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High Noon At Sturges

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July 23, 2514; Capital City on Sturges, a moon of Aphrodite
17:40/20:40 Standard Sihnon Time

The goats were rounded up and the lasagna was put into the oven to bake. The ship’s academic guest was shown to a guest cabin, and Hoss was settled into the galley crew lounge, where he could prop up his feet and relax under medical supervision. Cooper was working on dishes for that night’s iftar feast, to be served once Fatima’s daily observance of Ramadan had ended. All in all, things aboard the ship had been put to rights by the time the two federales arrived at the cargo bay door.

“Show them up,” Cooper said into the comm, then stabbed the control panel with a finger to cut it off. An hour had not even passed yet since the crew had returned to the Jin Dui. She felt as though she was swimming in the too-large Sturges Sawyers jersey she had been given, and she was afraid that if she ever allowed herself to sit down again, she wouldn’t be able to get back up. “Can you grab that tin of cookies from the aft counter and get them on the table for me?” she asked Fatima, as the other woman got up from visiting with Hoss in galley lounge. “I’m going to fall on my nose trying to get there.”

“Certainly,” Fatima said. “Anything else I can help out with?”

It was a measure of how exhausted Cooper was that she was simply grateful for the offer. “Can you get this on the table for me? Just put it right down next to that envelope Halo left us -- next to it, but not on top of it,” she said, waving at the tray she’d already stocked with mugs, the sugar bowl, and a little pitcher of fresh cream. “And be ready for a call-up,” Cooper added, as Fatima moved the tray to the center of the galley table. “I’m sure they’ll have some close questions for all of us.”

Fatima nodded and ghosted out of the galley, heading forward for her cabin, while footsteps approached up the starboard stairs from the cargo bay. Sully arrived first, followed by the two investigators and then Carver. Carver was also still dressed in the stadium-issued sweats, but on him, at least, they looked correct. He did not look like a man who’d had the seven floors of a building blown away from beneath him only hours ago. Cooper was so bone-achingly weary that in this moment, she could almost hate the former marine for his stamina.

“Welcome aboard the Jin Dui,” she said, moving the hissing kettle from the burner of the grill counter to the woven trivet on the galley table. “I’m Captain Bet Cooper. You’ve already met my XO, I see. In the lounge behind you is my mechanic, Hohepa Hoeata. Hoss is under concussion-watch, so just pretend the big guy is invisible. Gentlemen, please, have a seat. Water’s boiling and you’ve a choice of teas.”

The two investigators, both men, took their seats at the middle of the galley table. One was an Asian man of Chinese heritage, the other dark-skinned and sloe-eyed. They were both dressed in black suits, one with a silk cravat, the other a crimson tie. “Lieutenant Uwe Braun, Sturges Interpol liaison to the local Civil Defense Bureau,” the man with the silk cravat said, indicating his companion before identifying himself, “and Lieutenant Hayaf Sharma, Alliance Judge Advocate. Thank you for seeing us so quickly.”

Cooper shared a quick look with Sully, having not been aware of having had any choice in the matter. She sat across from the two investigators, and Sully slid into the seat beside her. “My crew and I all want to see justice done in this matter,” she said, looking up as she heard steps clattering up the aft stairs. Abby ducked in through that hatchway, her mahogany hair braided back in a smooth plait and her make-up masterful. The woman looked prim and business-ready in red heels, a long, narrow pleated skirt and a white silk shirt under a crimson-and-gold waistcoat. “Abigail Baldwin,” Abby said, settling into the chair at Cooper’s other side. “Ship’s solicitor,” she added. “I do assume you’ll be recording all conversations with the ship’s crew today, gentlemen?” Abby smiled sweetly enough that Cooper had to wrestle her eyebrows out of an arch. “We certainly will be ourselves.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Braun replied, stone-faced, while Sharma was giving Abby an assessing look.

“Baldwin’s a graduate from some lofty school in the Core,” Cooper felt it necessary to say, giving Abby an assessing look of her own. “Tea?”

