March 18, 2514
Blue Sun Cluster
This had to be one of the stranger meals Sully had ever sat down to, he thought to himself as he took a slice of bread and passed the plate on to the stranger next to him. Less than an hour ago, he had ducked aboard this ship while dodging bullets and sticks of dynamite; shortly thereafter, he had found a gun pointed in his face and had been forced to kill a man or be killed himself. Now here he was, with a one-way ticket to Persephone, being told he was working a passage he had not signed up for and, oh yeah, just maybe life-support would last the long, long three weeks it would take for the battered ship to get where it was taking them. One hoped the life-support lasted. One dearly, sincerely hoped so.
Captain Cooper had settled in a seat at the head of the table; Hoss, the big mechanic, had sat down at the opposite end. “Don’t be shy,” Hoss told everyone cheerfully, putting down a second plate of sliced bread and taking several pieces for himself. “There’s lots more, enough for seconds and thirds for everybody.”
The two other womenfolk had settled in chairs across from Sully; his fellow pilot, “Halo” Williams, sat to his right, and the systems man sat to his left. “This is good!” the systems man said -- Chang was the name, Marcus Chang. Chang was attacking his steaming bowl of soup with a healthy appetite. “Really good!” Chang said around his mouthful, making an effort to balance his manners and an evident hunger.
Everyone else around the table began applying themselves to the meal with equal sincerity, except for the lawyer, who was simply pushing her spoon around in her bowl. Sully was glad enough for the meal -- he had not eaten since arriving on Deadwood yesterday morning. And the bean soup was good, thick with onions, garlic, big burgundy beans and chunky red tomatoes which might have been recently fresh. There was even some sort of bits of meat it in -- probably really protein paste, but if so, it had been ground up fine and fried up just right so that it forgot what it was and had assumed a new identity. His mother had had a trick for that which Sully himself had never been able to duplicate. He had spent years surviving on protein paste, and had ruined many a skillet trying to make the stuff edible.
“What are the ingredients are in the soup?” the lawyer -- Abigail Baldwin was her name -- asked suspiciously, still poking at the contents of the bowl like something might come crawling out of it.
Captain Cooper looked up from her own meal and eyed the other woman with an expression that suggested she had consciously decided not to take insult. “Kidney beans, butter beans, a carrot, canned tomatoes, some soy curd fried up with onions and garlic, some pepper, vegetable broth, some salt, a pinch of herbs.”
“And the bread?” Baldwin asked, still looking dubious.
“It’s just a quick bread. Whole wheat flour, some salt, half a cup of sugar, a quart of buttermilk and a few teaspoons baking soda.”
The lawyer finally risked tasting the soup. “I do not mean to come across as needlessly finicky,” she apologized in the cultured tones of the Core, while dipping up a second spoonsful. “I am just sensitive to erythrosine and azodicarbonamide and a handful of artificial sulfides that are common in a great many processed foods. So if the meal incorporates any of those additives, preservatives or colorings, I’ll probably experience some unpleasant digestive distress.”
The big mechanic, Hoss, sat at the other end of the table. He chuckled at that. “If it’s processed, it’s probably too expensive for us. Gotta get closer in to the border worlds for that stuff. Almost everything we’ve got to eat on board is local, straight from the farm. Lots of the neighbors owed Cooper, and bartering’s a whole lot more common than cash-creds. I’m not sure how long it’ll take us to go through the root vegetables, but we’ve got bags and bags of beans and bags and bags of flour. We’ll run out of fuel before we run out of food.” He reached for the soup pot and refilled his bowl. “Anyone else want seconds yet?”
Sully was not shy about helping himself as the soup pot made another round. Folks went quiet again, intent still on eating -- evidently everyone had missed breakfast, at the very least, and the sweet cream butter on the chewy homemade bread was a novelty that had a certain seductive power to it. Even the lawyer was making up for lost time now, and evidently found the fresh bread and butter particularly to her liking, while the quiet little mouse beside her was tucking into a third serving of soup as if she had literally been starved.
