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Snakes On A Boat

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

2514.August 14, 2514; 00:13 Sihnon Standard Time
In the black between Boros (Georgia Cluster & the Border) and Highgate (Blue Cluster on the Rim)

After more than an hour of battling insomnia, Cooper lay flat on her back in her bunk, with Babs the cat a purring breadloaf on her chest. The captain had only just begun to drift into a restless sleep when the ship’s alarm began to blare. The sharp klaxon shocked Babs into a feline explosion that resulted in a few drifting hairs and a long bloody scratch across Cooper’s cheek.

“Xuèxīng tā mā dì dìyù!” Cooper yowled as she sat up, throwing aside her blanket angrily and hauling herself out of the bunk.

The upper bunk creaked with just enough of a warning -- Cooper shoved herself toward the sink and narrowly avoided getting clobbered as Tilly came hurtling down to the deck.

“Wha’ssit?” the groggy girl stammered, rubbing her eyes and shifting from foot to foot. “What’s happenin’? Are we gonna crash?“

“Captain,” came Fatima’s voice then over the all-ship. “We’ve got an unauthorized access attempt at the cargo bay airlock!”

Cooper lurched across the dark cabin, aiming for the soft blue glow of the comm unit near the downside door hatch. “Everyone on lockdown!” she ordered. The ship display on the comm unit showed a blinking red light at the Jin Dui’s midsection. “Kid, you seal up the cabin behind me and secure it for maneuvers, dŏng ma?”

To Cooper’s dismay, her cabin door wasn’t the only one popping open. Sully’s slid open a moment after hers did, and one door down aft, Hoss was already stepping out into the crew cabin corridor.

Cooper cursed at them. "What part of 'lock down' don't you shǎguā understand?”

“Hey, I’m your XO. Whatever’s happening, you need me out there,” Sully said cheerfully as he walked out into the corridor. When his flat-faced dog Bao Yu began to follow, he pushed her back into the cabin with one bare foot and pressed the touchpad to close the cabin door behind him.

“And you’re gonna need me, ‘cuz I’m your ship mechanic,” Hoss added agreeably, heading for the open hatchway at the end of the corridor.

“We could have boarders! We could have an explosive decomp!” Cooper continued heatedly -- even as one door down and over, Tor’s cabin door rolled open.

“Hello?” the professor called. “What’s going on?”

Sully was following Hoss up the crew cabin corridor. “C’mon,” he said to Tor as he passed the professor’s cabin. “Who knows, we might find we need another pilot.”

Cooper was conscious of young Tilly, hovering in the cabin hatchway at her back. The girl’s freckled face had taken on a focused look as the kid was clearly doing her math.

“Shut that door and seal it,” Cooper snarled at the girl. “And you stay put!” she added, as the cabin door slid closed. The kid was following orders, even if no one else seemed too. Or at least for the moment, anyway.

Cooper limped along behind the four men, last out of the crew cabin corridor onto the ship’s forward mid-deck catwalk. She squeezed in between Hoss and Tor at the catwalk railing and looked down.

Bess Woodhouse was on her knees on the deck below, weeping wretchedly. A large wooden box with a carved lid lay to one side of her, its sandy contents strewn out in a wide, interrupted fan-- exactly as though she had dropped the big box and it had popped open and sprayed its contents out as it bounced. Dressed in sweats and combat boots and carrying a combat shotgun, Carver was kneeling at the edge of that debris-trail, obviously inspecting it. Three-legged old Odin began to nose into whatever Carver was looking at, and Carver called the dog sharply to heel. Abby and Chang had also disregarded their captain’s orders and were moving in to aide Bess; Abby was dressed in a gold silk dressing robe and thin silk slippers, while Chang did not look as if he had even gone to bed yet for the night. Chang headed for the airlock control panel and toggled some keys to turn off the blaring alarm, while Abby -- never the touchy-feely type -- knelt beside Bess and put a hesitant arm around the other woman’s shoulders, more to try and draw Bess to her feet than comfort her. Only Cianan wasn’t turning out for a lookie-loo, Cooper thought sourly to herself. She doubted it was because someone, at least, was capable of following orders. No. Probably the teenager had his headphones on and was listening to music in his cabin, and didn’t realize there had even been an alarm.

“Jiàn tā de guǐ,”” Cooper said into the resulting silence as the general alarm went off. “Someone want to explain to me what’s happening here?”

“It’s my fault!” their passenger wailed. She half-collapsed against Abby, her sobs growing so labored that it was difficult for her to speak. “I -- it was wrong of me,” the woman wept, while Abby was making eyes at Hoss, clearly wanting the empathetic mechanic to come to her rescue. “I just wanted to punish Vinny! So I took -- them. The babies.”

“The. Babies.” Cooper had to repeat the words, trying to make sense of them.

“Vinny’s babies?” Hoss echoed encouragingly.

“Did anyone know anything about Ex-Husband Vincent having babies?” Tor said in an undertone to Sully, as the XO shook his head in a negative.

“I dropped them!” Bess wailed, before producing a fresh wave of tears against Abby’s reluctant shoulder.

“I see no babies,” Cooper said dryly, struggling to find a patient tone of voice. “Ma’am, what kind of Vinny-babies were these that you’ve dropped?”

A moment later, Carver rose to his feet, the angular lines of his body suddenly radiating tension. In his free hand, he had a pale oval object which looked like it was dripping clear mucus. He slung his gun and seized Odin's collar, dragging the old dog physically away from the center grates of the deck. “Abby,” Carver said in a hard, no-nonsense voice. “Go back to quarters. Chang, you too.”

Abby shot Carver a grateful look and began to attempt to withdraw herself from Bess’s weepy embrace, while Chang stood for a moment, blinking while he processed Carver’s statement. Then the ship’s numbers man took two steps over to join Abby and Bess. “Ladies,” he urged them, reaching down to hook a hand under either woman’s arm. “I’m seeing unidentified biologicals here, so let’s take Carver’s wise advice and relocate--”

“Captain,” said Fatima’s voice over the all-ship comm. “We just caught up to the Cortex relay station wavelength, and there’s a message from Boros you need--”

“Fatima, not right now!” Cooper said sharply. She shoved herself back from the railing and began to head for the steps down. “Tāmāde shì zěnme huí shì?"

“Captain, stop where you are!” Carver interrupted her. “All of you -- stay up there.”

Cooper froze where she was, just about to take that first step down the stairs. “What the hell?” she demanded.

Carver held up the flaccid oval object he held. It was off-cream in color, lightly speckled, and looked something like a deflated balloon. “We got some sort of snakes loose down here,” he said.

Abby had been resistant to Chang’s appeals until Carver spoke those words. All resistance vanished and she shot to her slippered feet. “Snakes?” she repeated in disbelief, giving Bess’s shoulder a shake. “Āiyā! Huàile! Snakes!?”

“Vinny’s babies are snakes?” Sully said.

“Not on my ship!” Hoss yelled, clearly discomforted by the idea.

“Baby snakes?” Tor echoed. “Pray tell, Madame Woodhouse, what kind of snakes are these?”

