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April 11, 2514 (during transit between Persephone & Greenleaf)

Cooper limped onto the bridge, managing two full cups of tea in her right hand, her cane in the left. "Zăo ān," the captain said to Fatima, offering her one of the cups as she reached the pilot's station.

"Xiè xiè," Fatima replied, taking the tea speedily, as though maybe she had been anticipating the captain's early morning visit. Fatima navigated her cup past the veil of her burqa and sipped gratefully as Cooper eased herself down carefully into the co-pilot's chair. Her crippled hip was throbbing pain this morning -- it had been since Persephone, truth be told, but they didn't have pain killers aboard the ship strong enough to control it, and even if they had, Cooper likely wouldn't have wasted them. She had too much work to get done today to be fuzzy-headed, and the pain was a chronic issue. It was never going to go away without Core-level treatment, so Cooper ignored it as best she could, and focused instead on the work at hand. There was plenty enough of that.

"There's an Alliance cruiser, the Daishandao, off of Heinlein. There's lots of chatter drifting out there from miners in the Peers. And we've received repeated hails from another merchanter, the Merry Gull. She's Greenleaf-bound from Kaleidoscope and cruising a parallel course about four hours behind us," Fatima reported, as Cooper keyed up the screens at the co-pilot station and had a look at the long-range scans herself. "The Gull hasn't deviated from that position, and we're well in range of the Daishandao."

In range of the Alliance ship's intervention, Fatima meant. In case the Merry Gull was something more than she looked. Cooper nodded and sipped her own cup of tea, not commenting on the pilot's paranoia. Every morning report Cooper obtained from Fatima followed the same script -- the shy, quiet woman was always hyper-focused on who the other travelers were out there in the big black, as though any new blip on the long-scan was likely to turn up pirate or one of those Reaver ships that were all the muttered-rumor back on Deadwood.

It made made a captain wonder, sure as hell it did. Cooper took another sip of her tea and shifted her eyes off of the trio of glowing monitors before her in order to study her alterday-shift pilot.

It had only been days ago when, in-bound to Persephone, Cooper had formally hired her crew. She was still shocked that none of them had instead chosen to collect their references and walk, given the likelihood of a berth with higher pay and a more certain, more solvent future was only a stroll away up the Eavesdown Docks. But her crew had made their choices to stay. Which meant it was time now for the captain to ask some deeper questions.

Cooper weighed her words carefully before taking that plunge. "Most of us have our secrets," she said, giving the woman a steady, no-nonsense look. "I respect that. I don't intend to pry. But as the Jin Dui's captain, I do need to ask: are there things you know which you need to share with me, for the welfare of this ship and crew?"

Fatima's jade green eyes were difficult to read through the concealing fabric of her burqa. But Cooper could see they had gone fully dilated with fear.

Cooper frowned to see that reaction, although she was not surprised. Normally, Cooper hated to retreat. Someone gave you an inch, you were a fool not to take it and more if you could. But she had her suspicions about what had Fatima spooked, and her intuition was not to push the other woman too far, too quickly. Instead, Cooper took a long swallow of tea, then gathered herself up out of the co-pilot's chair. "Just think on the question," she told Fatima, taking pains to sound measured and patient -- and by all that was holy, controlling the flare of rage that had erupted in her gut. "Just get back to me on it when you feel able," she said, tamping down on that anger and doing her damned-all best not to let it to leak. "I'll leave you to it," she added with a wave for the bridge, taking her leave for all the world as if she was unaware of the landmine she had just lobbed under the poor pilot's skirts.

