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"You! Get out of the line!"

Chang looked up with a jerk, then realized the shout wasn't aimed at him. The big dark-haired guard walked up and grabbed the arm of a skinny guy who had been hunched over pretending not to hear. The guard yanked the guy out of the hiring line, nearly knocking him down onto a patch of snow, then let go and shook his head, looking more amused than angry. "Kravchuk, you little nāozhǒng, does your boss even know you're here?"

"Hey! You can't pull me out of line!"

"I just did. Now run on back to Darius and tell him 'nice try', and that we'll pull out his less obvious ringers too."

Kravchuk started to say something, then thought better of it and shambled off down the hill, none too steadily on the rocky slope. The line moved ahead, closer to the Firefly waiting at the hilltop. Snow had started falling again. The guard looked up and down that section of the line, not even pausing at Chang, clearly not seeing him as a threat. The guard did stop and give a hard look at the man a few places behind, who was wearing a threadbare marine combat jacket. That man assumed a parade-rest stance and met the guard's gaze levelly. He had that indefinable something that marked combat veterans. Maybe he actually was an ex-marine, Chang thought. Probably Alliance; not too many of the Independent Marines made it through the war.

341 in the post-Unification census, Chang's memory automatically supplied.

As if to prove itself useless, that mental voice went on, confidence low, last known Independent rosters suggest approximately 400 but conflict with each other-- Chang shook off the babble before it could go on. Even three years after the war, the inside of his head still sounded like an endless intel report. Usually it was easier to keep that steady voice under control, but "usually" didn't include a month of not enough food and three days of next-to-no sleep. Chang’s hand went automatically to the third left-side vest pocket, where he still had a quarter of a protein ration bar. And when he did try to sleep...

"I need this job," Chang muttered to himself. "Maybe..." He looked back at the marine. Five people in between -- drunk, narcotic withdrawal, late-stage tuberculosis, drunk, trinoxigene neural damage. Collective threat level low, action recommended, chattered the internal analyst. They wouldn't going to take any job slots if he let them go first, and hopefully he'd look better after a group like that. He dropped back past them all, only the wall-eyed glare of the nerve-gas case seeming aware of the implied insult. Too late Chang realized he should've at least caught the marine's eye first to see how he'd react, instead of just gambling. Maybe he'd gotten lucky anyway; the veteran just looked at him with a raised eyebrow but didn't seem especially annoyed.

"Where did you serve?" The words popped out of Chang's mouth before he remembered that asking personal questions about the war wasn't usually a good idea this far out on the Rim. Poor interview tactics, de-escalation recommended.

Again, he was lucky; the Marine's raised eyebrow flattened to a frown, but he answered calmly enough. "Bunch of places, long story. You?"

"Shipboard and skyplex tech, mostly." The half-truth rolled off his tongue with long practice.

"Alliance?"

"Do I look like it?" Chang snapped, then shook his head ruefully, "Sorry, lack of sleep."

"You smell like Core," replied the Marine, voice still calm. "No offense, war's long done."

Why did these people always know? Chang wondered irritably. He forced his voice to calm. "I was born on Albion, sure, but I went Independent in the time of war."

The Marine's eyebrow went up again, but he didn't question the story. "Pete M'tengi, good to meet you."

"Marc Chang, likewise."

The line was shortening quickly ahead, though people were still joining the long tail behind them -- Currently 215, plus or minus five. Snowflakes still whirled through the air, not enough to block the view of the ramshackle little town below, or the opposite wall of the narrow valley, but enough to make him shiver. The world of Deadwood hadn't been terraformed long enough for much weathering on those ridges, but it was big enough that the hills themselves had been formed by seismic effects and had basically familiar shapes, not like the weird overlapping-curves terrain you got on the little moons where everything was formed by cratering. Ah, but he was drifting off into his mind again instead of actually looking at the view. Maybe if he hadn't been quite so hungry, or punchy with fatigue...

He turned back to look at the ship, very close now. The line took a sharp turn so he couldn't see into the cargo bay yet, but he was almost there. If he hadn't stepped back those few places, he could've been close enough to see already, but hopefully being next to someone as competent-looking as M'tengi would improve his odds by association. Or would he look worse by comparison? Better than the five ahead, at least... Pointless to wonder, but he still had to force himself to stop, trying to concentrate on what he would say. He had only a few seconds to communicate as much as he could, while sounding clear and professional instead of nervous, exhausted, and desperate. Buddha forbid he started babbling in his analyst voice.

