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Lettin' The Cat Outta The Bag

Chapter Text

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 marine 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 sergeant-ttitude 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---

Chapter Text

July 6, 2514

Unfortunately, in very quick order the poor traumatized cat proved that it had no intention of being Tilly’s pet, no matter how eager and willing the Jin Dui’s ward was to befriend it.

“... and I waited and I waited all night, but she wouldn’t come out to see me, and she just hissed at me whenever I looked at her,” the girl relayed the next morning, as she was exercising dogs with Carver. With the Jin Dui parked downworld, the pair did their miles-long walk with the first set of dogs around the outside of the ship, instead of up and down the cargo bay catwalks: her with one of their trainees on a leash, him handling two others. Carver had not been around kids since he had been one himself, but Tilly had proved a welcome surprise by being a reliable apprentice trainer with some natural talent with the animals. But the former spec-ops soldier was still struggling to adapt to the girl’s rapidfire chatter. Her non-stop talking was more exhausting to endure than a day’s hard drills in full battle rattle.

“...She scratched me, too, when I tried to coax her out from under the Doc’s bunk. Doc Cooper just told me to leave Barbie alone and let her be. She says the kitty’ll come out and be friends on her own terms, but I think Barbie just doesn’t like me. Do you think it’s because she knows I nicknamed her Barbecue? It was only a joke, anyway – and cats can’t understand most words unless they’re trained, I know that – but she should still know I love her and I named her and she’s gonna be my cat, so I really really really want her to like me. I made her a bed and everything, but she just wants to hide under the Doc’s bunk. Or maybe it’s because I work with Bella and Stella and Jin and Jak, and I probably smell like a dog to her. Cats don’t like dogs, so I’d bet that’s it. Doc Cooper said just give Barbie time, but I gave her all night long and she still just hissed and tried to scratch me again this morning…”

Carver counted himself lucky in that chatter seemed almost a secondary propulsion method for Tilly. The girl did not require his full engagement, just the occasional acknowledgement of her presence. And by allowing the girl to talk out her full-conscious-streams of logic, she always came to her own solutions -- sometimes surprisingly sound ones, he thought, and sometimes several of them in rapid order. So Carver mostly just listened to the rhythm of the girl’s full-speed flow, and paid close attention only to those rare moments when she went quiet for any length of time. For her part, the child respected his silences in return, and when he did have something to say, she listened with a laser-like focus.

“... she is real good about her sandbox, which is good ‘cuz Doc Cooper said she’d sell the cat back to the butchers if she made a mess anywhere she shouldn’t. But Barbie’s really well-behaved, and I promised Doc Cooper I’d clean the box every morning and every night and so Barbie’’ll never ever even think about doing her business anywhere else…”

The dogs were getting their exercise along with Tilly’s tongue. Tilly’s charge was heeling nicely, alert to everything the girl said and did. Carver’s own two trainees were more of an effort -- both of the former junkyard-residents had learned to heel during the long training walks in-transit, but here downworld, surrounded by the noise and hustle of Whitefall’s impoverished docks, both dogs kept losing their concentration on their handler, and he was regularly having to correct them and refocus their attention. But even with his own attention well distracted, Carver was alert enough to the ship’s surroundings to recognize they had a watcher.

“... but maybe she’s just not ever going to be friendly. Because some cats just aren’t, you know. My Ma had a kitty back at home. Cookie was old and crotchety and never liked me ever. She always just swiped at me when I’d look at her, like she thought I was gonna pull on her tail. And maybe I did once or twice when I was really really little and didn’t know any better, but Cookie taught me manners, that’s how my Ma always put it…”

Their watcher was a sunburnt man in corduroy breeches and a drover’s slicker, wearing well-shined boots that were at odds with the sweat-stained rancher’s hat. He had started at the modified shipping-container-saloon at the south end of the Jin Dui's landing pad, the joint with “Patience’s Beer Garden” in neon over its wall of rolled security shutters-door, but lately the man had relocated to the noodle shop on the north corner, where he sipped a cup of something steamy as he sat under the shop’s dusty awning. The man was definitely watching the ship. Carver kept a surreptitious eye on the guy as he and Tilly pair clocked the end of their first mile of laps around the ship.

“...Cookie taught me my manners, and then some. And Cookie didn’t like anyone but my Ma. She even swiped at my Pa when he’d try to get in bed. So I hope Barbie isn’t like Cookie was, because maybe then she won’t like anybody at all, not even me, and that would be pretty sad and lonely for her..”

