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The four locals left satiated. There had been several pitchers of beer and several plates of appetizers consumed before the loggers’ questions had been answered in full. The men had departed in an entirely different attitude -- there had been handshakes and smiles all around at the parting, and even if a couple of the gentlemen were sporting facial bruises from the brief brawl, Cooper and her companions had compensated for that by providing the locals with Grade-A prime currency gossip. All day local media had been nothing but news about the Capital City terrorist bombing and the dockside disaster which had followed, but the men wanted to know more -- and had found themselves three first-hand survivors to provide it.

Professor West’s description of the calamity had been riveting. The man was a natural born storyteller, and Cooper had found herself as enthralled as the loggers by the folklorist’s tale. The captain had already heard her crew’s composite version of the story -- told in bits and pieces by Fatima, Hoss, Cianán and Tilly around the dinner table last night -- but the professor’s retelling was both more comprehensive and more immediately terrifying.

On her own behalf, Cooper struggled to find the words to convey what she and Carver had experienced in the bomb blast at the Federal Building. Her mind had not wanted to revisit those raw memories, and the loggers’ close questioning had forced her to recall elements of the blast and its aftermath she had simply shunted aside and compartmentalized without processing. It had been easier for her to discuss the triage efforts afterwards.

Finally, the loggers had proven particularly interested in Carver’s search and rescue efforts among the rubble of the Federal Building. Carver’s clipped, minimalistic retelling sounded like an after-action report or mission debriefing, but Cooper had found herself equally engrossed by his words as she had by West’s -- albeit for different reasons. Where the locals’ were hanging on Carver’s every hard-fought word out of vicarious interest, Cooper was appalled at the risks Carver admitted to having taken.

As the locals had finally departed, satisfied and no doubt eager to retell what they’d heard, Cooper sipped at the remaining bock in her glass, feeling exhausted to the marrow of her bones by the required socializing. Across the square, the golden doors of the mosque were opening. Cooper slammed back the last of her beer and groped after the handle of her new cane -- if nothing else good came from the whole damn nightmare of the Sturges bombing, at least the new cane with its quad rubber base that she had scored from the survivor processing center at the stadium was a niúbī improvement from the battered, makeshift walking stick she had lost in the Federal Building blast.

Carver was already on his feet and waved her off from rising. “I’ll get Fatima. Just wait here,” he said. Cooper scowled at her security officer, knowing she was being cosseted, but found herself just too damn sore and tired to overrule him on it. After all, they still had to walk back to the peditram station that would take them back to the port, and Cooper knew she had better marshal her reserves for that coming battle, if she wanted to avoid embarrassing herself.

Carver left their table, walking off across the town square to intercept Fatima at the mosque. Cooper watched her crewman go, then slid an assessing glance across the table at Professor West, tucking away the very last of the thick, spicy-battered onion rings. The man’s demeanor remained steadily cheerful, but behind the square frames of his glasses there were shadows under his brown eyes. He had scrapes on his knuckles from the sucker punch he had delivered during the brief fight with the loggers. Cooper found her lips twisting in amusement at the memory of that scrap. She was impressed with both how diplomatically the man had handled the situation -- and with how quick he’d been to throw hands when it was clear his diplomacy had failed.

“They teach fisticuffs at that Core university of yours?” she asked him, tempering her words with a smile.

“No. That I learned on my own,” he answered, with a smile in return. His eyes settled on her, assessing in their turn. “That’s what life is, isn’t it? One hopefully-long lesson in facing the unexpected.”

“And turning it to your advantage?” Cooper said. There was a little bit of bock left in the pitcher. She poured it into her glass, thinking it a pity to leave it to waste.

“When possible. There’s something of value to be learned from every trial, don’t you think?” he parried.

Cooper lifted her glass in a toast. “Yám seng,” she agreed, then drank the very last of the good beer. Find out the brewery and maybe pick up some of that for trade, she thought. Across the square, Carver had reached the mosque and was standing to one side of the flow of people leaving through the golden doors, waiting for Fatima’s appearance.

“You’ve made quite the impression on my crew,” Cooper said. “I’m indebted to you for coming to Fatima and Cianan’s aid, and for rescuing Hoss and Tilly. I don’t know how long my ship will be grounded here at Sturges. But we can use a short-term pilot, if you’re looking for something to do while waiting for your insurance claims to come through on your lost ship.”

Professor West’s grizzled eyebrows rose. “I’m honored,” he said.

That was neither a yea or a nay, Cooper noted. “We’ll be spending some more time here in the Georgia Cluster -- probably Regina or Boros next, depending on what cargo I can secure. After that, we’re headed back out for the Blue Cluster. I intend to get acquainted with some of those worlds before we’re due to rendezvous with the Jin Dui’s owner on Deadwood in October. Your past expertise on the Rim could come in pretty useful for us. Granted -- the feds are also eyeballing us pretty hard right now, so maybe you’d not welcome the close attention.”

