Eastbank Port, Boros
2514.August 5; 16:02 Sihnon Standard Time
The pedestrian was an older woman, plump and something shy of 5 feet tall, dressed in a sweater, fancy boots and leggings, with a vibrant wrap-around skirt which might have once been a silk sari. For all that the woman’s coiled bun of hair was streaked with a considerable amount of grey, she wore a childish collection of applique kittens on her jumper. Busy as he was with the incoming cargo, Carver kept an eye on the woman as she stood gawping outside of the Jin Dui’s cargo bay doors. “Out of the way!” the docker foreman in charge of the shipment yelled at her when she strayed into the path of a can truck that was backing up to the Firefly’s berth. Carver took a step in that direction, but Hoss was closer. The big mechanic jogged over to take the woman by the arm and escort her out of harm’s way.
Carver moved instead to guide the backing can truck into position. He had the remote controller for the Jin Dui’s double-girder bridge crane and toggled it into place, then assisted the dockers in getting the truck’s shipment of two 10x10 pod containers unloaded onto the ship’s deck and secured against starboard wall of the cargo bay. When the last of the paperwork had been signed for and the cargo and the delivery truck and dockers were rolling away, Carver was surprised to see that Hoss was still standing where he had last seen the big mechanic, at the edge of the ship’s landing pad. Hoss was still talking with the older woman in the kitten-sweater. She was wiping tears from her eyes and gazing up at Hoss in clear supplication, and the big man was frowning with focused, earnest concern.
Carver scowled, recognizing trouble when he saw it. He headed toward Hoss on the double-quick, closing in on them just in time to overhear the mechanic say, in Hoss’s most reassuring rumble, “-- but don’t you cry, ma’am. I’m sure we can help.”
Carver arrived abruptly enough that the plump little woman gasped and retreated a few steps. Carver fixed a look on Hoss, and the big mechanic immediately began explaining. “This is Ms. Bess Woodhouse. She’s in a bit of a tough spot and needs passage to--”
“The Jin Dui is not taking on passengers,” Carver said firmly.
“-- Highgate and she saw on the departure lists that that’s where we’re headed next--” Hoss continued.
Carver turned his scowl on the woman. “Ma’am, we’re not a passenger ship,” he told her sternly. The woman’s hopeful expression crashed and she took another step away in retreat -- which was when Carver heard the approaching tap of the captain’s cane. Hoss was shifting to greet Captain Cooper with his usual sunny smile.
"Kia ora!"" Hoss called out. “Coop, I know we aren’t taking on passengers any more, but we got a nice lady here in a bit of a pickle. Can you hear her out?”
Carver turned toward the captain as Cooper joined them. He caught Captain Cooper’s eye and gave her a warning look. One of her dark eyebrows arched in question before she turned her attention to Hoss and Bess Woodhouse.
Flanked by Hoss to one side and Carver on the other, plump little Bess Woodhouse looked even more diminutive somehow as she faced Captain Cooper anxiously. The captain was of only medium height herself, but the Woodhouse woman was at least half a foot shorter. “Captain, I implore you -- would you please consider taking me on as a passenger for Highgate?” the middle-aged woman asked plaintively. “There’s no passenger liner traffic direct from here to the Blue Cluster. I’d have to fly first to Meridian and that’ll be extra weeks and twice the cost and I can’t take Mookie with me and--” There was a sudden flood of tears and the woman hid her face in her hands for a moment in a struggle to regain her composure. Carver saw their captain shoot a look at Hoss over the woman’s bowed head; Hoss returned it with a nod and pursed lips. Then the woman lifted her face again and scrubbed the tears from her eyes with her sleeve. “I married my husband twenty-four years ago. Two weeks ago, he served me with divorce papers and moved out to live in his lover’s apartment. And it turns out he’s left me for the woman I thought was my best friend. I am returning home to my family, but that’s back on Highgate. Your ship is my best hope of getting there.” The woman choked back a sob and gazed imploringly at Captain Cooper. “Commercial passenger liners are so dreadfully expensive, and they’ll not allow me to take my cat, and I’m limited to only a few pieces of carry-on. I’ll have to spend my last cred just getting as far as Meridian, and leave behind what little I’ve got left that’s precious to me. Can you help me? Please?”
