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March 10, 2514

Port of Yankton, Deadwood

Blue Sun Cluster

The ride down through atmo had been a hairy one, choppy enough that even the shuttle’s two motherly-looking flight attendants had given each other the worried eye and strapped themselves in. Hoss had gripped the arms of his seat as though sheer manly muscle alone could hold the battered craft aloft. The dents left by his death-grip were still visible now in the foam padding, well after the puddlejumper was safely aground. Hoss watched the dents slowly fill in as he waited for the rest of the shuttle’s passengers to grab their gear and rush out of the boat.

Passengers were passengers, no matter what size of ship or what corner of the ‘Verse you were flying, he thought with amusement, in the wake of that focused rush. He had spent the last nearly three years of his life since the armistice in the service of passengers. Patience was a virtue, and he considered himself a blessed, blessed man.

When most of the cabin had filed out, he finally pushed himself to his feet. The underseat cubby had been left open. He swung his seabag out and tucked it under one arm, aware as he did so of how the flight attendant who had been watching him took a nervous step sideways out the center aisle. Hoss was big -- even among his sizable brothers and cousins and uncles, he always played as lock on the family rugby team. To the rest of the normal-sized ‘Verse, he was something of a giant. Sitting in the shuttle seat had been a confinement; standing now in the shuttle aisle, he was aware of how he filled it as he slung the heavy, infantry-surplus duffel over one shoulder and kept his elbows tucked in tight. He hated feeling like one wrong move and he might punch through the cheap plastic of the old shuttle’s cabin. Wanting to make nice, he smiled at the attendant as he went past, careful not to show teeth.

“Yankton port facility is 300 yards to the north,” the woman said to him, a routine delivery that carried none of the anxiety still lurking in her eyes. “It’s the big red building between the warehouses -- just follow the yellow painted lines, follow after the rest, and mind your step going down the ladder.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said automatically, as he squeezed through the hatch.

The shuttle door opened onto a loading stair and bright, crisp grey skies. Yankton’s port was more a commercial hub than anything -- passenger services to the station overhead were limited to one flight a day, and once your feet touched the ground, you were on your own. Hoss looked up in surprise when he realized that it was snowing -- snowing! -- great white, fluffy flakes that seemed to melt as they settled on the pavement. He supposed he should be grateful for the fact the port had pavement, and that he and the rest of the shuttle’s passengers weren’t going to have to hike through the mud to get to the port building. Hoss shivered, dressed in his leather sandals, cut-off BDU cargo pants, and a staff shirt from the Celestial Queen that was royal purple and read “Your wish is my command,” a cheerful sentiment which had begun to lose a great deal of its luster oh, say… only about half an hour after he had started working on the cruise liner... He glanced around the busy dock and was satisfied to see that loading vehicles appeared to be respectful of the yellow lines which separated the narrow foot-path from their busy work. Then Hoss locked his eyes on the low, brick-red building 300-odd yards off and began to follow after the rest of passengers, all of whom seemed to be better dressed for the wintery downworld climate.

“Hoss!” called a familiar voice to his right. “Hoss!”

Hoss spun in surprise, and still failed to see her at first. But then Cooper was there -- hurrying straight for him, her gait a hobbling lurch, dressed in a patched officer’s browncoat with a rusty-red knit scarf around her throat.

“Coop!” Hoss whooped in delight. He dropped his sea-bag and met her halfway, sweeping her up in warm hug. It had been almost three years, with only a handful of the e-prints that the Red Crescent dutifully delivered from the displacement camps. The only voice-wave he’d gotten had been the one Cooper had sent to him just three weeks ago, and even that had been audio-only. He hugged her tight and spun her around, still holding her high off her feet. Yet through his joy at the reunion, Hoss felt a stab of dismay. His friend felt insubstantial in his arms. Where once she had simply been slight but wiry-strong, now she felt fragile, as if the years since their parting had wasted her down to a shadow. Only Cooper’s face was unchanged -- that and her laughter, bubbling low and long-missed in his ears.

“You made it!” She laughed, her arms around his neck and her lips brushing against his cheek. “I can’t tell you how glad I am to see you! You came! I can’t believe you came!”

Hoss put her down but did not let her go. He waited until he was certain she had her balance, and saw only then the cane she carried, a battered thing like looked as though it were held together by duct tape in several places.

“Bet,” he said, daring to pick up his sea-bag with one hand but not releasing her arm until she had waved his assistance away. “What happened?”

Dark eyes met his, and a bit of the warmth there faded. “My war trophy. Just a limp. Looks worse than it is.”

