yes, sera." Fatima gathered up her courage as the captain moved to rise. "Have you decided?" she asked.
Cooper stood for a moment, leaning on her cane as she looked at Fatima. "Decided?" the woman asked in return.
Fatima swallowed heavily. "When we left Deadwood, you said you would decide which of us you would hire on, after we had worked our passage to Persephone." Fatima heard the crack in her voice, and knew that her desperate fear was exposed.
"If you impress me, I'll make you an offer once we reach the Eavesdown Docks." Those had been the captain's exact words. "If you don't impress me, then at Persephone we'll part ways." Fatima had spent the past three weeks sitting her watches dutifully, and tackling every skut-work chore she could with diligent fervor. But Fatima knew her own measure -- and she had done nothing impressive. She was a decent pilot, but she had none of Halo's war-honed natural talent. And while her simm-scores at helm matched Sully's fairly equally, she had none of the rest of his general skills that had made him valuable in helping to patch up the ship. Nor did she have the easy and friendly manner both men exhibited. I am the least valuable person aboard, Fatima feared.
The captain's preoccupied expression had vanished, replaced by a thoughtful frown. Fatima again felt her stomach clench painfully. "What are your intentions?" the captain asked in return, all but confirming Fatima's fear. I am the least valuable person aboard, Fatima knew. The ship cannot afford too many crew. The captain cannot afford to keep me! Where shall I go? How shall I survive?
"I want to stay aboard the Jin Dui." Fatima struggled not to sound too fearful, too desperate, but then her plea swept out of her in an impassioned rush. "My ship is dead. My family is dead. I have no one to turn to and no where to go. Please, captain. Do not cast me out. I will work without wages, I will do every chore no one else wishes to do, just please, do not cast me out! Not here. Please."
Fatima's anguish made its impression. The captain let go a heavy breath, then drank the dregs from her tea cup as though buying a moment's thought. "You won’t be working without wages," Cooper finally said. "Not unless we all do... which may prove more likely than not." Cooper held her eyes steadily until certain Fatima understood she had what she had begged for, then gave her a single nod before turning and limping to the bridge hatchway. "I'll call up when I'm back at work in the galley," the captain said in parting. "I'll let you know when to switch over comm two to the auxiliary."
Fatima sagged back into the seat, weak with relief once Cooper had departed. Fatima found it a struggle to find her voice again, but she managed it. "Aye, captain," she said in response.
# # #
The moment Abigail Baldwin had been dreading had finally come.
Abby sat on the edge of her bunk, her mahogany hair hanging in a long, freshly-showered curtain down her back. Reluctantly, she reached after her Finder from the let-down desk beside her bunk. I could always go eat breakfast instead, she thought as she picked the device up. It felt too sleek and feather-light in her hand to be the source of such a weight of dread. I should. I really should. Eat first. Who knows what's waiting in my message queue to spoil my stomach. My day. My life?
She waffled for a moment in indecision, but Abby knew that if she put the unit down again, she would face a Sisyphean curse in summoning the courage up again for a second attempt. No. She had already put this off for several days, secretly relieved to hear Chang grousing about no Cortex access because the ship's goushi comm range couldn't sustain a connection to the outer relays.
The unexpected reprieve had only stretched out her fear, knowing that a working connection was inevitable as the ship neared its destination.
No. Enough was enough. Time to bite the bullet and get it over with. Abby slipped the stretchy plas-suede over her left wrist, and the iridescent pearl band immediately conformed itself snugly against her skin. Half a heartbeat later, the personal unit gave its pleasing waking chime and an opening holo-display of blooming cherry orchard on the slopes above Lake Mikado beamed above Abby’s wrist. Almost immediately, a crimson priority light began to flash in the lower left screen corner and a vibration pulsed insistently against the underside of her wrist, while on the holo-display, the cherry blossoms swayed behind a semi-transparent overlay of scrolling Cortex news-notes.
Bracing herself, Abby flicked a right fingertip across the holo-display, activating the backlog of captured waves. Before departing her home on Epevua for the last time, she had set her comm-filters to keep herself as out-of-reach as possible. But now that the ship she was aboard had passed into the White Cluster again, there was no way to politely sustain her self-imposed exile. She read the IDs of the scrolling stream of waiting message files. A few of them were valid business -- a birth announcement from an old university friend, subscription notification reminders, a cousin’s invitation to a party which had taken place three months ago. Three messages from her father. And predictably enough -- dozens and dozens of messages from her mother, the latest sent just 36 hours ago.
Abby singled out her father’s most recent message. It came up at once, her father’s broad, ruddy face in the center of the screen, his stark monochrome business office filling the background.
“Ni hao my little honey-bunny!” her father said cheerfully. “I’m in between meetings here -- we’re about to close a new deal with Blue Sun pharmaceuticals, so you know I’ve got a full plate. But I’ve just gotten off the beam with your mother, and as you’ll guess, she’s having a conniption. Please, do us all a favor and talk to your mother at the soonest. She is worried enough about you that she’s asking me politely for my help in finding you. Politely. Will wonders never cease?’ Her father laughed warmly, but Abby could still see the faint lines of worry around his eyes. “Talk to your mother, and send me a wave when you’ve the time. You’ve no doubt visited some distant ports and seen some interesting sites, and I’d love to hear all about them! Send me a wave when you can and have my staff schedule something for us sometime soonest.”
“Tzai heui, dad,” Abby said aloud wistfully as she closed the wave. She took a deep breath and selected one of her mother’s last half-dozen waves at random.
Her mother had recorded the wave from poolside somewhere-- the sumptuous architecture in the background looked like something from Ancient Rome. Her mother was reclining on silken cushions, her hair up in a red-gold twist and dark sunglasses protecting her luminous eyes. Something that looked fruity and frothy was in a fluted crystal glass at her elbow.
“This is your mother,” Clarissa Bow said sternly and entirely unnecessarily. “It has been more than six months since you last sent word, and I demand you contact me as soon as you have received this!. And don’t lie to me and tell me that you’re safe -- I know how uncivilized they are there beyond the Core, and I have nightmares about you lying dead in an alley somewhere, or that you’ve been kidnapped and sold into slavery by some savage criminals! Baby, it’s time for you to come home. I know you turned sour on working for Bhargava & Lyons, but Bhargava and Bhatti both promise me that they’ve held a position for you as an associate with their firm, as soon as you come home again. I know how clever you are, you’ll be a partner in no time at all! My darling, it’s time for you to grow up. It’s time for you to be an adult. Give up this nonsense about being an outback doctor -- after all, if you were meant to be a surgeon I would have sent you to the Medical Academy on Osiris! It’s time for you to come home and do something meaningful with yourself. There’s decent and very valuable employment waiting for you here, and it’s time for you to come back and make something of yourself! After all, you’re my only child, and your flitting about like this reflects terribly on me, you know. What am I to tell all of my very important friends when they ask about you? If you need money for passage home, you know you need only ask. My people have standing orders to send you anything you need, and I’ll happily send the yacht to collect you! Oh -- and I saw Rodney and his handsome father the other day. They both asked about you. Rodney still hasn’t married anybody, honey. I think he’s pining for you still -- but that can’t last. You need to come home and put things to right. Besides -- I’m going to be throwing myself a marvelous birthday party to celebrate my milestone next year. I intend to see you at it. Ta da, darling -- your mother loves you and is waiting to hear from you. I swear, baby, I’ll hire people to track you down, if I don’t hear from you soon. Bhatti has a number of private investigators on staff, all it would take from me is just a word in his ear -- I’ve restrained myself from sending them out after you already only because I know how you’d sulk over it, but my patience is melting like butter, baby. Like butter!”