Bess allowed Chang to pull her to her feet, and her sobbing remained so hard that it was difficult for the surrounding crew to make out her answer. “Ca---- cah---- cawwwh--- cobras,” their passenger finally managed to say. “They’re baby king cobras. And I’ve lost them!”

Chapter Text

2514.August 14; 00:33 Sihnon Standard Time
In the black between Boros (Georgia Cluster & the Border) and Highgate (Blue Cluster on the Rim)

After a hasty mass exodus up to the galley, the crew gathered around the dining table to regroup and strategize. Tilly had joined them, as had Cianan, collected by Chang on the way up from the passenger dorm. Bess Woodhouse sat huddled in a chair at the far end of the table from Captain Cooper, her face in her hands and still weeping. Having delayed to seal up the stable pod and collect Mookie the cat, Carver arrived last, with Odin at his heels. Carver deposited the cat and its basket in its owner’s arms and took the last seat at the galley table.

The wave from Boros proved to be an urgent legal notice from Bess Woodhouse’s estranged husband. Cooper read it over once, then spun the tablet across the table to Abby. Abby picked it up and began to read it.

“Does everyone want the full legal-speak version, or the condensed?” Abby asked.

“Condensed!” replied Sully, Chang and Hoss in chorus.

Abby smirked and began to translate. “Delivery notification assured upon electronic receipt to primary recipient Elizabeth “Bess” Agnes Woodhouse, with the captain of the Jin Dui attached as a secondary, along with Ms. Woodhouse’s solicitor back on Boros. Vinny Dearest demands the immediate return -- alive and unharmed -- of his stolen property, some half a dozen Malaysian King Cobras -- estimated hatching date appears to have been what... two days ago? I always lose track of what day it is in these long transits. Legal representatives for Vinny Dearest will meet the ship immediately at dock at the port of Highgate and said property is to be handed over -- again, alive and unharmed -- to them. Or else. Ms. Woodhouse and her accomplices --. that would be us, I assume -- will be responsible for all fines and fees for violations of ADAW exotic or dangerous non-livestock exportation requirements. Ad nauseum.”

“Cào wǒ,” Cooper groaned and rubbed the bloody scratch on her cheek. Then she straightened in her chair. “We’re nine days out from Highgate. We can always experience a mechanical delay to make it ten days, and guess what? I’ve got my technical veterinary practice license in the Blue Cluster, so I can sign the biǎ oziyǎ ng de Alliance Department of Ag & Wildlife export certificates tonight.”

“But we don’t have the snakes in hand,” Sully said, while Hoss muttered something murderous under his breath.

“So long as I’ve got a physical document printed up and signed, we’re covered. I can just forge the bùyào liǎn,” Cooper replied. “It’ll save us a couple thousand in fines!”

“Fatima?” Carver asked, on the assumption that Fatima was listening over the allship channel. He held out a hand to Abby, asking for the captain’s tablet. Abby handed it over. “Throw the last 20 minutes of cargo bay vid over to the captain for access, will you?”

Shì,” came the disembodied affirmative. Carver manipulated the vid feed for a few moments, while Chang pulled his own handheld out of a vest pocket and began to tap and swipe rapid-fire at his screen.

“Here,” Carver said, when he was satisfied. He turned the tablet so that the rest of the table could see it. He had isolated a short section on loop -- it showed Bess Woodhouse walking into the cargo bay with the unwieldy box in her hands. She looked about her to ensure none of the crew were present, then hurried straight to the cargo bay doors, bypassing the standing control panels. When her novice attempts to open the airlock door resulted in the general alarm being triggered, Bess turned to flee -- and managed one step before tripping on her own skirt and falling. The incubator box tumbled out of her hands, flying open and bouncing once, scattering formicula, empty egg shells, and whippy long snake bodies across the cargo bay floor. It took only 8 seconds from the alarm’s sounding for an armed Carver to arrive. The last of the frightened newborn cobras was vanishing out of sight down a deck grate even as Carver and Odin ran into the cargo bay.

Shēnshèngdé gāo wān!” Chang exclaimed.

Āiyā!” Abby moaned. “Look at how fast those things move!”

Réncí dì dìyù!” Sully agreed. “Those bloody blighters are babies? The smallest one has to be at least a foot and a half long!”

“Just get them off my ship!” Hoss ground out, shuddering. “Let’s vent to vacuum if we have to -- just huakina te kūaha and space them!”

“But they are adorable, aren’t they?” Cianan protested. “So cute with those little striped heads! I bet their poor little eyes were just buggin’ out after that rude awake-up.”

“Let’s go catch them!” Tilly said, fairly dancing with eagerness. “If they’re just babies, they can’t bite all that hard, can they?”

Everyone looked at Bess Woodhouse, who was still sniffling into a tissue and nervously stroking a very disgruntled-looking Mookie . “Ma’am,” Cooper said sternly. “How dangerous are these not-so-little little squirts?”

Bess rubbed her eyes and her nose. “You shouldn’t even try,” she said miserably. “I’m so, so sorry -- I didn’t mean to cause you any trouble! I just heard my minder beep a receipt notification, and I read the letter from Vinny’s lawyers, and I thought -- I thought -- I realized how much trouble I was causing so I thought if I just spaced the babies, no one would ever know and no one could ever prove I’d taken them! I’m so, so, soo sorry!”

“Ma’am,” Cooper repeated, trying to rein in her temper. As badly as she wanted to tear their passenger’s head off, further flustering the excitable woman would only result in fresh waves of weeping. “You can apologize later. Right now, we’ve got to know what we’re dealing with. How dangerous are baby king cobras?”

“I’m not sure,” came the answer. “Vinny never let me handle them. I wasn’t even supposed to go into his reptile room without him being there to supervise.”

“Well, that’s all sorts of not-promising,” Sully groaned.

“Get them off my ship!” Hoss rumbled, the words issued from between grit teeth. “Dead or alive, it doesn’t matter to me -- just get them off my ship!”

“I agree with the sentiment,” Sully said in a soothing tone. “But let’s be smart about it. We gotta figure out what we’re dealing with, and not just vent the whole belowdecks willy-nilly.”

“I got this,” Chang said, holding up his handheld. “Here’s an info feed. We’ve just gotten back in range of the Cortex relays, so I got bandwidth. Here -- this says that baby king cobras are born with the same lethal potency as an adult. They are ‘spitting’ cobras, which means that in addition to delivering their venom through a bite, they can spit it as well. Adults have a range of about 8 feet, while the babies can get you from 2 to 3 feet away. Oh! Apparently the jets from the cobra’s spit attack form a geometric pattern to guarantee it gets you in the eye. How niúbī is that?”

“Not niúbī,” Sully replied drily. “So not niúbī at all.”

“How bad is the poison?” Cooper asked.

Chang swiped to a new screen, and his enthusiasm melted into a blanched expression. “Um... bad. Pretty damn bad. Apparently a king cobra’s venom contains both neurotoxins and cytotoxins--”

“Meaning it will paralyze you before it kills you,” Abby translated with an almost gleeful grimness -- the former combat medic always was sure the worst was going to happen, and the evening’s events only proved her outlook correct.