It took a few minutes to serve up the tea properly. Braun took his green tea straight, Sharma black tea with a dash of cream and a teaspoon of sugar. “We’ll need to speak with each of your crew in turn,” Sharma said, continuing to be the talking head of the pair. “We understand that most of your crew were personally impacted by the events of today, but we’ve also found that two of them were the last to speak with our leading suspects in the bombing. After which, only minutes later, your ship and the suspects’ ship were only two of a handful to escape from the lockdown on the docks. It is a ...remarkable ...coincidence.”

“We will want to start by questioning Mr. Hoeata, and by questioning your pilot W. Williams as well,” Braun interjected.

Cooper wanted to slump back in her chair, or maybe just beat her head against the galley table until she’d knocked herself senseless. “Yeah. Well. About that… “ She stirred another teaspoon of sugar into her own faux-Earl Grey, wishing it were a substance much, much stronger. “I’ve got some questions of my own for that particular pilot, but as of approximately 1336 this afternoon, he appears to have decided to terminate his own employment with this ship by abandoning his duty station. He left us a hand-written note -- “ she gestured to the envelope at the center of the galley table “ -- and did not even wait to collect the wages due to him. Comments he’d made to me in confidence some months ago left me with the understanding that he may have gone similarly AWOL from duty as an Alliance support & logistics pilot during the War.”

Braun was the one who reached first after the envelope Halo had left behind. He opened it, read the note, then passed it over to his companion without comment. Cooper and the rest of her crew had already read what it said:

Everyone -- I am sorry to run off like this. But I think things are about to get very hot, and I can’t afford to be here when the Feds start asking close questions. My apologies. Please keep all of my games and enjoy them. Know I’ll miss you all. -- Bill.

“Bill’s quarters are just as he left them,” Cooper told the two investigators. “You’re welcome to take a look and take anything you find that you think smells hinky. And my numbers man, Marcus Chang, is up on the bridge as we speak, putting together a data package for you that contains all of Jin Dui’s comms data since coming into the Georgia system, as well as our internal security vids since our arrival onworld." Cooper hesitated, belatedly realizing a data point she had overlooked. “Oh, and you should know we’ve currently got a guest aboard the ship as well -- one Torenberg West, a professor from somewhere in the Core who’s slumming it out here on the Border, gathering research material. He helped some of members of my crew out during the disaster down on the docks, and we brought him home with us for a good night’s feed and a clean bunk, since I understand his ship was lost. He’s a friendly sort of civ, I’m sure he’ll be happy to tell you everything he’s witnessed -- and who knows, maybe he got a good look at the suspect as well. Anyway -- if there’s anything else we can provide you gentlemen in order to help you do your jobs, please ask me or my XO. I am confident that none of my crew has had anything to do with today’s events, beyond being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and considering the damage it’s caused us -- physically and financially -- I consider any help we can provide in catching the qín shòu bù rú bastards responsible to be the best form of payback.”

The two investigators shared an impenetrable look that Cooper would have paid cold, hard cash to translate, and then Sharma gave a business-like smile. “Do you have somewhere aboard where we may conduct the interviews privately --” he held up one finger to interrupt Abby’s automatic protest -- “counsel included, of course,” he asked.

“If you gents will excuse me, I’ll just slip away to the bridge,” Sully said, rising from his seat with a smile and heading forward. Cooper rose from the table as well. “Then the crew lounge is all yours for now,” Cooper said. “My mechanic is under my medical watch, so you both find the cushions over there more comfortable. Maritime law allows a ship’s captain to be present for any questioning of ship’s crew, but I’ve got work to do in the galley here so I won’t be in your way. The rest of the crew are below decks for now, with orders to keep scarce. You want hatches sealed for privacy?”

“Please,” Sharma said, his manner showing no displeasure -- although Braun’s frown did it for him.

Cooper gave them her politest smile and limped over to the galley comm panel. “Seal us in, Sully,” she asked. “Set comms on privacy and let crew know we’re on temporary Alliance lockdown for now.” She turned away and went back to her iftar preparations, only halfway through her paneer rolls and the chicken biryani. “Let’s hope they’re done with Hoss before dinner time,” she added with a bit of forlorn hope. But Cooper didn’t let herself hope for it too hard. She had her crew had probably used up all of their good luck during the chaos of the day -- and for that, she couldn’t be more grateful.