Her rage propelled Cooper back down the corridor to the galley. It didn't take keen powers of observation to put two and two together: Fatima Nahas had survived something terrible when the last ship she had served on, the Parysatis, had been lost, and it sure as hell wasn't a hairy military gunship like the Daishandao the woman was scared of meeting out in the deep black. Cooper limped into the galley and yanked open the bin where she kept root vegetables. She snatched out some potatoes and two onions, then broke a bulb of garlic off the rope that hung from over the sink. You can’t save every life that finds it’s way to your table. Every surgeon learned that lesson, and combat surgeons were pummeled by it. But zhè gāisǐ dì dìyù, it didn’t stop me from wanting to! Cooper pulled her favorite kitchen blade off of the magnetic knife strip, then put her gut-full of rage to good use. The garlic and onion went under the knife first -- she chopped them into a fine mince, then dumped them into the skillet and turned on the heat. The potatoes came next -- she had them looking like they had come out of a shredder by the time the onion mix had gone golden in the skillet. While the breakfast hash fried up, Cooper threw ingredients into her largest mixing bowl and added a measure of sourdough starter as well, to make herself a few loaves of bread dough to knead the hell out of. Cooper wanted to do violence to something -- and since Fatima's abusers were no where within reach, the sourdough would have to do.

Despite the exercise, the rage stuck, and roasted along with breakfast on the stove. Why in xuèxīng dì dìyù, Cooper thought bitterly, was there that miserable rutting war in the first place? Why did we waste all of those lives? Ours? Theirs? What was the point of it all, if innocent civs like that poor creature up on the bridge are still going to be preyed upon? Alliance fought us to control the Border and the Rim. Now they’ve got it, and they don’t do squat.

And an even bitterer a thought, on the heels of that one: Had we won, could our side have provided any better? Or would we have even tried?

Luckily for the crew, it was nigh impossible to over-knead bread dough by hand.

The hash had been shifted into the warmer plate; biscuits and gravy were done, four loaves of sourdough had been set aside to rise, and a tray of garlic-ginger bao was baking in the oven. Cooper had gone to the cargo bay to care for the stock, and returned to the kitchen with a gallon of fresh milk and five fresh eggs to find the first of the crew were up and helping themselves to breakfast.

Ata mārie!“ Hoss said cheerfully in his native tongue. The mechanic was a morning person -- unlike others among the crew, he regularly rolled out of bed bright-eyed and bushy-tailed

Kia ora,,”Cooper replied automatically as she put away the raw milk and eggs. That single phrase was just about the only Maori she spoke, and she was only reasonably certain that it meant “good morning to you, too.” But mangle it as she did, it never failed to put a smile on Hoss’s face to hear the route response he had taught her years ago.

“We’re going to tackle the number-three portside hydraulic pump today,” Hoss said, buttering a second (or third) buttermilk biscuit. “We’ll see if that gasket we replicated will actually fit or not.”

Sully sat on the opposite side of the long dining table. Unlike Hoss, he was sagging over his breakfast plate, recklessly pouring himself a cup of tea while yawning. At least the man was trying to navigate, Cooper thought with dour amusement. Neither Chang nor Halo were likely to be seen before lunch time. She reaching over to nudge Sully’s mug more squarely beneath the stream of tea. “Got a question for you,” Cooper said, once disaster was no longer imminent.

Sully stopped yawning and made an effort to open his eyes wide. “Shoot,” he said, then muffled another yawn.

“I’m tackling each of the crew in turn with this today,” she said. “Now that you all are hired crew, I don’t want to be caught by surprise at some port somewhere by someone’s inconvenient secret. Nobody without something to hide is going to have been shivering in the mud back there in the outback of Deadwood, looking for work on a derelict like our ship.”

“Don’t be calling my darling a derelict,” Hoss said around a mouthful of buttermilk biscuit.

Cooper snorted at that, and fixed Sully with a no-nonsense stare. “So. You tell me -- you got anything you need to share?”

Sully took a long swallow of tea, his expression thoughtful. “I’ve got business contact, numbers, and smuggling drop-site coordinates all over the Kalidasa and Red Sun clusters, plus a scattering of solid business contacts elsewhere as well. But do I have any juicy secrets?” He glanced at Hoss, a clear question of whether or not Cooper wanted to have this conversation in front of a witness. Cooper gave a twitch of her lips at that, something almost a smile. Hoss would never be ‘just crew’, and her first mate already damn well knew it. Sully smiled and flexed his shoulders in a shrug of submission. Just checking, she figured that gesture to mean.