“Yes, that sounds inarguably bad,” Tor agreed.

“According to this,” Chang continued, in a voice that began to sound strangled, “if the venom gets into your eyes, it’s supposed to be unbearably painful, and you gotta rinse them immediately. If you don’t, the iris and conjunctiva of your eyeballs will begin to melt until the toxin coats the cornea. The nerve agents in the toxin will begin to paralyze your eye, and then the erosion and tissue death starts. Blindness, headaches, nausea, vomiting, belly pain, diarrhea, dizziness and convulsions follow -- and don’t rub your eyes, because if you scratch any part of the eye or eyelid and venom enters your bloodstream, then the toxins will start to affect your ability to breath and cause heart problems. Next --”

“Enough!” Cooper interrupted the horrifying recitation. “Ma’am,” she said, fixing a grim stare on Bess Woodhouse. “Did you happen to bring any antitoxin with you.”

Bess shook her head. “No. I just put tumeric in my tea. Vinny always said that that’s given him an immunity, and he’s done it all of his life. His grandfather taught him, you know. How to be a snake charmer, and to drink turmeric every day for protection.”

Tor cleared his throat meaningfully. “While I hate to be the one to say it,” the professor told their passenger gently, “... although some folk medicine has been scientifically proven to be effective, I’m not sure we should go raiding the captain’s spice rack just yet.”

“Yes. Let’s not go trusting anyone’s life to my spice rack,” Cooper agreed. She looked at the expectant faces of her crew around the galley table, finally settling on Carver. The captain sighed heavily. “Go ahead and say it.” Her security officer’s ginger eyebrows rose in question. Cooper sighed again. “‘I told you so.’ Go ahead and say it. You’ve earned the privilege.”

Carver wisely kept his silence.

“It could be worse,” Chang offered hesitantly.

“Worse?” Abby said. “You mean, somehow worse than a crazy lady setting venomous snakes loose with us in this flying sardine can?” she scoffed.

Chang gave a nervous laugh. “Yeah. King cobras lay nests of from 20 to 50 eggs. And the mother stays with the nest until they’re all hatched, defending them viciously. So we’ve only got six, instead of a crapton plus a pissed-off mama.”

“Miss Woodhouse,” Sully said, sounding pinched, “... please tell us you’d didn’t also smuggle aboard an angry mother snake.”

“I didn’t,” she said, in a very small voice.

Cooper took a deep breath and let it go slowly, aware that her crew was looking to her for a solution in this situation. “Hǎo de. So. First step: below-decks is now officially off-limits for everyone. We’ll get some blankets brought up and double-bunk in the crew cabins for as long as necessary. Those of you with cabins in the passenger dorm, we’ll make a list of necessities and collect your must-haves for you, but I don’t want anyone exposing ankles or eyeballs, dŏng ma?” She gave the gathering at the table her hard stare, getting direct visual confirmation from each crew member in turn before she continued. “So. We can’t just seal up the topside hatches and vent the lower decks to space, because we gotta deliver the babies back to their snake-daddy. Since that’s the case, we gotta catch the little zěnme jiù. Anyone got any brilliant suggestions?”

“Snake-Daddy was a snake charmer, right?” Sully asked. “Does that mean if someone starts playing a flute they’ll go all Pied Piper?”

Abby groaned and rolled her eyes, while Cooper just shot her XO a look of disgust. “Not the type of brilliant I was hoping for,” she said sourly.

“I’m afraid that the Pied Piper folktale isn’t a terribly accurate template for animal-handling,” Tor interjected, rubbing his chin. “Chang, can you find any information on what newborn baby cobras eat?” he asked, thoughtfully.

Chang went to work with his hand-held, and the rest of the crew waited in what their captain considered a significantly uncharacteristic silence. Cooper shoved herself back from the table and went to put a kettle on for tea. On second thought, she opened a cabinet door and reached back for the bottle of good whiskey she had hidden behind the jug of molasses and a half-empty bottle of fish sauce. She limped back to the table, pulled the cork, took a pull, then passed the medicinal bottle on.

Hǎo,” Chang said finally. “Here we go. King cobras are diurnal, first of all, so turning the lights off on our snakey-babies won’t make a difference. I found some hobbyists debating how to keep hatchling cobras alive in captivity, and apparently, they're terribly fragile and if you expose them to too much stress they’ll just curl up and die. Or something. Some keepers appear to recommend force-feeding despite the risk -- using pinkies and a pinky press, whatever the hell those are -- and for my ability to sleep sound at night I really, really don’t want to know, so please don’t make me look.”

“I second that request,” Fatima said, her disembodied voice reaching them from the bridge through the allship comm.

“Some keepers recommend feeding the baby cobras baby corn snakes, frozen to kill parasites…” Chang continued.

“... I am SO glad I put a supply of baby corn snakes by in the freezer before we left Beylix…” Cianan muttered. The young artist began to pass the bottle on to Tilly, but Hoss reached past the girl from the other side and intercepted the whiskey. Hoss put the bottle to his lips and drank a considerable volume of it before handing it off to Tor next.

“... and someone else is insisting on braining baby southern racers (another kind of snake I think?) and then stuffing the bodies with extra mice. Someone else is suggesting using fish to scent, but they don’t ever say what exactly it is they are splashing with fish perfume. Injured and bloodied live prey seems to be the real favorite, tho’...” Chang frowned and looked up, making an exaggerated shrug. “Whatever live prey is normal for baby cobras. Sorry, I’ll keep looking, but there’s just a lot of assumed knowledge here.”

“Keep on it,” Cooper agreed. “Ms. Woodhouse, do you have anything of value to offer us here?”

The distraught older woman wiped her eyes again, while Mookie lashed his tail and regarded the crew irritably from his throne on his owner’s lap. “I don’t think the babies will be hungry,” Bess Woodhouse said, petting Mookie’s silvery coat in agitation. “I don’t think the newborns eat at all during their first week or ten days. Vinny fed them only after their first molting, I think? I don’t know, I really never paid much attention. I admired his snake charmer performances but I never, ever liked the snakes themselves. I can’t stomach how they eat other creatures, and their eyes are too beady--”

Chang moaned then in reaction to something he was reading, and everyone turned to him in dismay. He looked up from his handheld and smiled weakly. “Apparently,” he said with a nervous laugh, “cobras of all ages are excellent climbers.”

Āiyā!” Abby cried in despair. “They climb? Wǒmen wánle!” Tilly squeaked and pulled her legs up to perch her feet on the edge of her chair, while Cianan glanced up nervously toward the closest grated ventilation shaft.

“Well, this just keeps getting better and better,” Tor chuckled ruefully.

“Get those mā lā ge bā zi snakes off my pokokōhua boat!” Hoss roared, looking as angry at the situation as nearly anyone at that table had ever seen him.

“Maybe we could shut off the gravity in the cargo bay?” Cianan asked hopefully. “That’d make them easier to catch, wouldn’t it? Especially if someone was wearing one of those puffy hull suits for safety.”

