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---
Chapter by BrowncoatWhit
The Jin Dui departs for the Bonnie Prince Charlie, an asteroid smuggler’s depot, to deliver a load of contraband… not knowing that the crew is walking blind into a trap...
Painfully aware of those guns pointed at them, Chang put his hands up. Hoss and Fatima were on the other side of the container and out of his field of view, but he could see Abby and the Captain doing the same ahead of him.
"Sully--" Cooper drawled in a harsh tone.
"This is not normal," Sully replied as his hands went up. "Definitely not normal."
"None of us are armed," Cooper said then to the man with the baby blues. She sounded regretful of that oversight, Chang thought, although he did not expect guns would have done them any good had they been carrying them. Sully promised this was a safe and simple job! Chang thought miserably. None of the Jin Dui’s crew wore weapons around their day-to-day tasks aboard the ship; even if any of them had thought to strap on a six-gun, it wouldn’t have stopped them from just walking blind into this ambush.
"Ain't that a pity?" the blond man said with dry relish. He was clearly a talker, and the other four behind him seemed to be following his lead. "But then, no one ever expects to meet up here. You are Captain Cooper, I expect?"
He knows the captain by name? That caught Chang’s attention and jump-started his frightened mind. If they knew Cooper by name, they knew the ship. This wasn’t a casual act of piracy, this was a set-up. Chang swallowed nervously. He tried to examine the blond man’s mooks. A slender, sallow man with braided hair flanked the Talker on one side with a combat shotgun; to the other was a mean-looking, dark-haired woman with two pistols. Behind them stood a big, thickset balding man, and an even bigger red-headed man with burn scars on half of his face. Both of them carried assault rifles. None of the four looked friendly, casual, or uncomfortable in this situation. Indeed, the mean-looking woman even seemed like she was enjoying herself, while the balding guy was chuckling in amusement, apparently tickled to find the Jin Dui’s crew unarmed.
"Toss down the remote control," Talker said now to Hoss. Chang couldn't see Hoss, but he heard the sound of the control unit hitting the deck plating, and the sallow man with the shotgun moved forward to collect it. Seconds later, the container eased to the ground, cutting off the possibility of anyone taking cover beneath that hovering cargo can.
"Well, I appreciate it when a job goes easy," Talker said pleasantly. "Since I know your name, Captain Cooper, seems only fair you know mine. I'm Gideon O'Malley, captain of the Lucky Day. No doubt you're wondering what's going on here?"
"That would be correct," Cooper agreed, mirroring his pleasant tone. She lowered her hands in order to collect her wavering balance on her cane; both the sallow man and the dark-haired woman reoriented their aim at that action, but Cooper ignored them with dubious confidence. Chang thought of the spread of that combat shotgun, and how any round fired at their captain would also likely take out Abby and cripple himself and Sully, as close together as they were, sandwiched between the container and the wall of the airlock. "I take it you're not part of Dominguez's operation?"
Captain O'Malley grinned at that. "Nope. We're independent operators. I've got someone willing to pay good money for you, Captain Cooper, so I've come to collect."
"Well then. You seem the reasonable type. Have your crew here put away their guns and I will go--" Cooper began to say.
“Coop--” Hoss rumbled in protest. Chang saw her profile as the captain shot the mechanic a fierce look, silencing him, while the rest of the crew wisely kept their own mouths shut.
“I'm sure you can answer the rest of my questions just fine aboard the Lucky Day,” Cooper continued, talking over the top of that possible interruption. “You say come with, I do it, no trouble at all. Just let my crew finish up the job and continue on their merry way. They won’t follow or cause any fuss. Whatever business there is between Darius and me doesn’t concern my crew. They follow orders and won’t speak word of this encounter anywhere, and in return, you don’t have to take on trouble. Dŏng ma?”
“You mean -- just let all of these fine people go?” Captain O'Malley said, smiling reasonably. “So they can flag down the nearest Alliance patrol boat and report a kidnapping?”
“It’s not a kidnapping if I go with you on my own free will, now, is it?” Cooper countered. “Just let my crew go and I’m a willing passenger who has boarded your ship on her own accord. No fuss, no trouble.”
The wiry, mean-faced woman snickered at that, even as her boss seemed to mull the offer over. “I like that you’re reasonable,” he said, then gave an expansive shrug. “Unfortunately, collecting you’s only half the job. Other half of the job is to get the ship as well and make it look like scrappers took her. That means no one left alive to go on their merry way. Sorry about that, ma’am -- but you understand. It’s only business.” He shrugged and smiled sadly. "Shoot the men, but we need to keep the women--”
“No!” Cooper yelled, raising her arms as if she could physically block any incoming fire.
Chang was aware of guns barrels coming up -- he had a single, harrowing moment where he understood that This Was It, that the next second of his life would be his last. Instinct screamed that if he could fall to the ground before the bullets flew, he might not die. Yet even as Chang’s nerves fired and he began to drop, he saw unexpected movement behind the Lucky Day's crew. It was the tall, burn-faced man moving with an economical grace that belied his sheer speed. “--alive, our broker will pay well for--” O’Malley was still speaking, unaware of a betrayal at his flank even as the burn-faced mook pulled a pistol with his left hand and began to fire on his own crewmates. The dark-haired woman went down first, then the bald man, then the sallow-skinned one with the braids -- one two three, the gunshots blurring into a single roar, each hit a head shot and O’Malley with only the beginning flicker of recognition as he took the last of the four bullets. As he finished, the scar-faced mook held both his pistol and rifle up and aside, indicating surrender, his stoic, steady expression entirely uncharged.
