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High Noon At Sturges

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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 2130 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 1139. 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 Van Hooven’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 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 strolling along 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 about to give 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.

 



Chapter Text

July 23, 2514; Capital City on Sturges, a moon of Aphrodite
12:00:05 local time/15:00:05 Standard Sihnon Time

Halo was kicked back on the bridge, comfortable in his pilot’s chair, watching a rebroadcast of a Threshers’ game on one screen while playing a game of Rettris on another, when the sound of a distant explosion rolled over the Jin Dui.

“Tā mā de!” Halo was not even conscious of reaching after the overhead switches that toggled the Jin Dui's reactor off idle, or of his fingertips dancing over the keys with an emergency override code. War-trained nerves twitched and twitched hard -- he didn’t question the source of that bone-shaking percussive thunder, he simply reacted to it. The Jin Dui's controls went live under his hands even as an automated warning from the Portmaster’s office red-screened both monitors. Halo fired up the ship’s engines, ignoring the emergency alarms that action triggered.

“Gǎo shénme guǐ?!” shouted Sully through the Jin Dui's open comm. “Halo, what’s going on up there?”

At the same time, a fresh warning began to ring. Halo recognized the too-friendly chirp-and-chirp tones of the radiological alarms. “Oh god oh god oh god, it was a nuke!” Halo moaned, unaware he was even speaking aloud.

“Halo! Why’ve you started up the engines?” Sully was asking from belowdecks, sounding increasingly alarmed himself. Halo didn’t break his combat-trained concentration to process his XO’s question. Down at Port Control, Halo knew another human had to issue the commands to landlock every ship sitting at dock. So it was his reflexes in a race against a stranger’s as he punched in commands of his own, and felt the ship’s familiar shudder and groan as the engine pods swiveled for VTOL lift-off.

“Cào nǐ mā!” came Sully’s disembodied protests from the passenger dorm below.

The monitors were all flashing red now. Halo didn’t need to read the text of the Portmaster’s automated warning to know what it said. He knew there were laws and regulations aplenty about not making an unauthorized departure in a controlled urban airspace. He was breaking at least a dozen of those when he took the yoke in hand and brought his ship off the ground. Halo automatically corrected the Jin Dui's slide to the right from those RCS thrusters Hoss could never quite charm into staying fully aligned, and gunned the power as hard as he dared.

The Jin Dui was 73 meters and climbing when the landlock went into effect. The Firefly’s altitude overrides cancelled out that command, winning the ship’s autonomy. Halo kept one eye on his scan and one eye on what he could see outside of the cockpit, aware that he wasn’t the only trigger-happy pilot to have been sitting at port. There was an Exeter tramp freighter four berths down that was rising in near unison with the Jin Dui, and at the far end of this wing of the docks, he could see a Knorr mid-bulk already well on its escape. And of sudden immediate concern -- a hotshot in a big Kwai Su Nyao transport had gotten his workhorse off the ground before the landlock was issued, but the rusty old mid-bulk was slewing dangerously close. Halo’s nerves fired before the collision alerts. He hammered a burst into the turbines and pulled his girl’s nose toward zenith, accelerating the ship upwards at a speed that likely broke another half-dozen safety regulations. The Jin Dui lurched up like she’d been mule-kicked, but her pilot’s instinctive reaction got her out of harm’s way as the Kwai Su Nyao passed within meters of her belly. Halo saw then that one of the Kwai’s thrust pods was only three quarters deployed, enough to give her lift but skewing any control. An experienced pilot would park her immediately, but this one was determined to succeed at the impossible.

“Get out of the way! Get out of the way!” Halo shouted helplessly at the Exeter’s pilot, watching the disaster unfold on his starboard vid display. The Exeter’s pilot realized the danger, and Halo saw the smaller ship’s main drive starting to light up a heartbeat before the Kwai Su Nyao plowed right into it. The broken hull of the Exeter went pinwheeling away, flinging pieces and cargo high and wide. The larger freighter faltered, heeled over, then angled back downwards, its two remaining thrusters able to do nothing to keep it aloft.

“Cào nǐ zǔ zōng shí -- oh shit!” Sully had arrived on the bridge from the passenger lounge, probably having broken some land-speed record. But the ship’s first mate left his insult unfinished and grabbed for a hand-hold, as Halo was banking the Jin Dui away hard from the disaster happening to starboard. Little Bao Yu had followed at her master’s heels and yelped as she lost her footing and rolled like a junebug to starboard out of Halos’ fixed field of view. The little dog popped up and huddled against Sully’s legs as the ship leveled out again. In retreat from the disaster at dockside, the Jin Dui swept low over Sturges city central, where a cloud of smoke and debris was still rising from the gutted ruins of a bombed-out officeplex.

“Oh shit,” Sully said, the words almost a whisper. “Tell me that’s not the Federal Building.”

Halo did not have the heart to answer that question. He turned the ship’s nose away instead, and pointed the Jin Dui for the horizon.


11:59 local time/14:59 Sihnon Standard Time

"Jiàn tā de guǐ!" Abby grumbled, catching herself after nearly tripping on her brand new high heels. "You'd think I wouldn't forget how to walk in just a year!"

Chang looked around the street, as best he could over the heads of the afternoon crowd of shoppers. "We could duck into that sports store and get you some running shoes," he offered without thinking.

"Tempting," Abby laughed, "But we're only a few blocks away."

"True." Chang agreed, inwardly annoyed at himself for the useless suggestion. Over the last two hours, as his crewmate had transformed herself from "Abby" to "Abigail Baldwin, high-powered attorney," Chang had felt his IQ drop a little further every step. He'd thought he was over his infatuation with her -- she'd been clear from Day One that she didn't see him that way -- but apparently there were still embers to flare up at a time like this. He kept scanning the crowd to keep himself from looking at her. She muttered under her breath, sounding like she was talking to someone on the earbud. She paused, then muttered again.

Chang's hand went into a cargo pocket and fingered the one thing he'd bought during the shopping spree; a cheap pair of video goggles.The ad had bragged about ‘Seventeen visual modes, including ionizing radiation for your safety! Built-in cellular link!’ That link was what he needed; all the modes were just amusing. He would have to sync the comms to their own system when he got back to the ship. Up ahead, Chang could finally see their destination and some sort of big traffic snarl in front of it. As they got closer, he thought he could see some kind of big delivery truck in the middle of it all, stopped and slewed at an odd angle.

Something in the back of his mind woke up, and said 'Oh, shut up,' he thought back at that voice. 'If you'd warned me back on the Lucky Day, that might've been useful. I don't need you to quote old documents at me like some paranoid--'

BOOOOM!

Chang stumbled back a step, almost falling on his ass. A huge column of smoke bloomed up ahead. Glass fell from windows. People started to stagger this way and that. Some had instantly dropped behind cover; Chang looked around and realized Abby was one of them, never mind the suit and heels. 'Oh, right,' he thought distantly. 'It's an explosion, she saw plenty of those in the war...' and only then did it actually occur to him to take cover himself. "Daigua!" he swore at himself. Standing there like a stupid sheep, like he'd done in the ambush by the Lucky Day... but no, he was ducked down beside a car. It must've been only a moment, because as he peered over the hood he could still see individual smoke trails arcing upwards out of the main cloud, burning fragments sailing up, and out, and coming down...

CRASH! Something landed on a parked car only a few meters away. Someone started screaming. Abby leaped up, running in her new heels to the vehicle. Chang followed automatically. Whatever had landed on the car was heavy, staving in the passenger-side roof by a decimeter or two. If someone had been sitting there, Chang hoped they were short, or else their skull might've been staved in too.

"Zhēn dǎoméi! It's locked!" Abby said. "Looks like someone's hurt, though. Can't see too well through the tinted windows."

The passenger-side door looked to be jammed shut by the bend in the roof, so Chang went to the other. The frame was bent a different way there, leaving a centimeter gap. Maybe it was enough. He pulled the little force probe out of his third left inside pocket and thumbed it to the ‘grip’ setting, dialing for maximum extension. He could barely see the field in this light, except for the way it disturbed the dust in the air. He slipped it through the widest part of the gap, then down the side of the door. This kind of car probably had a mechanical lock control, but the windows were tinted too dark to see it. Abby was saying something, but he didn't hear it as he fumbled on his cheap video goggles and played with the visual settings. One of them gave him a bright orange flash that made him blink, but one of the next few modes let him see just a bit better through the polarized plass window. Ah, there was the switch. The force probe could just barely reach it. The lock clicked and he opened the door.

Abby nearly dove inside. Chang caught a glimpse of bloody silver hair and heard the lawyer-turned-combat medic talking crisply and professionally to someone on the passenger side. All he could do was pull out his inadequate pocket first-aid kit and hand it in.

What was going on, anyway? He looked at the round metal object that had dented the roof. It seemed to be the lid from some small but thick metal container. Absently dialing back through the video modes, he caught that orange flash again and stopped. His gut lurched as he realized what mode he was in. ‘Ionizing radiation, for your safety!’ the advertising for the goggles had proclaimed. That had seemed like a joke when he'd bought the goggles, but the throbbing orange trefoil centered on that metal lid was the least funny thing he'd seen in weeks.

It had been thrown by an explosion. And up ahead a rising plume of dust hid most of the federal building. Anxiously Chang pulled his handheld and switched to the earbud setting. "Captain? Ship? Anybody there?"

Carver's voice came back at him. "Captain's down. I'm getting her out. Stay off the comms."

Somehow Chang had stepped back a few meters from the car. He went back over, trying to shoo away the knot of people watching Abby work. They let him through but only backed off a little. "Abby--"

Her grumble interrupted him. "What does Carver mean, stay off the comms?"

Keeping his voice low and urgent, he replied "He means, these earbuds we got off the Lucky Day use military frequencies and they're encrypted. We can't be the only crew with gear like this, but it still looks suspicious, and it'll stand out like a sore thumb if anyone's monitoring."

Just then the eerie three-toned radiation sirens started going off.

"And after this... they'll definitely be monitoring," Chang finished with a groan.


12:00 local time/15:00 Standard Sihnon Time

Fatima shifted her shopping bag to her left hand, giving her right a rest. Puzzles and games were surprisingly heavy, and she briefly wished she’d brought a backpack for carrying purchases instead. Suddenly being planetside again brought different challenges to her Ramadan fast from the routine she had gotten used to while the ship was in transit. Here, the sun was bright, and the day was hot. Her internal clock, used to the Standard Sihnon Time of the ship, was telling her that it was hours later than the sun’s noon position in the sky.

She and Hoss had caught up to the children for the moment, weaving in and out of the crowds of pedestrians and horse-drawn carts on the dockside frontage walk. She scanned the storefronts, looking for the hardware store Hoss wanted to visit next. They didn’t have many more stops to make before they could return to the cool familiarity of the Jin Dui.

BOOOOM!

The sound of the explosion stopped everyone in their tracks, heads swiveling and people turning, trying to figure out what direction it had come from. The maze of buildings and streets distorted the sound and its rolling echoes. “What the hell?” Cianán said, at the same time Tilly stopped and looked back at Hoss, asking, “What was that?”

Fatima met Hoss’s eyes. He was frowning, half his attention on the crowd as it started moving around them again, half looking for some evidence of a blast that huge. Most people seemed puzzled or curious, rather than alarmed. Many were checking minders on their wrists or on handhelds, trying to find news. “Your friend mentioned fireworks?” she said, uneasily, not really believing it herself.

Hoss shook his head. “Too early for fireworks. It’s just gone noon, maybe some kind of ceremonial cannon salute --?”

The air around them broke into a cacophony of noise. Behind them, in the spaceport, multiple ships’ engines fired up at once. From loudspeakers mounted somewhere on the row of dockside buildings, a three-toned alarm began to sound, and Fatima saw Hoss’s eyes go wide a moment before she realized what that pattern meant. That was a radiation alarm.

“A bomb,” she said, in growing horror. “That was a bomb.”

She and Hoss turned at once, back the way they’d come, back in the direction of the Jin Dui. Fatima reached out for Cianán’s shoulder, touching it to make sure he stayed grouped with them, as Hoss quickly convinced Tilly to jump up into his arms. There was no telling how far they were from the hot zone, not at the moment, but the Jin Dui meant safety in Fatima’s mind, and it was almost instinct to head for it…

So her stomach clenched and her heart nearly stopped when they wheeled around, to see a Firefly rising rapidly into the air from the berth the Jin Dui had been occupying. It took another moment for her to realize it really was their ship. Leaving.

“Tutae kuri,” said Hoss, echoed by Cianán’s “Tāmāde!”, as Fatima overcame her shock and tapped the earbud comm she was wearing.

“Halo? Captain? Anyone know what’s going on?” she asked, keeping her voice calm with an effort. Around them, the crowd was starting to move more rapidly, purposefully, though not yet in a panic.

There was no answer from Halo. Then came a response from Carver. “Captain's down. I'm getting her out. Stay off the comms.”

“Subhanallah,” she breathed. “Jin Dui is taking off. Hoss and I and the children are together. We will head for shelter,” she reported, succinctly, and then took their security officer at his word, switching the earbud off. She passed on the news to Hoss. “He didn’t say what happened, but if the Captain’s down, they must be near whatever it was.”

“Teko!” Hoss muttered, using the advantage of his height to look for their next move. Fatima kept a hand on Cianán’s arm, anchoring him to their group, reassuring herself that they were all together.

The city’s civil defense authority made the decision on their next move for them. A new noise intruded, vying for the crowd’s attention, this time repeated announcements in multiple languages. “Attention: please seek shelter in indicated buildings. Await further instructions from Central Admin and Civil Defense Services. Attention: please seek shelter --” Overhead, holograms began to appear, flashing red arrows pointing to the buildings they should be heading for. The computerized voice was barely audible over the continued radiation alarms and the near-deafening whine of the laboring engines of the ships still rising over the port.

Some part of Fatima had already realized that those ships were in trouble. The engine noise was too loud, too desperate, pushed too hard as they all tried to take off far too fast. There shouldn’t be that many ships taking off at once, she thought. In a disaster like this, there shouldn’t be any ships trying to take off at all. She barely had time to wonder why Halo had decided to take the Jin Dui airborne only moments after the sound of the bomb’s blast. But now there was a change in the tone of the straining engines, and though she had already turned to follow Hoss in the direction of the nearest shelter’s blinking red arrow in the sky, her gaze went back over her shoulder, pilot’s instincts screaming at her that something was very, very wrong.

She watched, appalled, as the Jin Dui turned her nose straight skyward and shot up, while a heavy Kwai Su Nyao slid sideways under her, barely missing the Firefly. Fatima could only watch as the big transport kept slewing as it rose, until it plowed into the slower Exeter freighter that had been on the Jin Dui’s other side. The Exeter lost control immediately, breaking apart as it spun. One of the Kwai’s thrusters, ramming into the smaller ship, caught fire and exploded. They were falling as one mass of screaming metal and futilely roaring engines. Debris and chunks of metal and cargo containers were flung away from both ships, their slanting course driving them towards the dockside buildings.

A crowd that had been moving with concern and purpose tipped over into panic. It was impossible to tell where the tangled ships would land, or what they would take down as they went, and nobody wanted to find out by winding up underneath them. Debris and cargo were already smashing into the buildings and dropping on the pedestrian strip, and somewhere off ahead of them, Fatima saw what looked like a pallet spin into the crowd. Hoss, carrying Tilly, was already in motion, pushing through the press of bodies towards the nearest hovering red arrow. She felt her sleeve tighten when Tilly reached down and clutched a fist-full of the material. The girl’s eyes were wide and her face had drained of color.

Fatima followed in Hoss’s wake, grateful for the mechanic’s size, and she kept an eye on Cianán as they moved -- not at a run, it wasn’t possible to run, the crowd was too thick. She was jostled from behind and from the side, as people pushed past her. Her shopping bag got knocked sideways and tangled between two other people, and then was ripped away. Instinct had her looking after it before she gave up on it, and she used her suddenly free hand to reach out place it on Cianán’s shoulder, trying to keep them together.

How far had they gotten? Would it be far enough? The ships would crash-land in moments and the entire crowd’s instinct was to get as far ahead of them as possible. Fatima winced as another piece of debris, flung in an arc from the crashing ships, slammed into a building just behind them, windows shattering and glass raining down on top of the close-packed people.

The ships hit the ground of the spaceport and obliterated a row of the dockside shops with a thundering sound louder than the bomb. The ground beneath them jumped like an earthquake. Hoss staggered, and Fatima fell into his back, losing contact with Cianán, Tilly’s grip on her sleeve torn away. The big mechanic caught himself before he fell, and glanced back even as he was plowing onward, Tilly still clinging to him, her arms around his neck, her face hidden. Fatima got her feet under her as well, turning to look for Cianán. She couldn’t hear anything but the scream of tortured metal and crashing masonry as the settling ships continued to smash a path through the buildings.

