May 22, 0346 hours
The sound of a violin playing carried over from his fitful dreams to waking. Carver opened his eyes to a dark, unfamiliar cabin. The engine noise was a quiet hum instead of a steady rumble; Pascoe's ratcheting snores were silent. And somewhere nearby was the swelling rise and fall of a solo violin.
Carver sat up in his rack and swung his feet to the floor. It took only a moment to remember -- he was aboard the Jin Dui. Bet's ship. Captain Cooper. A Firefly Model 3. The Lucky Dayand the rest of her crew were dead. His hand, his choice. And no regrets -- he had learned that from the War. Never regret, never look back to question.
Carver had been given one of the Jin Dui's passenger cabins the night before. He checked his multi-band, and saw only six hours had passed since then. The cabin was sparsely furnished -- a single bunk, a nightstand bolted to the deck, a wooden dresser fixed in place against one wall, and a single silk-scroll painting on the wall of a running horse, done in a classical brush-stroke style. He noticed more subtle differences as well. The air tasted different. It was fresher, as though the ship had spent a fair amount of time aired-out dirtside. There were only slight undertones of engine grease and lubricants that had been the standard stale stink of the Lucky Day, replaced by an earthy flavor of the barnyard. Goats and chickens. The Jin Dui had livestock aboard.
The violin performance came to an end. Carver had assumed the music was a recording, and was startled to hear the fussy notes that followed as strings were plucked and then the tuning being adjusted. Someone aboard was a musician, and was practicing from up in the catwalks of cargo bay The violinist found the tone they wanted, then started playing something new. Almost immediately, Carver recognized it as an ancient tune from Earth-that-Was -- not from one of the great composers that were still studied and celebrated in the Core, but one of the late era youth-music tunes. The composition started fragile but ascended in sweeping swells, building to a high-octane peak. Carver closed his eyes and simply listened. The musician launched into the busy last section of the tune with a practiced, confident energy, the notes flying from the instrument's strings fast and furious. When the end came, the last few, questioning notes were almost a release.
Carver opened his eyes and waited to hear what the musician would play next. Since Serenity Valley, he had been unable to hear a violin or fiddle without remembering those first weeks in the trenches, back before the real fighting had begun. Back before the purple-bellies had leveled the hospital up on Whore’s Peak, one of the hospital staffers had taken to practicing on a balcony of the Companion’s Hall, so that in the quiet of the evening, music had used to drift down to the trenches below like a gentle benediction. Carver actively avoided any recall of the war -- but this was one of his few peaceful reminiscences, something treasured and brought out in the quiet moments when he needed a balm against the violence that otherwise dominated his thoughts.
Bet had always been another of his rare safe recollections Carver had always rationed the memory of their night together. There had been times in the aftermath of their collision when he only had to run a thumb across his fingertips to remember what it had felt like to slide that silver dress off of her golden skin. He had feared his callused fingers might catch and snare that expensive silk, but the silvery fabric had slipped away though his hands like water...
Carver shut down hard on that favorite reminiscence. It did not feel safe anymore, not with the woman herself living and breathing on this ship. Carver had lost everyone to the War. He had never dared think of finding her again. That was another hard-won lesson from the War -- hope was something too fragile to survive waking hours, and was best abandoned before it could do you further damage.
He waited and listened, and finally decided that the musician must have packed up their instrument and departed. He had not heard the sound of feet returning into the passenger dorm, which Carver was certain he would hear -- the passenger dorm walls were thick panes of trans-plas, easily re-configurable and not sound-proof.
Carver continued to sit where he was on the edge of the rack, waiting for something to give him purpose. Finally he rose and made his bunk, inspection-ready. Everything he possessed was in the seabag he had shoved under the bed frame, the shoulder strap secured around a leg of the bed against any sudden maneuvers. He supposed he should unpack what little he had into the waiting dresser. But that felt like too permanent an assumption.
When he had finished making his bunk, Carver dropped to the floor and began his calisthenics. He had no suspension bar so the pull ups would have to wait, but he could still do the rest -- 10 reps of 10 each in turn: push-ups, sit-ups, wide push-ups, reverse crunches, tri-push-ups, double crunches. The exercises were simple, familiar, and usually brought his brain safely into a null-state. Normally he could just focus-down on the physical actions, counting the push-ups instead of thinking about where he was, or why. But here and now, his mind played traitor on him, refusing that easy refuge and circling back on the strange feeling of raw uncertainty. Carver did not regret the actions which brought him aboard the Jin Dui. He even found himself pleased to be here, aboard this strange ship with a crew which mostly feared and distrusted him. Maybe it was that strange sense of satisfaction that unsettled him so. He was here. He was glad of it. And it was of his own choosing.
