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Collecting Strays

Chapter Text

June 18, 2515; approx. 0900 hours

"Wa ó!” Abby exclaimed as she stepped around the corner and stopped so abruptly that Sully, who had been preoccupied checking street signs and business numbers across the thoroughfare, nearly tripped over her. Abby held up an arm to steady him, keeping Sully from stumbling any farther forward. "Careful! You'll ruin it!"

The artwork at their feet had been done in chalk. It was maybe two meters in length and depicted a jagged, lightning-bolt shaped rent in the pavement of the sidewalk, through which a brilliant blue sky with distant cirrus clouds could be seen. Through this dimensional rift fluttered a stream of brightly colored butterflies, each one showcasing wings that were impossibly jewel-toned and unique. The chalk art was shaded so realistically that Sully's eyes tricked him into seeing the flutter of wings where it was impossible, and another pedestrian coming up behind them looked up from her hand-held and staggered aside at the last moment with some alarm, as though she feared she had been about to step on of the gem-stone winged insects.

"That's really beautiful," Abby breathed.

"It is, isn't it?" Sully said. "I bet I know the artist."

That earned a shift of wide, sky-blue eyes. "Nǐ zài kāi wán-xiào ma?"

"No," Sully replied with a laugh. "I'm serious. I did grow up on Beylix, you know. The capital is sort of my teenage stomping grounds. C'mon, Suzuki's Superior Scholarship is right on down there," he said, escorting her around the street art, and on toward their destination.

They were on the second-day of their planned seven-day layover on Beylix, and Abby had wanted to review a wider selection of educational materials for Tilly than they had been able to find during their brief time on Greenleaf. Sully had gathered up a list of supplies Hoss and Chang had both needed for their respective refit projects, items which couldn't be gleaned from Uncle Slim's scrapyard, and had volunteered to pilot the shuttle the hour's flight to the capital. Sully showed Abby through the smoked glass of Suzuki's front door. "You good for an hour or two?" he asked.

"Shi," Abby replied. The place had an antiseptic vibe and a determinedly white-on-white decorating scheme that attempted to look Core, without the benefit of having ever been there. The wide, high-ceiling shop offered shelves and shelves of old-fashioned text books, as well as what promised to be a wide selection of programs and VR tutor systems. It all just looked like school-porn to Sully, but the expression Abby's face hinted that she might enjoy this browse more than she had expected.

Sully spotted there a primly suited sales clerk setting an intercept course for them. "I'll come back here and find you when I'm done, then," Sully said quickly, excusing himself back out the door.

Although Newhouse’s urban center strove to present a sophisticated face, Beylix's capital was like much of the rest of Beylix -- concentrated pockets of industry, surrounded by a whole lot of rustic. Sully strolled down the street, feeling almost as though each step carried him back in time. He had done a lot of growing up on these streets, and not all of the nostalgia he was felt for Newhouse was of the warm and cozy variety. Two blocks down the street, and Sully crossed the invisible border between the Admiralty District into the less savory Ming Kok neighborhood, where the architecture immediately grew more crowded and less modern and the crowds on the street grew thicker. It did not take him long to find familiar faces. He chatted up a couple of old friends and one old rival, who now appeared to be operating a deli -- and hell if Sugaliski knew how to make a decent sandwich, so no doubt the place was a front for something. Sully made eye contact and nodded and kept walking, promising himself to ask further questions of his uncle when he and Abby had returned to Uncle Slim's. Of more immediate interest was the gang signs visible now and then, and on two buildings were impressive murals that hadn't been there when Sully had last walked this street, a year or so ago. One of them was in the old Mao Worker's Party style, featuring the likenesses of what Sully guessed were ranking members of the Seven Cranes Triad; he even recognized one of the faces, although if the art were representative of real life, then Chen Li had lost an eye since Sully had last seen him. The second mural was a beautiful landscape, done in an classical style. It featured a mist-shrouded lake, crossed arching bridge with a gabled bridge house in the center, with vibrant blue-green hills beneath a rose-hued dawn sky. Seven cranes waded in the foreground -- no question of ownership of this neighborhood, not when grand murals like that went unmolested by rivals.

Once again, Sully suspected he recognized the artist. He was mulling that thought over when he came to the corner of Sui Sai Wan East and Tim Wa Avenue, and looked down the side street to see a figure kneeling on the pavement, putting the finishing touches on a giant steaming noodle bowl, large enough to bathe in, perched on a white plate. Like the sidewalk rift with the butterflies, this piece of street art was expertly shaded so that it looked (from where Sully was standing, at least) as though it were 3-D. Indeed -- a pair of girls in uniforms from the noodle shop nearby were already moving in for the kill. One of them was giggling as she crouched as if sitting on the rim of the plate, while the other snapped her friend's picture on a hand-held unit. Then the two swapped places, ignoring the teenage boy who was putting the finishing touches on the wisps of steam nearby.

Sully skirted around the edge of the chalk noodle bowl to stand beside the kneeling artist. The hair had changed colors -- what had been a neon orange before was now half lilac, half-cornflower blue -- but the face beneath the pastel mop was still child-like and androgynously pretty. "Cianán Mac Dara!" Sully said.

Dark make-up emphasized the pale gold eyes that glanced up at Sully in distraction, then widened with recognition.

"Sully!" The artist shot to his feet and held out a chalk-smudged hand in welcome. "Hey, hǎojiǔ bùjiàn! How long has it been?"

"Quite a while, unfortunately," Sully replied. "You're looking good!" It was a relative truth -- Cianán still looked like he slept in the clothes he was wearing, but his complexion was clear and those pale eyes were bright and alert, no longer sunken and chronically glazed. The boy had grown a little, too -- he had to be what -- 17 by now? Maybe close to 18? -- but the kid was still short and slight beneath the long, dirty overcoat he wore. "I see you've been doing some work for the Seven Cranes -- the murals back on Marsh Road and Oi Kwan are yours, aren't they?"

"Every genius needs a patron," Cianán replied cheerfully, but Sully did not miss the sudden falter in the teen's smile.

