May 16, 2514
Uncle Slim was a short round man, whose bald head shone as though polished. He looked nothing like his nephew Sully, except for the amber-colored skin they shared and the charm that they could turn on and off at will. Port charges at the Penglai Skyplex and other major ports at Beylix were unusually high, so like most of the sprawling salvage yards on Beylix, Uncle Slim's Vessel Emporium made a side profit on renting short-term landing plots, often as a package deal for customers who intended to hunt through the lot for salvaged parts. But Uncle Slim insisted the Jin Dui take a prize landing spot pro bono, close to his salvage operation's headquarters, as a gesture of familial loyalty to Sully, and as an offer of friendship to Captain Cooper.
"My home is your home!" he announced cheerfully via a wave during the Jin Dui's approach to Beylix. His arms were flung wide as though to embrace the entire crew through the comm screen. "Good friends of my sister's boy are good friends to me as well!"
"That's very generous of you," Cooper said, trying to keep her eyebrows from marching into her hairline at the fellow's theatrical generosity.
"Don't worry," Sully whispered in cheerful warning from out of sight of the screen. "That hearty a welcome means Uncle has a job for us. And the more he beams, the more profitable he expects the job will be."
The prophesied job offer materialized shortly after the ship landed. The Jin Dui had already delivered their passengers -- the severe Superior Mother Iris and her gaggle of nuns, plus their baggage and four casks of apple butter -- to their destination, the Carrickfergus Abbey. They had paid the capital port's prohibitive day-use fee to unload their cargo and tank up, and Sully had made a short venture into the city to literally see some man about a dog. Then they had landed the ship in the prime spot offered to them by Uncle Slim at his lot approximately 100 miles west of Beylix’s capital, and their host whisked the entire crew away to a catered feast of what proved to be endless rounds of an impressive variety of dim sum.
"It is good of you to bring back my favorite nephew!" Uncle Slim boomed. As bald as his head was, he had nurtured an exquisitely groomed goatee, which for today was dyed a rich shade of emerald and waxed into a sharp point. The man did not speak -- he announced, oftentimes with stage-worthy flourishes. Cooper found herself watching her first mate as much as she did his extravagant kinsman. Sully had the decency not to wince, but at times there was a leakage of what Cooper read as long-suffering dismay. "His mother and I both wept when we received his wave about the loss of his little Gnat, and I despaired of him ever finding his way home to us again. No good news ever comes from the Blue Cluster -- my first wife immigrated to Miranda, you know, and was lost in that hideous terraforming accident. And now all you hear are horror stories about Reavers and pirates and all manner of wretched men behaving poorly -- and nine times out of ten, it's happening in the Blue Cluster. I warned our dear lad not to take that job to the Blue Cluster, I did! But the young must learn these painful lessons firsthand, mustn't they?"
Cooper pursed her lips into a polite smile and nodded. "I suppose they do," she said, with a loaded look for Sully.
"Uncle Slim, all I seem to recall is hearing how good you thought the compensation was," Sully countered.
"Well yes, the offer was a very good... but my lad, you and I both know the first rule of thumb in our business: when the money is that very good, there's got to be a reason why!" The round man laughed as he deftly caught in his ivory chopsticks a small steamed dumpling which had been shaped and painted into a fanciful koi. He appeared to swallow it whole as he continued to speak. "Aye, now, you don't make a profit without taking a few risks, so I won't fault the lad. I taught the boy to seize the day and take advantage of every opportunity -- and look at him now! First mate of a Firefly! And every lady in the crew a shining jewel! That's my lad!"
There was muffled laughter from other members of the crew; Abby was smiling serenely, while Fatima's shayla headscarf hid most of her expression from view. For herself, Cooper struggled to keep her smile from curdling. She had been called a lot of things in life. 'Shining jewel' was a first. "We're hoping to make this a fairly short stop," she said, nudging the conversation onto more neutral ground. "The Jin Dui is a good ship, but she's experienced some neglect in the past. We have a repairs list that is much longer than I'd like, so we'll be scouting for decent deals on replacement parts. And checking out what's available in general," she added. "If we can find good prices on enough decent surplus medical supplies, we may think about taking on a run of some Rim worlds, offering a variety of professional services, including legal, medical and veterinary."