“Can’t turn off the gravity without shutting off the grav drive,” Tilly informed him. “And it's a huge job to shut off the grav drive without killing the fusion reactor. And that makes our air and power and everything shut down. So we don’t wanna do that.”

“I could go down there and get creative with the grav dampeners--” Hoss began to say, somewhat mollified by the act of planning.

“Like hell you will!” Cooper snapped. “Those snakes went right down those deck grates!”’

Hoss snorted and held up one massive finger. “... but I don’t know that’d be useful, since I’d imagine snakes can still probably swim around in low-grav conditions. If they might be attracted to bloody prey, we could build a little drone and raid the med cabinet, maybe splash them with a little plasm, and see if that gets their attention?”

“Using our emergency blood supply?” Abby said, aghast. “I’d rather sacrifice one of the goats!”

“No!” said Hoss, Tilly and Fatima in unison. “Not the goats!”

“There will be no sacrificial goats,” Cooper said grimly.

“Maybe one of the chickens?” Tor suggested with some obvious reluctance.

“I got a slab of liver in the freezer. I could defrost it and drench it in fish sauce…” The tea kettle had begun to whistle. Cooper reached after her cane to rise and see to it, but Carver was already on his feet and heading into the galley. He waved her off, and she nodded gratefully. “... if we think that’ll help tempt the babies along in returning to captivity.” Cooper finished.

“Sorry, gang, but Ms. Woodhouse just said the babies don’t eat during for their first week,” Sully said. “We can consider food bribes after we’ve found the first shed skins, but until then, we gotta get creative.”

“What happens if we just seal off belowdecks until we reach Highgate?” the professor asked. “It sounds like the hatchlings won’t starve to death in the next nine or ten days, so that might be our safest option. There might be a professional exotics specialist who could lend a hand. I’ve got some contacts at Meridian University, I could send out some queries?”

“We got livestock to feed,” Cooper said. Carver returned with the tea tray and set it down on the galley table in the teapot’s usual central spot to steep. “We gotta go down below for that,” Cooper continued, “at the very least. And the thought of a foot-and-a-half venom-spitting poisonous snake creeping its way into the ventilation system? Cái bù shi! Who among us is gonna get any sleep between here and Highgate? I think we should at least try to get the little bùyào liǎn corralled if we can, for their safety and our own.”

“Cut the heat.” Carver spoke up then. “We had rat snakes at the ranch back home. They’re cold blooded. Set up a heat sink on the deck for them to retreat into, give it a chance to put out some radiant, then cut the heat ship-wide.”

The growing unease among the crew began to almost visibly ebb at what sounded like a viable solution. “That sounds feasible,” Cooper said, looking expectantly at Hoss.

Hoss was nodding as he plotted out the logistics. “We'll need to shut down all the other heat sources too. We can just cut the whole lower-deck auxiliary power bus, so we don't have to go down there and turn off all the water heaters and such. Medico is on its own line, and we can't cut that, but I think it's sealed off well enough so we don't have to?”

“Wouldn't want to lose those nice newtech meds in the fridge!” Sully agreed. "But yeah, medico is its own separate airtight pod, they won't get in there."

“Okay, so we’ll all want sweaters and wool socks for the next few days, as it’s gonna get cold around here,” Cooper said. “We’re gonna need two more things. First -- a way to catch our wayward travelers, and second -- somewhere to safely store them once they’re caught again. Hoss and Chang -- can you jury-rig us some sort of traveling incubation chamber for the hatchlings, once they’re caught?”

“Sounds like a fun challenge!” Sully said. He grinned at Hoss, Tilly and Tor. “I’m sure we can come up with something.”

“We can make the best baby cobra house ever!” Tilly agreed with anticipation.

“Okay. We’ve got a plan, then. Let’s get to it.” The whiskey bottle had come around again. Cooper took a grateful swallow. “Belowdecks is officially off-limits to everyone,” Cooper continued. “Hoss -- oversee getting the heat shut down shipwide. Sully -- get that incubation chamber built so that we can deliver our cargo alive and unharmed. Carver -- evac the stable pod. Lock the stock up in the port shuttle with a supply of food and water. The dead shuttle served us a kennel for a while after Beylix, so it’ll serve just fine as a temporary stable, and we can keep it safely sealed up and on its own power for life support. We got more than a week yet until we get to Highgate, and I’m not about to sacrifice fresh eggs and milk. Everyone else -- all of you with passenger cabins, make a list of what you’ll need from your quarters, and later on we’ll send Carver down to collect your necessities. Consider the next week to be an exercise in team bonding. Those of us with crew cabins will be letting down their secondary bunks. Ms. Woodhouse, you and Mookie can bunk with Tilly and me -- we’ll string a hammock and make it work, and just hope that Mookie and Babs are friendly. Cianan, you’ll be bunking with Sully. Abby with Fatima. Chang is with Tor, and Carver with Hoss. Anyone got questions?”

“Yes, actually,” Tor said. “We’re making an incubation chamber to hold the baby cobras once they're caught, but I haven’t heard how, exactly, we intend to catch them once the heat is off.”

Cooper grinned and a thumb over portside, toward the galley behind her. “See the biggest of the two crockpots on the counter?” she asked. “Just plug it into a battery and set the timer to warm it up. We might never want to use it for soup again afterwards, but it looks like a Grade A Prime snake-trap to me.”

Chapter Text

2514.August 14; -- morning--
In the black between Boros (Georgia Cluster & the Border) and Highgate (Blue Cluster on the Rim)

By the time Cooper had finished filling out her exotic species export certificates for the missing half-dozen baby cobras (all listed in the forms as ‘pre-neonate - still in the shell’), the combined efforts of Hoss, Sully, Chang, Tor and Tilly had cobbled together a new incubation chamber for the wayward newborns. A portable beverage cooler had been sacrificed for the cause; the drainage spout at the bottom was removed and used to run in a power cord line and a narrow probe attached to a small digital thermometer taped to the outside of the cooler. The power cord was connected to Mookie’s heating pad, over which was then layered half a dozen plastic bottles of potable water, completely filling the bottom of the cooler. The bottles of water would help provide even heat retention, as well as serve as a stable platform for the clear plastic storage bin placed on top of them. A thin layer of white Greenleaf sand was spread as bedding inside the plastic storage bin, and Chang had produced a remote wireless, coin-sized fisheye IR camera which they glued to the internal lid. “We’ll be able to monitor the niúbī little guys ‘n gals without having to open the lid to see them,” Chang promised.

“They’re not cool,” Hoss replied. “Nothing that can make your eyeball melt is cool.”

The crew’s morale had risen steadily even as the ship’s internal temperature dipped. Crew started bundling up in sweaters and cold weather gear -- and nervous glances toward the ventilation shafts began to become more and more rare, as the chances of baby snakes bursting out of the ducts like slash-killers in a bad holovid plummeted. Fatima and Sully had put the cargo bay security broadcast up on the makeshift smart-paper holovid screen taped to the observation lounge wall, and the crew who had nothing better to do gathered there to join in the ‘snake cam’ watch, waiting to see if their makeshift warming trap was going to work.