Sully clapped the youth's shoulder and gestured toward the noodle shop. "I'm starving -- can I treat you to a bowl of phở? Looks like you're finished here, and I'd love to catch up, and sound you out about a possible job."

The smile returned, almost blinding in its intensity at the promise of work. "Lead the way!" Cianán said, quickly wrapping up his box of chalk and sliding the cloth-bound bundle into an inner pocket of his oversized coat.

In a few minutes, they were seated at a window table in the noodle shop, enjoying bowls of hot soup with a fine view of pedestrians outside, reacting to the chalk art.

“How are you? How is your beautiful Carolyn Jane?" Cianán asked.

"I'm doing well -- I lost Jane, however. Some bad luck on a job. But I'm first mate on a new ship that's downworld for a short spell -- and my new ship needs to be prettified. You still available for freelance efforts?”

“Sure am!” Cianán was attacking his bowl of soup with real hunger. Sully knew either the youth had missed a few meals from lack of funding -- or had missed a few meals because he’d been too sunk in a creative fugue to notice he was hungry. “Nose art again? You know what you want?”

“Do you remember what you painted for the Carolyn Jane?”

Cianán grinned. “Oh yeah. How could I forget that face -- or that figure?”

Sully laughed. “Great! Then I want the same sort of thing. But here’s the complication -- the ship’s name is the Jin Dui. Can you work some sesame balls in there somehow as well?”

Cianán blinked, considering the challenge. “Let me think on it. I’m sure I can. But my real problem is gonna be that I’ll have to beg or borrow a spray brush.” He grimaced and shrugged. “You know how it is. I got jumped and they got stolen.”

Sully nodded. He toyed with chopsticks for a moment, weighing his next question carefully. “How are you doing, anyway?” he asked, looking the youth straight in the eye.

Cianán didn’t flinch away from the eye contact. “Good,” he said. “Better than I was. I had a place for a while there, was even doing tattoos at this joint down at the dockside. But Buddha’s dream stick knocked me down and batted me around a bit. I came to my senses when I realized how the pin yen was hurting my art, and I’ve weaned myself from the habit. I’m still paying off my debts, but I’ve been clean for a three full months and counting now.”

"That's good. Good." Sully had suspected the drug use, when last they'd met. He hoped what Cianán said was true. He truly liked the kid. He had first met Cianán several years ago, when the youth was truly a boy. The kid had run away from a difficult home situation -- Sully didn't know the details -- and had lived on the streets since. Cianán had an extraordinary natural talent as an artist, and it was a skill he had used to save himself from working the streets in other ways. That he was devoted to the pursuit of his art was clear -- whatever money Cianán earned went toward supplies before food or shelter. Sully wondered what the Seven Cranes had paid for their murals in. The triad was powerful on Beylix and had been the primary suppliers of opium for the past three generations, so Sully would be willing to wager payments had not been in credits.

"If you want the job," Sully said, "then let's talk price. I'm willing to pay 5 creds an hour -- and I'll buy you the tools and paint, as well. But you've got to be willing to fly out with me today, in about an hour or so. We're parked at a scrapyard out near Mt. Wutai, and I'm only in town for a short time. But I'll fly you back when we're done. If the job takes longer than the afternoon, then we'll feed you and provide you a clean bunk for the night."

"You had me at the 5 creds an hour," Cianán laughed. He grinned and spit in his palm, then held it out to shake.

Sully spat in his own palm, and they shook to seal the deal.

Carver saw furtive movement from the corner of his eye; he pivoted with the wrench in hand, and the dog which had been sniffing hopefully around the cargo bay ramp bolted. He had a glimpse of gaunt ribs and hipbones, a red merle hide -- and distended nipples. A nursing female -- although from the wretched look of her, she wasn't producing much milk.

Carver went back to work replacing the cracked porthole in the inner lock door. He was tightening the last bolts when a larger form ghosted up the gangway, intent on the sounds and smells of the goat pod. This time, the invader was a big, rangy black creature, which bared its fangs at Carver and snarled a warning when he turned to face it.

"Get!" he told it firmly, shifting his weight to the balls of his feet and facing it full-on, projecting challenge in every line of of his body. The big brute stopped indecisively, ears flat and nose twitching. It sensed an easy kill near at hand, and it was hungry -- but Carver was an obstacle. It growled in threat, locking eyes with the man, then began another wary advance.

Carver took a fresh grip on the heavy wrench, preparing for combat. He could pull his gun and shoot the creature, but the sound of gunfire would alarm the rest of the crew--

A four-wheeler ATV came roaring up from the direction of the scrapyard's main compound. Finding itself with an unknown hostile approaching from the rear, the dog wisely decided to make a tactical retreat. Carver watched it go, thinking to himself that he should have taken a clean shot anyway. That one would be back, and it was dangerous.

The ATV braked at the bottom of the Jin Dui's ramp, and Uncle Slim himself dismounted. "G'day!" the short, wide man called cheerfully as he waddled up the gangway. "It's Carver, isn't it? Just the man I was hoping to see -- and I see you've gotten an eyeful of my problem as well!" The scrapyard owner chuckled to himself as he paused for a response, and not receiving one, launched merrily on his way. "We've had some trouble with wild dogs. There was someone who was driving out from the city and dumping them, and for a while, some of my staff took to feeding poor things. But then the puppies started coming, and now there's dogs everywhere. Some of them were probably pets and were nice enough, once. But some of them are pretty gorram fierce, and it's getting so I'm scared to step out of my own front door at night. Sonny Beck and Arikesari are my night watchmen, and they're fine fellows. But Sonny can't shoot for shit, and Ari is a Jainist, so I can't ask him to do this. And I'm too much of a softie myself. My nephew Sully says you're a hard man. Bully, says I -- because I need a hard man for a hard job. Can I hire you to make this problem -- or rather, these problems -- just go away, nice and neat and no fuss?"

Carver thought about it. He did not like the prospect of shooting a pack of wild dogs. But some of the pack were clearly dangerous. The more aggressive ferals would kill the ship's livestock if they could get at the goats or chickens, and certainly there was risk to other members of the crew. Uncle Slim was clearly asking for a favor, and Captain Cooper was depending on the man to fence hot items gathered from the Lucky Day, so Carver was loath to say no. "I will speak with the captain," he finally replied, as it was clear the stout scrapyard owner was waiting for an answer.