Fatima caught sight of Cianán’s distinctive blue-and-pink dyed mop of hair not far away. Dozens of people had fallen when the ships came down. Fatima would think later, how narrowly they’d escaped being under those ships, in those buildings -- the toy store was in the ruined block -- but now she had to focus on keeping everyone together, they had to stay together. She didn’t want to lose contact with Hoss, grabbing a fistful of the back of his shirt even as she strained towards Cianán. Men and women were scrambling back to their feet, some were being trampled by the press of the crowd behind them. She saw Cianán stumble as someone careened into him from the other side.

Her mouth was open to call for Hoss, her hand tightening on his shirt, the other grasping after the teen as he bounced off one person and was shoved away by another. He couldn’t regain his balance, one leg giving out beneath him, and Fatima glimpsed his eyes gone wide with sudden fear and pain as he began to fall.

She tried to stop, dragging back on Hoss’s shirt to get his attention when her yelling and Tilly’s screaming couldn’t do it. The big mechanic’s strength and determination dragged her along for several steps while she still strained towards Cianán -- and in the next moment, a man behind the teen checked his stride, bent, and came back up with his hands under the boy’s arms. Set on his feet again, Cianán pivoted back towards her, took a step, and Fatima saw more than heard him cry out, saw his grimace of pain as he tried to put weight on his other foot, starting to go down again --

The man who’d set him upright reached out, grabbed a wrist, and heaved the slender teen up and over his shoulder.

The man’s lips were moving, but Fatima couldn’t hear what he was saying, as Cianán twisted on his shoulder, looking for her and Hoss. Fatima got a quick impression of a solid figure in a long grey coat, and greying brown hair above a square-jawed face half-hidden by goggles. Spotting her straining hand and desperate expression, he moved sideways until he was behind her, stiff-arming someone else out of the way. “This is yours, I take it?” he shouted, practically in her ear, and she could finally hear his deep voice over the din. “Stop squirming, lad, you don’t want me to drop you.” Then she could hear Cianán cursing, high-pitched with fear and frustration, and the man flashed a quick smile.

Fatima had a moment’s instinctive mistrust of the stranger -- too sudden, too helpful too quickly -- just as her attempt to stop him got Hoss’s attention. He wheeled, the look of surprise on his face almost comical. “He aha te reinga?” Another big man pushed past them, snarling at them for having stopped, knocking Fatima into Hoss’s side. He put an arm around her shoulder.

“Cianán went down!” she shouted up at him, swallowing against a dry throat. The man carrying the teen waved with his free hand.

Hoss took it all in with a glance, and caught Cianán’s eye. “Can you walk?” he asked, his arm curling Fatima inward, a little bit more sheltered from the jostling crowd.

The teen’s face was a rapid mix of emotions, outrage and humiliation and pain and fear all at once. He started to say something, but the man carrying him interrupted.

“Let’s not test it, my boy,” he shouted, and Fatima could hear him at least, if barely. “You’re headed for the shelter ahead, and so am I. Let’s revisit the question then.” He lurched forward as someone crashed into his back before they careened away.

Fatima saw the practicality of it. They couldn’t stand here any longer. She knew it, and so did Hoss. “Stick close!” the mechanic said.

“Understood!” came the shouted reply, tone bright and encouraging, maybe for Cianán’s benefit.

Then they were moving again, Hoss using his bulk to carve a path in the crowd while Fatima kept one hand on his shirt, and one on Cianán’s trouser cuff, and Tilly regained her grip on Fatima’s sleeve. She couldn’t help her wariness of the helpful stranger, but she didn’t have time or attention to spare to work out the root of all her worries. Once they got to the shelter, there’d be time --

With a prolonged groan, a building just behind them gave way, collapsing in on itself as the huge plume of smoke and dust rising from the crashed ships and demolished shops expanded towards them. The entire crowd seemed to lurch to one side, away from the falling masonry and splintering glass raining from above. Someone’s elbow made bruising contact with her back, and Fatima felt Hoss’s shirt slip from her grasp, then momentarily lost contact with Cianán’s leg as well. Tilly screamed her name as Fatima’s sleeve was yanked out of her clammy fingers again.

She felt panic bubbling up in her chest, and for a moment she couldn’t see them, couldn’t see any of them, not Hoss and Tilly, or the grey man carrying the boy -- others had pushed between them, the billowing cloud of dust was rushing around them and enveloping everything. She was screaming Cianán’s name, desperate until she caught a glimpse of the man carrying him, reaching for them. She couldn’t even hear her own voice above the din. She never heard the rending sound of the building above them, its facade crumpling and collapsing onto the crowd below.

She didn’t hear it, but the man carrying Cianán saw it. He grabbed her wrist and pulled as he spun them both around, letting Cianán fall, with her on top of him, turning his back as a shield against the rain of wood and bricks.

Fatima tried to suck in a lungful of air, and choked on the dust, wiping her sleeve across her eyes. She was losing track of all the close calls, and the only thought now repeating in her head was, Where could they go? Where could they go? Where was safety? There had been shelters in the buildings behind them, the ones now reduced to rubble, lying under ruined spaceships. They couldn’t go back that way. She had to get herself up and see if they could still go forward. How far would they have to go to find a building that was safe? What more was going to go wrong?

The man in the grey coat straightened up from his defensive crouch, turning to look at the disaster in front of them. He’d let go of her, but kept his arm held out so she could use it to pull herself up. She did, starting to help Cianán sit up from where she’d fallen on him, hoping his wincing didn’t mean he’d been injured further. Only then did she look up, and realize two things. First, how close they were to the pile of rubble from the building’s collapsed front. And second, that she could not see Hoss and Tilly anywhere.



Chapter Text

July 23, 2514; Capital City on Sturges, a moon of Aphrodite
12:05 p.m. local time/15:05 Standard Sihnon Time

… flash of light and heat / a percussive thunder that she heard in her bones… …screams and the stink of cordite and burning flesh…

Cooper clawed her way out from that old nightmare to find herself in a new one. She was being carried through a choking darkness, half-crushed against a man’s broad chest. There was a cloth tied around her face, covering her nose and mouth and making breathing difficult. The air was thick with dust and smoke and the stink of burning plastics, and through the ringing in her ears, she could hear distant cries, like the muffled screams of the damned. She began to struggle, disoriented and bewildered, unable to separate past from present and fearing the cloth bound across her nose and mouth was meant to suffocate her.

“I got you.” Those three words were a subterranean rumble against her ear, centering her and quelling those first moments of panic. Carver. Sturges. A meeting at the Alliance Federal Building. Cooper flashed on the memory of a surreal spattering of grit from around closed elevator doors, and the sudden, sickening way the floor had just slid out from beneath her feet, like one of Halo’s board games sliding off the galley table. She sucked in a shaking breath through the cloth that half-choked her and grabbed after fistfuls of Carver’s flannel overshirt like a lifeline.

“Gǎo shénme guǐ?” she rasped, through a throat which felt seared raw.

“A big bomb,” came Carver’s muffled answer, delivered in a steady, professional monotone that she still felt as much as heard, with the side of her head crushed against his chest. “It was set somewhere in the front of the building -- that stalled truck would be my bet.” The world was growing lighter as he spoke; Carver was moving carefully, picking his way down a rubble-strewn stairwell through a haze of smoke and dust. He was similarly masked, bandito-style, with cloth tied around his nose and mouth. She realized that the fabric was torn from Carver’s undershirt -- he had fashioned masks for both of them, to provide what protection he from inhaling the worst of the caustic-smelling dust.

A truck bomb. Her mind seized on that kernel of information as something she could process, something she could focus on as a mission. Cooper had treated far too many blast injuries during the war -- as terrible as they were, the aftermath of a bombing was a horror she had both trained for and personally survived, and having some knowledge of what they now faced made the chaos around them less frightening.

Even movement-limited as she was at the moment, Cooper could assess herself for polytraumas -- everything hurt, but her lungs were working without obstruction, her abdomen wasn’t overly tender, and while her head ached, her first bout of disassociation upon waking had already begun to fade. Her mental acuity felt good, for what that was worth -- she’d suffered serious concussions before, she knew what the inside of a major helmet misfire felt like up close and personal, and knew she was not suffering from anything more than minor concussion symptoms. Blood was still getting to her brain, it wasn’t being diverted to internal injuries -- and when assessing blast wave injuries, blood still reaching the brain was always a key indication of likely long-term survival. Cooper was experiencing some tinnitus in both ears, but she could hear through that pulsing buzz. Furthermore, she could clearly hear Carver’s steady heartbeat through the flannel of his shirt, and his breath sounds against her ear sounded strong and measured. “You hurt?” she demanded.

“Not measurably.” She felt his hesitation more than she heard it. “But my minder is giving me a radiologicals alarm. We’ve gotten a strong dose of the glows.”

“Tā mā de!” Cooper took in that data, processed it, then sorted it aside as shit she could do fuck-all about for now. She moved her head cautiously, alert for nausea, and struggled to make sense of where they were. Carver had carried her as far down a set of stairs as he could. Finding the stairwell beneath them now was fully blocked with rubble, he was retreating back up the stairs to the last door above. That door opened when he tried it, but it took a great deal of shoving against the debris on the other side for him to open it enough to step through.

Through the swirling, muddy cloud of dust and smoke, she could see they were entering a ruined office corridor. Carver carried her up that hall, passing up several totally dark rooms before he turned toward the promise of light, into an office that looked like it had been ripped apart. The front-facing walls had simply been torn away, and most of the floor of the room had collapsed down into the office below. The smoke and dust was so thick that Cooper just closed her eyes against the rasp of it against her corneas. She felt Carver began picking his way carefully down through the rubble of a debris mound, shifting her weight so that he held her against him with his left arm and had his right free to steady himself in that perilous descent. Cooper was conscious of staying as still as possible as she realized how treacherous the footing was. As much as it stung Cooper’s pride, now was not the time to demand that she could walk on her own -- because without her cane, and with her crippled leg hurting from the blast, she probably would have been helpless to walk down a level, normal hallway, much less pick her way through a disaster zone like this.

Carver hit a loose patch of rubble and lurched precariously as his feet began to slide out from underneath him. Despite herself, Cooper yelped and flung up an arm to protect herself from the rain of pulverized concrete and debris that showered up around them. Somehow, Carver stayed upright. Cooper tried to tuck herself closer against his chest, helpless to do more than that to assist him. Carver skidded down a length of a rubble, the debris mound a virtual landslide around them, but he didn’t drop her. She tried not to think about what composed the choking dust they were breathing in, and shielded her face as best she could with her free arm.

She felt Carver’s physical effort as he made a leap sideways, and then he was solid-feeling on his feet again and moving with a cautious speed. Cooper warily opened her eyes. The air around them remained thick with smoke and the choking dust the color of chai. There was a deep crater to the left that plunged into the basement levels of the ruined building. Pieces of paper drifted down from the open floors above them, and water was streaming from a set of severed pipes somewhere to the right. Carver tried to skirt that waterfall as best he could as he made his way around the crater’s edge, but some of the scalding rain drops still found them and left blisters where they touched exposed skin.

Carver was still walking through a mass of rubble -- it was a debris field of chunked concrete, pulverised furniture, shredded paper, and what might prove to be identifiable pieces of human body, if Cooper choose to look any closer. It took Cooper an effort to realize they were back on the street again -- it was unrecognizable from the busy thoroughfare they had left only minutes before. The blast had thrown vehicles like they were children’s toys, and there were several enveloped in roiling flames and plumes of black smoke. Shattered glass from the Federal Building’s facade had ripped through the street traffic, mangling pedestrians and vehicles alike. Other survivors of the blast were moving through the smoke and thick, acrid dust. There was a three-tone civil defense alarm blaring from loudspeakers a block or two away, and the hungry noise of the nearest vehicle on fire -- but it was otherwise strangely quiet, quiet enough that she could still hear the rustle of the drifting rain of papers. Everyone’s in shock, Cooper thought, knowing the sensation far too well.

Then, as Carver side-stepped something body-like that was in his way, Cooper managed to look past his arm at what was behind them now. The bomb blast had sheared off the whole of the north face of the Federal Building, and there were multiple floors that had simply pancaked down upon one another. Movement caught her eye -- it was someone sitting at a desk in the corner of a room, the front wall torn off and the middle of the room fallen away into the debris-slide and crater far below. A desk was still hanging precariously on the ledge of that ruined office, and a woman in her silk suit was just sitting there, trapped in a triangular metre or two of remaining floor, staring down over the chaos in the street below with a face that was layered in dust like kabuki make-up.

Cooper looked away, turning her head to see the rubble-strewn city street. Across from the federal building minutes ago had been a green city park. Cooper could not recognizable it now, littered as it was with blast debris and burning vehicles. Nearly every window in the busy downtown center around them looked to have been shattered. “Abby,” she asked then, with a sudden, sick blooming of fear. She reached after her ear for her earbud, but found she had lost the comm unit in the explosion. “Abby and Chang?”

“They’ve checked in,” Carver told her. “They’re unhurt, but they’re within the warmzone, and they’ve been delayed.” There was a strange note to his voice that she recognized as having been hesitation only when he spoke again. “You need to know -- there’s been a collision at the docks. Halo and Sully got the ship away safe; Fatima has reported that she, Hoss and the kids are headed for a civil defense shelter.”

Cooper felt her heart lurch at the news, then settle again from Carver’s business-like delivery. She wasn’t going to panic, not under his watchful eyes. The ship was safe; Hoss was with Fatima and the kids, and Hoss would keep them safe. “Anything else I slept through?” she asked.

“I told the crew to stay off our encrypted comms. We’re going to have Alliance trouble as-is, we don’t want make it worse.”

Cooper looked up at her security officer’s half-masked face, initially confused by his words, then realizing the sense of them. She groaned and just let herself sag for a moment, closing her eyes wearily. She knew Carver’s assumption was the correct one. Dirty bombs didn’t happen by accident -- someone with doubleplusbad intentions had to set them. And today was the anniversary of the Battle of Sturges -- which made resentful browncoats the primary suspects. Chang was a former Intel desk jockey for Independent HQ, so hopefully the feds wouldn’t think him a likely terrorist. But Cooper herself was a former Independent officer, and the survivor of a notorious war crime the Alliance was still actively denying responsibility for. And Carver… well, his skillsets and service record alone would put him on any algorithm-produced Alliance red-hot-tango list.

When she opened her eyes again, Cooper saw that Carver had carried her to the end of the extended city block. The last of the burning vehicles were behind them, but the muddy brown cloud of dust was still hanging thick as a pea-soup fog. The street traffic here had been jammed up all the way to the intersection at the time of the blast; one of the vehicles that had been waiting to pass through that intersection was the ambulance whose siren Cooper could dimly recall having heard approaching while she and Carver had been entering the Alliance HQ building. The driver’s side of the ambulance was crushed, struck with brutal force by what might have been a corner food cart, its umbrella lodged through the ambulance windshield. The ambulance’s red flashing lights were still strobing, but its alarm had been cut off, replaced by a standard civil defense broadcast. “... please seek shelter immediately in an undamaged building…” the generic, computer-constructed voice was saying in a mild tone. “... shelter in place and await further instructions from Central Admin… “

A single EMT was nearby, treating an older man in a dark suit who had been badly lacerated by flying glass. Cooper pointed with her chin and Carver carried her there. The EMT looked up at them as Carver carefully set Cooper down. The medic looked terribly young, and her eyes were wide with half-controlled fear.

“This’s far enough,” Cooper said to Carver, squeezing his arm in thanks. “Ma’am,” she said to the EMT, putting on her crisp Officer Voice like it was a familiar piece of clothing. “I’m Captain Bet Cooper, and I’m a former trauma surgeon with the 67th Forward Combat Hospital.” She deliberately didn’t add which side that unit had served -- the poor girl looked overwhelmed as-is. “Have you received orders from your command?”

“The comm system is down, I can’t get through to anybody,” the EMT replied.

“Carver, give me your earbud,” she told her companion. Carver handed it over without question, and as she wedged that into her ear, “What’s your unit’s broadcast frequency?” she demanded of the paramedic, looking for the woman’s name badge.

“PD dash 08-point-1-point-21,” replied the young woman -- her badge read M. Sun -- with a look of dawning relief at no longer being alone in the face of this emergency.

Cooper subvocalized her way into that channel, her encrypted comm unit accessing that busy comm stream like a sudden flood of high-tension noise in her ear. “I’m reporting in for EMT Sun;” Cooper said into the first opportunity she found. “We are at the intersection of 5th and Hemingway, within the warm zone and two blocks north of the bomb site. Wind is westerly; current rad exposure is unknown. No known PPE available. Has an incident command post been established yet?”