As the pair walked their trainees past the rear starboard-side landing gear, Carver saw that a second man had approached their watcher. Their watcher set aside his mug of noodles and rose to his feet with a certain dispatch that put a twitch in Carver’s own once-enlisted shoulders. As the two men traded words, a produce truck jangled past with a blare of out-of-tune child’s jingle for a horn, and when it had past, both men were facing the Jin Dui and watching the ship intently.

No. Not the ship, Carver corrected himself. Both men were watching him and Tilly. Something about the way the older man took off his hat and ran his hand through his thinning made Carver think lawkeep instead of crook. The older man said something to his subservient companion, and then both men began to walk across the dusty street, heading for the Jin Dui.

“... but she’s got just the prettiest big blue eyes! Ever wonder why some cats have blue eyes like that? I wish mine were that blue, it’s the prettiest thing. My Pa used to say all cats should have green eyes or yellow eyes, but not both; an’ Cookie had one green and one yellow one, so Pa used to say that’s why the cat was so mean, ‘cuz she got her eyes all wrong…”

Carver stopped, right where he knew the ship’s starboard security cameras would have a full field of view. When he stopped, one of the two dogs sat down instantly at his side, but he was forced to correct the second with a firm “Sit.” He kept his eyes on the two approaching men. They were both armed with pistols on their belts, and as they came closer, Carver could see the older man was wearing a lawkeeper’s badge. Tilly stopped mid-sentence and turned back around, and Carver held out both of the leashes he held to her.

“Take them back to the ship. Find the XO, tell him we’ve got a situation out here,” he told the girl as she scrambled to grab the leashes. For a moment, Tilly was surrounded by a scrum of excited dogs, and she needed a moment to get them under control before she realized where Carver’s attention was fixed, or that she might be getting dispatched back to the ship with all three dogs for a reason.

“What’s going on?” Tilly asked then, the first truly sensible thing he’d heard out of the child’s mouth all morning.

“Get inside,” Carver repeated coolly, standing his ground and facing down the two approaching lawmen.

Tilly sized up the two straners and ran, the dogs bounding away with her. Carver stood and waited, calmly analyzing the ship’s business in the port and trying to predict what this business with the local sheriff could possibly be about. Captain Cooper had left the ship this morning shortly after breakfast with plans to meet solo with a farm co-op representative at a local teahouse. Carver spared a quick glance at his minder, but there was no comm notification, and he was confident Cooper would have called for help this morning if there had been anything gone amiss. Everyone else should still be aboard the ship. There had been last night’s shore-leave. Carver had kept a very quiet watch over his fellow crew, but that hadn’t been necessary. The crew of the Jin Dui was a pretty mild lot when compared to the space marines, dockers and mercenaries of Carver’s prior acquaintance, and there hadn’t been much of a nightlife to be found at the Port of Whitefall anyway. Besides Hoss and Cianán’s alcohol-lubricated karaoke battle, or Sully’s betting at the beer garden chicken drop, what trouble could there possibly have been to interest the local lawkeep in the Jin Dui and her crew? Carver had just about settled on the possibility of Chang having hacked something in the pachinko parlour when the two lawmen reached him.

“You’re a Mr. Ben Carver, security officer of the Jin Dui, ain’t you?” said the older man, again setting back his cowboy hat in order to wipe sweat from his balding forehead.

“Yes sir,” Carver nodded, aware of the older man’s deliberate calmness and the younger man’s nervous hand where it rested on his pistol belt.

“Well then,” the old man said. “I’m Sheriff Yamaguchi, and this is Deputy Hawkins. I’ll ask real nice and polite for you to hand over your weapons. You are bound by law to come in with us, quietly and without a fuss.”

Carver simply looked at them, understanding the words but not following the logic. “Sir?”

“Like I asked, son. Your weapons please, nice and slow. We don’t want no trouble if we can avoid it.”

Deputy Hawkins’ sweating hand was resting against the butt of his pistol. Carver knew he could draw his own gun and make two kill shots before the deputy could clear leather. But he was also aware of the Jin Dui's solid bulk behind him -- and with it, the ship’s security cameras, no doubt recording the entire exchange. Carver lifted one hand, palm flat vertical and empty, and unbuckled his gun belt with the other, handing over his sidearm as requested.

“Ankle holster, right draw,” he told them, keeping his voice level. “Sir, what’s this about?” he added, as the deputy began to pat him down for weapons and discovered the third gun Carver had forewarned them of.

“Son, we had ourselves a murder last night,” Sheriff Yamaguchi explained, while he took his wrist restraints from his belt and keyed them open. “And our eye witness says you’re our killer.”

---to be continued---

Chapter Text

"I'm going topside for a look at the number-three sensor cluster. Halo said it was giving him some ghosts on our way in," Chang said. "Anything else you want me to inspect while I'm on the hull, XO?"

