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Three Years Gone

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2514.May 26 -- Third Anniversary of Unification Day

 

“He aha te reinga?” raged Hoss in his native Maori. The big mechanic spat a curse at the length of safety-yellow painted steel bar at his feet, then smashed it with Lola, his shipbreaker’s wrench, with enough casual force that paint chips flew. “Kei te titiro makutu koe ki te aha?” he snarled at his companions, when Sully, Chang and Carver all looked toward his outburst.

“Um… nothing,” Chang said, flushing red and turning back to his inspection of the winding drum and pulley, while Carver, who was lubricating the lift track, returned to his work without comment. Sully just stood for a moment and stared back at the mechanic, frowning at man.

“We need you to fix it, Hoss. Not put it out of its misery,” Sully said sternly.

“Haere atu,” Hoss snapped in response, earning a raised brow from his XO. Sully didn’t know Maori, but clearly whatever the mechanic had said wasn’t meant to be polite.

The Jin Dui was flying hot and was just past the half-way mark on the course they’d calced between the Penglai debris field in the Kalidasa and Greenleaf in the Red Cluster. The ship’s crew had been kept busy. It had taken them three full three days to complete an inventory and the first round of sort-out of the loot they had stripped from the Lucky Day. This was their second day replacing what of the Jin Dui’s worn-out parts they could with new parts they’d pulled from the Lucky Day’s supplies, and prepping what used parts they’d stripped from the other ship for installation in their own. The ship’s XO, Sully, juggled work assignments and the priorities list in between his own share of the busywork. Halo and Fatima split the piloting chores 50/50 between them for now, and everyone else -- Captain Cooper included -- was pressed-ganged into the refit effort.

Bet Cooper had a ringside seat to the whole business in the cargo bay. She was parked for the morning several steps up the mid-bay catwalk, armed with a toothbrush, a small bottle of cleaning oil, and a box of surplus parts that needed to be cleaned before they could be reused. She was far more adept at patching soldiers back together than she was a ship, but the captain considered herself capable enough with a toothbrush for skut work. Cooper worked quietly, determined to keep her mouth shut and leave the refit-mission control duties in her XO’s Sully’s capable hands.

“Okay, gang. From square one -- what are we missing?” Sully said aloud, raking a hand through his tousled dark hair. Sully, Hoss, Chang and Carver were trying to get the double-girder bridge crane they’d taken from the Lucky Day installed. It was evident from the pair of runway beams that already ran the cargo bay length fore to aft that the Jin Dui had previously had a top-running cargo crane unit, but her previous captain and crew had stripped out the crane itself and sold it for scrap. This was one of those jobs that should have been an easy one. The unit they had salvaged from the Lucky Day was a common module, and the pre-existing runway beams already in the Jin Dui’s cargo bay were an equally standard type. Carver had spent the entire morning in a harness rig, suspended from the cargo bay ceiling to scrub down the runway beams, lubricate the runway rails, and safety-check the insulated downshop conductors. Theoretically, the bridge crane unit should just snap into place like a giant puzzle piece… but apparently, some days things just would not go smooth. The bridge girder did fit, but the hoist trolley’s power unit shorted out each time they tried to install it.

“We’ve taken apart the crab and checked each connection,” Sully grumbled. “It operates just fine separate.”

“Power is on in the gearbox -- I’m finding no shorts there,” Chang insisted. “I’ve pulled it apart and double-checked it.”

“You sure the gorram haunga teke even worked on your ure iti ship?” Hoss snarled at Carver, pointing with Lola in punctuation. Chang ducked, while Carver simply glanced up from making a note in grease-pencil to list on the cargo bay deck next to his knee.

“It worked,” Carver answered, his expression and tone both stoney. “The short’s got to be in the downshop conductors. Triple-check the panel festoons?” he said, directing the request at Chang. Chang nodded amiably, but Hoss swore in his native tongue again and smashed Lola against the deck in irritation.

“Whakianga mai pokotiwha! Chang’s already done it! Twice! Pokokohau -- the gorram witi bridge driver probably got busted when you stripped it!” the big mechanic snarled.