The bodies began hitting the deck. Chang cried out in shock, still trying to process what he had just witnessed. Sully had lunged aside against the wall of the corridor and yanked Abby with him. Chang still couldn't see Hoss or Fatima, but he had heard Fatima's strangled cry of fear. Cooper still stood in the airlock hatch, both arms held out wide as if still seeking to hold back the bloodshed.
“What the hell!” Sully yelled, while Abby sprang forward and snatched up the nearest gun. She braced the combat shotgun against her shoulder as she knelt on the deck, aiming it squarely at the burn-faced mook.
The man moved carefully, kneeling to put down his two guns and rising again, empty hands held wide. He spoke then, in a deep rough rasp of a voice. “You have about 20 minutes until the Lucky Day comes out of hiding behind a large asteroid nadir to the Bonnie Prince Charlie’s current position. She’s armed with port and starboard rail gun turrets and a belly-mounted missile launcher. You need to go, and go now.”
“What the hell!” Sully repeated; he scrambled as well to scoop up a weapon, taking belated but level aim on the burn-faced mook. Chang shook himself out of his shock and got to his feet, thinking he, too, should grab a gun while he could. Instead, he thought of something else. Chang pivoted and lunged for the airlock control panel, hitting the comm button. "Halo, we got a situation here! Yell if you see any movement on longscan!"
Cooper had dropped her arms. She took a deep breath and leaned on her cane as though gathering herself. She regarded the scar-faced mook for a moment; his gaze was fixed on her in return, although his expression remained stoney.
“Anything else you think I should know?” she asked the man, almost wryly.
“O’Malley didn’t tell you the whole of it,” came the raspy response. “We were hired to take you captive, kill your crew and take your cargo as payment. We were to leave your ship adrift, and in about 24 hours, a ship affiliated with the 14K Triad will come along and just happen to find it, claiming it for their rightful salvage. We’re to continue on to Greenleaf, where our mission is to burn down a small town and take a specific child as hostage. Any additional captives we choose to take are simply profit.”
"Tilly and Raikirua Island,” Hoss said in horror. “My family!”
Cooper had recovered her scowl. She nodded firmly, and dropped to one knee beside Captain O’Malley’s body, rifling his pockets and collecting his holstered gun from his belt. “Sully, Chang, Abby -- get their wallets, get their arms, get their ammo. Fatima -- get back aboard, tell Halo what’s happened and back him up on the bridge. Hoss -- get this can back aboard.” Cooper finished her quick search and shoved herself upright again with the aid of her cane. “You,” she snapped at the burn-faced mook. “Tell me -- how many crew still remain aboard the Lucky Day?”
“Two. Our pilot and our mechanic.”
“You have much of a liking for either of them?”
The mook gave a shallow shrug. “Benson owes me more than a hundred creds and I doubt she plans to pay me back. McCaffrey chews tobacco and doesn't care where he spits. They’re not my friends, but not my enemies either.”
Cooper snorted at that. “And what were these folks to you, then?” she asked bluntly, with a gesture for the bodies on the deck.
The man’s scarred face had not once shifted from its guarded expression. “Nothing,” he replied, his voice void of emotion.
“Do either this McCaffrey or Benson have cojones?” Cooper continued, her tone edged. “What do you think they’ll do next?
“Captain--” Sully interrupted. “What in the hell are you thinking?”
Cooper turn a steady, grim look back at her first mate. “If either of them have the spit to go back to Beylix, hire on some hands, and finish this job on Greenleaf -- then this doesn’t end until they’re no longer a threat. Our friend here can escort Abby and me back aboard the Lucky Day as if we’re captives, and then we blow them to hell before they figure out it’s a ruse.”
“Look -- no offense to our new friend here,” Sully retorted, with an apologetic shrug at the scarface gunman, “but it’s crazy to trust this guy any farther than you or me can throw him! This could all be a wider scam -- for all you know, this guy has a dozen fellow armed buddies waiting on that ship when it returns!”
“Sully’s right!” Chang agreed. “We don’t know this wasn’t already a mutiny that’s been a long time brewing, and today just proved his best opportunity to strike! Et tu Brutus, y’know?”
Cooper was still looking critically at the gunman The man stood motionless, his hands still held out open and empty, and his expression remaining unmoved by either argument or insult. He had a battlefield stare, as though nothing reached him.
“You got anything to say to that?” Cooper asked him, her tone steely.
The man shrugged. “No. I wouldn’t trust me either, not in your shoes. You and your crew do as you see fit.”
“If I ask you to escort me and my crew-woman aboard like we were captives, would you be willing? Would you play along with us on this, to save a little girl? Or would you’d do us like you did O’Malley and your other crewmates here?”
That last question at last got a flinch from the man. “Anything you ask for, you got it,” he rasped.
Cooper nodded once, and slid a questioning look at Abby. “You in?”
“You’re crazy,” Abby replied. “But I’m right there with you.”
“No way! You two can’t do this,” Chang cried.
“Cooper--” Sully began to protest, while Hoss stood there, looking anxious and miserable.
“No way these sons-a-bitches are going to take this on to Greenleaf and cause grief for that child or for Hoss’s kin!” Cooper flared.
“We can hard burn the hell out of here and get to Greenleaf ahead of them!” Chang said.