“Who the hell is this?” responded a older man’s voice, too professional to sound startled.

“Captain Elizabeth Cooper, formerly 67th Mobile Medical, Field Trauma Rating 12-12. This ain’t my first rodeo, sir. EMT Sun is hands-on stabilizing a patient with severe lac, so I’m stepping in to assist. Do we have an Incident Command established? We got a need-to-know where to point our walking wounded, and permission requested to establish a warm zone triage site for survivors unable to self-evac.”

“Shōudào,” said the older man, too professional to sound relieved. “IC is just six blocks north of you at the edge of the cold zone, at 11th and Hemingway. We’re getting field decon operations set up now. Site assessment drones from Unit 2 are coming into place; cargo drones with PPE and an iso bubble are being dispatched to your coordinates now. What are your current exposure readings?”

Cooper looked around for the paramedic’s kit -- it was well out of her reach, so she gave Carver a look and pointed. He didn’t ask questions -- he just reached for the open field kit and grabbed out the long scintillator wand, tearing it out of its packaging for her before handing it over. She triggered its on-cycle, then ran it over her right arm experimentally, looking at the holo-display readout. She frowned at what she saw, then ran a pass down the left side of her body, which had been held in contact against Carver. “I’m getting baseline readings off myself of 75 SVI up to 264, isotope unknown ”

“Shōudào. Readings confirmed. Supplies are on their way, and we’ll get you back-up ASAP. Monitor this channel for further instructions, Captain.”

“Aye, sir.” Cooper caught Carver’s eyes again -- he was watching her in anticipation of her next order. “Is there a marker in the kit?” she asked. Carver pulled one from the thigh pouch of his BDUs instead and tossed it to her. She nodded thanks and pointed toward the ambulance. “Can you get me a broadcast over that?” she asked, and Carver moved at once to lean into the vehicle’s cab and work the controls.

“What’re we doing?” Sun asked, looking at Cooper expectantly. “The chief is sending help, isn’t he?”

“Supplies by drone, and some warm body back-up thereafter,” Cooper reassured the young medic. “You and me, soldier, we’re setting up our triage here; anyone who can walk on their own can head on forward six blocks to the incident command post, where there are decontamination units being set up to process patients before they’re sent on to whatever the local medical center is. You and me, we need to triage the injured needing stabilization before they can be decon’d and evacced.”

The default radiological warning message being broadcast from the ambulance suddenly went silent. Cooper was still trying to get verbal access and control patched to her earbud when Carver came back to her, carrying a pair of crutches. He handed them to her. “Try D-port-6-3,” he suggested, and Cooper found that worked. She nodded thanks -- for both the advice and the crutches -- and began to subvocalize her message for broadcast.

“Record begin: ‘If you can hear this and you are not already sheltering in place, follow my voice to the intersection of 5th & Hemingway for further instruction and medical assistance. If you cannot walk, make noise or motions so that rescuers can come to you. If you are sheltering in place, remain in your shelter unless you require immediate medical attention, until civil authorities provide further instruction.’ End record, broadcast loop two minute interval.” Satisfied, Cooper blew out a breath and looked at Carver. “I can use your help here, but...” she said, reluctant to say the words that would send him away.

Carver nodded, correctly reading her mind. “There’s folks back there in the building who need help,” he agreed. “I’ll bring you some patients,” he promised, before turning and heading back into the chai-colored cloud of dust and smoke. Cooper refused to watch him go. She took the opportunity instead to inspect what supplies the EMT had in her go-bag, while the ambulance began to play back the first loop of Cooper’s broadcasted message.



Chapter Text

July 23, 2514; Capital City on Sturges, a moon of Aphrodite
12:10 p.m. local time/15:10 Standard Sihnon Time

“... Correction. This is Aphrodite Control. Disregard all previous communications from the controllers at Custer Hills. Aphrodite Control is assuming responsibility over all airspace on Sturges. Repeat. Aphrodite Control is assuming all responsibility for airspace over Sturges. This is recognized as a civil emergency, Alpha Code Crimson. Repeat: Alpha Code Crimson. All vessels in Sturges airspace are being tracked and are commanded to immediately alter course to Hesiod Docks orbiting Aphrodite. Repeat, all vessels now airborne are required to alter course for dock at the Fleet Hesiod skyplex. A total ground stop order has been issued for the moon of Sturges. Repeat: a total ground stop order has been issued for the moon of Sturges. Any pilot who attempts to disregard this civil emergency order will have immediate action taken upon them by Alliance Fleet personnel.”

Sully wasn’t even aware of cursing under his breath. He was strapped into the the co-pilot’s chair, while Halo continued at the helm. The Jin Dui had been originally directed by the panicky air control officers from Custer Hills' small port facility on the outskirts of the moon’s second-largest population center, to land there. Now, it seemed that the Alliance chain of command from the planet which Sturges orbited was taking control of the moon’s situation.

“We’re getting rerouted up to the Alliance fleet dock,” Sully said, with a worried glance at scan. Apart from the two ships which had collided over the Sturges docks, there were three other ships who had gotten clear of Sturges before the landlock had gone into effect. Like the Jin Dui, two of three other ships had been ordered to land at Custer Hills, but the fourth ship, a Knorr mid-bulk freighter, had vanished off the screen within seconds of Sully’s first glance at scan and had not yet reappeared. He grimaced, wondering if it had taken some damage in the emergency lift-off and gone down somewhere over the well-populated farmlands and suburbs that surrounded the lunar capital.

“The feds want to lock us all down where we’ll be in easy reach when they want to start questioning us,” Halo said, sounding bleak.

“Question us?” Sully looked askance at his crewmate, blindsided by that observation. “Question us? What for?” he asked -- but even as he did, his brain supplied the answers. “We witnessed the ships collide at the port. And whatever that was at the Alliance building. You don’t think that was an accidental explosion?”

“Today’s the anniversary of the Battle of Sturges,” Halo replied. “Nyet. I don’t expect it was an accident,” he muttered. “And neither will the Alliance.”

Sully scowled, thinking that over. He thought of Chang, Hoss and Cooper, who were all browncoats and thus possibly suspect. And then there was Carver. That man’s military resume alone would make him someone the Alliance would want to get into an interrogation room for a some close questioning, never mind the little fact that his disfiguring scars left him looking like the ideal central casting villain from a cheapass holovid.

“Réncí dì dìyù! -- I don’t want to get locked down at dock at Aphrodite,” Sully muttered. “We talked to our people, we know they are alive back at Port Sturges -- they’re going to need us to extract them as soon as we can find a way to do so.” Sully thought about it for a moment more, then reached after the manuals and triggered the hull breach alarm. “Sorry,” he muttered to Halo’s wild-eyed look as that alarm blared out, then toggled on primary comm main channel.

“Aphrodite Control, this is Firefly 82669. Shōudào that command to proceed to Hesiod Docks, but I am requesting permission for emergency clearance to remain enroute to Custer Hills. We've sustained external damage and have possibly lost hull integrity. Repeat, we have a possible hull integrity compromise and cannot safely leave atmo. Please advise.”

“Firefly 82669, shōudào. One moment please.” There was a long pause as that request was likely sent up channel for a decision. “Firefly 82669, understood,” came the response shortly thereafter. “Reroute to Custer Hills. Upon landing, understand that you will be landlocked for the duration of this civil emergency.”

“Shōudào, and xiè xiè Aphrodite Control. Maintaining altitude at 15-hundred, enroute to Custer Hills, ETA 18 minutes.” Sully cut the connection, and saw rather than heard Halo’s deep sigh of relief. “On to Custer Hills,” Sully said. “And once we’re there, let’s see who I can find there to speak to who can get us clearance for one shuttle flight right on back to Port Sturges. I don’t care if the Jin Dui gets landlocked there, just so long as I can find a way to get back to the city to collect our crew.”

 


12:05 local time/15:05 Standard Sihnon Time

Tilly hadn’t seen the wall that had come crumbling down on Hoss as he carried her. Flashes of her last moments on Shadow had been rattling in her brain ever since the bomb had sent the first few screams into the air; and then when she heard the first few footfalls and cries of panicking citizens pounding into the dust. She had seen what riots could do before.

As chaos had picked up and everyone had started running and ships started colliding overhead, she hadn’t known what to do or where to look. Every roar of splintering vessels or shattering windows sent her flinching and instinctively burying her face in Hoss’s shirt. She certainly hadn’t seen the building collapsing. Part of her had been looking the other way, switching her focus between keeping an eye on Fatima and Cianán while also trying to spot their destination up ahead – but despite her best efforts, her loved ones were still torn from her anyway. Again.

Only this time, she wasn’t the lucky one who escaped.

The memory of those final few seconds rattled around in her head like an image capture playing on a loop…and within the repeating echoes, she recalled hearing the groan of the cement and the thundering crash. Hoss had seized her tighter in an instant and leaned forward, cradling her like a rugby ball just before their bodies slammed into the ground and the world went black.

The impact had knocked the wind from the little girl’s chest and popped her ears, nearly drowning out the crackle of dust and clattering of rubble in favor of an unending ringing sound. Hoss’s body gripped her so tight and pushed down so hard against her that, though she had barely felt any part of herself strike stone when they fell, now she felt crushed beneath the immense weight of her own protector – and whatever had landed on him. Worst of all, no air entered her lungs and she tried desperately to inhale. It flashed across her young mind that she would die here, suffocated in the rubble. Is this what Shadow had been like when it ended?

Is this how Pa and my sisters died, too?

Her gaping mouth opened even wider in a silent scream of panic and stars danced across her vision. Would she see the family she'd lost in the dockside riot on Shadow? Suddenly she didn’t want to. Not yet. Not now.

For a moment all was still and dark…but then, somehow, oxygen slipped down Tilly’s throat anew. She choked and half-sobbed as she tried to gulp down air, then coughed as much of it turned out to be thick concrete dust. Her chest burned as she wheezed and fought to suck down every ounce of it anyway.

The girl felt warm, wet trails of tears begin coursing down her cheeks. Despite the terror of being buried alive, the act of breathing again was somehow a comfort. ‘Oh calm down,’ she heard one of the Maori teenagers echo in the back of her mind; the memory still fresh from her time spent roughhousing and horseplaying with Hoss’s many young relatives. “You only had the wind knocked out of you; nothing’s broken. Just breathe. Toughen up, come on!” The adolescent coach in this instance hadn’t been her favorite playmate, but now she understood. She just had to wait, and the stinging in her lungs would pass. It was already ebbing away. Just realizing that she wasn’t going to suffocate was relief enough.

Tilly forced herself to stay still and focused on breathing for a few moments –- and given the weight threatening to crush her on nearly all sides, that in itself was a difficult task. Between coughs, she squinted and tried to let her eyes adjust to the dim light. She was also able to realize, as she pushed her curled limbs against the tangled barriers that made up her tiny prison…that Hoss was not moving.

Hoss. Hoss, you’re squishing me.

I can barely breathe. Are you breathing?

Please don’t be dead, Hoss.

She whimpered at the very thought. Hoss couldn’t be dead. Hoss was invincible.

Everything Tilly felt the impulse to say ran through her mind, but all she could do was lie still and do her best to breathe. Breathe and wait. She wanted to shout. She wanted to yell at Hoss to wake up, so she could tell him she was terrified. Terrified of being trapped here. Terrified that Hoss might have some terrible wound and never recover. Terrified that despite her efforts to keep them in her sights, Fatima and Cianán could have been swept away and she would never see them again. It wouldn’t have been the first time.

Hoss would care, she knew. He’d calm her down, he’d say what they were supposed to do, and then he’d at least brace himself against the rubble so she wouldn’t feel so stifled.

But her last few attempts at talking, yelling, or even taking deeper gulps of air had only ended in coughing and tears. Her lungs simply couldn’t expand enough for that, and so instead she found herself taking slow, shallow breaths. She remembered somewhere that Captain Cooper had mentioned this once…something to do with ships that are running low on air. The best thing to do is calm down. Calm people use less air…but how do you stay calm when you’re running out of air?

At least we’re not running out in here…I don’t think.

Forcing herself to stay calm was the opposite of easy…but it helped that she could do very little else. It felt somewhat like those forced naps her parents and kindergarten teacher had tried to make her take when she was younger.

Tilly sniffled and rubbed the grimy back of her hand across her nose, feeling the dirt and salty tears and snot smear over her face, but she didn’t care. She had a right to cry…that was what Ma used to say. And on that last day on Shadow, when Tilly hadn’t been looking to make sure her father or siblings were right behind them…the one time she turned away and never realized it would be her last chance to see their faces…that day, when the shuttle breached atmo and escaped, leaving over half the family behind…her mother had clung to her and fought back her own weeping long enough to whisper, “We’re gonna be alright, Tilly…but when we feel sad or scared, we got every right to cry.”

They had clung to each other and whimpered. Tilly did so for far longer than her mother. At long last, they eventually had run out of tears and could do nothing but sit in the shuttle and wait.

It was like that now.

All Tilly could do was lie still and wait for rescue to come. Her eyes strained to monitor the distant pinpricks of dim light that came through cracks in the wreckage. She listened to the groaning of rebar in concrete around them, and strained in the hopes of catching the voices of rescuers.

There were none…but then suddenly she recognized a deep, familiar rumbling. She heard Hoss breathe – one rattling inhale, one rattling exhale. Had he been doing it this whole time? Why hadn’t she noticed?

The dust around them was settling, and the debris had stopped shifting for the most part. The soft, warm grip that Hoss had on her was starting to feel less like a smothering prison and more like a protective shell. He still wasn’t moving, but he was alive at least. Tilly snaked one of her arms away from where it had been tucked to her chest and gently prodded his face and forehead.

“Hoss…Hoss, can you hear me?”

His eyelashes twitched instinctively when her fingers felt his cheeks.

“Hoss, wake up! You’re squishing me!”

He breathed a little deeper this time.

“We’re both being squished,” Tilly choked. Her excitement was taking its toll and she found herself coughing and gasping and sobbing all over again. She waited for the fit to subside and forced herself to stay still again…but she kept her hand on the side of her protector’s face and patted him contentedly. “I’m glad you’re okay, Hoss.”


12:10 p.m. local time/15:10 Standard Sihnon Time

They followed the captain’s voice back to her.

‘... not already sheltering in place, follow my voice to the intersection of 5th & Hemingway for further instruction and medical assistance….” The looped message was broadcasting from a disabled ambulance. There were already a half-dozen badly injured civilians lying in an irregular row on the sidewalk alongside the vehicle at the edge of what must have once have been a peaceful city park. The dreadful cloud of dust and smoke had begun to lift, exposing burning vehicles and shambling figures of the walking wounded, most of whom appeared to be following the broadcasted instructions and were headed toward the wrecked ambulance.. ‘... If you cannot walk, make noise or motions so that rescuers can come to you. If you are sheltering in place, remain in your shelter unless you require immediate medical attention, until civil authorities provide further instruction...’

Abby felt a surge of relief as she recognized Captain Cooper. Their captain was bent over a patient, writing a large letter “Y” on a man’s forehead with the black marker she held. Cooper was covered in dust and her braid of hair was coming apart in a tangle of dark curls, but she was clearly able and alert. She looked up as Abby and Chang arrived, carrying their own patient between them in an improvised sling. “Corporal!” Cooper called out when she recognized them, her voice somewhat muffled by the torn cloth she wore to mask her mouth and nose from the dust. “You and Chang, you’re late for our appointment.”

“Captain,” Abby replied as sweetly as she could, “Qù nǐ mā de.”

Cooper gave a cough of laughter. “What’ve you got?”

“Middle-aged male with a severe head lac and a penetrating chest wound, stabilized for now. What’s the plan here?’

Cooper waved at them where to settle their patient, then gestured toward a wiry, black-haired young woman who had an EMT patch on the shoulder of her coveralls, who was applying a hemostatic pack to another survivor’s gaping scalp wound. “Sun -- this is Abby, she’s a combat medic, she’s here to assist.” Sun gave Abby a sober nod, her expression relieved, as Cooper continued give directions. “Abby, just jump in with both feet. I’m riding point and delegating. Those who can walk are sent forward to an evac & decon site six blocks north at 11th and Hemingway. Anyone who is walking and able, we make buddy-assist someone who ain’t quite. Otherwise, we’re just minding our alphabet -- airways, breathing, circulation support -- you know the drill. We got red category patients right over there with your fellow; yellow-cats are over here; greens awaiting buddy-assisted evac are lined up right on the sidewalk there, and black taggers need to be moved over to the corner over there. Questions?”