Cooper’s largest crockpot had also been sacrificed for the cause. It was plugged into a portable battery pack allowing the slow cooker to be set out on top of the deck grates where the snakes had last been seen. Problematically, the crockpot did not rest flush against the deck as the base of the unit had little built-in feet to lift it off a kitchen counter, making enough of a gap for a baby snake or two to squeeze under the trap. So Captain Cooper had pulled a sturdy plastic IV bag out of the medical stores, replaced the saline with scalding hot water, and supplied that to be wedged under the crockpot, allowing the device to radiate heat into the metal deck, while denying the hatchlings a possible alternate spot to lair. And a scoop of white Greenleaf sand out of Cooper’s barrel of unused catbox supply was spread across the bottom of the ceramic crock, making it as enticing as possible a refuge for the wayward baby snakes.

“You confident they’ll be able to get in there?” Abby had asked, before the device had been dispatched belowdecks.

Chang nodded, having become the ship’s resident research expert on all things king cobra. “They’ll seek out the heat and lift themselves right on in. I’ve been watching all kind of vids where baby cobras climb much higher than this.”

“Don’t elaborate, please,” Abby had said with a shiver. “My nightmares are going to be technicolor enough.”

Transport and placement of the warming trap and the incubation chamber both fell on Carver. The former shipbreaker Marine proved to have a considerable collection of tactical gear, including assault gloves, a faded grey ballistics mesh long-sleeved shirt, cargo pants of a similar fabric bloused into his usual combat boots, and a tactical helmet with chin guard and clear visor eye protection. He had found a heavy canvas bag somewhere and had that slung over one shoulder.

Cooper had intercepted him with the makeshift hot water bottle before he left the galley with the crockpot. “Remember,” she said quietly to him. “We need to keep the little bastards alive for the lawyers.”

Carver looked down at her, amusement in his eyes. He nodded.

Cooper looked him over, scowling. “You got one of those ceramic plate vests, don’t you?” she asked. He nodded again, and her scowl deepened. “Then why in hell aren’t you wearing it?” she asked, aghast.

“If the snakes start shooting bullets, I will,” he answered.

Cooper’s scowl turned into a snort of laughter. She smirked and gazed up at him for a moment longer, before stepping aside to allow him to pass. “Godspeed, soldier,” she quipped to his back as he passed.

As Carver headed down the forward stairs to the cargo bay, the captain limped over to join the cluster of crew sitting around the galley observation lounge. They were all gazing fixedly at the lounge’s vid-screen, where regular interruptions of the Fruity Oaty girls burst across the upper right-hand corner -- the smart-paper had once been an animated advertising poster for the popular snack bars, before Chang had hacked it for its present purpose. Chang had never been able to fix the glitchy top right corner, which looped fragments of the original animation at three-second intervals. Those cheerful animated interlopers were a stark contrast to the dimmed lights of the cargo bay.

“Any sign of them?” Cooper asked, leaning on her cane as she stood at the edge of the observation lounge.

“Not a peep,” answered Hoss. He and Tilly were squeezed into the single couch, while Tor, Abby and Chang were sitting in the cushioned chairs, with Bǎo Yù stretched out across both Tor and Abby’s laps as though she owned them. Cianán was in the bean bag seat, his head turned at what looked like an uncomfortable angle. The teen was sound asleep and snoring lightly, and someone had tucked a blanket around him. Sully had taken over his usual dayshift on the bridge, while Fatima had headed off to catch some sleep in her cabin. Bereft of his two favorite humans, Carver and Fatima, Odin had moved to join the rest of the crew in the observation lounge. The old dog was curled up in the center of the lounge, snoring in soft counterpoint to Cianán.

“I keep expecting something to come crawling out from around the corner of a container at any moment,” Abby said, with a delicate shudder.

“I betcha they’re all still down beneath the deck grid,” Tilly said. “Keep your eyes on the deck grid and just wait!”

“It should be getting cold enough down there by now,” Tor agreed. “If we’re feeling it, they must be feeling it as well.”

“We certainly are,” Abby grumbled, an expensive-looking scarf wrapped around herself against the cold, babushka-style.

“There’s Carver!” Tilly exclaimed as the former marine came into view. Cooper watched along with the others, finding herself increasingly nervous as the cargo bay cameras showed her crewman setting down the makeshift snake trap and getting it properly deployed. Cooper continued to watch until Carver had finished and had safely moved out of the camera’s field of view again. She shook herself and turned to limp back into her galley. Since sentry duty for snake-watch was already well covered by her crew, the captain put herself to work finishing up the last of the dishes from breakfast and starting on lunch prep.

Lunch prep turned into after-lunch dishes before the first snake sighting occurred. Cheers went up in rapid succession as five of the six hatchlings were seen slithering up from the bomb bay grating and crawling into the warm crockpot.

And then the waiting set in for baby king cobra number six.

The afternoon matured into pre-dinner prep. Intending to serve up bowls of bibimbap for supper, Cooper sliced up some carrots into long, thin orange strips, then began to mince up a protein loaf with onions, garlic and gochujang paste to fry it into faux-ground beef. She threw only occasional glances toward the security video playing in the observation lounge screen, trusting her crew to raise hue and cry once the wayward baby snake arrived -- or if its nestmates decided to make an unexpected break for it out of their warm and comfy snake trap. Bess Woodhouse was still hiding in the captain’s cabin below, while Fatima was likely to show up at any time now to enjoy her breakfast as the rest of the crew ate dinner. Tor had replaced Sully on the bridge for flight duties, and Sully had taken up Tor’s seat in the observation lounge for snake watch. Bǎo Yù was flopped across her owner’s lap, meeping at him in demand whenever he stopped petting her. Odin had relocated as well, and was stretched out to doze alongside Carver’s seat at the end of the galley table.

“Has the little hún dàn found an alternate heat source?” Hoss asked anxiously. “Is there something down there we’ve overlooked?”

Sully frowned. "Hope the old crew didn't wire any of the water heaters into the main power bus instead of the aux."

"Actually they did," Chang replied, "Remember back in April when you fixed that flaky portside rear aux circuit? Right after that I found the heaters in a couple cabins were on the mainline. But I put them back on aux where they belong, so they can't still be running now."

"What about the water pumps?" Tilly asked, holding up her tablet with a section of the lowerdeck schematics. "Maybe Cianán left a faucet running again."

"Hey!" the teenager retorted. "That was just the one time!"

"Salam," said Fatima, arriving from the bridge corridor, looking fresh-faced and well-rested. She was bundled up in a surplus Alliance fishtail parka, but the vivid floral pink and yellow silk scarf she wore made the ensemble seem festive. "Where are we in the great snake hunt?" she asked, moving to perch on the arm of the couch alongside Hoss; Odin stirred enough to lift his head and peer toward her in welcome, while Bǎo Yù scanned her hands for treats or toys, saw nothing, and nudged Sully to remind him to continue petting her.

"That last gǒu niáng yǎ ng de is still on the lam," Abby grumbled. "We are hoping there's not another heat source down there."

Over the comm, Tor asked "Can I see power usage data from up here? I could on my old Gnat.”

