March 18, 2514
Dock Bluff/New Hope Mining Camp, Deadwood
Blue Sun Cluster
Van Hooven’s men arrived with their guns in the dim light before dawn, and by sunrise, the line of applicants who stood on the trail winding down Dock Bluff stretched nearly to the base of the tall hill, undeterred by the half-frozen mud and the lazy drift of snow from a cold, grey sky.
“Bloody buddha,” Cooper swore under her breath, taking a long look at that sight. “There’s got to be near 200 of ‘m.”
“Lots of desperate men and women looking to get offworld,” Ito muttered to her. “Most of them won’t have resumes or references. You’ll have to run them through sims on the ship’s boards to separate the liars from the real spacers.”
Cooper had already known that, of course -- but it was one thing to know it in the abstract, and another altogether to see it shivering in the cold outside your hull. Cooper cast another misgiving glance at that line before she turned back to the comm board beside the cargo bay’s airlock hatch.
“We’re about ready to open the doors,” she said into the all-ship. “Grab your wrench and get down here.”
She heard Hoss’s groan before she cut the connection. The mention of the wrench was a long-standing code between them. Hoss was a marshmallow at heart, but as big and broad as he was, and with his colorful sleeves of tattoos, he looked like a bruiser -- and that impression never failed to register when he carried a big ship-breakers wrench, or length of pipe. Trouble never lingered after Hoss arrived with something big and metal and swingable in hand.
“This is Darius’s big chance. The bossman is prepared for that,” Ito said, as his partners Earl and Bobby strolled up, both cradling shotguns and with pistols and knives in their belts. “We got over 20 guns out there, our boys as well as Wu’s. We’ll have Reed and Nilsson stand watch at the hiring table; Earl, Bobby and me will mix it up a bit with the rest of our guards and keep steady patrol of the line. The sooner we start, the sooner we’ll get finished.”
Cooper nodded. She hit the codes for opening the cargo bay doors, then limped back to the hiring desk to take her seat. “Let’s get this over with,” she muttered in agreement to the gunmen at her back, as she waved the first in line to step aboard.
Hours passed, and the line had dribbled steadily away by half. Very few of the hopeful gathered claimed to have the skillsets Cooper was looking for. Those who didn’t she sent away as quickly as she could. The few who were possibilities, those she asked to step aside and wait some more at the mid-bay cluster of lounge chairs and two battered sofas Hoss had hauled downstairs from the observation gallery.
The applicants were called through the open cargo bay doors one by one. Cooper had her table set up by the front of the bay, just ahead of the bomb-bay grating and just far enough back from the open doors that the drift of snow wasn't blowing in on her. Hoss perched his formidable self on one end of the table and hulked there with his arms crossed over his chest and a truly colossal wrench in one meaty fist. The mechanic was scowling like a mastiff, and looked four times the value of Reed or Nilsson, Van Hooven’s two shotgun-carrying guards, who stood flanking the table. There had been no stirrings of trouble yet, but Cooper had seen Ito and Earl both drag a few unsavory-looking types from the waiting line and chase them away.
This wasn't the way Cooper wanted to run a business, or run her ship -- this shivering line of hopefuls out there in the slow-drift of falling snow. But you'd have to fly closer in to Border to find an honest-to-Xenu printed resume. Most of these folk had records, damn sure they did, in multiple ways. But few still had their papers -- there was a market for stolen IDs, so papers got kipped quick. And in the event that someone could present her with a print resume, satellite time to follow up on references was prohibitively spendy. You could claim to be the honored pilot of the King of Londonium’s own palace pleasure barge -- say-so was free. It would take board time on Jin Dui’s flight sims to prove a prospective hire’s value. So for now, that meant simply shivering along with the hopefuls in the cold that wafted in through the cargo bay doors and asking the same routine questions, separating the wheat from the chaff by listening as hard to her gut instinct as she did to words in what answers she got back. There'd been a few who'd claimed piloting experience -- but one had clearly been a tweeker, another had smelled like bottom-shelf vodka, and the third... well, Cooper still wasn't sure what had set off her hinky meter about that bloke, other than she knew from the gut that she didn't want him sharing the same planetary atmosphere, much less the closed, claustrophobic metal capsule of a ship out in the black.
