September 18, 2514;
Sahadeva, a moon of the gas giant Dragon's Egg; Blue Cluster
The Jin Dui landed on the outskirts of a settlement that had been named Difficult by its founders, settled along the banks of a sluggish stream that was similarly named Disappointment Creek. Sahadeva was one of the five terraformed moons of the gas giant Dragon’s Egg, which hung huge and opalescent in the mid-morning sky overhead and with its other four moons -- Yudishthtira, Bhima, Nakula and Glynis -- following behind it like a line of pearls. The moons of Dragon’s Egg had been terraformed nearly a hundred years ago, and the pioneers on Sahadeva had had a very rough go of it. The moon’s terraforming had almost failed as it had on Glynis; as a result, Sahadeva was one of the most sparsely populated worlds in the Blue Cluster, bragging rights about which no one was proud.
But the townsfolk of Difficult had posted a wave to the Cortex advertising their annual muster, promising a fair day’s wage plus a leg of lamb to every hand who showed up to help shear the villagers’ joined flocks -- plus there was a promise of a potluck dinner and a cakewalk in the churchyard at day’s end. Cooper had spotted that and thought it worth taking a day-long detour.
The Jin Dui and her crew had already spent over a week exploring the moons of Dragon’s Egg. After having survived collision one or more frozen livestock in orbit around Bhima, they had moved some cargo and thrown out their mixed-bag services shingle... but their most profitable stop had been the three days spent working the big King Ranch’s open range round-up on Nakula. During that time dirtside Cooper had earned back their fuel costs alone in fees for artificially inseminating 20 heifers with semen she’d traded a pound of Blue Whale Bay coffee beans to collect out of a prize Simbrah back on Beylix. Everything else they’d earned off of Nakula had been icing on the cake, and they’d left the King Ranch with a freezer full of beef as well. While Cooper doubted a sheep muster could prove as lucrative as their three-day stay on Nakula, she was unable to find a better excuse to visit Sahadeva. With its advertised population of nearly 800 hardscrabble farmers & sheepherders, the metropolis of Difficult was nearly a tenth of the entire lunar population. A muster, pie social, and a cake walk might well be the community highlights of the Sahadevan year.
The crew of the Jin Dui had begun to find their routine in hanging out the shingle during their Rim world runs. With the expectation that each isolated community they visited had some type of professional needs being left unmet, the Jin Dui tried to offer something for everyone. Cooper could provide medical and veterinary services if your child or your calf had a cough. Between them, Hoss and Sully could fix just about anything mechanical (or at least jury-rig a working solution for you) while electronic diagnoses and repairs were Chang’s forte. Fatima oversaw theJin Dui's rummage sale of odds, ends, used clothing, and other bits of flotsam and jetsam the ship had collected over its past five months of travel. Abby put her legal degree from Oxford-von-Carthage to good use by offering legal advice, notary services, and documentation like wills, trade license filings, etc. Professor West used his not-inconsiderable charm to serve as a greeter, while Carver prowled about keeping a close eye on everything and everyone. Tilly ran errands and delivered messages and tools to whoever needed them while Cianán offered his artistic skills ranging from half-a-tuppence caricatures in ink to watercolor portraiture. Rim runs were eclectic affairs -- no single day dirtside was the same -- but the variety proved an interesting change from the more traditional, controlled dockside exchange of goods. Shingle Days weren’t often profitable in coin, but Cooper was just as happy to barter for goods or foodstuffs, and as a result, the ship’s pantry was fast running out of space.
So as the Jin Dui finished landing procedures, shutting down the drive and opening the air exchanges for some of that sweet un-recycled oxygen, Cooper was feeling good and wasn’t particularly listening closely to Fatima’s words as they were piped down from the bridge. “Captain,” the pilot was saying. “We’ve got a crowd gathering...”
The captain and her crew had already figured out their set-up routine on a dozen different worlds before -- their respective work tables and chairs were already set up, prepped and ready for business once the cargo bay doors were opened, the cargo pod serving as their jumble sale bodega ready to be hauled outside. Cooper gestured at Chang to open up the cargo bay doors, even as Fatima finished her warning.