"Bully!" Uncle Slim exclaimed, clearing taking a delaying tactic for a yes. "I will tell my staff. They'll know to expect to hear gunfire on the lot, then, and I'll have them communicate their patrol schedule with you, so that you all can coordinate the necessary details." Beaming with relief, Uncle Slim and returned to his ATV, and puttered on back toward his compound. Carver watched him go, then returned his attention to finishing the job at hand.

---to be continued

Chapter Text

The rented scaffolding was already hanging off of the side of the ship -- Sully explained it as something to do with new sensors being installed. Cianán got one good look at the Firefly as they maneuvered in to land the shuttle. He was surprised how big the ship appeared -- it was really, really big, much bigger than Fireflies looked at dock at the Newhouse spaceport, where they were surrounded by other, larger ships. Cianán immediately reconsidered the scope of the job, and how much time it might take him. He was fast, but it was looking more and more like dinner and a bunk for the night, indeed.

Abby (who proved as nice as she was pretty) had offered him the co-pilot's seat beside Sully for the flight out to the scrapyard, but Cianán had declined. He had felt safer strapped in to the rumbleseat in the back of the cargo shuttle, snatching occasional glances forward at the landscape they sailed past. Now, with the shuttle settling into its docking cradle alongside the Firefly, Cianán felt brave enough to unbuckle his safety belt, and began to worry a little bit more about this job than he did about dying in a shuttle craft.

The new weight of the messenger bag he wore made for a wonderful burden as Cianán stood. Sully had kitted him out proper with a new sketchbook and a box of new pencils, along with the new airbrush and a full set of paints. He felt invincible, like St. George, armored up and with a brand new sword in hand, ready to go dragon hunting. It felt wonderful.

The chance encounter with Sully and this job were lifesavers, no doubt about it. So what if I'm just a few hours late? he told himself. Chen Li will be paid off in full with the credits from this job, and with the new supplies, I'll be able to sell some caricatures, maybe finish that concert poster for the Crazy Eights...

"Here we go," Abby said briskly, stepping past him to open up the shuttle's hatch. A short corridor into the ship was visible beyond. "Welcome aboard, let's hope the captain approves," her tone suggesting she considered that possibility doubtful.

"What?" Cianán said, startled.

"Pffft," Sully countered, following along behind Abby and gesturing confidently for Cianán to follow him. "Captain will approve. She'll be thrilled, in fact. Just wait and see."

"Your captain doesn't know about this?" Cianán said, his own happy soap-bubble threatened by that disclosure.

Sully waved the concern away. "C'mon," he said, flashing that charming smile he had. "Trust me. I got this. Captain will be thrilled." He caught Cianán's arm and pulled him through the hatchway. "C'mon, just follow me."

Abby was already disappearing around the metal corridor. Sully followed after her, and Cianán took a firm grip on his shoulder bag and trailed after them. He had been about Sully's Gnat, the Carolyn Jane, a few times, and she had felt her tiny, nimble size. The Jin Dui felt larger, roomier -- especially when Cianán came around the corner and saw the catwalk stretch out before him, alongside a wide cargo bay. The cargo bay itself was full of barrels and crates and boxes and three shipping containers of varying sizes. The industrial clutter combined with all of the railings and catwalks and even the chains suspended from the ceiling overhead immediately seized his fancy and made his past-life-monkey-heart itch to start climbing. “This place looks like it could be fun--” he began to say, hoping he might get permission to--

Feet clattered on the metal decking ahead of them interrupted his thoughts, and a slender girl in overalls and with her yellow hair in a crown of braids came racing to meet them. "Abby! What'd you get? Can you show me? Is it gonna be a lot more fun than--" the stream of chatter froze as the girl spotted Cianán, and she skidded to an abrupt stop, with a worried look on her face as though not certain whether or not to yell out warning that her crewmates had a stranger at their backs.

"Tilly, meet my friend," Sully said into the girl’s momentary silence. "He's come to do a job for me."

The girl's expression eased instantly into friendly curiosity. "Oh! I didn't know you were bringing home friends from the city," she said, her stream of chatter resuming as she trotted the rest of the distance between them. "If I'da known, I'd’ve asked Doc if we could make a pie or cookies or maybe a cake. Actually, not pie; I don’t like pie, it’s too slimy. Besides, Hoss makes the prettiest frosting flowers you've ever seen and he likes chocolate most, but I like white cake. What's your favorite?"

"Um--" Cianán hesitated, not sure which question she was expecting an answer for.

"Tilly, let's go down to quarters and you can take a look at some of the new education modules I have purchased," Abby said, deftly collecting the girl by an elbow and heading sideways, toward a set of stairs down despite the child’s dramatic groan. Sully rolled an amused look back over a shoulder to Cianán.

"The whirlwind is our ward," he said in a tone that did not suggest further explanation, while he gestured for Cianán to continue following him. "We're back in time for lunch, so you might as well tank up before we get you started with the painting."

Sully led him on up a flight of catwalk stairs and around a tight corner onto an upper deck corridor. The corridor led back one way to what looked like an engine room, and forward the other way into a crew commons. Sully led him through an open hatchway into the crew commons. There was a long dining table in the center of the chamber, and to one side was a compact kitchen. Sunlight streamed in through a row of forward observation windows above them, supplementing the room’s lighting. Two people stood in the galley area talking, and a small black-and-white dog bolted up out of a couch in an side-nook space, and flung herself merrily at Sully in greeting.

“--trust your good sense,” one of the two people was saying; she was slender and dark-haired and leaned on a cane where she stood, while he was tall and muscular and had some truly dreadful scars on his face. “Do as you see fit,” she finished, before turning toward Sully and Cianán.

Sully had his arms full of wriggling, flat-faced dog. “Cianán,” he said, trying to avoid the lick-attack his armful had launched at his face. “This is Bǎo Yù, our ship’s morale officer and contraband detector. Over in the kitchen is Carver, he’s ship security, and here’s our fine captain. Captain Cooper, this is a good friend of mine, Cianán Mac Dara.”