Iftar = a traditional meal shared with friends and family after a day’s fasting during Ramadan.
qín shòu bù rú = worse than a beast / to behave immorally

… three days later…
Custer Hills, Sturges
July 26: 11:55 local time/14:55 Standard Sihnon Time


Captain Cooper signed the manifest presented to her on the docker’s tablet, pressed her thumb into the ID-dent, then passed the workslate back to the plump, curly-haired forewoman. "All the i's are dotted, all the t's crossed," she said. "The paperwork’s all in order, so my man Chang’ll help your guys get those cans aboard."

The stout dockworker gave the document a quick scroll, then nodded her own satisfaction. "Aye aye," she said, then turned and gestured for the driver of the transport truck to roll in closer, while Chang jogged down the gangway ramp to help oversee in Hoss’s absence.

“We’ve got cargo about to roll on,” Cooper said, pressing the earbud in her ear to transmit. “Hoss got that damn dryer fixed yet?”

“Sorry, captain," came Fatima's voice in Cooper’s ear. "Sounds like the dryer is not only blowing smoke again, it’s throwing sparks as well. Hoss and Sully are still both working on it, but neither can fix it. Hoss thinks we might just have to replace the whole unit; if we do, Sully suggests we might be able to find a fire sale somewhere hereabouts."

“Oh ha ha ha,” Cooper said sourly, not much appreciating her XO’s joke, even if she did appreciate he was willing and able to make it. “Tell the comedy team that they’ve got two hours and two hours only if they wish to find a replacement, on a budget of 100 cred tops.”

“Aye aye, captain,” Fatima replied, sounding pleased. Satisfied in turn, Cooper limped back across the cargo bay, climbing the stairs slowly in order to join Carver at his vantage point on the mid-bay gantry.

Like everyone else on her crew, Cooper was feeling the after-affects of the port city’s twin disasters three days before. The first day after had been bad. The seond day after that had been the worst. Today, well, at least today she could walk -- something she was infinitely grateful for after the ship’s landlock had been lifted unexpectedly that morning. Cooper had expected the orders to keep them ground-bound would have lasted a few days more, but apparently not. She and her crew had satisfied Braun and Sharma of their innocence, after two days of pointed interrogations, poring through the ship’s data, and combing through Halo’s cabin having failed to produce any damning evidence. Cooper had expected her ship would remain on some intel desk’s watch-it list indefinitely -- arguably, the Jin Dui deserved to be, what with the coincidence of Hoss’s encounter with his Dust Devil and Halo’s mysterious departure. She was taking that green-light and getting off the world as soon as possible, before their run of good luck could change.

Securing cargo outbound had been almost sinfully easy. With most of the Sturges port facilities still crippled, having a mid-bulk transport that was VTOL capable and able to land virtually anywhere there was a flat patch of earth meant that there were shippers eager to pay a premium for space in the Jin Dui’s hold for cargo that was overdue already somewhere else. Cooper had taken up a contract for a full load of parts for delivery at Regina in two day’s time, and met the cargo trucks in an empty parking lot on the outskirts of Capital City. Her contacts at Burwell Shipping would have paid her twice as much to take a similar load instead to Hera, but she had turned that offer down flat. No way in hell she was going back to Hera, of all worlds, not after a Dust Devil attack at Sturges.

“Full cargo of parts for Regina,” she said to Carver as she joined him and Odin; the three-legged dog sat at Carver’s other side, watching the activity beneath them with avid attention, like a missile just awaiting launch orders. “We get a nice bonus if it’s delivered within two days.”

Carver nodded, his eyes never shifting away from the first delivery truck and its load of cans as it pulled up at the end of the gangway. “It’s about 44 hours to Regina,” he said.

“And we’ve got a scheduled departure in less than two.” Cooper leaned against the gangway railing, glad to have the prospect of being outbound again, so soon, after everything else the ship and crew had experienced during the last few days. “So I’m thinking our chances of earning that bonus are good.” She arched her neck, stretching her shoulders and feeling the ripple of radiating soreness down her spine. The bruising she had developed after the bombing had been technicolor -- she wasn’t sure how much of that was having been body-slammed into a wall by her security officer, and how much of it had been a side effect of the radaway meds. Whichever the cause, most of the rest of the crew had also been moving more slowly and deliberately the last few days, so at least she kept good company. “Have you seen any sign of him?” she asked next, her question pitched more quietly than the words before it.

