The laundry unit was crammed into the narrow gap behind the stairs up to mid-deck and was already thumping away, with a growing pile of dirty linens in front of it. Sully dropped his bundle onto the pile, listening to the laughing banter being traded by Chang and Baldwin as they were swabbing out the cabins they’d chosen. Apparently they had fast-forwarded through the various stages of horror at their surroundings and had reached the ‘everything is funny as all hell’ phase of dealing with the mess.
“I just stepped on something,” called Chang, from the forward port-side berth. “I swear, it squeaked!”
“Máo ó” Baldwin wailed in reply. Her voice was very close -- apparently she had chosen one of the two starboard passenger berths “Come look at this! There are rows and rows of partially-filled vodka bottles here, and I am afraid they are not full of vodka!”
“Whatever you do, don’t open one for a taste-test,” Chang warned heartily.
“Horrors!” Baldwin was practically fizzing with laughter; she sounded like she were on the shaky-edge of hysteria, a feeling Sully could well sympathize with. “But steady on… oh dear, if these are lined up from oldest to freshest, I do believe Mr. Former Occupant either started eating a great deal of beets, or he began to pass blood in his urine. I would advise him to consult his physician, if I could -- chances are he’s developing a terrible case of kidney stones.”
Baldwin and Chang were both laughing uproariously at that. ‘Chances are, Mr. Former Occupant no longer has to worry about passing those stones,’ Sully thought to himself. He chose not to share that observation, or to interrupt their hilarity as he walked past the gutted Infirmary bay and on toward the hatch to the cargo bay.
Just past the hatch, was a cargo pod which apparently been re-purposed as a stable. The top half of the stable-pod door was open and the two resident goats inside stood there, floppy-eared, heads over the bottom door, watching everything with their golden devil-eyes as they chewed their cud. The pale one made a snorting noise and backed away with a scuff of hooves as Sully stepped through the cargo bay hatch and down the steps. The other goat, the spotted black one, held its ground and continued to stare at him as he walked past. He wasn’t about to offer it a hand, preferring to keep all of his fingers, thank you kindly.
Hoss and Cooper were working at the far end of the cargo bay. A line of naked dead bodies was lined up alongside the bomb bay doors, and Cooper was finishing stripping the last of them, adding to the heap which nearly overflowed the striped red horse blanket the cast-offs were piled on. “I just don’t think it’s right,” Hoss was saying. “We should at least wrap them in sheets.”
“We don’t have extra sheets,” Cooper replied. “Hell, I doubt we have enough sheets for racks for the temp crew.”
“We shouldn’t take their clothes, then.”
“We took a hell of a lot more than their clothes during the War,” Cooper muttered in reply. “They’re dead. They don’t need ‘m anymore. And we will.”
“A dead man’s clothes? No we won’t!”
“None of this will fit you, sure, but the rest of us may find use for ‘m. And if we don’t, we just patch ‘m and resell them.”
“But it just isn’t right!” Hoss continued miserably.
“What won’t be right is for us to run out of fuel somewhere in the deep black, or for that C02 scrubber to burn out before we can get those algae tanks back up stabilized and outputting! Hoss, we need every two-bit we can rub together to afford repairs, and whatever creds we earn from this cargo Van Hooven has sent us is going to vanish like air out the lock.” Cooper’s voice sounded weary and no little anxious -- Sully felt anxious enough himself, hearing that nugget about the algae tanks being out of operation. Ai ya! A three weeks on C02 scrubbers alone? Are they crazy?
“You won’t get much for second hand clothing on Persephone,” Sully said, startling them both. He gave them an apologetic shrug as he joined them. “Too much new available on the market there. A better bet is to hang on to any surplus and wait until you’re back out on a Rim world like Deadwood, where there’s not much new to be had. You’d be surprised what you can get in barter for a good pair of boots.”
Hoss still looked pained, while Cooper regarded him coolly. “But who am I to lecture a resident of a Rim world about barter rates on the Rim?” Sully said with some amusement, figuring he could practically read her mind on that. “Captain’s right,” he said to Hoss. “If you’re going to just jettison the bodies, you’re wasting resources to send them out clothed. You could use heavy garbage bags --”
“If we had them. Which we don’t.” Cooper said grimly. “And if we did have them, it’d be a waste.”
“Well, those will be much cheaper at Persephone, if you decide to lay in a supply for next time.” Sully shook his head in dark amusement. “More immediate of a question should be -- where and when will you dump them?”
Cooper and Hoss eyed each other again. By Alliance law, it was illegal to dump anything (much less bodies) in a space lane, because of the hazard posed to passing traffic. “Midway to Persephone, at the cluster’s edge,” Cooper replied. She scowled further, eyeing the disordered cargo bay around them. “We need to shift the bodies onto that cargo netting, then secure them down the in bomb bay airlock. Open the lock and freeze them solid, without letting them drift off.”