Sully tried not to watch the two ladies too closely, although it was a challenge not to stare. Fatima Nahas, shrouded in her flowing yellow robe and veil, navigated her spoon deftly beneath the fabric and to her hidden mouth, not spilling a drop of chili or a crumb of bread as she ate. He could not help but wonder what the woman looked like under that robe -- burqas always had that effect on his curiosity, which always struck him as contrary to their intended purpose. There were faint henna markings on her delicate hands -- or maybe permanent tattoos? -- and her shy eyes were a smoky shade of green. Beside her, Abigail Baldwin was tall, strong-boned and curvy by comparison, with a thick braid of mahogany hair and strikingly blue eyes. She wore no make-up on her pale skin, and the more Sully looked at that lovely freckled face, the more convinced he was that he knew her from somewhere.
“Haven’t we met somewhere before, Ms. Baldwin?” Sully broke the general silence to ask her. Those blue eyes flickered up to his face and down again to her half-empty bowl with a curious reluctance.
“No,” she said, definitively.
“You do look an awful lot like someone I know,” said Halo, sounding equally perplexed.
“I know!” supplied Marcus Chang. “Clarissa Bow! You just just like the holovid star! Just like her, but younger. And with freckles.”
Baldwin gave the three men a sour look, and her milky complexion was growing flushed. “Thank you, I hear that from time to time,” she said, in a tone which did not welcome further discussion.
The social cue sailed over the systems-man’s head. “That must make it easy to dress up for costume parties,” Chang said cheerfully, in a nervous rush that suggested that maybe young Marcus didn’t often find the opportunity to speak with a pretty lady. “All you need is a little red dress just like the one from Companion’s Kiss, and a statue painted gold -- and bingo! There you are, a screen goddess!”
“Yes. Just like that,” Baldwin said, in a voice which dripped sarcasm. Chang caught it this time, and blinked rapidly as if searching his memory banks for how he might have erred.
“So you’re a lawyer?” Sully asked her, slipping in to Chang’s rescue. “I overheard you talking with the captain before all hell broke loose. You said you were a lawyer from Oxford-on-Carthage? That’s on Epeuva, isn’t it? How does a solicitor from the Jeweler’s Moon find herself in the filthy outback of the Blue Cluster?”
Baldwin glanced down the table toward the captain, obviously weighing her words. “I have a degree in law,” she said. “But I never sat for the bar. I grew disillusioned with the shallowness of it all. I wanted to do something much more useful with my life than writing torts and arguing obscure clauses in court. So after school, I went searching for something more meaningful.”
“Then how did you wind up serving in the Alliance?” Halo asked.
Baldwin hesitated in answering -- there were a lot of bitter losers at this end of the ‘Verse, and she was obviously trying to parse whether the pilot was one of them or not. “The Alliance made the war look very glamorous, so yes, I enlisted. As a medic,” she added, with a stress on that last word. “I was honored to care for patients on either side of the conflict.”
“Honored.” Cooper repeated the word drily.
Baldwin’s chin went up defensively. “Yes. Honored,” she repeated in a firm tone. Between them, the shy creature in the burqa seemed to shrink away within her robes, while at the other end of the table, the mechanic made a deliberate clatter as he refilled his bowl from the soup pot.
“Can I get more for anyone?” Hoss offered.
“I’ll take more,” Chang said, happy to pass down his bowl for a refill.
There was another uneasy silence. A look passed between the captain and the mechanic -- those two were practically eloquent with their eye-language, like a pair of old-marrieds. Or a pair of foxhole-buddies. “You two know each other from the war?” Sully asked, wondering which was which.
Cooper looked at him then, a dark, analytical stare, while Hoss did the talking. “We served together on a Firefly,” the mechanic replied happily enough. Not a shy bone in that one, Sully supposed. “The ISF Diamondback. She was a medevac ship,” Hoss added, with a hopeful look toward Baldwin as though making a goodwill offering.