Sully turned to look at him from the pilot's chair, but before he could say anything they heard running footsteps in the corridor, and excited barking rang off the metal walls.

"Incoming," Sully mouthed silently to Chang, who grinned and stepped aside.

"Sully! Sully!" Tilly was already talking at full speed before she got to the bridge hatchway. "I was out with Carver walking the dogs but two men came up, and he told me to come inside and tell you! They looked really serious. No! SIT!" she ordered the dogs, who reluctantly obeyed.

Chang slid into the copilot's chair, tuning out Sully's questioning of Tilly and pulling up the video feeds. There it was, on camera two. Chang held up his hand for quiet and amped the volume. All three of them heard the tinny little speaker say "And our eyewitness says you're our killer." There weren't any more words, and they watched Carver accept the restraints without protest and walk off with the two men.

Tilly went uncharacteristically silent. Chang looked at Sully in shock, and found Sully staring back at him in a similar stunned disbelief. “What the hell?” Sully said.

"Captain's going to want Abby," Chang said. He got back up and made as wide a berth around the dogs as he could on his way out. He headed belowdecks at a fast clip.

Abby looked up from her tablet as he came down the aft stairs into the passenger lounge. "Something wrong?"

"Carver just got bound by law. For murder. And there's supposedly a witness."

“Murder?” Abby looked nonplussed by the news. “But of course. I’m not surprised we made it this far -- after all, I expected him to kill someone in cold blood before we even left Beylix. I am only just surprised he murdered a stranger, and not one of us.”

“Abby -- I’m not joking! Seriously -- the external security cam on the hull caught it all. We got it all!” Chang protested.

Abby’s auburn brows arched coolly. “The whole murder? Carver killed someone right on our ship’s doorstep?”

“No! No! Not the murder itself, just the sheriff coming to arrest him and take him away!”

“Good man, that sheriff,” Abby said with a sniff. “What else did we get on vid? A confession? Please tell me Carver confessed.”

“There wasn’t any confession. The sheriff and his deputy just walked up and said ‘Drop your guns, you’re under arrest,’ and ‘There was a murder last night and our witness said you did it.’ And Carver just put down his guns and let them put the cuffs on him, no fuss, not a word.” Chang frowned and ran a hand through his hair, thinking about the vid recording he’d seen. “I don’t get it. You saw how fast Carver was to take out his own crew when the Lucky Day ambushed us. So how come he just let the lawkeeper here arrest him like that?”

Chang looked at Abby, and Abby frowned and tapped her manicured nails against her tablet thoughtfully. “The murder happened last night?” she said, her tone reluctant.

“Shi,” Chang agreed, equally reluctant. They looked at one another for another uncomfortable moment.

“Have you…” Abby frowned even harder and made a little impatient gesture with her hand. When she spoke again, her voice dropped to nearly a whisper “... looked at the cache files?”

Chang shook his head in a negative, and reached for the breast pocket of his tactical vest, where he always carried his handheld. He cast a furtive glance back behind him, double- and triple-checking to make sure none of the other crew were around before he tapped in the command to call up his secret monitoring files.

Only Chang and Abby knew that he had live-miked Carver's room, and that he had a cache of recordings secreted away in corner of the network he didn’t think anyone else aboard had the chops to discover, much less decrypt. A quick scan of the last 12 hours of recordings showed activity in Carver's bunk starting at 23:45. Abby leaned in as he played the audio; they heard Carver’s cabin door open and close, accompanied by the sound of boots and canine toenails on the deck. "Sit, Odin," came Carver's voice. "Good dog." The sink ran briefly, and they heard about two minutes of vague getting-ready-for bed noises, then silence. Chang scanned for more sound, but there was nothing useful; just a few dreaming whimpers and grunts from the dog until a faint noises of a man waking and getting dressed starting at 04:38. The water at the sink ran for a minute, and then cabin door opened and closed again, accompanied by the click of Odin’s departing claws on the deck as he followed his master from the cabin.

"That man sure doesn't talk much," Abby observed. “Or sleep.”

"Or talk in his sleep. I tried monitoring the recordings for the first few nights after Carver came aboard,” Chang confessed. “But it was just about a cure for insomnia, so I cued it to just alert me when anything goes over 45 decibels. There haven’t been very many alerts, beyond the night Odin stole Tilly’s plate of chili."

Abby made a face at that, then went still and thoughtful. She tapped her fingernail against the edge her own tablet a few times, clearly mulling something over. “You should have enough there from last night for a voiceprint, right?” she asked. When Chang nodded, she continued. “... and... does the recording have the standard Alliance peacekeeping metadata? I heard some manufacturers out here past the Rim don't always include that."