“Just call me Keen,” Cianán replied, with a nervous little wave.

“Charmed,” the captain replied. She gave him one cool once-over, then fixed her stare on Sully, while Carver continued to gaze at Cianán with an expressionless look, as if Cianán might be a little bitty bug in need of squashing. Bǎo Yù was by far the most welcoming -- the moment Sully set the dog back on the ground, she sat on Cianán’s feet and wagged her whole body, peering up at him in wordless invitation. Cianán couldn’t resist, and knelt at once to pet her. The dog all but grinned in approval.

“Cianán was the artist who did my nose-art for the Carolyn Jane, and I’d like to hire him to grace the Jin Dui equally,” Sully explained.

“Uh huh.” The captain seemed non-plussed. She was a pretty woman, but her dark eyes were hard, and her mouth was given to frowns. “Nose art. Really?”

“Hey, Keen here only does classy work. Trust me on this, cap’n. A little art will show our pride in our lady-love-ship here, plus I’ll pay for it out of my bonus.”

The captain didn’t look much impressed, but clearly Sully’s financing mollified her some. “I get to see the design first, before you paint anything on my ship,” she countered.

“No worries,” Sully said. “I figured I’d sit Cianán down for lunch and have him put together some thumbnails, and then let you take your pick.”

Sully waved Cianán toward the table, and he went and sat down in the nearest chair, pulling his new sketchbook out of his messenger bag and selecting a pencil. He opened it to the first, blank page, and began to sketch as quickly as he could. The first thumbnail was done by the time Sully had joined him at the table, setting down a plate of garlic naan and a bowl of steaming mulligatawny soup for Cianán near his elbow. The security guy had left, and Cooper limped over look on over Cianán’s shoulder as he sketched.

“Sully wanted something similar to what I painted for him on the Carolyn Jane,” Cianán said, putting the last stroke on the curve of a bamboo steamer tray. “This is a similar pose -- and the dress is based on a stewardess uniform I saw once, one of those passenger liners from the Core. For colors, if I go the same, think fiery red hair, a purple dress, and green eyes.”

“And green pumps to match,” Sully grinned.

“Why is she wearing dim sum on her head?” Captain Cooper asked, sounding baffled.

“It’s a hat. Like a stewardess cap, but much more special.” It was the only combination Cianán could think of on the spot -- except for the obvious, and Cianán did not think Captain Cooper the type who’d approve of a dim-sum styled brassiere painted larger-than-life on the neck of her ship.

“I think it’s brilliant!” Sully said, clapping Cianán on the shoulder before returning to the galley for another bowl of the spicy-smelling lentil soup. “Keen, you are a genius. As always.”

Cianán chanced a glance at Captain Cooper, trying to read her frowning expression. The woman was staring at his sketch, her black eyes narrow with thought. Then finally she shrugged and gave Cianán a nod.

“Looks good to me,” she said. “If it keeps Sully happy, I’ve no objections.”

“It makes me a happy, happy man,” Sully replied cheerfully, coming back to the table with a bowl of his own.

“Do it, then,” Cooper replied. “We’ve got the scaffold on loan through the next couple of days, and you’re welcome to meals and a bunk in the passenger dorm until you’re done.” With that, she returned to the kitchen, where it looked like she was packing a variety of chopped vegetables into what looked like a big, ceramic kim chee jar.

“See?” Sully said, reaching after a piece of garlic naan. “Just like I promised you. Captain’s thrilled. Eat up, and when you’re done, let’s climb out onto the hold and get you started.”

Dusk was falling outside by the time Sully had finished, and a line of storm clouds were brewing against the distant reach of Mt. Wutai. He had expected it to take only an hour or two to complete the installation of the backup grav boot -- after all, Hoss and Carver had already gotten it properly mounted behind an access panel high in the aft wall of the cargo bay during the ship's transit from Greenleaf, and all that needed doin' was connecting it to the system's nerve network while the ship's primary power coupling was offline, then run a quick suite of diagnostics. But of course, nothing you ever expected to go smooth ever did. First Sully had had to replace some bad wiring, which had been a bitch to trace back to its source in the number-five portside mid-level junction box. Then the diagnostics had proven a whole tetchy mess, bad enough that he had been forced to find Chang and get his help in sussing out the system bugs. Still, it was a profound relief to have the back-up grav boot operational. No one wanted to be ketchup against the aft wall should the primary go down unexpectedly during a maneuver.

Sully hiked up to the galley and saw that Tilly was busy setting the dining table, while Cooper was taking a big tray of what smelled like lasagna from the galley oven. Bǎo Yù, loyal to her belly, was perched at the very edge of the galley, too worshipful of the pan of pasta to notice anything else. Chang, Fatima and Halo were inbound from the bridge, where they had spent their day installing the high-grade sensor integration system that Chang had salvaged from the Lucky Day.

“Replacement grav boot is now operational,” Sully said, looking around for one missing face in particular. “Where’s Cianán?”

“Haven’t seen him,” said Hoss at his back, as he arrived from engineering.

“The boy snoozes, he loses,” Cooper said, passing the heavy pan over to Halo to be placed on the galley table. “I’ll put aside a hot plate for the kid if he shows too late for dinner -- Carver is off on business for your uncle, so I’ll be setting aside one for him as well.”

“I’ll go and fetch Keen, he must just be finishing up,” Sully said, passing through the crew lounge. There was a ladder just starboard of the bridge, which led to the emergency stores, lifesupport, and the dorsal escape pod just above the bridge. The escape pod itself had been sold off by the previous crew, but the airlock there allowed access to the topside of the hull, just behind the bridge. Sully made the climb out onto the hull, fully expecting to find Cianán right where he had been left, putting the final touches on his painting from the scaffolding along the ship’s starboard neck, or else having started on the port side twin.

The nose art on the right side had been completed -- damn, but the boy was not only good but fast as well! -- and the scaffolding had been moved to the left side of the ship’s neck. Then ship’s name and calligraphy was finished, and just forward of those, Sully could see the outlines of a kneeling figure had been drawn in chalk onto the Jin Dui’s bare hull plating... but the artist himself was nowhere to be seen.