He heard the warning in her voice and knew not to ask further. “Of course I came,” he said, reversing back to their original course. “I’ve been waiting and hoping to hear from you.” He let her lead the way as she turned and followed a bisecting set of yellow lane-lines, toward a muddy field that might be a private-craft landing zone. “I left scorch marks on the cruiseliner’s deck outbound from the HR office. You said you needed a mechanic, and that you had a ship for me. So here I am!”

“Here you are,” Cooper chuckled, with a glance up at him from deep dark eyes and an oval, ageless face. “So… about that ship…”

They flew straight from the port to the New Hope mining camp. “Village” was too homey a word for the place, and “town” would give the settlement too permanent and too respectable a flavor. They flew in what he recognized with a stab of nostalgia to be a standard Firefly Ship Works shuttle, with Cooper at the controls. First, fairly prosperous-looking farms passed the shuttle’s retractable wings, followed by mile upon mile of scrubland, rolling hills, and pinewood.

Hoss sat in the port-side rumble-seat behind the pilot’s chair as Cooper flew. The long flight gave them a chance to catch up -- all of the good news of profitable harvests and new babies from Hoss’s prolific family on Greenleaf; no news at all from Harvest and what maybe might have remained of Cooper’s. “Leo’s remains haven’t been found yet, nor his wife or the kids. Best I can hope for they are buried with the rest of the capital's unidentified. It’s that, or my brother and his family were burned to ash when Ostermann was firebombed. But they’ve got to be dead. They’d have been logged into the Red Crescent’s netbase by now, otherwise.” They traded stories about where life had taken them after the war’s end. Cooper had recovered from her injuries first aboard the Alliance reprocessing station over Hera, before being reassigned sideways to the New Hope Re-Education Camp on Deadwood, where the Alliance determined she could best serve her fellow losing-side soldiers as the camp’s medical officer. When the New Hope prisoner camp had closed, she had done the same as the hundreds of other stranded souls with no other resource -- she had made her way down the Shé Gang River to the mining camp there, where her doctoring skills had kept a roof over her head and boots on her feet. “I guess I was just lucky,” Hoss explained of himself. “First jobs board I saw had a posting with the Paradise Cruiserliner Corp. They didn’t need mechanics, but they needed experienced orderlies. I was hired and was fitted with a new uniform and shipped out again so fast, it took my discharge papers months to catch up with me.”

Cooper laughed again at that. Her talk and her laughter sounded rusty to him, like maybe she hadn’t willingly done a whole lot of either in a long, long time. It hurt, almost physically hurt, to think of how good he had had it by comparison, since their parting. “You should have taken that seat yourself,” he said. “You shouldn’t have sent me in your place. The admiral himself said as much, when he woke up in transit and I couldn’t do more than adjust the drip of his pain meds.”

It was a big tangent, from the Celestial Queen to the field hospital at the Companion’s Hall overlooking Serenity Valley. But the sharp tone to Cooper’s response told him she’d followed him in his leap there, easily enough.

“You’re twice my size, buddy-o’,” she parried. He knew the rest of what had been their camp commander’s saying, and was grateful when she did not repeat it. ‘Less of me to hide when it comes to operation duck-and-cover.’ “Maybe more than twice now,” Cooper added with a bit of wry humor. “Looks like they feed you well on those corporation ships.”

Hoss patted his belly, a little self-conscious of the bulge over his waistline. “The pastry chefs on the Queen -- oh, you should see the amazing cakes they make! I made some connections and wheedled my way into some lessons. I’ll have to bake you something to celebrate.”

Cooper laughed again at that, and as rusty as it sounded, at least her laughter was not strained or forced. She flipped a switch and turned the controls, and the shuttle banked down over a hillside that had been stripped of trees. The landscape below was trampled and muddy, with a river crawling sluggishly through the valley’s heart. “Here we are,” she said as they flew over the sprawl of tents and makeshift cabins, with a handful of solid stick-built buildings at its core. The settlement passed below them, and she piloted the shuttle down toward a high, flat bluff overlooking the river. A Series 3 Firefly was perched there, snow dusting her silvery hide. “Hoss, meet the Jin Dui.

“She looks solid,” Hoss said as the shuttle circled once, before the landing jets flared and they sank down to nestle in the ship’s extended docking shelf. Cooper was silent throughout the landing procedure -- he saw her knuckles go white on the controls, following by her sudden relaxation when the auto-pilot engagement lights flickered on mid-routine.

“Just wait until you see the rest of her,” Cooper said then, as the auto-pilot brought the shuttle snuggly home. “I’m serious. She’s in bad shape. You just might demand a ride back to Yankton.”

It was Hoss’s turn to laugh. “Not a chance!” he said. “Not a chance.”

“You still sure of that?” Cooper asked again, as he followed her out of the shuttle’s airlock hatch and into the dark corridor of the ship.

