July 23, 2514; Capital City on Sturges, a moon of Aphrodite
11:37 local time/15:37 Sihnon Standard Time
Captain Cooper signed the document presented to her on the docker’s tablet, pressed her thumb into the ID-dent, then passed the workslate back to the gruff, balding foreman. "All the i's are dotted, all the t's crossed," she said. "This customs release is all in order, so those cans are good to go."
The big man gave the manifest a quick scroll, then nodded in satisfaction. "Aye aye." The dock foreman gave her a brief tip of the cap in parting, then turned to jog down the Jin Dui's gangway and up the length of his transport truck. He climbed into the passenger seat as his driver started up the long can-hauler's engine. Cooper stood for a moment, leaning on her cane as she watched the cargo truck nudge its way into the stream of traffic that flanked the Jin Dui's landing pad. Then she pressed a finger against her earbud. "Cargo's away," she reported to the bridge.
"Aye," came Halo's voice in that ear. "Burwell Shipping just waved to confirm that 21:30 delivery. And the dryer just began blowing smoke again, so Sully's down below pulling it apart to see if he can actually fix it this time around."
"Hoss helping with that?" Cooper asked, glancing at her wrist unit. It was 11:39. She scowled.
"Hoss's out toy shopping with Fatima and the kids," the pilot replied.
"Gotta have those sheets clean and dry if we’re going to take on any passengers for Aphrodite," Cooper grumbled, with another irritated glance at her minder. "Any word from Abby? We’ve got that meeting with the feds in 20."
"Abby called in about 10 minutes ago; she and Chang got delayed, but she says she'll meet you at City Central.” Cooper shot a glance at the sky, where the sun was almost at zenith. “Gorram time zones,” she muttered. Sturges was only three hours behind SST ship-time, but the knowledge that their meeting was at noon when her minder’s primary display was telling it was hours past that kept giving the captain small jolts of alarm.
Still scowling, Cooper stabbed a security code into the cargo bay keypad, typing in the numbers+pinyin combo for the order to seal up the big bay doors with a 15 second auto-delay. Then she stepped out through the wide hatchway, through the sallyport, and started limping down the gangway. "Ring them back up and warn Abby that I'll skin her if she’s late!"
"Aye aye," Halo replied, sounding far too amused for his own good. "Shōudào. I'll pass it along."
Cooper stepped off the gangway just as the servos that would close the doors rumbled awake. She limped for the dockside thoroughfare. Port Sturges was a relatively small spaceport, but it was the primary port for the entire moon. The eclectic mix of foot traffic, combustion-engine vehicles, horse-drawn wagons, solar bikes and hover-vans made it look more like the lively Eavesdown Docks on Persephone than it did most of the much poorer Rim worlds the Jin Dui had been visiting recently, but the moon of Sturges was in orbit around wealthy Aphrodite, one of the most highly-populated planets in the Georgia cluster. Sturges had proved a very a good market -- buyers had been eager to purchase up all of the raw ag goods which the Jin Dui had been hauling from the moons of Athens, and the region had a lot of war surplus floating around for resale. Cooper had made arrangements to pick up two standard-40 containers of military surplus boots, blankets and all-weather gear at a dirt-cheap rate. Those were items that would certainly be more valuable out in the Blue Sun cluster, where the Jin Dui would be headed next.
Or at least Cooper hoped her ship would be headed out that way next -- provided the Jin Dui didn’t get landlocked by Alliance lawmen after this scheduled meeting at the capital’s Federal Building.
The feds had sent a wave within an hour of the Jin Dui's arrival at Port Sturges, politely demanding a formal sit-down with the captain to discuss some legal matters regarding old warrants that named the ship’s prior crew. God only knows what kind of half-assed business those shitbirds were into, Cooper thought sourly. She had spent the past 14 hours since her ship’s arrival worrying over that matter like a sore tooth. They had absolutely no clue what the Jin Dui's previous captain and crew had done with their leased ship -- among the rest of a long list of faults Cooper attributed to her predecessor was a total lack of record-keeping. But the shitbirds had done something with the ship to keep the Jin Dui in minimal running condition and to put fuel in the ship’s tank, and Cooper doubted that something had been honest and legal work. So whatever the feds had in those old warrants would be bad news for the Jin Dui's present management, she was sure of it.
