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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---

Chapter Text

Hell if a pot of coffee was going to patch up this goatcluster. Cooper had hit her rack last night with the thought that a good dinner and a good night's sleep would resolve any lingering objections from the crew to bringing Ben Carver aboard. Obviously, that had been wishful thinking at its best. The situation made her mad. Cooper had never been a cry-er. Tears didn't get you anywhere in life, nor did moping. Anger was always her go-to emotion of choice. A good fury was fuel and motivation and inspiration, all in one fierce package. Cooper had already had one shouting match yesterday with her XO Sully over bringing Ben Carver aboard her ship. Had it been any other member of the crew sitting on the bridge, the captain figured she might still be yelling. But that mad-on approach wasn't viable with Fatima. Cooper did not want to imagine the hell Fatima had lived through, after pirates had destroyed the Nahas ship and family. Fatima was obviously still patching the pieces of her life back together from that nightmare, and Cooper could only accept that yes, Fatima had good reason to be uncomfortable around big, scary-looking men capable of episodes of significant and magnificent violence.

But Fatima being scared right back into her burqa? Not a good thing. Other crew who still felt their noses bent out of shape by Carver's presence were just going to see it as a reason to keep up the protestations. Like what -- Cooper was going to just jettison Carver out of an airlock now? Hell if.

There was next to nothing Cooper missed about the war and about military life -- after all, her side of the war hadn't even delivered a steady paycheck -- but xuèxīng tā mā dì dìyù, at least during the War, when you gave an order you knew it would be followed. You didn't have to sweet talk your unit into accepting something -- you simply told them how it was going to be, and then the precious snowflakes shut their yaps and dealt with it. The same sure could not be said for civilian life.

Cooper took a deep breath, wrestling her anger into containment. They were all sharing the same oxygen and trapped in the hull of the same small ship for the next week until landfall at Greenleaf. No one was going anywhere but where the ship was pointed, and there was a crap-ton of manual labor to get done before they got there. They had to begin inventorying the windfall of loot into what they would keep versus what they could sell, and then begin the work of replacing what equipment they could while in transit. It would be more than enough time for the crew to grow comfortable with Ben Carver, and to lose their fear of the man.

Or so Cooper could only hope. If that didn’t happen, she was going to have to get creative and find a solution. The War had swallowed up her whole family and nearly every friend Cooper had ever had. Ben Carver was someone she had not expected would survive the War, much less cross her path again. Like hell she was going to let a case of vapors amongst her crew drive the man off -- not while she remained captain of the Jin Dui...

0526 hours

The first sheet of biscuits had been rescued and were on the cooling rack, the second had gone into the oven to bake, and Cooper had just finished up the breakfast gravy when she heard the rasp of one of the dining chairs being moved. She turned from the galley stove in surprise, not having heard footsteps on the deck. Carver was there, pulling out one of the chairs to sit in. He was looking at her, his scarred face expressionless.

“Zăo ān!” she called, surprised to see him up so early, but glad for the opportunity it would give her to talk with him with some measure of privacy. “There’s fresh coffee in the pot there on the warmer; cream is in the fridge and sugar is there in that little cup there with a spoon. Help yourself.”

Carver rose and poured himself a cup of coffee. He took it straight and black, Cooper noted. She put a pair of the buttermilk biscuits on a plate for him, poured on a ladle of gravy, and handed it to him before he could return to the table. He took it with a nod of thanks then returned to his seat. She watched him eat, satisfied to see him attack the plate with gusto. “There’s a pitcher of buttermilk in the fridge, if you like the stuff,” Cooper offered. “Butter is on the table in the butter dish. We’ve got two goats down in the cargo bay who keep us well supplied. I’ve been experimenting with making cheese.” She hesitated, wondering if she had begun to babble. She wasn’t accustomed to feeling awkward or off-balance, and Carver seemed to inspire both. Cooper began to throw ingredients for bread together -- she regularly made a couple of fresh loaves every morning, but this time, the effort felt partly a defensive maneuver, something to give herself to do rather than sit down at the dining table with her newest member of the crew. Business. Business was a safe topic, and Xenu knew they had enough of it to cover. “Breakfast aboard the ship is served up buffet style -- I usually have it ready between 0600 and 0700 hours, and I break it down again after around 0900 hours. If anyone missed the meal, I’ll set aside hot plates -- Chang and Halo are both night owls and aren’t usually up in time. Lunch is a serve-yourself affair: there’s usually fresh bread and soup of some kind in the crockpot, plus whatever left-overs catch your fancy. Dinner is our sit-down meal at around 1800 hours. You’ll have noticed I’ve got a full compliment of crew.” Carver was watching her as he ate, obviously listening, but he gave back no signal in response to what he was hearing. Cooper wondered about that, thinking maybe he was just covering up feeling as off-balance in this as she felt. Or maybe that was just wishful thinking on her end. “Wages are minimal, I’m afraid to say. Profit shares at 3% at the end of each quarter with a 50 credit stipend a month, plus three hots and a cot. But there’ll be profit sharing bonuses for crew, once we’ve made a profit. Which, looking at the full hold we’ve got downbelow, we just about might see soon. We’ve got three pilots,” the captain continued. “That’s Sully, Halo and Fatima. Sully usually has the 0600 to 1400 hours shift; Halo takes the swing, and Fatima normally takes the night watch starting around 2200 hours. Shifts aren’t set in stone, however -- they work it out between them for the most part, based on whatever else is going on that needs attending too. Sully serves as my XO and he’s fine, too, at general fix-it jobs. Hoss is our mechanic and Chang is our systems man. Abby studied law at some fancy Core academy, and she served with the purple-bellies as a combat medic. Halo served for the other side, too, as an ambulance pilot. Will old allegiances be a problem for you?” She watched Carver closely, that question being of some private concern.