"Your professional experience?" her standard opening question ran. There'd only been three so far out of maybe a hundred whose answers Cooper had liked. One claimed to be a former browncoat sergeant with vac-suit experience and a few drop-ship tours under his belt. Another claimed to be a systems man, and had the aura of comp-geek in such a cloud around him you could almost smell it. The last was a woman clad head-to-toe in a soiled yellow burqa, who said she’d once been pilot on a tramp merchanter owned by her husband, before the war had widowed her and turned the ship to scrap.
Three so far -- out of more than a hundred. And now, maybe, a fourth: "I'm a pilot," came the answer from this one, a short fellow standing on the other side of her metal table. He wore a ragged but voluminous blue and green striped scarf that was shedding yarn. “Over ten years of experience, atmospheric craft as well as cargo class transports.”
Cooper looked him over warily. “You flew in service?” she asked, watching him more closely. He nodded in answer, and tried mightily not to fidget with the unraveling end of his scarf.
"A variety of ship types during the war," he admitted, stressing variety and avoiding which uniform he had flown in. Alliance, she thought, absolutely sure of it. The dismay in the man's earnest eyes was almost touching as he hesitated again, no doubt searching his memory banks for a single Independent ship he could safely claim experience on that wouldn't give his prior allegiances away, without having to lie outright. "I flew a Quail medevac once," he said, brightening with the memory. "She was a real handful. Those babies have thrust engines real similar to a Firefly, but they are a lot less stable than even a Series 2 -- which means they are a handful.That was fun."
Cooper sat back and restrained herself from showing any amusement. "Grab a seat with the others," she said, with a jerk a thumb over her shoulder toward the cluster of displaced lounge furniture. "We'll run some flight sims later this afternoon and I'll choose after seeing the top scores."
The lanky fellow nodded, clearly pleased with a 'maybe' rather than the 'no' the last twenty odd had been dispatched with. He picked up his duffel and with obvious relief headed inbound instead of outbound.
"He seemed nice a nice guy," Hoss leaned over to murmur in her ear. "And he could have lied about what he's flown and made a better claim."
"So either he knows he's a lousy liar, or he simply ain't bright enough to have thought ahead," she countered, before turning attention back to the line waiting outside. "Next," Cooper called.
The next in line was a tallish woman with a long braid of mahogany hair and a dusting of freckles across her cheeks. Cooper did a double-take, certain at first that she'd seen the woman before, but entirely unable to place where. "What's your ship-board experience?" she asked, as she'd asked the rest.
"Doctor," the woman said. "I was a combat medic during the war." She spoke with a solid confidence -- and since doctoring skills were at a premium out here on the ass-end of the 'Verse, she likely was already mentally decorating her cabin aboard the Jin Dui.
"Sorry," Cooper replied, waving the woman off with a certain dark, private amusement. "Already got a doc, don't need a medic. Next."
The next in line was already stepping forward -- Cooper had an impression of dark eyes and black hair and a pretty, pretty face which would get that boy a come-ahead from nearly any women (and a fair number of men as well). But the medic was still standing there, her expression of startlement having slid into dismay. "Wait!" she insisted, when Nilsson stepped forward with his eight gauge to encourage her on. "Wait! I was a medic during the war, but I have a degree in business law. With honors from Oxford-on-Carthage."
"A lawyer, huh?" Cooper gave the woman another once-over, aware of Hoss squirming where he sat, no doubt brimming with opinion. "That's interesting. Take a seat with--"
Something came screeching down over the top of the Jin-Dui. War-scarred nerves twitched at the engine noise, and outside there were screams. Something exploded with a pillar of dirt and fleshy debris. Bodies outside dropped or dived for cover, while Ito and his men opened fire on the aircraft as it banked a tight turn and came streaking back for another round.