Cooper clung to the hope that Abby, with her Core-law-school-smarts, could deflect whatever the feds had ready to throw at the Jin Dui and her current crew. If Baldwin failed to do so, Cooper feared what the lawmen might do, based on whatever no-damn-goodness was detailed in those warrants. Jesus have mercy on me if Van Hooven gets those old warrants and mistakes them for something we’ve done with the Jin Dui, Cooper thought with a sick feeling in the pit of her gut. She was far too intimate with the ship's owner’s job performance review methods, having scrubbed multiple bloodstains off the ship’s deck after taking possession of the Jin Dui.
Cooper reached the sidewalk and hailed a transport. A moment later, Carver materialized at her side. Her security officer gave her a business-like nod, his attention on the traffic and on the brightly-painted tuk-tuk that was swerving in response to his captain's summons.
"Going to the Federal Building," she told him, meaning no weapons allowed there.
Carver nodded. I'm not carrying, was how she translated that, as the colorful tuk-tuk arrived with a wild shimmying of its faded emerald window fringe. That, And you're not headed into Alliance territory alone.
Cooper might have argued it with another member of the crew, but in truth, at the moment she was grateful to have the former spec forces gunnery sergeant covering her six. The summons from the portmaster's legal staff felt like a foray behind enemy lines. She reflexively patted down the sides of her unfamiliar jacket until she felt the solid weight of the big leather wallet containing ship’s papers in the inside pocket. It was a new jacket of crimson quilted silk, as she’d felt wearing her usual Independent officer’s trench coat was not the wisest course of action, considering their destination. "City Central, Fed building," Cooper said to the taxi-wallah as she climbed into the plastic-wrapped plaid of the back seat, sliding over to give Carver room.
Her security chief climbed in beside her, and immediately the driver of the electric rickshaw gunned his gerbil-ball engine and darted back into the steady stream of traffic, joining the flow of people and goods out of Port Sturges and headed toward the capital's central district.
11:45 local time/13:45 Standard Sihnon time
As he left the store, Hoss never failed to marvel at how well toy stores did at a space port. Very few ships had children aboard, after all -- and docksides famously weren’t the place to go for family-friendly shopping. But the deep dark of the Black meant long and lonely transits, and spacers with coin to spare liked to spend it on ways to stave off the boredom. The owners of Curious Giorgi’s clearly knew this, and advertised their store as “the cure for all of your Deep Black Blues.” That promise was a siren’s song today for some of the Jin Dui's crew.
The four of them left the store laden with shopping bags. Tilly had purchased a variety of new coloring books and art supplies, while Cianán had celebrated having credits in his pocket by spending them all on new game-sticks for his second-hand VR hand-held. Fatima had purchased several puzzles and a half dozen new board games to add to the ship’s growing Game Night collection, while Hoss himself had found a brand new rugby ball.
The hike down the dockside from the Curious Giorgi’s storefront back to the Jin Dui was a straight one, the pedestrian strip fairly well crowded with spacers and travelers of varying denomination. Tilly skipped on ahead of her crewmates before challenging Cianán to a speed-walk race to the far end of the block.
Hoss heard Fatima’s laughter at the sight of the crew’s two juniormost as they scurried ahead. Hoss glanced at her, beaming with pride in his friend. Fatima had gained courage during the Jin Dui's weeks out since Beylix, and watching the shy pilot emerge from the concealing burqa she had hidden within at times during the first months aboard the ship was like watching a butterfly emerge from a cocoon. She was strolling at Hoss’s side now, dressed in a long-sleeved blue tunic over cargo leggings, a pretty floral hijab covering her braided hair. The woman’s face was still gorgeous enough that she turned heads as they passed, but it was only minutes from high noon planetside, and in the full light of day, not even the randiest of longhaul spacers would dare catcall Fatima while Hoss was at her side. Hoss knew that with his dreads hanging loose around his face and his shirt sleeves rolled up to expose his bulging biceps, he looked like he was able and ready to snap any average man in half.
“I hope Halo is pleased with what I’ve found,” Fatima said to Hoss, carrying her bulging shopping bag with both hands. The Jin Dui's senior pilot Halo was, off-shift, a connoisseur of board games, and enjoyed hosting games on the galley table or in the crew lounge most nights during a transit.
“That terraforming co-op one with the zombies looks like a lot of fun,” Hoss chuckled. “I can’t wait to try that one.” As he spoke, Hoss’s attention was drawn to a lean, golden-skinned man who was climbing out of an electric taxi at the curb. The fellow was staring at Fatima in open admiration. Hoss narrowed his eyes and fixed the bloke with a tight ‘yeah, forget about it’ smile of warning -- and when the man’s gaze traveled up and away from Fatima and met Hoss’s stare, Hoss felt his knees lock in the shock of recognition. “Srinvasa!” he called out. “Srinvasa Ramanujan!”