“War’s over with,” Carver replied. He was mopping up the last spots of gravy with a last bite of biscuit, his expression so blank the nerves of his face might have been disconnected. “I got no interest in continuing to fight it.”

Cooper nodded, privately relieved to hear those words. “Help yourself to seconds if you want more,” she offered, with a floury gesture toward the plate of biscuits on the counter. “I made plenty. The yellow jar on the table is ginger-ginseng jam, and the orangey-one is mango jam. We get to stock up on fresh fruit when we visit Hoss’s folk on Greenleaf -- and that’s where we’re heading right now, so there's no reason to stint.”

Carver got up and helped himself to seconds of the biscuits and gravy, and took two extra biscuits to sample the jams with. “The ship is owned by a Mr. Augustus Van Hooven; the story is that he won the ship at the faro table. He hired me to run her back in February of this year,” Cooper continued to explain. The timer rang and Cooper wiped the flour from her hands. She slipped off her stool and moved to take the second tray of biscuits from the oven, balancing mostly on one leg, a practice she had perfected over the past few months in the narrow space of the ship’s galley. She put the second tray down to cool and hopped back to her stool. “Our home port is the mining camp of New Hope on Deadwood. The deal with Van Hooven is that we show up on schedule, twice a year, to pick up a load of his cargo for Persephone. In between those two runs, I’m free to chase whatever jobs I want -- Van Hooven only cares that I keep the ship’s nose clean, and bring in some scrap of a profit. The hoopleheads who he had contracted out with last failed to do that -- they nearly junked the old girl, and were selling parts of her off as scrap to make ends meet. Van Hooven got rid of them and asked me to take her on.”

Carver was still listening as he ate; he was looking at her now with a curious crease between his eyebrows, as if trying to make her story add up. “I wound up at a POW re-education camp on Deadwood after the war,” Cooper explained. “When the camp closed down, I found myself in the mining camp, along with the rest of flotsam and jetsam. I had a medical practice there for a while, but then I got in some trouble with a local crime boss, who burned my place to the ground. Van Hooven knew I’d served aboard a Firefly during the war, so he made me the offer. We left Deadwood in March, and it’s been three months in the hot seat since. It’s ]like playing jazz -- just one off-key improvisation after another,” she said wryly, feeling as though the analogy summed up her experience just about right. “You got any questions?” she asked the man.

"Where-all do I fit in?” Carver asked.

“I got me a ship full of civvies,” Cooper replied. “Just forget a couple of them were in uniform during the war -- like you saw yesterday, the only member of the crew I’ve got who I’d willingly take into a gunfight would be Abby, and seeing as she’s my medic…” Cooper snorted a sour laugh at the situation. “So I need someone who’ll see to ship security, someone who’ll have the sense to keep me and the rest of the crew from walking blind into another ambush like we did yesterday. That's the job, if you're interested.”

Carver looked down into his coffee cup. “Sure,” he said. It wasn’t an enthusiastic affirmative, and Cooper found herself frowning as she stared at him. “Thanks,” he said then, clearly recognizing Cooper had expected something more.

“You’re welcome,” she replied dryly, dumping the sourdough onto a floured stretch of galley counter. She proceeded to vigorously knead the bread dough -- Cooper had found bread-making to be an excellent aggression-sink. “So -- this is the part where you tell me a bit about where you’ve been and what you’ve been up too since the end of the war. What am I getting into, bringing you aboard my ship?”

There was a long, pregnant hesitation. Clearly Carver needed a moment to assemble his words. “After the War, I wound up on Santo. Worked a cargo loader on the docks for a while.” He got up and poured himself another cup of coffee. “One of the local shestyorka took a special interest in me, offered me the opportunity to join the local Vor. It was either be conscripted into the ranks, or find a quick alternative. And Captain O’Malley was hiring.”