“Ah, well,” he said with a shrug. “Despite what I said to our new local friends, I expect the Alliance may be keeping a close eye on all of us, for a while. I may have run into your crewmembers by chance, but Interpol is inclined to be suspicious by default. In that sense, I’m already connected with you.”

Cooper smiled at that. “What’s the old phrase -- ‘in for a penny, in for a pound?” she said with a sour laugh. “Well, as soon as the feds clear us to fly again, the Jin Dui is collecting cargo and getting off this rock. If you’re interested in a tour with us as a temporary hire-on, I’ll give you the same offer as the rest of the crew. Wages are a 3% quarterly profit share, plus a 50 cred a month stipend on top of three hots and a cot. You’d get your own cabin and the mid-watch shift on bridge. Interested? Mind you, it’ll be a long cruise through the Blue Cluster and then on to Persephone. But we’d get you back to the Eavesdown Docks come November.”

The professor rubbed his chin, eyes focused somewhere on the middle distance of the town square. Then his attention came back to her. “I’d originally intended to do some fieldwork here on Sturges, but in all honesty, unless I want to gather material about storytelling responses to a disaster, this may no longer be the best plan. Although,” he admitted, “that could be quite the interesting topic to explore! Not exactly what I was after, though. Hmm.”

Cooper snorted. “Interesting, maybe, but a little close to the bone? Doesn’t folklore take a little time to percolate?

He smiled. “You’d be surprised! I would actually expect quite a number of off-color jokes to spring up within the next day or so. Insensitive, but a well-known way for people to cope with going through horrific events. But that is somewhat outside my area of interest.” He laid one of his broad hands flat on the table. “I may have to link up to the Cortex to do some preparatory research, but I can easily shift my focus to Regina, or Boros. I haven’t been to either of those since the War. And the Blue Cluster, of course, is always of interest. I don’t think I’ve been to Deadwood before. If you’re willing to entrust the piloting of your ship to me, captain, I think I’m inclined to accept your offer.”

“We’d be glad to have you come aboard,” Cooper replied. “And before you sign anything, we’ll have you sit at the boards for some sims, then have a chat about how much time you’ll need onworld at different ports for your research. I expect your gathering methods must take time -- and frankly, for a merchant ship, time equals money. Every hour my ship is sitting at dock is credits potentially lost. But I’m sure we can find ways to coordinate your research needs with the ship’s itinerary.”

“Of course,” the professor responded. “I’ll need to know how long you typically stay in port, to see whether that meets my needs. But in some respects, doing a series of short surveys isn’t a bad way to spend my time, for the next few months. And heading back to Persephone is in my best interests, anyway. If I’m going to purchase a new ship, that’s probably a better place to do it than here on the Rim.”

 

“I know a very colorful gentleman on Beylix who’d argue that with you, and probably be eager to make you an offer you couldn’t refuse,” Cooper said, thinking of Sully’s Uncle Slim. She had been keeping an eye on Carver’s distant figure, taller than the rest of the crowd streaming out of the mosque’s golden doors. She saw that he was headed back toward them, and within moments, Fatima grew recognizable as well. Cooper pushed her chair back and reached after her cane to rise. “And every port we visit is different, so I imagine we’ll just have to take it world by world,” she said as she pushed herself to her feet. Her bad leg ached -- and the jolt of adrenaline she’d had during the brief fist-fight with the loggers hadn’t helped much with that.

West rose as well, and pulled her chair out of her way. “Taking it world by world is something I’ve been doing for a very long time,” he said, with good humor. “I’m willing to try this arrangement, if you are. At least, through to Persephone.”

“Hǎo a!” Cooper said with satisfaction. “Well then. Let’s go intercept Fatima and Carver. Your decision to accept our offer is going to give the crew a real shot in the arm -- some good news for us, finally, after the last 24 hours.”

Fatima’s reaction proved to be one of delight. “Mashallah!” she exclaimed, beaming. “I am so glad! You feel to me like family already, Professor West.” Fatima grinned and corrected herself. “Tor.”

His smile widened at that, and he gave her a small bow. “And I am very grateful for the warm welcome. After the last few days, I’ve been reminded of what a good thing it can be, to have friends.”

Cooper was watching Carver closely for her security officer’s reaction to the news. The red-haired man just flickered a glance toward West and gave him a shallow nod of acceptance, before turning his attention back to the night-time foot traffic in the square around them. Cooper couldn’t help but smile, counting the laconic’s man response as tacit approval.

“Wǒ de chuányuán,” Cooper said with satisfaction as she turned and headed in the direction of the peditram station, several blocks distant. “Let’s go home, shall we?”

 

TRANSLATIONS:
niúbī = fucking awesome (literally “cow cunt”) (Mandarin)
yám seng = cheers/drink to victory (Catonese, but commonly enough used to be a popular verse slang)
hǎo a! = Okay! (with enthusiasm)
hǎo le ! = all right, fine (would be used after someone has suggested something -- you are agreeing, but you’re less than thrilled)
mashallah = (may Allah grant him favor) Arabic
wǒ de chuányuán = my crew/my team/my squad