“What about you?” Cooper asked, her dark eyes still fixed on Sully. “Which side did you serve on?”
“Me? Oh, I didn’t serve.” Sully presented up what he knew was a charming smile, glad to avoid that particular patch of quicksand. In some places, owning up to serving for the wrong side was a sure way to get your throat cut. “Some of us had to remain civilians.”
Cooper’s eyes narrowed and her expression of permanent suspicion grew darker. “You?” she snorted. “A civ? Like hell.”
Sully raised both hands as if she had a gun on him. “Really. I have always been just a civilian. That’s not to say that I didn’t have any private alligences… just that I had other priorities. The family business needed me, and I probably contributed more to the war effort as a civ than I would have in uniform.” He gave Baldwin a sympathetic smile. “I delivered a great deal of medicines and other necessary items to both sides during the War. I wager bringing comfort to our fine lads and lasses in uniform regardless of what flag they served under was a kindness, and the money I got in return was certainly equally spendable.”
“You worked the black market?” Chang asked.
“I prefer the term ‘gray market’,” Sully replied, with a fixedly deliberate good cheer. “Better yet, unorthodox entrepreneurship. That’s my favorite. And it paid good. I provided quality goods at fair prices, and as a result, all of my little nieces and nephews have shoes on their feet and school books in their hands.”
“No shame in that,” Hoss agreed, trading more eye-language with the captain across the length of the table. “There were a whole lot of times when we were grateful to the black market.”
“Best booze I ever tasted was thanks to the black market,” Halo offered.
Another uneasy silence settled. Sully buttered himself a second slice of bread, very alert to the current running lengthwise down the table between the captain and the mechanic. The big, muscle-bound wrench-monkey had enough tatts on display to decorate the population of half a tong. He was the one of the pair who looked on the surface like walking danger. But all of the danger-vibes Sully was picking up on came from the opposite end of the dining table. Cooper was a quarter of Hoss’s size, but her dark eyes were hard and she had a frown like a thunderstorm. Of the two of them, she was the one most likely to carry a knife, and never flinch to use it.
“So,” Sully asked, weighing good sense against curiosity. He knew which had killed the tomcat, but he had been been able to resist. “So. You said this ship will be running cargo for its owner. Van Hooven, right? This is just about my first visit out here to the Blue Sun Cluster. What’s Van Hooven got worth running halfway across the ‘Verse to Persephone twice a year, that wouldn’t sell just as well somewhere closer to home?”
Eyes like black ice regarded him sharply. “Ore ingots are what we’ve got in the hold. Van Hooven has friends on the Eavesdown docks he wants the load delivered to. All I need to know is that it’s a guaranteed profit and we aren’t breaking any laws in delivering it. That good enough for you? Or do you only like black market jobs?”
“Aw, no, wouldn’t go so far as to say that,” Sully replied, keeping his voice light and easy. “Just curious.” He could see the uneasy looks around him; they had all been dodging bullets and bomb-sticks just an hour ago, and clearly no one was comfortable with the chance of renewed hostilities. But gāisĭde! He’d been shot at and had had to kill a man today -- and he wanted to know why. “You warned us that we don’t want to get this Van Hooven fellow upset. I respect that. I respect that he’s the owner of this ship, and that you’re representing his business interests. I got no problem with that. I just think it’s a fair question what we’re getting ourselves into, seeing as his business interests took a few shots over the deck at us today. Is that going to be the regular way of things for this ship and crew? Y’know, in case I need to find myself a bigger gun.”
A cold, cold stare -- and a thinking one, as well. “Fair enough question,” Cooper allowed, a tight chill in her voice. “And no, that’s not how I intend to continue doing business.”
Sully took a sip of tea, then regarded the captain again. “You say Van Hooven has friends offworld. What about his opposition? Does the opposition have friends we’ll need to be watching our backs against?”
