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Fallout

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The Alliance forensics team arrived around breakfast time and finished their work in little less than an hour. Cooper just escorted them back out of the cargo bay door, then turned to haul herself up the cargo stairs to the midbay catwalk and the crew cabin corridor there, intending to see for herself what the investigators had left behind in Halo’s quarters. But as she limped through the hatchway, she saw that Hoss’s cabin door, just across from Halo’s, had been left wide open. So she took a moment to look in on her friend before she went to work cleaning out Halo’s abandoned quarters.

Predictably, Hoss's black eye looked even worse the day after. Cooper leaned against the open hatchway of Hoss's cabin and simply watched him in quiet dismay, while he put aside his tatty-earred paperback and grinned at her in cheerful welcome. The smile didn't do him many favors, given one of his lips was split and swollen and his dimples just made the scrapes on that side of his face more evident. "Ata mārie!" the Maori mechanic said, radiating his usual sunny good humor despite the contusions and the concussion he had sustained the day before.

"Kia ora," she replied, their usual morning exchange -- only this morning, the Jin Dui's captain found herself swallowing against a sudden lump of emotion that choked her. Hoss gave her a knowing look from the eye that wasn't swollen shut, and patted the bunk beside him invitingly. Cooper hesitated -- but then took that invitation and limped across the cabin to settle on the edge of his mattress, leaning companionably against the bulwark of his side. "Gēmen,” she said, “you still look like hammered shit."

"And you're hobbling worse than my grandmama," Hoss countered. "Why in the blazes am I on bedrest orders while you're gimping it around the ship?"

"Because you're the one who got clobbered by a building yesterday, and because I'm the doctor who's giving the orders!” she retorted, before softening somewhat. “I might have hit a wall yesterday, but you? Your wall knocked you out cold and left you with a solid TBI, boyo. You gotta take it easy.”

Hoss's deadpan look spoke plain enough -- and she returned it with an apologetic shrug. Truth was, if she'd been able to do so, Cooper would have called in sick that morning and not put a foot out of her own bunk. The bomb blast she'd survived yesterday at the Sturges Federal Building had briefly knocked her out and left her back, shoulders and hips black and blue, while the first round of her anti-radiation meds had left her innards feeling even more bruised. But as the ship's captain, Cooper had simply taken as large a dose of painkillers as she could safely manage, then hauled her sorry ass up and down the ship's stairs. She didn't consider herself to have any choice otherwise, not with a pair of Alliance investigators on the Jin Dui's deck and their comrades asking to come and go in search of evidence of suspected criminal behavior. "Officers Braun and Sharma are here for round two. They've spent the morning with Sully, and Abby has warned me that Carver and I will be next on the interrogation list."

Hoss nodded, having endured his own close questioning by the two Alliance Interpol agents the night before, after the ship's remaining crew had gotten back to the Jin Dui. Yesterday had been simply a bitch of a day for everyone, with half of the crew affected by the terrorist bomb blast and irradiated, and the other half having narrowly survived crashing spacecraft and collapsing buildings down at the capital's docks. While Hoss had been the worst hurt of all of them, the rest of the Jin Dui’s crew were going gingerly about their duties today, nursing their day-after complaints along with a bottle of general painkiller capsules that made the rounds along with the breakfast coffee.

“I’ll confess, I got up and snuck a look into Halo’s cabin as soon as the uniforms left it,” Hoss told her. “They really tossed the place.”

Cooper nodded, no longer as interested in seeing Halo’s quarters for herself. Instead, she studied her friend’s bruised and battered face. It was their first chance for private words since they had been reunited at the Capital City stadium yesterday, and for a few moments at least, the captain let down her carefully constructed defenses. Cooper reached out and lightly explored the scraped side of her friend’s face with her fingers. “Jen-jang!” she cursed bitterly, feeling choked again by a surge of repressed emotion. “Hoss, if I’d lost you yesterday, I don’t know what I’d have done,” she said. She hated getting maudlin, she hated admitting to weakness, and she especially hated the sound of her own voice when gorram tears turned into a whispery rasp. Cooper swallowed back the rest of the words that wanted to be said and struggled to regain her composure against the upswelling of grief, furious at herself for getting emotional.

