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Lettin' The Cat Outta The Bag

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Chang and Abby sat side-by-side at the galley table, with the rest of the crew gathered in chairs around the table. Even Tilly and Cianán were there, looking worried and bewildered along with the rest.

“I guess I don’t understand -- what’s the problem?” Cianán said, tousling his freshly-recolored hair.

Sully was sitting across the table from Chang and Abbey, his dark head in his hands. He looked up, his face uncharacteristically grim. “Our systems man programmed Carver’s cabin comm unit to spy on Carver. Without asking the captain’s permission first, of course.”

“Because of course Cooper would have said ‘Hell no,’ if he had!” Hoss rumbled, his usually easy-going demeanor gone fierce with outrage.

“You can do that?” Fatima said, clearly horrified. “I mean -- the captain can order you to do that? Spy on us in our cabins?”

“It was only audio,” Chang said miserably, clearly knowing that didn't make it right.

Abby rose to their defense with more ferocity. “And I urged him to do it! If Captain Cooper wasn’t going to protect us against Carver, someone had too!”

“If the Captain had felt Carver was a danger to any of us, she’d never have allowed him aboard!” Hoss retorted.

Halo was sitting back in his chair, his arms crossed defensively over his chest. “Have you been spying on any of the rest of us as well? How can we be sure you haven’t?”

“Don’t be such a dramatist!” Abby scoffed. “You remember the day the Lucky Day ambushed us! We saw Carver murder all six of his own people before Cooper brought him aboard. Chang did what he did to protect us all!”

“I know that…Carver seems sorta scary at first,” Tilly piped up. Her voice was weak in the beginning, as if she feared the fuming adults might shout over her, but once all eyes turned to her, the girl began to speak with more confidence. “And I was a bit scared of him, too, when I first came aboard, but then I got to know him, and…well, he’s nice, really, even if he don’t talk much. Some people just aren’t talkers. And I thought everyone else’d started feelin’ all right around him, too.” She glanced at Chang questioningly. “So…how come you didn’t stop spying on him once he wasn’t really a stranger anymore?”

Chang sighed. "Because I would've had to go into his room to turn it off and I was too scared he'd catch me at it. Dumb reason, I know, but..."

There was an awkward silence after that – barring a tiny giggle that Tilly tried to muffle – until Sully sat up straight in his chair. “Yeah, well, it’s all water under the bridge now, innit?” he mused, raking back his dark hair from his face wearily. “I hope you both enjoy the rustic local cuisine, because the sure bet now is that you’re both going to be debarking at this port. The Captain’s well within her rights to kick you both offship here. Much as I hate to agree with that sentiment -- réncí dì dìyù! You’ve both earned it! You crossed a line with the captain by sneaking around her direct orders.”

“Just never mind, then, that we were trying to protect this ship and everyone aboard,” Abby muttered sourly.

“Qù nǐ mā de!” Sully growled, stabbing a finger in Chang and Abby’s direction. “You both looked me in the eye the morning after the whole cock-up with the Lucky Day and promised that if there were any problem with Carver, you would bring it to me if you didn’t feel comfortable taking it to the captain. You both lied to me, to my face, and went off and did THIS instead. By lying, sneaking and spying on one member of this crew, you’ve betrayed all of us. I’m disgusted with the both of you.“

Both Chang and Abby started to respond to that, but everyone went silent as Captain Cooper stepped through the forward galley hatch, having clearly come up from the forward cargo bay stairs. She was limping badly and leaning significantly on her cane as she walked, while Carver ghosted in silently behind her.

“Well, I guess I don’t have to call everybody in to hear this,” Captain Cooper said, eyeing the gathering around the dining table. She reached the galley counter and leaned against it as she pulled out a stool and perching on it to rest her crippled leg. “We got cargo inbound with an ETA in about 20 minutes, so let’s make this short. You all are aware of what transpired. Yeah, I’m pissed as hell about it. But Chang and Abby, Carver has argued considerably on your behalf. Maybe you pulled a shitty trick, but when push came to shove, you put your necks on the line to make it right. So you got a choice to make. You can disembark at this port to take your chances with the next ship, with the pay you’re due in your pocket and an honest reference from me. Or you can vow on whatever you consider holy never to pull shit like this again, take a fair punishment, and we all forgive and forget. Your choice. But don’t expect your punishment to be a light one.”

Chang jumped on that opportunity. “Captain, I am really sorry. I thought I was doing the right thing -- but I was wrong. And I should have deactivated the program when I realized I was wrong, but it was just easier to let it coast…” Chang made a helpless gesture. “I won’t ever do anything like that again, I promise.”