That could be reason enough for his disquiet. Carver struggled to remember the last solid decision he had made entirely for himself... maybe it had been as long ago now as his enlistment, back in the first days of the War. He had come of age in uniform. Service had taught him to follow orders, even when reason and conscience objected. Afterwards, it had not been his choice to emigrate to Santo -- the Alliance “reintegration” program had consisted of sorting a quota of veterans out of the processing line and loading them onto a one-way transport. Once at Santo, Carver had taken the only work he could find, laboring on the dockside. Later had come the berth with Captain O'Malley aboard the Lucky Day -- but that had been less a choice, and more a coin flip between two evils.
No. He was here aboard the Jin Dui because he had seen an opportunity and he had chosen to take it. And that uneasiness he felt was the strangeness of satisfaction. Already, this berth felt luxurious over being aboard the Lucky Day. He had never had private quarters before -- a rack and a locker were all he was conditioned to expect. The meal he had been served last night had been real food -- someone had made it from real ingredients, not tubes of protein paste. And the ship was a merchanter, plying trade instead of preying on the weaker or more unlucky.
Carver had chosen this place, this ship. Captain Cooper had seemed to be pleased to have him aboard. Beyond that, what else mattered? He was well armored against hostility from the rest of the crew -- none of them had impressed him as being a possible threat, so therefore they were null-point. He wasn’t looking to make friends. The War had taught him that bitter lesson. Just being here would be enough for him, Carver knew, as he shifted from one set of reps to the next. Just being here was much more than he had had for a very long time, and Carver was determined not to do anything to risk losing this place and position he had chosen for himself.
May 22, 0422 hours
The trick to really good buttermilk biscuits was that you never took a rolling pin to them. Cooper had her grandmother's technique mastered: she turned the dough out onto a floured board and then gently patted it down to about half-inch thickness, then folded the dough down four or five times more, pressing it down to about an inch in thickness before taking a round cutter to it. She had the timing down pat, too -- the first half of biscuits went onto a baking sheet and into the oven just as the buzzer went off for the coffee press. Cooper wiped the flour from her hands, then poured a cup. She gratefully inhaled the rich fragrance of the roasted coffee before adding in two spoonfuls of cream and one of sugar.
The Jin Dui's supply of coffee was limited -- the stuff was pricey and relatively rare outside of the Core or the Red Sun Cluster, so Cooper was inclined to hoard what little of it she had. But if there were ever a time when the crew had earned themselves a reward, now would be it. Yesterday had been a long, hard day. A job which should have been a routine visit to a smuggler's depot in the Penglai asteroid field turned out to be a trap, and Cooper had unwittingly led her crew right into it. They had escaped with their lives -- but only just barely, and only with thanks to help that not everyone aboard was thankful for. Then, over a hard twelve hours of intense labor, they had stripped a mercenary gunboat down to its last ball bearing and roll of TP before making a hard burn out of the Kalidasa Cluster enroute for the Red Sun, hoping they could outrun their enemies and be first to reach Greenleaf. So now they had a cargo hold and lower deck lounge full of looted goods to take a full inventory of. The windfall was unexpected, and promised more long days of hard work to catalogue
Damn right her crew had earned themselves a treat, Cooper thought as she stirred the sugar and cream into the cup of coffee, then picked up her cane and headed up toward the bridge. The captain was moving this morning -- if only barely. She limped her way slowly but surely up the corridor to the bridge, the steaming mug in one hand and her cane in the other. Every muscle in her body hurt, and she expected she'd be popping pain killers like candy all day long. Probably most of the crew would be similarly miserable. They had all worked their asses off yesterday, and she was proud to say there wasn't a shirker in the lot. Not a one of them had complained about the hard labour...
...which, Cooper thought ruefully, wasn't to say there hadn't been some spectacular complaining about certain other of her command decisions. The short stack of stairs at the end of the corridor was a challenge she negotiated very, very cautiously; her crippled leg was threatening outright mutiny, and whereas sometimes she used her cane mostly out of habit, this morning she founded she needed it to stay on her feet at all. Her hands shook from exhaustion, so much that she risked spilling the precious coffee. Cooper had caught what sleep she could during the night, but sleep didn't come easy for her at the best of times. Facing down yesterday's loaded guns -- not to mention the unexpected sight of a face from her past -- had her PTSD triggered. The only therapy she had for that was work -- and there would be more than enough of that to be had today, in the aftermath of her ship's encounter with the Lucky Day.
“Zăo ān!" she called as she arrived on the bridge for her usual check-in with the pilot of the night watch. The captain was not surprised to see Fatima sitting the shift -- but she was shocked to see the woman concealed head-to-toe in her yellow burqa. The sight was like a slap to the face. It stopped Cooper in her tracks, and her dismay must have been evident to Fatima, as the other woman ducked her head and swiveled her seat forward in self-conscious silence.