“... and they really don’t look like they’re happy.”
The Jin Dui's cargo bay doors rumbled open to those words. Cooper blinked in surprise, then blinked again, startled by the number of shotguns, hunting rifles, scythes, axes and pitchforks she saw in the hands of a mob of the ship’s prospective clients.
“Aiya?” Cooper said awkwardly, trying to hide the alarm she was feeling at this grim non-welcome. She felt the weight of her service revolver at her hip but moved both hands over the head of her cane in front of her. Cooper was aware of Carver stepping up alongside her, the ship’s eight gauge in his hands. While Carver’s shotgun was still pointed at the deck, Cooper took a step to stay in her security officer’s potential line of fire, not wanting to find out what Carver’s notion of crowd control might prove to be.
There was a cluster of half a dozen people in the forefront of that armed gathering. They were a middle-aged couple both armed with rifles, an older woman with a shotgun and a grizzled grey braid of hair, a younger man carrying a blacksmith’s hammer that might be better called a maul, another young man armed with a big axe, and one very young woman in a homespun frock. The girl was weeping -- and as the middle-aged man shoved the girl forward so that she stumbled and fell to her knees on the very foot of the Jin Dui's gangway, Cooper realized the teenager was immensely pregnant.
"Nín hǎo..." Cooper managed to say, working to present some measure of captain-like composure. She had heard the scramble of footsteps behind her as her own crew reacted to the unexpected threat. Cooper chanced a quick glance over her shoulder to see that Abby had leaped to grab Tilly and yank the girl off to one side, while Sully, Hoss and Tor had all drawn their pistols and were moving into defensive positions at their captain’s back. Chang was still standing at the cargo bay door control panel, a spray-paint can in his hands which Cooper was willing to bet hard cash on being filled with something experimental and ballistic rather than simple paint.
“You knocked up my daughter!” the middle-aged man at the head of the mob roared at them, his face flushed beet red. “So now you’re going to marry her!”
Cooper stared in disbelief at the man, and at his equally red-faced kinsfolk. “I what?”
The florid-faced man’s demeanor did not change -- he looked like he might stroke out in fury -- but the older of the two women seemed marginally calmer. “Maybe not you, missy, but one of the menfolk on your gorram ship is responsible!” that woman snarled at the Firefly’s captain.
“We didn’t think you had the stones to come back here after we ran your lot off the last time!” said the younger man with the blacksmith hammer. “But you’re back now and you’ll do right by my sister, or by God, you’ll pay for your deceivin’ ways!”
Cooper was aware of the gobsmacked faces of her crew around her. Only Carver’s expression hadn’t changed. He took a single step forward, put himself squarely between the angry crowd and his captain. Carver’s big three-legged dog Odin came limping forward from the back of the cargo bay, hackles raised and teeth bared.
"Nǐ shuō shénme?" Cooper tried to side-step Carver. “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I suspect you’ve gotten us confused with someone else,” the captain said, realizing that she had lost the reins on this horse and trying to gather them up again before it was totally pell-mell for the barn time. “I’m afraid that’s just not possible--”
“It’s the same damn ship name! Same damn ship,” argued the middle-aged woman to her companions.
"Hǎo ba..." Cooper drawled, realizing what was going on. “Yes, this ship may have visited here nine or so months ago. But that captain and crew are no longer associated with this ship. They’re not even among the breathing. So you have my regrets for any misbehavior --”
“My daughter was seduced by a crewman from your ship!” cried the pregnant teen’s apparent father. “By all that is holy, you will make restitution for the shame our family has endured!” The man’s voice cracked in rage, and both of the sons seemed ready to throw themselves up the gangway to avenge their familial honor. Cooper had no doubt what the answering barrage from Carver’s eight gauge would look like.
“Look --” she said quickly, limping forward again and holding up an empty hand in what she hoped looked like a reasonable gesture. Cooper sure as hell didn’t want any of that mob opening fire on her crew -- and likewise, she didn’t want any of her crew to start throwing the kinetics, either. “Why don’t we just sit down over a pot of tea and a plate of biscuits and discuss this like reasonable people?” she asked, while Carver stepped up alongside her, not allowing his captain to stand in his line of fire.