"If you exclude it, you cut yourself off from the Core market, right? All our gear has it."

*Then we can prove the recording wasn't faked,” Abby said, although she didn’t say the words with pleasure. “The metadata would prove the timestamp and datestamp of the recording, right?”

"And which ship it’s networked into, plus which comm-unit it was recording from, and all that, right. Nobody's been able to spoof those cryptoseals for decades." Chang shrugged that off impatiently. "Honestly, I was going to turn off the surveillance mode last night -- I thought there’d be more time before he came back from shore leave, but he came home right after you and Hoss. Now I sort of wish I'd moved faster, so I wouldn’t be in this pickle."

"Wouldn't want the captain to find out, eh?"

"Full well I don't!" Chang agreed fervently, then sighed. "We can't use this to clear Carver without Captain Cooper finding out I set the monitoring on Carver in the first place. I really do not want to be stranded on another back-of-beyond world. Beylix? Maybe. But Whitefall? Oh man, just kill me now!"

"But we don't know it would clear him," Abby said. "We don't know he's innocent at all, really."

That gave Chang pause. He realized with a start that he HAD been assuming that Carver was innocent. “On the Bonnie Prince Charlie, you saw how fast Carver is with a gun. He could have shot both of those lawmen dead in the street, easy as pie.”

“I don’t know.” Abby’s polished fingernail clicked against the edge of her tablet. “A Core-born girl like me might get arrested without raising a fuss, because I was raised to respect authority and do like I am told. But a Rimworlder jarhead like Carver? If he just quietly let the sheriff put him in cuffs, then I’d say that sounds like someone who’s been bound by law before and knows the drill.”

“Maybe. But again, maybe not.” Chang agreed Abby’s reasoning made sense… but they had spent the last six-something weeks aboard the ship with Carver, from the Penglai debris field to Greenleaf, and then from Greenleaf to Beylix and on to Whitefall. Carver had been reserved and withdrawn from the rest of the crew, but he had been respectful. And Chang had found his original gut-deep suspicions of the man had begun to lessen.

Abby’s keen eyes were watching Chang’s face, and he saw her frown deepen into a scowl. “Seriously?” she said. “You think the hún dàn is innocent?”

Chang rubbed the back of his neck. “I don’t know. I guess I just want to know more about why the sheriff says Carver did it, maybe?” he offered. “‘Cuz, y’know… the dogs all love that man.”

Abby snorted and rolled her pretty blue eyes. “And dogs are all trustworthy judges of character? You could buy Bao Yu’s undying loyalty with a piece of unbuttered toast.”

“Yeah, well. Bao Yu maybe. But not that junkyard monster of his. Odin tolerates the Captain, and tolerates the kid. He maybe even likes Fatima and Hoss. But he won’t give the rest us the time of day for all of the buttered toast on Londinium.”

Abby snorted again, but her lips gave a half-amused twist. “And the damn creature worships Carver, doesn’t he?” she mused, instead of dismissing Chang’s observation entirely. She sighed then, and gave Chang a weary look. “I want to see some evidence before I’m willing to agree Carver might be innocent. I know Hoss and I came back to the ship about an hour before midnight, along with Sully. Sounds like Carver trailed aboard shortly after that. I know he was at the beer garden with us, lurking around the back of the joint and just watching things. I don’t think he drank at all, but we can ask Sully and Hoss what they remember. But if we are going to ask them, then we had better start asking. Because the Captain's got a schedule to keep. If Carver gets held up here, the Captain might just have to leave him behind in lock-up.” Abby said the words with a cool neutrally. That idea didn't seem to thrill her as much as Chang would have expected it might.

“But if we go to the Captain with these datafiles...” Chang said, an anxious feeling in his gut. "Going behind her back only seemed like a good idea when we thought she was out of her head. But if she finds out now, we might be the ones who get left behind."

“That’s true,” Abby agreed. “So… how much do we care? Is it enough to put our necks on the block, if it proves our necks or Carver’s?” Abby asked the question that Chang was dreading. He looked back at her, eye-to-eye, and struggled to find his answer.


  • Shì = yes (Mandarin)
  • hún dàn – “mixed egg” (functionally: son of a bitch, but with the added implication that your mother mated with two men in quick succession, thus you've got two biological fathers) (Mandarin)

Cooper was in the middle of negotiating the purchase of farm seed when her wrist-minder pulsed, warning her of an incoming priority call. “The Chickling Vetch has had excellent results here on Whitefall and on Ormuzd as well,” the co-op president was saying, still pushing his bumper crop for the year.