A few more minutes, a few more steps, and now he could see up the cargo ramp; he had to squint a bit with the relative dimness, but the hiring table was right there. Sitting on one end was a huge man with braided hair, who was holding a half-meter engine wrench like it only weighed a few grams. Chang barely glanced at the armed guards off to the sides -- locals, high probability -- before focusing on the the brown-coated woman behind the table. Veteran, likely officer or specialist, said the analyst. The rest of him was paying more attention to her face; she would've been beautiful except for the hard eyes and scowl. She probably wouldn't appreciate the stare, so Chang tore his eyes away. Against the port-side wall stood a large stack of wide crates -- locally made, strong reinforcement indicates heavy cargo, likely ore, semi-refined at best -- and on the other side sat a few chairs and a couple of old sofas. Assuming they were there for new hires, their emptiness probably meant there were places left. After the last few days, those sofas looked especially interesting; he'd been desperate enough to trade a good pair of pliers for a cup of the hotel's coffee, but the sick-tasting stuff hadn't done a thing for him.

The nerve-damaged guy came shambling back down the ramp. It was Chang's turn.

The woman's flat stare gave nothing away as he walked up to face her. "Your professional qualifications?"

"Marcus Chang, avionics, comms, general electronics. Degree in comms engineering from University of Albion. Served shipboard and on a skyplex. Over 800 hours of EVA. I've worked newtech and oldtech. Two ships since the War." He held out the datacard. "If you have a reader, I've got credentials and references--"

Her expression didn't change. "No reader, but you're worth more of a look. Take a seat over there. Next!"

Light-headed with relief, Chang mumbled his thanks and made his way towards the sofas. At the last moment he made himself sit in a hard-looking chair instead; wouldn't do to fall asleep before he'd gotten an actual "Yes". As he sat down he heard M'tengi say something about drop-ship and hard-suit experience, and soon the Marine was sitting next to him.

The line steadily ticked down, the faces blurring together. With a start Chang realized there was someone on one of the sofas now-- a small woman in a faded yellow burqa. He wondered what her face looked like under her veil, but she seemed to shrink under his glance so he politely looked away. He hoped the captain or the tattooed bruiser hadn't noticed him nodding off. How many people were left in line? Even if the taller of the two local guards hadn't been in the way, Chang couldn't've seen more than the first few people anyway.

The man coming up to the desk had a bright blue and green scarf, and made the cut. Chang nodded a hello to him as he came to sit down, as up the ramp walked-- tā māde, what holovid poster did that one step out of? Deep blue eyes, perfect cheekbones, long mahogany-brown braid, tall but not too skinny, cool elegance making everyone around her look dirty and drab, except-- ah, yes, of course. Craning his neck, Chang got a good look at the next person in line, presumably the inevitable boyfriend. Something about the man's roguishly handsome face combined with his insouciant pose said "hotshot pilot." Chang wasn't often attracted to men, but this one would've been worth another look if he hadn't been overshadowed by the woman. Damn, damn, damn. He didn't know if he wanted her to be hired or not.

"Doctor," the woman responded to the captain's question. "I was a combat medic during the War."

Well, she's hired, Chang thought. But the captain waved her off with "Already got a doc, don't need a medic."

That startled her, "Wait, I was a medic during the war, but I have a degree in business law, with honors, from Oxford-on-Carthage." The guard with the big shotgun started over, but at a new gesture from the captain he stopped just short of laying a hand on her. In the moment of quiet there was a distant sound of engines approaching -- atmospheric craft, not a ship, coming in fast -- beside him, M'tengi tensed up on the edge of his seat, frowning.

"A lawyer, huh?" The captain changed her tune. That's interesting. Take a seat--" The rest of her words were lost in the sudden scream of those engines.

"Cover!" M'tengi snapped, right in his ear. "And get her out of the way!" The burqa-clad woman was already on her feet.

