March 17, 2514
Dock Bluff/New Hope Mining Camp, Deadwood
Blue Sun Cluster
Their cargo and a shipment of supplies were loaded onboard under guard. Three of Van Hooven’s most trusted men oversaw the operation, at least as far as seeing four and a half tons of ore piled on the hold’s bare deck. Hoss took over after that, showing the hired hands how to stack the raw wooden crates of copper ingots in an orderly fashion up against the port side wall, then snugging it all in Flex-Tex netting. When the rest of it was done, and their own galley supplies and several bales of hay and straw had made a tall heap next to the aft hatch door, Bobby and Earl walked the hired help out, while Ito delayed for a few last words with Cooper.
“The bossman will be pleased,” Ito said, with gesture for the orderly cargo hold around them. “Helluva improvement.”
Cooper nodded without comment. She and Hoss had spent the past week clearing out the dragon’s horde of garbage the ship’s previous crew had left littering the hold. There were still several oil drums worth of trash to be sorted through for recyclables and the odd bit of useful salvage, but the hold itself had been reclaimed and looked like the Jin Dui once again meant honest business. At least now Cooper wouldn’t be embarrassed by strangers stepping into her ship’s hold tomorrow, when she opened the cargo bay doors to interview for crew. No... where mortification still lurked was when any prospective new hire stepped past the aft hatch. The entire lower deck aft of the cargo bay was still a certifiable disaster zone, and the passenger cabins and the unclaimed crew cabins all called for hazmat suits. But Cooper could at least invite strangers aboard tomorrow into this portion of the ship without flinching, and pretend convincingly that the rest was equally ship-shape.
“The three of us will be back at dawn, and we’re calling in all of Wu’s boys to back us,” Ito said, making a quick review of tomorrow’s game plan. “There’s a mob of prospective hires back in camp, waiting to form a line at your door. Moose and Wang have been sitting at the bottom of the bluff trail for the past three days, chasing off the early birds. We’ve got our people in the camp keeping an eye on the prospects and reporting back to the boss on what they see. Some of them have already been troublesome. We’ll weed those out of the line tomorrow before they can sit down for an interview. The boss is concerned Darius might salt a plant or two in among the likely hires. A mole aboard would suit Darius nicely, Bossman thinks. So be wary of anyone who looks too good to be true.”
Cooper nodded again. “Xie xie. Darius hasn’t pulled anything else yet that I know of, so yeah, I’ve been a little concerned.”
“The man’s crazy,” Ito said, likely trying to sound reassuring. “But he’ll be outgunned tomorrow, whatever he tries to do. Just keep your own six-guns strapped on and keep a wary eye on your interviewees. The boss wants this to go smooth.”
Cooper nodded. She knew about the price on her head. She had was already carrying a Marakov rapid fire semi-auto at her hip and had not taken the pistol off since New Year’s. It had eight shots and a fairly decent range, and she’d killed one man with it already. “Van Hooven and I both,” she said in agreement, “I need only a couple of new hands to finish Jin Dui’s refitting and to help Hoss get some parts replaced. With luck, we’ll have her flightworthy and back in the black before month’s end.” Hoss had already gone over flight systems and life-support with a fine-toothed comb. The ship could leave immediately, if Van Hooven had known -- but Cooper wanted more time to finish the ship’s refit and to work out any kinks within the new crew she hired where she could still kick trouble out of the airlock without committing an act of murder. What Van Hooven didn’t know couldn’t hurt him, Cooper figured -- and it would only then impress the man later if Jin Dui proved good to depart days ahead of schedule. “We’ll finish set up tonight. I’ll put the hiring table right there, where the bomb bay grating ends up front. We’ll just open the cargo bay doors in the morning, and take them one at a time. I’ll sort the wheat from the chaff, then hold secondary interviews in the afternoon. With luck, we’ll have who we need making their own bunks by dinnertime.”
“Sounds good. Look for us to arrive at dawn tomorrow -- a lot of us -- and be locked and loaded yourselves.”
Earl called from the far end of the cargo bay. Ito nodded to her in parting and strolled his way across the center of the hold. Hoss sealed the doors behind their erstwhile allies, then locked the ship up tight. “What gifts did they bring us?” Hoss asked as he walked back across the half-empty hold to join her.