Sully shrugged. The sun had set enough that the youth must have called off work for the night. Part monkey as he was, Cianán must have climbed down the scaffolding and headed on into the ship around through the cargo bay doors. Sully had probably only just missed him, he thought as he turned to ducked back inside.

Something else caught his eye. There was a bundle laid out neatly on the scaffolding, and beside it, a spray brush.

Sully froze and squinted down, getting a second look. Sure enough. Cianán’s tools where still there. Sully immediately scanned the ground below, looking for a body. The teen would never, ever leave his precious art tools just lying there, exposed to wind, weather, or theft. Had the youth fallen? Was he lying there down below? Sully didn’t see a body anywhere.

“Cianán!” he yelled, knowing gut-deep that something was dreadfully amiss. “Cianán?”

The only answer to Sully’s call was the wind, and a distant rumble of thunder from the storm moving in over Mt. Wutai.

---to be continued---

Chapter Text

Night had fallen, and stormclouds were drawing close and low in the sky, bringing with them the taste of rain and electricity. The scrapyard around Carver was occasionally lit up by distant flashes of lightning, and the sound of thunder echoed strangely in this boneyard of grounded hulks. He was making for home now, hoping to reach the Jin Dui before the leading edge of the rain curtain he knew was fast approaching.

Carver had been scouting the scrapyard, assessing the scope of Uncle Slim’s favor. There were signs of feral dogs everywhere, and he had already tracked two famished-looking bitches back to the makeshift dens they had whelped in. Most of the animals he had seen had slunk away from him fearfully -- only a handful had seemed truly feral. The shaggy black beast which had tried to board the ship was one of them. Accompanied by two short-coated companions, it had threatened Carver a second time, when he found them tearing apart a long-legged pup behind the bulk of a half-junked Mǎ-Chē mid-bulk transport. Without hesitation, he had shot the three cannibals dead. Maybe two of the beasts weren’t as bad as their pack leader, but Carver wasn’t going to take any chances. Carver had field-dressed the carcasses and left them near the central paved path through the scrapyard lot, in case Uncle Slim wanted proof of action taken. Certainly it wouldn’t be polite, as Uncle Slim’s guest on the premise, to leave the bodies just lying there to rot.

Including the three Carver had already shot, he figured the population of the scrap yard somewhere around 20. He could hunt them down tomorrow, a day’s work. It would prove easy to pull the trigger on a creature that was an active threat to his ship and fellow crew… but he was finding the thought of killing the rest didn’t quite sit right.

Maybe it had been the scrawny black & white bitch, nursing her pups in the shelter she’d dug beneath a solitary engine pod. She had watched him warily -- fearfully, truth be told -- but hadn’t tried to flee. Likely she would have fought him if he’d been fool enough to reach into the den and touch her pups, but there had been nothing aggressive in her manner. Instead, he thought she had looked more hopeful, as though remembering better days, when the approach of a human meant a meal and affection, not the threat of further abuse.

Uncle Slim had only asked to have his dog-problem be “made go away”. He had not specified how, exactly. Carver thought on that some, as he made the long hike in from the backside of the scrap yard lot. A plan was beginning to come together for him, but it would all hinge on Captain Cooper’s permission, and her willingness to let him--

Something big and blacker than the night materialized ahead of him on the path, stepping out from behind the cover of a battered shipping container. The Grizzly AR slid up in Carver’s hands; he automatically targeted, thinking for a heartbeat that it was the black feral again. But the creature that stood facing him was a different animal. It was bigger, for one thing, with a shorter coat and a more heavily-muscled, almost square frame, with patches of rust color on its muzzle, throat, breastone, and paws, as well as in spots above each eye. Grey grizzled the stout muzzle, and the creature’s left eye was grossly bloodshot and bulging from its socket. The creature’s right foreleg was twisted and withered from an old injury, and dragged as the creature took another step forward. The single good eye stared back at Carver without fear. It studied him for a moment, turned and took several steps away, then half-turned back as though it was waiting to see what he would do.

The assault rifle in Carver’s hands lowered. He watched the old dog watch him, and saw the creature’s stub of a tail wag slowly.

Recognizing an invitation when he saw it, Carver followed after the old dog.

The hesitation disappeared from the crippled dog’s stride. The creature broke into a ground-eating trot, dragging its crippled leg. It glanced back to confirm Carver was still following before disappearing around a row of rusty shipping containers, stacked two-high.

Carver jogged after the animal, stopping as he reached the corner of the towering container-wall. In the distant, some ways beyond the container, he heard the guttural laughter, and the unmistakable sound of fists against flesh.

Carver’s eyes were already fully climitized to the night. He chanced a quick glance around the corner. The crippled old dog had vanished like a ghost. Four men were clustered around a fifth: two held their victim upright, while a third delivered another blow to the slight figure’s midsection. The fourth stood to one side, overseeing the punishment. In the momentary flicker of lightning, Carver could see the line of calligraphy that stretched down the man’s cheek. A triad soldier tattoo’s marked Laughing Man as rank-and-file soldier, a lowly 49’er. His underlings would be blue lanterns, then -- simple initiates, too low within the triad to even have earned a number.

And in that momentary strobe of lighting, Carver had seen the flash of color that was the victim’s dyed hair -- half cornflower blue, half pastel pink.

Carver ducked back to consider the situation, as overhead, the leading edge of the storm arrived. Big, cold drops of rain began to fall. After the first hesitant spatters, the wind swept in, bringing the rainfall in a steady curtain that drummed against the metal of the containers, drowning out any other noise. Carver could no longer hear the sound of the beating that was being administered to Sully’s young friend, but whatever the gangsters were looking to accomplish, they’d put a hurry on it now.

Carver knew the leading triads on Beylix were the 14K Ngai, the Seven Cranes, and the Hai San. He did not know which of those gangs this soldier and his men belonged too. If he was going to intervene in the beating, he needed to do so immediately. But what would the repercussions be to Uncle Slim if a gangster were killed on Uncle Slim’s lot? Carver did not know what organizations -- if any -- Uncle Slim was partnered with; likewise, he didn’t know whether the men themselves were working the boy over on Uncle Slim’s orders.