"Not on a Firefly," Sully and Chang said in near-unison. Sully went on, "I can go back into the mid-deck engineering space and check the gauges on the power distribution panel, though."

"That little pokotiwha better not have climbed up into there," Hoss growled.

Tilly went pale. "Would we have to shut off the water recycler? And... don't the algae tanks put out heat?"

"It can't be in there," Chang said. "Even if a snake wanted to climb a cold metal ladder, it couldn't open those access hatches."

"Unless somebody left one open again," Cianan said, looking at Tilly.

"Hey!" the girl said. "That was just the one time!"

Cooper started a fresh pot of tea, then turned back to finish frying up the ground protein mix. She had nothing of value to add to the conversation and didn’t want to say aloud what she was thinking -- that it was going to be a long week to go until they got to Highgate. Tilly was still glaring at Cianán, who just put on his headphones and stretched out, pretending to fall asleep. Or maybe he really was -- the teenager seemed to have the knack for falling asleep at any hour or under any condition, an ability which Cooper deeply envied. She’d learned to catch combat naps during the War… but it was a habit she had apparently lost since.

Thoughts of the War made her glance toward Carver, who was sitting at the galley table, separate from the rest of the crew gathered in the lounge. He had what looked like a tiny hydraulics engine disassembled on a square piece of cloth in front of him and was cleaning and oiling the parts, showing very little interest in the security footage being screened on the wall nearby.

“You know what the most dangerous poisonous snake in the world is?” Sully asked, nudging Tilly with his foot.

“No?” the girl replied, looking back at her XO expectantly.

“It’s whatever the gorram-kind of snake it was that just bit you,” he supplied with a grin. Tilly laughed while the rest of the crew in the observation lounge just groaned. Bǎo Yù warbled a mutual complaint and butted her head against Sully’s chest for attention, as though saving the rest of the crew from further jokes.

“A thought--” came Tor’s disembodied voice over comm. The professor was sitting his shift on the bridge, but clearly chose to remain connected through the all-ship channel. “Ancient street performers -- the original pre-Vinny snake charmers, if you will -- were famed for using their flutes to enchant wild cobras. People thought of the snake charmers as magicians or mystics who could ensorcell a snake into dancing along to the chamer’s song. But in reality, the cobras were simply focusing on the swaying menace of the end of the flute in front before them.”

“Right!” Chang agreed with enthusiasm, looking up from his handheld. “In fact, cobras don’t even have ears, so they'd be deaf to music -- they still detect ground vibration, though, so they’ll always hear you coming.”

“Which is why we are staying up here, and the bastard baby owns our belowdecks,” Abby replied.

“Buckets!” Tilly announced in sudden inspiration. “That’s our answer! We can turn buckets into boots! The snake couldn’t bite our legs then.”

Hoss laughed and tapped the schooling tablet in the girl’s hands. “Sketch out for me how you’d engineer that, aroha,” he told his apprentice. “Using only the equipment you know we’ve got on hand.”

Tilly’s fair eyebrows were knit together as she thought hard. “Can cobras bite through duct tape?” she asked, looking to Chang for that answer.

Chang shrugged. “Better to assume so than assume not,” he replied.

Tilly nodded and, undismayed, began to furiously scratch away at her tablet with her stylus, with Hoss looking on from an angle.

“How would you compensate for differing size of feet--?” he began to prompt her. But his question was interrupted by Sully, Abby and Chang, who were all still looking at the security feed from the cargo bay.

Shé!” Abby cried, while Chang yelled “Snake!” “Bingo!” shouted Sully, his voice carrying above both of them. Odin woke up with a startled bark and peered around peevishly, while the attention of all of the humans around him fixed on the hacked smart-poster screen on the observation lounge wall.

On the security cam feed, the renegade hatchling was rising up out of the bomb bay grate decking. Its striped head waved about as its tongue flickered out, tasting the air. The creature retreated part way back down, then seemed to collect its courage and slithered up through the grating until its full length was visible on the deck. It wove its way toward the waiting crockpot, where it stopped, again warily tasting the air.

“C’mon, xiǎo gōngzhǔ,” Hoss said, urging the hatchling on. Captain Cooper joined her crew in holding their collective breaths as for several long seconds, it appeared as though the baby cobra were about to climb up into the waiting crockpot, along with the rest of its nestmates. Instead, however, the long, thin creature simply nestled up against the body of the crockpot and settled in, its tongue restlessly flickering in and out.

“Gorram little tease is what that thing is,” Sully snorted.

“Why doesn’t it just crawl on in with its brothers and sisters?” Tilly asked.

“It must be the discerning child of the family,” Abby said.

“Give it a chance to make up its mind,” Chang said. “It could decide to slither on in there at any time now.”

“Or the rotten little hún dàn will just hang out long enough to catch a chill and kill itself,” Cooper grumbled. “Vinny Dearest and his lawyers will be so thrilled.”

From his seat on the observation lounge couch, Sully turned toward the galley table. “Maybe the baby just needs a friendly little nudge,” the XO said, with a significant look for Carver.

The former marine had already begun to pack up his makeshift work station, rolling up the disassembled hydraulics and securing the cloth roll before pocketing the largest of the tools. Odin rose when his master did, but Carver pointed at him and told the dog to sit, so the old three-legged creature settled back down with a hefty sigh. Carver nodded once to Cooper as he headed for the forward hatchway. She wanted to tell him to be careful but only managed a “Don’t kill it,” instead.

“Good hunting!” Hoss called after him as Carver departed.

Chapter Text

2514.August 14; 15:49 Sihnon Standard Time
In the black between Boros (Georgia Cluster & the Border) and Highgate (Blue Cluster on the Rim)

Carver departed the galley, leaving the rest of the crew to watch the security vid displayed on the observation lounge wall screen anxiously for any sight of the renegade baby king cobra.

“I’ll bet you the little squirt climbs into the crockpot on its own,” Chang said. “Poor little fella has gotta be freezing!”

“Yeah, because we sure are,” Abby agreed, pulling her scarf even closer around her neck.

Cooper turned off the burner beneath her skillet and abandoned the minced protein mix to finish without supervision. Now that Carver was off on his snake-wrangling mission, she felt consumed by the fact that they had no anti-venom aboard. She grabbed for her cane and limped as far as the galley table, where she had left her work tablet. She sank into a chair and began to swipe through commands to pull up the first of several standard military medical manuals she kept. Cooper was still searching through for any reference to snakebite treatment when Carver’s image came into view, walking down the forward starboard cargo bay stairs. He had delayed long enough to don his gloves and his tactical helmet.

“Anyone shocked to see the man does not have his gun?” Abby said, her tone not kind. “This is an excellent chance for him to score another kill.”

From the bridge, Professor West coughed politely. “Allship channel is open,” he said over comm.

“Roger that,” Carver answered. The man’s voice betrayed neither offense nor amusement, although Abby was clearly wincing where she sat.

“In both ancient Hindi and Buddhist religious lore, Lord Shiva wore Vāsuki, a king cobra, wrapped about his neck,” Tor went on. ”Vāsuki was recognized as one of the eight mighty Great Dragon Kings, and he allowed the devas and asuras to use him as their churning rope in order to collect the ambrosia of immortality from a vast ocean of milk...”