“It’s Murphy I’m head for next, and after that, my ship makes the long haul out to the Blue Cluster.” Cooper ignored the priority pulse, enjoying the give and take of negotiations. “The farmers back on Deadwood are still struggling with nitrogen fixation. That calls for soybeans and a mix of pea and oats. I’ll take two tons each of the 70/30 mix and four of the Viking 2265.”

“I can manage that order at the prices listed in the catalog. But if they’re looking for nitrogen help, I recommend our Chickling Vetch as well. It’s drought resistant and can fix soils inside 45 days, with results you won’t believe after 60! And I can offer you two tons of it at 15% off the listed price.”

The priority pulse buzzed against her wrist again. Cooper continued to ignore it. “I’ve got a departure scheduled for tonight. Can you have it to the docks and loaded before 1400 hours?”

The co-op man was practically salivating. “I’ll oversee the work myself,” he promised.

Cooper spat in her palm and offered to seal the deal with a shake. As they shook hands, her minder gave her a long double-pulse alert. Priority priority. “Excuse me,” Cooper said, shoving back in her chair and thumbing her earbud to take the call. “Shi,” she said curtly, annoyed at the interruption.

It was Sully who answered, his usually blithe tone of voice now cold-stone sober. “Captain, we got a situation here. It’s the local sheriff. He’s arrested Carver. For murder.”

Nǐ zài shuō shénme? Cooper was aware of the co-op president’s startled expression, and made an effort to turn her shocked exclamation into a good-natured smile, as if she had just been told a good punchline. “The deuce you say?”

“The sheriff just walked up and arrested Carver as he was walking the dogs with Tilly outside. Said there was an eyewitness to the murder and everything. Carver didn’t raise a fuss, just let them cuff him and walked him off.”

“Sully, I’m almost finished. I’ll call you right back.” Cooper kept the smile on her face with an effort as she turned back to the man she’d been doing business with. “So sorry for the interruption. We were discussing delivery. You can do all eight tons by 1400 hours, yes? How it is packaged? Bagged and palletized, or by barrel drum?”

Cooper wrapped up the negotiations as quickly as she could, struggling to concentrate on the facts on hand instead of the data-bomb her XO had just detonated in her head. “Xuèxīng tā mā dì dìyù?” she demanded of Sully, as soon as she had limped her way out out of the teahouse’s door.

“I told you all I know,” Sully responded, sounding grim. “The sheriff just arrested Carver. Said there was a murder last night, and that an eyewitness saw Carver do it.”

Cooper cursed violently and looking around for a transport. “Send Abby to meet me at the sheriff’s,” she told her first mate, before cutting their connection. A pony cart with a familiar looking paint horse was trotting up the dusty lane; it swerved to respond when she waved it down.

“Where to, miss?” the driver asked, eager for a fare. “Bucephalus and me, we’ll take you anywhere you need to go!”

Cooper pulled herself up into the board-seat alongside the driver. “The jailhouse, and double-quick.”

---to be continued---

Chapter Text

The sheriff’s office on Whitefall was a short, stout-walled adobe building, one room, with two cells walled off by iron bars in the back of the room and two desks facing one another in the center of the jailhouse, where the sheriff and his staff did their work. When Cooper pushed her way through the jailhouse door, the sheriff was at his desk typing up some paperwork, while his deputy sat cleaning his guns. Carver sat on the metal fold-down rack in one cell; in the other, a shrouded body lay on the metal shelf of the bunk. Flies attended to the dead body; their buzzing was accompanied by the soft click and clack of the sheriff’s hands on his old keyboard.

“I’m Captain Cooper of the Jin Dui,” she announced, “and I demand to know what in the hell is going on!”

The deputy was jumping to his feet and had reached after a holstered gun at the side of his desk, but the grey-haired older sheriff took Cooper’s raised voice in stride. “We got ourselves a dead body, and we got ourselves a witness who says your man did the killin’.”

Cooper looked at her crewman. Carver was watching her, the expression on his burned face inscrutable. “My ship’s lawyer is on the way and will be here shortly,” Cooper said. She walked as far as the bars to Carver’s cell and looked at him. She wanted to ask ‘Did you do it?’ but knew better. Anything her crewman said could become evidence against him. Carver stared back her, his usual stoic silence in place, as cooly remote as though he were sitting at a saloon counter instead of locked behind bars for murder.

“My ship is scheduled for departure for Athens tonight, and we’re not leaving without Carver,” she told the sheriff flatly. “So what’s our fastest way to resolve this situation?”