The other man’s eyes had widened in surprise as well, and a pleased grin appeared on his long, handsome face. “Hoss Hoeata!”
The two men clasped hands warmly, while Fatima stood to one side with polite curiosity. “Shiva’s chabang!” Ramanujan exclaimed. “Look at you, big man! How long has it been?”
Hoss laughed and tried to do the math. “Six years and change since you and I got airlifted out of that goatcluster on Paquin, and the captain of the Diamondback conscripted me to fix his boat before it fell out of the sky. How have you been, Srinny?”
“Good. Good.” Ramanujan’s smile faded somewhat, and he turned at once to Fatima. “And who is this jewel?” he beamed, his smile widening again.
“My crewmate,” Hoss said, with a questioning look at Fatima. “Fatima,” he offered then, not giving up her last name when he saw the tension in her face. He sidestepped firmly, blocking his old comrade-in-arms when he thought Ramanujan might reach after Fatima’s hand in welcome.
“Charmed,” Ramanujan said smoothly, recognizing Hoss’s protective maneuver and not advancing with the enthusiasm Hoss knew his old friend would have mustered years ago. “Are you both here for the fireworks?” he asked, with sardonic emphasis.
“Fireworks?” Fatima asked, with a questioning glance at Hoss.
“Tonight’s memorial celebration?” Ramanujan prompted with a smile, then seeing Hoss’s blank look, he supplied the answer. “It’s the anniversary of the Battle of Sturges tonight.”
“Oh!” Hoss winced. “We’ve just come from the Georgia Cluster,” he said apologetically, uncomfortable with any celebration of such a harrowing loss of lives -- Independent and Alliance alike. “I’ve lost track what day of the week it is, much less today’s date.”
Ramanujan’s handsome face had gone cold, and while he kept his smile, it was now brittle with disappointment. “Ah,” he said, and then made an exaggerated gesture at the minder he wore, which had begun to vibrate so vigorously that its buzz was audible. “Well, it is good to see you again, old friend,” he said. “But I am afraid I am overdue, and my ship is on an urgent departure schedule. Please -- enjoy your visit here, and I hope we will see one another again in the future.” With that, Ramanujan turned and strode off, clearly headed for the nearby gangway of a Knorr mid-bulk freighter. Hoss frowned and watched the man go, then turned to meet Fatima’s questioning look.
“We served together in the War,” Hoss said. Over Fatima’s shoulder, at the far end of the block, he saw that Cianán and Tilly had reached their agreed-on finishing line, and Cianán was doing a victory dance, while Tilly had turned to wave one hand wildly over her head, trying to catch Hoss’s attention. He laughed and waved back. “C’mon, I see we’ve dawdled a little too long,” he said, gesturing for Fatima to proceed him, and putting aside the brief, disappointing encounter with his old friend.
11:55 local time /13:55 Standard Sihnon Time
City central traffic had snarled to a stop one long city block from the glass-and-steel tower of the Sturges Federal Building. Cooper took another fierce glance at her wrist unit and growled a curse. “Gǎo shénme guǐ?-- what in the 18th floor of hell is going on up there?”
The taxi-wallah was already half hanging out of his open window, trying to figure that out. “Big truck’s blocking all lanes,” he reported, sounding unfailingly cheerful. “Looks like it’s lost an axle, just real lucky the beshoor didn’t jackknife.”
Cooper glanced helplessly at her wrist-unit in despair. “Out,” she said, giving Carver’s shoulder a shove with her own. The man deployed fast, like he had been waiting for that order to be given. Cooper slid across the bright plastic seat after him, and Carver caught her arm and held her steady for a moment as she found her balance with her cane. He released her arm before she could pull away, and turned to pay the taxi-wallah for their fare.
Cooper left him to that chore and took off down the street as fast as she could walk. The Sturges Federal Building was many stories taller than anything else in the city center. It was a modern and multi-purpose office-block, with a sheer glass-and-steel atrium frontage that overlooked the busy city street below. An oasis of a city park faced it on the opposite side of the street, with a tall spraying fountain and grass too green to be real. It was a sunny day, with a clear near-noon sky. The summer heat was already radiating from the city concrete. Pedestrian traffic was heavier than Cooper had expected -- but no doubt there were others equally impatient with the traffic jam who had decided to hoof it to wherever they were going. A man in a tightly tailored striped suit talking into his minder jostled Cooper as he passed. She stumbled but caught herself without losing much momentum. And within a few more strides, she knew Carver had caught up and was shadowing her again, because the folks walking toward them all had some degree of reaction as they saw the big man and his scarred face. Most of them faded toward the street, giving Cooper ample passing space on the sidewalk.