"You may have first choice of anything on my lot," Uncle Slim offered expansively. "I'll give you the family discount, of course."
"Xiè xiè," Cooper said. "Your generosity is appreciated."
"As my favorite nephew has undoubtedly told you, I sometimes work as a broker for friends, and for the friends of my friends." Another sculpted koi zheng jiao disappeared from the caterer's tray straight into the small man's wide mouth. "If you are interested, I have only just gotten word from a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend, regarding a job of mutual profitability. Are you and your crew interested in making the most of such opportunities? If you will consider taking the job, I will count it as a personal favor."
"Sully had mentioned the possibility." Cooper shared a knowing glance with her first mate. Uncle Slim was beaming. "You have been so very kind to us -- of course we’ll give the opportunity the consideration it deserves.”
"Who's it for, and where's it too?" Sully asked.
"Yvonne Dominguez and her operation," Uncle Slim replied. He twirled his ivory chopsticks expertly before snatching up another morsel of dim sum from a passing cart. "Bio-chems for Bonnie Prince Charlie."
"Is that all?" Sully replied, obviously surprised. "I've done that run a hundred times. Safe and simple, so long as you have a good pilot."
"Which is why the Jin Dui would be perfect for the job now," Uncle Slim said with satisfaction. "You know where you are going and the peculiarities of the dock."
Sully turned to Cooper. "Bonnie Prince Charlie is a smuggler's depot -- I'm not sure who built it originally, or when, but it significantly predates the War. It's about 18 hours slowburn from here in the Penglai debris field, nearest Aberdeen right now. It's Class III hazard zone, so there’s some risk -- but if you’ve got a good pilot who’s paying attention, you can slip through with only a slight polishing to your hull. I’ve done the run numerous times, and I’m sure Halo can pilot it without breaking much of a sweat. The depot is hidden inside a big chunk of space rock. It’s nearly impossible to find -- unless you’re transmitting the right code, then it’ll light up on scan for you. There’s an old base buried inside it -- It's got grav, atmo, a small reactor for juice, even working showers and a few bunks. There are airlocks at either end of the rock, and two big cargo bays with a big pressure seal door in the center. A standard job is to snuggle up and dock, deliver a container or two, and then kite out again. Someone else will come along later as scheduled and pick up the load up, but you don't ever see each other. Dominguez brokers for a lot interests and sees to Bonnie Prince Charlie's maintenance and changing the security codes. I've always suspected she's funneling supplies to Solace Station."
"Solace Station?" asked Abby. "Where is that?"
"It’s a fleet of free merchanters who've refused to concede after the Unification," Chang answered, his eyes bright. "Rumors are they've refit one of the original colony ships as a mobile station, and they kite around the fringes of the Verse, always staying just out of reach of the Alliance. I'd love to see an old colony ship with my own eyes, but you know the Alliance will close it down and confiscate all ships in reach whenever they finally catch it."
"Then the Bonnie Prince Charlie is as close as I want to come to the place," Cooper said dryly to her systems man, before turning back to Uncle Slim. "We'll be happy to take on the job, since it comes so well recommended..."
May 21, 2514; 0919 hours
"Wave off, wave off!" Halo called out from the co-pilot's station. "Incoming rock, two-o'clock low!"
Chang couldn't see anything except the rock they were actually heading for. Luckily, he wasn't the pilot. Sully said "Got it," and the stars wheeled as he changed course.
Lagrange-point asteroid fields weren't the pell-mell meatgrinders you saw in the holovids; the big rocks were far apart and in stable orbits, and nine times out of ten, you could sail right through without seeing a single smaller one. That tenth time, though -- if you weren't watching, you'd still not see any of the little asteriods, right up until one punched through your ship like the hull was so much tinfoil.
Now they had to drop back and match orbits all over again, but at least they wouldn't have to repeat the tense hour it had taken to find the one rock they were looking for. Chang glanced left and right, at the Captain and Fatima, but their attention was on their target as Sully swung to face it again. The asteroid's spin looked slow at this distance, but it was still a tricky maneuver to match course and speed so that one of two particular spots on that rock would be rotating into place at the exact moment the ship skimmed past the surface.
This time no other rocks got in the way, and Sully pulled off the landing with panache, right down to the last-minute ninety-degree spin to get their nose pointed at the low cliff face right next to the landing spot.