Cooper listened with only half an ear, her attention split between the vid screen on the observation lounge wall and the work tablet in her hands. For all of the crazy things she’d seen walk, roll, or carried into a trauma pit during the war, snakebite injury was something she had yet to experience. And from the discouraging passage in her textbook, she prayed to Shiva and Vāsuki or whomever beneficial was listening that she never would. ‘The only effective and definitive treatment for a snake envenomation is the timely application of the species-appropriate antivenom. Without species-appropriate antivenom, palliative care becomes the physician's primary concern...’

On the vid screen, Carver was approaching the crockpot warily, circling it at a distance. He pulled something from a thigh pocket, then flicked his wrist, causing it to telescope out into a long wand. Cooper recognized it as a carbon-fiber gun cleaning rod. “Visual confirmation -- nothing has exited the snake trap?” Carver asked, and received a prompt chorus of response from the bridge and observation lounge.

The hatchling was still semi-coiled beside the crockpot, its head weaving back and forth nervously. When Carver crouched down nearby, it reared back and the hood behind its head flared out, making it look bigger. Cooper grimaced, still startled by the size of the thing, newly hatched though it was.

“Careful,” Chang said nervously, double-checking his handheld. “It’ll target your eyes.”

Carver responded with a grunt of acknowledgment; while his tactical helmet had goggles to protect his vision, the man clearly wasn’t going to risk opening his mouth with a spitting cobra on the deck before him. He moved his hand slowly, bringing the rod around between him and the hatchling. Carver pointed his end of the telescoped rod at the hatchling and moved it slowly, back and forth. The baby cobra’s dark head swayed in unison, clearly fixating on the rhythmic motion.

“Glad to see Carver can be charming,” Abby said, a little too sweetly. Without taking his eyes from the vid screen, Sully reached out and delivered a brotherly smack to the woman’s upper arm. Abby gave a snort of laughter but held her tongue from saying more.

“The baby sure is cute,” Tilly said wistfully.

“And that adorable little danger noodle will be a helluva lot cuter somewhere else,” Sully said.

“Somewhere a helluva long way off my ship,” Hoss grumbled.

On the vid screen, the crew continued to watch as Carver kept up the hypnotic sway of the cleaning rod, back and forth and back and forth. The hatchling’s head kept swaying, fixated on the end of the rod closest to its head… and paid no attention to the hand that he slowly slipped in to the side.

“Réncí dì dìyù,” Sully said in concern. “Please tell me he’s not going to --” Carver’s off hand struck. He seized the hatchling just behind the head so quickly it was still deploying its little striped hood. With deceptive speed, he dropped the rod to the deck, dropped the spitting hatchling into the crockpot, then deposited the crockpot’s glass lid in place, just in the nick of time, as the camera caught the sight of two other cobras hitting the inside of the lid and rebounding into captivity. “-- grab the deadly biting snake by the head,” Sully finished with a breathy laugh. Hoss set up a resounding cheer, while some of the other crew applauded. Cianan woke with another start and automatically began to clap, although he was foggily looking around to see what the rest of the crew was celebrating. “Are we safe now?” the teenager asked plaintively. “Are the killer snakes all caught?” “They’re all caught!” Tilly laughed. “And that, fellow travelers, puts an end to the Great Cobra Event of 2514,” came Tor’s smooth baritone from the bridge. “Will someone please turn the heat back on?” Abby demanded. Hoss rose from the couch. “C’mon, Tilly, let’s see to that,” the mechanic said, beckoning his apprentice to follow him. “And when we’re done, maybe the Captain will let us make a big sheet cake to celebrate the occasion.” “With peppermint candy icing!” Tilly agreed, scrambling to follow. Bao Yu yipped and launched herself off of Sully’s lap to rocket after the pair toward the engine room. That was like a breaking dam. After clustering together for hours in the observation lounge, the rest of the crew gathered themselves up and dispersed, Chang, Abby and Cianan all headed for their cabins below decks, while Sully stood and made a bone-popping stretch before strolling over to the galley table. He sat on the edge of it near Cooper. “Do we make a special announcement to our passenger?” he asked. Cooper waved that off. “If she isn’t already listening in from my bunk below, then we can share the good news with her when she surfaces for dinner. Now that the snakebite danger has passed, I’m sure the crew will be willing to forgive and forget.” “Especially if there’s more cannoli in our immediate future,” Sully agreed, eyes alight at the prospect. “Don’t ever tell me your allegiance can’t be bought,” Cooper grumbled in amusement. “Yes ma’am,” Sully grinned. “Just not for cheap.”

Planet of Highgate, Blue Cluster
2514.August 22; 17:52 Sihnon Standard Time

Vincent Woodhouse’s legal representatives were waiting for the Jin Dui as the ship settled into her assigned landing spot at Highgate’s Port Alpha. The third most populous world in the Blue Cluster and considered prosperous by that standard, Port Alpha could afford pavement for vehicular and foot traffic, but the landing “pad” allotted to the Jin Dui was at least two inches in half-frozen mud.

Captain Cooper had not expected all of the crew to turn up to say goodbye to Bess Woodhouse -- but to her surprise, even Abby showed up to say farewell as their passenger prepared to depart. Bess was still hugging a long-suffering Abby as Sully came trotting down the forward stairs from the bridge.

“Barbarians are at the gates,” Sully called to Cooper, as the captain stood at the cargo door control panel.

Cooper nodded sourly and gestured to Sully and Abby to both join her. “Grab the incubation crate,” she told Sully, while Carver came up at her other side. “Let’s get this over with,” she said to them, leaving the rest of the group to continue with the apparently teary-eyed business of leavetaking.

There were two suits standing in front of a very polished town car, of a style that had been popular on Harvest back when Cooper had been a kid (and thus popular back in the Core probably another 20 years before that). A young man with a tablet and a silk portfolio stood adjacent, clearly a lower-ranking support staffer. Cooper set down the gangway for them, with Abby, Sully and Carver at her back.

“Captain Elizabeth Cooper?” the senior of the lawyerly pair asked, holding their ground and forcing Cooper to limp through the mud to where they stood at the edge of the pavement.

"Shì,” she replied, giving them a polite nod. She planted the butt of her cane between her feet and, despite the mud, assumed her best ranking stick-up-the-butt officer impersonation. “My XO here has your precious cargo. We transmitted all of the relevant Alliance Department of Agriculture & Wildlife paperwork, including A-NO1 Form-021910, delivered digitally to your offices as well as to the local ADAW authorities. We included video feed to prove all six of the hatchlings are alive and well. Do you have a licensed exotics veterinarian on hand to take over possession of the cargo?” she asked them, pointedly eyeing their small three-person welcoming party.

“As required in ADAW Administrative Code 875-015-0020 subsection 1 parentheses -11,” added Abby sweetly, as though she were savoring the legalese.

The poker faces on the two senior solicitors gave away nothing, but their assistant was failing to hide the worry. “We’ll accept possession of our client’s property, and you can be assured that all of the proper procedures are handled back at our office.”