“And risk them having larger tanks and beating us there?” Cooper snapped. “No way.”
“Can’t outpace a wave!” Chang flung back at her.
“Be reasonable,” Sully suggested. “Let’s back out of here and send a warning--”
“No,” Cooper said flatly.
“Because I said no!” Cooper snarled. “Because Darius just made this personal! He’s not just satisfied with putting a bounty on my head. No -- he wants to watch me see that little girl get tortured! He doesn’t just want to win, he wants scorched earth and complete domination. Like hell I’m going to let him think he’s got us scared and running from him. Like hell does he get that satisfaction!”
“You got one gorram bloody temper,” Sully grimaced.
Cooper shrugged. “Maybe so. So Darius wants to pick a fight with us? He won’t stop if he thinks we’re cowed. But we cause him to bleed some, we cost him some face -- that’s our best hope with that crazy whoreson.”
Sully stood for a moment, rubbing the back of his neck as he eyed the turncoat with suspicion. Then he shrugged in submission. “Aye aye, captain. We’d best throw all systems on idle and get both Fatima and Halo over here, so the Lucky Day can’t read live bodies aboard our ship if they scan her. None of us can pass for O’Malley, but maybe Chang or I could dress in that smaller guy’s clothes for the benefit of shipboard vid--”
“No. No offense, gentlemen,” Cooper said with a hint of a feral smile. She checked the chamber of the pistol she had claimed, and made sure the clip was was full and engaged “If there’s murder to be done, Abby’s the one I want with me. You may have brave intentions, but this takes a mean streak none of you fellows have got.”
“Is that a compliment?” Abby smirked.
“ ‘Fraid so,” the captain said. “Abby, get your guns. Let’s do this.”
---to be continued---
Chapter by BrowncoatWhit
The Jin Dui departs for the Bonnie Prince Charlie, an asteroid smuggler’s depot, to deliver a load of contraband… not knowing that the crew is walking blind into a trap...
The three of them waited in the Beta Dock airlock, both hatches sealed tight, counting down the minutes until the Lucky Day’s return. Abby stood against the interior doors, nervously braiding and rebraiding the ends of her long hair, while Cooper leaned against the port side wall, taking the weight entirely off her crippled leg to rest it. The gunman stood next to the airlock control panel, arms folded, his face calmly expressionless. He remained unarmed; Cooper carried his assault rifle slung over her shoulder, his pistol in her jacket pocket, while Abby concealed the combat shotgun under her quilted silk coat.
Cooper tried to massage a painful knot out of her upper thigh with the heel of her left hand. Her right arm was bound in a dramatically blood-soaked sling. It was theater, just to to make it obvious to the Lucky’s Day’s crew why Cooper wasn’t restrained, while Abby would walk aboard wearing a pair of charge-cuffs she had donned for appearance’s sake. The cuffs were closed but unlocked -- it didn’t take more than a tug to separate the wrist-connections. They had both tried the things at first, having liberated them from the dead captain’s pocket. “Good practice,” Cooper had decided, figuring they had at most 20 minutes of practice with the things to make it look as they were really constrained. It had proven harder to do than Cooper had expected, since it forced her to use both hands and the cane awkwardly front and center. Cooper had finally given that up, soaked some blood on a spare bandana, and fashioned the false sling.
Cooper felt Abby watching her, while the gunman’s eyes were on the deck. Abby’s silence was the loaded, suspicious kind -- the medic was casting surreptitious looks at both of her companions, obviously gathering up the courage for questions, while the gunman's quiet was the utterly still, ceasing-all-broadcasts kind.
Cooper gave in to the inevitable. "I know this is awkward," she began to say; his eyes cut to her instantly, belying his surface appearance of distant calm. "But Ben -- I never did learn your last name."
Abby’s mouth went thin with a “knew it” expression, while there was a momentary hint of amusement behind Ben’s pale green eyes -- or maybe it was relief. Cooper realized maybe he had been wondering if she had even recognized him. It had been a one-night stand during an R&R, years ago during the war, and there had been a fair amount of highly alcoholic beverages in the mix. "Carver," he answered her.
Cooper smiled wryly. "Ben Carver. Okay. Let's start over, shall we? I'm Dr. Elizabeth Cooper, captain of the Jin Dui. This here is my resident ship’s medic and legal expert, Abby Baldwin. Fatima is the lady with the head scarf, and she's one of our pilots. The big guy is Hoss, my mechanic. Sully is the pretty one -- he's also my first mate. Chang is our systems man, and the fellow you haven't seen yet is our mainday pilot, Halo. We all owe you -- and owe you big time, as I see it. Some of us getting hauled off for torture is bad enough; some of us getting dead is worse. So daedanhi gamsahamnida.."
Carver nodded. He was silent for a time, and when he did finally speak, his low voice was cautious. "I knew you were a surgeon; you introduced yourself as Bet. I never knew your last name. When O'Malley took this job, I didn't realize you were the mission."
Cooper smiled wryly. "Guess it was my lucky day after all, then, wasn't it?"
That did get a ghost of a smile from the man. He might have said something more, but they were interrupted by the seismic thunder of a ship coming to contact against the side of the asteroid outside their airlock.
"I hope this is a safe place to be standing," Abby said nervously -- that happened to be the same thought flashing through Cooper's mind at the moment. She cast a worried glance at Carver, who remained impassive versus the thunder of noise outside the airlock door. He did, however, toggle the comm button as soon as other lights on the control panel went green.
