May 2, 2514
One of Raquel Sullivan’s favorite things about Santo's port district was the corner kiosks that sold iced tea. Upon leaving sweets shop where he had met with his old contact, Sully headed straight for the tea cart at the end of the block, thumbing his pocket-comm on as he made his way through the busy pedestrian crush.
"Jin Dui," came a tinny voice through the cheap comm mic. It was the captain, he thought... Fatima or Abby would have both said hello in some friendly fashion like normal people, before stating the ship's name in that warped-by-the-military fashion.
"Sully here," he reported as he reached the tea cart. He looked the prices painted on the canvas awning, then pulled a one-yen note from his pocket and pointed at his choice.. The old man operating the cart nodded and took his money. "I just finished that sit-down I warned you about. Mendi is glad to know I'm still in the game, and promises to keep us in mind for future work."
"'But?'" came Captain Cooper’s dry retort. "I hear a 'but'."
"Mendi heard our next port of call is Beylix, so he asked me for a favor. I do owe him a few small favors -- that’s a long story for later -- so I said yes. He swears it is just a small one."
"How small?" The captain sounded dubious.
"Mendi promises it’ll be small enough to fit in my coat pocket. And I am familiar with both the pick-up and the delivery addresses." Sully wasn't going to say more than that -- not on ship-to-ship comm. Cooper, wisely, didn't ask for more details, either. "I’m headed over to the Pearl District now. Do we still need those hydroponic boosters from Candleford's? I could swing by and get them on my way."
"We're good. Hoss and Chang have taken care of it."
The old man had finished with Sully's order -- a mix of sweetened milk and tea the color of red clay, poured over chunks of ice into a plastic sandwich baggie with a straw, then deftly tied with a rubber band. Sully happily accepted the drink, looping the band over his wrist snugly before taking a sip through the straw. "Ambrosia!" he announced, smacking his lips with pleasure.
"Nǐ shuō shénme?" came back Cooper's disembodied response.
“Good tea,” Sully said with a grin and a nod for the tea stall vendor. He took another appreciative sip, then moved along briskly. "I should be back in two hours then. If I’m any later, send out the cavalry."
"Roger that," came the captain's reply.
Sully thumbed off the comm, then took another sip of the iced tea as he flagged down a bicycle rickshaw. Two of them immediately jostled for his fare -- "Pushkin Street in the Pearl," he told them, at which point the less hardy of the pair shook his head in negative. Sully stepped into the open air cab of the second as he told the pedaler the destination address. Then he sat back to enjoy the ride and his iced sweet tea as the rickshaw swung back into the stream of traffic.
The sweet, creamy red tea nearly lasted the distance. Sully spent the ride sipping and thinking. He wondered, not for the first time, how much Cooper and Hoss had dealt with the black market during their years in the War. He suspected they had. You didn’t have to warn the captain about not saying too much over the ship’s comm channel. Likewise, penny-pinching as she was, Cooper had not flinched when told he’d agreed to do a job for free when old favor points had been called due. Maybe she hadn’t understood that part of it, Sully wondered? No, more likely she was just canny about the insecure comm line, which any bored sod with a scanning app could be listening in on while the ship was at dock. Or… well, this being Santo, anyone listening to random comm channels was likely some skuz looking for their next score, or for information to sell in hopes of earning their way into the Bratva. The Red Brotherhood had ruled Santo’s busy port since the arrival of the first terraforming ship. Sully knew his old friend Mendi had close ties with the Bratva -- and was likely even a member of the thieves-in-law. The jovial old candymaker seemed harmless enough… but the crosses tattooed over his knuckles and into the meat of his upper fingers held some Bratva meaning. Sully had never asked. Some things you simply didn’t stick your nose into, not if you wanted to keep your nose, and Bratva business was certainly one of 'm.
Sully had called on his old friend in person today, to explain his shift in employment from captain of his own tiny one-person Gnat, to first mate aboard a Firefly. He had gone in expecting Mendi to bring up the issue of favor points. He had owed Mendi, after all, for having finessed a certain customs issue the Carolyn Jane had suffered through during her last visit on Santo. And just because Sully had lost his beloved little Gnat didn’t mean that he wasn’t still in favor-debt. Plus Mendi was the best kind of contact. He was fair, he valued his friendships, and he was steadfast by his word. If you honored your arrangements with Mendi, and ran a quiet ship that didn’t have a bad rep with the Federales, then Mendi could always broker a good, paying job for you. Mendi's working relationship with Sully's Uncle Slim went back decades, and Mendi had arranged some of Sully's first jobs after he had launched out solo with the Carolyn Jane. Sully figured that today's job offer was a trial of sorts. If the Jin Dui delivered to Mendi's satisfaction, then there would be future low-risk/guaranteed-profit delivery jobs available to them at their next visit to Santo.