“I’m very sorry that feelings were hurt,” Abby agreed, struggling to make nice. Chang elbowed her. “It won’t happen again,” she added.

Cooper gave Carver a questioning glance. He shrugged, then nodded. “Thank you,” he he said in turn, to Chang and Abby. “You risked your necks for me when it counted.’Preciate it.”

Chang gave a sheepish smile and rubbed the back of his neck, while Abby responded with a prickly nod before turning back to the captain. “You said there’d be a punishment?”

Cooper nodded. “Yeah. Count on it. The crime you committed wasn’t against one member of this crew. It was against the trust we all gotta have in one another. So the way I see it, you have a debt to pay off to everyone.” Cooper managed a tight smile. “Sully and I are going to put our heads together, and we’re going to get creative. We’ll make a list of which chore duties each member of this crew has -- and hates the most. Then the rest of the crew’ll get a bit of a vacation, because Chang and Abby will be doin’ those for us.” Cooper glanced at her wrist-minder and scowled. “But ship’s business first. Sully, Hoss, and Carver -- we got six tons of seed in palletized burlap being delivered due. Get down below and make room for it in the aft port corner. ETA is in less than 20, so let’s hustle. The rest of you -- despite the excitement, we’re still on schedule for departure at 19-oh-45 tonight, so if you have duties, get to ‘em. If you don’t, you got about five hours to conduct any remaining sightseeing you want to do on Whitefall.”

Hoss and Carver headed out of the hatch for the cargo bay stairs, while the rest of the crew got up from their chairs and scattered in different directions. Sully delayed a moment to look at the captain. “Carver talked you out of murder, didn’t he?” the first mate asked quietly, with a ghost of a smile.

“Just about,” Cooper agreed. “I don’t know if this band-aide is going to patch the wound for long, but Carver’s truly zen over it. You and me can suss that out over a bottle of plum wine later when we work on that punishment list.” She managed a wider smile then. “To start it off, I will be glad to contribute my share of the blackwater filter chores.”

“God, that right there is cruel and inhuman,” Sully chuckled. “They’ll be sorry you didn’t murder them before we're halfway to Murphy.” Grinning, he headed for the cargo bay stairs and the incoming cargo from the co-op below.

The Jin Dui departed Whitefall on schedule at 19:45; dinner was a serve-yourself affair of steamed bao and cabbage slaw with ginger and dried apricots. Once the ship was safely out on its way and far enough down the traffic lane to avoid the worst of the insystem miner traffic, Cooper headed from the bridge back to the galley to clean up after dinner. She had one of the spinach-fish sauce buns and a cup of tea, and popped a couple of pain relievers as well. Her leg hurt after the strain of the last two days downworld, and she looked forward to falling into her rack and closing her eyes.

She crept into her cabin cautiously. Cooper had been sharing her cabin with young Tilly since they had collected the girl from Hoss’s family on Greenleaf, sparing Abby or Fatima the responsibility of overseeing the kid. Sometimes the girl would wake up and launch into her usual endless loops of questions and chatter, but tonight, Cooper could hear Tilly’s deep, even breathing and knew the kid was sound asleep. Grateful, Cooper pulled clean leggings and a t-shirt from her drawer, dropped her dirty clothes into the laundry basket, and crawled into the room’s lower bunk.

Cooper closed her eyes and stretched out on her back. She tried to will away the tension in her shoulders and spine, deliberately counting Tilly’s steady, slumbering respirations like the proverbial sheep and not letting her thoughts slide to the events back at Whitefall, Chang & Abby’s transgressions, or Carver’s unexpected eloquence on their behalf. Cooper suspected she had made an error somewhere in that mix -- likely more than one -- but if she started picking apart the decisions she'd made, then it would be a night-cycle worth of insomnia to be sure.

Some 387 Tilly-snores later, Cooper felt the sudden, slight indentation of weight depressing the foam mattress beside her hip. It was the damn cat she’d rescued from the butcher’s stall, coming out from hiding for the first time since it had come aboard. Cooper lay still and waited to see what the creature would do.

There were careful steps up her side, and then something sniffed her lips. Fish sauce, Cooper thought in amusement, refusing to move or react to that ticklish inhalation. The cat then reached out a paw and took a tentative step up onto her chest. Front paws began to work, making biscuits against her wool blanket, and then the cat settled down into bread loaf position. A couple of minutes later, the purring started, a soft, comforting sound against her chest.

Cooper smiled, grudgingly pleased that the cat had chosen her company after all. She felt the tension in her neck and shoulders begin to dissolve, and before she was quite conscious that she had begun to slip, the captain was asleep; with the cat’s purrs and Tilly’s soft snoring a lullaby to her ears.