Chang hadn't even started to move when the thunderclap and screams came from outside. M'tengi shoved him, and he lurched to his feet, grabbed the burqa-clad woman around the shoulders and stumbled down behind the couch beside her. She curled into a tight ball as he let go of her. He couldn't see anything. There were loud popping noises and flat cracks. Inadequate cover, furniture unlikely to stop bullets. He just had to hope nobody saw them back here. The shorter guard sprawled into view, landing bonelessly with blood running into the floor grating. Yells and screams, some not even sounding human. Chang peeked around the other end and saw M'tengi, on his knees yet tense as a coiled spring, pistol out and firing straight ahead, aim shifting a bit with each shot, two red stains spreading and merging on his chest. Hydraulics whined as the big doors started to close.

M'tengi got off a few more shots, then his shoulders slumped down. Somehow the man himself still stayed on his knees, eyes open but losing focus. Further past him, the captain leaned against the stairway railing, one hand clenching a red stain on her other arm. Next to Chang's head, a spray of foam rubber erupted from the armrest, and he yanked himself back into concealment. Without raising his head above the sofa back -- not recommended in present circumstances -- Chang couldn't see where the hiring table had been, or who else was still alive. No more gunshots in the hold. M'tengi finally slumped over sideways, pistol clattering to the deck. There was an odd bleating sound from somewhere behind -- likely hallucination. The Firefly's hold doors shut with a clang that seemed to echo into the sudden quiet.

The violence clearly wasn't over, though. A couple of gunshots sounded from outside.

"Couple of rabbits got away," came a mutter from the direction of the doors. At least one hostile in here.

"Doesn't matter," said a deeper voice, moving further into the hold. Two. "We got the one Darius is paying for. That's her. The doc."

Chang blinked. This was about the mahogany-braided medic from the Core? That seemed such a cliche that Chang half expected to hear a director's voice shout "Cut!" Though the captain had said there was already a doctor...

"...rest of you keep your hands up and off your weapons," said the deeper voice, obviously in charge. "No reason this has to end bad for you too. If you got a weapon, toss it down on the deck."

Chang thought of M'tengi's body, just two meters from the end of the sofa, and the marine's dropped pistol. Neither were visible from here, but Chang knew where the body was, and the gun would be just to its right. He could make a dive for it, and come up firing... but this wasn't an entertainment vid, and even if it was, Chang would hardly be the heroic main character. That would be the beautiful medic/lawyer from the Core, or the handsome guy behind her. Chang's role would be the fool who tried to be a hero and got gurked just to make the audience hate the villains.

He shook his head. Shock highly likely. 'No, really?' he thought back sarcastically, then had to stifle a sudden urge to giggle. This sudden violence, on top of three days with almost no sleep and only three quarters of a protein ration bar, had his brain babbling. But he had to focus; this ship was the only chance he had to get out of this back-birthed corner of the 'Verse. And before Chang could do anything, he needed information. The woman in the burqa had begun to quietly weep; that was going to draw attention soon. But if he stepped out first, maybe they'd overlook her a bit longer. Anyway, nobody else was getting shot, so he decided to risk standing up.

Cautiously he raised empty hands above the back of the sofa. "Not armed," he said, clambering to his feet and looking for the hijackers. There were three of them, not two. A skinny one with a Python pistol, a dark one with a KS-fifty Lightweight assault rifle, and a fat one with an Avenger pistol. The handsome pilot stood back near the doors, hands spread non-threateningly. The medic was next to the overturned table, hands up too. She looked unhurt, but it wasn't her that the three gunmen were staring at. They were staring at the captain.

"I'm not armed," Chang repeated into the silence, then automatically went on, "I've got a pocket knife, that's all." He shut his mouth firmly before his gibbering brain made him start reciting all the other tools he had in his vest and how they could be used as weapons. Maybe if he needed to provide a distraction, but if he annoyed them enough, they might just shoot him.

The medic was crawling towards M'tengi, right over the body of the tall guard. Had she just shot a glance at the dead guard's shotgun? But she was mono-focused on M'tengi now.

"Stop right there!" the fat one barked, finger curled around the trigger of the Avenger. Not a professional.

"But I'm a medic! Let me at least try--"

"Just sit where you are with both of your hands where I can see 'em!" The Avenger was trembling with tension, and the medic wisely froze.

Next to the hatch, the handsome guy spoke up. "Got my gun on my hip. You're welcome to take it yourself." By then the Python was pointed straight at him, but he just smiled smoothly, spreading his raised hands a little wider. "You'll understand I don't feel real comfortable right now removing it myself." He stood, completely unfazed, as the skinny gunman yanked out the pistol and roughly frisked him for holdouts.