What the hell? Cooper found herself thinking. Van Hooven had been prepared for an assault by land -- but no one had considered one coming at them by air. But war-trained nerves knew those sounds and responded -- an attack was an attack, no matter the quarter it was launched from. "Wake 'r up!" Cooper yelled, shoving Hoss toward the catwalk stairs and the engine room, while Lawyer dived over the top of the metal table and up-ended it for cover against gunfire. "If you can pilot, get to helm!" Cooper shouted back toward the cluster of lounge chairs, while bullets bounced off the deck and ricocheted around the cargo bay. A dozen or so strangers were rushing up the cargo ramp, looking for better cover inside as the skiff strafed them. Cooper ran for the cargo bay controls, her stride more lurch than limp. “Get out!!” Reed shouted those incoming refugees. “Get off--”
A gun materialized in one refugee's hand. Reed never finished his sentence. His dead body dropped to the deck at the same moment Cooper reached the cargo bay door control board. She slammed her hand on the close-command; at the same time, there was a pop, and something punched her hard high in the left arm, spinning her around and nearly off her feet. She staggered backwards, felt herself falling, and hit the stairway railing of the starboard corner stairs with her right hip. Cooper grabbed for that to keep herself on her feet, if only just barely.
Pistol shot, she thought analytically, the surge of adrenaline in her system bringing with it that stark, cold clarity she had learned to achieve during the War. That adrenaline gave you a choice -- it either ruled you and swept you away in a panic, or you found in it a certain necessary, dissociative distance that allowed you to control it, channeling the surge in blood chemistry and using it like jet fuel. It rocketed you into hyperdrive, all your senses on a preternatural red alert, like you had antennas in your fingertips and stretching out of your skull. Use it right, and you could bring back Lazarus himself from the dead if he was on your operating table, just so long as the next mortar round didn't come whistling down through the roof and blow you all to chunks--
… a memory of a white flash and intense heat, so bright and blinding that she had to blink it away to see the Jin Dui’s hold again. Cooper was still on her feet, leaning against the railing, right hand pressed against the bleeding wound on her left shoulder. She had lost her cane. There were shouts and screams outside as the cargo bay doors were sliding shut; three gunmen stood just within those doors, having shot their way in. Reed and Nilsson were both lying dead on the deck. There were four other bodies dead near the hold doors -- Darius's men, she sincerely hoped. The goats in the goat-pod were bleating in hysterics and she could hear the scrape of hooves against steel. Hoss was nowhere in view, nor was the short pilot with the striped scarf. Of the three possible hires who had been waiting at the lounge chairs, two had taken cover behind an overturned sofa, one of its arms blasted in a spray of foam particles which drifted down like confetti. The third was slumped in an unnatural position, on his knees but obviously hit by gun-play and failing. The mahogany-haired woman was huddled behind the up-ended metal table, while the last next-in-line-for-interviews, the pretty fellow, stood to one side in the opposite corner portside, with both hands wisely raised and empty.
For a moment, everything inside the ship -- goats included -- was silent and still, save for the distant sounds of battle and the low rumble of the closing doors. Then the kneeling Browncoat fell the rest of the way to the deck, boneless, his gun hitting the bomb-bay grating with a clatter. There was a plantative blaaaat from one of the dairy does, then silence from the back of the bay.
The cargo bay doors sealed shut. The three gunmen panted for breath and eyed their hostages suspiciously. Outside, there was another explosion and the passing roar of engines.
"Couple of rabbits got away," muttered one of the gunmen, a pinch-faced fellow at the opposite side of the bay from Cooper, who was clutching what looked like some model of a Python pistol.
"Don't matter," said the one in the middle, a dark-skinned fellow who looked broader and more sharp mentally than his two companions. He singled out Cooper with a smirk and the business-end of what looked like a KS50 Lightweight assault rifle. "We got the one Darius is paying for. That's her. The doc."