Sully gave Hoss a concerned look, having never witnessed one of Hoss’s rare foul moods. Carver seemed impervious, but Chang had been studying the Maori language since the Jin Dui’s first visit to Raikirua Island on Greenleaf. The ship’s numbers man clearly recognized enough of Hoss’s insult that his face blanched and his blue eyes went wide in shock. He shrank back reflexively, as though getting himself out of the threat radius.

Cooper recognized only about half of the Maori she had overheard, but what she recognized were definitely fighting words. “Gēmen! Time for a coffee break,” she said, with a significant look for Sully.

Her XO appeared relieved. “Great idea!” Sully agreed immediately, putting aside his tools. Chang scrambled up and beat a welcome retreat, while Carver gathered himself up more slowly from the deck, giving both Hoss and their captain a coolly questioning look.

“Hoss, mate, park it right over here,” Cooper said, returning Carver’s look with a firm one of her own. Dismissed, the former marine turned for the lower deck hatchway and followed after Sully, while Hoss stood his ground sullenly, swinging Lola a few more times before he grudgingly strode over to the gangway stairs. He took one step up, which put him on eye-level with Cooper where she sat on the mid-deck level of the stairs, then slouched against the stair railing, swinging Lola irritably like she was a cricket bat.

Cooper waited until she was absolutely certain that the rest of the crew were out of earshot. “Comm,” she said aloud for the cargo bay’s all-ship channel, which was normally left open to the bridge. “Privacy set-to-B.”

“E Hika,” Hoss muttered under his breath, staring at the scarred toes of his combat boots. “You gonna go all mof on me, you can just shove it.”

Cooper laughed. “E Mara,” she said. “What’s up with you? I haven’t seen your panties in such bunch in years. Stop scaring the children and tell me what’s got you in such a mood.”

Hoss looked somewhere between aghast and disgusted. “You got no clue?” Lola swung back and forth, rebounding against one of the stair railings with a resounding clang. “You don’t care what day it is?”

Cooper blinked, thrown off balance by the question. Back during the war years, she had always found it hard to keep track of the dates during a long transit, and it proved no easier for her to do so now that she was captain of her own ship. She did a quick mental reboot, trying to count the days since their departure from Beylix and factor it against the calendar in her head. “May 25? No -- 26th, right?” She looked to Hoss for confirmation and met his stoniest stare in return. “What am I--” She realized the answer before she could finish the question. “Unification Day. It’s U-Day, isn’t it?”

Hoss looked down and nodded sullenly. Lola bounced off of the railing again with a thunder that Cooper felt through her tailbone.

“I’m sorry. I should have known,” Cooper said, not liking the awkward feeling she was suddenly experiencing. “The first time around, I was drugged out of my head after my only rejuv shot and in transit for Deadwood. And it wasn’t something celebrated on Deadwood. No one raises glasses to the Alliance victory at the mining camp of New Hope.”

That earned a bitter snort from Hoss. “Paradise Cruiseliner Corp made a huge celebration out of it. Big Alliance flag cakes, holo fireworks and celebratory balls with toasts from the captain to honor the very minute of signing. I nearly quit, each time. But--” Hoss stopped talking with uncharacteristic abruptness, and swung Lola again, as though the reverberating crash of sound were a solace.

“But…?” Cooper coaxed.

Clang went Lola again. Cooper wondered that the railing wasn’t dented.

“But…?” she insisted gently.

“But I knew better than to quit,” Hoss said, his voice ragged with bitterness. “It was hard to find work after the War, especially for browncoats. I was lucky to have that job and I knew it, and without it, I’d have had to fly home.” He shot a look at her, and his dark eyes were fierce. “And there was no way I could fly home again. Whakianga mai, Coop! That’s on you. You took that away from me, Bet. You took it from me!”

Cooper stared at her friend, aghast at both the accusation and the raw pain it exposed.

“I don’t understand,” she said simply.

