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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.


Chapter Text

Tor had been helping Fatima and Captain Cooper finish cleaning out their AWOL crew member’s cabin -- the trio had just been placing the last of the prodigal’s personal items into a bin when Abby Baldwin, the mahogany-haired woman who served as the ship’s solicitor (which raised the question again in Tor’s mind, what sort of tramp merchanter needed a lawyer amongst the crew?), arrived to tell the captain she was summoned by the Alliance investigators for questioning. Cooper had grumbled but limped off gamely enough, accompanied by the solicitor.

Fatima gazed after them with a worried look on her face that Tor could not help but notice. She had become his Beatrice of sorts, he supposed. “You sat down with the investigators last night, didn’t you?” he asked, as he placed the bin’s lid down and sealed the container. “Just before I did?”

She nodded. “After they spoke with Hoss, they called me in. They wanted to know everything they could about Halo, and about Hoss’s friend we encountered on the docks yesterday.” Fatima sighed and touched at the silky fabric of the rose-colored hijab she wore. “Forgive me, Professor West,” she said with a sad smile. “I cannot help but worry. I know that none of us have done wrong, but the last twenty four hours have just been so difficult.”

“That is an understatement for the ages,” he replied, as he picked up the bin. “They were somewhat reluctant to accept that I had met with you all by chance. It’s their job to be suspicious, I suppose. I’m sure they took all of the answers we gave them and passed them on to people who will be double and triple checking our bona-fides and the surveillance footage.” Even though he wasn’t formally connected with the crew at all, he’d been grateful that Ms. Baldwin had sat in on his interview; a polite word for an interrogation, though fortunately a mild one.

Seeing Fatima still gazing worriedly in the direction of their former pilot’s stripped-down bunk, Tor leaned over until he caught her attention, and gave her an encouraging smile. “If it helps, I think they may have already come to the conclusion that we aren’t implicated. I don’t think they would have been so polite, or the interviews so far would have been so relatively brief, if that weren’t the case. They may be hoping we can give them a few leads, but I got more of a feeling from them that they were ruling out investigative dead-ends.” If they’d been really serious, he thought, they would have pressed much harder; and probably left armed guards on the ship. “Now, please -- show me where this should go for storage and let me haul it for you.”

He was rewarded by Fatima’s glowing smile, and was happy to carry the big plastic bin down to the passenger dorm below, where it was left in an empty cabin to later be put up in one of the secondary-level cabins above it for storage. The Firefly’s internal layout had not been designed by the most practical of ship builders, with its nooks and crannies and inefficient repetitious stairs. He was grateful for Fatima’s willingness to serve as his guide, although he was certain that he was beginning to get the hang of the place. It had been a very long time since he’d been on a Firefly, and the ship felt palatial in comparison to the Coelacanth, his compact little Gnat.

That thought came with a stab of regret. He had seen enough news channel vidstreams last night to know that the Coelacanth was gone. One of the two freighters that had crashed during yesterday’s disaster on the Sturges docks had showered his Gnat’s landing pad with debris and burning fuel from its side pod engines. Tor had gotten comm access from the Jin Dui’s bridge last night and placed the first call to his insurance agent at Lloyds of Londinium. Understandably enough, their agents were overwhelmed right now and he had been promised a call back as soon as humanly possible, under the deluge of claims they were no doubt being hit with.

Still, he would have to think soon about what his next moves should be. He couldn’t impose on the hospitality of the Jin Dui for long. The merchanter might well be cleared to depart in a few days, if the Interpol investigations failed to find anything suspicious to charge the captain and crew with. And Tor knew it could be weeks -- months even -- for his insurance claims to be processed.

“It is time for lunch. Why don’t you come upstairs?” Fatima said, gesturing for him to follow. He nodded, grateful for the invitation. He was thankful for the shelter the Jin Dui’s captain and crew had offered him after yesterday’s tragedies. He could have found a hotel or spent the night at the emergency shelter at the Capital City Stadium, no doubt. But there was certainly a visceral comfort to be found in having others to share in the aftermath of disaster, even if they were strangers.

The Firefly’s many stairs were bewildering at first, but Tor felt he was getting accustomed to them as he correctly predicted the engine room turning up aft and the corridor on forward to the galley. There was warmth and movement ahead -- even the glow of sunlight through the galley’s overhead crew lounge windows. “Hey!” called the Jin Dui’s first mate cheerfully from his seat at the galley as Tor followed Fatima through the aft hatchway. “Professor West! Pull up a seat and join us!”

“Please,” Tor said with a patient smile. “Just call me Tor.”

The us at that moment was the handsome, gregarious first mate who was issuing the invitation, plus a thin, black-haired man who was clutching a steaming mug like it was a lifeline, and the blonde-haired girl with the crown of braids. The girl -- Matilda Warren, he reminded himself, Tilly for short -- was wearing headphones and was bent over a tablet with a stylus in her hands. She brightened up immediately at the sight of Fatima and Tor and began to slip off the headphones, but the first mate stopped her with the tap of a finger against the table. “Lessons, Tilly,” he said firmly.