“Isn’t there supposed to be a muster today?” Sully suggested from behind them. Cooper didn’t look back at her XO, but she could hear the charming-smile-overload in his voice. “Why don’t we all bring in the sheep or whatever it is you do during a muster, and let the captain and these nice people work something out?”
The crowd behind the knocked-up teen was clearly losing its head of collective steam as the townsfolk began to realize the villains they’d gathered to lynch were not aboard the ship. That realization was taking hold of the girl’s family as well -- but Angry Man Ego was a powerful and dangerous drug, and neither the older man nor his two sons looked like they were willing to stop beating their chests and compromise.
“My girl was deflowered by a man on this crew! She was promised a ride offworld in exchange for a ride in the hay, and gorram it, no child of mine will birth a bastard!” the father raged.
“But no man on my ship was responsible --” Cooper tried to argue.
“It’s your ship! So you’re still responsible!” the man insisted, cutting her off cold. “You people have gotta make an honest woman out of my daughter!”
The pregnant girl was weeping wretchedly, clearly mortified by her family’s treatment. “Papa, it ain’t them!” she said. “It ain’t them, and you ain’t gonna get rid of me and mine so easy as that!”
Cooper was aware of Professor West, inching up into her peripheral vision, his pistols still in hand but pointed at the deck. “Sir, with the greatest respect,” Tor said, in the soothing tones and deep voice Cooper had heard the professor use before to defuse a fight -- or at least delay one. “If we could all just sit down together and talk this through, I’m sure we’d be able to come to some agreement that would --”
“I’ll marry her,” said another voice at Cooper’s back. “I’ll marry your daughter.”
Cooper spun around so quickly she stumbled over her weak leg. Carver grabbed her shoulder, saving her from a fall. “What?” she choked. “Hoss -- xuèxīng tā mā dì dìyù?!?"
Hoss hadn't taken his eyes off the irate family or the extremely pregnant girl since the gangway was lowered and the Jin Dui's crew were confronted by the crowd of heavily armed townsfolk. "Kia tau," he said quietly to Cooper, his voice low. "I know what I'm doing. We're not gonna get anywhere with them like this--”
“Like hell you’re marrying anybody!” Cooper sputtered, trying to collect her jawbone from deck grating. “Like hell!”
Hoss just kept talking through her interruption. “-- I'll marry the girl, and we can take her back to Raikirua Island where she can be safe and raise her baby in peace. I'm sure-- I know my family will welcome her when I tell them she’s my wife. And on the plus side -- it’ll get me off the hook with my mother when it comes to providing that grandbaby my mum wants so badly.”
“Hoss!” Cooper sputtered in horror.
He grinned at her. “Trust me. This is a good idea. It’ll make things right with the locals, we help the girl, we save face, they save face, it all works out in the end." The mechanic’s smile faltered, his expression turning both pleading and determined.
“Like hell!” Cooper retorted, then dropped her voice, trying to keep her words quiet. “We can shut the cargo bay doors and get the hell out of here, without anyone either getting hurt or getting hitched.” The townsfolk might have the advantage in numbers, but she was sure her crew could be intimidating enough to make the locals stand down, if they had to. She just didn’t want to see any hotheaded local escalate this into a firefight. She had no doubt her crew would win if it came to that -- but there would be bloodshed on both sides. “Let’s see if we can get them to sit down for tea. Between Sully’s pretty face and the prof’s fast-talk, I’m betting we could charm our way out of this, without ringing any tā mā wedding bells!”
Hoss shook his head, his expression firm. “The poor girl’s father doesn’t want to be talked out of this, Coop,” he argued in an undertone, so that only Cooper and possibly Carver could overhear him. “Her whole family wants rid of her. What kind of life is that for a girl? Or for a baby?”
“Not my problem!” Cooper hissed back. “And not yours, neither!”
Hoss fixed her with a look of supplication. “Bet…” he began.