"Carver here," he said into the comm. "Cap'n wants me to bring two captives aboard. He says he wants you both down here to help with the cargo container. Two of the grav assist clamps got shot up, so bring the spares."
There was a muttered curse somewhere within pick-up of the bridge comm, and then a second voice cut in from another unit. "All seals read secure, you're good to come aboard. I'll open the doors for you."
Carver cut off the comm. "What sort of ship is she?" Cooper asked.
"Clydesdale gunboat, refit after Unification," Carver replied.
Cooper nodded. She had never been aboard one, but she had seen plenty of them make troop drops during the war. "We loading onto the back bay, or on the side?"
"Side, if McCaffrey parks it the same way," Carver answered.
Cooper unslung the assault rifle she carried. She handed it back to Carver, as Abby stirred nervously in protest. He took it back without comment.
"Captain--" Abby began to say.
"You and me, we gotta look like we're captives. Remember that. Wrists together in front of you, as if those cuffs are locked," Cooper said firmly. "Carver's got to look normal, and he won't look normal if he's not carrying, dŏng ma?"
Abby frowned fiercely, but clearly did not have an argument against that logic. "Wait for me to act first, and follow my lead," Cooper ordered her.
Abby nodded, although her displeasure was writ large on her face. "What do you plan to do when we get over there?" she asked in turn.
Cooper shrugged, and leavened it with a half-hearted smile. "Improvise until they're dead," she said. She glanced at Carver and nodded. "Let's do this," she said.
He keyed the airlock doors open, and an industrial orange docking tube was there, stretched out to mate with the side of the Lucky Day. Cooper carefully arranged her expression into something she hoped implied misery and defeat, and limped out ahead of the others, leaving Abby and Carver to follow in turn.
The docking tube felt huge without the cargo container to shepherd along. Cooper could feel the weight of the pistol in her inside jacket pocket, close to where she could reach it with her right hand in the sling. She tried to plan ahead, to figure out how best to get a cold draw on the remaining two Lucky Day crew. She had no compunction against shooting them both in the back, if the opportunity presented itself -- she figured that would limit the risk to herself and Abby as much as possible. If they wound up passing in a ship corridor or in the cargo bay it was feasible -- ricochets were a definite risk, but small arms fire would not punch through the hull. Any shots toward the more fragile docking tube, however, would be risky. Xuèxīng tā mā dì dìyù, whispered the wilting voice of her common sense, somewhere in the back of her mind. This was crazy, what do I think I am doing? She was a doctor, not a soldier. She and her entire crew had already hit the luck jackpot once today -- this was pushing, damn sure it was. Sully was right. They should have turned tail and run like sensible, law-abiding merchanters. Striking back like this was a stupid, holovid-fueled maneuver, as likely as not to get her and Abby both killed. Bloody hell, she was letting her anger make her decisions -- Sully was right on that call, too, and if Sully had any sense left, at this very moment he'd be rallying the rest of the crew, getting them to stations and making rabbit with the ship, while the Lucky Day was at zero-g and clamped onto a rock, her own surviving crew distracted.
As if Hoss would tolerate a mutiny, was her mind’s own counter-argument to that. Hoss would never go along with that, and Sully had the good sense to know it. And the ship’s mechanic was the single member of the crew who was wholly non-expendable. Sully was good at fixing things, but there were ailing systems aboard the Jin Dui which Sully didn’t have the know-how for.
Cooper had reached the end of the Beta Dock umbilical. She took a deep breath and tried to keep her eyes off of the small, black.camera lens she could see above the Lucky Day’s loading door. Defeated, she reminded herself firmly. You are wounded and defeated and a miserable, sorry sod -- right up until you choose to blow them to hell.
The loading bay door before her ground open -- there was no airlock, just a view right into the Lucky Day’s belly, from which the gunboat would have done fast-deploys of troops or ground vehicles during the War. The wide metal bay was now mostly empty save for a solid line of barrels and crates stacked against the forward wall. A plump, brown-haired woman stood at the control panel nearby, watching them with minimal interest. There was a groaning noise of a simple lift in operation -- it was descending even now, carrying a short, big-bellied man who had his arms full of gear.
“Stairs,” rasped Carver from behind; Abby made an angry sound of protest as he shoved her forward -- either the woman really was mad enough to spit, or else may she had inherited more of her holovid star mother’s acting talent than she would confess too. Cooper moved, limping ahead. She spotted the spiral metal stairs then, set back in the wall behind where Benson stood. Benson had a shotgun resting against her shoulder and was looking Cooper and Abby over, appearing to dismiss them almost immediately as toothless and as Carver’s problem.
“Captain needs us both?” she bitched to Carver. McCaffrey stepped down off the lift even as it settled -- was he the pilot or mechanic? Cooper couldn’t tell by looking at him, but the fat man had his arms full with a pair of grav assist clamps. Oh goodie, she couldn’t help but think, knowing her own ship needed a set. She began to reach after her pistol, sliding her right hand slowly in order not to give herself away.
“Not anymore,” said Carver behind them. His dry remark was punctuated by gunshots. Benson toppled, and Cooper saw McCaffrey’s bored expression go blank with shock before, in the next instant, the man simply fell, part of his head just gone from a bullet’s impact. Startled, Cooper nearly jerked the trigger of her pistol, almost shooting herself -- or at the very least, nearly putting a bullet hole through her jacket.