“But--” the girl began to argue.

Fatima laughed and patted the girl’s head as she passed the table. “Just because Abby is belowdecks with our guests and the captain, that doesn’t mean you can skip out on your lessons.”

“Finish the day’s course work and then you can help us with…” the first mate hesitated and made an airy gesture. “... with whatever the hell it is we’re going to do today, groundlocked as we are.”

“I’m going to dish up a lunch plate and take it down for Hoss,” Fatima told her crewmates as she stepped into the galley. “Professor, come help yourself. Lunch is usually self-serve on this ship,” she said, beckoning him toward the counter. “Captain sets it all up for us, and if you don’t like what you see, there’s usually labeled leftovers in the fridge unit.”

“Oh, don’t worry about me,” Tor said. “I will enjoy any cooking that’s not my own.” Or, that didn’t come out of a can or freezer bags, considering he’d seldom bothered cooking for himself on his ship.

The first mate chuckled knowingly at that, as Tor followed Fatima up to the buffet set out on the counter. There were a stack of plates and cutlery there, flanked on one side by a crockpot of what looked like a red lentil soup and on the other side by some sort of egg casserole. “There’s bread and jam on the table,” Fatima added. “And there’s a pod brewer for tea over there, on the forward counter.”

“Heavenly,” Tor replied, having already made himself well-acquainted with the sourdough and jam over breakfast. “And I hope I won’t sound greedy -- but is there perchance any more of the coffee left?”

“There is, if Chang hasn’t drank it all yet,” the first mate teased, while the thin man at the table across from the first mate made an effort to open his sleepy eyes wider. “But you’ll want to score your cup now, while you still can.”

Tor got himself a mug of coffee first thing, taking delight in the slightly floral perfume that lifted off of the coffee pot. For a moment, he wondered where Cianán was -- he hadn’t seen the teenager since last night, but Fatima was only making a single meal tray. But then his mug was full, and Tor risked scalding himself to take a sip. The coffee tasted just as wonderful now as it had that morning.

“This is real kona, isn’t it?” Tor said as he settled into a chair at the table. He had over-eaten at the hearty biscuits and gravy the captain had served up for breakfast, so the promise of another slice of sourdough with more of that basil-strawberry jam sounded like just the thing now, instead of a full meal.

Chang sat up a little straighter, eager to share in a fellow coffee-lover’s enthusiasm. “It’s from Hoss’s family back on Greenleaf.”

Tor nodded with appreciation. He knew that there was a Maori Indigenous Heritage Zone on Greenleaf, and that matched up with the mechanic’s clearly Maori heritage -- and with the surprising decor of the ship’s galley and adjacent crew lounge area. Far from looking like a utilitarian ship interior, the room was bright with whitewashing, and warm with added wooden shelves and plots of bright green plants (he’d be surprised if some of those weren’t culinary herbs). The many support columns and arching overhead beams had been further decorated with scrolling green kowhaiwhai patterns (mostly abstract plant forms, he thought), and at some point Tor would have to corner Hoss and find out if he was the artist, or if the paintings had been done by others in his family. It made for an unexpectedly cheerful and homey space, one he couldn’t help contrast with the plain, unadorned grey steel of the Coelacanth’s interior. He hadn’t found it lacking at the time, but he couldn’t help but be impressed with what this crew had done with the Jin Dui.

“We stock up with a couple of pounds of fresh-roast ground whenever we visit,” Chang continued, “and break it out when we’ve got something to celebrate.”

“Like survival,” agreed the first mate -- Tor was struggling to remember the man’s name, feeling as though it were right on the very tip of his tongue. The first mate lifted his own mug in a friendly toast. “Huzzah to that!” Chang laughed and lifted his mug, so Tor did the same. “We do have to ration the real stuff,” the first mate continued. “This is our last pot of it for the day. Which means your next pot will be the finest of chicory-weed blends from Whitefall.”

Chang groaned and made a face at that, while Fatima laughed from where she stood at the galley counter. “I’ll stick with tea, thanks,” she said as she finished packing up a meal tray and turned to carry it to the stairs. Fatima passed Carver at the hatchway. The scarred man stood aside for her, then moved toward the table. The big three-legged dog Tor remembered too vividly from the night before followed after the former marine like a shadow, while seconds later, a smaller, flat-faced black dog came dashing past them all, circling the room twice at high speed before racing away up the forward corridor toward the bridge.

“Somebody pooped!” Tilly laughed past her headphones. Meaning the little dog, Bǎo Yù, Tor assumed. He saw the quick exchange of glances between the first mate and the ship’s security officer, a question asked and answered in familiar silence, then Carver passed them toward the galley counter to collect his own lunch.

The big three-legged dog stopped along Tor’s chair and stared at him balefully from its one working eye socket. Close up to it as Tor was now, he saw there was a grotesque ridge of scar tissue that ringed all the way around its neck, as though a collar had burned through its skin. Tor was careful not to meet that baleful one-eyed stare, not wanting to challenge the creature, and held out a hand loosely, palm down, to be sniffed again. Always a good policy to be polite to strange dogs, and he hoped this one would accept him. After a sniff and a noncommittal huff, the dog moved onward.

