July 5, 2514
A pony cart was waiting outside of the Portmaster’s lobby. “Pretty lady! Pretty lady!” the driver called as Cooper limped out of those industrial doors. “Need a ride? Bucephalus and me will take you anywhere you need to go!”
Cooper waved off the enterprising taxi-wallah and began limping down the boardwalk, taking the opportunity to stretch her legs. It was a warm and sunny afternoon, and after more than two weeks of transit between Beylix and the Georgia Cluster, it felt good to breath non-recycled air and feel some weather on her skin. “Captain here,” she said, pressing her earbud comm to communicate with the ship. “Sully, we’ve got Whitefall’s official welcome, signed, sealed and delivered. So give the crew their shore leave, and I’ll relieve you when I get back.”
“Aye aye, Captain!” came the prompt and pleased response. Whitefall might not be a leading tourist destination of the ‘Verse, but for a crew coming off of a long transit with a little bit of credit in their pockets, there would be entertainments to be found.
Cooper settled into a comfortable pace, the tap of her cane counterpoint to her boot heels on the wooden boardwalk. The Jin Dui's berth was maybe a mile down the way, and the stroll gave her a chance to sort through what she had gleaned from her meeting with Portmaster Mouzoune.
The Portmaster of Whitefall had been a lean, dark-skinned woman who required every visiting first-timer captain to visit her office for some personal introductions and a cup of tea, well sweetened by a little bit of graft, before the august official’s signature graced the Jin Dui’s papers. But the bribe was slimmer than Cooper had been braced for, and Portmaster Mouzoune had shared a wealth of local gossip. The Jin Dui had a short turn-around and was scheduled for departure tomorrow night for Athens at 1945 hours, but the Portmaster had given Cooper a good lead on a local farm co-op that apparently had a bumper harvest of seed stock practically spilling out of its silos. The commodity might be surplus among the moons of Athens, but among the raw-terraformed moons of the gas giant Fury, out in the Blue Cluster? Cooper hoped it might prove profitable.
There were a spare two dozen berths at the Whitefall spaceport, and each wide concrete pad was flanked by a handful of merchant stalls, revival tent storefronts, converted container saloons, or prefab structure sleepovers. Cooper eyed each business curiously as she strolled past, taking note of the shops she might want to visit for resupply, and of a noisy pachinko parlour that young Tilly might enjoy a supervised visit too. She was halfway back to the ship when she came up to an open-air stall that she took at first glance for a meager pet shop. The stall consisted of a three wooden counters with a ragged plastic tarp spread overhead as a roof, and a hibachi grill which was heating a boiling pot of water. Behind the counters, serving as the back wall was a tall chicken-wire cage with wooden shelves, which housed maybe a dozen or so cats. Cooper drifted a reflexive step closer, looking at the cats. Her mother had been a veterinarian, and after having grown up assisting her mother’s practice, Cooper had initially gone to veterinary school herself. She had been only half a year away from graduation before her conscription into the Independent Medical Services.
There were two men working the stall -- both were fair-skinned and stocky, with a father-and-son look about them. The older one, who wore leather gloves that reached up to mid-forearm, began his sales patter, while the younger of the two men, hardly more than a teen, picked up a pair of home-sharpened cleavers and whirled them with practiced skill.
“Spacer lady! Yo, pretty space lady! You tired of protein paste? Come take a look -- we give you a prime selection here, all young and tender! See my prices? We’ve got the cheapest pussy on the dockside!”
“And the freshest, too!” the younger man chimed in, with a leering grin.
Cooper stopped in her tracks, realizing this wasn’t a pet shop after all. “Not interested,” she said, turning away in distaste.
“Wait!” The middle-aged man popped open a wire door on the cage and reached in. Cats scattered, but he grabbed one by the tail and yanked it out. The cat, a thin, blue-eyed flame-point, yowled and clawed for escape, proving the value of the man’s long leather gloves. “Sweeter and more tender than veal,” the man promised. “We’ll skin it and clean it for you for free.”
“Give you two for one price,” the spotty-faced teen added in a practiced sing-song. “If your crew prissy Core-worlders, you just tell ‘em it’s bunny rabbit.”
“Not interested,” Cooper repeated. She did not consider herself the squeamish type, but she had grown up with cats as pets, not on the dinner plate. She turned away again, trying to not to see the look of terror in the struggling flame-point’s huge blue eyes.
“Cack!” the older man suddenly cried; apparently one the flame-point’s desperate claws had managed to pierce the rawhide gloves he wore. He ripped the cat off his glove with his free hand, and bashed it hard in the head with the other fist. The cat responded with a shriek that could shatter glass.
Cooper pivoted on her heel at the sound. “Oh for fuck’s sake!” she cried, as the older man with the cat slammed it down hard on a blood-stained cutting board. He was reaching for a pair of tongs; Cooper realized he intended to drop the writhing cat into the boiling pot of water, while it was still alive. “If you’re going to kill that damn thing, do it clean! Don’t torture it!”