Cooper scowled at them, not enjoying the sound of that. She could move her left arm -- the hand worked with no numbness of the fingers, only a searing pain in the deltoid and a bloody slice through her coat sleeve. The wound bleed freely, but felt shallow enough beneath her fingertips. She still had her revolver in its holster secured to her belt and right thigh, hidden from view beneath her coat. But she was a surgeon, not a gunslinger. No way she could pull successfully on any of those three, not primed and ready as they were. She simply fixed them instead with a stink eye, looking for exploitation points and sweeping in as much data as her state of adrenaline-fueled hyperdrive could absorb. The two on the ends -- the one with the Python and the closer one, who had what looked like the blunt, square Avenger pistol, were armed with handguns. It must have been one of them who had shot her, Cooper knew -- that KS50 carbon fiber rifle would have blown a hole in her arm that would have called for a bone saw to fix. Python and Avenger both looked to their center man like they expected him to know what to do next. They were sweating and nervous, as if maybe shooting up a bunch of strangers was something new to them. But Lightweight looked calm and collected, like he were just taking a stroll down the promenade.
“Rest of you,” Lightweight said, his voice raised but still cool-sounding, “keep your hands up and off your weapons. No reason this has to end bad for you too. If you got a weapon, toss it down on the deck.”
Cooper kept her focus on Darius’s three gunmen; from the periphery of her vision, she saw the poor civvies begin to stir at Lightweight’s invitation.
“Not armed,” said the systems man, sitting up from where he’d carried the burqa-woman to the deck with him when the gun-play had started. He held up his hands quickly. “I’m not armed, I got a pocket knife, that’s all.” Beside him, the woman in the burqa had curled into a fetal ball, a puddle of sobbing, shaking yellow fabric.
Lawyer had her hands up too, but her attention had shifted toward the slumped Browncoat, who had a pool of blood forming around him. She began to crawl in that direction, over Nilsson’s brain-blown corpse, but Avenger grunted a nervous “Stop right there!” at her.
“I’m a medic!” the woman protested, frozen in mid-crawl over Nilsson’s dead body. “Let me at least try--”
“You just sit where you are with both of your hands where I can see them!” Avenger retorted, the blocky nose of his pistol shaking in his sweaty grip.
“Got my gun on my hip,” Pretty Boy said, as Python, who was closest, turned toward him. Pretty Boy gave a winning smile and didn’t flinch at the revolver which had swung toward his face. “You’re welcome to take it yourself. You’ll understand I don’t feel real comfortable right now removing it myself.” As Python disarmed him, Pretty Boy shifted his glance toward Lightweight, clearly tagging that man as the leader-in-proxy of this gang. “So… does this mean you’re taking over the ship? If so, I’m a damn fine pilot who’s still looking for a job. I won’t hold this little fracas against anyone.”
Lightweight seemed amused by that, but his answer was a gesture with the nose of the assault rifle, indicating Pretty Boy should move his pretty self out of the portside corner and over to where Lawyer was crouching next to Nilsson’s corpse. “Watch them,” Lightweight snapped at his comrades, meaning the other civs, before snapping his attention back to Cooper. “You. Hands up with the rest of ‘m.”
“Cào nǐ mā,” Cooper retorted. “One of your buddies put a bullet through my arm. Darius wants me alive, not bled out.” Challenging that theory was a risk, but that she was still drawing breath already led Cooper to trust that Darius wanted her alive. Specifically so. The bastard did have a reputation for enjoying his revenge up close and in person.
Lightweight’s expression was sour, but that he did not shoot her outright proved Cooper right, she supposed. He gestured with the rifle again, toward the center of the hold. “Walk over there, with those two others.”
Cooper gave him a deadpan stare. “Can’t. Not unless you want to hand me that cane I dropped. War wound.” It was partially a lie -- she could hobble along without the cane -- but there was a value in seeing how far she could milk it with these rén zhā.
The sound of gunplay outside had continued without pause; they were reminded of that now as something banged against the top of the hull, a smallish explosive hit of some sort. Cooper winced, worried about the ship’s limited plating; the three gunmen all flinched as well, and Avenger turned his head to look at Lightweight with stark fright.
“We gotta get out of here before that Foxbat blows up this ship!” he cried anxiously.