Hoss’s expression was outright dread -- the big man either was an excellent actor putting on a fine show, or else the big mechanic had not thought the situation through far enough to ask himself that question yet. Cooper’s stare did not waver, but the scowl had deepened even further.
“Not that I know of,” she answered. “I think if Darius had friends that far afield, he’d have deeper pockets. And if he had deeper pockets, his ploy to destroy this ship would have met with more success. But do I know that for sure? No. I don’t. If it scares you, well -- we’ll be at Persephone in three weeks. You can collect your reference and walk, no skin off my nose. Lots of ships come and go at the Eavesdown Docks. Lots of other jobs to be had.”
“True enough,” Sully agreed with a single nod, eyes back to the tea leaves he swirled lazily in the dregs of his cup. Depending on the crazy here, that might be a fine alternative. He was adventuresome enough, but even he had his limits.
“That man down in the hold, he said that this Darius was paying to have you brought back to him,” Chang asked, sounding anxious about the question. “What was that about?”
“I disrupted a business scheme of his and wound up costing the man some money,” Cooper answered. “Darius is little more than a backwoods gangster. He thinks he’s a dragonhead. He’s not. He’s simply a petty sadist with delusions of grandeur. Chances are Van Hooven has already finished him, and the laundry woman’s pigs are even now flat on their backs in the mud, bellies swollen, kicking their little feet in the air and belching up clouds of Darius-fumes. I’m not worried about him.”
The lady doth protest too much, Sully thought. Either that, or she really, really detests the son-of-a-bitch.
“If the guy is such a peon, how’d he get the Foxbat?” asked Chang.
“How? Or from who?” Halo echoed.
Cooper shrugged off that concern. “Hell if I know. But if Darius had had the resources, he would have made a move against Van Hooven before today, and it would have been more decisive. Van Hooven has always tolerated Darius as a blunt-handed petty distraction: Darius makes enemies faster than friends and Van Hooven has been using that to his advantage, since Darius makes him look respectable by comparison. Darius would have had to have made some fresh connections in Yankton for that skiff -- and you tell me. Did that little maneuver you pulled destroy that skiff in our backdraft?” Cooper paused until she saw Halo’s nod of confirmation. Then she gave them all a tight, humorless smile. “Good. Then whoever Darius got the bird from isn’t going to be happy with him, are they?”
Sully considered that, He thought of the grey market price for an armed Alliances skiff, and found himself chuckling ruefully. “Good point,” he allowed.
“I’m not going to tell you this ship doesn’t have enemies,” Cooper continued. “The blunt truth is: I don’t know. I don’t know what business the previous crew was into. All I do know is that none of it followed them home to Van Hooven. I don’t know who Van Hooven’s business partners are offworld. I just have code words and have been told that they’ll contact us. So I won’t lie to you and promise rainbows and flowers and bank accounts overflowing with credit. I can only pledge to be straight up.” Cooper’s dark eyes traveled from face to face, her expression as sober as her words. “There’s a lot I don’t know. I wouldn’t be surprised if this ship finds some rude surprises waiting for us at some ports. The only thing I am confident of is that this ship’s finances will be extremely tight. Extremely so. A Firefly’s hold is too small for a high enough volume of goods to guarantee profitable runs, and there may be times when I can’t even afford to pay salary, because fuel and cargo will always be the priority. It is going to be hard work to keep this ship running. Hard work. But personally, I’d rather some hard work than none at all.” With that, she shoved herself back from the table. “Stack dishes in the galley sink for now. I’ll see to them. Cleaning supplies are in that storage cabinet right there, and you’ll find the laundry beneath the stairs opposite the lower-deck loo. Hoss, I’ll need your help below, join me when you’ve finished.”
“Wait,” said Baldwin, as the captain carefully picked up her cane, pushing off the bandana-sling to do so. “You were shot, you need medical care for that.”