The motherly tirade ended on there. Abby double-checked the date -- the message was just about two weeks old. Clarissa Bow wasn’t a woman who made empty threats. Abby knew the chances were good that her mother had already unleashed her hounds. Abby grit her teeth and pushed back her loose hair, then made the keystrokes to place a wave.
“Hello Mom,” she said, forcing a smile for her Finder lens. “I know it’s been a while since my last wave…”
# # #
Chang was still yawning mightily as he left his cabin. It was a full three hours or more before his usual rise-and-shine, but what with today’s port call -- and with the captain’s final decision on who might be hired -- Chang figured it was best to make the effort and be seen as alive and fully functioning the same as everyone else.
Another jaw-splitting yawn -- when his eyes opened again, he found collision imminent as Abby materialized before him, stepping up onto the first rung of the stairs from the passenger dorm.
“Good morning!” Chang said at once, trying to look bright-eyed and alert, and not like the shuffling zombie mornings usually made of him.
Abby gave some sort of muttered response, her pretty face grim and pre-occupied. Her eyes were red-rimmed as though she had been crying. She looked like a woman on her way to the firing squad.
“Oh hey,” he said at once, feeling as if his own day had gotten noticeably brighter. Even threatening tears, Abby had that effect on him. “Cheer up, it’s not so bad as that! Whatever it is,” he modified the statement as she turned a fierce blue-eyed look back at him over her shoulder.
“Easy for you to say,” Abby retorted.
Chang followed her up the first flight of steps, waiting for her to elaborate -- but no elaboration was forthcoming. “You don’t have to be worried about getting hired,” he said then, with more enthusiasm and certainty than he himself felt. It was the primary concern in his own mind -- and it was a fair bet it was what Abby was worried about as well.
Another sharp look from those lovely blue eyes. “You already talk with the captain about that?’ Abby said. “We were either to impress her, or walk. You’ve been busy tracking down every wire on this ship and making all of the computers work properly. You’ve been quite impressive. And what have I been doing? Scrubbing toilets. Scrubbing decks. Scrubbing walls. Sorting recyclables and bagging trash.” Abby gave a bitter laugh. “Impressive indeed.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” Chang tried to reassure her. “Captain trusted you to put the ruined Infirmary to rights for her,” he said. “That’s not nothing.”
“Uh huh.” Abby’s reply was rich with doubt. “And valuable, fulfilling work it was, too.”
As Abby and Chang climbed the aft stairs, they could hear the murmur of the captain's voice; as they walked up the aft corridor, that steady murmur became clear enough to eavesdrop upon. They both fell silent in order not to interrupt Cooper’s conversation.
"I'll pay 10,000 creds for the entire lot -- but only if you cover the cost of delivery and loading. By zero-eight-hundred hours tomorrow morning. Uh huh. Uh uh. No. Can't do. I understand that. Right. That's really unfortunate. It’s still zero-eight-hundred hours, firm. Yes, I'll hold, if you keep it brief." Cooper was scowling mightily as they came through the open hatchway, but the glance and nod she gave them was distracted. The captain was sitting in one of the observation lounge chairs, her hand-held on the low coffee table before her. She waved them on toward the central galley table, where the usual breakfast dishes were laid out. As he followed Abby into the galley, Chang flicked a look at the observation wall to the right of the corridor, which Cooper was facing. He was delighted to see that the captain was using the makeshift vid-display he had jury-rigged for her. One of the previous crewmen aboard the ship had had a serious love for Fruity Oaty bars; he had appeared to buy them by the case, and had decorated the wall of his cabin with a giant, animated singing commercial poster. Somebody else had later taken a shotgun to the thing, but Chang had salvaged a good-sized piece and kludged a standard I/O unit onto it. With the proper software -- which Chang had installed onto the captain's crack-screened hand-held -- any wireless device could override the hard-coded video data with its own graphics display.
The smart-paper hack might be one of the first tricks any tech-savvy Core-world brat learned, but Cooper and Hoss had both seemed very impressed by it, and the captain had wasted no time in duct-taping the poster to the observation lounge wall and putting it to work as a large display/vid screen. Granted, the override wasn't perfect -- every few minutes a ghostly Fruity Oaty girl materialized in a lower corner and proceeded to bust out of her blouse for 4.3 seconds at a time -- but Cooper seemed unphased by distraction, and Chang was confident that with a little more time in the future, he could hunt down the offending spectre and exorcise it entirely.
"I'm going to miss the meals aboard, at least, " Abby muttered under her breath to Chang, as they both picked up plates and served themselves. The empty plates were the last two -- from the dirty dishes stacked in the galley sink, Chang could tell he and Abby were the last to eat. Breakfast was a hash of shredded potatoes and onions with slivers of red and yellow peppers, and the fluffy buttermilk biscuits which Cooper made nearly every morning; when it wasn’t buttermilk biscuits, it was sourdough. "At least I can boast about that time I had a captain cooking for me."
"Don't be so downhearted," Chang whispered back, while he ladled gravy onto his plate of biscuits. "Has the captain given you any actual indication that she's not keeping you?"
Abby took a ladle of gravy for her own biscuits, then a second over her potatoes. "You know what the deal was,” she whispered back. “Impress Captain Cooper or walk once we reach Persephone. We're at Persephone. What have I done that's impressive?"
Behind them, the captain’s voice took on a sharper tone. “I hear you, mister, but I'm not able or willing to budge on those numbers. I've got a tight departure schedule, and I can get the same price on that aluminum from Kim & Yee down on the south side. So do you want my business, or are you just wasting my time?”
Chang met Abby’s eyes over the table, not sure whether he was about to wince or wink. Abby looked equally amused and uncomfortable. They both held their breaths, waiting to eavesdrop on an answer.
Cooper’s next words sounded much more satisfied. “Well then. Glad to hear it. My best wishes to your brother, I hope he recovers soon, and we’ll be waiting for that delivery right at zero-eight-hundred. 808D-12 West. 10,000 creds, full funds exchange when it’s loaded and signed for. Hǎo zuò shēngyì.” The captain signed off on her comm line and pushed herself to her feet, a clipboard in one hand and her cane in the other.
With one major piece of business concluded, Cooper launched in their direction like some heat-seeking ordnance. “We’re confirmed with the dockmaster,” she said as she limped toward the galley table. “Cleared to land at 1215 hours; our shipper will come and collect the goods, and I’ve got a cargo for Greenleaf lined up for loading first thing in the morning. I want offworld within 24 hours, or we’ve got more docking fees to pay. So that means we’ve got a short turn-around and a lot to get done before then. So I need to know what your intentions are. You gonna stay? Or you gonna walk?”
Chang looked from Cooper to Abby, then back to the captain. “You mean it's our choice? Well that's an easy one-- I’m staying!”
Captain Cooper gave him a brief, rare smile. “Glad to hear it,” Cooper said, with a nod for them both. “You’ve both proven to be willing workers -- the ship still needs you, if you’re still interested. You know I can’t promise regular pay. You want to walk, chances are you can find a much better job on another ship, here at Persephone. But if you want to stay, you know we’ve got lots more of the same waiting.” She turned her questioning stare onto Abby. “How ‘bout you?”