“Hún dàn!” Abby yelled, whirling on Carver in a fear-fueled fury. “You just barely missed me! I could be deaf!”
Carver brushed past her, ignoring Abby’s outburst. He made sure of Benson, before turning back to Cooper. “Want me to surrender my guns?” he asked her.
Cooper made an effort to breath steadily, struggling to control the adrenaline which was blasting through her system. The knot in her leg reacted to the chemical boost by going full-on cramp, and the pain was breath-taking. “Hell,” she muttered, staggering for the stairs and sitting down. “Keep ‘m.”
“Captain!” Abby cried in outrage.
“Hey, neither of us had to shoot them. Good thing, too, who knows how we might have botched it,” Cooper retorted. She ripped off the confining sling and stuffed it in her pocket, then waved Abby toward the control panel. “Contact the ship, tell them it’s over. Tell them to get everyone over here, double-quick.” Perhaps the command might give the rest of the crew the willies -- but Cooper didn’t trust her crippled leg at the moment, and if she had to hike back through that umbilical again, she was apt to be flat on her face at the first wobble. Cooper ground the heel of her hand into the cramping knot in her thigh, and looked around the deployment bay critically. “You sure everyone’s accounted for?” she demanded of Carver.
He nodded, cold sober. “You hurt?” he asked.
She waved off his concern. “We got what -- 24 hours until the 14K ship shows up looking to strip the Jin Dui as salvage?”
Carver nodded again, while behind him, Abby fumbled with the control panel, taking two tries before finding how to connect ship-to-ship comm. Cooper heard her relay captain’s orders in a fierce mutter, and heard Halo’s anxious voice in reply.
“They’ll get this ship instead,” Cooper said to Carver. “Only we got a window of opportunity to strip her first. You got a problem with us doing that?”
Carver shook his head no. He slung his rifle over his shoulder and strode across the deck to the forward wall. He moved aside three barrels and a crate with an ease that suggested they were empty, and exposed a long, wide wall locker there. He pressed a code into a keypad there, and the locker door rattled up to expose a rack of munitions.
Alliance Fire Arrow missiles. War surplus, and as illegal as all hell. Cooper gave a low, respectful whistle at the sight.
“Here’s where you start,” Carver said.
---to be continued---
Chapter by BrowncoatWhit
The Jin Dui departs for the Bonnie Prince Charlie, an asteroid smuggler’s depot, to deliver a load of contraband… not knowing that the crew is walking blind into a trap...
By the time the rest of the crew had arrived, Carver had produced a grav cart from the ship’s larger aft cargo bay, and had the half-dozen Huǒjiàn missiles stacked and ready to transport, while Cooper and Abby had the two dead bodies stripped of clothing and gear.
“Here’s the plan,” Cooper told them. Carver had also turned up a dozen pairs of earbud transmitters for her out of the Lucky Day’s gear, and she passed them around as she gave her orders. “We got 12 hours before we run away like xiǎo gōngzhǔ to avoid Triad trouble. I want to strip this ship as much as we can in those 12 hours. We’re going to split up and make the most of that time. Hoss & Sully -- you’ve got the engine room as your first priorities. Abby -- you get up to the Infirmary. I want it cleaned out down to the last band-aid, you hear me? Chang -- you take the bridge. Quick and dirty -- remember anything we can scavenge, the Jin Dui can use; what we can’t use we turn into cash. Halo, grab a grav cart. You are our bona-fide transportation specialist, you shuttle all loot back into our hold and dump it. Don’t worry about inventorying anything, we’ve got the whole transit to Greenleaf to make sense of the crap. Fatima -- you sit the bridge, you keep your eyes on longscan, and you scream out if you see anything moving out there we don’t want to see. Anybody got questions?”
There were nervous looks cast at Carver, who was now dragging McCaffrey’s pale, naked corpse into the corner, out of the way of the loading bay doors. Cooper waited a moment for anyone to say anything. When no sounds were produced, she pushed ahead. “Everyone, keep your earbuds in and tuned, I’ll be checking in regular for updates. Now get to work -- our window is going to close on us too damn soon. Carver, you’re with me. Take me on the grand tour, so I can set our priorities.”
The Lucky Day was a gunboat; she was half the size of a Firefly, and made the accommodations of the Jin Dui feel palatial by comparison. The belly bay and cargo bay were both belowdecks; the mid-deck housed the majority of ship’s operations, including the flight deck at her nose, and what once must have been an impressively kit-out operations center. When the boat had been decommissioned all of the military grade optics and electronics had been stripped, but there was one working station that looked to have a cobbled-together sensor jammer. A central hallway ran through the mid-deck from bow to stern, with a set of corridors passing port to starboard through the rectangular crew section. There were four crew cabins -- one belonging to the captain, the other three shared amongst the crew. There were two shared heads, an infirmary that looked stocked with all of the basics, and a fifth cabin which might once have served as a workshop, but which had been long since refit as a bare-bones holding cell. Stairs led up past a set of pressure doors topside to the galley and crew lounge -- the room was still a crowded box, but tall ship windows provided a decent view of the black outside, and of the landscape of the big hunk of rock they were snugged up against.The entire ship was decked in well-worn grating that clanked underfoot but which provided easy access to the conduits and plumbing; overhead, yellow fluorescents of varying age flickered and buzzed.
“Elevator here, too,” Carver added at the last, pointing out those topside lift doors. Cooper looked askance at him, wondering if he was expecting her to take a tumble at any time.