Carver saw the wavering expression on Cooper’s face. “Captain--” he began to say, trying to head this stampede off at the pass.
“Whakaaro ahau me tika,”” Hoss murmured quietly to Cooper at the same time.
Carver shut his mouth. This had just turned into a losing battle. He rocked back on his heels, seeing defeat. He didn’t know what Hoss’s words were, exactly -- but whatever they were, he knew from the tone that Hoss was asking Cooper for something. And Carver had learned that whatever Hoss wanted from the captain, Hoss got.
“It’ll be a 17-day transit,” Cooper said to the weeping older woman. “We’re taking on fuel and cargo this afternoon and are scheduled for departure at 21:55 this evening. If you can meet our schedule, we’ll find you a bunk.”
The woman’s smile was wide with gratitude. “Thank you, Captain, thank you!”
Resigned, Carver turned on his heel and headed back toward the two 10x10 cargo pods that had just been delivered, intending to double-check their lock-downs. “Hey!” he heard Captain Cooper behind him. He stopped and turned, confirming that the captain had been calling to him. Their prospective passenger had hurried off up the dockside with Hoss at her side. Carver frowned to see that, while Cooper hobbled up to join him. “Don’t you go sulking off on me,” she said.
Carver looked down at his captain, giving her the flat look that statement deserved.
“You are too,” Cooper countered. “Sulking.”
Carver turned back toward the cargo pods, wanting to get back to his duties. “Don’t you get your panties in a twist over this,” Cooper continued to say to his back.
Carver turned back to his captain. “You asked for my advice. I gave it.” He didn’t want to get into an argument with the woman, but Cooper seemed determined to get some sort of response out of him. “Whether or not to take that advice is your command decision.”
Captain Cooper blew a raspberry. “She seems like a sweet old lady--”
“Exactly the operative I’d hire if I were looking to get an agent aboard the Jin Dui,” Carver replied calmly.
“Hoss likes her.”
“Hoss likes everybody.”
Cooper scowled mightily at that, but he could tell she wasn’t dismissing his concern. She mulled it over, giving Carver the momentary hope that maybe his captain was going to call Hoss back and cancel her offer to Bess Woodhouse. But then Cooper met his gaze and gave him an apologetic shrug.
“We can be paranoid -- or we can make a profit,” his captain replied. “That consolidated load from Kerry shorted us and I’m having to dip into the ship’s emergency funds here to pay for tanking up for the Blue Cluster. So I want that nice little lady’s credits.” Cooper grinned at him, clearly finding some amusement in the situation. “And if she proves to be an agent provocateur in disguise, then I trust you’ll be up to the challenge.”
Carver gave his captain another flat look, then turned his back and got back to work
Most of the crew turned out to help Bess Woodhouse bring aboard a whole pile of hastily boxed and bundled personal items. Sully and Chang were first to reach the rental truck when it rolled up to the ship’s landing pad. “Ma’am!” Sully said, chivalrously helping a laden Bess climb down out of the truck cab -- much to her stammering delight.
“Oh dear -- thank you, sir,” she said, flushing pink. “And I know I’m bringing a lot with me, but Mr. Hoeata said it would be far, far below the ship’s weight capacity, and anything I leave behind I am leaving for Vincent and Mary.” She had a fabric tote bag looped over either shoulder and was carrying an ornate covered porcelain cake carrier. “Where should I put this?” she asked of Hoss, who was following her down out of the cab loaded down with a plastic cat carrier and several more totes and fabric grocery bags.
“Just follow me on up to the galley, ma’am,” Hoss said. “We’re scheduled to depart in 20 minutes, so we’ll just lump the rest of your stuff into the cargo bay and cart it in to your cabin later. Sully! Quick! Grab that cake stand from Ms. Woodhouse! It would break my heart to see that dropped on the deck.”
“My pleasure,” Sully said, gallantly taking the cake carrier from their guest. “I do hope there’s something delightful inside this,” he added.
Bess still looked flustered by the first mate’s handsome face. “Apple spice cake with cream cheese frosting,” she said . “I just made it this morning.”