Tor reached for the sourdough, and found himself faced with an existential dilemma -- the ginger mango chutney? Or the basil strawberry jam? Tor split the difference, and smeared half of his slice of bread with each. The solution provided him with an excellent research opportunity in determining which of the homemade spreads proved to pair best with the sourdough bread. Multiple samples would have to be analyzed before he could come to a rational conclusion. Of course. It might even call for a second slice of bread to continue the research. Ah, the sacrifices one must be prepared in the pursuit of knowledge...

“Anything new in about Halo?” Chang asked, the question directed at Carver and their first mate. Carver was settling into the seat at the far end of the galley table, presumably so he could eat his lunch while keeping Tor in his field of view. Tor knew the security officer (and what did a little tramp freighter like the Jin Dui need with a dedicated security officer, Tor could not help but wonder) was keeping a keen professional interest in the ship’s guest, and did not fault the man for it. They’d already had a peaceable enough exchange the night before, when the man had firmly suggested locking Tor’s guns in the ship’s armory. Given how much the ship’s crew had been through and the unsettling desertion of their pilot, Tor had agreed to that willingly enough. He could appreciate that he was an unknown quantity, and theJin Dui’s crew didn’t need an armed stranger in their midst.

Carver gave a short shake of the head in negative to Chang’s question, while the first mate (the man’s name was right there on the edge of recall, Tor swore it was. Somehow remembering names of people he was observing was often a greater challenge than ancient classic Anglo-Saxon poetry, although he suspected that most days he had more motivation to recall the latter) groaned and rubbed his brows as though the strain of the question were inducing a migraine. “Réncí dì dìyù! Not a gorram peep,” the first mate groaned.

“I just can’t account for Halo’s rabbiting off like this!” Chang added. “It just makes no sense! Did any of you see this coming?” he asked plaintively.

“None of us,” the first mate answered, while at the other end of the table, Carver gave a negligible shrug. “I know the captain is equally stumped. I don’t think anyone had a clue Halo would jump ship on us like this.”

Tor sat back in his chair comfortably, content with just eavesdropping on the crew’s conversation instead of injecting himself into it. As a researcher of folklore, he was long accustomed to being an outsider listening in on a chorus of discussion and stories -- that was practically a job description for him, after all, in his pursuit of research materials.

“I did a deep search on the ship’s comm logs last night,” Chang said, then quickly amended that with the words “-- with the captain’s permission, of course!” in such a rush that it indicated to Tor that Chang had either a guilty conscience, or else had been in earlier trouble for some sort of illicit activity. “And there was nothing. Absolutely nothing. I could not find a single outgoing private communication to anyone from Halo. No incoming waves either. Complete and absolute Cortex silence. Not a birthday wave, not a query to search a marketplace for board game prices, not a music download. Nothing! No private entertainment downloads --” Chang laughed. “Not even any porn! Halo musta been a fēngzi -- and he fooled us all.”

“I just can’t buy that Halo would have anything to do with the violence back on Sturges,” the first mate said. “I just can’t. But does his story about having been AWOL really hold water, either? The Alliance issued amnesties--”

There was the sound of scampering paws and the little black-and-white flat-faced dog came rocketing back through the galley, launching off of the forward corridor steps and tearing straight across the long chamber and on down through the aftside hatchway. Eyes were bulging, jowls were flapping and ears were pinned back against the creature’s square skull in a picture of pure canid joy. None of the present crew looked up at the brief disturbance, clearly having witnessed it daily for who-knew how long.

“-- for that, didn’t they? I’m certain I read that they had. Chang, can you Cortex that for us and confirm?” the first mate continued. Chang automatically pulled out his handheld and started tapping and swiping. “Forget whatever problems he thought he had, running yesterday just makes him look guilty of something worse. I wonder if he has contacts here who are hiding him at this port, or who have smuggled him out of town somehow? I’ve seen enough of the news to recognize the temper of the locals. The natives are pissed as hell -- no surprise -- and anyone fingered by the feds as a suspect in the bombing is far safer in Alliance keeping than they’d be if the locals catch ‘m. I’m glad to see the feds have a reward on Halo now, which is about all that might keep the patriotic sons and daughters of Sturges from beating him within a bloody inch if they catch him.”

“For all we know,” Chang said, as he continued scrolling through the results on his handheld, “Halo could be a local himself, or have family here. He said he was from Albion, but how do we know he didn’t lie about that?” Chang grimaced at his hand terminal, let out an exclamation of triumph and looked up. “Hǎo a! There was a general amnesty on Alliance AWOL personnel within a month of the signing of the armistice,” answering that earlier question.

“And if Halo is a Dust Devil, he couldn’t have known about the bombing in advance,” the first mate continued. “Or else he would have found a way not to put the Jin Dui down on that dock. Right?”