“More odds and ends, plus a couple of gallons of bleach,” Cooper said as she rooted through the open crate curiously, glad to see that more of her patient IOUs had been paid. That was the benefit of partnering up with Van Hooven: late-paying clients suddenly took her account receivables a whole lot more seriously. Cash was always scarce to come by in the camp and Cooper had often doctored up folk and livestock alike on just the hope of repayment, but she had made it more than clear that she was willing to accept any barter goods in balance. “Those new filters I’d ordered have arrived, thank god. And there looks to be several bags of flour in this lot -- I’ll bet that’s from the Lieuwellen family. Here’s a bunch of cans of who-the-hell knows what. Old Lady Versteeg sent a jar of sweet pickles and a jar of dill. There’s two bags of onions and a few ropes of garlic -- I got no idea who that’s from. Oh good! There’s a fresh box of laundry soap, and some big bags of salt and quick lime. We can whip up some whitewash out of that, if I can remember how it’s done.”
Hoss chuckled at that. He began to move the bales of straw and hay, hauling them over next to the goat-cube and stacking them alongside. The two dairy does, Polly and Anna, bleated their complaints and demanded a taste. Cooper limped over and checked their water bucket, seeing it was still full before scooping up a measure of feed pellets for the ladies to share for their dinner. The stable-cube was a repurposed 10x20 cargo pod that fit snugly up between the port bay wall and the aft catwalk support columns. Hoss had fitted out the inside of the water-proofed pod with climbing ledges for the goats, and a loft for the near-dozen laying hens. Cooper watched the goats tackle their grain with enthusiasm. There would be daily mucking necessary, and carrying livestock would mean extra strain on their life support systems, but she and Hoss had spent too many hungry transits aboard the Diamondback during the war years with nothing but tubes of protein paste served up for the daily ration. Her ship was going to be as self-sufficient as she could make it. Cooper might not always be able to pay a good crew what they were worth, but she sure as hell wasn’t going to let them starve. Not under her watch.
“Got to make us a table down at the forward side of the bay,” she said, as she idly gave the girls another handful of oat. “That spare cabin door, stacked on top of a pair of bales at each end, should do for us, along with a chair from the galley.”
“Sounds good to me,” Hoss said. “I’ll get it done. I can’t wait. This time tomorrow, we’ll have company!”
Try as she might, Cooper could never manage a smile as wholesome and happy as Hoss’s. “All I’m hoping for is a single decent pilot. We can make do with nothing more than that.”
Hoss started shifting straw bales down the cargo bay, to provide the basis of their makeshift interview table. “If we’re going to look for salvage, we’ll need someone who’s been a spacer. Someone who knows how to move in an VAC suit.”
“Yeah, if we’re lucky,” Cooper replied. “But I wouldn’t hold my breath. Now… two pilots worth hiring on… if that happens, I’ll consider ourselves doubleplus lucky. Might even consider just a general cargo hand, if someone stands out. But I don’t want to overload ourselves. Not at first. Just enough crew to get us to Persephone. We might take on temps, if there’s someone interesting in working passage to the Eavesdown Docks. But once we’re there, we’ll have a better applicant pool to choose from. So… if we can just find ourselves a single decent pilot who won’t try to cut our throats between here and Persephone, that’s all I am really looking for.”
Hoss began to whistle cheerfully as he began to haul a second straw bale. “Find me a blanket to spread over the surface of our table,” he asked. “They won’t see it’s just a cabin door that way, and a bit of color will be cheery.”
It amused her that the big, brutal-looking mechanic was just as conscious of the Jin Dui’s appearances as she was. Although frankly, she wasn’t much concerned with projecting cheeriness. “Aye aye,” Cooper said, leaning on her cane as she turned. Her crippled hip was throbbing and the mauled muscles of her left thigh had been threatening cramps since the afternoon. But she continued to ignore them -- there was no other choice than that, not with all of the work they had to get done. Tomorrow she’d be parked in a chair for most of the day, so the leg would have its rest then. “Wish me luck in finding anything clean belowdecks.”
“That striped horse blanket is up in the bridge lockers, if there’s nothing else to be had,” Hoss called after her as she limped for the catwalk stairs that would lead her to the crew galley. She avoided the contamination of the lower deck as best she could, until the time came to tackle it head-one. “It’d be bright and cheery enough.”
Cooper chuckled to herself as she made her careful way up the catwalk stairs. Cheerful, the man was. She’d get Hoss the horse blanket then, though her hip protested the climb something fierce.
“Cheerful it is,” she called back, as her thoughts ranged ahead toward dawn tomorrow, and the prospect of taking on new crew. She hoped Hoss’s enthusiasm proved warranted, and that they got what the Jin Dui needed. They had fuel, they had supplies, they had cargo… just one or two good crew and another two weeks to finish the old girl’s repairs and refit… and the Jin Dui would be good to go.
‘Good to go’ was getting that much closer each day now. Cheerfulness was an alien thing to her, and had been for years. But Cooper felt a little bit of it yawn and stretch at tomorrow’s prospects. And as she reached the forward deck door hatch, Cooper even found herself whistling along to Hoss’s happy tune.