“Those EVA suits down in your cargo bay -- those are a priority,” she told Carver. “When I inherited the Jin Dui, she had been been stripped near empty and we’re still making up for what’s been lost. I’d like you to pack up those EVA suits and any spare parts for them, then transport them over to my ship. You willing?”
Carver nodded. If he seemed surprised at the request, he didn’t show it -- the man had a steady hundred-mile stare, as if he’d already seen it all and had every ounce of surprise sucked right out of him. “Xiè xiè nǐ bāng wǒ, she added, which did earn a moment's pause from him, before he for the stairs on his assigned task.
Cooper watched his broad back disappear down those stairs, uncertain of what do about the man now that he was outbound. You damn sure didn’t ask a man to betray his own and then not watch him close, not if you had any respect for him. But Carver had crossed over to their side of his own choosing, and the shock of seeing him again after so many years had Cooper rattled, if she allowed herself to think on it for even a moment. She shut down on that confused, worrisome feeling, shutting it down hard. There were too many other things to stay on top of, Cooper told herself firmly. She didn’t have time or patience for tangling emotions. Focusing down instead, she pressed the earbud in her ear to transmit. “Folks, I’m starting topside with the galley and will work my way down through crew quarters. Halo, report up here with the grav cart and a couple of crates from the loading bay. Be sure to use the lift, it’ll bring you right up,” she added before ending the transmission. She cast a critical look around the galley-section and saw a walk-in freezer door just beyond the kitchenette unit. As good a start-point as any. Cooper shoved the heavy door open and stepped into the refrigeration unit. It was a closet, and the shelves were rimmed with ice. There wasn’t much to see, except for two boxes of MREs and a bag of freeze-burnt cabbage. Cooper checked the fine print of the ready-to-eats, and found both boxes years beyond the use-or-lose-it date.
“Guess we can be generous,” Cooper muttered aloud, stepping back out and shutting the freezer door firmly behind her. “Might as well leave the 14K a little something.” She wiped her hands on her hips and headed back out into the galley, to see what some concentrated triage though the cabinets and lockers would earn her.
Work proceeded apace. Everyone took their respective assignments seriously, and Halo was kept busy shuttling loads back to the Jin Dui. Halo brought a hot lunch for everyone, courtesy of Fatima and the Jin Dui’s own freezer -- hot savory glazed bao and strong tea in safety-capped cups. Cooper’s share was delivered with a worried look from Halo. “I got to thinking of a faster way to do this,” he said to her quietly as she gratefully accepted the cup of tea. “I figured I’d empty that container we’re supposed to deliver, then load it up belowdecks, and so spend less time going back and forth,” he began to explain.
“Good thinking,” Cooper said, sipping her tea.
“So I opened the container up, and it’s not carrying what the packing list promised,” Halo continued. “It’s not biochems. It's gear. Like scrapper’s gel, patch tape, cans of laserlight mist. Lots of ammunition. Lots of it, lots of protein paste Some medical supplies, maybe. I didn’t open all of the boxes. There’s even a few cases of beer.”
That wrung a laugh out of Copper. “Beer?”
Halo nodded. “You think it’s maybe supposed to be payment to the mercs?”
“Maybe.” She thought about it and laughed some more. “I’d prefer to think myself a little more valuable than a case of beer. Single malt scotch, at the least!” She thanked Halo for lunch and for the information, and sent him off with a box full of the last of the storage locker she had been emptying.
Carver came and went from view. He had stripped out his own cabin, his possessions in one duffle and his former cabin-mate’s in another. Cooper almost asked him to start on the next cabin down the hall, but sent him instead to assist Hoss & Sully in dismantling whatever the hell it was they were dismantling in the cubbyhole of an engine room.
By the time Cooper was stripping linens from bunks in what proved to the crew-women’s shared cabin, Chang called up on the earbud to ask for permissions for a trip EVA. “I’ve got the nav beacon and the ship’s black box; I got her computer modules and the navigation co-processor,” he reported. “I’ve hunted down every comm and every data storage unit I can find. What I need to get next I need to take a walk out on the hull for. We need the sensor units and comm relays, if I can get them. Heck, I might even be able to pry out the RCS thrusters, you know we’re in sore need of a few replacements.”
Cooper frowned, weighing the additional risk. “Suits have already been transported over to the Jin Dui. Wait a moment down at the lowerdecks door, I’ll send Carver with you as back-up.”
Chang’s response was a little too fast-spoken for comfort. “No, neg, not necessary, nyet. I’ve done plenty of solo walks, I’ll be fine. No reason to waste more manpower. I done this plenty of times solo during the War, I’ll have on two safety lines at all times, so don’t fash it.”
Cooper scowled at that, reading the techie’s message loud and clear. “Abby,” she said instead. “Take a breather, back Chang up on this.”
“Shì de xiáo jiě,” Abby agreed at once. She heard the other woman’s boots hit the hall decking and head out at speed.
Sully showed up not an hour later. She could tell at once from the man’s rare grim look that her XO meant business. “Captain,” he said. “We gotta talk. What’s your plan of action here?”
Cooper had emptied out of the contents of one of the O'Malley’s built-in dressers into a pile in the center of a bedsheet. She began to wrap the bundle up, tying the ends of the sheet securely for transport. “Plan? You heard it,” she said, deliberately misunderstanding his meaning. “If it ain’t bolted in and we still have time, we take it. We’ll have what -- something like two weeks of transit to Greenleaf and the Red Cluster, even after we’ve boosted hot. Time aplenty to sort out what we can use, and what we don’t use we sell on again second-hand.”