“Halo might have thought it would be set on the southside instead of the north,” Chang argued. “Because he sure got the ship up and out of there on the double-quick. If Halo hadn’t been sitting there with his hands already on the boards, then our ship would have been toast.”

There was another disturbance from the forward corridor. Bǎo Yù again came sailing through the hatchway, only this time she was followed first by Hoss, and then by Fatima, who was still carrying Hoss’s fully-laden lunch tray.

“Get your fanny back in your bunk!” the first mate ordered the big mechanic, although the command was given with a smile of amusement.

“Kia tau,” Hoss replied. “I’m just fine--” He stumbled over his own feet as he said that, though, as if suffering a moment of vertigo. Hoss bashed the corner of Fatima’s tray with his elbow, knocking it flying. Fatima dived for the mechanic’s other arm instead of trying to recover the falling tray; Carver was out of his seat and closing in on Hoss’s other side in the same moment, moving with reflexes that would have impressed a cat. Between them, Fatima and Carver got Hoss settled into the chair Carver had just quit, while Bǎo Yù and Odin dived on the spilled egg and cheese casserole.

“Yeah, and don’t you look it?” the first mate drawled to Hoss with a ‘told you so’ expression. He rose from his seat to grab a kitchen towel. The first mate blotted at the red lentil soup stain that splashed the braided rag rug on the floor, then picked up the fallen tray and cutlery, leaving the remaining food spill to the industrious dogs. Carver settled into the seat on Hoss’s other side -- clearly ready to intercept the mechanic if Hoss tried to rise again while still keeping Tor in his field of view, Tor thought with some amusement. Fatima left the clean-up to the first mate and returned to the galley counter to dish up replacements for Hoss.

“We gotta do that hull inspection,” Hoss grumbled, embarrassed and clearly out of sorts. “-- afternoon, Professor,” he added as a polite aside, in Tor’s direction.

“Hoss, you are not going out there on a hull crawl!” The first mate laughed outright at the suggestion. “Carver and I are more than qualified to tackle that instead. And we’re going to be groundlocked for at least 48, so we’ve got nothing but time,” he continued, putting the dishes in the sink. “You need to get back to bed, Hoss. Captain’s orders.”

“He aha te reinga?” Hoss grumbled. “Coop had her head bashed off a wall yesterday too, but I don’t see you guys making a fuss over her.”

“The big guy does have a point,” Chang laughed.

“Captain Cooper isn’t bouncing off walls and dropping things,” the first mate replied cheerfully. “And I’d certainly be fussing with the captain if she were.”

“Abby cleared the captain,” Carver added then, in what struck Tor as a rare addition to the conversation. Tor couldn’t help but wonder why a solicitor’s opinion on possible head injuries would hold any value with the rest of theJin Dui’s crew, but it was not his place to ask.

“And we trust you to keep Captain Cooper in line,” Fatima said, cleary directing that comment for Hoss. “You’re the only one she’ll listen to when she’s being stubborn.”

“Amen to that,” the first mate chuckled. Hoss still didn’t look satisfied, though, and was gripping both sides of the galley table either for balance or against the threat of anyone trying to get him out of his chair. Seeing the mechanic was determined not to be sent back to mandatory bedrest, the first mate didn’t seem willing to press his order. He sat back down in his seat instead. “We’ve done two separate visual inspections from the ground, and redundant system- and sensor- checks,” the first mate said to Hoss reassuringly. “I’m pretty sure the old girl rode out the excitement unscathed. I suppose we can just save the hull crawl for you as soon as the captain’s cleared you for that duty.”

“We don’t know how long the captain will be under questioning,” Fatima said. “Just because it’s Ramadan doesn’t mean I can’t cook dinner. Hoss, if I get dinner started, will you help me by making a pie? I can get you all of the ingredients and you can just sit there and get a start on the crust.”

Hoss’s stubborn expression evaporated at the word ‘pie’. “We got more of those canned peaches?”

“We do,” Fatima said from the galley counter. She had served up another bowl of soup and plate of casserole, and moved to put them down in front of Hoss. “I’ll fetch whatever you need for that as soon as you finish lunch.”

“And while you eat, talk me through our washer and dryer problems,” the first mate said. “I’m pretty sure I got the door gasket sealed on the washer to stop that damn leak, but I can’t seem to fix the damn dryer! It’s still blowing smoke, even after I replaced the heater element and the thermal unit. At this point, I’m about to just throw my hands in the air and see if we can find a laundry service in town that’ll pick up and deliver.”

"Any word on our medication delivery?" Chang asked, blue eyes wide with concern. "Even a few days' delay is pretty serious with anti-oncogenics, and if we don't get it before we leave, it could be weeks! Besides, they're giving out top-line stuff straight from the fleet depot at Aphrodite; we'll not find that anywhere else."

Carver’s stony expression didn’t change. “Captain’s on it,” was all the security officer answered, which didn’t seem like enough of an answer to Tor -- but the three words did seem to ease Chang’s worry.

“Have you tried lubricating the dryer belt?” Hoss said, obviously still occupied with the first mate’s dryer repair question.