“You want to buy?” the middle-aged man said, with a smirk that made Cooper wonder if his casual cruelty had paid off for him before. “We do it quick and clean for you. Good price!”
Cooper saw red. She tried to tamp down the anger and pulled a handful of credits from her coat pocket. “Stop abusing the poor thing and just hand it over,” she said. “Still breathing,” she added, when the middle-aged man reached after a tenderizing hammer.
“That’ll be two creds if you got the Feds; 12 Indy script if you don’t,” he replied, holding out the wild-eyed cat by the scruff.
“Nice lady likes her some pussy,” his son said with the same leering grin, as Cooper reached after the cat.
Cooper grabbed the cat with her left hand, and as she pulled it back against the front of her coat, she whipped up her cane in her right and cracked it hard upside the younger man’s head. “Cào nǐ zǔ zōng shí bā dài!” she growled at them. “If you’re going to take the boy out in public, old man, teach the whelp some manners.”
Insulted and with a long red welt forming along his jaw, the young man brandished both of his cleavers and made to jump over the front of his own market stall. One of his feet caught the edge of the counter and he went down, spectacularly so. Two of the three counters came crashing down as the teen took out a primary corner support; the boiling stock pot went toppling next, splashing the middle-aged man. He howled and staggered backwards, only to trip and fall into the chicken-wire cages full of cats. The cages toppled and came apart, freeing the imprisoned cats. Not a single dumb beast there -- an explosion of flying felines streaked away in all directions, running for all nine of their very lives and leaving the two butchers to curse bitterly in their wake.
“Niúbī!” Cooper grinned and laughed. She fished another pair of creds from her coat pocket and tossed it on the ground for them. “Thanks for the entertainment, gents,” she chuckled, while the cat she still held extended its landing gear and embedded itself on the surface of her thick officer’s coat like a limpet mine. The cat had its head buried under her collar as if maybe it couldn’t see the dangerous world around it, the dangerous world wouldn’t see it. Cooper shifted her hold on the poor creature. “Karma’s a bitch, ain’t she?” she purred at the two men.
The younger butcher surged to his feet, both cleavers still in hand. He lunged at her furiously. Cooper began to backpedal, foolishly folding a shielding arm over the cat she carried and turning her shoulder up against the attack, as if the patched old browncoat she wore could provide either of them with armor against those hand-sharpened blades--
-- and as she did that, there was the ominous click of the hammer of a revolver being cocked, almost right in her ear, followed by a deep, hostile growling.
The man with the cleavers skidded to a stop, his expression terror-stricken.
“Drop ‘m,” said a quiet, gravelly voice from just behind Cooper’s shoulder, while the beastial growling only increased in volume.
The young man complied instantly. Cooper arranged her own expression into what she thought would pass for serene Buddha-hood. She smiled thinly at both of the butchers, then turned with what she considered remarkable aplomb. As she had guessed, it was the Jin Dui's security officer, Ben Carver, with a leveled revolver just a step behind her, and his crippled, one-eyed battle-scarred dog Odin a snarling hulk at his heels. Cooper nodded calmly to the scarred former soldier as if the encounter had been pre-arranged, then renewed her leisurely stroll back toward their ship. Cooper counted her steps, and waited to hear the sound of her crewman catching up. At two dozen, she let go all pretense of cool and glanced back to check. Carver had already fallen in step behind her, moving with his usual uncanny silence. Odin was trotting faithfully at his master’s heels, a spring in his limping step that suggested the old junkyard dog had just enjoyed himself immensely. Carver’s body language, as always, was far more difficult to read.
“That was timely,” Cooper said drolly.
Carver met her eyes for maybe a microsecond before going back to his scanning their fives and twenty-fives. He nodded once in agreement.
“I can make it back to the ship without an escort,” Cooper continued. “I’ve just gotten into my quota of trouble for the day. You’ve got shore leave. Might as well enjoy yourself.”
Carver continued to follow her. He did not open an invitation for an outright dismissal by replying. Cooper had served in uniform long enough to recognize obstinate enlistee when she saw it. “Suit yourself,” she said with a shrug.
The traumatized cat that Cooper was carrying seemed to come awake at that gesture. It writhed violently against her collar and the crook of her arm, hooking itself an opening to crawl inside her officer’s browncoat. Cooper stopped in her tracks, forcing Carver to side-step to avoid collision. “Hey!” she protested, as the cat burrowed as far as it could up underneath her coat, managing to work its head deep into her left sleeve. “Hey shǎguā! Cut that out! Look, you’re free to go now -- get lost!” She tried flapping her arms to encourage the cat’s timely escape, but it squirmed deeper into her browncoat. Laughing, Cooper gave up the effort. She resumed some proper vestige of captain-like dignity (she hoped) and began to walk again. With the menagerie she already was carrying aboard her ship, what harm could one more beast be? Maybe Tilly would like the poor thing for a pet.
---to be continued---