“I can pilot her for you--” Pretty Boy offered helpfully, all easy good cheer, with such a pleasant hail-all-well-met manner radiating off him that Cooper’s nerves twitched -- check your pockets around that one, for damn sure.
“Shut up!” Lightweight snapped at Pretty Boy and Avenger both. “You,” he ordered Cooper, “open those doors back up.”
“No can do,” Cooper replied, almost enjoying the moment. “One-way automation lock. It’s a standard in-transit safety feature -- don’t want to lose cargo to vacuum by accident.” It was a whopper of a lie, but chances were none of those three had the experience to say otherwise.
The fellow’s dark eyes had narrowed dangerously. Not a happy camper, no. There was another hammering explosion somewhere far aft against the starboard hull -- not a full-on hit, maybe, but close enough to rattle the ship. “We gotta open those doors!” Avenger cried anxiously beyond him. “We gotta get out of here!”
“My offer to pilot her still stands,” Pretty Boy said.
“Shut up!” Lightweight snarled in reply. “The ship’s broke. Van Hooven’s folks won’t have had her fixed until month’s end, so she ain’t flying nowhere today!”
Cooper struggled to keep her expression neutral. News to me, she found herself thinking, before it dawned on her. They think she’s grounded! I told Ito only last night that it would be until the end of the month to complete repairs. I held back that Hoss already had her flight-ready because I wanted more time to clean her up and go over those algae tanks and finish her refit without Van Hooven breathing down my neck. But flight systems and life support -- those were Hoss’s first priorities. Van Hooven has a leak -- and it’s somewhere close to the top, isn’t it?
Another explosion against the hull, somewhere right overhead. Python and two of the civs yelped in dismay, and Avenger rushed for the control box and slammed a free hand down on the big red buttons; when that didn’t work, he hit several in buttons in succession, as though he might blindly find a working combination.
“Gotta get to helm,” Cooper said. “Takes a keycode from the bridge to disengage the cargo door master locks.”
Around them, the cargo bay lighting flickered and there was the distant sound of engines going hot. Hoss is in the house, Cooper thought with some satisfaction. If she could get one of the gunmen to take her up to the helm, and then if she could find some way to disable them… she could pilot the ship herself, as marginal as her hours at the sims and time spent at the Diamondback's boards had made her.
Cooper hooked her left elbow back, over the stair rail behind her, and hugged it tight. The three gunmen were looking at one another in surprise at the engine-sound; Lightweight alone seemed to recognize it for what it was. He turned back toward Cooper, leading with the muzzle of his assault rifle--
Then the engines kicked in, hard, and the Jin Dui/ lurched forward with a jolt that staggered everyone. Cooper alone was braced for it. Lightweight and Avenger both stumbled backwards, while Python and Pretty Boy both fell outright, Pretty Boy turning it to his advantage and into a roll for better cover behind the nearby stacks of crated ore.
“Take the bridge!” Lightweight yelled at his companions, finding his feet again and bolting for the mid-bay catwalk stairs. “Someone’s flying this bird!”
Cooper went for her pistol, clawing it from its holster. Her shot caught Lightweight high in the back as he took the first steps up the catwalk stairs. He hit the landing with his chest and skidded back down, his assault rifle beneath him. Pretty Boy was wrestling with Python on the deck; the other gunman, Avenger, spun toward her, his pistol swinging about to take aim. Cooper had a half a heartbeat to shoot him first; but the deck beneath them swayed as the ship made some type of evasive maneuver, and she knew in that split second that her shot had gone wide. Avenger’s blunt gun nose had her square then. ‘Hoss,’ she found herself thinking, hating to know she would leave him alone with a bloody mess--
Thunder rang out, instead of the revolver shot she was expecting. Avenger’s head and neck simply turned to a red, wet spray; his corpse dropped, and behind him, Cooper saw Lawyer, flat on her back, her face a horrified, pale moon and Nilsson’s eight gauge in her arms and braced butt-end against the deck. Cooper met the other woman’s wide-eyed gaze in approval, glad a Hippocratic oath hadn’t stopped the medic from firing.