Clang went Lola again -- and this time, there was a dent. “You pulled strings and you put me on that shuttle out of Serenity Valley as Admiral Jackson’s nursemaid. Once we got to the mercy ship, I tried to get back on a return flight, but there wasn’t one. I was still begging for a transfer downworld when word of the start of the main Alliance assault came up through the ranks. Then I had to just sit there and watch that vid of our field hospital getting blown to shit by mortar fire. You and all of our friends just blown to chunk, and where was I? Safe in orbit on my kumu nui in the mess-hall, with a plate of shit-on-a-shingle in my hands, helpless to do anything but watch! I thought you were dead, Bet. For months after the armistice was finally signed, I thought you were dead. It wasn’t until the Red Crescent got me your first letter that I found you weren’t. I’d have given anything to trade places with you. Anything. Even knowing how busted up you were, I’d have traded bunks with you in a hot minute.”

There was raw pain in that confession. Cooper reached up after the gangway platform railing and pulled herself to her feet. She found her balance after a moment and carefully climbed down the steps which separated them, until she had reached the step just above where Hoss stood. She let go of the railing then and leaned into him, reaching both arms around his waist. The big mechanic felt as solid as a big rock, and he did not automatically hug her back as she had assumed he would.

“I missed the whole of the real battle of Serenity Valley,” Hoss said, still rigid against her. “People hear I was there and their eyes go big and they expect I went through the worst of it, the starvation and the trenches and building fortifications out of the dead and all of that ugly shit. So I always gotta explain that you flew me out of harm’s way, or I’m stealing valor from the real heroes who lived that and survived that. So how the hell could I go home, Coop? There was no way I could go back to my iwi and face my father and my grandmother and all my family, or step into the marae and show my face to my ancestors, knowing how I shamed them?”

Cooper continued to hug her friend. “You have nothing to be ashamed of,” she argued.

“You’re pāhekā,” Hoss retorted. “What do you know of it? You know nothing of tikanga Māori. Being a warrior is part of my whakapapa. It is who I am meant to be. And when the time came for me to protect those I held most dear, I failed. I was not there. I was forced to sit that battle out. It matters, Coop. It matters.”

Cooper did understand a little then, or at least she hoped she did. “You didn’t shame anyone. You went to war to protect what you cared for. You wore the uniform. You showed your courage. You saw the elephant, and you killed your enemies. You didn’t need to go through the hell of Serenity Valley to prove yourself a warrior. Not to anyone. Not to me. And certainly not to your family.”

It seemed to Cooper, for a moment at least, that she felt a crack beginning in the anger she felt holding her friend so rigid. “Hoss, we knew what was coming,” she said, embracing him as hard as she could. “I’m not going to apologize for keeping you safe when I saw an opportunity to do so. I can’t apologize for that. I didn’t pull strings with the admiral’s aides to get you out of Serenity Valley because I thought you couldn’t survive it. I got you out of there because I couldn’t have gone on if I lost you.” Her voice cracked with emotion, and she struggled to wrestle that raw fear under tight rein. “You have got your family and your whole iwi back on Greenleaf. But you’re all I have got left, Hoss. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing you then, and I still can’t now. So damn me all you want. I don’t care. I’m sorry that my selfishness has hurt you, but I can’t apologize for something I’d do again in a heartbeat, if I had to.”

Hoss gusted out a long sigh. Lola made another lazy swing and the dent in the railing tented in just bit deeper. “I know,” he said. “And I understand. But you gotta let me get through this day on my own. Please respect that.”

Letting go of Hoss in that moment may have been the hardest thing Cooper ever forced herself to do. But she nodded and let him go. “Of course.”

They stood there, side-by-side, both leaning against the stair railing. Then Hoss gently reached for her with one hand and pulled her face close to his. He rubbed noses in a honga, then released her. “Carver’s maybe right about the panel festoons,” Hoss said then, stepping down and returning to the partially dismantled bridge crane. “I’ll take another look at it. Just feed the rest of the crew some lunch and have Sully point them at chores somewhere else. It’s for the best if I don’t have to share space with anyone today. Can you do that for me, Coop?”

Cooper nodded. “You got it,” she agreed. She began climbing the stairs, but hesitated as she reached the mid-deck platform. She looked back down at Hoss, feeling heartsick. He glanced up from the crane, met her eyes, and gave her a nod that was equal parts reassurance and dismissal.

Cooper headed on up for the galley, intent on seeing that Hoss got what Hoss needed to get through Unification Day on his own terms.