Hoss’s responding smile was gentle and understanding. He returned her familiar touch, one huge fingertip tracing the glistening trail of a tear that had escaped her control and curved down her cheek. “I only had a single story dropped on me,” he said, his tone half teasing and and half pointed. “Coop, you were the one on the seventh floor of a ten-story building when a bomb went off and tore the place in half. I suspect I owe Carver some thanks for getting you both out of there in one piece. You want to tell me what happened?”

Cooper sighed. It made her bones ache to even try to remember yesterday’s horrors. “What was bad was those damn decon showers,” she replied, trying to make light of it all.

Even with one eye swollen shut, Hoss’s knowing look was eloquent. He patted her cheek, then let his hand drop, his expression telling her he saw through her evasiveness and that he accepted it only on a temporary basis -- they both knew he would return to the matter later, when Copper had more of a buffering distance from the trauma. Instead, he reached out to her and gathered her into an enveloping hug. She relaxed against his broad chest, wrestling back another bout of tears over having come so close to losing her dearest friend.

“So tell me,” Hoss said, sympathetically changing directions himself. "Any sign of him?"

Cooper knew immediately who he was asking about. "No sign of Halo at all. The feds haven’t told us anything, but since Halo’s face is in the morning news feeds, I don't think the Alliance has found him yet.” She sat up and Hoss let her go. “Damn if I have a clue where he's gone," Cooper continued, with a restorative bitterness. She found it easier to accept her anger at the pilot for his defection than the other emotions it sparked. "If you'd told me we'd have a crew member go ghost on us, Halo would be about the last I'd have guessed to do it.”

She felt rather than saw Hoss’s nod of agreement. "None of us saw it coming.” Hoss’s expression was earnest and full of worry. He reached after Cooper's hand and squeezed it; she twined fingers and held on, grateful she could count on Hoss to express the emotions she herself could only bottle up. “I can’t believe he had anything to do with the Dust Devils himself,” Hoss continued. “I just think that after Halo saved the ship from the disaster at the docks, he knew that the Alliance would come and ask questions of us all, and he was scared of them arresting him for going AWOL. When I think of it like that, I can understand why Halo just ran off like he did. And I hope he’s okay, wherever he’s run to.”

“That ssang-nom left us with a bag of shit to hold,” Cooper grumbled in response. “He’s made us look guilty twice over in the eyes of the Alliance, and cost us 5K in fines--”

“-- and saved the ship by getting the Jin Dui up off that dockside before those other ships pulverized her,” Hoss reminded his old friend.

Cooper acknowledged that grudgingly. “Yes, but he didn’t have to run. Halo could have stood his ground and faced up to the charges against him. I’m sure that there’s amnesty rules of some kind, now that the war’s over, and we would have stood with him. Abby may not like using that law degree she earned, but damn, she’s niúbī-good at lawyering when she has to do it. Halo could have had us back his play, but instead he went and ran out on us. And by doing that, he’s made us look even more like suspects to the Feds, which is gonna bring down all sorts of sustained Alliance attention on us, don’t you think? And that’s precisely what Van Hooven ordered me NOT to do! Halo might not be wielding the knife himself, but he might get me killed over this. Van Hooven cut the throat of the Jin Dui’s last captain for less.”

Cooper saw her friend’s expression fall as Hoss followed the line of her thoughts. He squeezed her hand hard and watched her face, looking miserable as he realized that danger wasn’t entirely hyperbole. “... well, there were some minor financial irregularities too, with the last captain,” Hoss offered hopefully. “I mean, they were selling the Jin Dui’s parts off for scrap and neglecting the old girl something terrible! You’re making a profit, and we’re getting her fixed up as good as new, so Van Hooven will forgive that. I’m sure he’ll forgive that. He’d be a fool not to.”

