Dinner happened -- between them, Fatima and Hoss converted the onion broth to a potato-onion soup, then produced sourdough cheese toast and tempura onion rings, with Hoss’s favorite black bean brownies for dessert. Chang and Abby had cleaned up in the galley, and Cooper had simply stretched out on the low sofa in the observation lounge and watched it all happen, offering bits of unnecessary advice from the peanut gallery. She had her hand-held and a wireless stylus, and devoted her confinement to drinking in commodities data from the Red Sun and Kalidasa Clusters.
Soon, it would be alterday shift change. Hoss had already passed through to let her know he was headed down to workout on the Springflex weight equipment, one of the few truly useful bits of scavenge they’d inherited from the previous crew. Hoss had been working out twice a day on the thing, and had already lost much of the extra weight he had packed on during his time working on the cruiseliner. He would shower after his workout today, Cooper knew, and then want to carry her down to her cabin.
The commodities data was making her head swim -- she forced herself to focus on it, trying to absorb the ebb and flow of markets within clusters. Her father had loved economics, had thrived on running his business and serving his customers, always striving to have on hand for them what they needed before they knew they wanted it. He would have loved the challenge of a working cargo ship; an ‘emporium for the frontier’ he would have pronounced it, and then proceeded to make the ledgers balance. Somehow. There were moments when Cooper felt the full weight and responsibility of the position she found herself in -- but if she had learned nothing else during her years in the war, it was how to deal with those moments of despair: deny them, then outrun them. If you assumed false confidence long enough and hard enough, it became a self-fulling reality. And besides -- failure wasn’t an option. The lives and livelihood of her crew depended on her.
Soft footsteps in the galley caught her ear. Fighting fatigue, Cooper blinked her eyes and tore them away from the rows of data displayed on the large smart-paper wall screen, and looked over her shoulder to the galley. Fatima was there, refilling the insta-kettle after having poured a pot for tea. Cooper blinked again, almost not recognizing her alterday pilot. The woman had put aside her burqa. Her hair was still covered, only now in a loose rust-red shayla scarf. She wore a green kurti tunic and dungarees with the legs rolled up around the ankles: Cooper recognized both items as clothing reclaimed, patched and laundered after the firefight on the ship’s deck on Deadwood. Fatima caught her look and smiled. Cooper tried to look away, knowing she was staring -- but it was the very first time she had seen the woman with the enveloping burqa off. Damn, but the pilot was even more lovely than Cooper had guessed.
Fatima stirred some cream and sugar into her cup of tea, then poured a second cup and brought it over to Cooper. The woman sat cautiously on the three-legged ottoman beneath the wall screen and sipped her tea for a moment, while Cooper tried to stop staring and tasted her own. Her cup was straight and unmuddied, just as Cooper preferred it.
“You asked me a question this morning,” Fatima said. “I wish to answer it now. I do not want to hold secrets from you. I am just frightened --” She hesitated, frowning over her choice of words, then took solace in another sip of tea. “I have family alive yet. My parents and brothers, they live on Persephone. I could have reached out to them while we were onworld. But I knew they think me dead, and that they would prefer to have me so, than to take me back as I am.” Fatima held up a hand, silencing Cooper when Cooper had been gathering herself for a response. “I married onto the Parysatis. My father arranged it, and it was a good choice for me. I was my husband’s junior wife, but he was a good man, and his first wife welcomed me like a sister. My father-in-law was captain of the ship, the entire crew my husband’s family by blood or by marriage. I learned to pilot the ship and they sponsored me for my license. My husband and I sought to have children of our own; I helped care for my husband’s two beautiful sons, and for the other small children on the ship. I adored my new family, and felt adored in return. Even my mother-in-law… well, maybe she was not as welcoming, but she was at least mostly kind. It was a good life. I loved it as it was.’
Fatima paused for another sip. Cooper drank her own and waited in silence, giving her alterday pilot the space she need to navigate her story. “I did lie to you, when I said it happened during the War,” Fatima began again. “It was October of last year. The Parysatis was a Caravel class transport. We had a set loop of Londinium to Persephone to Beaumonde, with trade partners who had done business with my father-in-law for decades. We had left Beaumonde and were returning to Persephone, and were just passing out range of the Kalidasa comm relays when the attack came. The ship was a pirate corsair called the Best Vengeance. They overtook us, and many of the crew were killed during the boarding. They stripped the Parysatis of whatever they considered of value -- myself and two of my sisters-in-law included. My sister-wife and her sons, all of my nieces and and nephews… they were lined up and shot or stabbed. Even the babies --” She stopped speaking for a time, her face hidden from view as she contemplated the tea cup she held on her lap. But then Fatima took a shaking breath and lifted her face again. “My sisters-in-law were given to the crew for their enjoyment. I know one of them was… cut to death. I do not know what happened to the other. Captain Detrick kept me for himself. Later, he grew tired of me. He contacted a broker, who made arrangements for my sale. A wealthy man of business saw my adverts and chose to purchase me for himself. So Captain Detrick entrusted me to a courier. I was in a cryogen chamber for a time, and when I woke, the courier had me in an apartment on Deadwood. He wanted to clean me up and dress me properly for handing me over to my new master, but he felt presenting me in what he had been provided -- the yellow burqa and a shift -- would mean he would risk not receiving a bonus. The courier tied me up and went to purchase me more revealing new clothing; I managed to free myself, and I ran for it. I made my way to the Yankton grav-rail and managed to sneak aboard a freight car. I was discovered and put off at the rail stop nearest Deadwood, and rather than risk going back to Yankton, I just began to walk. It was chance that brought me to the camp in time to learn about your ship, and that you were hiring. I am afraid of what would have become of me, had the Jin Dui not been there. Certainly the courier is still searching for me, and the new master who had purchased me. And Captain Detrick and the Best Vengeance. That is what I fear most -- that he is out there somewhere, looking to reclaim me. I will cut my own throat before I go back aboard that ship. Better a death by my own hands, than what Detrick and his crew would do to me.”