Carver risked a second glance, and satisfied none of the gangsters were openly carrying, he slung his assault rifle over his shoulder and secured the strap tight. Then he stepped around the corner and advanced purposefully on the gangsters and their victim.

The soldier was too inexperienced to have posted one of his men on watch. None of them noticed Carver’s deliberate approach. A rabbit punch to the base of the skull took Laughing Man down; the nearest blue lantern turned in shock, right into a temple blow that sent him crashing to the dirt. The remaining two lanterns dropped their victim in alarm and scrambled to pull weapons from their belts. Carver dropped one with a controlled round-house kick, but the other stepped back far enough to deploy a chain. That could be a real threat -- Carver backed off two steps of his own, putting himself just outside of the reach of the short chain. He gave his opponent a moment of opportunity, just to see what the man would do with it. The lantern was painfully inexperienced, and simply rushed to the attack, his chain swinging. Carver pivoted to avoid the blow, then surged forward, moving inside of the man’s reach. An uppercut delivered straight from the hip snapped the lantern’s head back, and the fourth gangster toppled like a tree.

Carver swept his opponents with a glance. All four were motionless in the pelting rain. Only Sully’s young friend was moving. The kid was doubled over and moaning, conscious but only barely so. Carver moved quickly to scoop the boy up. The teen was a featherweight, and his breath sounds were bubbly. The kid coughed blood, and murmured some sort of apology for it.

Réngrán,” Carver hushed the boy. He adjusted the boy’s limp weight in his arms, and turned back for the main path, leaving the four unconscious triad members behind them on the rain-soaked ground.

Sully had been at his uncle’s main office, checking with the scrapyard staff to see if anyone had seen Cianán, when the call from the ship reached him. He ran all the way back, recklessly so, seeing how the rainfall had turned the dusty ground all slick and slippery. Sully dashed up the cargo bay ramp, aware of Chang lurking at the control panel. The doors began to rumble closed behind him as he ran through the crowded cargo bay. He ducked through the hatchway at the back of the bay and skidded to a stop outside of the Infirmary. Captain Cooper stood there with Carver, who was stoically dripping on the deck as he finished delivering his own report. Inside the infirmary bay, Abby was attending to her patient while Hoss provided assistance.

“You want to explain to me why someone was beating the crap out of your little friend there?” Cooper demanded, while Sully sought to catch his breath.

“Not a clue,” Sully panted. “What the hell was going on?”

Cooper glanced at Carver; the man caught her look and began his report in his usual flat, unaffected voice, for all the world as though he were entirely uninvolved with it all “Four low-level triad members had him out in the back forty, beating hell out of the boy. I don’t know which gang they were with, but one was a soldier, three were initiates. I knocked them all out, picked the boy up, and rushed him back here.”

“Your uncle have any business affiliates we need to know about?” Cooper asked.

Sully raked a hand through his hair, scattering drops of rainwater. “My uncle isn’t partners with any one of the local gangs, if that’s what you’re asking,” he answered, trying to pull together his scattershot wits. “How do you know they were gang members?”

Carver shrugged, his expression still devoid of emotion. “Tattoo,” he said, and drew a finger down the side of his unburned cheek. “Fancy script, loyalty and fealty something -- I didn’t stop to read it up close.”

Sully faced the infirmary window, watching Abby and Hoss at work. They were stripping off the boy’s wet shirt, his coat already a sodden puddle on the deck. Cianán was completely limp, and smears of blood stained his white face.

“I’ll bet it was the Seven Cranes,” Sully said. “Just a guess, mind you, but Cianán lives in their playground and has done some work for their local deputies.” He hesitated for a moment, and then added “The Cranes had him hooked on opium for a while, but he says he’s stopped doing the stuff.”

Cooper snorted at that. “Yeah. Sure. Don’t they always say they just quit?” She scowled thoughtfully through the Infirmary door. Abby and Hoss had gotten the two layers of shirt off the boy, and something Abby saw made her gesture for the captain to join her in the sickbay. “Let your uncle know about this,” Cooper told Sully, then delayed another moment to glance at Carver. The big former soldier nodded as if responding to a spoken order, and turned to head out into the cargo bay, while Cooper limped into the infirmary to assist with their patient. Sully shot another anguished look at Cianán’s unconscious form, then hurried after Carver into the cargo bay.

Carver’s long stride carried him across the cargo bay before Sully could catch up. “You talk to them at all?” Sully asked, while Carver tapped a security override into the doors control panel.

“No,” the scarred man answered flatly. Sully waited for more, but the stoic former soldier was not forthcoming.

“So what -- you just put the beat-down on four triad members?” Sully demanded.

“Yes,” Carver answered.

“Did you kill them?”


“Why not?”

“Didn’t know if they were your uncle’s men or not. Figured killing them might cause more trouble than it was worth.”

Sully had to admit that that line of reasoning made sound sense. He would have pressed for more, but he heard the captain’s voice yelling for his attention. Sully spun around and jogged back to sickbay.

“You got an answer for this?” Cooper asked, gesturing for Sully to come into the infirmary and take a look at Cianán’s back, as Hoss held the unconscious teen upright so that Abby could wrap the boy’s ribs in tight bandages.

Sully moved closed, and then hissed in dismay. Cianán’s back was striped with ugly red lash scars. “The boy’s been flogged -- those scars are a year old, maybe,” Cooper said, watching Sully’s reaction to the sight.

“Seven Cranes, for certain,” Sully said, feeling sick in the gut. “That’s their favorite punishment for anyone who’s displeased the local deputy in a minor infraction, or defaulted on a debt.” He raked a hand through his hair in exasperation. “I don’t know what trouble Cianán is in, but I can make an educated guess. If he owed the Seven Cranes money, and someone spotted him getting in our shuttle, then they might have misunderstood the situation. They might have thought he was trying to skip out on them. They could have tracked our shuttle here, easy, if they’ve got contacts in the Newhouse port authority office. So maybe the Seven Cranes sent out a few boys of their own to collect. They know Cianán is harmless, so it’s a low-level job.” Captain Cooper was listening to him intently, so Sully continued. Captain, we’ve got to do something.”