Chang tried to stifle a panic at the thought of them frisking him like that and stealing his tools, or worse, his handheld -- Extreme risk to irreplaceable asset! He couldn't remember the last time the analyst voice showed actual emotion. Restoring from backup chip represents a loss of over six months of processing time-- 'Pay attention, gorrammit!' Chang ordered himself.

There was still sporadic firing from outside, and the gunmen looked decidedly nervous. The handsome guy was saying "...I'm a damn fine pilot still looking for a job. I won't hold this little fracas against anyone." The skinny gunman looked a question at the dark one with the 'Fifty, but the latter didn't seem impressed, just motioning with the rifle for the pilot to move over to the medic. That one is in charge. With that rifle, if he got all his targets bunched together, one good burst would take them all out. Though the KS-fifty rifle was called a "Lightweight", Chang had seen too many pictures of the damage it did to ever want one fired at him. But none of the hostiles seemed to be paying any attention to Chang, or to have noticed the burqa-covered woman, still curled into a yellow ball of muffled sobbing. If they really had forgotten about him-- "Watch them," the leader ordered in that deep voice, pointing straight at Chang without even looking. Chang swore under his breath. Then swore again as he realized he was the one forgetting about people. He didn't know where the other pilot was, the one in the scarf. Whose side was he on? And where was the huge mechanic with his wrench?

The rifle swung over to point at the captain. Who was apparently also the doctor, or at least the attackers thought she was. "You. Hands up with the rest of 'em."

"Cào nǐ mā," she snapped back. "One of your buddies put a bullet through my arm. Darius wants me alive, not bled out."

The rifle gestured. "Walk over there, with those two others."

"Can't." The captain's glare was like flint, her jaw set. "Not unless you want to hand me that cane I dropped. War wound."

The ship shook with a thump from over head, and the cargo bay lights flickered. That aircraft was still out there. The fat gunman turned to his boss, wide-eyed. "We gotta get outta here before that Foxbat blows up this ship!"

"I can pilot her for you," put in the handsome guy, voice bright with such friendly enthusiasm that Chang knew he just had to be up to something.

"Shut up!" barked the leader, then turned to the captain. "You, open those doors back up!"

"No can do," she said, sounding grimly amused. "One-way automation lock. It's a standard in-transit safety feature. Don't want to lose cargo to vacuum by accident."

Chang boggled at this bare-faced pìhuà. Or was the captain really paranoid enough to have installed something like that? Before he could get lost in that train of thought, the Foxbat hissed past, and there came an explosive thump from aft. What were they doing, dropping mining explosives out the window or something? Whatever it was, it had the two followers rattled-- were they just idiots, or were those blasts something more than what they sounded like?

"We gotta open those doors!" yammered the fat one. "We gotta get out of here!"

"My offer to pilot her still stands," added the pilot.

Glaring at both of them again, the leader snarled, "Shut up!" then went on in a you're-such-a-moron tone of voice, "The ship's broke. Van Hooven's folks won't have her fixed until month's end, so she ain't flying nowhere today!"

Past him, Chang saw shock flash across the captain's face before she clamped down on it, hard. Either the ship can't fly yet, but nobody was supposed to know that, or it can fly, but-- no, that didn't make sense, so--

Another wham right overhead startled Chang into a gasp. The fat one lost his cool and ran over to the hatch panel, banging at the buttons in a random panic.

"Gotta get to helm," the captain said. "Takes a keycode from the bridge to disengage the cargo door master locks."

Just then the lights flickered, and Chang could hear the engines spinning up. The attackers obviously weren't expecting that. Was it a bluff, maybe by the big mechanic, making them think the ship really could fly? But no, the artificial grav kicked in -- poorly tuned -- and the captain braced herself on the stairway rail. Clearly she thought the ship really could fly--

The ship lurched forward. The gunmen stumbled, the one with the Python losing his footing completely. Chang turned his own stumble into a dive back behind the sofa. The woman in the burqa was clinging to the deck grating with a death grip. Chang didn't spare her more than a glance as he scrambled to peer around the end of the sofa. The pretty pilot had gone to ground too; Chang couldn't see him. Which way would he jump? The lawyer was still on her knees, but M'tengi's pistol had slid well out of her reach.