“And about Carver?” Sully persisted.
Cooper stood and fixed her first mate with a hard look. “What about him?”
Sully’s expression was equally determined. “The man’s a danger. Several of the crew came to me in agreement on this -- we don’t want to take him aboard. The Bonnie Prince Charlie has oxygen, it has gravity and power -- hell, it’s got showers and bunks. He’ll be nice and comfortable until his next ride arrives.”
“The 14K, you mean? Oh yeah, they’ll be ever so happy to see him,” she said with disgust. “No way. Carver comes with us.”
“But the man is crazy!” Sully raked a hand through his hair. “Cooper -- c’mon, where’s your good sense? The guy shot up his own friends and comrades! So what do you think he’s apt to do to the rest of us?”
“Carver goes with us,” Cooper replied. “We can trust him, I know it--”
“You know it?” Sully shook his head, his voice dripping sarcasm. “Yes. Because you know this fellow real, real well. Like -- what? What was it? A one night stand, five years ago? Six? Seven, maybe? Yeah, real well, there.”
“You’re out of line,” Cooper growled back at him, suddenly so mad her hands shook.
“Just calling it as I see it,” Sully countered. “As we all see it, actually. What happened to the suspicious captain who raked all of us over the coals after Deadwood? Hell if I know! One look at this fellow and you are crazy-eager to trust him--”
“He saved your damn life!” Cooper snarled. “Show some gorram gratitude!”
“Réncí dì dìyù!” Sully shoved his bangs out of his dark eyes. “What don’t you understand about this? The man is crazy! I’m speaking for the whole crew here -- it’s our ship and our lives you’re risking, captain, we don’t want him! So why are intent on keeping him? He must have been one damn good lay, because you seem to be thinking with your crotch instead of your brain!”
“Zhè gāisǐ dì dìyù!” Cooper yelled. If Sully had been in reach, she would have slugged him. “How dare you!" she snarled, seeing red and trying to control the desire to snatch up her cane and start swinging. “You’re way far over the line, mister!”
“You mean you’re not thinking about sleeping with that man?” Sully retorted. “Because even if you’re not, captain dear, he certainly is. I guar-an-damn-tee it!”
Carver was suddenly there, materializing ghost-silent in the hall just beyond Sully. Anger radiated from him; clearly he had gotten an ear-full. Sully saw the way Cooper’s eyes darted guiltily in that direction and he spun about. The two men faced off; Carver advanced a step, his fury palpable, but Sully refused to give ground.
“Dismissed,” Cooper growled at them both, before the conflict could escalate. Sully shot her a scowling look but he wisely retreated, edging past Carver and around the corner, presumably headed back toward the ladder topside to the engine room.
“That’s ready to haul out,” Cooper said, gesturing to the large bundle on the bed and trying to pretend she wasn’t embarrassed to all hell and gone that Carver had overheard her first mate’s accusations. “The mattress can go, too.”
Carver stepped into the room and shouldered the big bundle. He began to leave, but stopped in the doorway to look down at her.
“I will stay behind,” he rasped. “I’m causing you trouble with your crew.”
“No,” Cooper said firmly. “That’s not how I repay a debt.” She let go a shaking breath and reached after her cane; she still desperately want to crack a few skulls with it, but Carver’s at least was safe. “And don’t worry about my crew. They’re sensible. They’ll come around. It’s just been a long, hard day, what with having guns pointed at us and people shot and all. They’re exhausted and stressed and looking at the shallow end of a deadline. Civvies are allowed to have their little flares of temper. Just ignore ‘m and trust me, hear?”
Carver studied her for a long moment before nodding and turning back to the work at hand. Cooper watched him leave, and steadied herself to follow after.
The crew will come around, she assured herself. Damn right they will, or else I may have to crack a few skulls.
---to be continued---
Chapter by BrowncoatWhit
The last loads made it down to the loading bay and onto the grav cart. Crew clustered there -- a sweaty, exhausted lot, sans only Fatima, who still sat watch on the Jin Dui's bridge. There was still a half hour to go on the original twelve-hour deadline, but when Cooper looked around at the weary misery gathered around, she hadn't the heart left to ask anyone to make a final round through the Lucky Day in search of any bits and bobs of valuable left behind.
Hell, she couldn't even do it herself. Cooper would have returned to the ship already, would have liked to have swapped with Fatima, maybe, so that one of their pilots could catch some rest before they parted ways with the Bonnie Prince Charlie. But Cooper's crippled leg was strained after the day's efforts, and hardly able to bear her weight. It would be something, she thought bleakly now, if she could get herself back to the Jin Dui without a face-plant or two.
At least exhaustion had drained tempers all around. She could look at Sully without wanting to bust open his head, and Sully even gave her apologetic look in return, as though maybe he regretted a thing or two of what he'd said.
"Let's get," she said. "Don't bother even closing her down 'n locking her up. We just shut the airlock doors and go. The 14K will find her as they find her."
Sully and Halo set off first, guiding the grav cart. Chang and Abby fell in behind the loaded cart. Cooper gestured for Carver to precede her into the umbilical. The man went, no questions, his seabag slung over his shoulder She leaned on her cane and watched them go for a bit, gathering her courage before risking the subtle sway of the docking tube.
Hoss waited with her, and when Cooper finally dared those first, treacherous steps, he matched his pace to hers. When she stumbled for the first time, he just slipped a massive hand under her arm and steadied her on her feet.
