April 8, 2514; approximately 9 hours outbound from Persephone, White Sun Cluster
The captain woke with the sound of the end of the world still echoing in her ears. Cooper sat up in the tangled sheets of her rack, one hand gripping compulsively after the old wound, the other clenched over her heart in the fabric of the tank top she slept in. She straightened those fingers and smoothed out the cotton, then felt after her jugular pulse. Her heart rate was soaring in the nightmare’s wake. Cooper micro-focused her attention on her pulse as though it were a meditative mantra, shutting out every other chaotic memory and thought until nothing else existed and that wild horse gallop had eased to a steady, normal pace.
For a long time, Cooper listened to the near-silence, hearing only her own ragged breath and the whisper of fans through the ventilation ducts, and under that, the faint thrum of the ship’s engines. Her cabin's main light was out, but the two blue emergency lights -- one beside the door to the crew quarters corridor, the other at the top of ladder to the bridge hall -- provided their dim glow. When her heart-rate had calmed to her satisfaction, Cooper groped after the PDA unit Chang had cobbled together for her, which lay on the edge of the let-down writing desk just beyond her rack. The hand-held’s display was filled with a broken spiderweb of cracks, but the screen still activated at her touch. It was 0327 Sihnon standard time. Zero-dark-thirty indeed.
There was no red flashing priority notification in the display's upper-hand corner. Cooper had looked for that at the same instant she had sought out the time. Even with port call at Persephone due in less than 9 hours, nothing had developed during her off-shift that the night watch thought merited the captain's immediate attention. Cooper could risk taking a little more time for herself, she judged. She dragged herself off the edge of the rack. The back of her desk chair provided support enough. She leaned against it for a moment, carefully gauging her balance on her crippled leg. The bad hip throbbed, but pain had become such a constant companion she could hardly remember what life had been like without it shadowing her. Cooper managed one step, then a second -- a third got her as far as the cabin door, where her makeshift cane rested in an empty, rusted milk barrel. She reached for the length of battered metal pipe as she triggered the door open, then hobbled out into the dim-lit corridor, limping for the loo at the aft-end of the hall. The tiny closet of the shared loo smelled of bleach; the yellow lights triggered on as she limped in and closed the hatch behind her. She dropped her tank and cargo shorts and stepped into the shower, closing the watertight cubicle door firmly behind her. It was a narrow space -- certainly a tight squeeze for someone tall and broad like Hoss -- but she could lean against the shower wall with little fear of an accidental fall. Cooper turned on the water and lifted her face into the spray. It always started with a lukewarm blast, but then heated up quickly. Eyes closed, Cooper reached after a bar of soap. She scrubbed and scrubbed until her skin stung from the caustic lather; the lye-based soap was especially cruel to the puckered fissures of the twisted burn scars of her crippled hip. But Cooper had little patience or mercy for herself, and driving away the stink of memory-woven dreams was a necessity. Once she finally felt clean, Cooper allowed herself to simply stand there, leaning against the wall of the shower cabinet wall, until the hot spray of water had washed away the last of the clinging nightmare-memories of rot and death and burning flesh. Only then did she let the drying cycle kick in -- and Cooper allowed herself the luxury of standing through three of those.
It was a profound pleasure, to have access to soap and unlimited hot water, a secure shower-unit, and the freedom to soak for as long as she wanted. Of all of the privations Cooper had endured over the years, this was perhaps the one most missed. She had not had such freedom, abundance, or the security to enjoy either since before the first years of the war, when it had seemed like maybe, just maybe, the Alliance might roll over and go back to sleep and hand the Independents a win. Eyes closed and head tilted back wearily, Cooper pushed the button for a fourth drying cycle, and let herself bask in the baking jets that followed.
From a clinical distance, the doctor could diagnose herself easily enough. Hell, any child learning her letters could. Post-traumatic stress was as common as spit among the survivors of the War. The Alliance had the resources to treat their own for it. For the war’s losers, it was something to simply be endured and, if possible, overcome. Cooper prided herself on having a rational and analytical mind; that she even still drew breath and remained lucid was a source of private accomplishment, a credit to her iron will. The nightmares could be endured. During the first difficult months after Unification, Cooper had worked out a weary agreement with her own monsters -- she ruled her tautly-controlled waking hours as best she could, and the nightmares owned her sleep. She got little enough of it, after all, so Cooper considered herself the winner in that deal.