Cooper found she was still staring. The grim story was both something like what she had guessed -- and entirely unexpected. “You know anything about your buyer on Deadwood?” she asked, scrambling for what angles demanded closest inspection.
Fatima shook her head. “A businessman,” she said. “A rich man who admired my eyes. That is all the courier said.”
“You got a name for this courier?”
Fatima again shook her head. “Detrick told me what my fate was, and then put me in the cryo chamber for transport. When the courier woke me, he never said his name. He was short -- my height -- and stocky. Dark hair, dark eyes. He wasn’t full Chinese -- but he was Asianic of some mix. I did not see anything unusual about his clothing -- he was dressed conservatively by Persephone standards, work clothing and dark, but quality fabrics and that were well tailored. He had a tattoo on the back of one hand, I think it was of a horse’s head, but the room was dark and his hands were never still enough for me to catch more than a glimpse of it.”
Cooper nodded, disappointed but still filing away that data for later use. “And Detrick and his ship. Anything more you can tell me about them?”
Fatima’s smoke-green eyes had gone huge, and Cooper could see the hammering of her pulse at along the curve of her throat. But the woman controlled her fear and continued to answer her captain’s questions. “Captain Detrick’s commerce is in secrets and information as much as it is valuable goods. He is brilliant -- and he enjoys tormenting friends and foes alike. He bragged to me that he always has an ace up his sleeve, and that his allies fear him, while his enemies never know what has hit them. He takes delight in that -- in causing fear, and in the respect such fear wins him.”
“What ports does the Best Vengeance favor?”
“I don’t know. I was not allowed to know such things, and my movements aboard the ship were… restricted.”
Cooper nodded, not wanting to press further. “If you can think of anything about the Best Vengeance -- like what weapons did she use against the Parysatis, any bits of information the captain did let slip around you, please let me know. Your family back on Persephone -- are you sure you don’t want to contact them? We can find a clever way to do so on the sly, if you think Detrick or someone might be watching them as a way to find you.”
Fatima shook her head sadly. “No. My family is very old-fashioned, very traditional Sunni. My father and brothers would see my living, bespoiled as I am, as bringing dishonor to our family. Even my mother would turn her face away. If they believe me dead with my husband and his family, they can grieve in peace for me; if they know I live in disgrace, they will think of me with shame. Better I remain dead to them than that.”
It took Cooper a few moments to tamp down her rage at that statement. She kept her expression carefully neutral and took one, two, then three swallows of tea before trusting herself to speak again. “As you wish. If you change your mind on that, don’t hesitate to tell me. Thank you for trusting in me enough to share your story. I needed to know the possible dangers. You are safe aboard this ship -- and if anyone aboard makes you feel in any way uncomfortable, you tell me. Dŏng ma?”
“Shì,” Fatima answered. She finished her tea, and seeing that Cooper’s cup was dry as well, she gracefully rose and took both cups to the galley. “I need to relieve Halo on the bridge,” she said. “Do you need anything before I go?”
“Bù, xiè xiè,” Cooper replied. She turned her eyes back to the wall screen and stared blindly at the data there, while Fatima padded off quietly for the bridge.
Cooper couldn’t have said how long passed until Hoss turned up again at her elbow. “Coop?” he asked. “You all right?”
Cooper rubbed her dry eyes. “Sure. Just fine.”
Hoss snorted at that. “Yeah, sure. It’s been a longer day than most, I’d say. You ready to hit the hay?”
Normally, sleep was something Cooper struggled to find. But suddenly, she felt her exhaustion as though it were a weight draped around her neck and shoulders. “I don’t think I could walk,” she confessed, when weakness was normally something she denied with a vengeance. “Even if Abby would let me, I don’t think I could.”
“Then let’s get you settled in.” Hoss scooped her up as though she were weightless. “Don’t worry about breakfast in the morning, or about the stock,” he said as he carried her for the aft stairs and the mid-deck crew quarters corridor. “Trust the rest of us to see to it. We can manage without you for a day, you know.”
Cooper rested her head against her old friend’s shoulder. “Trust you all, huh?” she murmured. “I asked everyone else, you know. What secrets they had I should know, for the sake of the ship. But I never asked you. You got anything I need to know about, that I don’t already know?”
Hoss gave a small, guilty sound at that. “You know that little packet of candied ginger you were so excited to find in the back of the dry goods bin? I’m afraid it’s gone. I was craving it the other night, and had a nibble. And then one nibble turned into another, and next thing, it was all gone. Forgive me?”
Of all of the secrets Copper had heard that day, this was the only one to make her laugh.