“Me?” Abby put down her fork. “Staying!” she said with alacrity, her blue eyes gone bright with delight and a grin beginning to spread across her pretty face.
“Good.” Cooper nodded once, with some satisfaction. “Call me soft-headed, but clearly we’ve got enough work to keep everyone busy. So. We got ourselves a tight timetable once we’ve landed. I’m going to need you both to take a shopping list and do a supplies run once we hit dock.” The captain pulled two print-outs from the board she held, and handed one to each of them. “We still got three hours until touch-down. I want you both to get on the marconi and start calling around to different outfitters, see what are the best prices you can find. We gotta make every credit count at this port.” Cooper tapped a finger against one of the supplies lists, then pushed herself away from the table. “But you can finish your breakfasts first,” she said.
“Breakfast can wait,” Abby said, still grinning as she shoved herself to her feet. “I’ve got one important wave to send home first.”
# # #
“There you are!” Sully said as he came clattering down the catwalk stairs. Hoss was standing at the aft hatchway door between the passenger dorm commons and the cargo bay. Ignoring Sully’s approach, the big mechanic stashed the grease tube he had been fiddling with away in one of the laden thigh-pouches of his cut-off cargo pants, then gave the door handle a slight tug. The door slid shut easily, and with a hiss of seal lock which before had been a stuttering choke.
“I’ve been looking all over for you,” Sully said as he reached the bottom step behind him. Hoss opened the hatch again, and watched it close for a second time, searching it critically for any flaw. “Captain’s asking after that finalized parts list. Don’t know what she thinks we might have added to it overnight, but the lady certainly doesn’t like to go unprepared. C’mon. I need you to take a look at it and sign off.”
Hoss gave the hatchway another push, trying to find satisfaction with the easy way it slid closed. “This one is fixed,” he said solemnly. “No safety inspector can ding us on this door being rusty, not any more,” he said, rubbing the grease pencil words “sticks” and “too hard/too slow to close” from the hatchway rim.
“You’re jǎng fèihuà,” Sully laughed, sounding entirely kindly. “Hoss, we’re two hours from landing and have a to-do list yet which is a yard long -- fiddling around with sluggish hatches is somewhere near the bottom of our engineering priorities!” he grumbled. But then he took a second look at Hoss’s bleak expression, and the annoyance melted from his face. “Man, we really need to get that blue-spectrum bulb swapped out, your face tatts make me jump just every time it flickers. But tribal war paint aside, y’know, you are reminding me of my mother right now.”
The absurdity of that observation roused Hoss from his grim funk. “What?”
“My mother. You. Right now.” Sully leaned against the side of the stable pod, idly scratching at Polly’s long ears when the dairy doe came nosing up for some attention. “Any time she was expecting guests, my mother would fly into a frenzy of house-cleaning. We were dirt poor and didn’t have much to speak of, but little as there was to scrub and dust, my mum was still house-proud, so she fretted and fussed and tried to put a polish on anything which couldn’t get out of the way. RIght now, you’re doing the same thing. You’re being house-proud.”
Hoss took a deep breath and held it, trying to control the sense of panic that roiled in his gut. “Your mother never had inspectors come through her door. If we get boarded…” It required a second deep breath, and the sickly sensation refused to leave him.
Sully gave him a friendly punch to the arm. “Don’t be such a worrier. I know this port. Captain is getting us in and taking us right back out again. Unless there’s some sort of old business on the books that’s triggered an alert when the ship came into system, then it’s a one-in-a -couple-of-hundreds chance we’ll win the customs lottery. Persephone simply gets too much traffic for them to give everyone a routine search. Besides -- port control offices shut down from noon to two for lunch. Even if we win that lottery, then we’ll have two hours at least to prep our bribe.” Sully gave him a confident grin and a second friendly punch. “Trust me, I know this port! And I’m on a first-name basis with a fair share of its customs agents as well. We’ll kite in and out of here, just fine.”
Hoss let go of a deep sigh. He understood what his crewmate was saying… intellectually, he did. But emotionally, he could not stop being a wreck. “Anyone coming aboard is just going to see her like she is,” he said, gesturing toward the battered cargo bay. While the trash from the ship’s previous crew had been cleaned up, there was still a long, long way to go before the ship’s refit was complete. Beyond the dents and grime of wear-n-tear, there were now obvious signs of work marking the ship like so much engineering tong graffiti. Lines of color-coded chalk now traced the paths of interior wiring, piping and plumbing; grease pencil instructions were written on ship’s interior walls throughout the ship, tagging the spots where parts, systems and equipment were broken, malfunctioning or often simply missing entirely. Hoss knew how bad his ship -- his ship -- would look to outside eyes. Outsiders would not, could not know just how hard the crew had worked these past weeks, and would be blind to how far they had come and to what improvements they had succeeded in completing. “All they’ll see is the wear and the tear and the grease pencils pointing out her every flaw for fixing. They’re going to think she’s grungy. They’re going to think she’s goushi. But she’s not. She’s beautiful.”
Sully’s smile for a moment was gentle, before he clapped Hoss’s arm again and straightened to his feet. “Any inspector who looks beneath this old lady’s skirts is gonna see she’s well loved, and that she’s got someone in charge aboard who’s gonna fix her up right,” he said. “But c’mon,” Sully added firmly. “Captain’s needing you to sign off on that supply priorities list. Let’s not keep Cooper waiting; our landing count-down will be here before you know it.”
# # #
"If there's going to be a party, somebody better bring me some cake," Halo quipped to the crowd which had gathered on the bridge behind the pilot's chair.
Almost immediately, he heard the shifting of bodies, and then the retreating tap of a cane. Realizing it was the captain was departing the bridge, he turned in his seat.
"Joking!" he called after Cooper, unable to see past the clog of crew gathered just this side of the bridge hatchway. But then Persephone Control Authority was back on the comm, and Halo immediately returned to the job at hand.
"Firefly 82669 inbound, this is Persephone Control. You are cleared for IFR approach to Eavesdown Docks via Beta scan vector Victor 12-B. Confirm."
"Roger that. This is Firefly 82669. IFR received, we're in the pipe, five by five." The ship was piercing atmo now, following the flight path they had been provided. The skies over the Eavesdown Docks were a busy, busy place. The ship's computer was in tight communication with Port Control, and if necessary, in an emergency the portmaster's system was said to be able to land a pilotless craft. But no pilot Halo had ever flown with would ever be willing to sit back and hand full control of their ship over to some desk jockey at the bottom of the gravity well.
“You all don’t have to hang over my shoulder like this,” he teased the gathering at his back. Even Fatima was awake and there. “I promise not to crash the old girl. Poor old gal had a rough take-off -- she deserves her a nice, soft touch-down.”
“We’re not distracting you, are we?” asked Abby anxiously.
“It’s a momentous occasion! It’s the ship’s first port of call!” Chang enthused. “Well, her first for us, anyway.”
“Feels special,” Hoss agreed. “We’re not bothering you, are we? We don’t want to bother you.”
“Speak for yourself, there, big guy!” Sully teased. “Fatima and me are both here entirely on our professional laurels. Someone’s gotta step in and step in quick if Halo gets all sweaty and starts to botch this thing.”