Cooper nodded. She could see how working as a hired gun aboard a mercenary ship might be considered a wise escape from becoming a gangster, but from the POV of a near-victim of those mercenaries, the distinction felt negligible. She hammered away at the innocent sourdough. “So then. I asked everyone else on this ship the same question I’m going to ask you now: what is there you’re sitting silent on that I need to know, for the safety of this ship and crew?” She saw the question settle; Carver’s expression didn’t change, but his gaze went from watching her to an internally-focused thousand-mile stare. “You can give that some thought and get back to me later,” Cooper said, conscious of treating him no different from the other crew she’d broadsided with that question. “I don’t need to know your deep personal secrets, just only about anything that’ll possibly impact this ship and her business. Dŏng ma?” She gave him a chance to say anything. When he didn’t, she continued to her last point of business. “And… something else,” Cooper said as she draped a clean kitchen towel across the loaves before setting them aside to rise. “I got a personal favor to ask you. Up there on bridge right now, I’ve got a crew-woman who’s scared half out of her senses. Not so much by you personally as by the violence you represent. She’s been months coming out of her shell, and having you aboard has spooked her right back into it. I’m going to ask you to take it careful with her. Avoid being alone in the same room with Fatima, don’t corner her in the hallways, hell -- I don't want you even breathing in her general direction, if it can be avoided. Understand it’s not about you, it’s about some whoreson bastards who deserve the worst karma can fling at 'm. Fatima escaped a real bad spot, and she had been beginning to feel safe here on my ship… and I want her eased back into feeling safe again, yuè kuài yuè hǎo.” Cooper finished wiping her hands clean and watched Carver’s non-reaction to that request. “You ever hear of some ship called the Best Vengeance?” she asked on impulse.

Finally. Something got an honest-to-God reaction out of the man. Carver’s eyebrows went up, his eyes narrowed, and his blank expression shifted into stoney-grim. “Captain Detrick?” he said, and when Cooper nodded affirmative, he shook his head and growled a curse. “Your crewwoman is tangled up with Detrick? Does he know she’s aboard this ship?”

“Nope. Not a clue,” Cooper replied. “You know the man?”

Carver shook his head negative. “Seen him once, on a dockside. The worst of the vor Avtorityet are bone-scared of Captain Detrick and the crew of the Best Vengeance. If he learns this woman is aboard this ship and he wants her back? That’ll be the worst sort of trouble.”

Cooper scowled and reached after her cane. “Then you’ve got your work cut out for you here, don’t you?” she asked. “Provided you’re not rethinking the job offer.”

“I’m not,” Carver replied.

“Good.” Cooper swept the galley with a glance, seeing that breakfast was done and ready for the crew when they shuffled out to get it. “I’m done here. There’s a cargo hold full of loot below decks, and I’m going to get cracking on it. Just put your dishes in the galley sink when you’re done, and come down to help me begin to sort it all out.”

---to be continued---

Chapter Text

May 22, 0714 hours

Sully groaned as he leaned over to scoop Bao Yu up into his arms. Every muscle he had had felt like it had stiffened overnight. Even his finger bones and tailbone hurt. Bao Yu danced impatiently as her human aborted his reach for her, and instead performed a couple of exploratory stretches. The small dog meeped a few times to remind her human of her own all-important priorities -- if Sully was up and moving, then Bao Yu required breakfast, followed by explosive sprints around the ship. She had, after all, spent the whole of yesterday cooped up in Sully’s cabin, while he and the rest of the crew had been laboring aboard the Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Lucky Day.

“Yes, diànxià,” Sully said, picking her up and making the one-handed climb up the ladder out of his cabin and to the bridge corridor. Bao Yu was off like a shot for the galley as soon as her paws touched the deck. Sully followed at a more sedate pace, torn between the lure of a hot shower, and the ambrosial perfume which was wafting from the ship’s kitchen.

“Ata mārie whaiaipo!” Sully heard Hoss’s happy rumble of welcome to Bao Yu. The big mechanic was dishing up a plate with a biscuit with gravy for the dog as Sully arrived. “Ata mārie to you, too!” Hoss greeted Sully cheerfully, as Bao Yu began to wolf down her meal.

“Tell me that really is fresh coffee I smell!” Sully said, making a beeline for the coffee press.

“That really is fresh coffee!” Hoss was a morning person, but even so, he sounded impossibly chipper this morning. “I just brewed a second pot. Halo dragged himself up to the bridge to relieve Fatima’s shift, and he drained the last one dry.”

Sully poured himself steaming cup of the black gold. He drank a long, near-scalding swallow, then sighed with pleasure. “This is from Greenleaf, isn’t it?”

“A taste of home,” Hoss confirmed. “Sun-dried and hand picked Kona beans, from the slopes of Raikuria Island. Grandmama gave two pound of it to the captain before we left. I know Coop’s been saving it for a special occasion.”

A special occasion. Sully took another long drink, savoring the rich, full-bodied flavor of real, custom-roasted coffee. “Trying to appease the unruly masses, is she?” he said to Hoss.

Hoss gave him a level stare in return, his sunny smile turned sober. “I rather guess the Captain is making an effort to say ‘thank you’ for everyone’s hard work yesterday,” the mechanic said. “But I suppose you can take it to mean whatever you need it too.”

Sully nodded. He spotted a bottle of painkillers, conspicuously placed on the galley counter, and helped himself to a couple, washing them down with more coffee. His stomach didn’t feel up to a farmer’s breakfast, so he wrapped two biscuits in a napkin and slipped them into a vest pocket for later. He felt Hoss’s wise gaze on him still, and showed the man an apologetic face.