The leader found his feet faster than the other two. "Take the bridge!" he barked, scrambling for the nearest stairs. "Someone's flying this bird!"

The fat one left the hatch controls to follow his boss toward the stairs. As the skinny one started to get up, the pilot leaped out from behind a crate and grabbed at the pistol, both going down again. The medic was looking wildly around for M'tengi's pistol. Chang didn't see where it had slid to, but he did see something else useful. Catching her eye, he sprinted for the corner, and just as he reached it--

BLAM!

The captain had a smoking pistol in her hand, and the leader of the gunmen dropped his rifle with a clatter, then sagged down on top of it a moment later, sliding back down the stairs.

The fat gunman spun around and started for the captain, out of sight after two paces. Chang yanked the huge shotgun out from under the dead guard's body. From the corner he didn't have a shot, but he still had the medic's attention, so he slid the eight-gauge hard across the deck. She caught it, cocked it, braced it against the grating, and--

BOOOOOOM!

Ears ringing, Chang scrambled back to where he could see. The fat one was extremely dead, and--

Crack!

The skinny one was dead too, and the pilot got to his feet, panting, though he held the Python in a sure grip, pointed safely to the floor. "Bridge?" he asked the captain.

"Go. I don't know for sure who's up there, or if they know what they're doing." As he left, she hit the comm. "We've got the hold secure, what's going on up there?"

"Engines are hot," came a deep-voiced reply, probably the big tattooed guy from earlier. "I'm at aux scan looking for damage."

Another voice added, "Got that Foxbat on our tail. She's got a rail gun and there were what looked like dynamite sticks being tossed out of her co-pilot's hatch. Dynamite will no longer be a problem for us, but that rail gun will!"

"Got a co-pilot headed up to you," the captain replied. "Don't be spooked when the pretty fellow gets there. On my way as well." She turned and scanned to hold, meeting Chang's eyes but moving on before he could say anything. "Any of you hit?" she said as she bent down gingerly to pick up her cane.

That's when the dead gunman on the stairs rolled over and sat up. The front of his shirt was soaked with blood, but that didn't seem to faze him; he held the 'Fifty perfectly steady on the captain and the medic. “Put the boomstick down, or I blow your pretty head off your shoulders,” the leader growled at the medic. She hesitated. “Drop it!” he shouted.

How could the man possibly not be dead? The hairs on the back of Chang's neck stood on end in fright-- but then so did the hair on the backs of his arms, as the engines shifted pitch. High EMF leakage. Nobody else seemed to notice, and the assault rifle didn't waver. Even though it wasn't pointed at him, the mouth of the barrel looked about as big as a moon. No bayonet lug, said Chang’s internal analyst, and that triggered a memory that changed the shape of the whole situation.

Before he could second-guess himself, he stepped out, blood roaring in his ears as he held his hands wide and said "There's no need for any more bloodshed. You can put that big gun down, can't you?" That barrel mouth was pointed at him now, but he took a slow step towards it, and another, as he continued, "Just put it down and let the nice lady here patch you up, and the captain can put you off at our next port." Step. Not close enough yet. Inside his head the analyst calmly repeated seventy percent, likely more while the rest of him tried desperately not to picture what a burst from the 'Fifty would do to his guts if he was wrong. He had to keep talking. "There's no reason to get yourself killed like your two buddies." That was a dumb thing to say, but he took another step anyway. Appeal to his greed? "You can't tell me you're paid so well as that." Step. The gunman's eyes narrowed. Never mind, just watch the trigger finger, and say something, anything, almost close enough... "We don't have to end this all bad and bloody-like." Step. "We really don't. You know we don't--"

The trigger finger clenched, and fear exploded in Chang's head.

But it was panic, not bullets. He wasn't dead! The man looked down at the rifle in surprise. Mistake. Chang closed the distance with a convulsive leap. He grabbed at the gun but missed completely, momentum carrying him straight into the man's chest, knocking them both back onto the steps. His hands leaped forward to ward off the impact. The right one landed on the the gunman's neck and Chang grabbed it automatically, slamming the man's head back onto a step as they both hit, the gun trapped between their bodies. Chang's left hand joined his right, squeezing the man's throat and hammering his head back onto the step again and again. The man's body twitched sharply, and Chang leaped back, barely remembering to grab the gun. It came away easily from slack fingers. One more twitch, then the man was no longer a threat.