"Crew isn't happy," Hoss said quietly, as they finally reached the airlock. It cycled them through. The rest of the crew had continued on ahead and were halfway across Bonnie Prince Charlie's wide central warehouse chamber. Only Carver had delayed, waiting near the big midsection seal doors.
"I'm not thrilled myself," Cooper grumbled, eyeing the distances between her people and Carver. "I get it. I do. I'd be worked up myself, if I were in their shoes. But I what I don’t get is what else are we supposed to do? The man saved us today. He also lost whatever was his normal. I'm not going to leave him here to a triad's tender mercies."
Hoss gave a gusting sigh, then nodded agreement. "No. We can't do that. But I don't know what we can do, either. Everyone is scared to bring a killer aboard. We saw what he did to his friends, after all."
It was Cooper's turn to sigh. "I know. I just can't fault the man for it. I never thought I'd see him again, but here he is. And maybe I am crazy, or gone soft, or whatever. But I do trust him. Gut-deep. I trust him. And I don't do that." Not except for you, was the additional thought, the one Cooper didn't say aloud.
Hoss might have well picked up on that unspoken sentiment. He was perceptive enough, Lord knew. But he didn't say a thing, just strolled along at Cooper's hobbling pace and kept his arm hooked friendly-wise through her own, so that it wasn't obvious that he was nearly carrying her now-and-again.
"We can get you the grav cart," he said at one point, when she faltered badly and the leg went out from under her entirely.
"Like hell," Cooper retorted. "You'll have a mutiny for sure then, if I have to be wheeled about like luggage."
Hoss chuckled that off like it was the funniest thing he'd heard all day. Anyone else might have been lecturing Cooper about not pushing herself, yadda yadda the dangers of straining her crippled leg and overdoing it yadda. But not Hoss. He had too much respect for the demons that drove her.
Carver was still waiting for them as they reached the section seal doors. The rest of the crew ahead were already crowding into the Aft Dock airlock, a unified set. Safety in numbers, Cooper thought with dark humor. Without comment, Carver fell in at Cooper's other side. Big as Carver was, Hoss out-massed him, and a woman could feel like a real lightweight, sandwiched between them as she was. They reached the airlock in silence, and had a moment’s rest as it cycled them through. Cooper leaned against the airlock wall in the brief amount of time that passage took, gathering herself for the final hurdle of that last docking umbilical.
The airlock doors grated open again, and Cooper was first to step out, determined to cover this last distance without bruising her dignity.
She made the Jin Dui's deck with Hoss keeping her steady, her dignity mostly intact. She found the cargo bay packed full and stacked high with the equipment, parts and goods from the Lucky Day. "Looks like someone set a bomb off in here," Cooper grumbled, not wanting to give away how impressed she was -- and how pleased -- with the physical fruits of the crew's hard day of labor. "We're aboard," Cooper said as she leaned against the comm control panel and toggled the all-ship. "Good to go. Who's up on bridge?"
"Halo and I," came back Sully's response. "We'll sort out who'll take us out for departure. Abby and Chang are getting dinner warmed up and on the table for anyone who wants it. Fatima is off to her cabin to catch a cat nap; she'll provide the first relief shift."
"Aye," Cooper said, nodding in approval. "Set course and a hard burn for Greenleaf, as soon as we're clear of the Penglai debris field," she said. The prospect of climbing two sets of stairs to get to the upper deck was daunting, but Cooper grit her teeth and promised herself that if she could make it as far as the galley table, she could take a long sit-down. "I'll get up there, soon as I can."
"We got 'r, captain," came back Sully's steady reply.
There was a gully through the debris field in her hold, leading to the hatch to the lowerdecks passenger lounge. They made for that, Carver delaying to follow behind them after Hoss had locked the ship up tight. "I'll take care of the stock, the girls are probably full-up," Hoss added, as they passed the stable-pod. Hearing the voices most regularly associated with mealtime, the milk goats Anna and Polly began to raise a fuss, which woke the chickens as well. There was virtually a food riot going on in there by the time Hoss poked his head through the stable-pod door, and the barnyard chorus had actually earned a rare look of surprise from Carver.
"Fresh eggs and buttermilk for breakfast, most mornings," Cooper said, taking some satisfaction from that look of surprise on Carver's face.
The worn furniture and eclectic wall coverings in the passenger lounge seemed comfortable and homey, after the claustrophobic hours aboard the spartan gunboat. Cooper waved Carver after her to show him to his cabin.
"You got your pick of either of these on the right," she said. "Chang has a bunk one row over, and Abby's down at the far end. The rest of us are up in the crew cabins," she said, toggling on a light in the first of the two available cabins. Carver stepped inside and nodded thanks as he put down his seabag.
"Get settled in," she told him. "Galley is upstairs, dinner is being served. After-hours, you’re free to help yourself to whatever you want from the fridge, there’s usually leftovers of some stripe available. Pay aboard my ship ain’t always going to be regular, but I make sure no one starves. Is there anything you need right now?"
Carver turned about and gave her a steady look from pale green eyes, eyes she'd never quite been able to forget. "Are you sure of this?” he asked. “I can come to an arrangement with the 14K when they arrive; you can still leave me here."
Cooper snorted at that, and favored him with a weary smile. "No. I can't," she replied firmly, and considered that all the argument it needed. “You earned your bunk, so welcome aboard.”