“I’ll take it as it’s meant, then,” he said, answering Hoss’s silent question. “I can’t speak for the rest of the crew this morning, but I know I slept on the Carver problem. Yesterday, I might have accused the captain of a few things prematurely. We’ll see. But I am thinking a little clearer now, I hope. The guy may have been a soldier before, when Cooper first met him. But he’s a hired killer now. Cooper seems a lot more comfortable with that little fact than seems sound and sane to me -- but I suppose just maybe Carver deserves the same blank slate the rest of us received when we first came aboard.” Sully paused for another mouthful of coffee, choosing not to add that the rest of the crew had had to prove themselves to her to earn Captain Cooper’s trust. It was unsettling to the Jin Dui’s firstmate that this fellow seemed to instantly have that trust -- but Sully had given it a lot of thought during the night, and he was willing to bet that the captain knew more about this new guy than she’d yet shared with her firstmate. “I’m willing to extend the man the benefit of the doubt, if that’s what the captain wants.”

Hoss was smiling again. “We’ll have a lot of work to do between here and Greenleaf,” the mechanic said, with a look of pure joy on his face as he contemplated the prospect of installing better parts scavenged from the Lucky Day into the Jin Dui’s various worn-out systems. “Another pair of hands will be welcome.”

Bao Yu finished her plate as Hoss finished his coffee. Sully poured himself another and put a travel cap on it, then began to pour an additional cup as well. “I’ll take this down to Cooper as a peace offering and check in,” he said, while Hoss put the dirty breakfast dishes in the galley sink.

Carrying both cups, Sully followed after Hoss through the hatchway and down the aft corridor, with Bao Yu scampering ahead of them. Hoss began to whistle a cheerful Christmas carol as they headed down the stairs toward the cargo bay. The view of the cargo hold from the catwalks was impressive. As accustomed as Sully was to seeing that echoing space mostly empty -- or at best, only half full -- it was a fresh shock now to see it crowded stem to stern with boxes, barrels, rucksacks, spare parts, loose furniture, crates, and pieces of partially dismantled equipment. They had fairly well gutted the Lucky Day. Sully figured the decision to stay snugged up to the Bonnie Prince Charlie and spend those extra hours docked at the isolated smuggler's depot to loot the place, when they knew a Tong ship was incoming, had been a ballsy choice by the captain. But the results were impressive -- and promised to cut the Jin Dui's necessary repairs & replacements list in half. No wonder Hoss was as jubilant as a boy on Christmas morning.

Plus -- there was the original shipping container which the Jin Dui's crew had been contracted to deliver. The big can had a false manifest proclaiming it carried biochems, but Halo had taken a peek inside the day before and had told Sully the container was full of alcohol and ammo -- apparently the Lucky Day's payment for kidnapping and murder. Sully was itching to see what else might be in that cargo can.

There were voices talking from within the debris field below. "I don't know," a man was saying -- that deep, unfamiliar rasp was Carver, Sully realized. He was surprised that the stranger was up and about before he himself and Hoss. "But his rep is that he deals in information, not money. A trip to Deadwood would be just a milk run for the Vengeance. So I doubt it."

"Ata mārie!" Hoss sang out as he and Sully reached the mid-deck section of the catwalk.

"Kia ora," came Cooper's reply. The captain was in the port forward corner below them, sitting on a crate as she sorted through what looked like a duffle full of personal goods from a crew cabin. Ben Carver stood beside her, a full rucksack under each arm. Bao Yu gave a happy yipe and bounded the rest of the way down the stairs. She hurled herself at the captain and Carver in greeting, fawning over the stranger's boots.

"Carver, meet Bao Yu," Cooper said dryly. "She's our social director. Sully's responsible for her clean-up."

Carver's hands were full, so he didn't try to pet the small dog. He simply looked down at her as she was dancing on his feet, his expression inscrutable. Then he nodded to Cooper in parting and went on his way, hauling his burden off for delivery somewhere within the crew lounge.

"We've gotten an early start," the captain said to Hoss and Sully as they joined her. Sully wondered if Cooper had slept at all -- there were dark circles under her eyes, and he could see from the stiff way she was sitting that she was in considerable pain. Hoss clearly saw it as well.

"Coop, you look like gǒu shǐ," the big mechanic said, treading where Sully didn't dare. "You should sit this out, and just leave all this busy-work to us."

The captain rolled an annoyed glance at Hoss, a look which Sully translated for himself as a hearty "like hell." "We need everything entered into inventory and catalogued. The working voice file is 'windfall'. Once we know what-all we've got, we can determine what we're going to hang onto and what we'll resell. Halo looks like he did a good job sorting during the unload, so that'll help in a big way. For triage, all medico items to sickbay; armory items to Cabin 4; galley items to the crew lounge upstairs; linens and such to Cabin 3 along with any personal effects. See those two big barrels there? The black one is recycling and the Blue Sun one is for absolute trash. And that big hot pink crate in the center of the bay? That's for anything you can't make sense of. Any questions?"

"Inventory first, then we start seeing how much of what we got we can use," Sully said, taking a sip of coffee. He was eyeing a pile of equipment which looked like it had been stripped from the bridge -- Sully had spent most of his time yesterday helping Hoss loot engineering and life support, leaving the bridge and comm systems to Chang. It appeared as though Chang had gathered up some broad-spectrum electromagnetic sensor units, a couple of small comm dishes, and what might prove to be a very nice surplus military optical scope from the Lucky Day during his hull-walk yesterday. "Christmas morning, indeed!" he said aloud, raising his coffee cup to Hoss in toast.