“Like what?” Cooper replied with exasperation. “So the kid has unpaid drug bills. That’s not our problem.”

“It is, since Carver likely just made this kid’s life here a living hell! Cianán could have paid them off with the money from this job, but now there’s Triad soldiers who’ve lost face over this. They’re going to want their pound of flesh, damn straight they will! As soon as he goes back to the capital, they’re going to get revenge. It’s the only way they can save face with the rest of the triad.”

Cooper had turned her scowl back onto the limp figure on the infirmary table. “You think we should take him on? A street kid with a drug problem?”

“We can take him with us when we leave Beylix,” Sully said. “We can take him to Persephone. Give him six months away from temptation, so that when he gets to the Eavesdown Docks he can start over, clean and sober. We can do that much.”

“This is a working cargo ship, not a charity ward!” Cooper retorted.

“Then we make him pay his passage!” Sully countered. “He can work scut jobs. I can get him more art supplies, and he can spend the transits doing paintings that we can sell. Maybe he can do portraits of people’s kids or their best stud horses or something while we’re downworld, I don’t know, but the kid does have a marketable skill. He’s got talent, Cooper. Real talent. The kind of God-given talent that could take him places in the ‘Verse, if he’d just find a way to turn it to his advantage. We could do that much, Captain. Give him a bunk and a safe place for a little while. At least off this world, to somewhere the Seven Cranes don’t have a toehold. I think we owe him that, seeing how Carver messed things up for him.”

“Carver might have just saved the brat’s life!” Cooper flared back irritably. But Sully could see the gears moving in her fierce, dark eyes -- the captain was weighing over Sully’s argument, and not dismissing it outright. Finally she nodded, once and forcibly. “The kid is your problem,” she told Sully sharply. “You brought him on my deck, you make sure this works out. Dŏng ma?

Shì,,” Sully answered in a gust of relief. “I’ve got to go and call my uncle,” he said, backing out of the sickbay.

“Report back to me what he says,” Cooper said, waving him off in dismissal.

Sully took his victory and ran for the bridge.

---to be continued---

Chapter Text

Cooper ran the blood test a second time, distrusting the negative. But it came up again with the same results -- positive for the drugs they’d just pumped into the boy’s system, and negative for any traces of recent opiates. So much for doubting the kid’s clean-and-sober story.

Hoss had already relocated their patient into a passenger cabin, while Abby had collected the wet and filthy clothing strew on the sickbay floor and hauled it off for the laundry. “I got the rest of this,” Cooper told her medic, meaning the rest of the infirmary clean-up. Abby had nodded and left Cooper to the chore.

“Not a gāisǐ charity,” Cooper muttered under her breath.

There was a whisper of sound behind her. Cooper glanced over her shoulder to see Carver in the infirmary doorway. “So?” she asked, spinning around on her stool to face him.

“Ship’s locked up tight, all of the new cameras are live and transmitting,” he reported. “Chang’s got first watch. I’ll relieve him in a bit. Sully spoke with Uncle Slim. The triad isn’t partnered with Uncle Slim’s operation, and that the Cranes were trespassing. Uncle Slim sent his night watchmen out to collect the triad members, but they’d already picked themselves up and skipped.”

Cooper nodded, not surprised by any of it. “Sully wants us to keep the kid on. Just what we need. Another pet.” Cooper instantly regretted the snark, knowing how some of the crew felt about Carver’s addition to the Jin Dui. She winced in apology, but Carver seemed unphased by the comment. “The boy’s blood-work comes out negative for opium,” she continued. “The kid hasn’t done drugs in any measurable way for the last month or so, so at least that part of his story is true. Sully thinks the triad will pick up where you interrupted, if we leave the kid here. He wants to pay off the boy’s debt, and take him with us, at least as far as Persephone.”

“What do you think?” Carver asked.

Cooper shrugged. “Sully hopes maybe the kid can pay his own way, painting portraits or the like. I don’t know. I think it’ll make Sully happy. And that’s valuable enough right now, I’d say.” She sighed, and studied Carver’s scarred face for any hint of what the former soldier might be thinking. She was very aware that he was lingering to chat -- and that wasn’t like the stoic man at all. “I don’t think the kid’s much of a risk, except for his being a teenager. Taking a teenage boy out for a tour of the Rim, he might eat us out of house and home.”

That earned a momentary ghost of a smile from Carver. Cooper beamed to see it, proud of her accomplishment. “Is there something else?” she asked, as Carver continued to linger longer than the business at hand made absolutely necessary.

Another uncharacteristic hesitation. “I’ve been taking care of that dog problem for Uncle Slim. It’s just…”

When Carver hesitated, clearly cautious about picking his words. “Junkyard dogs?” Cooper asked. “They tame?”

“Some of them,” Carver replied. “Think we could catch some. Train ‘em, maybe sell ‘em for extra credit. I’ll pay for the supplies.”

“Today seems the day for charity, doesn’t it?” Cooper muttered. “How many stray dogs are we talking here?”

“Maybe a dozen? Several adults, and at least two litters of pups.”

“Where would we keep them all? We’re already stuffing the cargo bay to the gills full of trade goods.”

“Starboard shuttle is dead space right now. It doesn’t fly, but it is soundproof and the airlock hatch makes it secure.”

Cooper tried to hide her smile. “You’ve already thought this all through, haven’t you?”

Carver nodded, once and gravely.

She shrugged. “Might as well, then,” Cooper said. “Do whatever it is you need to do, I’ll trust your good sense on this. Just let me chat with Uncle Slim in the morning. I’ll make sure no toes are stepped on.”

Carver nodded again, in thanks this time, and then he turned and went about whatever the former soldier thought needed doing next. Carver watched him go, still smiling slightly.

Gāisǐ charity,” she muttered to herself, not entirely displeased, as she returned to her own chores.