Eventually, the drying jets had warmed her all the way through. Cooper toggled the jets off and cautiously made her way out of the shower. She dressed carefully -- even now, three years after the mortar shell that had crippled her, pulling on a pair of pants could still prove a losing campaign. Once dressed, she stepped out of the loo closet and headed back toward her cabin. She needed fresh clothes and to gather up her hand-held before she headed to the galley and got started on her day's work. It would be a long and difficult day -- after three weeks of transit, the Jin Dui was finally reaching port at the Eavesdown Docks. No matter what, Cooper trusted things would not go smooth. Things never went smooth. But they were quiet enough for the moment -- there would be time enough for a bracing cup of tea, and to see how much Cooper could get accomplished before the first goatcluster inevitably arrived on her deck.
Fatima sat listening for the whisper of sounds from the open all-ship comm channel. Around her, the Jin Dui was closing in on the planet of Persephone -- for the last few days there had been increasing ship traffic after their long, lonely transit from the Blue Cluster and through the fringe of the White. More traffic meant responding to more hails, with less leeway than she liked because this ship's comm range was limited by a worn-out transmitter. It also meant lots of nervous double- and triple-checking of the ship's automated systems. Early after their departure from Deadwood, the pilots had discovered that two of the Jin Dui's starboard RCS thrusters were dead, but that some ghostly bug in the computers was reading them as active. The nav comp was calculating their projected actions as live ones and adjusting accordingly. That required a regular eye on helm readings and steady trimming from port to keep them steady on course. It was busywork for a pilot, and a source of annoyance -- but it had also been something regular to do, during the tedium of the long dark between the clusters.
Through the open all-ship, Fatima had heard the scuff of footsteps, not too long ago. The irregular step and the accompanying tap-tap of a cane had told her it was the captain -- even without those now-familiar tells, she would have guessed as much anyway, based on the hour alone. No one else was ever active this early, not willingly. Fatima had volunteered for the night watch on the bridge, grateful for the solitude and isolation. The rest of the crew slept through Fatima's waking hours; she generally interacted with them only during the breakfast meal and the dinner meal. Only the captain ever seemed to be awake and active during the hours of Fatima's lonely shift. Cooper retired to her cabin late, almost always after spending time practicing with her violin in the cargo hold. That meant that music usually filled the first hour of Fatima's shift -- and sometimes, too, at the end of Fatima's shift as well, for those times when the captain woke even earlier than her farmer's dawn habit and began the day with a practice session as well. The captain had never turned off the all-ship comm to keep her violin private, even though sometimes, the poignant music she played sounded to Fatima's ears like an intimate conversation to which Fatima was eavesdropping.
Now, she overheard the sounds of work being done in the gallery. Fatima sat and listened, trimming up the ship's course almost as though on auto-pilot herself. She realized her hands on the controls were trembling. Fatima took a deep breath, then whispered a prayer in supplication. As she opened her eyes again, she heard the approaching tap of a cane and footsteps, up the corridor bridgeward.
The captain arrived without fanfare, setting a safety-capped cup of tea on the edge of the pilot's station before settling on the edge of the co-pilot's console, sipping at a cup of her own. Fatima took a grateful drink from the cup she had been provided. Green tea, with a touch of cream -- the captain had learned how Fatima preferred it and made this her habit, a brief, unacknowledged kindness as she sought a watch report. "No trouble during alter-day," Fatima said, holding the warm cup tightly to hide the tell-tale shaking of her hands. She was pleased that her voice sounded steady to her own ears, and gave no hint of the sour, roiling fear that had consumed her for this entire watch. Not my last, please no, may Allah be merciful, not my last. "We've had comm contact from Persephone -- standard communications, nothing irregular enough to disturb your sleep with. Dockmaster's office confirms our scheduled approach and landing at 1215, Berth 808D-12 West. We've had some chatter from other ships in-system, just friendly hails, nothing more. System traffic is getting more busy, but I’m seeing nothing unusual."
Cooper was giving a pre-occupied nod as she listened; she stabbed at the co-pilot control board and was reading screens for herself, Fatima's words just one of a number of incoming data streams. "Persephone was a home port for your last ship," she said, repeating what Fatima herself had told the captain, weeks ago after the Jin Dui had launched unexpectedly from Deadwood.