Abby glanced toward the black-category corner and saw a woman already lying there, motionless in a blood-stained quilted coat. Abby understood from her training and years in the war what Cooper’s color-coding was for -- red patients were the ones with life-threatening injuries who would be evacuated as priorities; yellow patients were ones with non-life threatening wounds who could be safely delayed in favor of those worse off. Greens could be safely self-evacuated with help… and the black-tagged patients were ones who weren’t going anywhere but the morgue. “What are we doing about the radiation?” Abby asked, sick to her stomach at the thought and already able to feel the burn of the deadly poison she knew was seeping into the calcium of her bones.

Cooper gave an exaggerated shrug. “I’ve been promised supplies and evac drones are inbound. Beyond that, I’m not even gonna worry about it. We deal with what is in front of us, dŏng ma? Chang! You feeling ready and able?”

“What can I do to help?” Chang asked, while Abby spotted the open EMT duffle and went to it at once, intent on finding a proper surgical mask and gloves.

Cooper gestured at the line of broken retail store windows on the block behind them. “I’m a little ambulatory-challenged at the moment. Get in there and requisition an office chair for me. One with wheels.“ Chang blinked twice, processing the request, and then scrambled to do as asked.

Abby stuffed several pairs of surgical gloves into her pocket and hooked the ear-loops of a disposable surgical mask over her ears. As she double-gloved herself, she took another moment to make sure the driver she and Chang had pulled from the wreckage of his vehicle was still stable, and when she was assured that he was, she hurried to help Cooper, who was struggling to her feet with a crutch under her arm in order to meet another dust-covered survivor who had reached the triage point. The man was half-carrying another civilian who was clearly unable to walk unaided.

“We were both on the third floor in the planning department lobby,” the more able of the two men said. He was sagging on his feet so badly that Abby rushed to grab his arm before both men collapsed to the ground. “Then there was a blast, and the next thing I knew, Hamid was dragging me across the street outside, and half of the building is gone..”

“Yes sir, let’s get you both sitting down on this curb please, sir,” Cooper said crisply, trying with little effect to help from the pair’s other side. The more injured of the two men slid to the ground, with Cooper dropping to her knees to catch Hamid’s head before it hit pavement. Abby got her man seated as well, already doing a visual assessment of his injuries. Bad lacerations, shock, but her man’s lips weren’t going cyniotic like his companion’s were. “Abby--” Cooper said, already writing a big “R” on the second man’s forehead. Abby accepted that pass of responsibility -- she might have been out of uniform for the last three years, but the rhythms of battlefield triage were something she revisited far too often in her sleep to ever forget.

Assess. Diagnose. Treat. Years of training helped keep Abby calm as she got the wounded man horizontal and took his vitals, when a part of her simply wanted to scream and beat a retreat. The understanding that they were all exposed to a dangerous level of radiation hovered over her like a miasma, making it difficult to keep her professional focus. Blood pressure 92 over 60; respirations 30 per-min and shallow with retractions. Sinus tachycardia of almost 130. Patient has slid into unconsciousness; lung sounds absent from the right side of the chest, torso hyper-resonant; all indications pointing toward obstructive shock. Abby hesitated then. She knew how to treat a tension pneumothorax, but doing so in a patient who was dredged in radioactive dust and debris made her gut cramp and twist painfully. None of her war experiences had included radiation exposure, but Abby had still been trained for the possibility. Medical stabilization should take priority over radiological decontamination, she told herself firmly. She knew that. She was just dreadfully, painfully aware of her own continued exposure -- she was likely sacrificing her health and her future with every minute she remained here in the warm zone, they all were. Stabilization over decontamination, she reminded herself grimly, determined to play the role of martyr as her chosen profession demanded. But Abby imagined she could feel the skin of her hands burning; she felt the fear-cramp again, and had to tell herself as sternly as she was able that it was just her imagination torturing her and NOT the sudden onset of radioactive poisoning.

Time is essential. Hamid was struggling to breath, only part of his chest rising and falling with that primal effort. Abby left her patient long enough to claim the supplies she needed from the EMT’s duffle, snatching up bandage shears, cleansing wipes and a packaged 10 gauge catheter needle. Just think of radiation as mud, she told herself as she crouched back down beside her patient. You are just treating a patient who is covered in mud. After all -- the external radiation exposure she and Chang and Cooper had encountered so far wasn’t going to have even half as deadly a consequence as the internal exposure from inhaling the thick, caustic dust. What’s on him isn’t a danger -- it’s what I’ve already inhaled and that’s being absorbed into the calcium of my bones that’s going to kill me. I’m doomed if I go and doomed if I stay -- so just stop being prissy and just get on with it already!

Abby cut up the center of the injured man’s torn shirt and the bloody undershirt beneath it, then rolled them both clear of his chest. The steri-wipe came next, a wide, brisk cleansing circle centered at his anterior second intercostal space. Then she located her target, just above the third rib at the midclavicular line. She drove the 4” catheter needle straight down through flesh and muscle until it was buried up to the plastic hub. Then she waited, counting to the seconds as she listened for the rush of air intake. She thought she heard it, but the broadcast loop from the ambulance nearby was repeating loudly. Abby knew five seconds was normally enough time for a healthy lung to re-inflate, so she reassessed her patient’s condition to confirm that her needle decompression had worked. His lung sounds were immediately better, and color was coming back to his blue-tinged lips. Seeing both sides of her patient’s chest now rising and falling in unison, Abby deftly pulled out the needle, leaving the 10 gauge catheter in place.

Hamid’s dark eyes fluttered open and the man looked at her, uncomprehending. “Sir, do not move. You will be evacuated as quickly as we are able to do so,” she promised him, and when he reached weakly to feel after the catheter in his chest, she slapped down his hand. “Don’t mess with that,” she told him. “It’s keeping you breathing. You pull that out, I’m going to be far too busy with the next patient to save you again.”

Abby stood up to find Cooper had another patient for her -- a woman with a gaping compound fracture with glass embedded in the visible bone. Cooper was sorting the incoming patients as quickly as she could; Chang was already returning, carrying a wheeled office chair he had pulled out from one of the nearby buildings. As Abby got a tourniquet in place, she was aware of two things simultaneously -- first, that a breeze had picked up and was blowing away the cloud of dust and smoke; and second, that several large shapes were suddenly descending on their street corner from overhead. She looked up, and saw half a dozen large quadrotor drones coming down, each of them bearing a suspended yellow coffin-like cargo pod that was painted with the universal symbol of the Red Crescent.

“The calvary is here!” Chang cried, his blue eyes bright with boyish delight. He rushed to meet the first descending care-package, making sure it was settled safely before triggering it open. “We got us some goodies!” he cried, as the other drones were piloted down within an easy distance of the triage site

“Chang! Start packing up our reds and shipping them back! But first -- hand out those condoms!” Cooper ordered.

Abby almost snorted in laughter at Chang’s pop-eyed double-take in response to the captain’s command. An intel desk analyst wasn’t always going to recognize the battlefield slang for an item, Abby thought. “Look for a long box marked ‘PPE’,” she called to him, and she saw Chang’s rush of understanding. Chang ripped open the box and then hesitated, finding only a roll of semi-transparent white plasfab. “Look for the perforations!” Abby encouraged him, having her hands too full with bleeding patient to physically assist her crewmate.

Chang took a closer look at the long, thick roll of plastic, then found the long-side perforation that allowed him to rip the first PPE from the roll. When the single long sheet was held clear of the rest of the roll, it was much easier to see the silvery pull-me strip that activated the suit’s nanofibers. In seconds, the ghostly shape of the body suit melted free of the surplus sheet, and the facepiece glowed faintly blue, enough for Chang to find the slender zip-strip that opened the full neck of the personal protection cover-all. “You step in through the neck, shove your arms and legs into the right parts, then zip it up and pull the hood over your head,” Abby explained for him. “If it’s not the type that comes with a separate facemask, it’ll formfit around your body and around your face so that you can wear goggles and a surgical mask.”

“Hurry it up, Chang!” Cooper orderled, scooting on her chair to perform another triage evaluation. “A suit for Abby, Sun and me -- then once you’re snugged in your sleeve, get those red-tag patients in the evac pods. Move!”

Chang ripped off four of the PPE sheets, and set about triggering each of the pull-me’s to get the protective coveralls in a wearable form. He delivered them to Sun, Cooper and then Abby in turn, delaying to help Abby get her patient led into the yellows section before taking the chance to pull his suit on. Abby showed him by example how it was done -- the PPE was a simpler model than what she was used to from the war, but essentials were all the same when it came to a cookie-cutter coverall.

“Shouldn’t the captain be working with patients and leave the sorting and forehead-marking to that EMT?” Chang asked Abby in an undertone, as she was shimmying her way into the plasfab coverall.

“Cái bù shi!” Abby scoffed, jerking up the semi-translucent hoodie. The PPE suit took a second or two delay before turning into a snug body-sleeve, even around the feet and hands. “That’s the shit job. You want the senior-most medic doing it, because they’re the one who has to decide who gets treated, and who gets set aside for the morgue.” She stretched her fingers, making sure she retained full dexterity despite what was functionally a third plastic glove. “You want to ever sleep again at night, you want to be junior-most and just have play patch and dash instead.” Satisfied her PPE was properly fit, she gave Chang an encouraging slap on the shoulder. “Now put on a facemask, ‘cuz this damn dust will be the death of us all,” she said. “Then start getting the red tagged patients into the evac pods so they’ll get shuttled out of here. Recruit the steadiest of the greenies to help,” she said, pointing Chang on his way.

He nodded a thanks and hurried off to his task. Finding herself fortified both by the brave face she’d put on for Chang’s benefit, and by the acquisition of the protective gear, Abby turned to attend to the next patient who was waiting for her.

 



Chapter Text

July 23, 2514; Capital City on Sturges, a moon of Aphrodite
12:05 p.m. local time/ 15:05 Standard Sihnon Time

He’d kept two steps ahead of disaster since the bomb rattled the windows of the gun shop he was in. The shop was gone now, flattened into rubble, the wrecks of two spaceships sitting on top of the entire block. His ship was gone too, he was certain, its berth located just beneath where the Exeter transport had come to rest -- but best not to think about that too closely right now. There were more immediate problems to be dealt with.

Torenberg West straightened up from his protective crouch over the young woman and the teenage boy who’d sprained or broken his ankle in an unlucky moment of jostling in the crowd. It had been a moment’s instinct to pick the boy up, to spare him from being trampled, and once Tor realized the boy couldn’t walk, well, he was committed. He hadn’t missed the wary look in the eyes of the woman in the headscarf, but she and the big Polynesian man with the dreadlocks -- Maori, if he’d heard correctly -- accepted the help readily enough. There’d be time for niceties later, assuming they got to ‘later’ -- an open question, still, with minor explosions still going off in the hulks of the ruined ships, sending fresh missiles of scrap metal and cargo containers and who knew what else arching outward.

They weren’t safe here, a point brought home by the settling avalanche of brick and glass and wood that had been the facade of a three-story building just moments before.

The woman looked up from patting down the boy, checking for more injuries, and her eyes widened at how close they’d come to being under that pile of rubble themselves. Tor shook himself as he stood up, feeling some larger pieces of wood fall from his back. The armored fabric sewn into the coat had done its job, though he bet he’d discover some bruising later. He was glad it hadn’t been tested beneath the full weight of the building’s debris.

“Hoss! Tilly! HOSS!” the woman was yelling, then coughing, taking a few steps towards the pile. Tor realized at the same time that the big man they’d been following, and the girl he carried, were nowhere to be seen. And that must mean --

Gāisǐ, that must mean they hadn’t been as lucky, and were under the rubble pile, somewhere.

Tor pushed the goggles he was wearing up to rest on his forehead, then shrugged the cross-strap of his duffel bag over his head, dropping it to the ground beside the teenager, already assessing the new obstacle and its dangers. The building’s two side-walls were still mostly standing, and it was the front that had fallen off into the street, and the interior that had collapsed. There was a shallow ramp of brick and concrete rubble blocking their way, studded through with broken timbers and glass shards. The big man and the little girl he’d been carrying would be underneath that somewhere -- with luck, towards the shallow fringes.

Pieces of the building’s roof and its upper floors were still falling into the interior, but here on the outer edge, at least, it didn’t look as if there was anything left to fall on them. There also didn’t seem to be further danger from the buildings nearby -- so long as the explosions still rocking the crashed ships didn’t throw an entire engine in their direction. There were sparks visible farther back inside the ruined building, and a thin thread of black smoke starting to rise.

So that gave them a ticking clock, he thought grimly. There shouldn’t be live wires here in the front, but it was impossible to know how fast the fire might spread.

Tor’s hand went automatically to one of the inner pockets of his coat, pulling out pairs of thick gloves that he knew they were going to need. The young woman had continued shouting her friends’ names, moving along the edges of the rubble. When he touched her shoulder, and she turned a distraught face to him, he met it with what he hoped was an encouraging smile. “Ramadan kareem,” he said, hoping the ritual greeting would be familiar and comforting. “As-salamu alaikum. Sayem?”

She stared at him wide-eyed for a moment, before answering the question. “Allahu akram. Yes, I am fasting, on ship’s time.”

He nodded. “Understood.” Then he held out a pair of the gloves to her. She took them automatically, and he gestured towards the mess of wood and steel and brick with his chin. “Here, put these on. They’ll be too big for you, but better than nothing.”

He’d given her the leather pair. He tugged on the ones with the heavy, reinforced kevlar fingers and palms, and saw out of the corner of his eye the moment when she realized there was one more finger to the gloves than she needed. It wasn’t a surprise that she hadn’t noticed his polydactyl hands before this, in all the chaos.

He knelt quickly beside the duffel, zipping it open, and spared a glance for the teenager sitting beside it, looking shell-shocked through the pain. Tor wasn’t sure if he’d compounded the teen’s injuries, throwing the young woman on top of him. The youngster might have cracked ribs now, or a concussion if his head had hit the pavement -- but that was better than some of the alternatives. He shook the teen’s shoulder, gently, and when those light yellow eyes turned towards him, he said, “Stay here, and keep ahold of this for me, my boy.” It’s all I have left, he thought, but didn’t add. That was another reality that he’d have to face later, along with the loss of his ship.

For now, Tor rooted through the duffel, his shopping bag for the purchases he’d intended to make in the dockside shops. He tucked the goggles he’d been wearing into an inner pocket, needing the range of vision now more than he needed their protection. The new Mossberg shotgun was still in the bag, with the box of ammunition, and a new length of synthetic rope -- that, he took out, not yet sure if it would be useful. He found a flattened roll of duct tape and put it in an outer coat pocket, and then -- yes, his segmented walking staff was still in its own pocket sewn along the outside. That would be of more use than the shotgun… he assumed, though he’d keep the gun in mind. In another of the outer pockets, he found the flat, folding grappling hook that he’d bought on a whim in a market on Beylix and hadn’t had occasion to test before this.

He caught the teen’s attention again. “What’s your name, my boy?”

The youngster stared at him, mouth working, before finally saying, “Cianán.”

“Ni hao, Cianán. I’m Professor Torenberg West. I’d shake your hand, but we’re pressed for time -- so here, take these, and figure out how they go together.” He put the pieces of the grappling hook into the boy’s hand. “I think there’s a diagram on the box. Then attach that rope to it, if you will.”

The teen looked at them for a long moment, then looked up to where the young woman was trying to find a way to scale the rubble. “What about Hoss? And Tilly?”

“We’ll find them,” Tor promised, putting confidence in his voice that he wasn’t sure he truly felt. “We’ll find them, and get them out. And we might need that to do it.”

He stood up, starting to screw together the segments of the walking stick. It was wood, but it had a steel core, and it was the only thing he had to start with as a probe or a lever. The young woman was already at work, throwing aside pieces of rubble loose enough to shift, still calling her friends’ -- family’s? -- names. There were doubtless others trapped under the collapse as well, and a few other people on the far side of the pile were starting to attack it from that end. Tor hoped that the city’s Civil Defense Services would arrive soon, preferably with the tools they would need to truly search for survivors… but to be honest, it sounded as if the CDS would have their hands full, between the bomb (if it had been a bomb blast he had heard, though that did seem a likely conclusion), the radiation, and the ships crashing. Waiting for them was time the people trapped here might not have -- especially not if that fire in the interior spread.

Testing each foothold carefully before shifting his weight, Tor started to climb up towards the young woman, using the walking stick to steady himself and probe the depths of the gaps. Here on the outer edge of the pile, it wasn’t very deep. That would make the two easier to rescue, if they were indeed still on the fringes of the collapse. “How far ahead were they?” he asked, as he came up beside her.