“Either you give me proof your man isn’t the killer, or else he sits in that cell until noon on Tuesday, when the magistrate is due back in from his sister’s wedding on Ahnooie. And the magistrate does like to keep his court snappy -- trials usually start first thing after breakfast, with the guilty’s swinging from the hanging tree by lunchtime.”

Cooper scowled. She looked at Carver again, wishing Abby would walk through that door and bust some Core-taught legal miracle right out of her blouse, Fruity-Oaty-powergurrl style. But when miracles didn’t instantly manifest, then it was time to roll up your sleeves and get to work. “So who’s the dead guy?” Cooper demanded, rounding back on the sheriff and his deputy.

“Local businessman by the name of Jack Walbridge. His son was our witness; junior was beat down near to an inch of his life, too. Says there’s no mistaking the size of your man here, or that... ” the sheriff coughed politely and shifted his hat on his head. “... he’s a ginger,” the older man finished, when Cooper expected the man to refer to Carver’s disfiguring scars.

Cooper hooked a thumb toward the shrouded body in the next cell. “Can I take a look at the dead man?”

The deputy seemed shocked by her question, but the sheriff simply shrugged. “Be my guest. But ma’am, he ain’t pretty.”

The dead man’s cell was unlocked. Cooper dragged the door open and limped in. She flipped aside the blood-stained shroud, a length of oilcloth that looked as if it had seen a lot of murders before this one. The sheriff was right. The remains of the dead man weren’t pretty.

Cooper studied the corpse critically. “I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know: he was hacked to death. He sustained several severe force trauma wounds to the face before his throat was cut; some of the mutilating blows came before death, but not all of them. I don’t see any immediate evidence of the blade being serrated. Throat was cut, then the killer went back to hacking.”

“That’s right,” the sheriff said mildly. “You recognize the man, don’t you?”

Cooper turned on her heel, eyeing the lawman warily. “I was assaulted on the dockside yesterday by this man and his son,” she said. “So yeah, I recognize him, with or without the nose. You said his son was badly beaten -- but not cut up at all?””

The sheriff was amused. “That’s what the boy said. He said that yesterday, you insulted both of the Walbridges, then had your man here destroy their place of business. Junior says he got even more mouthy after that, and your crewman came calling last night to get paybacks. When his father tried to intervene, your man knocked the cleaver out of the son’s hand, picked it up, then went to town.”

Cooper shot at look through the bars at Carver, searching for any hint of outrage in the man’s expression. Carver was watching her steadily, his expression unreadable.

“That’s bullshit. My crewman didn’t do it.” Cooper used the foot of her cane to lift one of the corpse’s mangled hands into easier reach. The right hand was missing several fingers entirely; she moved around to examine the dead man’s left hand. “Look -- see the bruising and the torn knuckles? Daddy here was in a fist-fight before he died.”

The sheriff showed only mild interest. “I wondered about that myself, but in the eyes of our magistrate, the word of a local eyewitness is going to trump any sensible theory.”

The jail house’s heavy wooden door swung open again and Abby Baldwin came in, followed close behind by Marcus Chang. “Glad you finally made it,” Cooper said to Abby, the words coming out sharper than she’d intended. She limped out of the dead man’s cell as she continued to speak. “The good sheriff here was just telling me that the local magistrate’s already got his or her mind made up against Carver, even though the only eyewitness is likely the much better suspect.”

Abby tossed her mahogany braid back over her shoulder and, first things first, fixed Carver with a firm glare and stated those first words lawyers had been taught to say since the days of Ancient Rome on Earth-that-Was. “You don’t say anything to anyone, understand? I’m your legal representative, so you let me do all of the talking.” Carver’s response to that was a lift of one scarred eyebrow and a shrug, so Abby immediately turned away from the cell to address the sheriff. “And what are the charges against my client?” she demanded.

“Murder,” replied Sheriff Yamaguchi, not seeming too troubled by Abigail Baldwin’s confident arrival. “Here on Whitefall, deliberate killin’ doesn’t get fancified into this type or that type. If you take a cleaver to a man in an alleyway behind the Dusty Rose Tavern, it’s understood you meant his death, and you hang for it.”

Abby smiled a thin, diamond-sharp smile. “What was your estimated time of death?”

“The Walbridge boy staggered back into the Dusty Rose just before closin’ time, so 1:45 or so in the morning.”

Abby turned to Chang, and the two shared a look. Cooper saw Chang’s nervous swallow as her ship’s systems man reached into one of the many pockets of his ever-present tactical vest. Abby turned back to the Sheriff, but not without a quick, almost-apologetic glance at their captain.