“There’ll be no botching allowed,” Halo retorted. “And an audience is always appreciated, just so long as you hold the catcalls and wolf whistles to a minimum.” Halo would have said more, but then Port Authority was back on the line. “Jin Dui, this is Persephone Control. You are clearing the transition zone in 3, 2, 1 -- you have departed Persephone Control, handing off to the world now.”
A second controller over the line, picking up with smooth precision as the first ended her transmission. “Jin Dui, this is Eavesdown Ground, you have entered our Airspace. Welcome to the world, and the Eavesdown Portmaster sends you her regards.”
“Roger that, Eavesdown Ground, and we’re glad to make our howdies. This is Firefly 82669 Jin Dui, we’ve customs clearance number Romeo-Golf-eight-zero-six-five-Quebec. Maintaining heading on coordinates given. We’re seeing the blue.”
(“What’s going on?” he heard Abby whisper behind him.)
“Jin Dui, this is Eavesdown Ground. Maintain heading 040. Descend to 15,000 feet, then maintain.”
“Roger that, Eavesdown Ground.”
(“There’s different control zones -- one manages the entire planet from orbital zone outward; the rest are ground controls managing their respective ports,” explained Sully. )
“And Persephone has got herself a lot of ports,” Halo added, now that Eavesdown Ground Control was offline again. “We’re just gliding our gentle way down through a pretty, pretty sky -- well, okay, look at that stormfront over there. Still pretty, but it’ll mean chop for some poor bastard.”
There was the tap-tap of Cooper’s returning cane, and the shift and shuffle of bodies making way for the captain’s arrival to the bridge. She carried a plate laden with small balls of dough, which had been rolled in sesame seeds, then flash-fried to a golden crisp. “No cake. But we got this,” Cooper said as she began to pass the platter. “Only had enough red bean paste to make about three for each of us, and they’re cold now, but at least they’re not deflated.”
“Jin dui!” Chang exclaimed in delight, snatching after one of the pastries and filling his mouth. “Who needs a paycheck? Just keep feeding us dim sum!”
“This is delicious!” Abby exclaimed over hers.
Fatima rescued three for Halo as the platter made a second round through the gathering behind him. She set the pastries down on the pilot’s station on a napkin near his elbow. Halo popped one in his mouth, then scrambled not to chew loudly as ground control came back online.
“Jin Dui, exercise caution inbound, current weather advisory is for a storm front with moderate to severe turbulence and tops greater than 45,000 feet, currently 50 miles west of your current course.”
“Eavesdown Ground, Jin Dui has the storm in sight to the west; we’ve reached 15,000 and are level.”
“I’ve got our flight plan and cargo manifest ready for transmit as soon as we’re snug,” Cooper told the gathered crew. Fatima offered her the co-pilot’s seat and the captain waved the offer off. “Sully promises me that port customs are too overworked to inspect each incoming ship -- they’ll only ask for a closer look if something smells off about our paperwork, or if the ship has a prior history at this port.”
“Does the Jin Dui have a prior history at this port?” Chang asked. “Does anyone know?”
“I certainly don’t,” the captain answered as she licked a sesame seed from one finger. “But I guess we’ll all be finding that out here, real damn soon.”
“Jin Dui, Eavesdown approach, turn right heading four six zero, descend and maintain nine thousand.
“Right to four six zero, down to nine thousand, Jin Dui.”
(“How would we find something like that out?” Abby asked.)
(“The hard way, most likely,” Sully replied. “First the landlock, then a little hi-dee-ho from dockside security. It’s never any fun.”)
(“You mean you’ve been landlocked before?” Hoss exclaimed.)
Halo wanted to hear the answer to that particular question, but ground control was talking at him again, demanding his full attention. "Jin Dui, turn left heading zero nine zero, descend and maintain five thousand, slow to two two zero knots."
"Right to zero nine zero, down to 5,000, slowing to 220 knots, Jin Dui."
"Jin Dui, intercept the localizer runway seven five left, cleared ILS seven five left."
"Cleared ILS seven five left, Jin Dui."
(“What’s going on?” Abby asked again.)
(“We’ve just been cleared for instrument landing approach to an assigned landing pad; we don’t need visuals to see it to land from here out, our computers can manage that. Handy -- sometimes the smog gets so thick you can’t see your own nose cone,” Sully explained.)
(“Blind?” Abby said, aghast. “You mean we’re landing blind?”)
“We’re not blind,” Halo chuckled. “Not today, at least. But--”
Halo didn’t finish that thought, as Port Control interrupted him. “Jin Dui, we have you on visuals, confirm that your landing struts are fully extended.”
Any break from port control’s regular script was never, ever a good thing. Halo immediately tapped and swiped commands to his instrument panel; off his left elbow, Fatima was mirroring his movements at the co-pilot’s station.
“Landing gear is not deployed,” she said, confirming for Halo what he read in his own screens.
“Eavesdown Ground, say again?” Halo asked -- when in doubt, verbally stall.
Port Control saw through his maneuver. “Firefly 86629, be advised, your left fore landing strut is partially extended, and has been since entry.”
“Roger that,” Halo said, then began to spin the malfunction, hoping to dodge fines. “It appears to be an inflight glitch, our engineer will inspect and repair that immediately. Eavesdown Ground, Firefly 86629 Jin Dui with you on the localizer seven five right.”
“Jin Dui, roger, cleared now to land seven five right, Berth 808D-12 West.”
“Cleared to land seven five right, Jin Dui beginning final descent. Landing gear is now all fully engaged -- can you give me a visual confirm on that, Eavesdown Ground?” It was risking fines up the wahoo to ask, but better the fines you took for asking, than the fines you took if you didn’t and then went and ruined the dockmaster's day.
“Jin Dui, all four landing struts appear fully deployed.”
“Eavesdown Control, thank you kindly. We are at 150 feet now and finishing our descent.” As the ship sank down onto her assigned docking berth, the sky outside the cockpit windows lost its blue in favor of a polluted haze, and then the bustling skyline of the Eavesdown Docks rose up around them. Towers of shipping containers stacked three- and four high formed a maze of walls, intersected here and there by traffic thoroughfares, frantically animated advertising billboards, and more permanently-built structures housing the businesses and services that catered to the never-sleeping flow of ships and their crews through the port.
The Jin Dui settled with only the briefest of shocks through her landing gear. Halo chuckled to himself as he began to power-off flight controls; it seemed to him that the hair on the back of his head had just been parted by the shared sigh of relief from the gathered crew when it was clear the Jin Dui’s landing struts had all held.
“Well, we made it,” the captain said under her breath; Halo wondered if she knew that that thought had escaped aloud.
“I’d offer to buy everyone a round at the nearest dive, but I’m afraid I haven’t the creds,” Chang said cheerfully. He held up his last jin dui in the air instead as a toast. “Bravo! To a nice soft landing, Halo, and here’s to Persephone!”
“Huzzah!” agreed Sully. Hoss cheered as well, while Abby was looking skeptically at the new landscape outside, as though questioning the chaotic press of the Eavesdown Docks.