“Not far,” she replied, her desperation audible in even that short answer. She tugged at a wooden beam that wouldn’t budge. She looked at him, then back at the boy still sitting on the ground. “A few yards?”

“All right.” He held out his right hand towards her, with a half-smile for the way she glanced at it, clearly looking for the six fingers now. “We weren’t introduced before -- Professor Torenberg West. You can call me Tor, if you like. It’s shorter. And I think we’re beyond formalities now.”

She took his hand briefly, after only a little hesitation. “Fatima,” she said, and if she did not want to give more than that, well, that was all right. “And thank you, so much, for what you did for Cianán, but --”

“But let’s find your friends -- Hoss? And Tilly? -- before anything else, I agree.” He pointed towards the crest of the rubble. “Why don’t you see if you can get up there, and keep calling. I’ll keep probing, but it would help immensely if we could narrow down where to look.”

Fatima nodded decisively, and began to crawl upwards, leaning close to the surface of the pile and yelling her friends’ names as loudly as she could. Tor followed much more slowly. If anyone trapped below had been saved by a luckily braced timber, he didn’t want his weight to bring it down, or cause a cave-in.

At least it was quieter now, even if that was a purely relative thing. The radiation siren was still sounding, the computerized voice still urged them towards the Civil Defense shelters, but the crashed ships’ engines had finally failed and were no longer whining at a decibel level that could split eardrums.

Tor wished they had any of the tools that the CDS would have to help locate survivors. His goggles had protected his eyes from debris and kept him from losing his glasses -- which was why he’d hastily tugged them on the moment he’d seen the imminent collision overhead -- but they didn’t have a setting to show infrared. The only thing they could do was search and dig the old-fashioned way, and hope that would be enough.


12:10 p.m. local time/ 15:10 Standard Sihnon Time

It was dark, dusty and stifling. That was the first conscious thought Hoss had, followed by confusion. Why was it dark? Why was it dusty? He was coughing. Had it been this dusty before? What was… he was trying to remember what came “before”, and couldn’t.

Tilly’s voice was babbling in his ear. That’s right, he was carrying her… carrying her from… he wasn’t carrying her any more. It was dark, and he was bent over her? Were they on the ground?

Tilly patted his face. He couldn’t make out what she was saying through the ringing in his ears. Whatever he was resting on was gritty and sharp and uncomfortable. Hoss started to pick himself up, got his arms under him, bracing his forearms on the ground, and as soon as he pushed upward, he found new problems.

He couldn’t move. Not very far, at least. He got as far as propping himself up on his elbows, his back pressing into something above, and he felt Tilly wriggle beneath him, suddenly freed of some of his weight.

Teko, what had happened? He blinked grit out of his eyes, and tried to shake his head -- and immediately found out what a bad idea that was.

He was slowly, very slowly, putting pieces together. Forget the why and how for the moment, if he couldn’t get at those past the sluggish fog of his thoughts -- the what was becoming more and more apparent. He and Tilly were trapped under something. It didn’t matter what it was, what mattered was finding a way out.

“I’m glad you’re okay, Hoss,” Tilly was chattering, still patting his face. Her voice sounded like it was coming from underwater, but he was starting to hear her a little better. Hoss tried to turn his head, to see over his shoulder, ignoring the twinge in the muscles of his back, but even turned as far as he could, he couldn’t see much at all.

“Tilly,” he said, or hoped he was saying, “Tilly, aroha, slow down. Listen. Are you -- are you okay?”

“Hoss!” she shouted, right in his ear, and he heard her almost clearly. “Hoss, you’re back! I’m okay -- I’m better now that you’re not on top of me.”

“Okay. Okay. Good.” He tried to take deep breaths, tried to quell the urge to cough in the dusty air. “Can you -- where are we? Do you know what happened?”

“You don’t remember?” She sounded more surprised than scared, which was probably good.

“I remember, I just… thinking’s kind of hard right now. Things are fuzzy,” he told her. If he could just clear the fog, he was sure he’d figure it out.

“I think one of the buildings fell on us,” she said, “cause of the ships crashing.”

“Cause of the ships… crashing,” Hoss repeated.

 

“Don’t you remember that either?”

He remembered… he remembered this morning, he realized. He remembered leaving the Jin Dui. He remembered… a toy store? “Did I get a rugby ball?” he asked, unsure if that was real, or…

“You did! I’ve got it right here! And I got a bunch of puzzles and some brand new paints!. It was in my bag, but…” He could feel her moving, like she was feeling around her. “I don’t know where my bag went.”

“Okay. That’s okay.” So that was real. And he could slowly feel more thoughts stringing themselves to those memories, like carefully reeling in a line of hooks and seeing each fish as it broke the surface of the water. Then he pulled up one particularly bright fish and -- “Fatima! Tilly, where’s Fatima? And… Keen?” He’d been with them, in the toy store, right? He thought, maybe, he remembered Cianán, being… carried? By someone? By a grey man? Why would somebody be carrying --?

“We got separated” Tilly suddenly whimpered, starting to sound on the verge of tears. “I wasn’t looking that way when the building fell on us.”

What if he and Tilly weren’t the only ones trapped? What if they were all trapped?

“FATIMA! FATIMA? KEEN?” Tilly started shouting. That was a good idea, Hoss thought. It also meant she could catch her breath enough to shout. He tried taking another deep breath, and just ended up coughing. He still couldn’t hear that well. He knew she was shouting at the top of her lungs and should have been bursting his eardrums, but it sounded barely above normal speaking. “ANYONE? FATIMA? IS ANYBODY OUT THERE?”

Hoss didn’t hear any response, but suddenly, beneath him, Tilly stiffened, and almost tried to sit up before figuring out she couldn’t.

“I hear you!” she answered someone -- he hoped it was Fatima. “I hear you too! We’re down here! Right down here!”

“Who --?” he started, and she told him breathlessly, “It’s Fatima, and she’s up there!”

There was another pause, while she listened to people speaking he still couldn’t hear. “He’s here,” the girl shouted, “He’s here, he’s half on top of me and he’s kind of awake but not all the way. I can’t tell if he’s hurt bad or not.”

That was probably fair, Hoss guessed. He didn’t know if he was hurt bad or not, either, but he knew enough not to like the state of his head. Head injury for sure. At least he was awake, and could remember stuff. He was becoming more aware that other parts of him hurt, too. A lot of other parts, zāo gāo. He wished his thoughts weren’t so slow. If Fatima was going to get them out of here, she would need help. He needed to help.

“Someone else just said -- I think it’s that guy who was helping Keen -- he said he’s gonna lower a light? I don’t see it yet,” Tilly reported, and Hoss was glad she was keeping him informed. Maybe right now the best he could do was focus on breathing, and holding himself up on his elbows so that she could breathe, too.

 


12:12 p.m. local time/ 15:12 Standard Sihnon Time

Tor worked the walking staff down into another gap in the rubble, but this time it only went in a few feet before the metal cap on the end hit something hard and unyielding. A little further ahead, Fatima paused in her calling. From the far end of the rubble pile they could hear others shouting, mostly versions of “hello” when they didn’t know the names of those who might be trapped. Tor was becoming increasingly worried. The big man and the little girl really couldn’t have been very far ahead of them, and if they were conscious, if they were alive, then they should have been --

“ANYONE? FATIMA? IS ANYBODY OUT THERE?” The voice was high-pitched but hoarse, and surprisingly faint, and ended in a fit of coughing. But he heard it, about ten feet to his left and several yards from where Fatima had been calling. They both heard it at once, and the young woman hurried over as fast as she could, slipping on the uneven footing.

“Tilly! Tilly! I hear you! Keep talking!” Fatima started picking up whatever rubble she could lift in the general area the voice was coming from, throwing it away from the pile.

“I hear you, too! We’re down here! Right down here!” came the little girl’s voice. Tor was impressed to hear that she didn’t sound too panicked.

“Is Hoss with you?” Fatima asked. “Is he hurt?”

There was a pause, during which Tor exchanged worried glances with the young woman, and then Tilly yelled up again, “He’s here, he’s half on top of me and he’s kind of awake but not all the way. I can’t tell if he’s hurt bad or not.”

“Awake is certainly better than not awake,” Tor said to Fatima, though unfortunately that did not rule out other serious injuries. It would be easier to get them both out if the big man was able to help, and their ability to render major medical assistance at the moment was nearly nonexistent.

Still, one problem at a time. He pulled the roll of duct tape from his outer pocket, and then fished in an inner pocket for the pen-light he usually kept there. He taped the small flashlight to the end of the walking stick, and switched it on. “Tilly,” he shouted, “my name is Tor, and I’m going to help Fatima get you both out of there. I’m going to try to lower a light towards you right now. Let us know when you can see it, please, and how close it is to you.”

“I’ll keep digging,” said Fatima, and he nodded to her as he looked for a way to work the light-tipped staff down into the rubble.

It was slower going than he liked. The rubble, of course, had an uneven density, and Tor hit plenty of dead-ends before finding an angle that let him get over a meter of the staff inserted, and had Tilly exclaiming that she could see the light, to her left, above Hoss’s shoulder, not close enough for her to touch but pretty near. Then the girl added that Hoss had talked to her, and she’d told him help was coming, but he couldn’t breathe very well on account of how tight it was, and how much weight was still resting on his back. That wasn’t the best news, but so far, it wasn’t the worst, either. Tor wondered if the man would tell the girl if he thought he had a more serious injury, or if he was trying to keep from worrying her. Then again, the big fellow might not even be sure, himself.

Fatima was still flinging bricks and glass and splinters of wood away from the pile over her friends. Tor tapped her on the leg to get her attention. “See if you can find a beam, or a pipe, anything long and solid that we can pull out and use.” She nodded, and as she started searching, he called down again, “All right, my dear, keep your eyes on that light. We need to get some more tools, but we’ll be right back.”

He left the staff sticking out of the pile, its angle showing the direction of the man and girl, while he picked his way over to where the teenager still sat. “Did you figure out that grappling hook, lad?” he asked, and while the youngster’s face was still pained, he smiled, and held up the contraption in his hand, small but assembled with its four prongs facing out at right angles, the synthetic rope trailing from the loop at the bottom. “Ah! Excellent! Well done!”

“You found them?” the boy asked, and Tor nearly clapped him on the shoulder before remembering to pat him more gently instead.

“It looks that way, and I don’t think they’re buried very deeply, either,” he replied, optimistically. “With some luck, we’ll have them out in no time.”

Far easier said than done, of course. But he truly was hopeful. If they’d been much more deeply buried, they would have needed heavy equipment to get them out, and that, they didn’t have. If they were only a meter or so down, though, then the chances were good that what was on top of them wasn’t too heavy to shift by manpower alone.

As Tor made his way back to the spot marked by the staff, he looped the rope until he could put it over his shoulder and out of the way. He wasn’t sure yet how to use it, but at least it would be handy if he figured it out. Then he saw Fatima approaching, dragging behind her what looked like three-quarters of a big window frame, and he grinned. “Ah, my dear, that’s perfect!”

“Is it?” she said, still looking worried, dusty and exhausted, and glancing doubtfully at the broken collection of lumber and shards of glass.

“Well, near enough,” he told her. “Keep moving aside what you can, and I’ll see about making this work as a lever to create some breathing room for them down there.”

They’d soon see whether he could shift the rubble enough to create a path out for both of them, or even just to allow Fatima to dig closer and reach them. Either way, he was more optimistic now that they’d made contact with the two. They might pull off this rescue yet.



Chapter Text

July 23, 2514; Custer Hills on Sturges, a moon of Aphrodite
12:32 local time/15:32 Standard Sihnon Time

One minute and 18 seconds after the Jin Dui had landed on her assigned concrete pad in the Custer Hill’s small all-purpose port, Sully was hauling open the ship’s sally-port door and pulling on what he hoped was a clean jacket. He was aware of smut on his face and of faint water stains on his pants from tinkering on the ship’s malfunctioning washer unit, the smoking-and-flooding of which having seemed like such a disaster maybe, oh, 30 minutes and half a lifetime ago. He hoped the touches of disarray would lend his plea some authenticity.

His plan of action was simple -- find someone who seemed to be in charge, and find a way to get clearance to fly back to the capital city to collect his crew. If he couldn’t find a way to do that, his crewmates were trapped in Sturges until the civil authorities either released the general landlock order, or refugees from the city were transported out in some other manner. Custer Hills was connected to the capital by the lunar maglev rail system, but the moon’s second-largest population center was on the opposite side of the continent. Provided that there were not any additional terrorist attacks coming down the pipeline -- and if the disaster at the docks wasn’t terrorism, certainly the bombing down at the Federal Building was -- then arguably the Jin Dui’s crew would be safe in whatever shelter the civil authorities provided them. But Sully wasn’t going to feel like anything was remotely safe and sound until he had his people back aboard his ship, and the Jin Dui was getting the hell offa this moon.

Both his little dog Bao Yu and Carver’s crippled old Odin had accompanied the ship’s first mate as far as the sally-port door. As Sully turned to close the hatchway door, he was surprised to see both dogs were sitting on the cargo side of the door -- Odin had been taught to do that, but Bao Yu usually rushed through in delight at the chance for new smells and new places to pee. Instead, Bao Yu had parked her butt firmly against Odin’s scarred side and was watching her master’s departure, her head tilted to one side and her expression entirely ‘Oh hell naw. You got this one solo, buddy.’

“Yeah, you do that. Guard the ship and do what Halo tells you,” Sully told his dog sardonically, before closing the heavy hatchway door. He shrugged his shoulders back in the jacket before opening the outside airlock door, mentally rallying himself to accomplish the nigh-impossible.

As he stepped out onto the gangplank, Sully saw a group of locals heading toward him at a purposeful speed, their faces all set in equally deliberate expressions. Sully stopped in mid-step and held his ground on the gangplank, no little startled to find he had a welcoming party.

“XO?” came Halo’s nervous voice through the ship’s comm, as he saw the approaching assembly through the Jin Dui’s security vids.

“This might be interesting,” Sully replied, a bit proud of the cool, dry amused tone of his voice, something not entirely matched by the worry in his gut. “Lock the doors behind me, but be sure to unlock them quick if I need to beat a retreat.”

Whatever response Halo may have had, Sully didn’t hear it. “You’re just in from Sturges?” called one of that welcoming party as they stopped at the bottom of the gangway. The speaker took several steps ahead of the rest, putting herself forward as their leader. She was a short, stout woman of Chinese ethnicity, with a short crop of hair and a red blotch of a birthmark on an otherwise plain face. Her smile, however, was fiercely confident.

“Yes, ma’am,” Sully replied. “We’ve possibly got some hull damage and need to inspect that,” he added, remembering that element of his story and sticking to it. “I need to speak to the portmaster though. My captain and some of my crew are still back in the capitol, and I need them here to see to those repairs.”

“You got working shuttles?” the woman demanded.

“I’ve got one,” he answered. “But unless the landlock has been lifted, it’s grounded along with my ship.”

The woman pulled a small tablet from the deep pocket of the jacket she wore over her coveralls and held it one one hand as if it were displaying something significant on its screen.

“I want you to fly us back to the capital. You willing?”

Sully blinked in surprise. “What?” he asked, thrown off-balance being offered exactly what he was looking for.

The woman mistook his startlement for reluctance. “I’m Wang Zhenyi, treasurer of the Interplanetary Brotherhood of Oddfellows Local 1270. We’ve got a debt of honor to repay to our brothers in Sturges for aid their fire crews provided us during the Oh-Three wildfires that nearly burned through our town. And if we don’t get our boots on the ground before those purplebellies from Aphrodite bully their way in and take over, then our help won’t be welcome."

"I see," Sully said. "But my ship is landlocked."

"So?" The woman gave him a wolf-sharp smile. "I’ve got clearance from the Magistrate’s second to get us to Sturges for quote-emergency-relief-unquote. But our local transports are all company owned. Blue Sun won’t clear us to depart, probably scared their shuttles’ll get their paint jobs scratched. I got pilots who’d fly us anyway, but I don’t want to see good men lose their jobs. So I need you to fly us.” The woman’s expression was determined -- she clearly wasn’t about to accept no as an answer to what she need from of Sully and the Jin Dui. “If you'll fly us on my clearance, then I’ve got a crew of twenty of Custer Hill’s most badass along with two tons of gear --we should have all of our shit fully assembled and ready to load within 15 to 20 minutes, and my counterpart in the Sturges Local has got us a landing pad reserved on the edge of the docks. We can’t pay you for your ready service, but in addition to our gratitude, you’ll earn favor points with our union as well as the comfort of knowing you’ve done good when your head hits your pillow tonight.”