“I’ll do it,” Hoss said. “But only if you get up to the bridge and sit a watch at helm. You got shot. I know you’re hurting,” he said, bulling over the top of Cooper’s objection. “You gotta sit down for at least a little while now. I can see that arm is hurting you, and you know the strain you’re putting on your leg.”
That earned a deeper scowl from the captain, but the little fact that the stubborn woman did not dismiss her friend’s concerns outright left Sully thinking she was likely hurting worse than she let on. “I’ll go sit a shift, but I’ll clean the gallery on my way there,” she responded. Cooper’s tone suggested it was all the agreement Hoss was going to get, while Hoss grinned at her concession like he was taking a victory lap.
“Freeze them in the lock, just like we used to back aboard the Diamondback,” Hoss said cheerfully, walking off to collect the cargo netting.
“I’ll help, Hoss’ll need another set of hands with that,” Sully offered. He began to follow after Hoss, then stopped and turned back to the captain. He fished the leather wallet from his coat pocket and handed it over. Cooper looked at it for a moment before taking it, but did so without any questions.
“What happened to the other bodies?” he asked, remembering her earlier remark to Hoss. ’We took a hell of lot more than their clothing during the War,’ she had said.
“Other bodies?” she prompted him.
“The former occupant of my cabin died in there. From the stains and splatter, I’m guessing someone cut his throat.”
Cooper winced, but did not look shocked… or even decently surprised. “Van Hooven’s man Earl is famous for his bladework. From what I overheard, he came aboard at night, while the previous crew were sleeping. The bodies were gone when I got here, maybe a week or so later. But there were enough puddles left behind to see how it went down.”
Sully considered the wording of his next question very carefully before asking it. “Did Van Hooven ask you to keep your eyes open for anything left onboard?”
Cooper had been opening the wallet Sully had found. She stopped in mid-count of the bills, and looked up at him with an expression that shifted fluidly from questioning to flinty assessment. “Did you find something else I should know about?”
Sully shrugged. “I’ve only just skimmed the surface of the cabin -- but it looks to me like the room was tossed after the killing.”
“And whatever Earl was looking for, it wasn’t a loose wad of cash?” Cooper eyed him grimly for another moment. “No,” she said then, in answer to his original question. “If Van Hooven was looking for something aboard, I was not included in that information loop. Chances are, whatever it was, Earl found it.”
‘Or Van Hooven doesn’t trust you enough to tell you about it, whatever it might be; if they didn’t find it and we do, it’ll be a test of you to see whether or not you hand it over to him,’ was the other thought in Sully’s head, but he did not share that one. Cooper seemed a sharp enough blade to be thinking it for herself already -- certainly her scowl had gone deeper in the last few seconds.
“It sounds like Hoss has his hands full with repairs,” Sully said. “As a boy, I was apprenticed to my Uncle Slim’s scrapyard business. I’ve worked on a number of Fireflies over the years. I can be of help.”
Another sharply assessing glance from the captain. “Scrap yards and black markets, huh? So just how did you find yourself on Deadwood as a hire-on?”
“My uncle is still in business on Beylix. I decided to go independent. I had my own ship -- the Carolyn Jane. She was a little Gnat class -- but she was beautiful and she was all mine. I was making a delivery to the terraforming station at Seventh Circle when I ran afoul of pirates. Carolyn managed to get me away with my skin on one piece, but her engines were mortally wounded. I wound up adrift in the Uroborus belt. Some asteroid miners caught my life pod signal before my air ran out, and ever since that, I’ve been working my way from job to job through the Blue Cluster.”
The captain stared at him in reply. She seemed to have three expressions: frown, scowl, and deeper scowl. And Cooper was damn good at absorbing data-flow without returning signal of her own. It kept him busy trying to figure out what might be going on in that pretty head. Sully rubbed the back of his neck and gave her a sheepish smile, beginning to think that if he were in her boots, he’d worry someone like him might be in the opposition’s pocket. A good little backstory combined with such a helpful skillset, almost too good to be true, right? Damn right he’d worry, based on what little he’d heard so far of the rivalry between Van Hooven and Darius. Those dark eyes studied him and, like black holes and card sharks the ‘Verse over, gave him nothing back in return.
“How long you keep your Carolyn Jane in operation?” she asked, as Hoss came back to them with the bundle of Tex-Flex in his arms.
“Six and a half years,” Sully replied, with no little pride in that accomplishment.
Cooper nodded brusquely at that. “Hoss, Sully here says he knows Firefly systems. When the two of you have finished with those bodies, show him your to-do list, and your list of prioritized repairs. Suss him out.”
“Sure thing,” Hoss replied. “You gonna go sit that watch now, captain?”
“Yes, mother,” she retorted. Cooper limped away, heading for the lower deck hatch, and it seemed to Sully that she was leaning more heavily on her cane than she had before.