“Okay, wǒ de chuányuán, we’ve had a long three weeks to get here. Now we’ve got to scramble,” Cooper said, leaning on her cane and gazing soberly at each of them in turn. “I have appreciated your hard labor these last weeks. You have all decided to hire on. We’ve got a full crew, which I had not anticipated or budgeted for, but I’ll find a way to make the finances work. We can’t afford to park here for long -- I want to be gone again by this time tomorrow, which means no R&R here. I promise to make that up to you on Greenleaf. Knowing we’ve got a tight turn-around, I’ve completed as much of our business as possible by comm before our landing. We’re on the port service’s schedule for refueling late tonight; I’ve got a cargo lined up for delivery just about in time for breakfast tomorrow. Our buyer has been expecting this load for months now and is eager to pick it up, so I expect them within the hour. Hoss and I will handle unloading. I need the rest of you to tackle the dockside chores I’ve already discussed with each of you privately. Sully, make use of your contacts to sell those surplus guns -- the ones I want sold are already bundled up and waiting for you in the red duffel below the galley dining table. Abby and Fatima, you have the shopping list of supplies we need for the galley, ship’s locker and the slop chest. Haggle as best as you can -- we need every last coin. Halo, you’re assigned to go on a supplies run for parts and equipment with Chang. Chang already has engineering's priority list of what we most need, and he and Abby have been working hard all morning to find the best deals available from the hundred-odd outfitters advertising at this port. Again, haggle as much as you can. Abby and Chang, you’ve got our portable comms. Don’t lose them, and be sure they work before you get too far down the dockside. I’ll have funds available in the bank within an hour and a half, Tiānyì. Have the merchants call me for bank transfer authorizations. And also -- Abby has a little something extra in her pocket, from Hoss and me. Meet up for a late lunch somewhere before coming back to the ship. You’ve all worked hard and you deserve it.”
As the captain spoke, Halo finished turning off all of the Jin Dui’s in-flight systems. He wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of a shopping trip off-ship -- what he couldn’t say to the captain or rest of the crew was that Persephone was a port he really, really did not want to show his face at. But he had a fairly concealing hat he could grab, down in quarters, and it would be a relief to breathe air that had not already been inhaled, exhaled, and recycled repeatedly for the last couple ofl weeks through badly worn life support filters. “Aye, aye, captain!” he said with a bit of forced cheer, as he pushed himself out of the pilot’s seat. “Ladies and gents, shall we get to it?”
# # #
The storm the Jin Dui had flown past two hours ago had followed them to the Eavesdown Docks, hiding the mid-day sun behind a fast-moving scud of dark clouds. As Sully hopped off the ped-tram at the corner of Astor and Tsai, those dark clouds opened up with a burst of rain. The crowded pedestrian thoroughfare around him answered with a blossoming of umbrellas. Without one himself, Sully simply ducked his head against the downpour and pulled up the collar of his coat.
He walked fast, weaving his way through the slower foot traffic and avoiding a bike-cab as he looked for clashing neon colors of the Now Want Want as his landmark. He spotted it with some relief -- he was much more familiar with the Northgate side of the docks, where Badger's operation was nestled among the scattering of Blue Sun leasings, spacer dives and sleepovers, the trader’s guild mothballed port office, fly-by-night outfitters, and the never-reliable Honest Austin's scrapyard. Sully had ventured back into that familiar territory today, seeking out his favorite finder, Leroy Li Brown, who was always happy to pay for guns, with or without Alliance papers to back them. Brown had met him for drinks at Chen’s Throat Emporium -- and had been particularly impressed with the KS80 Lightweight Carbon Assault Rifle Sully had had to offer. Sully and his business contact had both parted happy men, and Sully was pretty certain Captain Cooper would be pleased as well, when he handed over the thick bundle of Penglai Federal Reserve script he had earned for her.
The rest of the crew had agreed to meet at the Now Want Want for dinner, and Sully had been planning to drop in and reserve a table. But now, as he stood beneath the flashing neon of the restaurant, Sully changed his mind on that. On a sneaking whim which had been gathering steam for the past two hours, Sully pushed on ahead, continuing down the crowded thoroughfare for Berth 808D-12 West.
The Jin Dui was four long berths down from the Now Want Want, and Sully's coat was just about soaked through by the time he reached her. There was an ebony hovercar waiting out in front, with reflective red windows and a small red flower emblem in the lower corner of the driver's door. Sully eyed that curiously as he passed, unable to see if there were any occupants within. Where there was life and movement, however, was inside the Jin Dui. The ship's cargo door was open, and there were a half a dozen longshores busy at work there, moving wooden crates of copper ore. They all wore crisp white form-fitting shirts, emblazoned at the shoulder with a stylized blood-red, black-faced flower. It was the same logo as on the luxury hovercar out front, and which was centered on the doors of the flat bed truck the workers were loading up. Captain Cooper stood to one side, near the forward stairs, flanked by Hoss as she spoke with two strangers. Sully would have expected her to be conversing with a senior dock worker, or perhaps a mid-level shipping agent. But no -- from the sleek and tailored lines of their suits, those two were high-end businessfolk. Both were sallow-skinned and thin to the point of gauntness. The woman had her hair cropped short in a chic, angled bob; the man wore his long and swept back in a samurai knot. The heels she wore put them at exactly the same height, and when both turned their heads in unison to stare at Sully's approach, their faces were alike enough to be twins.
Twins. Shock froze Sully in mid-stride as he realized just who his new captain was doing business with. Réncí dì dìyù! It was theTwins. Rydia and Theron. The bleeding Kazantzakis Twins, of Kazantzakis Shipping. Sully knew that Rydia was two years senior to her brother, but the sharp angles of their faces were so alike that it was a no-brainer for how they'd earned their moniker.
Hoss and the Captain were looking at Sully now as well. They had had to replace one of the bay’s overheads a week ago, and the only replacement bulb was a faulty blue-spectrum -- which meant that the random flickers of the UV light made Hoss’s crimson Maori facial tattoos glow blood red for a few seconds at a time. Hoss’s expression beneath the fierce on-and-off-again tā moko was all stark dismay, whereas Cooper's familiar scowl had only hardened. If looks could kill, Sully wagered she'd have him keelhauled, then drawn, then quartered.
"Sorry to interrupt," Sully said, trying to recover some professional aplomb despite the rainwater he knew was dripping from his hair. "I finished early and figured I'd come back and lend a hand."
The twins both turned back to look at Cooper, their physical movements virtually synchronized. "And who is this?" asked Theron coldly.
"This is Raquel Sullivan," Cooper said in return, and then produced a passable -- if flinty -- smile. "He's my first mate; he can be trusted with ship’s business."
Sully gave them his most pleasant, most got-it-together smile he could manage, while inside he was reeling for the second time in just seconds. First mate? "Pleased to meet you both," he said, not offering to shake hands in greeting. No. Not with these two. He had heard enough about them over the years to know you didn't try to touch one of the Kazantzakis Twins.
The very last cargo crate was being loaded now; Cooper was giving Hoss a significant nod, and the big mechanic strode away from them toward the now-cleared port side of the cargo bay. "As I said, Van Hooven sends his compliments, and his regrets for the delay," Cooper said, as they all watched as Hoss removed a false metal panel in the port wall, exposing a smuggler's hold which had been previously blocked by the heavy crates of copper. "He appreciates your patience, and has sent a second case of product. With his compliments."
"Appropriate," Rydia said dryly.