Sully grinned and strode the rest of the way down the gangplank, offering out hand in welcome. “Ms. Wang, I’m Sully Sullivan, XO of the Jin Dui, and this, I believe, will be the start of a beautiful friendship.”


Capital City on Sturges, a moon of Aphrodite
12:35 local time/15:35 Standard Sihnon Time

The dust in the air and the heat of the day made Fatima dearly wish for water. She coughed and swallowed against a dry throat. Even had she not been fasting for Ramadan, no one had water to give her. Of course, emergencies took precedence over the fast but she wasn't sure that fleeing a disaster counted. Though, if it did, she could make up the fast later as the Quran decreed. Setting aside that concern, however, she wished desperately that there was water for Hoss and Tilly's sakes. They would need it when they got them out.

Yes, when, she told herself firmly, putting aside doubt with an effort. They knew where in the rubble the two were buried, now. She had help. It was finally time for something to go right, today.

Professor West crouched down, peering along the shaft of the walking stick he’d been using to probe the rubble. The wariness Fatima had first felt when they’d encountered him was starting to ebb away. It seemed foolish to think that he could be a spy of Darius’s -- or worse, Detrick’s -- who had been following them and only waiting for the disaster and for one of them to get hurt so that he could ingratiate himself by helping them. That is being needlessly paranoid, she told herself, and not very generous. She didn’t know what she would have done without his help so far, and inshallah, the trust she was beginning to feel towards him was not misplaced.

“Do you see a way to get to them?” she asked, trying to quiet her anxiety.

“It’s an interesting engineering challenge,” he replied, with an encouraging smile for her. “But I have an idea of how to start, at least.”

Standing up, he withdrew the walking staff entirely, with the flashlight still duct-taped to the end. “Tilly,” he shouted, his deep voice carrying, “I’m going to work the light in again, and I want you to tell me when you see it above you.”

“Okay!” came the girl’s hoarse answer.

He shrugged the loop of rope off his shoulder, and passed it to Fatima. “I don’t know if that will be useful, but I had Cianán put it together just in case,” he told her, as she noticed the small grappling hook on the end. “I’m going to use that window frame you found to try to lift up this tangle a bit. If it works, it should make some room for them down there. Keep clearing out any debris that’s loose enough to remove, and let’s see if we can make a gap big enough for the girl to get through, at least.”

Fatima nodded, one hand still on the longest piece of the three-quarters window frame she had dragged from the top of the pile. She could understand what he was trying to do, and she also understood that it might not work. But they had to try something. She didn’t know how badly Hoss might be hurt under there. It sounded like he had a head injury, but worse, they didn’t know if he might be losing blood. She’d also noticed the smoke coming from the rubble further back in the building. What had started as a thin trickle had grown to a steady plume, and she could smell it when the dusty wind shifted. There was no telling when the fire might flare up and start moving more quickly through the shattered wood in the rubble.

Professor West took the walking staff, and reinserted it at a more shallow angle, aiming it towards where they thought Tilly and Hoss were buried. After a few false starts, he got it in another arm-length and they heard a shout from Tilly that she could see the light at the end of it, above her. Stepping back, he held out his hand, and Fatima passed him the six-by-four plank. Its end was broken off, but it was taller than she was. “Now,” he said, “if you’ll steady the end of this staff, please.”

Fatima shifted around him, stepping carefully on jumbled wood and broken bricks. She grasped the end of the staff, while he reversed the long plank so that was laid across it, with the broken end aimed into the pile at a different angle. He started to shove the plank down and in, beyond where the flashlight on the end rested somewhere above the trapped girl and man. There were even more false starts than he’d hit with the staff, and he gritted his teeth, muttering under his breath something Fatima couldn’t catch as he pushed, pulled and lifted to try to work the end further into the tangle of rubble by brute force.

Finally, with more than half of its long length buried, he stopped, letting out a long breath that ended on a cough. “All right,” he said, voice rough, but still with a note of bright optimism. “Now to see if this works.”

The end of the broken six-by-four was still attached at one corner to the cross-piece that had been the top or the bottom of the frame. The professor knelt until he got one shoulder under the cross-piece, and his hands around the top of the long plank. Then, with a deep breath, he began to straighten up again.

Fatima held her breath, biting her lip as she watched him slowly push upwards. For a moment one of his boots slipped as the rubble shifted beneath him, until he was able to reset it on firmer footing. The timber creaked, and there was crackling and groaning all around them. The professor wasn’t a very tall man, but he was solidly built, clearly strong -- and he was still breathing hard and straining to lift the end of the plank against the weight of the rubble. But very gradually, centimeters at a time, she could see that the long plank was lifting up a web of broken wood and brick and glass a meter or two square.

Without having to be told, she let go of the staff’s end to move around to his other side, where she could see the widening gap he was creating. Even if it wasn’t a large gap yet, there was something like an opening now, and she crawled forward and started grabbing whatever came to hand, grateful for the thick leather gloves the professor had given her. She worked loose shorter pieces of wood, bricks still attached to each other, and chunks of concrete with rebar partly sticking out, throwing them aside or shoving them behind her when they were too heavy to lift and throw.

Soon she could see the gleam of the flashlight, and not long after that, something bright and green that she recognized as Hoss’s Threshers jersey. With renewed energy she heaved at a crooked timber, and when it wouldn’t come out all the way, she tried to shove it upwards so that it would create a kind of brace for the debris above that the professor was still trying to lift.

His progress had slowed and all but halted, Fatima realized. “I think,” he said, his voice strained, and she looked up to see him red-faced and frowning, “this may be as far as it will go.”

“It might be enough,” she told him, and he gave her a short nod. She read in that his willingness to try to hold it there as long as he could, but she knew they would have to work quickly.

“Hoss! Tilly!” she called. They were only a few meters away from her, and probably only a meter or so down. She saw Hoss’s head move towards her, but he couldn’t move enough to see her. Then Tilly’s head popped up over his arm. “Hoss! Is there any way you can shift enough to let Tilly through? I think the gap is big enough!”

She couldn’t hear him, but she saw Hoss nod. Then he moved to brace one hand on the ground, pushing up. He must have had at least a little more room than before, because his back rose slightly and he began to bring one leg under him.

Fatima hefted the small grappling hook in her hand, wondering if she should try to throw it in there. She wasn’t sure what good it would do, but it might help if Tilly had a rope to hang onto and pull herself out. “I’m going to toss something down! It has a rope tied to it! See if you can reach it!” She pitched the metal hook down, aiming away from Hoss’s head and hoping not to hit Tilly in the process.

It didn’t hit Tilly, falling short of them by a couple of feet. Tilly was already wriggling around until she could crawl out underneath Hoss’s arm. The big mechanic wasn’t quite on his hands and knees now, but he’d created enough room for the girl to move. Fatima saw her face appear, white with dust and ringed with wild hair that had escaped her braids, eyes huge.

“That’s it! You’re almost there! The rope’s right in front of you!” Fatima said, already feeling a huge swell of relief. When Tilly’s hand found the rope and grasped it, Fatima stood up so she could anchor it and pull the girl out.

The hole through which Tilly crawled was still narrow and jagged, but she wasn’t letting that stop her. At first Fatima was alarmed to see that the girl was hanging onto the rope with only one hand. Had Tilly hurt her other hand too badly to use it? But then she was emerging from the hole, and Fatima saw that her other arm was cradling a rugby ball, and she laughed with relief and exasperation. That might be the only thing left from their shopping trip, and the girl had hung onto it all this time.

Tilly dropped the rope and reached out for her. “Fatima! You’re really okay!”

Fatima grasped her hand, pulling her the rest of the way into a tight hug. “Ah, Tilly abayo, you’re safe now, you’re safe.” After just a moment, though, Fatima forced herself to pull away, cupping Tilly’s dusty, tear-stained face in her hands. “Can you go now and sit by Cianán, habibti? We have to get Hoss out.”

Tilly sniffed, rubbing her hand underneath her runny nose, and nodded. “Okay. If I can help, let me know!”

If only it were that simple, Fatima thought. She wasn’t sure all of their strength combined could pull Hoss out, unless he was able to help himself. She hoped dearly that he could. She knelt down at the narrow entrance to the hole, worried that it was still far too small, and as she did, the professor shifted his weight and gave another heave upwards, widening the gap by a few inches. “Best I can do… I’m afraid…” he gasped out.

“Can I take out the walking stick, and pass it to Hoss?” she asked him, and she saw the calculations flash across his expression before he nodded firmly. So she quickly put that plan into action, jerking it out and then laying down on the rubble so that she could reach as far into the hole as she could.

“Hoss! Can you hear me?” In the light from the flashlight still on the staff’s end, she saw that in fact, he had shifted himself around in the space below. With Tilly gone, he didn’t have to worry about crushing her. He waved a hand in her direction, and she pushed the staff in further. “Grab ahold of this!”

Above her, the professor grunted in surprise, and she realized it was because Hoss, moving towards her, was helping now to push up on the debris above him. She felt the staff jerk in her hand when he caught hold of it. Grasping the end of it with both hands, she knelt up, then got her legs underneath her, starting to lean back to pull Hoss the way she had pulled Tilly. She could never have moved him on her own, but though he was moving slowly, he was moving.

She backed up gradually as Hoss made his way towards the surface, following the light at the top of the literal tunnel of debris. As he crawled upward, inch by agonizing inch, the professor redoubled his efforts to raise the uppermost layer, reducing the weight above the big mechanic and making it easier for him to widen the path for himself. Then one of Hoss’s hands emerged, and Fatima nearly toppled backward when he let go of the staff to use the other hand to shove aside a plank in his way. Soon his head and shoulders were out, and Fatima abandoned the staff to move towards him, getting a hand under his arm. She could see the black eye he had, under the concrete dust, and the trickle of blood down his neck from a head wound that had stopped bleeding, and what seemed like dozens of small cuts and scrapes, some fresh. She couldn’t help lift him, but she hoped her hand gave him encouragement as he struggled the rest of the way out of the hole.

Hoss couldn’t quite get to his feet on the uneven surface of the rubble, so Fatima braced him as he staggered and settled in a crouch, one hand still on the ground. Behind them, with a creaking sound and a puff of dust, the professor let the long plank he’d been bracing fall, once he could see that all of Hoss was completely free. Fatima let Hoss rest there for a moment, while she kept her hand on his arm, and murmured, “Alhamdulillah, we’ve got you, you’re safe, we’ve got you,” over and over again.

The professor came up on Hoss’s other side. “Not much further to go now -- let’s see if we can get you down to solid ground, eh?” He’d picked up the staff and took off the flashlight, planting the staff’s end carefully. Then he leaned down and took Hoss’s arm, putting his own shoulder beneath it.

“Think… I can walk,” Hoss said, accepting the help, and concentrating just on standing.

“Believe me, I’m counting on it!” the professor replied, with a laugh. “I don’t think I can carry you.”

Moving slowly, with Fatima testing the footing ahead of them, they soon reached the paved roadway where Cianán and Tilly waited. Cianán was still sitting, but Tilly jumped up and came in to hug Hoss’s side. “Hoss! You’re okay! And look!” the girl held up a dirt-stained but new rugby ball. “Look what I saved!”

Hoss laughed quietly, putting his free arm around Tilly’s shoulders and giving her a squeeze. “Good job, mèimei. See if you can hang onto it a little longer.”

Fatima put a hand on the mechanic’s shoulder, studying his exhausted, banged-up face with concern. “Do you want to sit down, and rest?”

He started to shake his head, thought better of it, then made a negative noise. “If I sat down right now, I don’t think any of you could get me up again.”

“Fatima,” said Professor West, “do you think you can help Cianán? I can take my duffle again, if you can help me get it back on.”

Fatima hefted up the professor’s duffle bag, and he ducked his head so she could put it over his shoulder. He passed the walking staff back to her, so that Cianán could use it. Hoss might be walking on his own, but until they were more certain of his condition, it was probably better that the professor stay where he could attempt to catch the bigger man if he started to go down. Fatima could handle Cianán.

Hoss looked down at the older man, with a frown. “Who… are you, again? I remember you picking up Keen, but --”

“Ah!” said the professor, brightly. “We weren’t actually introduced. Professor Torenberg West, Londinium University.”

Hoss’s eyebrows went up. “Long way from home, aren’t you?”

The older man chuckled. “A very long way, and a fairly long story. One we’ll have time for, once we reach one of those civil defense shelters the announcement’s been yelling about, and we can get some medical help for you and Cianán.”

The prospect of safety, shelter, and real assistance made Fatima almost want to sag with relief. Not yet, she told herself. Almost, but not yet. First, they had to get there. So, supporting Cianán, and with an arm around Tilly’s shoulders to keep her close on the other side, Fatima took the lead. She couldn’t help but look over her shoulder, making sure that Hoss and the professor were still close behind them. Then she turned her attention to the flashing red arrows in the sky, making for the nearest one.

 




Chapter Text

July 23, 2514; Capital City on Sturges, a moon of Aphrodite
12:48 local time/15:48 Standard Sihnon Time

 

Carver had pulled half a dozen survivors out of the rubble of the Alliance building before the local authorities rolled in. Clearly the scout drones had beamed in data that cleared the locals for insert; they arrived in a siren-and-strobe caravan of hover-vehicles, and quick-deployed all kitted out in body-sleeve condoms under hard hats and climbing harnesses. A stout, silver-bearded man with a captain’s badge lost no time baying out commands, among them the order that all civilians were to immediately vacate the blast zone and retreat to the makeshift triage post at 5th and Hemingway for further instruction.

Carver hesitated for a moment or two, weighing the chances that the locals might accept his help if he offered it. Then he shrugged the question off. He had his arms full, after all.

“Ma’am,” he told the elderly woman he had just carried out of the blast pit. “I am taking you to the doctors now,” he promised her, jogging through the debris and wreckage toward the triage post. The frail old woman groaned and cried out to Allah for mercy; he knew that each step he took was a jarring agony for her, wounded as she was, but there was no help for that.

At the triage post, there was an obvious change of shift going on as an arriving squad of medics took control of the situation. “Crush wounds, both legs,” he told the triage team leader as he handed the old woman over to them. He waved off the assistance he was offered for his own wounds, interested only in finding Captain Cooper.

He spotted Abby first; the former purplebelly had donned one of the form-fitting PPE suits so he didn’t recognize her so much as he did the angry set of her shoulders and the curt length of her stride as she paced the street at the back edge of the triage area. Carver headed that way at once, recognizing Chang and Cooper in the following moment. Chang was also in one of the semi-translucent coveralls, but Cooper was not. She simply had one of the empty suits half-stuffed into a coat pocket, clearly having taken the PPE suit but then not bothered to put it on.

All three of his crewmates spotted him at the same moment, giving him the impression that they had been waiting on his arrival. “There you are!” Abby cried with some impatience. Her color was high as though she had been arguing, and Cooper was wearing a similarly tight expression, as if Carver’s appearance had interrupted that argument. Chang simply looked relieved.

“Let’s go,” Chang said. “The authorities want to get us processed through decontamination almost as badly as we want to get processed!”

“And they want us out from underfoot,” Abby added, with a fierce glare back toward the medics who had taken over the triage station. “We’ve risked our lives to provide our experienced assistance in a crisis, but they’ve just kicked us out like we’re amateurs, without even the decency to say thank you,” she complained.

Carver had reached them. Cooper was levering herself to her feet from an office chair she had been sitting in. She was looking at him critically. “You hurt?” she demanded.

Carver shrugged. “No,” he answered. It wasn’t quite a lie. His right calf, hip and right arm were gouged and bloodied from a debris-fall in the pit, but he’d slapped some spray-skin over the wounds and they wouldn’t slow him down. There would be time enough later to pick the splinters and gravel out of his hide.

The captain’s eloquent eyes called bullshit on that statement, but Abby and Chang were already headed north, and Cooper obviously wanted to try and keep their unit together, so she didn’t challenge his assertion with more than that single, knowing look. She still had one of the crutches and began to limp after the others. Carver took advantage of the situation and simply scooped her up. Cooper gave a yowl of surprise at that, but he was disinclined to debate and simply jogged ahead the few strides it took to catch up with their crewmates.

Āiyā,” Cooper muttered to him. “I’m not a bloody piece of luggage, you know.” But her resistance only was token; she seemed to have surrendered to the necessity, and to his satisfaction, she even rested her cheek against his shoulder wearily.

Carver wanted to ask her why Cooper wasn’t wearing her PPE suit, because he was damn sure she had ordered Abby and Chang to put their condoms on. Classic officer mentality. Cooper had it in spades. He almost said something, but held himself back. It wasn’t the time nor the place for debate with an officer.