Were the jobs illegal? Sure as hell most likely. Not always, though -- sometimes it was simply more convenient, for one reason or another, to move goods through grey market channels than it was to fill out all of the necessary Alliance forms and filings. Sully had once made a very tidy shilling making a rush delivery of twenty pounds of barbecued duck from Sihnon to Bellerophon. Sometimes you just smuggled, and you didn’t ask...
The pedicab made a lurching swing to the right, risking collision to draw up precisely in front of the address Sully had given. Sully thanked the pedalar and paid his fare as he stepped out. The address was a fragrant piroshki shop. He breathed in deep as he walked through the doors, and traded smiles with the dimpled young thing behind the counter.
“I’m here to see Vasilyev,” he said. The blonde’s dimples disappeared and she gestured for the 'Employees Only' door at the back of the shop. “Back there, then through the door marked supplies,” she said.
Sully followed directions and found himself in a long, narrow room without windows, which was lit almost entirely by a series of light tables and desktop comp units. Sully knew a forger’s workspace when he saw it. He nodded and smiled to the short, wiry woman who looked up from the light table she was bent over, glaring at him through a pair of thick glasses. He couldn’t help to notice that her nose was runny.
“Vasilyev?” he said, turning on the wattage. “Mendi sent me he about a delivery.”
The sour expression on the forger’s face did not change. She bent down and reached under the light table, dragging out a floral carpet bag. “There you go. Get the little bastard out of here,” she grumbled, pushing the bag toward him with one foot while wiping her nose on her sleeve. “I’m allergic to the damn thing.”
Sully gingerly reached down and picked up the carpet bag. The weight inside of it seemed to move, and -- gǎo shénme guǐ? -- it whined.
Sully kept his “we’re all professionals here” face on with an effort, and calmly unzipped the bag for a look-see. The perfume of stale urine wafted out, making his eyes water. Inside, wrapped in a skanky-looking towel that no longer had an identifiable color, was a smallish, black-and-white creature that cocked its smushed-faced head up at him and perked up a pair of pointy ears. It whined again, then gave him a cute little smiley-faced pant.
“A dog?” Sully couldn’t help himself. The question just popped out of him.
“It won’t bite,” came the forger’s retort. “It bounced back real nice from surgery; you should have no problems with it. Got no food to send with you, but the beast has et pretty much anything we threw in there. Just don’t mess with the sutures, and for god’s sake, get it out of here!” The woman punctuated the orders with a wet, angry sneeze.
“Shōudào,” Sully replied, zipping the bag shut again. Vasilyev was already turning back to her work, so he slung the carpet bag straps over his shoulder and saw himself out.
When he felt comfortably far away from the piroshki shop, Sully left the busy sidewalk for an alley, where he put the carpet bag down on top of a discarded crate. His charge had been quiet so far: he wanted to have a closer look at it. The bag unzipped with another waft of pee-stink. The creature was burrowed into her dingy towel, but she peered up at him hopefully. It was one of those ugly/cute sort of dogs, with a short, flat-nosed face and big dark eyes. Its pricked ears were held at half-mast, giving it an air of being cautiously optimistic. Sully didn’t really want to leave the poor thing in the smelly bag, but he wasn’t sure how the beast would react if he tried to remove it. He zipped the bag all the way open, and the creature wiggled out, eagerly covering his hands in wet kisses. She -- it was a she, he could see the spay incision now -- seemed clean enough despite the damp and smelly bag. She had a super-short ebony coat, with some white patches on the face and body, and what looked like a single inky thumbprint in the splash of white on the forehead between her ears. She seemed to be a happy little critter, and she let him look at her belly without a fuss. Several stitches, somewhat healed. She didn’t look like she cared much about the red incision or the sutures, and she certainly didn’t seem to be in any pain. There was a cheap, silvery woven collar around her neck, and no tags. The dog let him hold her baby-wise in the crook of his arm and busied herself with licking his ear. Definitely friendly. Seemed pretty young, no puppies of her own, trim enough that he could feel her ribs, but her hips weren't gaunt. No tail, but that looked natural, not as though she’d been docked. Sully’s family had owned a few dogs back on his family farm, but those had been barn mutts, kept around to guard the stock and equipment. This little thing didn’t look like a mutt to him, but she wasn’t a purse pet either. “You’d be no good as a ratter,” he told her, “but you don’t look like some froofy-white mop-Alliance-ladies’ ankle-biter to me. Well, whatever you are, you’ll just have to do, won’t you?”
The dog made a happy little “roo”-like noise and lapped his cheek in what might be agreement. She did not squirm to get away, and seemed genuinely grateful to be out of the smelly carpet bag.
“Let’s make a deal, then. You don’t try to get loose, and I won’t put you back in the stinky bag,” Sully offered. His answer was a gusty sigh and a happy, panting smile. “Rightio then,” he said, and headed back for the busy street, still carrying his favor points in the crook of his arm.
---to be continued---