“Oh wow!” Chang said, while he scrambled up onto the truck’s flatbed and began to shove boxes and trunks into easier reach for other crew, while Abby, Tilly, Tor and Carver came down the Jin Dui’s cargo bay ramp, followed by a panting old Odin. Hoss delayed their guest to introduce each of his crewmates and the dog to Bess as they passed, then led her and Sully up the forward stairs, leaving the rest of the crew to manage Ms. Woodhouse’s belongings.
“Cutting it close!” grumbled Cooper as Hoss led the other two into the gallery. “Fatima’s on the bridge and has us in countdown.” The captain’s sour expression vanished at the sight of bulging grocery bags. “What’s this?”
“I just emptied out my refrigerator and the kitchen shelves,” Bess said. “I didn’t want to leave anything for my ex-husband, and thought you might all appreciate a little something for your pantry.”
“Just a little something!” Sully sing-songed, putting the porcelain cake stand down on the galley table. He pulled off the top of the stand with a flourish, exposing a luscious looking cake. The cream cheese frosting glistened where it wasn’t spotted with what looked like bits of sliced almond. Cooper’s eyes went even wider.
“Ma’am,” the captain said, “welcome aboard the Jin Dui.”
As the Jin Dui settled into the start of the long trip toward the Blue Cluster, Bess Woodhouse very quickly charmed her way into the hearts of the crew... via their stomachs as much as anything, for as delicious as the apple spice cake proved to be, the cannoli Ms. Woodhouse made for them next were even more amazing.
The ship’s passenger was a gregarious woman who wore her heart on her sleeve. She took a motherly interest in everyone aboard, and insisted on being given a share of the housekeeping chores. She sang while taking command and control over the laundry. She darned socks for Sully and Chang, and patched the unraveling hem of Abby’s favorite knit sweater. She hemmed and reinforced buttons. She took it upon herself -- no one would admit to having asked -- to scrub both of the topside and downside lavatories. As the daughter of a brand inspector and a river ferry captain, Woodhouse had a rich store of folk stories to share with Professor West from her childhood on Highgate. She blushed with infatuation over Sully whenever he was nearby. As a former classroom teacher, she cheerfully commiserated with Abby’s complaints about the VR tutor system that the ship had installed for Tilly, and helped find interface work-arounds to overcome the penmanship glitches both tutor and student had been suffering through since Beylix. Woodhouse made a concerted effort to slip treats to both of the dogs, immediately winning them over as confidantes. Her invasion of Captain Cooper’s galley was so deftly done that Cooper didn’t even realize she had been displaced until she’d reached the bottom of her second cup of tea while sitting at the galley table, watching as Woodhouse finished preparing a dinner of chicken and dumplings with a side of cornbread, honey butter and creamed spinach.
Where-ever Woodhouse went about the ship, she took along Mookie as well. The elderly long-haired grey cat traveled in fine comfort, carried from room to room in a woven basket lined with a heating pad. Hoss could coax the creature out of the basket now and then for lap time, but otherwise, the cat was satisfied with his mobile throne, and wanted nothing to do with the floor zones where the ship’s dogs Odin and Bao Yu traveled. The old cat watched the going-ons around him with regal satisfaction, and occasionally issued orders or complaints that immediately drew his owner’s full attention.
“Mookie has been my baby since he was about three days old. I bottle-fed him as a kitten and kept him alive when no one thought he would make it,” Woodhouse said at different times, to different listeners. “I never thought we’d travel home to Highgate together, but here we are! And we’re so grateful!”
Carver was alarmed one afternoon when he passed the infirmary bay and overhead Hoss in conversation with the captain. “Seriously,” the big mechanic was saying, as the pair were in the middle of another reconstruction effort on the unpredictable sterilizer unit. “Coop, why don’t we just keep her? She’s a nice lady, and she’d pay her way with the housekeeping chores.”
Carver winced painfully and was about to step through the medico hatchway to interrupt that proposal with thoughts of his own when Cooper answered the mechanic’s plea. “No,” she laughed. “No, no and no. Yes the gal is a nice lady, and it’s nice to have a maid. But the crew can do their own chores -- ourselves included -- and besides. I want my kitchen back.”
“But Coop -- those cannolis…”
“No!” the captain laughed, unmoved by that argument.
Carver breathed a sigh of relief and went on about his way, grateful to find that the captain could say no to Hoss after all.