“Seen to it already,” the captain replied as she limped for the port shuttle access hatch. “Finish your lunch and see to your quarters.” Cooper left through the aft hatch, heading for the lowerdeck stairs.
“Don’t worry about the captain,” Hoss said. “She was a trauma surgeon during the war. If she says she’s fine, she is. She’ll push herself harder than anyone, but she won’t be stupid about it.”
Sully refilled his tea, wondering if the big mechanic had any concept of just how contradictory that sounded. “So you’ve know the captain for a long while, then?” he asked, not afraid to fish for more information.
“Yeah,” came Hoss’s bass rumble of a reply. “Years and years. I was with the Greenleaf 4th Volunteers and got shot at that action at Starling Base on Paquin. I was evacced on the Diamondback, but she hit a mine and was crippled. Their mechanic couldn’t get the engines and drive grav restarted, but I crawled back there and got her up and purring like a kitten. Commander Sung was impressed and he and his XO got me requisitioned to their crew. The crew was packed pretty tight, four to a cabin, and Cooper had the rack above me. She helped fudge my medical records to keep me aboard at first, and taught me what I need to know to be a good orderly. She always looked out after me. She pulled strings to have me transferred with her after the Diamondback was decommissioned, and and she’s the only reason I got out of Serenity Valley alive. Our unit got bombed two days after she smuggled me out, and she’s the only one in the whole unit who survived it. Cooper’s always been a tough cookie and she doesn’t much care what people think. She’ll be the first to bite your head off if you’ve done something dumb. But she’s fair and she’s wicked smart, and I’d follow her to hell and back if she told me that’s where she wanted to go.” Hoss gave them a sheepish grin. “I know things on the ship are a mess right now, but it’s way, way better than it was even when I got here a week ago. The Jin Dui is a good old girl, and she’ll get us to Persephone just fine. I hope you’ll not hold all of the shooting and everything Darius did against us -- and that you’ll give the captain and the ship a fair chance over the next three weeks until we reach the Eavestown Docks.” He finished off his last bite of bread and stood up from the table. Hoss took his dirty dishes over to the galley sink and put them on the counter beside it. “One of you pilots needs to sit the boards after lunch, but as soon as the captain and I are done with what needs doing below-decks, the captain will come spell you at helm.”
“I’ll take her for now,” Halo volunteered quickly. There was a sudden general clearing of the table, as everyone else decided they were done as well. Sully acquiesced to Fatima’s silent offer to take his dirty dishes, while Chang cleared away the soup pot and the butter dish. “Chang and I will follow you down to the lower deck,” Baldwin said to Hoss, and those three went off down the aft corridor, while Sully reached the supplies locker which Captain Cooper had indicated held the cleaning supplies. He pulled out a battered metal pail, some rags, a handful of cheap vinyl gloves, a scrub brush and a broom, and was was spritzing his wrist with the cleaning spray when Fatima and Halo joined him.
“Ah, the lovely perfume of vinegar,” he smiled as he handed a second bottle to Fatima. “Do either of you have a preference for where you will bunk?” he asked.
Fatima shook her head no, while Halo shrugged the question off. “I don’t care, as long as there is a bunk. My last rack was a hammock that smelled like cat piss.”
Sully chuckled at that. “Well, if my memory of the Firefly deck plan serves, that door there to your left,” he said as he led them up the steps and into the bridgeward corridor, “this first one will be roomiest -- lots of closet space to be had, if you want to hang your closet. Fatima, let’s consider it yours. You just shove like this -- good, it’s not locked -- and the hatch swings open just so, and you climb down the ladder to your room. There’s a door down there that’ll open to the mid-deck gangway, and a shared shower. Bill -- why don’t you take the middle cabin, and I’ll go with the one up front? Unless they’ve modified the ship from its regular configuration, that’s the smallest of the cabins, so I know I’m making a sacrifice.”