They were half a block now from the Federal Building. “Abby?” Cooper demanded, pressing her earbud on to transmit.
“Sorry,” came the words Cooper most definitely had not wanted to hear. “Chang and I are still a couple of minutes out. Traffic’s hell.”
“Y’know being late is a transgression against high Alliance moral law,” Cooper said, trusting the subvocal transmitter of the earbud to put the grrr in her growl. “You and me, we’ve got just a few minutes ‘til we’re both evil sinners.”
“Then I suppose I’ll be seeing you in hell,” Abby replied. “Just remember to smile and don’t say anything more than ‘Nín hǎo,’ until your legal representative arrives. I swear to you, I’m hustling to get there as fast as these power heels will allow.”
Cooper cut the connection. “Power heels,” she grumbled to Carver. “The woman is going to be late because she had to find herself a new pair of shoes. But for the want of a nail, huh? At least you and me might just squeak in on time, maybe.”
They had closed in on the Federal Building now, and were pausing at the crosswalk on the far corner. From this vantage, Cooper could see the jam-up that was surrounding the disabled truck near the far end of the Alliance HQ. A crowd had gathered there, doing just what she couldn’t quite tell -- but that amount of passer-by interest meant there was probably a bloody accident casualty or two to gawk at. Cooper knew that a good citizen with her years of experience in battlefield trauma should press through that mob of gawping monkeys to see if she could provide aid to the victims. But screw good citizenship. Cooper was already likely to be late for the meeting with the feds, and the feds weren’t likely to issue her ship a good Samaritan pass. The captain could hear sirens of an approaching ambulance, so she shifted her attention away from the federal building’s crowded front and scanned for an alternate point of entry. There was a side door that was probably an employee entrance, across the street and halfway down the block.
“C’mon,” she said, and began to jaywalk through the stalled traffic for that door. Carver fell in step beside her, a silent escort across the street before lengthening his stride to reach the door first. He opened it and squired her through, into the sudden blessed presence of air conditioning. They were in an employee lobby, all beige institutional carpet and pale yellow paint on the walls -- and lo and behold, Buddha was smiling down upon them because there was an elevator door just steps away. Cooper launched for it, breathing a sigh of relief when the doors whispered open at their approach.
“Sixth floor,” she said for the elevator’s benefit as they both made it into the car. She took a grateful look at her wrist unit. 11:59. “We really might make it on time after all,” Cooper said aloud, the words almost a prayer. Carver slid a glance her way at that, and his normally stony expression was amused.
The elevator purred to a stop and the doors opened for them again, this time on a wide office hallway that was crisp black tile and spotless white wall paneling, with several smoked-grey glass office doors stretching away down the hall before them. At the end of the hall was a lobby area -- or at least what she guessed would prove to be a lobby area, hopefully with an attending receptionist who could point their noses in the right direction. Air conditioning wasn’t necessary here to make the temperature drop several degrees, Cooper thought sourly as she stepped through the elevator doors.
Carver stepped out beside her, leaving the elevator doors to whisper closed at their backs. “Remember,” Cooper said aloud, trying to psych herself up and turn Abby’s advice into a reality. “Smile. A lot. And say nothing more than ‘nín hǎo’ until the cavalry arrives.”
Carver turned toward her, and Cooper had the impression that he was going to say something. She shifted her weight to her cane, striding forward --
-- and suddenly the entire world jolted violently sideways.
falling on my face was Cooper’s fragmentary thought, with a surge of frustrated embarrassment with her own disability. But no, it wasn’t just her -- it was the floor itself that was sliding out from beneath her while, surreally, there was a spray of dirt and debris spattering out at them from around the elevator’s closed doors. Then Cooper was falling in earnest, her cane lost as the tile hallway disappeared in front of her, until hands caught her with bruising force and wrenched her back. Carver hauled her backwards, slinging her bodily behind him into the corner of the hall. She hit the wall hard, and the last thing Cooper knew was a heavy weight slamming into her and pressing her into the corner with crushing force. Then darkness overwhelmed her, and Cooper knew nothing at all.