“Yeah,” the first mate replied (Sully! Tor’s mind finally supplied the name, and he took a healthy bite of the strawberry-basil side of his bread to celebrate). “And the idler pulley as well. No such luck. We just replaced that belt back at Beylix, as well as the drum support rollers. Could it be the drum itself, you think?”

The table conversation devolved into a virtual deconstruction of a clothing dryer. Tor sat and listened, enjoying the comfortable flow of conversation around him. When he’d finished off the first slice of sourdough and jam, he helped himself to a second. He found himself thinking again about his lost little Gnat. The Coelacanth had been a one-bunk ship, and he’d never truly regretted the isolation, although there were times during long transits where he missed having company. When his best friend Samuel Hicks heard about the Coelacanth’s destruction -- must send a wave to Sam, and let him know I’m fine! he reminded himself -- no doubt his patron would want to purchase him another one, so that Tor’s research wasn’t too badly interrupted.

But reflecting on the family-like camaraderie of the Jin Dui’s crew, Tor began to think maybe he should consider asking his friend to finance a bigger boat. He would miss this, he thought, once he and this ship had to part ways, as they would sooner or later. He couldn’t depend on the Jin Dui’s generosity forever. Should he wait here on Sturges, until he could purchase a new ship? Or should he find a passenger berth on a ship headed back to the Core? His accounts were healthy, but either option would put a dent in his operating budget.

If he had a Firefly like the Jin Dui, he could perhaps hire an honest-to-goodness cook, then crew it with grad students and academics in related fields. That thought held some promise... until Tor started to consider who else in the Cultural Studies department he might find himself stuck with inside a big tin can for the long, long haul between the Core and the Blue Sun Cluster. That prospect put the benefits of a lonely little Gnat and its freezer of heat-and-eats back into clear focus.

Still, it was a pleasure to watch and listen to this group of strangers, and observe how they took care of one another. He could find fresh value in that, after yesterday’s tragedy on the docks.

“Heya heya! Look who’s finally up!” Sully called, interrupting the armchair mechanicing of the dryer as Cianán came limping through the aft hatchway door. The teenager still had a soft cast around the ankle he had injured the day before, and his pastel-streaked pale hair still had a cowlick from bed. “I was about to send out a search party for you, Keen.”

“Sit down before you fall down!” Fatima added from the galley. “I’ll bring your breakfast and the last of the coffee.”

Cianán yawned and settled into the chair at the galley table that Hoss dragged out for him. “I could sleep in until dinner,” the youth said, rubbing his eyes. Then he sat up a little straighter and looked around the table. “Any fresh news about Halo?” he asked hopefully.

Tor hid his smile behind a sip of his own coffee, and waited in anticipation for the chorus of the crew’s replies to that question.


Chapter Text

That evening…

Carver wasn’t sure what Captain Cooper had said to the federales to make it happen, but sundown found Fatima joining the gathering at the Custer Hills mosque for Laylat al-Qadr services and an iftar feast, while Captain Cooper, Professor West and Carver waited for her at an outdoor bistro table on the other side of the rustic town square. The summer night overhead was clear and cool enough to require jackets, and Aphrodite hung huge and green-blue overhead. Custer Hill’s quaint town square was exactly that -- a big, block-wide square that was cobbled in bricks that bore the names of the settlement’s pioneers, with a central fountain monument featuring a stylized man & woman holding a two-person crosscut saw overhead in a celebratory arch between them. The tool was, Professor West informed them, also often known as a misery whip, and to the remote colonizers of Yudhisthira, a Swede-fiddle.

“The retention of colloquial terminology from Earth-That-Was is at times fascinating!” the professor said over a pint of the bistro’s dark bock and a shared plate of potato crisps still hot from the deep fryer and dusted with shredded cheese. In his dark turtleneck and a heavy plaid shirt, the middle-aged academic looked to Carver like a particularly bookish lumberjack himself. “Sometimes, it seems to simply erupt from the unconscious archetypal memory. Those original settlers of Yudhisthira were largely Hindustani in origins, but their moniker for the 10’ long steel crosscut saws their foresters rely on is ‘Swede-fiddle’, a phrase from the 18th and 19th Century North American colonizers from old Earth-That-Was.”

“Yudhisthira -- that’s out in the Blue Cluster, isn’t it?” Cooper asked, sipping her own pint as she listened to their guest with apparent keen interest. She had the collar of her officer’s browncoat turned up against the unexpected evening chill, and her dark eyes were bright with good humor. Carver was quick to notice the growing bruised look around his captain’s eyes, however, and had refrained from commenting when she had insisted on joining him in escorting Fatima to the Custer Hills mosque. The captain’s limp all day had been considerably worse than normal, but Carver himself had woken up stiff and sore from yesterday’s bomb blast, and he had not been body-slammed into a wall like Cooper had been.