Cooper nodded grimly, as much for Hoss’s peace of mind as for her own sake. “I hope so, too. But I want this Rim Run to be nice and quiet and uneventful. Once we get off this world, we need to creep our way back to the Blue Cluster like a little mouse -- and try to show a steady profit while we’re at it. If I prove to him that we can work the ‘Verse as an honest merchant ship and keep our ship’s nose nice and clean, then that will help mollify Van Hooven’s temper.”

Hoss squeezed her hand again and gave her an encouraging grin. “E ipo, you get too micro-focused on things. Look at the macro, Coop. The ship earned a windfall profit with all of that salvage from the Lucky Day, and while there’s been a couple of bad ports-of-call for us, you’ve got the ship ledgers back in the black now. You’ve made some good long-term business contacts for the Jin Dui that will ensure future jobs for us, and the ship’s getting so much love and attention now, she practically purrs like a kitten. We’ve got loads more work to do to get her totally ship-shape, sure, but I’m sure Van Hooven will be impressed with everything that’s been accomplished.” He grinned a little wider. “It was what… only four months ago when you and I were still shoveling the trash out of the cargo bay and power-washing the graffiti off the walls? And look at the old girl today! You should take the time to feel some pride in your achievements, aroha.”

“And I’d never have managed any of it without you, Hoss. So damn it all, next time a building tries to fall on you, get out of the damn way,” she retorted, trying and failing not to smile.

Hoss shrugged. “Like I said before, I’ve taken worse hits playing rugby with my cousins.”

“I don’t doubt it. I’ve seen your cousins!”

Hoss laughed at that and Cooper grinned along, squeezing his hand fondly. She opened her mouth to say something else, but through the open cabin door she heard the approaching sound of voices and footsteps through the aft crew corridor hatch. Cooper automatically sat up straighter and dropped Hoss’s hand, rubbing angrily at her cheeks to erase any tell-tale tear tracks.

A few moments later, Fatima appeared in Hoss’s doorway, with the ship’s guest, Professor Torenberg West, at her shoulder. “Captain!” Fatima said, surprised not to find Hoss alone. “Did the Alliance officers say anything to you about Halo?” Fatima asked, her pretty face clearly showing her worry for her fellow pilot.

“Not a peep,” Cooper answered. “I didn’t get the impression they found anything of interest in his quarters, either.”

Fatima nodded. She half-turned toward the professor, physically including him in the conversation. “Professor West--” Fatima began to say.

“You can call me Tor,” the man said, smiling but in a tone that implied it was not the first time he had requested it. He made a rippling wave with one hand -- Cooper couldn't help but notice again that he was polydactyl.

“-- Professor West,” Fatima said again, but with a broad smile in return and continued, “needs a few things to get settled. Sully loaned him enough for last night, but the professor is going to need another couple of changes of clothing and as well as a personal kit. We’ve got all of the surplus goods from Beylix that we’ve been sorting through for resale during the Rim Run. With your permission, Captain, may he have some items from the resale inventory to see him through?”

“I’m afraid I lost everything, and my clothes from yesterday aren’t fit to wear again until they’re washed -- which, I hear, is something of a problem right now,” the professor said, almost apologetically. “I could head into Custer Hills and hit the shops instead... but Officers Sharma and Braun have asked us not to leave the ship until they’ve cleared us.”

“Yeah, let’s keep the federales happy,” Cooper agreed. She gave the displaced academic a once-over, recognizing Sully’s Uncle Slim’s Shipyard t-shirt that the man was wearing along with a pair of Sturges Sawyers sweatpants. Professor West was rubbing at the side of his neck -- he had a small owl tattoo there, flanked by kanji the captain couldn’t read. He had some sort of stylized design tattooed on each forearm as well -- Cooper wasn’t close enough to make out details, and was surprised just to see any ink-art on him at all. She had thought that in formal Core society, tattoos were seen as low-class, méi shuǐzhǔn. “Go ahead, kit yourself out with whatever we’ve got in storage. And help yourself to anything of Halo’s that’s still in his cabin. Halo was a couple of inches shorter than you, but he’s probably left behind something that might fit.”