"Yes," Fatima said simply, while her belly clenched and she tasted bile in the back of her throat. Under the concealment of her veil, she did not have to worry about her face giving away her fear, and clutching her cup close hid the tremor in her hands. It was only her voice that could betray her, and Fatima had learned too dearly how to control that. "Parysatis's regular run was Londinium to Persephone to Beaumonde. We favored the Gateway and Nemecek Docs over Eavesdown, but the in-system approach is no different."
Cooper was nodding again, although this time in response to information scrolling across the co-pilot station's secondary screen. "We'll have a bit of a quiet stretch before things get really busy, it looks like," the captain said. "I'm heading back to the cargo bay to take care of the stock. After that, I'll get to the galley before Halo's up to take his shift. I'll have secondary comm shunted over to me then and there."
"Yes, sera." Fatima gathered up her courage as the captain moved to rise. "Have you decided?" she asked.
Cooper stood for a moment, leaning on her cane as she looked at Fatima. "Decided?" the woman asked in return.
Fatima swallowed heavily. "When we left Deadwood, you said you would decide which of us you would hire on, after we had worked our passage to Persephone." Fatima heard the crack in her voice, and knew that her desperate fear was exposed.
"If you impress me, I'll make you an offer once we reach the Eavesdown Docks." Those had been the captain's exact words. "If you don't impress me, then at Persephone we'll part ways." Fatima had spent the past three weeks sitting her watches dutifully, and tackling every skut-work chore she could with diligent fervor. But Fatima knew her own measure -- and she had done nothing impressive. She was a decent pilot, but she had none of Halo's war-honed natural talent. And while her simm-scores at helm matched Sully's fairly equally, she had none of the rest of his general skills that had made him valuable in helping to patch up the ship. Nor did she have the easy and friendly manner both men exhibited. I am the least valuable person aboard, Fatima feared.
The captain's preoccupied expression had vanished, replaced by a thoughtful frown. Fatima again felt her stomach clench painfully. "What are your intentions?" the captain asked in return, all but confirming Fatima's fear. I am the least valuable person aboard, Fatima knew. The ship cannot afford too many crew. The captain cannot afford to keep me! Where shall I go? How shall I survive?
"I want to stay aboard the Jin Dui." Fatima struggled not to sound too fearful, too desperate, but then her plea swept out of her in an impassioned rush. "My ship is dead. My family is dead. I have no one to turn to and no where to go. Please, captain. Do not cast me out. I will work without wages, I will do every chore no one else wishes to do, just please, do not cast me out! Not here. Please."
Fatima's anguish made its impression. The captain let go a heavy breath, then drank the dregs from her tea cup as though buying a moment's thought. "You won’t be working without wages," Cooper finally said. "Not unless we all do... which may prove more likely than not." Cooper held her eyes steadily until certain Fatima understood she had what she had begged for, then gave her a single nod before turning and limping to the bridge hatchway. "I'll call up when I'm back at work in the galley," the captain said in parting. "I'll let you know when to switch over comm two to the auxiliary."
Fatima sagged back into the seat, weak with relief once Cooper had departed. Fatima found it a struggle to find her voice again, but she managed it. "Aye, captain," she said in response.
The moment Abigail Baldwin had been dreading had finally come.
Abby sat on the edge of her bunk, her mahogany hair hanging in a long, freshly-showered curtain down her back. Reluctantly, she reached after her Finder from the let-down desk beside her bunk. I could always go eat breakfast instead, she thought as she picked the device up. It felt too sleek and feather-light in her hand to be the source of such a weight of dread. I should. I really should. Eat first. Who knows what's waiting in my message queue to spoil my stomach. My day. My life?
She waffled for a moment in indecision, but Abby knew that if she put the unit down again, she would face a Sisyphean curse in summoning the courage up again for a second attempt. No. She had already put this off for several days, secretly relieved to hear Chang grousing about no Cortex access because the ship's goushi comm range couldn't sustain a connection to the outer relays.
The unexpected reprieve had only stretched out her fear, knowing that a working connection was inevitable as the ship neared its destination.
No. Enough was enough. Time to bite the bullet and get it over with. Abby slipped the stretchy plas-suede over her left wrist, and the iridescent pearl band immediately conformed itself snugly against her skin. Half a heartbeat later, the personal unit gave its pleasing waking chime and an opening holo-display of a blooming cherry orchard on the slopes above Lake Mikado beamed above Abby’s wrist. Almost immediately, a crimson priority light began to flash in the lower left screen corner and a vibration pulsed insistently against the underside of her wrist, while on the holo-display, the cherry blossoms swayed behind a semi-transparent overlay of scrolling Cortex news-notes.