“It’s the largest of the moons of the gas giant Dragon’s Egg. Yudhisthira is quite cosmopolitan, in parts, at least by the standards of the Blue Cluster.” The professor answered Captain Cooper’s question with a chuckle and reached after a chip off the appetizer platter. Carver saw the man was subtly favoring his left side, probably having strained muscles from yesterday’s rescue efforts. There were several shopping bags and a backpack clustered on the ground behind the man’s chair, filled with clothes and necessities he’d bought in the shops around the square, to replace what he’d lost with his ship. West was wearing one of his six guns as well -- which wasn’t out of place here in the Georgia Cluster, but which Carver did find somewhat surprising from a Core-born academic.

“I believe the last census showed a population of somewhere around 200K, which is properly twice as many as its four sister-moons combined. I spent a couple of weeks there last year, finalizing a paper on the diversity of industrial expression of occupational folklore. All of those moons are studded with small, remote settlements that are isolated from more contemporary Border -- even Rim -- culture. They are semi-primitive communities by Core standards, but they are rich in the active folk imagination that gives rise to folksong and other lore. I could easily go back and spend months, even years, just traveling the Dragon’s Egg system and gathering recordings for the departmental archive...”

Carver sat with his pint untouched before him, letting the professor’s enthusiastic words flow past. He could not fault the man’s passion for his work, but was not compelled to find it of any personal interest. Carver had his own job to perform. The wall of the bistro was against his back, and he had a wide view of the city square. He kept a close watch on the ebb and flow of civilian life around them, the gold-painted door of the mosque always within his sight range. The square was ringed by multiple timber-framed, two- and three-story story buildings, mostly ground-floor businesses with residences overhead. The local style was for brightly painted primary colors and balconies that were laden with greenery, giving the city square an immediately festive look. But the attitudes of the citizens Carver had watched walk by the bistro table were not matched by the cheerful scenery. The faces he saw were mostly worried and preoccupied, and some were downright fearful.

Carver was not surprised. Yesterday’s terrorist bombing at the Capital City could only feel too close to home to these civvies. After all -- far too many of the battles of the failed War for Independence had been fought here in the Georgia Cluster. Of the three planets and nine moons that orbited the Murphy proto-star, only the planet Aphrodite had escaped without significant devastation -- and that only because the politicians of the world had wooed both sides by claiming neutrality in the War. Hera had suffered multiple ground battles even before Serenity Valley, and Shadow… Carver refused to think of how his homeworld had been bombed into glass by the Alliance’s planet-busters. The several populated moons of the system (Hera’s tiny moon Bullet and the terraforming domes of Eris didn’t count among them) had suffered their own wounds and privations during the war years, before struggling to take in the refugees who had managed to escape from Shadow.

“So tell me, Professor -- how does a researcher of folklore afford a Gnat? Or do the universities in the Core make research and travel part of professorial tenure?” Cooper asked -- Carver would have wagered it was a question his captain had been waiting patiently for the opportunity to slip into the conversation.

“Ah!” the man said brightly. “Like everything in academia, it’s complicated. It’s not so much that travel is required of tenure, as that continued publishing is. Some may never need to travel, spending all their time in the archives -- but I prefer to go out and find out what people are saying, what stories they’re telling, what songs they’re singing. Even so, many of my colleagues would never set foot outside the Core -- but that just means they’re missing out on a great many opportunities out here --”

“So the university does pay for it?” Cooper steered the conversation back to the topic she was interested in, while the professor didn’t seem to notice the interruption.

“Well…” West waggled his hand. “Londinium University does pay for some of it, in the form of grants. And the Museum pays for some of it with grants as well. I have to write regular reports to account for those --” he made a face, and Cooper made a sympathetic noise “-- or show the results of regular publishing, such as in --”

Carver found the conversation between his captain and the professor to be far less interesting that the snippets and snatches of what he was eavesdropping on among the locals who passed the corner bistro. Just now, a small group of draft-age locals strolled past, arguing amongst themselves over whether yesterday’s bombing had really been the Dust Devils as their news feeds claimed, or if it could have been a false flag operation by … who? None of them had the hyper-aware look of a veteran, Carver automatically noted. They were entirely wrapped up in their own debate as one of their number was arguing fervently on behalf of a conspiracy, but the identity of the agency behind a false flag attack was not obvious in the angry scrap of what Carver overheard before they had passed out of range. Both sides of the argument had sounded emotional.

It may have been more than three years since the Unification Treaty had been signed, but clearly the War was never going to be over for some out here outside the Core. Carver counted himself among that number… although his sympathy for the Resistance ended the moment some bùyào liǎn set a bomb targeting civilians. Especially when that same bomb had just about ended both him and his captain.

Cowardly zěnme jiù should have parked the damn truck out in front of the planetary Senate Dome on Aphrodite, Carver thought sourly. Jian ta de gui purple-belly-lovers on Aphrodite who did everything they could to avoid supporting their brothers and sisters on Hera and Shadow. Damn diplomats, happy to take Alliance money and Alliance goods, probably lined their own pockets all the way to the bank. That’s who the mā lā ge bā zi Dust Devils should have set their bombs for.