Not breathing, said the analyst in the distance, but Chang shoved the thought away. He felt his own breath go out in a whoosh, and nearly sagged to his knees before he remembered the others were still standing there.

"What the hell?" The medic shouted, looking horrified.

Dāiguā! He cursed himself. Fucked up in front of the girl. And the captain. Without thinking he held up the gun to show them, babbling "See the shape of the stock? See it? And look, no bayonet lug! It's an XKS50--", but they wouldn't know what that meant so he tried to correct, "--from the first batch they made to show the military procurement people, to convince them to buy! They used a new electronic igniter -- caseless rounds, right? No firing pin!" Stupid, stupid, they knew what caseless rounds were. "It turned out to be glitchy in strong electromagnetic fields. Like the leakage from grav generators! The procurement files found that it failed seventy percent of the time under those conditions, failed so bad you had to reboot the gun to fix it!"

"You are nuts." The medic was shaking her head.

"No," Chang said, desperate for her to believe him. "See, I knew it. When the ship powered up, I felt a lot of EMF leakage -- you should have that grav wheel looked at, by the way," he told the captain automatically. No, stay on topic! "I figured my odds were even better than seven in ten. Whoever sold that guy this gun made him a bad deal." He barely stopped himself from diving into the complexities of how experimental prototypes ended up on the market, but he couldn't shut up entirely. "We'll have to reboot it before it'll work."

The beautiful medic still looked at him like he was nuts, but the captain brushed the whole thing aside and charged upstairs as fast as a bad limp would allow, ordering them to take care of everybody down here. Chang felt woozy. He had enough presence of mind to make sure the 'Fifty was safed before he dropped it. The medic turned to the nearest body and checked it over, then looked back at Chang with annoyance. He realized he was still standing there, and shook himself out of it, touching his handheld in its pocket to make sure it wasn't damaged.

The smell hit him then; rusty blood, shit, acrid gunpowder, the sour smell of caseless propellant. He struggled not to puke, looking around for something to focus on, and realized the burqa-clad woman was still alive. He knelt beside her as she lay curled up and shivering. "Come on, we're safe now," he said, awkwardly patting her shoulder -- not wearing anything bulky or armored under the concealment, not likely an agent of the opposition unless intended as a long-term mole, probability indeterminate -- but he pulled his hand back when she flinched. He should do something more but he wasn't thinking straight.

His arm hairs stood upright suddenly, and his guts and his inner ears tried to jump in opposite directions. He found himself flat on the deck, one hand grabbing for the floor grid and the other for the burqa as the ship lurched forward-- he missed both but the ship leveled out before he slid more than a couple meters backwards.

Somewhat to his chagrin, he found he was the only one to have taken a slide; the burqa-clad woman had reacted quickly enough to find a handhold -- ship experience likely -- and the medic had kept her footing.

The all-ship tone sounded. “All of you down in the hold," the captain's voice crackled, "once you’ve got her secured, report up to the galley on main deck. Hoss, bring your wrench.”

Muttering to himself and checking his handheld again -- greater caution advised, recommend against drawing attention to valuables -- Chang climbed to his feet.


The next while passed in a blur. The first thing the captain and her mechanic did was to sit their assorted surviving guests down at the galley table and feed them. After two weeks with a gnawing belly, dinner was the best thing Chang had ever tasted; his resolve to take it slow evaporated about three point two seconds after he smelled the fresh sourdough bread. He listened with what attention he could muster, making note of names and managing not to stumble over his own. The medic/lawyer was named Abby, the handsome pilot was Sully, the pilot with the scarf was Bill. The woman in the burqa was Fatima, also a pilot; the huge mechanic was Hoss and the captain, of course, was Cooper. The actual owner was a nasty-sounding small-world boss named Van Hooven with a nastier-sounding enemy named Darius. The ship was the Jin Dui, and her destination was Persephone; if they wanted to stay aboard past that, they'd best impress the captain first. The ship had been neglected and Captain Cooper and Hoss had been planning another two weeks of work before launch. There was no going back now after all of the gunplay had had gone on, so they'd have to do what they could in flight. Lots of work ahead. Chang and Abby would bunk in the passenger cabins, everyone else got crew quarters. The captain lectured them about recycling like they were all fresh off some backwater moon. Clearly she didn't trust them, but who could blame her, considering the circumstances? It didn't sound like Deadwood was the type of place that encouraged trust.