It had been a Firefly Series 3 that they had met aboard, five and a half years ago now. They had both had racks in the same crew cabin aboard the ISF Diamondback. She had been an ambulance ship, well-worn and in need of constant maintenance as she ferried the the living, dying and sometimes the dead from forward evac stations dirtside and from out from the hazard-strobed, chancey emergency umbilical docks of wounded ships. They’d taken small-round fire a few times while collecting wounded from the front lines of ground battles, and had been strafed by Alliance Hellraisers, who had seen her clear enough to shoot up one of her engine pods yet still proved selectively blind to the meaning of those big, red crosses and blue caduceusi painted prominently on each of her flanks. The Diamondback had usually flown overcrowded with patients and with life support working overtime to compensate, but even then, she had never smelled as anciently over-ripe as the stink which slammed straight into Hoss’s face and right up his nasal passages as he followed Cooper aboard the Jin Dui.

“Tutae kuri!” he swore before catching himself. “What happened? Was the old girl used to haul livestock or something?”

“Yeah. Something,” Cooper said. Her cane tapped a rapid, confident rhythm as she led Hoss down the gangway stairs. “That lovely perfume you smell is the former crew. Six of them, all confirmed bachelors. They had possession of the ship for near two years and thrashed her. Looks like a bomb went off in a garbage dump most places. Heads are all clogged, there are shit buckets and jars of piss and yellow stains in corners. Life support is way beyond its danger zone, don’t know if there’s a filter left worth salvaging.” They reached the starboard catwalk and Cooper stopped there, leaning against the metal rail. Hoss stopped beside her and looked down, across the cargo hold. The was a gully through the middle of the hold which had been swept bare, with of layers of trash pushed to off to either side of the cavernous chamber. Hoss’s eyes kept searching for the orderly rows of bunks and safety webbing, four-high, that the Diamondback had carried. The place seemed naked and echoingly-empty without them. Cooper stabbed at an empty aluminum can -- Blue Sun Light! -- with the end of her cane, knocking it off the catwalk grate. It sailed away into the piles of debris below. “I’ve had access to her for the past three or so weeks, and have gotten a start on damage control,” she continued, “but let me tell you. We have a lot more than just trashed decks to scrub. Now that you’re here and I’ve got some back-up, we can at least begin to open her up and air her out. But it looks to me like whatever spare parts they had they sold off as scrap. The infirmary is stripped to the point they even unbolted the exam table, and some of the galley supply cabinet doors have been pried off for salvage. It’s hard to tell how much was years of laziness, and how much was desperation near the end -- they went deep in the red, and knew the ship’s owner wasn’t going to happy about that. I guess somehow, quantum theorists that they were, they never thought so far as the possibility of the owner deciding to step aboard for a visit when they showed up last month to take on his cargo, and him seeing the wreck they’d made of his ship.”

“So the boss-man were fired them on the spot?” Hoss said, shaking his head in disgust.

Cooper’s chuckle was wry. “Van Hooven cut their throats, then fed them to the laundry woman’s pigs. Let me warn you off the bacon in this camp. Trust me, you don’t want to eat it.”

Hoss turned to look at his old friend in horror. Cooper caught his look and shrugged, the twist of her lips and lift of one brow rueful. “Van Hooven is not a man you want to disappoint. He is maybe as fair as you could hope for in his dealings, seeing as he’s a crime boss and all... but he’s a brutal man. And this is a brutal place. The New Hope prison camp was where the Alliance stockpiled of the refuse of the Independents. It’s where you went when they didn’t know what else to do with you. Dregs of the dregs.”

Hoss frowned. “Then why were you there?”

Cooper shrugged. “No family left to make noise with the Red Crescent, maybe? Sure as hell the Alliance didn’t want to release me anywhere civilized, not since I could dispute their official story about what happened at the Companion’s Hall Hospital.” She shrugged again, almost listlessly. “What is, is. No use crying over yesterday. Just got to focus on surviving until tomorrow -- and in the here and the now, Van Hooven is offering me a chance. A chance to take this ship, refit her, and put her back out in the black. Run her right, run her smart, make a profit. It’s doable. I know it is. But I need you for this. I can’t promise you riches, and I can’t promise it’ll ever be 100% safe, not with Van Hooven’s thumb in the pie. But it’s freedom. It’s us, taking all of that late watch and alterday dream-talk about what we’d do if we had our druthers and a ship of our own. You still have those dreams, Hoss? Because with some hard work and sweat equity, we got us a real chance here.”

Hoss gazed at his friend. He saw the raw hope in her eyes, and couldn’t help but smile. “Like I said before,” he said, resting his large hand over her much smaller one, where she had the catwalk railing in a white-knuckled grip. “Here I am. I was just waiting for you to call.”