“Release our crewman. We have a ship’s security file for you, with audio & visual.” Abby nodded at Chang, who put a small, standard-issue black datacube on the Sheriff’s desk. “The Jin Dui’s security cameras prove that Carver was back aboard the ship by zero-one hundred in morning, in the company of other crew, I might add,” Abby continued. “And a standard onboard monitoring file here has a voiceprint and audio that will prove he was aboard and in his quarters from 23:49 hours to 04:38 the next morning, when he left his cabin to begin attending to ship’s duties.”

Cooper tore her eyes off the data cube surprise and assumed what she hoped was a dignified smile of satisfaction. She stared at Sheriff Yamaguchi and his deputy, with only a flick of a glance toward Carver to gauge his reaction. Carver was watching this development with a look of mild interest on his scarred face; he did not look shocked at all by the surprise evidence. Cooper had no doubt that a former shipbreaker marine would have read between the lines of Chang and Baldwin’s disclosure -- he had been spied upon by his new ship and fellow crew. She did not dare look at either of them, knowing that she could not do so and keep any facade of professional cool.

The sheriff picked up the datacube and stuck it into a reader. A quick swipe on his cracked commercial screen caused the visual display to begin -- Hoss, Cianán, Sully and Abby all trooping up to the ship’s belly last night, with Carver shadowing them like a sheepdog bringing the flock home. “Double-tap right for the metadata display,” Chang offered helpfully. The sheriff threw him a side-eye but brought up that subfile anyway, nodding as the verification codes showed green. A second swipe across the cracked screen brought up the audiofile: they all heard old Odin’s happy response to his master’s return to his cabin, and a bare few words from Carver. “Admittedly,” Abby said, “there’s not much to be heard during the five hours of audio, except for a snoring dog. But we’ve included all of the ship’s external camera feeds from last between from 22:00 to 07:00 hours for your review, and to prove our man is innocent.”

The sheriff was nodding good-naturedly to himself; he pulled up a four-square visual feed and began a fast-forward on it, then began a quick search feature on the audio. “Sam,” he said to his deputy, “go on and collect Junior. He’ll probably be crashed over at Mike Flanagan's yet, sleeping it off. Take the bull-stick along, just in case you need to tase him.”

The deputy nodded, collected his gear, and left on his mission. Sheriff Yamaguchi watched a little bit more, nodded to himself again, and rose to his feet. He strode leisurely to the door of Carver’s cell and unlocked it.

“That’ll do. I’m satisfied with the evidence. Better yet, the Magistrate will be as well, so I will add ‘false witness’ to the stack of charges the Walbridge boy will face before the Magistrate on Tuesday.” The old man tipped his hat as he ushered Carver out. “My apologies for the inconvenience this morning, and you’re free to go.”

Abby looked aghast at some legal oversight, but Cooper, accustomed to backwoods justice after years on Deadwood, limped forward and shouldered her crewwoman toward the door before Baldwin’s open mouth could produce a protest. “Out,” she said to all of her crew, then gave the sheriff a polite nod of acknowledgment. “Best of luck with the Magistrate, and contact us ASAP if you find you got any other questions,” she said, then followed her crew out of the door. Chang reflexively held the door for both her and Abby, and Cooper raked him with her glare, dropping all pretense of cool and calm the moment the jailhouse door closed behind them.

Cào nǐ zǔ zōng shí bā dài! she hissed at him, including Abby in that insult with a pointed jab of her cane. “You bugged the cabins? On my ship? Did you bug just Carver’s? Or you been spying on everyone like equal opportunity pervs?”

Chang flushed and swallowed anxiously. “Just Carver’s cabin. Since his arrival.”

“Who the fuck else knows about this?” Cooper snarled at him.

Chang swallowed again, more heavily this time, his shoulders hunched as if he’d taken a punch to the kidneys. “No one. It was my idea. Me and nobody else.”

“No. I was in on it, too,” Abby said, looking wan herself. “But no one else was involved.”

The pony cart with the paint horse was sitting at the curb -- the driver no doubt was waiting for Cooper, having the scent of a fare in his nose when there was little other available business for the day. The driver saw Cooper turn toward him and tipped his cap with a merry “G’day! Bucephalus an’ --” then his mouth shut with an audible snap at the rage on Cooper’s face.

“You both,” she said, jabbing at Chang and Abby in turn with her cane. Her chest felt so tight with fury that it was hard to get the words out. “Get your asses in the cart. Go straight back to the ship.”