Fatima’s face looked anguished. Clearly she was holding out hope that Halo would return to them -- and be allowed to rejoin the crew, if he did. “Take whatever you want,” Cooper repeated. “I’ll be clearing out whatever remains to add to the jumble sale surplus.”

Fatima’s expression was sad, but she nodded acceptance. “Also… captain, I know the gentlemen from Interpol said none of us should leave the ship, but tonight is the holy night of Laylat al-Qadr, and I would be deeply grateful if I could join the prayers and the iftar celebration at the mosque in town tonight.”

“I’m scheduled for interrogation next, so I’ll talk to them about it,” Cooper said. “If necessary, I’ll unleash Abby -- there’s gotta be some freedom of religion statute on the Alliance books that’ll work in our favor.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Fatima said, bobbing her head and stepping back from the hatchway. She and Professor West retreated from sight, but Cooper could hear the murmur of their voices as they went into Halo’s cabin across the corridor. Once the threat of witnesses was gone, Cooper relaxed, slumping back against Hoss comfortably.

“Our Fatima seems taken with that gentlemen,” she observed to Hoss very quietly, so that the remark could not be overheard by the pair across the hallway. “Not in a romantic sense, just… I don’t think I’ve seen her quite so trusting of anyone right off the bat.”

“The professor risked his own neck to save Keen and Tilly and I,” Hoss answered, his voice also pitched for private conversation. “And he stuck around too, afterwards, when he didn’t have any reason to do so, except just that he wanted to make sure Fatima got us all to safety. Mr. West lost everything when those ships collided over the dockside and took out his little Gnat, but you’d never have known it, the way he kept chatting with the kids, keeping them calm at the civil defense shelter and then afterwards, in the confusion of that long bus ride to the refugee processing center at the stadium. The professor is a good guy. He’s cool in a crisis, and savvy enough to--”

“Whoa there,” Cooper said, holding up her hands and shaking her head. “You’re sounding like you’re selling me a horse.“

Hoss chuckled at that. “Coop, I like this guy,” he said, not denying the accusation. “And Fatima does, too. She’s the one who pointed out to me as well that the guy’s a pilot--”

“Āiyā!” Cooper said in exasperation.

“-- and we’re down one, with Halo gone. Maybe Mr. West will be content to sit here on Sturges and wait for his insurance claim on his little ship to come in. Or maybe he might like to go with us, once the landlock is lifted --”

“Jiàn tā de guǐ!” Cooper groaned with a roll of her eyes.

“-- at least as far as Persephone,” Hoss continued. “We really like this guy. We’re going to need another pilot. And Coop -- we owe him. Yesterday on the docks Professor West kept Cianan from being trampled. Then he saved Tilly’s life. And mine.”

Cooper gave her friend a nonplussed look. “Hǎo yé,” she muttered. “You sure as hell know how to stick a landing.”

Hoss smiled, knowing when he had prevailed. “We owe the prof big-time,” he said. “You know we do. I probably wouldn’t be sitting here breathing air today without him, so pretty please -- won’t you ask him if he wants to stay on with us on the Jin Dui? At least until his insurance payout can replace his ship, or maybe as far as Persephone?”

The Jin Dui would be headed back toward Persephone in late October, three months or so from now. Hoss was right about needing another pilot to take Halo’s abandoned shift, and anyone who could pass the combined Hoss-Fatima hinky-meters deserved a second look. But most of all, Hoss was right -- if the fellow had a hand in saving her crew, the Jin Dui and her captain owed the man a debt of honor.

“I’ll talk to him,” Cooper agreed, as she knew Hoss knew she would. Cooper was unlikely to ever refuse her dearest friend anything -- and Hoss was aware of that as well, gorram it all. She tried to reclaim some dignity with a business-like scowl. “I’ll sound the professor out and make him an offer. But he may well say ‘no’, so don’t get your hopes up.”

Hoss chuckled again and pulled her close for a hongi. “Kia ora,” he said in satisfaction.