Carver stepped back in through the lowerdecks hatch. "Carver -- I want you to shadow Hoss," Cooper told them then. "Hoss -- Carver didn't get the tour last night, so show the old girl off today."

"Can do," Hoss agreed. "And since you've got our marching orders all set down here, captain, you're going to leave all the heavy lifting to us and go off-shift," he continued, with his relentless good cheer. "Sully and me can keep the whip cracking as needed. I want you off that leg. You're gonna cripple yourself, Coop, you keep at this."

Sully kept his expression carefully neutral and sipped his coffee, glad that the captain's fusion-worthy glare wasn't fixed on him. Hoss, however, was immune to that fierce dark-eyed stare, and whatever the big mechanic's personal mojo with the captain was, it seemed to work. "I can park on the lounge sofa and keep the laundry cycling," Cooper negotiated.

"That sounds fair enough," Hoss agreed. "But only so long as you stay off that leg. I don't want to find you installing new cabinet doors in medico or nothin' like that. You got the rest of us around for that skut work, you hear me?"

"I hear you," Cooper growled back at him, then waved a dismissal. "Stop worrying about me and get to your own work. I want that new parts inventory completed before suppertime, dŏng ma ?"

Hoss gave her a triumphant thumbs-up and strolled off with Carver in tow and with Bao Yu bouncing ahead of them enthusiastically. Sully hid his smile as Cooper's annoyed expression slid his way. He offered her the second coffee cup he carried in appeasement.

"Damn shǎguā thinks he's my mother," Cooper grumbled. She accepted the cup from Sully with evident gratitude, and sighed in pleasure after the first sip. "So?" she asked Sully pointedly, as he continued to stand beside her.

"I had some time overnight to think things over, and I wanted to apologize about what I said yesterday--" Sully began.

Cooper waved his apologies off. "Yeah, you were way over the line," she said with some amusement, "But you were looking out for the crew. I expect that from my XO. So I'll forgive and forget if you can," she said.

Sully nodded. "Done."

"Good. Look, I want your opinion on something." Cooper levered herself off of the crate she was sitting on. "Take a look in that, and tell me what you think our resale might be."

Sully crouched down next to the metal crate, putting aside his coffee cup. The crate lid was lockable -- but not locked. He opened it up and found himself gaping.

"Réncí dì dìyù!! Are those Huǒjiàns?"

---to be continued---

Chapter Text

"Réncí dì dìyù!! Are those Huǒjiàns?"

"Alliance-made Flaming Arrow ship-to-ship missiles," Cooper said. "Six of them. Carver secured them for us off the Lucky Day. He says they're hot -- O'Malley was expecting to use them before he visited a port big enough to do armament scans, so the IDs aren't stripped. But they're still worth a pretty penny, aren't they?"

"Pretty?" Sully swallowed with difficulty. He took a good long look at the very black market military armament, and shook his head in wonder. "Hell yeah. Real beauty contestant winners here. Uncle Slim will know a guy or two who'll pay through the nose, and be happy to do so. Clearing Nunkie's commission -- you're looking at a good 50K here." He paused to watch Cooper's face. "That's 50K each."

Cooper went ashen, and her eyes widened in shock as she did that happy little piece of math. The captain was already leaning heavily on her cane. She slumped back against the wall of the cargo bay for additional support, looking more rattled than Sully had ever seen her. ”Niúbī,” she whispered, while Sully was still evaluating whether or not she was going to faint, and if so, whether or not he could catch her before she hit the ground. "Three. Hundred. Thousand?" she repeated in disbelief.

"Black market, of course. We don't want to get caught by the feds with these aboard. Obviously."

"Three. Hundred. Thousand?" Cooper repeated.

"300K." Sully said the words aloud, figuring she needed to hear them. Then he did reach for her arm, seeing how Cooper was swaying on her feet. He half-carried her through the hatchway into the crew lounge and saw her settled on the torn old couch there, then went back to reclaim their coffee cups. "Drink," he said, pressing hers into her shaking hands.

Cooper started drinking, and didn't stop until she had drained the cup dry. "Jesus," she whispered then. "Xuèxīng tā mā dì dìyù. You better not be messing with me, Sullivan," she said, while some of the color began to return to her face.

"Serious as a heart attack," he replied. "You know of any other interesting hardware off that ship that I haven't seen yet?"

"Black market stuff, you mean?" Cooper shrugged. "We've got the Lucky Day's papers, and a set of fake papers as well. What would those go for?"

"500 credits apiece, if you know the right folk.”

"We got their black box. A bunch of guns, including a gauss pistol I took off the captain. A bunch of ID cards -- that forger you met back on Santo might be interested in those, if Uncle Slim's many friends aren't. Halo might have told you already -- the cargo we were supposed to deliver is a can full of bad-guy ops gear: optical bombs, mag charges, canisters of laserlight mist, a debugger, patch tape and scrapper's gel, even a crate or two of tubes of protein paste and a half dozen cases of beer."

Sully chuckled at that. "Well, Uncle Slim will help us find a buyer for all of it that. Except the beer. I plan to drink some of that myself.”