“Mmm hmm.” Cooper let her disapproval drip from that nonverbal response and just gave the legal team a flat look. They could probably volley their darts back and forth all day, but she did not want to invite them to call her bluff. Cooper wanted to unload the hatchling cobras probably far more than Mr. Woodhouse’s legal reps wanted to take possession of them. She held out one hand for the tablet, and the assistant stepped down into the half-frozen mud to take the two steps forward it required to deliver it. Cooper swiped briefly through the tablet, then handed it over to Abby for her perusal before signing it. Abby read through the documentation with a look of professional microfocus, then handed it back over with a nod. Cooper signed it and pressed her thumb to the confirmation square, then handed the tablet back over.

“Sully,” she said.

Her first mate stepped forward and handed over the modified ice cooler. “Yám seng,” he said as the assistant took possession of the improvised incubator. “Enjoy. And for the love of sweet baby Buddha, don’t drop it. The deadly little blighters are getting hungry.”

The assistant’s face had gone the shade of whey. Cooper hid her amusement and hoped the young man was smart enough to have demanded hazard pay. She watched with satisfaction as the lawyers climbed back into their vintage vehicle, leaving their assistant to climb into the front seat beside the driver, with the big cooler on his lap.

The shiny black car rolled away. As it left, it passed an approaching hot yellow matatu. The brightly-painted bus, advertised as the Mughal Embassy in glitter-paint on the side, slid up into the spot the other vehicle had just left, and the bus doors hissed open to allow the exit of a parade of more than a dozen people of various ages, all of them vertically challenged, dark-haired and bright-eyed with excitement.

“Here comes the cavalry,” Sully leaned in beside Cooper to say quietly. “What do you want to bet they’re all relations?”

“Won’t wager against that,” Cooper agreed. She found herself smiling with a relief she hadn’t been conscious of, while the first woman out of the bus stepped cautiously off of the pavement to address her.

“Landing spot C-14?” that first woman out of the bus asked. She could have been an aunt or a sister, Cooper wouldn’t dare guess which. “The Jin Dui? We’re here for my sister, please tell me we’re in the right place!”

"Shi'a!” Cooper answered, with a gesture back toward the Jin Dui’s open cargo bay doors. “You most certainly ha--” She couldn’t finish before the woman she was speaking with gave a shrill cry of delight and began to rush for the ship, heedless of the mud and followed by the rest of the Bess-relations mob. Carver automatically pivoted to try and head off that stampede. Cooper lurched after him and grabbed his arm to restrain him. The lunge threw her off balance and she began to fall, but Carver turned back to catch her and keep her on her feet, saving her captainly dignity.

“Let them board,” she said. “I don’t think they’re a risk.”

“I’ll consider them a gift if they’ll haul all of Bess’s baggage for us,” Abby sniffed, eager to leave their patch of mud.

There were happy squeals and exclamations of delight as the group clustered around the Jin Dui’s passenger in welcome, crowding aside the crew. Bǎo Yù was beside herself with delight, wiggling around in between strangers’ feet and soaking up the attention being showered on her by those awaiting their chance to greet their long-lost relation; for his part, three-legged Odin had taken up position in the lowerside hatchway and glowered at the noisy crowd, ready to show teeth to any stranger who dared approach. Chang and Cianán were both edging their way back toward that passenger deck hatchway, clearly as happy as Abby was at not being pressed into porter service. Hoss and Tilly hung back to one side of that cheerful, back-slapping hugfest, while Tor and Fatima moved aside to starboard. The captain ventured as far into the hold as the cargo bay panel, Carver, Sully and Abby sticking close by. Cooper found herself smiling as she watched the happy reunion.

“I’m grateful to see Ms. Woodhouse has people here,” Cooper said quietly, leaning on her cane. “She may have caused us some trouble, but I didn’t want to leave her adrift.”

“What you really mean to say is ‘Thank heavens we’re not keeping her,’” Abby snorted.

“I will miss that cannoli,” Sully said wistfully.

Cooper cast a glance at Carver and saw the scarred man watching her with a faint expression of amusement, which vanished the moment she looked his way. “What?” she demanded, but her security officer only shook his head and kept his own counsel.

The happy scrum was beginning to break up, and relatives were grabbing up bags, boxes and baskets. A teary-eyed Bess Woodhouse, with a royally displeased Mookie in his crate in one hand, cast around for the captain and hurried over with a trail of relations in her wake to make her final goodbyes.

“Captain Cooper, thank you again. I will always, always be so grateful to you for bringing me home!” she said. The smaller woman put down her cat crate and flung both arms around Cooper in a cushiony embrace. Cooper stiffened in surprise, then sighed and awkwardly returned the hug.

“Nae choegoui sowon-eul sulaghabnida,” Cooper wished the woman in her own language.

“I am so, so sorry about--” Bess began to say. It was a mantra Cooper had heard far too often in the approach to Highgate, so she broke away from Woodhouse with a laugh.

“Enough with that. Go forth and conquer! Show that asshole ex of yours what he’s gonna miss.” Cooper edged back, letting Bess complete her farewells. Abby had retreated to the first step of the forward stairs to avoid all of the hugging, while Carver merely nodded to the woman and said “ma’am” -- Bess did not try to embrace him, Cooper noted with amusement. Sully, however, was waiting with open arms. He hugged the tiny woman, lifting her briefly off of her feet, and planted a farewell kiss on her cheek.

“Miss Bess, it was a pleasure. You gave us all a little taste of adventure during your stay. I do hope you’ll write to us regularly because we will be waiting for news on what you and His Highness Mookie get up too.”

Ms. Woodhouse was glowing pink with delight, her dark eyes aglow with renewed infatuation, while Bǎo Yù danced around her feet demanding her own share of the love. “I will write!” Bess said, giving Bǎo Yù a goodbye-pet. “I promise, I will write! And please, you must let me know the next time the Jin Dui comes to the world. I do hope to see you all again soon!”

The baggage had all been picked up and distributed among the crowd, and with that, a wave of relations swept Bess Woodhouse off of the ship and back toward the awaiting Mughal Embassy.

“Sully, you are wicked,” Abby clucked in amusement, as they all watched that departure. “That poor woman will never get over you.”

“Yes, I know. I take great pleasure in forever being the one who got away,” Sully replied smugly.

Cooper turned toward the forward stairs, finding the family reunion was turning her thoughts maudlin. “We’ve got a fuel delivery expected at 20:00 hours,” she said loudly, projecting to the rest of the crew in the cargo bay. “And I’m expecting two can deliveries within the hour -- a flat rack of polyethylene pipes from Stemat Marine Shipping, and a load of palletized tanks of condensed milk from Bloomshire Dairy Co-Operative.”

“And any more passengers?” asked Tor, looking a little too earnestly innocent about the question.

“No more passengers!” Cooper retorted, with an amused glance to the side, where Carver stood. “I hope I’ve learned my lesson on that score.”

The ship’s security officer didn’t say anything in response, but Cooper would have sworn she saw the man hide a smile of amusement. Satisfied with her achievement, she began to climb the stairs and get back up to work.