“No!” the captain insisted. “Absolutely not! You’re being a marshmallow, Hoss! And I’m not going to let your big heart get in the way of your good sense and cause you to make the biggest mistake of you life!” Cooper turned away from him and pointed imperiously toward the cargo bay door control panel. “Chang! Seal us up! We’re outta here!”
“That girl’s on the gangway,” Abby objected, edging closer on one side with Tilly held against her side. Tilly’s blue eyes were huge with excitement, while Abby looked truly worried about the situation. “We’re not getting that up without spilling her hard.”
“Wait? What? Jump port and miss out on a pie social?” Sully added from the other side, with just the right note of incredulity. “That’d be a shame, don’t you think?”
“I don’t even know what a cakewalk is,” Chang mused. “Do you?”
“Certainly!” Tor began. “A cakewalk is a game similar to musical chairs, popular back on Earth-that-Was in the centuries before--”
“I’m not listening to any of you!” Cooper exclaimed, cutting Tor off with an angry stamp of her cane. “And Hoss -- gorrramit! Cái bù shi! I absolutely refuse to tolerate this! You are NOT getting married to that girl! And that’s my final order!”
The wedding ceremony took place right there in the cargo bay of the Jin Dui, crowded as it was with goods, the crew, the bride’s family, and a stable pod full of very curious goats.
“This can’t be legal. Tell me it’s not legal,” Cooper grumbled under her breath at Abby as they awaited the return of the teary-eyed young bride.
“You are the captain of the ship. Ancient maritime law from Earth-That-Was establishes that captains can perform marriages aboard their ships,” Abby replied.
“Indeed,” Tor said, beside her, looking up from taking notes on his handheld data-pad. “And in this case, it helps to keep the family happy, since it turns out the local preacher refuses to perform the ceremony.” He said that with a frown and a disappointed tone, that Cooper was sure was entirely due to the professor missing the chance to observe the local wedding customs firsthand.
Fatima had hustled the bride upstairs for a change of clothing, while Hoss had excused himself as well. The big mechanic came back first, now wearing his treasured Threshers rugby jersey and smiling broadly.
“Hoss, you can’t do this!” Cooper groaned. “Your mother is going to kill me!”
“I’d be more scared of the Dowager’s reaction,” Sully chuckled, sidling up to thrust a well-worn Bible into Cooper’s hands. From the battered look of it, it likely belonged to the bride’s family.
“Kill you? Nonsense!” Hoss beamed at them both. “Mum will be thrilled! The more grandbabies she can collect, the happier she is. As for Grandmama…” Hoss hesitated, and the smile faltered for a moment. “Well... yeah. Okay. So she might have something cross to say about it, but she’ll come around.”
Tilly pelted out of the hatchway from the lower deck crew lounge, her wheaten hair trailing new ribbons and her face freshly scrubbed. “I got the rings!” she crowed, waving around the two makeshift wedding rings. Using a base of electrical wire measured for a custom fit, the girl had braided two brightly-colored concoctions of yarn, silk thread, and the bride’s & groom’s own hair. Tilly entrusted her treasures over to Sully, who was serving as the groom’s best man.
The rest of the Jin Dui's crew ranged in a line behind the ship’s XO: Abby, dressed in some under-stated finery out of place amongst her crewmates’ work-clothes; Cianán with his perpetual pastel-dyed bed-head tamed into something presentable and wearing a waistcoat borrowed from Sully; Chang in a clean and un-patched coverall, without his usual many-pocketed utility vest on top; and Professor West in a festively vivid red sweater, now looking as if he was sketching something on his handheld.
Carver was the only one not standing with the rest of the crew; instead, the former marine had posted himself near the cargo bay doors, where he could keep an eye both on the crowd inside, and on the approach to the ship. Unlike the others, who were focused on Cooper and Hoss, Carver was watching the townsfolk, grouped tightly together against the shipping pallets on the cargo bay’s starboard side and keeping well apart from the Jin Dui's crew. Given the remaining tensions, that was probably just as well.