Carver shied off from that train of thought, avoiding what else welled up with it. He doubled-down on the task on hand, watching the square around them for any evidence of threat. Captain Cooper was still chatting happily with the professor, clearly interested in the professor’s observations on his travels through the Blue Cluster. Carver recognized what Cooper was doing -- the captain kept subtly bringing the academic trivia back around to the names of places that West had been and the conditions of the communities West had visited, probably fishing for future ports of call and possible trade opportunities. If Professor West recognized what the captain was doing, his enthusiasm never ebbed. West struck Carver as the type of guy who thrived on good conversation -- and who had spent too much time traveling alone in his little ship.

Carver’s attention snapped back to the conversation at his table, as Cooper choked on a swallow of her beer. “You’re kidding me? Cornelius Samuel Hicks is your patron? The Cornelius Samuel Hicks? That’s the guy who bought your ship and funds your research?”

Professor West’s answering chuckle sounded rueful to Carver’s ears; Carver had no idea who it was they were discussing, but it was clear from his captain’s reaction that the professor’s patron was someone with some level of celebrity. “Ah yes, I keep forgetting Samuel’s reputation,” the professor said. “He and I were roommates from our first year in university. I may not be a physicist or an engineer, but I’ve certainly dabbled here and there, and used to help Sam when he was tinkering on some of his wilder projects, back in the day. He really is a genius when it comes to robotics. But he’s always been interested in my research as well, and has been kind enough to give me additional funding.” The man rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Although, as I understand it, it involves some very advantageous tax write-offs, as well.”

Captain Cooper gave a snort of sour laughter at that. “Yeah, I’ll bet,” she said. “You said the Museum is also involved in your research? Which one? And what do you do for them?”

“Oh, the Londinium Museum. I have an appointment there as well. They have an enormous collection of artifacts from Earth-That-Was, and I have a retainer from them to keep an eye out for additions to the collection, if I come across anything worthwhile. You never know what you might find out here! And in the same vein, I’m always on alert for things that might interest Sam. I’ve managed to steer one or two business opportunities his way, I think.”

At that moment, the bistro’s server came up to their table. The young woman nervously avoided Carver’s direct gaze as she asked Captain Cooper and Professor West if their table had everything they needed. Cooper sent the woman off with a polite affirmative, and then she went on to work the other two seated tables that were spread out in front of the bistro.

“What kind of business ventures from the Blue Cluster would a man like Hicks be interested in?” Cooper said, apparently rhetorically, as she waved her own question off. “What sort of artifacts have you found?”

As interesting as the conversation with Professor West had begun to get, Carver’s attention turned elsewhere. The server who had just left them kept sliding wary side-eyes back toward Carver and his companions. At first, Carver had not thought much of it. His disfiguring facial scars regularly earned him plenty of that sort of skittish attention. But then he realized that the woman’s fearfulness seemed to be directed as much toward Captain Cooper as it was at himself.

Carver felt his back straighten against the wall he sat against. He fixed his full attention on the server as she exchanged words with four locals at the table farthest from his own. All four of those customers’ heads turned toward Carver’s table in unison, their expressions ranging from fear to hard rage. Carver stared back at them coldly. The waitress moved on, heading back inside the bistro, while one of the customers at that opposite table angled his wrist in their direction as though he was filming them with his wrist minder.

With a jolt, Carver realized what it was that had the locals alarmed. Cursing himself for not predicting the threat, Carver unzipped his own jacket and slid it off.

“Crying Buddha,” Cooper was saying, shaking her head in disbelief. “So what in the hell was a book that old and valuable doing way out in the middle of nowhere like that?”

Carver had lost any interest in tracking his captain’s conversation with the professor. He interrupted it without hesitation now as he leaned forward and handed Cooper his jacket. “Take off your coat and put this on,” he told her.

Cooper looked at him, clearly bewildered by his request. But the woman had the good sense to follow his orders.

“Trouble?” the professor asked, before taking a healthy swallow of his bock.

“Locals are afraid we’re Dust Devils,” Carver said as the captain handed him her browncoat. He folded it neatly and set it beside him on his seat.

“Āiyā,” Cooper groaned, shrugging into Carver’s jacket. He saw her slide a hand into the inside pocket to investigate the unexpected weight there, and her eyes flickered to him in question.

“Safety’s on. Six shots, frangible rounds,” he told her. “Pull it only as a last resort.”

“We’re not going to need firepower tonight,” Captain Cooper said, with a backhanded wave at the quaint town square, with its splashing fountain and pretty flowering balconies. However, she didn’t have Carver’s line of sight, and couldn’t see the foursome from the other table rising in unison. Professor West did. From the corner of Carver’s eye, he saw the man make an effort to finish off the last of his beer. Quickly.

The four men were all of mixed Sihnon-Anglo heritage, like most of the locals seemed to be. One was too young to have been in service; two of them were of around Carver’s own age; the fourth was much older and heavyset, with grey showing in his close-cropped hair. All four were dressed in denim and flannel, hard-worn steel-toed work boots, and none of them were carrying. And they were all flushed to varying degrees from drink.