Despite the blood leaving his brain to help digest the biggest cargo of food in weeks, he managed to help a bit with the dishes before stumbling back downstairs to find a room. Too woozy to be choosy, he picked the first portside passenger cabin, swept the mess off the bed, and flopped down. He could clean later.

But as soon as he closed his eyes he was face-to-face with the gunman and his rifle again. Snapping wide awake, he smelled blood, and realized he had a big smear of it on the front of his vest. The man had been shot once already before Chang got to him. With a sigh, he cleared a spot on the desk and methodically emptied out his pockets. That quarter-ration bar he'd been saving went into the overflowing garbage can without a second thought.

Even after checking every pocket, he didn't have much gear left. He'd had to sell bits and pieces for food on Haven, and even parted with his circuit tracer to pay the shuttle pilot to get him to Deadwood. Hopefully he could scrounge some tools from the ship. But first, he had to get that bloodstain out of the vest. The room had a sink but it was crusted with... something. At least the water ran fairly clean. No soap, though. He tried to remember if the captain had said anything about cleaning supplies.

Rubbing his eyes, he stepped out the door-- then hastily stepped back out of the way as he saw Abby coming with a couple of big buckets of stuff. She didn't seem too startled at his sudden appearance; she just stopped and set a bucket down with a tired-looking smile. "Here, Hoss found us some cleaning supplies and sheets and such. Guess the captain was not kidding about needing to scrub everything. How many rooms have you checked?"

"Just the one," Chang said.

"I looked at two on the other side. Is it too much to hope that those two just happened to be the only ones that were used for breeding pigs?"

"Pigs? Really?" Only then did his tired mind process the sardonic tone in her voice. "Ah, you didn't mean that literally," he said. "Um, considering this one was the quarters for a squad of synchronized shit-throwing monkeys, I don't think we'll find the other rooms much better. Shall we go see?"

"Sure," Abby said in an unreadable tone.

"Just give me a second--" He quickly dumped the stuff out of the bucket, and got enough water into it to set his vest soaking. "OK, let's see if we can figure out what else they had in their menagerie!"

It turned out a few of the rooms were actually somewhat clean, but only because they'd been stripped to the walls, with even the light fixtures and sinks missing. The rest were like the one he'd already seen, or worse. One was almost covered with discarded wrappers from Fruity-Oaty bars; whoever lived there must have been a serious fan of the things. They'd even put up an animated poster with a commercial for the things-- as best he could tell anyway, because someone else had apparently taken exception to the thing and fired a shotgun at it, leaving it in tatters. One corner still endlessly looped five seconds of animation but the rest of the tatters hung dark and dead. As dead as the attackers in the hold... Chang had to shake his head hard to get that image out of it. Luckily Abby was in a different room, laughing and telling him to come take a look at a sculpture made out of beer cans and vacuum tape. But when he joined her, she noticed something in his face and went into Doctor mode, ordering him in no uncertain terms to Get. Some. Sleep!

Dumbly he nodded in agreement. He admitted to himself that he was just blind scared of what sleep would bring. But the more he put it off, the worse it would be. He just had to bite the bullet, and he'd feel better in the morning. He went back to the cabin he was already thinking of as "his", and fell facedown on the bed among the scattered cleaning supplies.

Chang could still see the face, the desperate rage turning into cross-eyed shock, then draining away to slack-jawed emptiness. There was something horrible about the way the man lay there on the steps, limp as a discarded doll, the blood pooling on the deck-plating beneath. No longer a threat. Was that really all he had thought as he'd let go of the man's neck? It sounded like something his analyst-voice would say, but the thought had been his own. Well, of course the analyst was part of him too, he wasn't so far gone he thought he was hearing actual voices, even if it sounded that way when he was this tired. Exhausted. Why couldn't he sleep? He should be relieved. He had his ticket out of the Blue Cluster, and even if he didn't actually get this job, at least he'd be on Persephone. Cortex access, lots of jobs, maybe even one of his old contacts. He still had his data. Could he trust this captain with the secret? And the rest of the crew?

Somewhere in the midst of that speculation, sleep finally pulled him under.