The trio walked the six city blocks between the warm zone triage center and the incident command center at 11th and Hemingway. The radiological warning had stopped its broadcast a block before the ICC, the alarm replaced by a looping message directing citizens to continue sheltering in place for their own safety until notified otherwise by civil defense authorities. There were other survivors ahead of them in the street, but the city still felt strangely abandoned, with no vehicle traffic, broken windows everywhere, and debris clogging the roadway. He had to hold himself back from a range-walk pace to match his companions, while his skin crawled from the memory of snipers in position behind shattered office windows. Not a viable threat, not here, not today, he reminded himself firmly.

Ahead of them, he spotted the cluster of interconnected emergency bubble domes that made the ICC. A pole with a flashing red strobe on top of it marked the doorway of the processing entrance; that doorway was flanked by a pair of security officers, the translucent layer of their condoms making the uniforms beneath unrecognizable. The weapons they were carrying were standard issue Alliance AR 24s, but both guards were holding their guns like lawmen, not field grunts. There was a long line of civvies stretching out from that doorway awaiting entry. A team of medics armed with scintillator wands and hand-scanners were evaluating each of the survivors in turn, handing them ID tags before allowing them through those doors.

Carver put on the brakes. “Hold up,” he said to his crewmates, earning both Cooper and Chang’s instant attention and a frustrated look from Abby. Chang and Abby did stop and turn back toward him, although Abby did not hide her exasperation at any delay at achieving the promised refuge of the isolation domes. Carver found he had to clear his dusty throat before he could speak again. “We need to set a rendezvous point now, because the decon process will split us up. And we want to set a rendezvous point with the rest of the crew as well, before our comms get taken.”

“Get taken?” Cooper repeated. “They’re going to take away our earbuds?”

Carver looked at his crewmates’ faces and realized none of them had done this before. The intensity of their attention made him uncomfortable. Carver supposed that the benefit of not having much to say most of the time was that when he did, he got everybody’s full attention. “Look. Here’s how the decon works. First they sweep us for rads and tag us by our exposures,” he told them. “Once we get inside, they’ll sort us by our exposure levels. You got a few specks of radioactive dust, you get a pass with a hand-vac and sent on your merry way. You got more exposure than that, you get the full decon treatment.”

“I really don’t like to sound of that!” Abby groaned.

Carver ignored the interruption. “Full decon starts by them dripping eye-snot juice into our eyeballs to lift out dust and other particles. Then they’ll confiscate our gear and clothes. We’ll be sent into the showers. Incident command here all looks like a generic hazmat set-up -- those are all-purpose-iso, not radfilter domes, so we’ll probably get a standard all-spec sprayfoam hose-down. The all-spec shit doesn’t always get all the rads in one go, so that might mean a couple of tours through the shower.”

“That doesn’t sound quite so bad,” Cooper said, with a gesture at her dirty, dust-layered clothing. “I could happily take at least two.”

“Showers are fine. But belowdecks, we always got handed some of those sterile hospital gowns -- the cheap paper kind that leave your butt hanging in the breeze. You ain’t never heard bitchin’ like a line full of chapped-ass jarheads, waiting for the medics to give them their next pass with the geiger-wand.” Carver shook his head at the memory. “Once we’ve showered enough to pass the magic wand, then the medics follow up with a breath-mask test to see how much of the glows we’ve swallowed. If you’ve inhaled enough of the bad stuff, then you’ll get a lung enema that’s hella worse and will leave you sneezing blue clots until your sinuses are clear. The chaser’ll be a cup of blue goo that’ll result in the technicolor squirts in about six hours. That’ll strip any rads out of your guts. And that’s the end of the decontamination process. They’ll send the walking wounded off to the infirmary for treatment, and the rest of us will probably be shuttled off to holding pens somewhere. We marines were usually just sent belowdecks to the barracks until the pink wore off our hides.”

“How many times have you been through radiation decontamination procedures?” asked Chang, looking somewhere between awestruck and queasy.

Carver shrugged. “This’ll make it eight. The third time was bad enough I got plugged with an anti-tumor implant, but that doesn’t mean I can skip out of decon after new exposures. And I don’t know how it’s handled for civs, but in the service, all of our stuff that’s been confiscated is bagged for disposal unless it brings the kinetic -- tools of war get sent off for a decon process of their own before it all goes back to the armory. So if you’ve got something precious on you, take a long last look goodbye while you can.”

Chang looked stricken and his hands jerked up at once to touch the bulging pockets of his ever-present tactical vest. Cooper looked a whole ‘nother kind of alarmed. She squirmed in Carver’s arms and pulled a long leather wallet out of a coat pocket, stuffed into the hood portion of her PPE sheet and partially rolled up in it. Carver recognized the leather wallet -- it was the Jin Dui’s ship papers.

“Like hell,” she said. “They’ll have to take it from my cold, dead hands. Can I just refuse decontamination treatment instead?”

“Cái bù shi!” Abby snapped. “You’d just put the rest of us at possible risk by shedding radioactive isotopes into the life support on the ship. I’m sure there’s some existing precedent about retaining sensitive legal documentation during emergency evacuations -- I’ll just raise holy hell with whomever is the incident commander and throw legalese at him until his eyes cross.”

“Can I slide a thing or two into that wallet then?” Chang asked hopefully. “This little force probe came off the gear from the Lucky Day, it’ll be zài yòng hard to replace.”

Cooper shook her head at Chang, while her eyes cut to Abby. “Abby, go talk to one of those medics; find out where folk are being evacced to after processing, and ask about getting stuff through decontamination. If we have to bump this up the command chain, then we take it as far as we have to go to get the ship papers scanned and cleared -- they were buttoned up in my coat pocket until I stuffed them in the condom, so I hope exposure is a minimum.” Abby hurried off to do that, while Cooper reached up to press her earbud. “Hoss? Sully? Report in,” she said.

Carver no longer had his earbud -- he had given it to Cooper to replace her lost one. He couldn’t hear the response that came back, but he felt Cooper’s body in his arms go suddenly rigid, while Chang’s prominent blue eyes widened even further and he gave a gasp. “Āiyā! Huàile!”

“How bad?” Cooper demanded, her voice fierce. Carver braced himself for whatever bad news was incoming. “How long was he unconscious for?” Cooper continued. “And where’s he bleeding from? Does he still seem disoriented or confused?” The captain listened intently to whatever response she was receiving. “Yeah. Do that. And don’t get separated, whatever happens. We get Hoss back to the ship as soon as we can, but if that worsens? Get him into the hands of some medics as soon as possible! Rob a damn bank or set a damn fire, do whatever you have to if that’s what it takes to get their attention, dŏng ma?”

“Hoss and Tilly got trapped in a building collapse on the docks,” Chang whispered for Carver’s benefit, noticing Carver was without an earbud. “Fatima got them out, with some help. Everyone's up and walking but Hoss has a concussion. And Sully’s on now. He and Halo have the ship safe on the far side of the moon, but the Jin Dui’s been landlocked. The XO’s wrangled a deal with the locals to bring in a load of first responders and rescue supplies -- they’ve gotten their own local authorities to clear our shuttle for launch, because the firemen from Custer Hills want to get in here to stake a claim in the rescue efforts, before the Fleet gets here from Aphrodite and takes over everything. Never underestimate the upright primate's capacity for politics!” Chang laughed. “The locals are loading up their first load of stuff now and prepping to depart. Halo’ll stay with the ship while Sully makes two flights ferrying personnel and gear. After the second, he’ll be free to pick us up and get us back, as long as we're all somewhere he can find us." The tech listened for a moment, then went on, "Sully says the locals drove a hard bargain, and he has to stay on-call to fly the Custer Hill crews home again, whenever they’re done or whenever the feds tell them to go hump off. Apparently there’s an old feud between Aphrodite and the lunar colonists that’s adding some coloring to all of this --”

Chang went silent as Abby came hurrying back. “The medic says everyone from here and from the disaster down on the docks will be sent over to the city stadium after processing,” she reported. “And they’ve still got evidence lock-down bags available here and now -- civ defense will be disposing of clothing that’s got high exposures, but that some personal valuables will be sterilized and returned while that supply of evidence baggies remains. So can we hurry up and get in line already?”

Cooper was still listening to her earbud, but she gave Abby a big thumbs-up, and waved to Chang to join her. Carver took that as a command for himself as well, and carried Cooper after their two crewmates to join that line. Cooper was still rigid in his arms, focused on what she was hearing from Fatima or Sully. “Zhùyì -- scuttlebutt here is that all civs from the dockside and from here will be sent on to the city stadium. If that’s so, then we can plan to meet-up there. Fatima, you keep Hoss and the kids close. Get them to the stadium, and trust us to find you there. Sully -- we’ll counting on you to get us home. I’ve got to sign off here for now. We’ve got to go into decontamination. We’re going to try and hang onto our comms, but we might wind up having them confiscated, so don’t panic if we all go dark. We’ll find you at the stadium, one way or another.” Cooper cut the connection, but the fierce tension didn’t leave her body.

“How bad is Hoss hurt?” Carver asked cautiously.

“Fatima describes a significant concussion -- Hoss was knocked out for a time and is still experiencing some loss of motor control. She says his pupils look normal and that he’s sustaining focus, and that he’s not lethargic. Xuèxīng dì dìyù! Hoss should go straight to the hospital and get a TBI scan! We don’t have anything on the ship that can find a tiny brain bleed -- but after a shitshow of a day like today, every medico on this moon is going to be overwhelmed with patients. Best we can do is to try and get him back to the ship and have Abby and I keep a close watch on him.”

“And a watch on you, too,” Carver said, putting that statement out there with the full understanding it would draw return fire. He felt Cooper’s body jerk in his arms, and she was staring up at him again with fierce, dark eyes. She began to open her mouth to debate that, but Carver finished his say first. “I knocked you out cold up there on the seventh floor. I thought for a few moments maybe I’d killed you.”

Cooper’s mouth closed, objection left unspoken, and the worry lines in her brows changed. Carver had thought he had spoken in his normal monotone, but Cooper’s expression suggested otherwise. “You saved my life up there,” she said quietly. “Nŏmu daedanhi gamsahamnida,” she said, and then gave a small, strangled laugh. “My grandmother would slap me upside the head for not bowing properly when saying that, but thank you. I owe you.”

Carver could not meet her eyes. He nodded acceptance, resolved not to respond. Words were landmines, and he had already said far too much today. The line of survivors was working its way steadily toward the initial processing teams with their scintillator wands. He would have to put Cooper down within a few minutes, and he was reluctant to do so, knowing they were likely to all be separated for the decon showers.

He remembered too well the days spent after war’s end in the brightly-lit hell of the processing line on the Alliance skyplex over Hera, creeping along at a snail’s pace as the victors sorted and ID’d and determined the fates of their seven-something-thousand surviving prisoners. Carver could still taste at the back of his mouth the station’s ionizing disinfectant, which never could overcome the stench of despair that clung to those endless lines of defeated survivors. The lucky ones had had somewhere left to go home to, families and friends maybe left to welcome them. Carver had known even then that he wasn’t among the lucky ones. His people had all been on Shadow, and likely never even got the inadequate evacuation warning that had been issued before the Alliance turned the world to glass. For Carver, that processing line back on the Hera skyplex after Serenity Valley had simply been one more test of stamina to be endured, and he had endured it. So maybe it was unreasonable of him now to face this prospect of a short separation from these crewmates with such a sense of uneasiness in his gut. He recognized that fear as the weakness it was, and pushed the feeling aside. The separations would only be temporary. It was his duty to ensure that.

Abby had reached a medic with a scintillator wand ahead of them -- Carver saw it registering a significant radiation hit and wondered for a brief moment what Abby and Chang had done to earn that much of a dose of the glows as a second medic got a similar reading from Chang. Their turn was next -- Carver felt Cooper begin to squirm in his arms, and he set her down carefully, holding her steady in front of him until she had found her own balance with the unwieldy crutch. “Here we go,” Cooper said dryly, with a smile he took as a promise. “See you all on the other side.”

 



Chapter Text

July 23, 2514; Capital City on Sturges, a moon of Aphrodite
15:02 local time/18:02 Standard Sihnon Time

As Abby had been promised, refugees from the bombing in downtown Sturges were bused to the city’s stadium as soon as they were cleared by both the decontamination teams and the infirmary teams. Their clothing had been taken for disposal and replaced by sterile-paper hospital smocks, but they had been lucky enough to keep two of the earbuds and all of their most prized possessions, and had been sent onto the bus with their first anti-rad doses in hand.

The Capital City stadium was a huge, modern building with a high-tech plas dome roof. Prior to the day’s twin disasters, the stadium staff had been prepping for some sort of sports contest -- when Cooper, Abby, Chang and Carver arrived at the stadium, staffers were rolling up the very last of a grass-like green temporary footing surface from the center of the floor. Within their first hour of waiting, efficient Red Crescent volunteers had finished setting up orderly rows of cots, and tables appeared, ringing the stadium floor to provide survivors with hot tea, sandwich rolls, snacks, charging cords, single sheets of smart paper for folks who’d lost their hand tablets or minders -- and best of all, in Cooper’s estimation, replacement clothing. Each of the four of them received flip-flop sandals as well as sweat pants and jersey shirts, which appeared to have come straight from the Sturges Sawyers gift shop, price tags still dangling.

They had staked their claim to a couple of cots near the Home Team entrance, where they had a good view of the arrivals from the dockside. And then they waited… and waited… and continued to wait, while over their personal comms Fatima reported her group had been put on a bus, but that the bus’s departure was delayed for reasons that no one on the bus seemed to understand.

Via his recovered hand-held, Chang found his way “innocently, of course” into the city admin’s operational feeds, and shared the live drone vids he found there with the rest of his companions. Cooper had thought the dirty bomb explosion she and her foursome had survived had been an impressive disaster by any measure, but the vid feeds Chang had pirated showed it to be almost a sideshow to what had happened to the world’s primary port. In addition to the crash sites for two mid-bulk transports -- both of which had plowed into other groundlocked vessels -- the mid-air collision had scattered debris wildly across the Sturges dockside, bringing down structures and causing terrible fires across multiple blocks.

“A couple cargo containers cratered the cross-city highway,” Chang reported back to Fatima, sitting on a cot opposite from Cooper, with Abby sitting beside him. Carver had parked himself on the ground between the two cots, keeping a watchful eye on everything around the foursome as Chang went on with his briefing. “The city is getting two surface lanes cleared, but it's slow because most of their heavy equipment is doing rescue work dockside. When the feds got here from Aphrodite, they landlocked all civilian air vehicles within city limits; except at the port, the local traffic control is pre-war and incompatible with the transponders on the military shuttles. And we have total gridlock all around this stadium. Lots of locals trying every backstreet and alley to get here, looking for their loved ones. We'd best get comfortable. It... might be a few minutes,” he finished with wry understatement.

The Red Crescent seemed to be in charge of the stadium’s relief effort. In addition to providing somewhat-comfortable warehousing of survivors displaced from the docks and downtown, they kept ruthless order at the stadium entrances and exits, allowing no lookie-loos inside, and using the stadium intercom system to calmly summon individuals when the outside contacts showed up at the stadium doors to collect them. The announcements over the intercom were constant, but Cooper found it a strangely reassuring noise, each announcement promising reunion and relief for someone and their family or friends.

Cooper found she couldn’t watch much more of the unfolding disaster down at the docks. The fire crews had at least gotten control of the dockside fires and those were no longer spreading, so Chang’s pirated feed was turning into a steady flow of search and rescue jargon and local lawkeeper codes. Now that her small group no longer had a destination or a purpose, Cooper felt drained of whatever energy had been sustaining her this far. She wanted the rest of her crew reunited and safe -- most of all, she wanted Hoss front and center and under her direct care. The prospect of having almost lost the Maori mechanic shook her more than she was willing to confess, and she deliberately bottled that emotional reaction away, unwilling to be undone by it in front of her crew. Depleted, she lifted her legs up onto the cot she had been sitting on, and just laid back bonelessly and closed her eyes.

“Poke me when anything happens,” she told her crew. Cooper closed her eyes, going null-state for a combat nap the way she had learned to back in the war…

… it might have been minutes, or it might have been hours before she heard Carver’s quiet summons. “Captain, they’re here.”

Cooper instantly sat upright and swung her legs off the cot. Carver had risen as well and was offering her the rubber-tipped cane the medics had given her after the decontamination process. Cooper grabbed it, already scanning the Home Team entrance for the rest of her crew. A fresh line of evacuees were being processed in, each of them being ID-scanned and registered by a Red Crescent worker. Hoss was still several people back in that line, but one of the advantages of his size was that he was easily a head and shoulders taller than everyone around him. Target acquired, Cooper headed that way on intercept. Fatima, Cianán and Tilly were all ahead of Hoss -- Cianán was on crutches with his injured leg in a soft splint, while everyone else looked bruised, battered, and exhausted. Cooper stood back to allow Abby and Chang to be the hugging brigade, and eyed Hoss critically as he in his turn was scanned and released by the Red Crescent medics.