The two ne'er-do-wells exchanged worried glances and did what they were told. The driver asked no questions: he just clucked to the paint and flicked his switch, and the gelding took off at a high-stepping trot that raised the dust from the street. Cooper glared after them, then stabbed her earbud, toggling the comm with the ship. “Sully,” she barked as her first mate answered the hail. “I’m sending Abby and Chang back to the ship. When they arrive, you escort them to the galley. You sit them down to wait. You don’t let them out of your sight. And for the love of bleeding baby Buddha, you don’t let them touch any of the ship’s systems! You hear me?”

“Gotcha. But Capt’n, what the hell’s going on?”

“You got your orders.” She cut the connection, then launched herself up the wooden sidewalk at a rage-fueled clip. Carver trailed behind her, his steps as hollow-sounding as her own on the wooden boards.

It was going to be a long walk back to the ship, and her crippled leg already ached like hellsfire. But Cooper needed the time to wrestle with her fury. Two of her crew had just confessed that they had been secretly spying on a crewmate. They had gone behind their captain’s back to do it. Her back. The betrayal left her stunned, and so angry her chest was tight and she could taste blood. Cooper managed her angry pace a full two blocks on the uneven wooden sidewalk before she finally stumbled and almost went down. She got her cane beneath her in a maneuver that would have saved her, but Carver was there as well. He caught her elbow on her bad side and held her steady, until she had regained her balance enough to jerk her arm free of his grip. Carver retreated a step from the furious look she fixed on him. She set off again, but her righteous fury had been punctured. Halfway up the irregular block was a food stand, where a man in a brightly colored cotton turban was wielding a wok over a camp stove, frying up chopped vegetables in some sort of pungent fish sauce, while a teenage girl sold sweet tea and bowls of rice. Cooper stopped at the stand and bought two of the paper cups of sweet tea, then gestured for Carver to take one of them while she carried hers over to a nearby bench.

Cooper sat and sipped her drink. The tea was very weak and not very sweet, but tasted strongly of mint and ginger. She glared at Carver as he settled cautiously on the bench’s far edge.

“I want to go back to the ship and I want to kill them,” she muttered.

Carver took a drink from his cup and looked at her, his gaze level and steady. “That an order?”

Cooper narrowed her eyes at the man, trying to suss out if his deadpan response was serious, or an attempt at humor. “How dare they!” she fumed. “How dare they? I can’t believe Chang or Abby would do this!” She realized belatedly that she was glaring at her companion -- but couldn’t stop. Carver’s stoic calm in the face of a crime committed against him made no sense to her. “Xuèxīng tā mā dì dìyù! Those two sneaks set up that monitoring program to spy on you -- and you don’t care?”

Carver took another drink of sweet tea, then shrugged. “Skuts belowdeck on a warship always know that the Master Sergeant is listening in,” he said then. “On the Lucky Day, Captain O’Malley taped everything and everyone.”

Cooper’s rage evaporated as though she’d had freezing water splashed in her face. “And you didn’t expect better on my ship?” she ground out. “Or from me?”

There was a flicker of concern in the tightening of his eyebrows as Carver realized he’d offended her. “I just didn’t think about it,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me. They were spooked. And now? I owe them. Chang and Abby saved my hide.”

“We could have proven you were innocent from the security cameras showing you coming back aboard!” Cooper retorted angrily. “They went behind my back in order to spy on another member of my crew -- there’s no way in hell I’m going to forgive that!”

Carver put down his paper cup and looked at her. “Chang and Abby didn’t have to go to that jailhouse to prove me innocent. They’d been safe just sitting it out and letting me hang.” He just gazed at her a moment longer, waiting for her to reach the conclusions he had. “They didn’t put their necks on the line for me,” he suggested then, reading Cooper’s face correctly that she hadn’t made it that far. “Neither of them want me aboard your ship. No. They did it for you. They did the right thing, even if it hurts, because that’s the example their captain’s set.” He gave her a taut half-smile, then swallowed down the last of his sweet tea and waited on her reaction.

Cooper looked away from her companion, turning a blind stare on the sparse main street Whitefall traffic as it rolled, rumbled, pedaled, or trotted by. She sat and turned over Carver’s words bitterly, trying to purge her own emotions from the situation enough that it could become an equation, a problem solvable by reliable means of computation.

A familiar red-and-white form came trotting up and reined in alongside their stretch of sidewalk in front of the food vendor. It was the paint gelding and its taxi-wallah. The pony cart’s driver caught Cooper’s eye and tipped his hat, but did not announce his usual patter. Cooper lifted her paper cup and knocked back the rest of her sweet tea, then used her cane to lever herself up to her feet. “C’mon,” she said to Carver. “Our ride’s here. Let’s get back to the ship.”

---to be continued---

Chapter Text


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.