Cooper realized she was staring. She shut her mouth with a snap and carefully closed the distance to the pilot's station. "Brought you coffee," she said, making a deliberate effort not to sound curt. "Cream and sugar, right?"
Fatima turned again and took the cup with evident surprise. "Coffee! Yes, cream and sugar. Xie xie."
Cooper retreated to the co-pilot's console and settled against it, taking the weight off her aching crippled leg. She carefully controlled her expression and watched as the other woman maneuvered the cup underneath her veils for a grateful sip.
"The Dowager Mahaika gave me a bag of home-grown roasted coffee beans," Cooper said, keeping her tone conversational. "I've been hoarding it for a special occasion. As hard as the whole crew worked yesterday, I figured you all had earned this."
Fatima gave a long sigh of pleasure as she savored her first taste. "Xie xie," she murmured gratefully.
"So... what's the morning report?" the captain asked, when Fatima said nothing else.
"We're on course for Greenleaf. The hard burn ended at 0100 hours, and we're looking at a 76 hour ETA with theZhŭ Què com cluster, after which we should reach Greenleaf before dawn on the first of June. We’ll be cutting it close with fuel -- that hard burn lasted only two hours but means we’ll be coasting into Greenleaf with only about two tons fuel left on reserve."
"Hǎo.." Cooper compared that with the numbers in her head and nodded when they lined up. "Long-scan?"
"Dark and quiet," Fatima replied. "There's some chatter from a couple of mining craft toward the other end of the Penglai, arranging a meet to exchange spare parts. But nothing else out there is putting out any signal we could catch. No sign of pursuit -- I'd have hit the alarm if I saw anything remotely suspicious"
"Aye," Cooper said, confident that Fatima would have done exactly that. She eyed the woman's faded lemon burka, and cleared her throat cautiously. "I thought you'd packed that robe away," she said.
The enveloping burqa made the pilot difficult to read, but there was no mistaking the reluctance in her long pause before answering. "I was feeling safe," Fatima said, her voice dropped nearly into a whisper.
"And now you don't?" Cooper said, struggling to keep both her expression and her voice emotionless.
A slight movement of that hood, which might have been a shake of the head. "No, captain," came the hushed response. "Not now."
Cooper grit her teeth and tried to control her anger. The captain had thought she'd won this battle with her crew yesterday, after her shouting match with Sully. Fatima's burqa was like a knife from the flank. She sat watching her pilot for a time, trying to sort through her own tangled emotions and banish them, in order to tackle this problem clear-headed. "Ben Carver saved our collective asses yesterday," she said. "You do know that, right?"
"Shì de xiān shēng," Fatima replied miserably. "And he murdered those people to do it. His own crew."
"You think we should have left him aboard the Bonnie Prince Charlie? So the 14K Tong could pay him back for it?" Cooper winced, knowing her tone was sharper than she would have wished it.
"I am not the captain," Fatima replied. "I would not presume to criticize."
"Well, you'll be the only one who doesn't, then," Cooper snorted. "We owe Carver. We owe him big-time."
Fatima nodded. "I know. But he frightens me."
Cooper could not argue that away. She just sat where she was, likely spoiling Fatima's coffee. "I understand that," she finally said. "I do. I recognize that your sense of comfort -- your sense of safety -- has been interrupted. But trust me, Fatima, when I say this to you: Ben Carver is not a threat to you. He is not a threat to this ship. If I thought this man was a danger, to you or to anyone else on this crew, I'd have blown his brains out yesterday on that deck. You hear me?"
Fatima gave another shallow nod. "But how do you know?" she asked. "Knowing who he worked for and seeing what he did -- how do you know we're safe from him?"
It was a damn good question, and one Cooper knew she didn't have a convincing answer for. I just do, wasn't going to win the day with anyone. "The honorable man I knew during the war looked me in the eyes again yesterday," she said, trying to make her gut instinct sound reasonable. "And he refused to see our friends murdered, or you, Abby and me taken captive and sold off to rapists like the ones you have already survived. Ben Carver is a good man. I don't know what circumstances put him aboard the Lucky Day, but it's our zài yòng good luck he was there. Furthermore -- we know now that we've got enemies. We've got trouble, trouble we had been blind too before. And I know we need someone like Ben Carver on our side when that trouble catches up with us again. Trust me when I say I don't fault you for being scared. I respect that, and why. But I've got to ask you to trust me on this. Give Carver a chance. He's an asset. We're going to be safer now that he's aboard."
Fatima's answer was silence. Cooper shrugged and levered herself to her feet, leaning heavily on her cane. "I've got to rescue the biscuits before they burn," she said, excusing herself. Cooper left the bridge and headed back for the gallery, that dark corridor feeling feeling a mile long.
---to be continued---