Another gun-shot, and then Pretty Boy was getting to his feet, a stolen revolver in his hands and Darius’s man dead at his feet. “Bridge?” he panted, looking to Cooper in question.
“Go,” she said in answer. “I don’t know for sure who’s up there, or if they know what they’re doing.” He ran for it, vaulting over Lightweight’s body and on up the stairs. He seemed confident he knew which way he was going -- though up seemed obvious enough, she supposed. Cooper reached for the comm, toggling all-ship. “We’ve got the hold secure,” she said. “What’s going on up there?”
“Engines are hot and I am at aux-scan looking for hull damage,” came back Hoss’s bass rumble.
“Got that Foxbat on our tail,” came an unfamiliar voice from the bridge -- Cooper thought it was Scarf, but she wasn’t entirely certain of it. “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 a problem for us -- but that rail gun will be!”
“Got a co-pilot headed up to you, don’t be spooked when the pretty fellow gets there,” Cooper advised. “On my way as well.” She left the comm open behind her as she turned and cast around for her cane. She spotted it, and limped the two necessary step to leverage herself down to collect it. “Any of you hit?” she asked the three remaining refugees on her deck, trying to count heads and not lose track of anyone or anything...
... and too late for that, she realized dismally, as she rose to find Lightweight sitting up on the bottom step of the mid-bay stairs, his assault rifle back in hand and trained her way. Blood leaked down from an exit wound high in his chest, but his hands on the gun looked steady enough.
“Put the boomstick down, or I blow your pretty head off your shoulders,” he growled at Lawyer, who was twisting about surprise and with a side-shift that unwittingly put her right in Cooper’s line of fire, should she attempt to ease her Marakov back out of its holster. Lawyer didn’t raise the eight gauge, but she also did not follow orders immediately, either. “Drop it!” Lightweight shouted then, beginning to lose his cool.
“There’s no need for any more bloodshed,” said a shakey new voice from her left. It was Systems Man, apparently shedding his geek for a superman cape as he stepped cautiously into Lightweight’s field of fire. The young man held both of his hands up empty, and didn’t do much more than flinch when the assault rifle jerked dangerously his way. He took another step, then another, then two more, talking all the while. “You can put that big gun down, can’t you? Just put it down and let the nice lady here patch you up, and the captain can just put you off at our next port. There’s no reason to get yourself killed like your two buddies. You can’t tell me you’re paid so well as that. We don’t have to end this all bad and bloody-like. We really don’t. You know we don’t--”
As if in answer, Lightweight pulsed his finger on the trigger of his assualt rifle. There was an electronic purr -- but no bullets. Systems-Man leaped forward and jumped the gunman, bowling him over back onto the stairs and hammering his head against the deck once, twice, three times, then scrambling backwards and ripping the rifle away with him in retreat.
“What the hell?” cried Lawyer, her expression saying ‘this man is crazy’ louder than words alone. “
“I knew it, I knew it, I knew it,” the young man chanted under his breath, wide-eyed with an adrenaline load. He brandished the carbon fiber rifle aloft. “See the shape of the stock? See it? And look, no bayonet lug! It’s a XKS50, the first batch they made to show the military procurement people, just to convince them to buy! They used a new kind of electronic igniter -- caseless rounds, right? No firing pin! It turned out to be glitchy in strong electromagnetic fields. Like the leakage from grav generators! The procurement trials 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,” Lawyer said, shaking her head.
“No,” Systems-Man said, still holding out the rifle in explanation. “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 added in a breathless aside to Cooper, “I figured my odds were even better than seven in ten. Whoever sold that guy this gun made him a bad deal. It’s Newtech. Newtech weapons have processors and software, like pretty much anything else newtech. We’ll have to reboot it again before it’ll work.”
Cooper shook her head, and dismissed it as a concern for later. “You,” she snapped at Lawyer, who still clutched Nilsson’s shotgun tight. “Make sure those three are dead; make sure of the rest of them,” she added, with a jerk of her thumb at the bodies littering the deck. “We’re not out of this yet!” Cooper finished, as she headed for the catwalk stairs and the helm beyond.
---to be continued---