Bracing herself, Abby flicked a right fingertip across the holo-display, activating the backlog of captured waves. Before departing her home on Epevua for the last time, she had set her comm-filters to keep herself as out-of-reach as possible. But now that the ship she was aboard had passed into the White Cluster again, there was no way to politely sustain her self-imposed exile. She read the IDs of the scrolling stream of waiting message files. A few of them were valid business -- a birth announcement from an old university friend, subscription notification reminders, a cousin’s invitation to a party which had taken place three months ago. Three messages from her father. And predictably enough -- dozens and dozens of messages from her mother, the latest sent just 36 hours ago.
Abby singled out her father’s most recent message. It came up at once, her father’s broad, ruddy face in the center of the screen, his stark monochrome business office filling the background.
“Ni hao my little honey-bunny!” her father said cheerfully. “I’m in between meetings here -- we’re about to close a new deal with Blue Sun pharmaceuticals, so you know I’ve got a full plate. But I’ve just gotten off the beam with your mother, and as you’ll guess, she’s having a conniption. Please, do us all a favor and talk to your mother at the soonest. She is worried enough about you that she’s asking me politely for my help in finding you. Politely. Will wonders never cease?’ Her father laughed warmly, but Abby could still see the faint lines of worry around his eyes. “Talk to your mother, and send me a wave when you’ve the time. You’ve no doubt visited some distant ports and seen some interesting sights, and I’d love to hear all about them! Send me a wave when you can and have my staff schedule something for us sometime soonest.”
“Tzai heui, dad,” Abby said aloud wistfully as she closed the wave. She took a deep breath and selected one of her mother’s last half-dozen waves at random.
Her mother had recorded the wave from poolside somewhere-- the sumptuous architecture in the background looked like something from Ancient Rome. Her mother was reclining on silken cushions, her hair up in a red-gold twist and dark sunglasses protecting her luminous eyes. Something that looked fruity and frothy was in a fluted crystal glass at her elbow.
“This is your mother,” Clarissa Bow said sternly and entirely unnecessarily. “It has been more than six months since you last sent word, and I demand you contact me as soon as you have received this!. And don’t lie to me and tell me that you’re safe -- I know how uncivilized they are there beyond the Core, and I have nightmares about you lying dead in an alley somewhere, or that you’ve been kidnapped and sold into slavery by some savage criminals! Baby, it’s time for you to come home. I know you turned sour on working for Bhargava & Lyons, but Bhargava and Bhatti both promise me that they’ve held a position for you as an associate with their firm, as soon as you come home again. I know how clever you are, you’ll be a partner in no time at all! My darling, it’s time for you to grow up. It’s time for you to be an adult. Give up this nonsense about being an outback doctor -- after all, if you were meant to be a surgeon I would have sent you to the Medical Academy on Osiris! It’s time for you to come home and do something meaningful with yourself. There’s decent and very valuable employment waiting for you here, and it’s time for you to come back and make something of yourself! After all, you’re my only child, and your flitting about like this reflects terribly on me, you know. What am I to tell all of my very important friends when they ask about you? If you need money for passage home, you know you need only ask. My people have standing orders to send you anything you need, and I’ll happily send the yacht to collect you! Oh -- and I saw Rodney and his handsome father the other day. They both asked about you. Rodney still hasn’t married anybody, honey. I think he’s pining for you still -- but that can’t last. You need to come home and put things to right. Besides -- I’m going to be throwing myself a marvelous birthday party to celebrate my milestone next year. I intend to see you at it. Ta da, darling -- your mother loves you and is waiting to hear from you. I swear, baby, I’ll hire people to track you down, if I don’t hear from you soon. Bhatti has a number of private investigators on staff, all it would take from me is just a word in his ear -- I’ve restrained myself from sending them out after you already only because I know how you’d sulk over it, but my patience is melting like butter, baby. Like butter!”
The motherly tirade ended on there. Abby double-checked the date -- the message was just about two weeks old. Clarissa Bow wasn’t a woman who made empty threats. Abby knew the chances were good that her mother had already unleashed her hounds. Abby grit her teeth and pushed back her loose hair, then made the keystrokes to place a wave.
“Hello Mom,” she said, forcing a smile for her Finder lens. “I know it’s been a while since my last wave…”
---to be continued---