“The captain gonna be okay?” Sully asked Hoss, hoping the friendly mechanic would spill.
Hoss was clambering down into the open bomb bay. He unfurled the roll of cargo netting like he was spreading out a picnic blanket. “She’s going to be fine,” Hoss replied, with a knowing glance back at Sully -- big and friendly though Hoss might be, that look said he wasn’t entirely naive. “The Diamondback had a modified coldbox instead of a port side shuttle,” he said conversationally, refusing to gossip about the captain. “We had stacks and stacks of patients in here, so we bagged the ones who died and took them out to the coldbox through the mid-deck airlock. I used to hate that walk.”
“I’ll bet.” Sully dragged the first of the bodies over to the edge of the bomb bay, and Hoss hefted it in turn pretty effortlessly. “The captain find much of value on the bodies?” Sully asked.
“Not much in terms of pocket-stuff, but almost 500 all in all in credits,” Hoss said, laying the deceased out and then standing to receive the next.
“Then I suppose piracy does pay, after all,” Sully said. “Hoss, you strike me as the honest sort. So tell me the truth -- how straight and narrow is Cooper going to be?”
That earned an unhappy look from Hoss. “How honest a ship is the Jin Dui going to be? Is that what you’re asking?”
Sully rolled another body to the edge and into Hoss’s reach. “It’s a fair enough question. I know who owns the ship, and it’s not every honest ship that has to dispose of near a dozen bodies quite so blithely. Cooper sounds like she has some economic grasp of what she’s getting into: a Firefly is a hard-working little ship, but she doesn’t mass enough cargo to compete easily against all of the big corporate freight haulers out there. What kind of business venture is it that we are all being asked to sign onto here?”
Hoss was frowning mightily by the time Sully had finished that question. The big mechanic seemed like a nice, decent, fundamentally good sort of guy. It was exactly the just too damn nice aura that Hoss radiated that made Sully want to ask the question -- because Sully had had his full in life of being shot at, and of losing the things he cared for. It was a big damn ‘Verse, and there would be other jobs aplenty waiting to be found at the Eavesdown Docks. A smart man would would keep his head down, would stop asking questions -- hell, a smart man damn well would not want know any single damn thing more about this ship, the owner of this ship, her captain, or any other detail of the Jin Dui’s business dealings. Damn no. Sully would be happy to play deaf, mute and stupid, except…
The Van Hoovens and the Dariuses of the ‘Verse did not pull into their orbits the nice, fundamentally decent sorts like Hoss. Sully had seen enough scummy sorts in his time, and neither Hoss or Cooper seemed scummy. Yeah, the captain had her own set of issues. She was clearly cautious enough not to show her hand, but it wasn’t a shifty sort of caution, it was the hard-won kind.
Hoss was still chewing on the question. “Do you mean -- are we going to be bad guys?”
“Yeah, pretty much,” Sully replied.
Hoss was still frowning deeply, as if that question hadn’t been something he’d sunk much consideration into. “Van Hooven owns the ship, and he’s a criminal. But Cooper’s not. I’m not, either. But… ” Hoss paused in his work to rub the back of his neck, his thick black dreads swinging. “We may have to take some jobs that are iffy, but we’re not going to be pirates. We’re not thieves. And we’re not killers.”
“I wouldn’t take you for one,” Sully said with a chuckle, feeling pretty confident Hoss’s dockside-scary look was no more than a superficial, defensive armor. “I’ll be honest with you -- and I know whatever I say to you will eventually go straight to the captain’s ears, as it should,” Sully said. “If I were in the captain’s boots, I’d be damn worried just about now. Everyone on board is a stranger, none of us necessarily are her choice of hire-ons, and any one of us could possibly be working for the enemy. She’s damn right to worry -- though just sayin’, maybe only time will tell, but I don’t think any of the others on board strike me as dangerous types. If any of us were plants, my money would be on the burqa lady -- because can you get any more obvious than that? She might not even be a lady under those robes.”
Hoss’s frown had turned into a sheepish sort of smile. “The captain already said as much,” he agreed. “Though she was more worried about you, except for the fact that Darius’s hireling had you under a gun with the rest of us, and that you then killed one of them.”
Sully had to laugh aloud at that. “Yeah, well, I do hope we’re all just what we appear to be. Because if this Darius fellow didn’t think the ship could take off in the first place, why would he bother with contingency operations? If he didn’t think she would fly, stealing her wasn’t an option. Am I right?”
Hoss nodded. “I think so. And I think the captain thinks so, too. She just worries, though.”