“Some sacrifice,” Williams laughed, while Fatima disappeared down into her cabin. “You just want the smallest room, knowing we’ve got to clean ‘m!”
Sully laughed along, as if that were a joke and not the base truth. Williams continued on up onto the bridge, while Sully gave the hatch to his new cabin a shove. It opened after a bit of resistance, and Sully wrinkled his nose in distaste at the stench that wafted out. The smell alone was amazing. Rot and unwashed human, and a distinct coppery twang that made his brain alarm a little.
‘Once more, into the breach’ he told himself, before climbing on down.
The cabin’s single bare overhead bulb hung dark, leaving the cabin unlit except for the blue glow from the comm display just aft of the ladder alcove. Sully hit the lights panel, and when that failed to work, he reached up and physically gave the bulb a half twist, so that the connections were made and the light flared on. When it revealed the room, he kind of wished it hadn’t.
Sully had made his livelihood aboard junked vessels. He had seen abandoned crew cabins aplenty. Possibly some of them had even been worse than this… but this was still pretty awful bad.
At first glance, all he saw was the trash. Layers of it -- generations of it -- heaped in piles with a single narrow footpath tracking through it between the ladder alcove and a bunk which was pressed up against the far aft corner. It looked as though the cabin’s previous resident had collected cardboard boxes and booze bottles for sport, except for the layer of scum coating everything. Sully was glad he had gloves. Crusty pin-up girls decorated the wall, along with a single, lonely wire hanger suspended from a bare shelf rack. Hanging from a heavy chain from the ceiling struts was a clear plastic bubble chair, its foam cushions liberally patched with duct tape. The narrow bunk itself was a metal cot with what looked like an unzipped sleeping bag for a blanket; a stowage trunk had been upended over the top of it, spilling out a sizable collection of porn. The debris on the table might include a partial set of gun-cleaning tools, but Sully would have to separate out all of empty pill containers, pizza crust ends, a very nice scale model of an Alliance A-48 aerospace gunship, discarded tissues, a dead potted cactus, and what might prove to be a fossilized sandwich. A wallet sat there as well, with the colorful edges of some bills poking out of it. A lot of the empty food wrappers and pizza boxes bore a common design advertising “The Meaty Yeasty” off of McCall Alley at New Canaan spaceport. Sully stopped in his tracks when something crunched ominously underfoot. He kicked aside empty soy packets, something petrified that might have been a rag (or might have been filthy underwear -- he didn’t want to pick it up to find out), and what he was afraid was a used condom to find that he had stepped on a pair of reading glasses, breaking the right lens.
Sully fished the glasses up cautiously and held the lenses before his own eyes. Pretty moderate near-sightedness -- these weren’t just reading glasses. Scowling, Sully pocketed the glasses, then took the final strides over to the bunk. Hetero-boy was here, the porn mags proclaimed, with an interest in hefty-sized trim. Sully up-ended the trunk and pushed it to the end of the cot, and began to toss the magazine collection back into it. It was then that he found the blood stain to match the morgue odor.
The indigo plaid of the sleeping bag had absorbed an enormous amount of blood in about a one-third-of-the-Shroud-of-Turin fashion. ‘Poor bastard had his throat cut,’ Sully thought, his nose wrinkling with distaste. He looked at the wall beside the bunk and saw the spray pattern that supported his theory, dappling the various smiling centerfolds taped there. Sully collected another handful of magazines, but didn’t see any bloodstained pages in what he rifled through. Huh. So the body laid here for a while before being moved… and then it looked like whomever had moved it had tossed the storage trunk, searching for something. Sully frowned a little harder and looked back toward the crowded junk on the desk, where the wallet sat unmolested. He reached after the wallet and pocketed it himself, then finished stacking the magazines back into the trunk.
‘Quite the collection,’ he mused as he hauled the trunk off the cot and onto the floor. He stripped the two layers of sleeping bag from the bunk and bundled them together, then trekked back through the debris field for the ladder topside.
---to be continued---