Carver didn’t ask, seemingly needing no effort to read her mind. “No,” he responded simply. “Halo wanted to vanish. So he did.”

Cooper sighed and nodded. She was grateful Carver didn’t ask any questions or offer any further insights. Halo’s abrupt departure stung. As captain, Cooper had a difficult time not processing it emotionally as a betrayal of her, of the ship, of the makeshift family she had felt the crew had been forming.

Worse, maybe -- for the last couple of days, she had been sweating the possibility that Halo might come slinking back to the ship. On the one hand, she was shocked that the pilot hadn’t -- after all, Custer Hills was hardly a busy spaceport, and the regional economies were entirely agricultural. Cooper could not imagine where Halo had gone to ground to hide, or how he had negotiated his way out of the area -- or with whom he might have sheltered. Maybe he did have contacts with the terrorists, was the thought she did not want to think. Or at the very least, friends in the area we knew nothing about.

If Halo had come creeping back to the Jin Dui and begged to return, Cooper was not sure what she would have done. Or worse. She knew what she should do, were that to have happened. Halo’s disappearing act had left a stink on the Jin Dui which would take a long time to wash off. In order to protect her ship and her crew, Cooper knew she would have had to call up the Sturges authorities and turn the man over to them if he had come slinking back to them. Her crew would probably see that as the cowardly choice of action, but rot it all, the Jin Dui had already earned far too much Alliance attention. She could not afford what it would cost them if they were caught with Halo aboard. Not now.

Best to get the hell off this moon as soon as we can, and abandon Halo to his own choices, she thought bitterly to herself, feeling her gut twist and turn in shame. Maybe I am a coward for it, but rot it all -- Van Hooven’s deal with me as captain is to avoid bringing attention down on him and on his business dealings. The Sturges portmaster will have sent a duplicate of that 5K fine to Van Hooven, same as it hit the ship’s general account. And if that doesn’t have Van Hooven pissing shards of glass, I’m sure having the Jin Dui coming up in the Cortex somewhere as a suspected associate of the Dust Devils will. And hell’s bells, I still don’t have a clue what those old warrants were that the portmaster had issued that summoned me down to the federal center in the first place…

Cooper realized she must have made some noise of distress, because Carver was suddenly watching her attentively. Cooper met his green-eyed gaze and shrugged. “I want off this moon yesterday,” she muttered, then sighed and forced a more hopeful expression onto her face. “At least there’s a bit of good news,” she said to Carver. “The prof ran the last of the sims with Fatima this morning -- he’s a competent pilot, alright. We won’t have to worry about hiring a replacement pilot until we get to the Eavesdown Docks again, so that’s a relief.”

Carver’s gaze shifted back to watching over Chang and the dock workers who were unloading and securing the ship’s cargo. It was only after a moment or two of consideration that Carver nodded agreement with her observation. Cooper smiled at that, finding it a small comfort. She liked that Carver didn’t automatically yes-ma’am her. And the arrangement they had reached with Professor West was a relief. The Jin Dui needed a pilot, and the professor needed a ride back to Persephone, circuitous as the Jin Dui’s itinerary would be. The Professor seemed just as eager for another tour of the Rim as he was to get back to the Core, and he’d made a good impression with Cooper over the past few days. “Chang hasn’t been able to sniff up anything objectionable about him from his covert Cortex searches -- just a lot of academic papers and such. So I sat down with the Prof and got the hire-on paperwork signed.”

Carver nodded again, while below there, there was a clatter of footsteps, and both Hoss and Sully came jogging out of the lower passenger dorm hatchway, heading outbound through the practiced waltz of the docker loading the Jin Dui’s cargo. “Two and a half hours to departure and counting!” Cooper shouted after them in an encouraging tone. Hoss turned and gave her a happy wave. “And a 100 cred limit!” she reminded them as well, for good measure. The captain leaned against the gangway railing, watching her crewmen go, and smiled after their backs in satisfaction. “Let’s get off this moon on schedule,” she said aloud, speaking more for herself than for Carver beside her. “On schedule, and all in one piece. After all we’ve been through here, that’s all I can ask for, and I’ll be grateful to get it.”