Cooper looked like she was beginning to recover from her bout of shock. "Park it a moment. Let me bounce some things off you," she said. Sully sat. Bao Yu came zooming in and vaulted onto his lap for a moment, then launched off again to do her morning laps up the stairs and around the upper deck. "Once we got ourselves an inventory, I'm going to want to sit down with you and Chang and Carver, and review it all close," Cooper said, with only a half-curious glance in Bao Yu's wake. "I know you and some of the rest of the crew have your panties in a twist over Carver coming aboard, and I respect that. But he's going to open some doors for us."

Sully found himself frowning, knowing the type of business the Lucky Day had done. "Captain..." he began to object, thinking of the workshop aboard the Lucky Day which had been modified to serve as a holding cell for captives. "No disrespect intended, but I don't want to go through those kind of doors."

Cooper waved his words off. "I don't mean turning pirate," she said. "Hell no! And I don't think any of us would make decent criminals, do you?" The question was rhetorical; Cooper didn't pause to give him a chance to answer it. "During the war, Carver served with the 13th Orbital Marine Mechanized. He was one of the Odin's Hammer unit. Shipbreakers. You combine his know-how with all of the gear we've just hauled in from the Lucky Day… Well, there's gotta be hundreds of derelicts from the War adrift out there in the deep black, just waiting for us to find them."

Sully considered his captain thoughtfully. It was just as he had suspected. Bringing Carver aboard wasn't all about the captain’s hormones and memories of a night of hot sex, as some of the rest of the crew suspected. No -- Cooper had seized on something in the man as valuable, and was thinking ahead and revising her business plans accordingly. "Finding derelicts is like finding a needle in a haystack. We know they're out there, but the easy ones have already been brought in for scrap."

Cooper sat back on the couch and grinned. "Chang has himself some purloined data cubes from his days of being a desk jockey at Independent High Command. He thinks he has some magic numbers for us. It wasn't something I thought we could seriously pursue before, not until we at least could afford the gear... but now we've got the gear, and with Carver, we've got the know-how, too."

Sully found himself grinning as well. The type of salvage job Captain Cooper was talking about would prove pure profit. "Wākào!" he said, thinking of it.

"Chang hasn't deciphered the data cubes yet -- but I know he stripped the comps from the Lucky Day's bridge, and their navigation coprocessor to boot. He'll have all the power he needs to crunch those data cubes." Cooper sat and rubbed her crippled thigh, her expression shifting from pleased to thoughtful. "That was the good news. Here's the bad news. We'll be floating into Greenleaf on fumes, and we've got only enough cash left to tank up maybe to half. Enough to get us back to Beylix, at least. We'll have to grab up Tilly and kite out of Greenleaf fast, because there’s a chance we’ve got some pursuit. I'd rather not waste time looking for a contact for selling off any of this loot at Greenleaf -- it'll have to wait until we get back to Uncle Slim and Beylix."

"And the bad news?" Sully prompted, sensing Cooper had strayed sidewise.

The captain sighed. "I talked a bit more with Carver this morning. We got some real trouble ahead, someone who makes Darius back on Deadwood look like the rank amateur he is. You ever hear the name 'Captain Detrick' or the ship 'Best Vengeance'?"

"Can't say as I've had the pleasure," Sully responded after some thought.

"Well, Carver has, and he's not complimentary." Cooper hesitated for a moment, then shrugged. "The details of it all aren't mine to tell, so all that it's fair of me to say is this -- and this is for your ears only: the captain and crew who messed up Fatima are this guy Detrick and his ship. Fatima escaped from them, and it's likely they're going to be looking for her to silence her. Mind you -- these guys aren't your garden variety of mook. They've got a very scary reputation among some very high-ranking bad men. So we really, really, really don't want to be found by them."

Sully winced and thought on that some. He had had his suspicions that Halo was on the run from something; that Fatima was as well was not a surprise, but the seriousness of the threat wasn't comfortable news. "You think they're tracking this ship already?" he asked soberly.

Cooper shrugged. "I got no way of knowing. Fatima doesn't know much herself, or at least that's the impression I was left with when we talked last. Fatima believes the man she gave the slip to was a subcontractor, a simple delivery-courier, not a crew member of the Best Vengeance. I suspect maybe there's a wronged third party involved that'll help muddy the waters a bit if we're lucky. But from what little Carver knows of this Captain Detrick, he's not a man who appreciates leaving a loose end alive and still able to talk. So maybe we should make an effort to keep our heads down for a bit." She rubbed at her crippled leg for a moment, her scowl deepening. "I can't figure if it is even worth trying. Because if Darius's contacts could set up this whole trap on the Bonnie Prince Charlie when we've only just come to Beylix for the first time... maybe I'm naive in thinking we have any chance in hiding from someone with deeper pockets. I don't know. But I do know one thing is true. We've got to be back on Deadwood in three months to uphold our contract with Van Hooven. He owns this ship, and he will hunt us down and cut our throats if he believes we've reneged on him. So anyone who wants to find us? Our schedule with Van Hooven will be no secret downworld on Deadwood. That will make us easy to find at least twice a year. So anyone looking for Fatima only has to connect her to our ship and wait at Deadwood for us to come calling."