"We appreciate his thoughtfulness, and will relay our regards," Theron said. Even their voices were frightfully alike -- could that be achieved surgically, somehow? Sully couldn't help but wonder. Or maybe -- did they practice it?
Hoss had hauled out the first of the two crates, and a large young longshoreman took it up and placed it in the cab of the truck. From the glimpse he saw of it, the crate was sleek, dull black, and the size of a large duffel. He had seen the like before -- Alliance military make, composite ceramic, and very likely shielded. Sully was extremely careful not to let a flicker of anything like curiosity pass over his face. He kept his smile bland and unthreatening, and refused to glance aside at Cooper. What in the hell is going on here?
Hoss had produced a second crate and passed it over. The longshoremen were all climbing aboard the back of their flatbed, preparing to depart. "The Jin Dui will be returning to its regular, previously-agreed-upon schedule," Cooper was saying to her business allies; as the flatbed rolled down and out of the cargo bay, she walked with the Kazantzakis Twins back to their hovercar. "We'll be back in approximately six months; we'll send a wave with the exact date when we've departed from Deadwood with your next shipment."
"We will appreciate your respect for the schedule," Rydia Kazantzakis said. "Our friend's previous hirelings were not so respectful. We chose to exercise patience with them."
"That patience is not unlimited," Theron added smoothly.
"For which Van Hooven sends his regrets," Cooper said. "He has cleaned his house. He intends to continue to be a respected and profitable business partner, and wishes for you to contact him regarding any remaining concerns you may have."
The Twins before inclined their heads in a gesture of acceptance and regal dismissal. Their chauffeur had seen their approach and had moved the vehicle forward so that it was shielded from the rain by the ship. The driver now scrambled to exit the vehicle and opened a back door for his employers. Theron saw his sister seated first, then climbed in without another word. The chauffeur shut the door, and hurried back into the driver's seat. The hovercar lifted away with a nearly soundless hum, and only when it had retreated well up the dock did Cooper's rictus of a smile vanish.
"What the hell?" The captain demanded, turning on Sully so furiously that she slipped on the rain-slick pavement. Sully caught Cooper's elbow, helping her find her balance again.
"I sold the goods you sent me out with," he said, conscious of the returning flow of passengers past their berth, now that the hovercar had cleared the walkway.
Cooper satisfied herself with a radioactive glare. She jerked her elbow free and stalked back up the gangway, leaving Sully to follow her. "That sure didn't take you very long," she cast back acidly over one shoulder.
"I got done early; I thought I'd be of some help unloading," Sully said, as if it had been an entirely innocent decision.
The dark look she shot back at him as she reached the cargo bay controls spoke volumes of how far she believed in coincidences. "Uh huh,” she grumbled as she slammed a palm down on the controls, sending the cargo bay doors rumbling down. “Sure.”
“Captain -- do you know who they are?” Sully raked a hand through his wet hair, no longer bothering to hide his distress.
The dismay in his voice earned him Cooper’s undivided attention, and from her momentary confusion over his reaction, Sully saw that no, his captain really didn’t. "Réncí dì dìyù!" he groaned. "Van Hooven's portside contacts are the bloody Kazantzakis Twins? Cooper, they're butchers! Upscale butchers, maybe -- but that just means they can kill more of you and get away with it easier."
Cooper took the information in stride. "They are Van Hooven's trade partners,” she replied with a shrug, beginning to turn away. “We deliver the goods. They buy the cargo -- and at a fair market value. More than that, I don't want to know." Cooper stopped suddenly and rounded on him. "And the rest of the crew -- they don't need to know, either," she said, starkly grim. "Dong ma?"
"Understood," Sully agreed. Cooper's sly arrangements to have the entire crew off ship so that there would be no onboard witnesses for the exchange of cargos -- that made sense, now. What the rest of the crew didn't know about a secret cargo, they couldn't talk about. And what they couldn't talk about, couldn't hurt them. Sully raked another hand through his hair, trying to settle his rattled nerves. "So what's Van Hooven really trading with the Kazantzakises?" he asked. "What's in those cases?"
Cooper titled her head to one aside, almost as though amused. "Do you really want to know?"
Sully's curiosity wanted to answer 'yes' to that, but his mouth followed his wits. "No. Not really." He waited a beat, glancing aside at Hoss as he joined them. "But do you know?"
"I don't," Cooper answer firmly. Sully wondered if that were the truth. Her frown didn't tell him one way or the other.
"Do you think we can still make dinner with the rest of the crew?" Hoss asked wistfully.
“I doubt they're even done with their respective chores yet," Sully said to Hoss. He turned a questioning look back on their captain. "And about that other thing... were you serious?"
"About the promotion?" Cooper tapped a lock-down code into the grimy keyboard of the cargo pay control panel. "Sure. It’s either a battlefield promotion, or I'll have to kill you."
Sully looked at her, aghast, then turned to Hoss. "Tell me the captain is kidding."
"The captain is kidding," Hoss replied, before turning woeful eyes on Cooper. "You are kidding, right?"
"Sure," Cooper said, limping for the airlock door and opening it with a flourish. "Of course I am. Let's go celebrate."
Sully followed Hoss back out of the ship. He cast a glance back at Cooper as he passed, and again, he couldn't quite tell whether or not the captain was telling them the truth.
# # #
Night had fallen outside, and the ship inside was silent, except for the lyrical notes of the captain's violin as she practiced in the cargo bay. Nearly everyone else aboard was asleep in their bunks, sunk into a food-coma by the frothy high-alc beverages and dim sum buffet served at the Now Want Want. Chang always had an eye open for opportunities, and he'd leapt for this one as soon as the crew had trooped back from dinner.
One of the many replacement parts the Jin Dui had needed were security cameras. The ship's entire compliment had been pawned off by the previous crew, but Chang had gotten a single refurbished Yīng-Yǎn minidome vari-focal AV unit from Honest Austin's at an insanely good price. He had enlisted Hoss's help with installing the hardware -- walking a hull in zero-gee was one thing, but dangling from a safety harness in unforgiving grav quite another -- and the big mechanic had cheerfully agreed. Hoss had replaced the external security camera and its paired floodlight, positioned under the nose of the ship where they would provide an exterior view of the cargo bay doors. The Maori mechanic had also used the last of the waning daylight to replace the rest of the ship's external floodlights -- not having those burning bright through the night was an invitation for fines to be levyed on them by some sharp-eyed port official
With the pilot's station empty for the night, Chang had ample opportunity to sit down at the helm and dig into the ship's central computer system. He had a variety of security patches and software updates to run later, but he knew the captain was waiting for the fuel delivery scheduled for 2230 that night, so his first priority was to get the new camera up and operational. As always, new hardware on an old comp could mean a trip down the rabbit hole: he had had to replace hardware drivers and install new security patches, then find and fix whatever else had got broken in the process. But the control menu he can brought up now worked, and the newly installed camera came on with nary a flicker.