Little Bǎo Yù came zooming out of the hatchway seconds later, the little dog trailing a collar full of ribbons of her own, bright-eyed and panting in excitement. She gave a happy trilling sound and threw herself at Sully’s feet, while Fatima appeared in the doorway.
“The bride is ready,” she announced with a smile.
"Hǎo yé," Cooper moaned, rolling her eyes heavenward in supplication, while Chang scrambled to key in a code into his handheld. The ship’s audio collection failed to include the traditional Londinium Bridal March, but he had found some old Mozart to make do with, and the music started up majestically from the cargo bay’s speakers.
Ushered in by Fatima, the bride made her appearance. The teenager’s tears had been mostly washed away, her dirt-blonde hair had been neatly braided with a soft golden silk ribbon, and she was wrapped in a buttery golden silk sari over one of Abby’s long-sleeved black shirts. The girl was struggling to smile -- her smile looked more fierce than pleased, but she was going through the motions dutifully enough
“Are you all right? You still want to go through with this?” Hoss asked the girl reassuringly.
“You’ll get me the hell off this rock, right?” she snarled in answer. When he nodded, she turned on Cooper with a vengeance. “Get it over with then, before he can change his mind!”
Cooper winced. Abby had written out the wedding oath for her, but Cooper had wadded the words up in her fist and pocketed it. She fished the ball of paper out of her coat pocket, gave the assembled a look of suffering disbelief as she tried to smooth out the crumpled paper, and began to read.
"Hoss -- I mean, Hohepa Hoeata -- do you take…” Cooper stumbled and looked at the bride in embarrassment. “What is your name again?”
“Ginny,” the girl replied. “Ginny Tavers.”
Cooper cleared her throat and started again. “Hohepa Hoeata, do you take Ginny Tavers to be your wife?"
"Do you promise to love, honor, cherish and protect her, forsaking all others and holding only unto her?"
"Ginny Tavers. Do you take Hohepa Hoeata to be your husband?"
"Do you promise to love, honor, cherish and protect him, forsaking all others and holding only unto him?"
“Sully, do something with some rings, will you?”
Sully stepped forward and deftly held out a small lacquered box to the prospective couple, letting them select their makeshift wedding bands.
Cooper frowned as she watched Hoss slip the colorful fabric-and-wire ring onto his bride’s finger, and as the new bride struggled to do the same in return. "Hǎo ba. I guess now you both have to say the magic words. I, Hoss and Ginny, take thee, Ginny and Hoss, to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, to love and cherish, from this day forward until death do us part, with this ring, I thee wed.” Cooper waited while the couple stumbled with more and less confidence through their lines. “And then kiss,” she added when they both looked at her for guidance.
Hoss glanced at the gathered attendees. The girl's family were looking less murderously angry, but the menfolk were still cradling their various weapons as if they were the baby Ginny was carrying. Her father fixed the Jin Dui's mechanic with a stern look and gave a small nod, as if to say "finish the deed, boy", and Hoss swallowed. His crewmates' expressions ran the gamut from dismayed to amused – Tilly’s hand even flew up to her mouth to cover a giggle. This was suddenly very very real. Why had he offered to do it? His offer had been an impulsive, spur of the moment decision; but it had seemed to be the only way that he could see to get Jin Dui out of the pickle they had found themselves in without causing bloodshed or more damage to the ship’s already dodgy (thanks to the previous crew) reputation. He knew he was doing the right thing, for everyone concerned. Except maybe himself.
He looked down at Ginny, who wore a look of anticipation and defiance on her face, green eyes still puffy and red from crying. Leaning over, he brushed his lips against hers, hoping that was enough of a kiss, then looked at Cooper expectantly. Was that it? Was it over? Hoss found himself absently thinking about wedding cakes -- he hadn't had time to whip anything up. Maybe someone on the crew might win something suitable in the town's cakewalk. Mmm, cake.
“So I guess,” Captain Cooper said, shutting the holy book she was holding with an audible thump, “...that makes you man and wife. Anyone got any objections? No? Hǎo de! Then it’s done and over with, they’re man and wife. So. Shall we get on to putting out our shingles for some business, then? Or do we wait until after the cakewalk?”