The oldest of the group stepped to the fore, clearly assuming the role of pack alpha. “You from that ship?” Old Man demanded, taking a square-footed, hands-on-hips stance. “The one the Alliance hauled in as being a part of the bombing plot?”

“Bùhǎo yìsi?” Cooper said dryly, shoving her chair to one side to take a look up at the foursome -- and inadvertently putting herself right in Carver’s fire line if he were to draw. Carver shifted in his seat as well, coiled to move the moment this went kinetic. The four locals were clearly looking to scrap, and Carver expected Cooper’s temper would just hand the strangers their excuse to get things started.

“Captain, if I may?” Professor West said quickly, interrupting whatever it was Cooper was about to say next. The man rose to his feet and turned a friendly, open smile to the four locals. “Gentlemen, the Jin Dui came to Custer Hills looking for shelter after the disaster at the docks. She and her crew have nothing to do with the bombing--”

“You’re the ship the feds have on landlock. Everyone knows the Alliance is questioning you,” Old Man retorted with some heat, while his younger drinking buddies stood square behind him, cracking their knuckles and shaking out their arms in an adolescent show of getting ready to rumble. Carver watched and waited, having already evaluated the group and prioritized his targets.

“Everyone on this moon is landlocked!” Captain Cooper protested in disgust. Professor West held up a hand, asking her for silence.

“Gentlemen,” the professor began again, in a hail-fellow-well-met rumble of a voice that was equally earnest and soothing. “Let’s be reasonable. The terrorists responsible for the terrible bombing back at the capital are long gone. They weren’t foolish enough to wait around -- they left their dock before the blast went off.” He spread a broad hand that included the captain and Carver in the gesture. “Naturally, the Alliance has to question everyone who had a ship docked at Sturges. I did myself, and lost it when the other ships crashed. Of course they interviewed me, wanting my eyewitness account. That’s what they’re looking for from all of us.”

Listening to West’s calm, inviting voice, Carver could well see how this man made his livelihood, sweet-talking suspicious settlers into sharing with him their ghost stories and jackalope sightings. “Now, since we’re enjoying your town’s hospitality, why don’t I order us a round and let’s discuss your valid concerns? I fully understand why tempers are high, and how--”

 

For a moment there, Carver thought the promise of free drinks might actually win the day. But one of the two youngest of the group sensed his comrades’ wavering aggression, and that fellow shoved past the elder of the group, grabbing Professor West’s collar. Carver didn’t wait to see what would happen next. He rose to his feet and grabbed Cooper with one hand, hauling her physically behind him while with his other hand he overturned their table, upending it to serve as a physical barrier between their attackers and his crippled captain.

Cooper began to yowl in outrage, while to Carver’s surprise, Professor West was reacting with an impressive speed of his own. The academic threw a practiced jab into the young man’s solar plexus, causing the local to drop his hold on the front of the professor’s shirt. As the young man doubled over with a sucking wheeze, West took the initiative and swung a powerful cross, sucker-punching Old Man in the side of the head and knocking him down.

Carver himself had already advanced a stride, no little surprised to have his primary target already down but not about to waste time while the other two were still standing. He was aware of Captain Cooper at his back, spitting mad and intending to throw herself into the scrap regardless of her disability. He was not about to let that happen.

Blue Shirt took Carver’s invitation and swung on him. Carver caught the man’s right cross in midair and pivoted, yanking the man off his feet and dropping him hard on his face. The last local standing threw a punch of his own. Carver slapped it down, following the momentum with a pivot and an elbow to the youngster’s ear, staggering the man sideways.

That young man stumbled into a neighboring table and slumped over it to keep himself on his feet, clearly seeing stars. Carver stepped back, splitting his attention between the man who was down at his feet, and on Captain Cooper, ready to grab her if the woman decided to fling herself late into the party. She scowled back at him fiercely, but subsided down into the chair Carver had vacated.

“That, sirs, was impolite,” Cooper said, setting her cane square between her knees and speaking in an arch tone that sounded suspiciously like she was channeling Hoss’s dowager grandmama.

“Gentlemen,” Professor West started again, his voice all paternal disappointment. The man smoothed out his shirt, then reached down and righted their table. Old Man was trying to pick himself up, and West offered the man a friendly hand.

“We can go another round if you all insist,” the professor said cheerfully. “Or if you’d like to pull up a seat, we’d be happy to chat out your concerns respectfully. Your choice.”

The grizzled older man frowned, rubbing the side of his head, but accepted West’s hand and let the professor haul him to his feet. Carver shot his captain a questioning glance, and she gave him a brief nod, satisfied with following West’s play. Carver reached after one of the chairs which had been knocked aside and pulled it up, placing himself squarely between Cooper and the locals as they began gingerly picking themselves up.

When the server stepped out of bistro door again, Cooper gave her a cheerful wave. “A pitcher, fresh glasses, and whatever you’ve got as an appetizer platter,” the captain called to the flustered woman. “And sorry about the mess.”

Chapter Text

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