"Lookie there!" Chang said with satisfaction, pleased with his own success. You could never be quite sure what you were gonna get with refurbished models. He panned the camera with a fingertip, appreciating the crisp visuals -- the camera could pick up more details than the receiving system could display, but as-was, he could see details as fine as the cracks in the cement of the Jin Dui's landing pad. He played with the zoom, finding a way to angle it so that he could get a fish-eye, 360' view of their berth, and of the pedestrian traffic along the well-lit shop row. Traffic had thinned considerably, especially since the fish-and-chips joint across from berth 808-12 West had closed for the night. Chang tried to see how much of a zoom he could get on something beyond the nose of the ship, and settled on a man leaning against the chip shop doorway. The fellow was relatively pale skinned and dressed in varying shades of red. There was a big spot on his face, smack-dab in the center of his forehead, which at first Chang thought was an unfortunate blemish, but which the extreme-zoom feature turned out to be a fairly realistic tattoo of a third eyeball.
"Girls must love that," Chang snarked at the fool, as he tapped the commands to bring up the infra-red and ultraviolet readings this model of camera advertised. "Shēnshèngdé gāo wān," he barked, when neither of the 'extrasensory' readings would display.
That meant a jump back into the settings panel, and another look-see to make sure the camera’s device drivers were compatible with the ship’s other systems. It was only when Chang queried up a customer complaint log via the Cortex that he found that the extra-sensory options for this particular model were incompatible with an OS patch _ for the Firefly series 3's standard cameras. Never mind that the old crew had long since sold those off, the patch was still in the computer, and tied into the internal comms manager. Mentally he added another hour to his estimated completion time.
"Shēnshèngdé gāo wān," Chang grumbled again. He tapped the button for the cam's built-in parabolic microphone, and immediately could hear the sound of traffic on the dock. In the camera display, three happily drunk spacers were passing by, singing something hideously off-color. When they had passed, Chang could see a second man had joined the fellow outside the chip shop. The second guy was also dressed all in red, and had the same third-eye tattoo.
“Gǎo shénme guǐ?!?” Chang sat up a little straighter in the pilot's seat. What had seemed merely "odd fashion choices" on one man started looking a lot more like "gang colors" or even "uniform" when shared. Chang saw mouths moving and swiped the audio up to full.
"... still no response to the waves we sent to the captain," the second Third Eye was telling the first. "Mah Anand is furious."
"Her wrath will be terrible," the first man responded -- something about the matter-of-fact, completely unironic delivery of those words went beyond creepy and straight into danger-WillRob-danger.
"Captain," he said, hitting the mic to communicate with the cargo bay. The violin solo went silent at once. "Thought you should know -- I've got that camera up and working, and we've got possible trouble standing in front of the fish-and-chips. Two guys, loose red clothes, matching third-eye tattoos. We got nice audio on the new cam, and I can hear them muttering something I think about the captain not answering their waves and someone else being terribly wrathful because of it."
"Lovely," Cooper replied drily.
At that moment on the new security camera's display, there came the rumble of heavy machine, and the visual was interrupted by the arrival of a big tanker truck. "Fuel's here," Chang reported, while switching the cam from zoom back to fisheye. The truck parked in the service lane of the thoroughfare, blocking his view of the Third Eyes, and all his audio could pick up was the thunder of the idling tanker’s engine.
The red light monitoring ship doors flared on, as the captain opened up the airlock hatch to step out and sign for the refuel delivery. Chang chewed on his lip, trying to keep his eyes on the sides of the fisheye display as a distorted image of Cooper limped down the ship's gangway and hailed the truck's driver. The driver got out of his truck cab; they exchanged pleasantries as Cooper signed off on his light board, then he moved to step into the cherry-lift which would carry him up, then aft, to the top of the Jin Dui’s reactor pod, where the refueling valve was located. The captain stood there for a moment, watching that ascent. Then she turned and heading around the nose of the truck for the thoroughfare, and out of camera view.
Ó, tā mā de! What did the fēngkuáng de nǚrén think she was doing? Chang scrambled for his feet and ran for the bridge door. He pelted down the corridor and through the galley, heading for the cargo bay as fast as he could run. It was only as he was barrelling down the aft stairs that he realized maybe he should have hit the comm and called for additional back-up.
"Abby!" he shouted as he hit the bottom of the stairs and sprinted through the passenger dorm lounge. "Call up Hoss, get him outside, cap'n 's walking into something I don't like the looks of!"
The last words of his warning dopplered behind him as Chang headed out through the dorm hatch into the cargo bay. He hoped Abby had heard him -- maybe he should stop and look for something at least somewhat weapon-like? Instead he kept running, knowing delay wouldn't be worth it when there wasn't much he could do to look like a credible threat anyway. After all, Chang assured himself as he barrelled out the airlock hatch -- after all, there were pedestrians and such out there, it wasn't like Cooper was following two frickin' weirdos into a dark alley...
... not that I don't trust that she wouldn’t, though, was the trailing thought there. Chang found himself rather liking his stubborn captain, but she didn't seem to have the verb "quit" in her vocabulary, nor the reasonable acceptance of a little word like "crippled."
Chang had a moment to process just how nice and brilliant the new floodlights were as he ran through the wide pool of light. Then he dodged around the nose of the fuel trunk, and found it dark enough indeed on the thoroughfare beyond the berth. Foot traffic was light -- he dodged around a man on horseback, leaving the horse throwing up its head in alarm at the near-collision and the rider yelling something drunken after him. Chang's eyes locked in on Cooper, and sure enough, there was his captain, standing in front of the two Third Eyes.
" -- you got a problem with that, you have your legal representative contact my legal representative. Dong ma" Cooper was saying to them in a flinty voice. Chang skidded to a stop behind her and crossed his arms over his chest, squaring back his shoulders and trying to project more volume in the world than he knew he actually took up. Neither of the Third Eyes even batted a real eye at his sudden appearance, although Cooper cast a glance back over her shoulder with some surprise.
"Captain Lehman had goods of ours," one of the men said sourly.
"And what was it?" Cooper replied. "Give me a description, and I'll check against ship's inventory."
The two men looked at one another, then turned hostile stares back to Cooper. Cooper did not flinch, so Chang felt compelled not to do so, either. "We'll take back what's ours," the first red man growled.
"Or we'll take our pound of flesh," the other added.
"Lehman's dead. So's his crew. Have your legal rep contact mine. We're departing in the morning, so the sooner we get served a formal description of your missing property, the sooner we can resolve this. Grok that? Now. If I see you or any of your kissing cousins lurking around outside my dock again, I'm calling station authorities and making a suspicious-persons report to security." Cooper turned about and limped away, heading back to the ship. Chang stood his ground for a moment longer, giving the men in red the fiercest stinkeye he could, then he turned and followed after her. The twitchy feeling didn't leave the back of his neck until they were both safely back around the nose of the fuel truck.
"What did they want?" he asked Cooper when they were safely in the rumble-zone of the idling big rig.
The captain shrugged. "Sounds like they had some past business with the previous captain. Gorram idjits -- it's not like I can tell by osmosis what in hell they're looking for. They want something returned to them, they have to supply a description and then ask nice."
Abby came rushing out of the airlock hatch then, wrapped in a colorful silk dressing gown, her long mahogany hair loose and with slippers on her feet. She had one hand in the pocket of her robe -- like maybe she was hiding a gun. "The rest are on their way; what's going on?" she asked them breathlessly.
Cooper cast a sour look back at Chang as if asking why he'd turned this into a circus. "Couple of odd fellows just across the way there, who were hoping to speak to the ship's previous captain," Cooper explained. "I told them to have their legal office contact my legal office -- that would be you, Abby -- if they want to go ahead and identify their missing merchandise for us. In the meanwhile, we're refueling on schedule. I've got cargo coming in at 0815 tomorrow, and we've got supplies deliveries incoming from 0900 through 1100. So get back to your bunk and get some sleep. We'll have a busy morning before we depart."