Cianán woke slowly. He was lying in an unfamiliar bed, with a faded red quilt pulled over him. The walls were an appallingly boring shade of beige, and each breath he drew in felt like hellfire and brimstone. He groaned, and immediately heard a chuckle beside him. Cianán turned his head and found Sully sitting at his bedside.

“Oww,” Cianán moaned.

“I’d say,” Sully chuckled again. “Looks like a couple of the Seven Cranes used you for a punching bag. You want to tell me what happened?”

Cianán’s memories were foggy, but he tried to remember the details. “It was Yi Chow and some of his new chaps,” he said. “It’s a long story, but I owe them for product that was stolen from me when I got jumped. I thought I could finish this job and get back in time to pay them before anyone had noticed I was gone, but...” Cianán would have shrugged, but the attempt left him gasping in pain. “Owwww…”

“Your ribs aren’t broke, according to both of our doctors,” Sully said, sounding sympathetic. “But you’ve got two that are cracked and a lot of soft tissue trauma. The captain says just wait, it’ll feel even worse on the third day.”

Cianán groaned in dismay, squeezing his eyes shut against the pain. It was an agony already -- he couldn’t imagine it getting any worse without it killing him. Then he remembered the rest of the day’s repercussions, and groaned again, certain that he was just a member of the walking dead.

“The Cranes,” he moaned. “They’re going to kill me.”

“Only if you stay here on Beylix.” There was a confident smugness in Sully’s tone that made Cianán open his eyes again. Sully smiled down at him. “Look, I’ve worked this deal with the captain. We’re leaving Beylix at the end of the week, and doing a run of the Rim. At the far side of the trip is Persephone. If you sign on for a berth, and work your passage, we’ll get you to Persephone.”

Cianán stared at his friend, uncomprehending. “But what good am I on a spaceship?”

Sully shrugged. “You can work scut chores, for starters. And I can go to town, pay your tab with the Seven Cranes, and pick up more art supplies for you. We’ll have some long transits this trip. You can spend that time creating your art. If we can sell it for a profit, we will, and put those creds toward the ship’s overhead. And in the meanwhile, you get room, board, and even a share of the quarterly profit, same as the rest of the crew -- provided there’s any profit to be had. It’s a good deal, Keen. A damn good deal. If you don’t take it, I’ll kill you myself and spare the Seven Cranes the effort.”

Cianán just stared, too overwhelmed by the offer for words. “Why?” he finally managed to ask. “You don’t have to do this for me.”

Sully just smiled, and picked up a cloth-wrapped bundle from his lap. He laid it down again on the dresser next to the bed, where Cianán could see it without the painful necessity of turning his head too far to the side. It was his bundle of art supplies, rescued from the scaffolding where he had left it.

“No,” Sully said. “We don’t. But I hate to see talent like yours go to waste. So now you owe me, Keen. You take this offer, and you make the best of it. No more drugs -- you hear me? Nothing that’s going to mess with your art. And when you get off this ship at Persephone, you’re going to keep a roof over your head, and get your work into galleries, and all of that -- you’ve got talent enough to ride all the way to Londinium or Sihnon or Epueva. And I want to see you do that. Hear me?”

Cianán nodded mutely, still too overwhelmed for words. Sully took pity on him then, and got up to leave. “Go to sleep,” the ship’s first mate told him. “You need anything, just give a yell. Comm is open, the watch up on the bridge will notify me, and I’ll be down quick as I can.” Sully smiled at him again, reassuringly, then toggled off the cabin lights so that Cianán could rest.

And when Cianán closed his eyes again and tried to sleep, it seemed to him that maybe suddenly the ribs weren’t hurting so very much after all…

June 22, 2515; approx. 1600 hours

The captain’s prediction proved right: day three was the worst, but Cianán forced himself out of his bunk and back up onto the scaffolding, to finish the port side nose art. The ship was scheduled to leave at nightfall, the day was bright and clear again after several days of storms, and it would be Cianán’s last chance until they reached their next port to finish the job. And it would hurt his pride even worse than his ribs for Cianán to leave the job unfinished.

The chalk outline had not survived the storms, but Cianán had redone them, then set to work with the spray brush Beneath his hands, the curvy figure in a short purple dress took shape. For Sully he added sparkling emerald heels. And last but not least came the hair -- curly red masses of it, spilling down over the cheesecake’s shoulder and out across the green shield of the ship’s name plate.

The ribs were throbbing like hell by the time he was done, but Cianán sat back and eyed his efforts, and decided every stabbing ache was worth it. Satisfied, he began to put away his spray brush and supplies.

As he rose to climb back up to the airlock, Cianán saw a figure walking back up the path. It was Carver, leading a reddish dog on a leash, and carrying a big box. As Carver got closer, Cianán could see from his height and angle that the box had a blanket in it, and at least two or three squirming puppies.

Almost as if on cue, Tilly came dashing out of the cargo bay, trailed by the old dog which Cooper had operated on three days ago. The diseased eye and the crippled leg had both been removed, but the dog had rebounded quickly from those losses. The scarred old beast had been named Odin by the crew because of its missing eye, and already devoted to Carver. Cianán wondered if the rest of the crew realized they had a keeper -- charming little Bǎo Yù had competition as ship’s pet, that much was for sure.

“Did you get ‘em all?” Tilly was calling as she raced up to Carver. “All of them? You’re sure we didn’t miss any? I don’t want us to leave any behind, even though we’ve got only the one kennel left and-- were there really more puppies!? Oooooh! The’re all so cuuute! Can I carry it?!” The girl crossed the last of the distance to Carver with three giant hops, while both Odin and the mother dog looked on in bewilderment as the noisy display. Only Carver seemed unmoved. He gave Tilly her peep into the box, and then pressed on, carrying it just out of the girl’s eager reach and leading the mama-dog after him into the cargo bay.

Cianán smiled, watching the little parade travel on into the ship. It looked like the Jin Dui had, indeed, collected up all of her strays in time for departure. Himself included, Cianán thought with a little laugh.

He finished with his supplies, and got to his feet. He was done with his work, and it was time to call for Sully and the captain to come and see.

Cianán was confident of their approval.