"That's a cheerful thought," Sully groaned. "So -- knowing what you know now about this new Best Vengeance threat -- do you still think it's wise to bring Tilly aboard?" Sully asked.

The captain mulled that over for a while, while Sully enjoyed the last of his cup of coffee. "As I see it, it'll be the lesser of two evils," she finally said. "Darius is hunting for Tilly, so she's in danger no matter what. If we take her aboard, our risk level doesn't change -- but it will protect Hoss's family. So we keep Greenleaf as a friendly port of call -- and protect our source of home-roasted coffee beans."

"An important consideration by all means," Sully agreed.

"And now we have an asset that Darius and his boyos won't expect," Cooper added. "We've got Carver. Suddenly, I like our odds a whole lot more than what they were yesterday morning."

At that moment, Bao Yu came clattering back into the room. Her morning zoomies now complete, she bounced up onto the couch between Sully and the captain and demanded some attention. The captain petted the dog absently, obviously still worrying away at their future prospects.

"Xuèxīng dì dìyù," she murmured, with a troubled glance at Sully. "300K. You realize what that means for us?"

Sully grinned. "Hey, you want to talk about bettering our odds? Just having a spare grav boot and a fusion jump-start pack aboard improves our life expectancy triple-fold," he chuckled. "I'm hoping we can sink a big chunk of that cash windfall into further shipboard improvements."

"That we can," Cooper agreed. "And have a fair bit of change left over for buying cargo. Even surprise the hell out of Van Hooven and give him a nice profit share when we get back to Deadwood in three months. He won't even recognize his ship."

"And that might just be a good thing, no?" Sully rose to his feet. He took back her empty safety-capped coffee cup. "I'll deliver these upstairs, then come back down to help with the inventory. You need anything else?"

"My work-slate is right over there," Cooper said, still petting a happily-panting Bao Yu. "I'll get the laundry cycling and then sit here for Hoss like a good girl. I gotta start looking at the logistics of how in the hell we’re going to bring a kid aboard this ship. That problem should keep me busy -- at least until it’s time to get lunch served."

Sully nodded, left his captain to that, and headed on up to the galley before he could get his own work day started.

---to be continued---

Chapter Text

1157 hours

The coast was clear.

Chang had waited to make his move until after Captain Cooper had gone topside to work on lunch. Once the job was finished, he slipped back out into the short corridor to the port-side passenger cabins. Abby had been working in the sickbay, cataloging all of the stolen medical supplies. She was still there now, but Sully had joined her and they were conversing intently about something. Chang weighed his options -- it was either risk being caught where he was, or play it cool and make a break for it. Chang made a break for it, heading casually toward the hatchway to the cargo bay, expecting neither the first mate or Abby to notice him.

No such luck. Sully happened to glance up and out of the sickbay window. The Jin Dui’s firstmate immediately waved Chang over to join him and Abby in the sickbay. Chang put on his most innocent face and moseyed on into medico.

"... that's absolutely ridiculous!" Abby was saying in response to something Sully had told her. Her face was flushed and her expression was furious. "Talk about putting the fox in charge of the hen house! And she expects us to just go along quietly with this?"

Sully looked pained. "You're the one who served in a uniform during the war. I expect you understand a bit more clearly than I do how officers might have expectations that when they give an order, you follow it," he replied drolly.

Abby turned to Chang. "Cooper is making the new guy our ship's security officer! Security! This is outrageous! The man is a murderer!"

"The man is hellishly fast with a gun -- and the Captain thinks that's a skillset we'd be wise to keep around," Sully said.

"And what's to keep the hún dàn from just killing us all? Just like he did his last crew?" Abby demanded fiercely.

"The captain seems to believe that's not a risk," Sully said. "She asks that we all just give him an honest chance to settle in."

"You mean -- let us all become comfortable with the cobra nestled in our midst, so we'll never see it coming when he turns on us?" Abby retorted.

"We watched him shoot down his own crewmates in cold blood," Chang said, aware that Abby expected his support in this argument. "Captain's got to understand why the rest of us are extremely uncomfortable about all of this."

"She does," Sully said. "And she probably would prefer to hear from you directly about it, too--"

"We don't have to stand for this!" Abby said with some heat. "This is a civilian ship, not the military. We can vote with our feet! We'll be at Greenleaf in a few days, and we can all threaten to walk if she doesn't put Carver off the ship. You know Halo and Fatima feel the same way about this as we do! The Jin Dui won't fly without pilots!"

"Even with the hard burn to Greenleaf, we’ve got about eight days in transit to take stock of the situation, and if you still feel the same way when we get there -- that's always a choice," Sully said. "But you should be aware of a few complicating factors. First of all -- if you walk, the captain can just wave goodbye and hire a replacement. She can afford to do so. The ship is looking to sell some goods from the Lucky Day when we get back to Beylix, and when that happens, the ship is going to have a tidy little profit. Wait. Did I say 'little'? Strike that. We'll all be seeing an helluva end-of-quarter profit share. Plus --" Sully smiled at Chang knowingly. "With some of the gear we've collected off the Lucky Day, and with Carver's experience in a shipbreaker dropsquad, we're going to be able to take on salvage work. That means a likely future of continued profit shares. Personally, I like the sound of those two little words: 'profit' and 'share.' I'm willing to give Carver a chance, knowing that if the captain is right on this, he's really going to be an asset."