Abby took the dismissal in stride. She headed back up the gangway. "Cancel the alarm," Cooper yelled after her, before turning back to Chang. "You record any of that exchange?" she asked
Chang blinked, sorting through the possibilities to the most probable. "Everything the camera is recording is saved to file. Won't be able to see past the truck -- the tanker is blocking vid -- but it's possible I can enhance the audio and get the conversation isolated."
"Do it," Cooper said, dismissing him with a firm nod. "Log it to file, just in case we need it. I think I called their bluff; otherwise, we might find we have need of it, later on. And --" she added, as Chang began to turn away. "Good job."
The compliment came as a surprise. Chang blinked in surprise, then returned her nod with pleasure. "Get on it," she told him. "I'll just wait here for the refueling to finish. Just keep an eye on the vid. Just in case."
"Sure thing," he said, and followed Abby back aboard.
# # #
Sitting at the pilot's station and running figures for their departure, Cooper noticed Sully watching from the corner of his eye as the captain placed her angry wave.
"Good morning! Sloan & Sons Wholesale," came the answer -- whether the fellow was Sloan Sr. or Sloan Jr., Cooper had not been able to figure out, although the man was of middling-years and his yellow hair was in full retreat from his forehead, while cut into a square beard beneath his plump chin.
"It's a beautiful sunny day out there," Cooper growled into the comm line. "Only thing is, I'm missing my cargo. It's 15 minutes past the hour, Sloan. Where's my container of irrigation parts and aluminum sheeting?"
The cheery tone slid at once into a woebegone drone, and the man’s smile reversed itself. "Captain! I am so sorry about the delay, only it's my brother. You see, constipation from his recent treatments make him a walking time bomb, and this morning, he near exploded…”
Cooper knew Sully was listening in. She rolled her eyes at him in despair as Sloan continued to explain the family’s scatological emergency. Sully was laughing soundlessly, finding the whole situation a whole lot more humorous than Cooper could. She was glad someone, at least, was enjoying this goathump.
“I understand your brother is in some distress,” she interrupted the wholesaler. “But you need to either shove him out your warehouse door with some prunes stuffed down his piehole, or else you better pick up those keys yourself and get that truck over here. I have a very narrow departure window here, mister, and I cannot afford to miss it!”
“I appreciate your situation, captain, but we’re doing the best that we can. My brother’s doctor says he cannot drive, and I cannot leave the office until my daughter comes in to take over reception. Surely an hour or two cannot be so very bad…”
Then Sully suddenly reached across his boards and toggled the secondary comm line for an incoming wave. Cooper watched Sully as she listened to the wholesaler's continued excuses. Sully sat back, listened to his line for a second, then immediately turned in his seat and flagged Cooper for her attention.
"Hold please," Cooper interrupted Sloan’s moaning, then stabbed the mute command without waiting for acknowledgement. "What?" she barked at Sully.
"You want to take this," Sully answered enigmatically, forwarding the wave over onto her screen at the co-pilot’s station.
"Captain Cooper here," she said, braced for any manner of incoming mayhem as the vid screen split into two.
A pale, angular face gazed back at her from the left side of the screen, a polar opposite of the sweating, bearded wholesaler. "Captain," came the dry response. Cooper recognized the glacial voice and icy stare at once as Rydia Kazantzakis. "You are in departure for Greenleaf, yes?"
"Yes ma'm," Cooper replied.
"We have three standard reefer containers for expedited delivery to Port Auckland on Greenleaf. Self-contained power systems and environmental controls. They need to arrive within 3 days. We will pay the standard trade union rate of 10 creds per AU per container. Can you deliver them for us? We will have them at your dock with all necessary paperwork by 0930 this morning."
"Yes ma'm," Cooper replied immediately.
"Good. Yiá sas.." Kazantzakis gave her a precise nod before ending the call abruptly. Cooper gave Sully a smirk, then toggled off the mute with Sloan.
"My regrets for you brother and his family troubles," she told the wholesaler smoothly. "But you realize the situation you place me in here? I have three outbound containers arriving on my dock from Kazantzakis Shipping at 0915 hours. I am going to have to call up their operation and explain why their cargo is going to have to sit and wait on the dockside, because your brother is too busy doing whatever-the-hell it is he is doing. Dong ma?"
There was an uncomfortable silence, and then Sloan’s expression undertook a near-magical transformation from woebegone to decidedly chipper and can-do.
"My brother's has just arrived with our truck and we are getting your cargo loaded at once! We will make every effort to be there and have your containers loaded up by 0900. My apologies for the confusion, captain! Your cargo will be there and loaded in time, you have my personal word on it."
Cooper shared a wry look with Sully as she keyed off on the call. "Something had to scare the shit outta the poor man,” she deadpanned.
# # #
The container from Sloan & Sons was being secured at the back of the cargo bay when the three from Kazantzakis arrived. They stacked the four containers two-by-two in the center of the hold; the Kazantzakis delivery foreman was all smiles and good cheer as Cooper signed off for his shipment and accepted the shipping manifest. Smaller commercial deliveries from half-a-dozen outfitters came in throughout the loading procedure -- parts and supplies which had been purchased the day before, Hoss knew, and he could hardly wait for the opportunity for unpack and see what goodies the crew had ordered for him. It was sort of like Christmas -- but better, the big mechanic thought to himself. He was looking forward to repairs he expected to make during the next two days in transit -- and even more, to bringing the Jin Duiand her crew to their next destination, Raikirua Island on Greenleaf.
Hoss carried in the crate of replacement life support filters, and Cooper escorted the delivery man out of the airlock hatch. “Abby,” Cooper called into the all-ship. “That was Benge & Standish Outfitters, 200 count box of Easy Kleens; forty pounds of chemicals for the water reclamation system, and four filter buckets.”
“Check, check, and check,” Abby responded, from wherever she was managing inventory control. “That’s the last delivery.”
“Hĕn hăo,,” Cooper said as she closed the hatch firmly. “Helm, we’re locked and loaded down here.”
“Aye aye, Captain,” Sully replied from the bridge. “Notifying Eavesdown Control; we’re ready to lift as soon as she sends our numbers up the pipe.”
Hoss slid the box of filters beneath the forward bay stairs. He turned and surveyed the cargo bay with satisfaction. With four containers, the huge chamber looked stuffed full.
“Port Authority is sticking to schedule,” Sully reported from helm. “Eavesdown Control is giving us clearance in three… two… one.”
There was a brief moment of sway as the Jin Dui went vertical. Hoss glanced at Cooper, and saw the expression on her face. He moved around the edge of the stairs and sat down on a step, then patted the space beside him.
Cooper limped over to join him, sinking down beside him on the stair step with a sigh of relief. “Niúbī,” she breathed aloud. “We did it. We have a cargo. We have money in the bank, we’re not landlocked, and we’re not eating port fines like candy. You’d almost --” She stopped and satisfied herself with just a wry look instead, when she realized the all-ship comm was still open.
Hoss grinned at his old friend, predicting exactly what she had been going to say. “You’d almost think we knew what we were doing, huh?” He patted her knee knowingly.
“Almost,” he answered. “Almost.”