“And we’re super-green,” Sully said confidently, as the alerts on his screen glowed receipt and confirmation. “Bonnie Prince Charlie is glad to see us, so the docking tube is extending now.”
Chang watched as part of the cliff face pivoted down like a loading ramp, and the wide rectangular docking frame came trundling out, with its black rubberized tube accordioning out behind it. Lack of armor indicates pre-war construction, said Chang's inner analyst, but he ignored that running mental commentary. The docking frame disappeared from view beneath them but Halo had already opened the under-bridge camera feed on his display. Chang looked over his shoulder to watch the actual mate-up. A faint ker-CLICKT rang through the hull. "Docking seal positive," Halo reported.
“We’re good to go,” Sully announced then, turning in the pilot’s seat to give Cooper and the others a thumbs-up.
The comm beeped, and Hoss's voice came on from the hold. “Airlock seals down here are reading oxygen, we’ve got pressure equalizing on the other side of the hatch.”
"Okay," Cooper said, shoving off from the wall locker she had been leaning against. "Sully, you're with Hoss and me. Let's get this cargo delivered."
"Can I come along?" Chang asked eagerly. He'd never been inside a smuggler's depot before, and if it would be interesting to see if the place's computer security was as pre-war as its docking tube.
"Sure," Cooper said with a shrug. "I want a pilot to stay on the bridge at all times --"
"May I go along, too?" Fatima asked quickly. "I'd like to see it myself. We never did this sort of thing on the Parysatis."
"I'm fine here," Halo said, waving Fatima on. "I'll take the nice view from here, and keep an eye on longscan while I'm at it."
"Do that," Cooper said as she limped for the hatch. Fatima fell in beside Chang as they followed their captain and Sully down to the cargo bay.
"Don't get your hopes all up," Sully warned them. "It's not like this old smuggler's dump is a vacation spa or anything. The decor is all functional-grey paneling and bare conduits, same as any old station. Not much to look at. They burrowed out a hollow midsection, installed container-capacity airlock hatches at each end, and called them Alpha and Beta docks. There's a big empty hangar-like space in between them, with a blast door in the very middle. I don't know what it would take to trigger that bugger, and I don't want to find out, neither."
"You said there were living quarters?" Chang asked, thinking to himself that any human outpost was guaranteed to have at a least a couple of networked comps, if only to hook up an entertainment unit.
"Hardly," Sully replied. "Last time I made a delivery, there was a containerized bunkhouse, could sleep eight, with a hot plate for warming up ready-to-eats. At one point someone had a containerized mobile operating theater parking in there, but --" he added quickly, as the captain began to look all manner of eager "-- that got stripped down to nothing on the double-quick. There's a t-section hall that has a supply room, a room that houses life-support and grav controls, and a loo with a single-seater and a shower-head. You could stay on the Bonnie Prince Charlie if you absolutely had to, but you wouldn't be comfortable."
Down below, Abby was waiting with Hoss in the cargo bay. They already had the grav assists on the container unit powered up, and Hoss had the remote control in hand and the container waiting at the cargo bay doors.
"Everything looks normal," Sully said, taking a read on the cargo bay door control panel. "Docking tube is secure, we're good to go."
Cooper pressed the controls to drop the ramp and open the cargo bay doors, which rumbled open to expose a docking tube. The crew guided the hovering cargo container into the industrial-orange interior of the docking tube, and up its length to the wide airlock doors. The grav assists clamped to the corners of the container lifted it half a meter off the floor, and while it took very little muscle to get it moving in any direction, the crew quickly spread out around it to steady it in its forward drift. There was oxygen and gravity in the tube, but it was bitterly cold -- Chang could see the fog of each exhalation, and frost on the rubberized tube wall. The hatch doors at the end of the docking tube opened into an airlock chamber just big enough for them all to crowd in with the container. The doors behind them sealed tight as Sully keyed in the security codes to open the armored inner doors.
The airlock doors hissed open, and Chang blinked in shock to find they were not alone. A woman and four men stood on the other side of the doors, facing them with -- shēnshèngdé gāo wān! -- guns drawn and level.
"Surprise!" announced one of the men, a blond fellow with big blue eyes, who stepped forward with a flourish. "Hands where we can see them, please."
---to be continued---