“Yeah, well, a little worry is a good thing. It keeps you on your toes.” They were shifting the next-to-last of the dead bodies down into the bomb bay, and Sully wanted to shower. It was an ugly reminder of just how close he himself had come to death, only an hour and a half or so past. He considered himself to have a broad range of tolerance, but dying was a smidgen outside his comfort zone. What he really wanted was a decent, honest piloting job -- not some chancey position aboard a dubious merchanter where body-disposal was ever included on the duties list. Yet where on the Rim could he go, and find a straight-up job which was both honest and safe? There was always farming, Sully supposed. And he’d had more than enough of that already in life, thank you very much.
They were down to the last body. Sully grasped cold hands and dragged the dead, boneless weight as far as necessary to get it within Hoss’s wide reach. “All right. Listen -- the captain says we’re all working passage to Persephone, and that she’ll make her hire-on decisions then. But I’ll tell you this. The more I look around this boat, the more I am sure of something. You and the captain need are going to need me.”
Hoss gave him the look that statement deserved, before setting the last body down with the rest and beginning the chore of wrapping the bodies securely in the excess netting. Sully jumped down into the bomb bay itself and began to clip the colorful carabiners to the regularly-spaced safety rings, testing each one to make sure none of them were damaged and would give way at the shock exposure to vacuum. “I can do general fix-it, no problem. I intend to start with the gorram lights in my quarters, and after that, I bet I could work 20 hours a day, every day, on this ship till we get to Persephone, and even then, you and I both will still be finding little crap needs fixin’. Am I right?”
Hoss chuckled at that. “I bet you’re right.”
“So there’s work aplenty onboard for me -- if I decide I want to stay on. I’m still making my mind up on that point, because I did just find a large pool of blood in my cabin, obvious evidence of the previous occupant’s having parted ways with the management short of a healthy severance package, dong ma? I would kinda like to avoid dying in the near future, and if dying’s a high possibility, I’d like to know so I can factor that into my decision to stick around or not.”
Hoss had finished. He climbed out of the bomb bay, and reached down a massive paw to offer Sully a hand up. “I don’t want to die either, and the captain is looking out for us. She’s the one who will deal directly with Van Hooven, and she’s gonna keep him happy.”
Sully accepted Hoss’s hand and jumped; Hoss effortly lifted him out of the chest-deep bay and onto his feet on the deck. “Glad to hear that,” he said. “And I’ll have you know -- I have a real soft spot for Fireflies, I’ve been on a bunch of them since I was a kid and I got to know ‘em pretty intimately. This girl’s seen some hard time, but she feels mostly still sound. I’d love to get under the panels and see what she really looks like under these dirty skirts. There are about a dozen standard smuggling holes that custom agents might think to check -- and I know an easy half-dozen others which they won’t.”
“Captain will appreciate that,” Hoss said.
“I’m being frank here -- I think your captain is going to find she needs me. I know how to keep a ship operational in the chancy business out here on the Rim. I don’t want to work as a full-time smuggler again. It’s a hazardous business. I’ve burned out seven of my nine lives already, which was why I came here looking to interview for what was advertised as a straight-up flying job. So, long story short, I’m less concerned about staying above-the-board, because I know in order to keep operational at this size, there’s a lot of competition at that level, and you have to go into the gray market level to keep solvent. So my question here is more - you seem to know Cooper pretty well -- how far outside the lines do you think she’d color, even desperate?”
Hoss stood and thought that over some. “We might smuggle a little if the captain thinks the gain greatly outweighs the risks. But she doesn’t take foolish risks. I know her. I know how she thinks. There’s what’s right and what’s wrong, and then there’s the Law. The Law is all very well and good for the Core, and even for much of the Border. But out here on the Rim, you gotta survive, and sometimes that means being a little grey around the edges. Do you understand what I’m trying to say?” the big man said earnestly.
“Aye,” Sully said. He let go a breath he hadn’t been aware of holding. He liked what he heard. And despite himself -- he really liked this big, puppy-dog eyed lug of a mechanic. Sully couldn’t help think… having lost his own ship, if he really had to settle for working for someone else again, then he wanted a job on a ship with folk like Hoss. Hoss was exactly the sort of nice guy you’d want as a shipmate during long, lonely hauls in between ports. Straightforward, friendly, maybe entertaining if he was lucky, and -- dared Sully even hope? -- potentially capable of baking up the chocolate cake Hoss had earlier promised? And if Hoss was devotedly loyal to a flinty-eyed creature like Captain Cooper, well, that said something in the woman’s scowling favor. Sully found himself suddenly, whole-heartedly, wanting this berth, no matter how bloodily the last crew might have left it.
He clapped the big mechanic on the arm. “I hear what you’re saying, and that’s good enough for me. For now, at least. So. Did I overhear the captain saying something about the algae tanks being offline? Do you mind if we get started there?” he asked.
Hoss grinned a happy smile, and picked up a blank-wrapped bundle to deposit at laundry on their way back through the lower-decks. “Right this way,” he said. “Just follow me.”