Abby's expression had shifted into a thunderous scowl, but Chang could tell that she was listening to Sully's words and processing them. "Carver scares me," Chang spoke up. "The captain maybe knew him years ago, but the War changed everyone. Cooper's say-so isn't enough to reassure me that this guy won't just start killing people because he doesn't like their jokes. All we know is he's the kind of gǒurìde who'll gank his own crewmates if the situation is right. Maybe this situation was 'I owe them money and I'm bored', or maybe it's even worse than that. You saw how he looked at the captain. Maybe it's 'I want that woman and she has friends I can kill if she says no.' And even if it's nothing like that, how do we know he's not just after the ship? Rickety as she is, the Jin Dui's still worth something. We can't know if this guy is just biding his time aboard, waiting for you and the captain to sell whatever it is we're going to sell -- and then he strikes, when there's cold hard cash to steal as well as a whole system full of scrappers who'll take the ship, no questions asked! If I were working that angle, I'd wait until my kill was nice and fat, know what I mean?"

Sully was frowning as he chewed on Chang's concerns. "Yeah, I grok that," he said with a shrug. "And I'll pass those fears on to the captain, if you're not comfortable doing so yourself. But I don't think it's unreasonable for us to give the guy a chance. We can stay alert and watch for signs of danger. And if you see anything from Carver that sets off your hinkey meters, then I want you to come to me immediately." Sully looked them each in the eyes, stressing that point. Then he gave them his easy smile, signalling he considered the discussion over with for now. "Keep your eyes and ears open, but keep an open mind as well. We have the possibility here that if Carver works out for us the way the captain hopes, that we'll all benefit in the long run."

"Aye aye, sir," Abby said, coldly civil as Sully took his leave. She turned back to the sickbay supplies cabinet she was stocking, her motions stiff with resentment. Chang lingered for a moment, waiting until Sully had left them and was safely out of earshot.

"I don't want to work with that man," Abby muttered bitterly. "I hope the captain is happy when he kills us all."

"You want to know what makes me the most uncomfortable with all of this?" Chang confessed in a near-whisper. "I can’t help but wonder: have we been wrong all along to trust Captain Cooper? I have to ask, maybe she's just not nearly as stable as we all thought she was. The rest of us are sanely worried about this guy, who is a confessed mercenary -- but she trusts him the second she lays eyes on him. She certainly wasn't like that with any of us when we all came aboard back at Deadwood, except for Hoss. And you know she and Hoss went through the war together." Abby had stopped what she was doing to listen to him; Chang was extremely conscious of her blue-eyed stare on him as he spoke. "So what I want to know -- is there something more here going on between this guy and the Captain, which the captain lied to us about to cover up? Or worse, in my way of thinking: one night of good sex with the man, years ago, and she just loses all upper brain function? We're supposed to believe this guy was just a one-candle night -- but yet she[s willing the killer a free pass now?"

Abby was nodding agreement. “Yes. Exactly! This is crazy. He’s a slash-killer for all we know! We should have left the chùsheng behind on that asteroid! But we didn’t, and now we’ve all got to watch our backs, every minute of the day and night!”

"I know. And the way I see it -- if the captain’s not going to look out for us, we’ve gotta look out for ourselves.” Chang double-checked his flank, making sure no one else was in range, then leaned in close to make his confession. He couldn’t help but notice Abby had dabbed perfume behind her ear -- she smelled faintly of jasmine. “You know the intercom units in our cabins? The captain probably doesn’t know this, but they can be reprogrammed to passively record anything within range of their pick-up, even when they're supposedly turned off. I just snuck into Carver’s cabin and set it all up. Audio files are being cached where only I can find them, and I can monitor them from my hand-held. He so much as sneezes, I’ll know it. Anything that sounds like suspicious activity will trigger an instant alert for my review. It’s not foolproof, but it’s at least a start. I can monitor Carver from a safe distance, at least while he’s supposed to be in his cabin. I’ll have a few minutes warning that way, if he’s up to no good. And if there’s anything I can gather to use against him and help get him thrown off the ship -- then I’ll be collecting it.”

Abby’s answering smile was brilliant. “Not ‘I’,” she said fervently. “Make that ‘we.’

“We.” Chang couldn’t help but grin in response. He liked the sound of that very, very much. “We it is, then. Now. We gotta keep our heads down and mind our p’s and q’s around both Mr. Slash Killer and the captain. We watch, we wait, and we compile whatever data there is to gather. Information is our weapon. So we gather our weapons…” There was the sound of approaching footsteps on the deck outside, probably Sully coming back down from topside. Chang retreated a step, and assumed his most virtuous face again. “... and we make very sure we don’t get caught,” he finished, giving Sully a smile and an innocent wave as the first mate came into view.

“Rightie-o,” Abby agreed. “Absolutely no getting caught,” she said, with far more cheer than she’d shown about anything since yesterday and the events aboard the Lucky Day.