“E ipo,” she told him flatly, taking in his black eye, bruised face, and the gingerly way he was holding himself, as if he were to turn too quickly the entire world might spin. “You’re late. And you look like hammered shit.”

Hoss grinned and swept her up in the hug she had been too pricklish under the observation of the rest of the crew to have offered him. “I’ve been in rougher scrums with my cousins,” he said, pressing his forehead against hers in a hongi. Cooper gave a shaky laugh and pressed her nose against his, then hugged him back fiercely, letting him go with only the greatest reluctance. “So what’s your sorry story?” she demanded, struggling to keep her tough facade from fracturing.

“We were running up the docks, trying to get to shelter as the ships were coming down. Debris hit a building nearby and dropped it on top of us,” Hoss reported. He looked at their companions as if doing a quick headcount, then turned and reached one long arm out to grab the sleeve of a man behind him. “Coop, you need to meet Tor, here. He saved Cianán from getting trampled on the docks, then helped Fatima dig Tilly and I out. He probably saved our lives.”

“Ah, well,” said the man as he was dragged forward, adjusting square glasses and giving Hoss a half-smile before turning his attention to Cooper. “I wouldn’t go that far, but I was certainly glad to be of help!” The stranger had a deep voice, and a cultured way of speaking at odds with his disheveled appearance. He stuck out a hand to Cooper, his expression brightening. “Professor Torenberg West, traveling researcher! I’ve heard a lot about you already, Captain.”

Cooper shook his hand, then leaned on her cane and gave the fellow a steady once-over. The man was middle-aged and of medium height, dressed in a worn leather boots, dark work pants, and a red plaid shirt. His face was square-cut with a prominent, ruddy nose, the square glasses framing brown eyes. His brown hair was going grey at the sideburns, and grey liberally salted the stubble of an unshaven chin. He looked more like a well-read lumberjack than he did a professor, Cooper thought to herself.

“Nŏmu daedanhi gamsahamnida,” Cooper said soberly, giving the professor the bow that formal phrase required.

"Gamsamnida," the man responded with a correct bow, much to Cooper’s surprise. West had mispronounced the Korean word, so obviously he wasn’t a fluent speaker, but his polite reply told Cooper that the man was observant enough to recognize her native tongue -- and that his mother had taught him to mind his manners.

“Captain,” Fatima said then, stepping up on the fellow’s other side. “Professor West has lost his ship and he has nowhere to go.” Cooper recognized the supplication in Fatima’s eyes, and saw it in Hoss’s as well.

“Professor West, you’re welcome to join us tonight on the Jin Dui,” Cooper said. “We can offer you a safe bunk and there’s a lasagna back home waiting to go into the oven for dinner.”

At that moment, there was a connection click from the earbud in her ear, prefacing a transmission. “Sully here,” can came her XO’s voice in the next moment. “I’ve been arguing with everyone I can get face-time with for clearance to land at the stadium’s med-evac pad to pick you up. I can’t get to anyone who’ll give me a yes -- but our friends the Oddfellows have found me a workaround. Can you get to the south B-6 entrance gate? That’s where the medical arrivals are coming in, and there’ll be a delivery of evacuees from the docks ETA 10 minutes that’ll be coming back to the port empty -- unless you all can get there and get on. The pilot is a pretty redhead named Marian, she’ll be looking for you. Can you make it?”

Cooper looked at her assembled crew -- Abby, Chang and Fatima had all heard the same message and were bright with anticipation, while Carver was alert to their excitement and clearly ready for a change in orders. The rest of their gathering looked banged up, broken, and wilted with exhaustion --but she judged they were mobile enough to find the stadium’s helipad. “Tell your redhead we’ll be there with bells on,” Cooper replied.

 


15:45 local time/18:45 Standard Sihnon Time

The flight from the stadium back to the dockside had been mercifully quick, what with them all crammed into the back of the small ambulance craft so close together that flying had not felt like falling at all. Cianán had been able to close his eyes and tell himself they were just aboard another bus, and none of the ambulance’s jolts had been any worse than the potholes on the Number 6-B route back at home on the streets of Beylix City’s less affluent neighborhoods.

Sully had been waiting for them atop a Weyland-Yutani warehouse, next door to a fire station which had become a central operational center for the port’s disaster efforts. The ambulance set down neatly on the roof alongside the Jin Dui’s shuttle, and everyone bailed out of one vehicle and on into the next. Captain Cooper and Sully were last to come aboard, having delayed to thank the ambulance pilot. Sully scrambled for the pilot’s seat beside Fatima in the co-pilot’s chair, while Cooper settled into the forward-most starboard rumble-seat, opposite of Cianán.

“Good afternoon, fellow travelers!” Sully sang out happily as he ran through a quick pre-flight check. “We’re going airborne here courtesy the political machinations of the Oddfellows Local 1270 of Custer Hills, who have struck me as a pretty canny bunch of blokes, should you ever find yourself to be inclined to join the card-carrying brother- and sisterhood. I tell you, after seeing the local boss-lady Ms. Wang in action, I’m half tempted. Mark my words, that gal is going to be Magistrate of this moon someday.”

Sully’s smooth flow of words were reassuring sounds in Cianán’s ears. He crossed his arms across his chest as if that could reinforce his safety straps, and shut his eyes against the view forward of the whirl of the world passing beneath them as the shuttle lifted up and took flight. The youth tried to go null-state against his fear of flying; he felt Hoss settle a heavy arm across his shoulders and he sagged gratefully into that offered comfort, too exhausted from the trials of the day to have left any scrap of fragile teenage pride. His busted ankle hurt like hell on the general painkillers he had been given. The harried medics at the triage center had offered him stronger, but Cianán had refused it out of fear of the cravings it would awaken. Not that the addiction cravings ever truly went away…

Cianán wanted to be home, in his familiar cabin with the wall mural he was painting of a busy Beylix red lantern avenue, flat on his bed, listening to his music, with the familiar voices of the other crew only distant murmurs outside of the passenger cabin’s thin door. Safe. Just waiting for cargo and departure for somewhere far, far away from the moon of Sturges.

When Cianán was comfortable with the sensation of the shuttle’s flight having leveled out, he dared open his eyes again. From the view forward through the shuttle’s front windows, he could see they were cruising above the cloud layer, headed toward the sun on a horizon that felt too close to his planet-born eyes. Around him in the cargo cabin, the rest of the crew were all strapped into their rumble seats and looking as worn-out as Cianán himself felt. Even the normally stone-faced Carver looked weary. Abby and Tilly were leaning against one another, napping where they sat, while Chang was engaged in a quiet conversation with their passenger, the nice professor who had saved Cianán back on the docks. Cianán tried to make sense of what they were discussing, but it was something about a big fire and a city called Chicago, and he didn’t know of any Chicagos on anywhere. Certainly it wasn’t back on Beylix.

Cianán closed his eyes and would have happily slept all the way back to the ship, but it seemed like he was only just beginning to drowse when he heard Sully’s voice, speaking quietly but with an urgency that triggered Cianán’s disaster-jangled nerves. “Captain? We’ve maybe got a bit of a problem. Neither Fatima nor I can get Bill up on the marconi.”

Cianán opened his eyes, and felt Hoss’s arm jerk as the big mechanic processed those words as well. Cooper was levering herself up on her feet and limping precariously the couple of steps it took to get up to the shuttle’s forward hatch. The captain leaned there, holding onto the archway for balance as she looked over the pilot’s seat. Zěn me huí shì?”

Hoss was leaning forward, listening in to the conversation with the shuttle’s pilots. That made Cianán more comfortable with eavesdropping on the captain and the XO. Carver had also taken notice, and unbuckled from his seat to follow Cooper upfront. “Fatima’s been trying to raise Halo since we took off from Sturges,” Sully reported as Carver moved up behind the captain. “He’s not responded for me, either. The Jin Dui herself is responding comp to comp, but Bill isn’t responding to our hails.”

Cianán could hear the scowl in Cooper’s voice, and saw the captain press a hand against the earbud in her ear. “Halo? Get your ass on the comm. Right now,” Cooper snarled.

Carver turned on his heel and got Chang’s attention. “Sully can’t get Halo on comm,” the scarred browncoat told Chang. “Can you get into the ship’s security cams?”

Chang went wide-eyed for a moment, then reached automatically for the chest-pocket of the tactical vest he normally wore -- but he’d apparently lost the vest somewhere back in the bombing. After a moment’s confusion, he started sorting through the collection of things in a opaque plastic bag he was carrying, pulling out his zhēn niú hand tablet, a really sweet device that Cianán envied greatly. “Jí biàn!” he said enthusiastically, hopping to his feet and scrambling forward, typing commands as he moved.

Hoss was unbuckling and getting up as well then, and Cianán felt fresh surge of panic. He shut his eyes and grabbed after the edges of his seat, certain that with the sudden crowd in the front of the shuttle, it would be thrown it into a fatal a nose dive. “That’s not how it works,” he chanted to himself under his breath, several times in succession, until he could dare open his eyes again and look. Sure enough, the laws of physics still held more sway over the skies of Sturges than Cianán’s fear of flight. He breathed a quick prayer to any deity who might be listening, wondering if he’d even be able to feel safe again once they were back aboard the Jin Dui. Having seen two ships fall out of the sky earlier that day, Cianán doubted it.

“... getting access to the security feeds now…” Chang said, typing madly.

“Hoss, you’re swaying on your feet,” Cooper snapped at the big mechanic. “Stow it, mister.” Hoss did as he was told; the crowd at the bridge hatch felt as though it were instantly halved as Hoss retreated to his seat. “And the rest of you, sit tight,” Cooper added, when it was clear that Tilly and Abby had woken and were reaching to take off their safety-belts as well. Cianán glanced aftward and met Professor West’s eyes. The professor was leaning forward, clearly curious as hell as to what was going on, but too conscious of his position as a guest aboard to get underfoot. Cianán gave the fellow a reassuring smile that he was certainly faking, but it was nice not to feel alone in being odd-man-out among the Jin Dui’s crew.

“... there we go…” Chang said, flicking his fingers and throwing a holovid display up that everyone in the cargo area of the shuttle could see. It showed a five-split-screen -- all four external camera feeds and the one internal feed that was pointed aft in the cargo bay. The four external camera shots had different views of the ship’s hull and of the dusty, bare landing port at Custer Hills, including a feed that was a fish-lens close-up of the ground and of the underside of the ship around the sealed bomb bay doors. The internal feed showed movement -- a black, heavily pregnant goat doe was standing on top of a tarp-covered palette, nibbling her way through a corner of one of the visible burlap bags. “Ggāisǐ de shānyáng!” Cooper muttered, “-- Sully, how long?” while Professor West asked, “Interesting -- is that… a goat?”

“That’s Anna! She’s really nice and she likes having her noggin’ scratched.” Tilly told the professor helpfully, though the girl was clearly too exhausted for her usual enthusiasm. “She and Polly must have gotten loose again. I’ll bet Polly is up in the galley. Last time she got loose, she got up to the galley and ate half a basket of sweet rolls that were meant for breakfast. She and Anna are both preggers and are gonna have little baby goats in a couple of weeks, so that’s why she looks like she swallowed a barrel.”

“ETA is just about five minutes,” Sully supplied as Tilly was speaking; Fatima left her co-pilot’s seat to see the vid-projection and stood in the other side of the hatchway next to the captain to watch.

“If the damn Houdini colics, I ain’t saving her,” Cooper grumbled, in reference to the wayward goat, while Chang tapped in a command and began to rewind the vid feeds. On the internal feed, Anna hopped backwards off of the pallet and shuffled backwards into her pod, while the white doe Polly came climbing down ass-end-first off the cargo bay stairs. On the external feed, there weren’t any other ships near the Jin Dui at the Custer Hills port. A mechanic was climbing down and up on a Blue Sun cargo shuttle at the edge of the camera feed, showing no interest in the Jin Dui or her doings. Then a distant figure appeared at the opposite edge of the feed. It walked backwards at an electronically-sped up pace, straight up to the ship and the sallyport hatchway. Cianán was aware of the bewildered expressions around him as his crewmates all recognized Halo in his dark jacket and floppy-brimmed hat. Halo went backwards into the ship, while the goats were visible only as a pair of curious heads stuck over the half-door of the stable-pod.

Then Halo walked backward through the cargo bay, wearing his heavy jacket and the floppy hat, a full duffle over his shoulder. The rest of the crew was silent as he disappeared from view; Chang froze the rewind at the moment Halo stepped out of view, then ran the vid forward a few frames until Halo had reappeared.

“Wáng bā gāo zi,” Cooper muttered. Cianán thought the captain looked gobsmacked by seeing that Halo had just walked from the Jin Dui, because Cianán was certain that Halo wasn’t ever supposed to have left the ship with everyone else trapped in the bombing and crash-landings in Sturges’s capital. If Cianán had dared, he might have suggested the captain sit down the way she had told Hoss to do, but he didn’t dare. He waited for Hoss to say something, but the big mechanic held his tongue.

“What is Bill doing?” Fatima said, aghast by Halo’s apparent defection.

“He never said anything to me about having a lunch date scheduled,” Sully said sourly.

“Do any of the hull sensors register any disturbances?” Carver was asking Chang. “And do comm records show anything incoming? Was Halo in communication with anyone?”

“Neg and neg. Other than our hails from this shuttle, there are two incoming messages on queue since Sully departed, and I don’t show either one as having been accessed…” Chang said, quickly sorting through information feeds on his tablet. “One is from the Portmaster, registering a 5K fine for an unauthorized departure…”

“But of course!” Abby said with a bitter snort, while Captain Cooper was looking truly sickly at the figure.

“... second is from the feds and came in about 10 minutes ago,” Chang continued. “A Lieutenant Sharma from Interpol is demanding an immediate call-back, he’s got questions for the captain and crew regarding today’s events, and our interaction with one Srinvasa Ramanujan, crewman of a ship named the Shin Dol-seok.” Chang’s voice sounded as confused by that request as Cianán was to hear it, but Hoss moaned and smacked his forehead in reaction. The rest of the crew looked toward Hoss in surprise.

“Srinny,” Hoss groaned. “I served with Srinvasa in the Greenleaf 4th Volunteers. I haven’t seen him for years, but he got out of a taxi today right in front of Fatima and I, down on the docks.”

“The man who asked us if we were here to see the fireworks?” Fatima added in a strained voice.

Hoss looked at them all bleakly and nodded. “He got tetchedy when I didn’t know what day it was and went off to his ship.”

“And was that ship a Knorr mid-bulk?” Sully asked over his shoulder from the pilot’s chair.

“Yeah,” Hoss replied. “How’d you guess?”

“There were three other ships who had got clear of Sturges like we did without crashing, before the landlock went into effect. One of those was a Knorr freighter . And its transponder went dark shortly after that. Either it, too, crashed somewhere close to the city -- or the Knorr’s crew yanked their transponder in order to run silent.”

Cianán looked at the grim faces of the adults around him, feeling like something important was sailing FTL right over his head. Even the stranger seemed to get it. "What could be important about --" the professor began to say, and then the man’s expression darkened and he pinched the bridge of his nose under the glasses. “No. Of course. Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Sturges."

Cianán threw a glance aftward, and was grateful to see Tilly looking equally bewildered. Cianán began his mental countdown, grateful he could keep his carefully cultivated cool, and right on cue, he heard Tilly pose his question for him.

“I don’t get it. What’s going on?” the girl asked.

“The ships that crashed at the docks were probably an accident,” Captain Cooper replied. “But the dirty bombing at the Federal Building in City Center was certainly terrorism. And Hoss is probably on some dockside CCV feed as the last known contact of a Dust Devil before that Knorr cut and run.”

“A Dust Devil?” Tilly asked.

“The Independent guerrilla fighters,” Fatima explained.

“Dǎnxiǎo guǐ terrorists, you mean!” Abby corrected her sharply.

Captain Cooper was still looking whey-faced. “I sure as hell bet that the Fleet mofs have some questions for us. Like how did we know to get the Jin Dui the hell off those docks so damn quick? And what are our friendly connections to the mā lā ge bā zi Dust Devils?” she said, her voice sounding strained.

“No wonder Halo just abandoned ship and ran,” Sully groaned, sounding equally dismayed. “We are so humped!”

 



Chapter Text

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 soldier 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 scare. 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.

 

TRANSLATIONS:
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 day after had been bad. The day after that had been the worst. Today, well, at least 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 new,” 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.”