“Okay, well, straight up then,” Sully replied verbally. “I haven’t kept any secrets from you. At least, nothing that’s business-related -- I’m sure you don’t want to know the name of the lovely twins I lost my virginity to when I was 15… or was I 13?”

“I don’t need to know your bedroom exploits. Just anything relevant for this ship's business.”

Sully nodded sagely. “Then rest assured: I’ll hide nothing from my captain which my captain needs to know. Trust me in that. Because whatever profits this ship, profits me. Capisce?”

That earned a brief, but real smile from the captain. Put that way… well, it was the first thing she had ever heard the suave pilot say which Cooper found herself able to believe in absolutely.

Abby came and went for breakfast while Sully replaced Fatima on the bridge; Cooper was too busy serving Fatima her supper to collar Abby with private questions. So it was Halo who stepped next into the captain's targeting sights, when he shuffled in later for brunch.

Cooper had already finished cleaning up the galley after breakfast, with two plates set aside and waiting in the cold box for the ship's late risers. The glazed bao were cooling on a wire rack for lunch; the last half dozen left in a bag of onions from Deadwood were about to turn, so Cooper was slicing them up in order to make an onion soup. She kept slicing away as she watched Halo pull out one of the breakfast plates and put it in the microwave unit for a warm-up.

"Got a question for you," she said, as the microwave dinged and he pulled out his meal. "I'm asking you the same thing I'm asking everyone else: do you have any secrets you need to share with me? Anything need-to-know, that might be important for the welfare of this ship?"

Maybe it was unfair to hit a man with a hard question like that, when he was still sleepy-eyed and clearly not running with a full operating system yet. But the way the pilot flinched, then froze for a heartbeat or two before shifting a wary, suddenly much-more-alert glance back her way left Cooper feeling fully justified in the underhanded maneuver.

"Nah," Halo said, sounding off-hand enough as he took a seat at the galley table.

In response, Cooper fixed him with a hard look. The captain had known since his first interview that the pilot was hiding something. She simply gave him the stinkeye, and let the knowing silence grow colder and more uncomfortable with each passing breath. It was a tactic officers and their mothers the 'Verse wide had learned to perfect, and although Halo tried for a time to feign immunity, he ultimately failed.

"Alright, look--" he finally said, putting down his fork in submission. "I didn't tell you the whole truth when I first came aboard. Truth is -- I'm AWOL. I skipped out on the Alliance late in the war. I was an ambulance driver, just like I said. I saw how folks got treated on both sides, and them that got stuck in the middle. It was the way the ones caught in the middle got treated that bothered me. They were just folk, just trying to make their way, minding no business but their own. I couldn't abide that. I woke up. I left. Yeah. AWOL. That carried a death sentence during the war, so there's no way I'm going to risk getting caught." Halo gave a long, heavy sigh, and picked up his fork again. "So there. Now you know. And I'm none too keen on anyone else finding out, neither."

Cooper continued to stare at him. The story was just about what she had expected to hear -- so she wasn't sure how much to trust it. The Alliance threatening an AWOL soldier with a death sentence didn't pass its smell test -- the Core worlds treasured their concept of humane punishment far too much for that. Now -- strap him down for a little bit of chemical rehabilitation in the form of pysch reconstruction, maybe... that, to her thinking, would be a fate worse than a bullet.

"Uh huh," she said with a nod, still giving him a hard stare, enough to make it clear she was going to accept his story on face value, but that she wasn't entirely sold. "Any ports of call you expect might be too hot for you? Any places you know you can't show your face, which we should steer clear of?"

Halo began to pick at his food again. "No. I've been careful, and I switch up my disguises and IDs when there's any risk.So. Now you know. Happy now?"

“Satisfied,” Cooper replied dryly. “Or at least I am for now.” She gave her words a moment to sink in, and gave the pilot a last, direct look. Then she gathered up the onions she had sliced fine, and turned her back to the galley table. Until and unless Halo decided there was anything more to tell his captain, his captain had a pot of onion broth to get simmering.

--to be continued--