Tuesday, 15 August 2023 00:00

Archimedes Loss

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A Care Givers Company Adventure

Archimedes Loss

By E. E. Nalley


There was mutiny in the air.

Captain Simon Tasker may not have been the sharpest or best educated of the rock jock drivers working for Kennecott Geophysical, but like any good commander of a vessel he had a keen sense of the mindset of the crew. And that mindset was angry, frustrated beyond all reason and he held the straw that might just break the camel’s back.

That straw was a neatly typed memo that was dated December 1st 2045 from the company’s Earth bound HQ. It was a memo that canceled all leave for the crew of the approaching miner, Archimedes. Captain Tasker could not believe the stupidity of some Earth bound clerk who, for convenience’s sake had blithely decided ten men who had worked and worked hard for their company two years straight didn’t deserve some R&R.

Captain Tasker didn’t fear much, but this memo would have repercussions; bad ones if he didn’t find some way of softening this blow. He sat at the Ward Room table, a nice name for what was little better than a closet barely two meters on a side that still managed to hold a booth that could seat five with one off the end, the spare refrigeration unit for the galley, which was mostly used for thawing food from the deep freezer as well as snacks for the crew and of course that holy of holies, cream for the coffee.

There was a microwave, a toaster oven, and the main ship’s coffee pot in here as well. Captain Tasker wasn’t sure when it was cleaned, but as he’d never had a bad cup out of it, he left well enough alone. Cookie ran a tight kitchen and a good Captain knew when to stay out of his men’s way and let them do their jobs.

Simon Tasker was almost ninety, though thanks to the miracle of modern pharmacology his physical age appeared to be of a man just stepping into middle age. That miracle was named Fountain and he’d taken out a small mountain of debt to pay for the doses for a run of the drug when it had first come out on the market back in ’22. He rather thought he was being sly at the time. Work hard, stay young, and retire in style that had been his motto. Of course those plans had gotten dashed when, five years ago the patent for Fountain had expired. Now every swinging yahoo could afford the miracle and the Federal Government, not wanting to have to honor a mountain of social security retirees, changed the retirement age on him. It had jumped from 65 to 140.

The Captain’s long, fairly rugged face split into a rueful smile as he shook his head at his own foolishness. There was no way a common man like him was ever going to get one over on anybody and he should have had the good sense to know it.

He wasn’t a handsome man, rugged perhaps if one were inclined to be charitable, but not handsome. His jaw was too straight, his features too irregular, dominated by a great fleshy nose perched under a brooding brow that despite Fountain was getting worn by the constant worry for ten lives. He wore his graying black hair close to his head which only made sense for someone who made his living in a place where gravity was not something you could take for granted. A pair of clear green eyes reread the memo and latched onto the one item that could possibly keep his ship in his hands. It was a budget expansion for crew payroll. Not much, but it just might mean the difference if it was spent just the right way.

The Captain reached over from his place in the booth and picked up the interphone handset. After a moment of it buzzing in his ear it was answered, “Bridge, what’s up Captain?”

“Bobby, are we in range for two way comm. with Earth yet?”

“Uh, just about, skipper,” the watch officer’s voice answered. “There’ll be about a two second lag each way; just enough to be annoying I’m afraid.”

“Good enough, patch me through to Earth net down here, would you?”

“Something up, skipper?” the young man asked.

“Nothing to miss dinner over,” the Captain assured him. With that was a very devout I hope that went unvoiced. “Out here.” The handset was returned to its cradle even as the screen below it came to life with a simple graphic of the company’s home page. A few careful presses of the touch sensitive screen with fingers that were nearly too big and callused to use them and the page had changed.

It was a soothing page, full of dull, cool colors, simple abstract designs that put Simon in mind of a lovely autumn day with leaves blowing on the wind. He read through the FAQ section quickly, browsed through the current offerings and was fairly satisfied this would do the trick. The problem was a regulation that was stated subtly, but firmly through out the site. Simon pressed the contact us button and was a bit dumbfounded to find himself looking at a sight that made his heart start beating a mile a minute. Something he hadn’t seen in anything close to real time in the better part of a year.

A woman.

And what a woman! She wore the taunt, smooth skin of a girl just stepping into her maidenhood over delicate bones that sculpted the face of a fine porcelain doll. A high forehead was exposed by jet black hair that was worn up in an extremely complicated arrangement that still managed to frame an aristocratic face whose firmness was offset by a smile the face was obviously used to wearing. But it was her eyes that gave her away; they were deep, endless and had seen far more things than her flawless skin would lead you to believe. The hairstyle clashed somewhat with the hot pink flight suit she was wearing, but in a way it matched as well. She dipped her head in a bow that didn’t take her out of the camera’s input and for that, Simon was grateful. “Konechiwa,” she said in the clear, musical voice of a songbird. “I read from your ship’s ID your primary language is English. I am Sister Yoko Sato; if you would prefer a different language please state your preference now.”

“Er, English is fine, Sister Sato,” stammered Simon. “I’m Captain Simon Tasker of the mining ship Archimedes. We’re on about a two second time lag here, so please bear with me.”

She continued to smile at him through the screen while the lag took place and for once in his life, Simon was glad of a communications lag. “I understand your lag, Captain Tasker and please refer to me as Yoko. How may I be of service?”

“Well, I have a budget expansion for a new hand and I was thinking of hiring one of your ladies. Trouble is, there’s ten of us and if I’m reading your site correctly I’d be required to hire two, is that correct?”

Sadness flickered across her features at his dilemma. “I am afraid it is, Captain. We do our best not to have a great many strict rules but one person, even one as competent as we pride ourselves as being, can only do so much. If you would consider stretching your budget to meet our minimum staffing level I believe I can grant you a waiver to keep you from being required to hire one of Ship Mother Rank; that would be a significant cost saving for you. There isn’t much sense in requiring a supervisor for one employee.”

Worry began to buzz at the back of Simon’s mind. “I don’t suppose you folks offer a package deal, do you?” Her laugh was musical, even as she shook her head.

“What you might be able to negotiate with one of our employees is entirely up to you, Captain. If I am reading your telemetry right you will be in port tomorrow, yes?” Tasker nodded. “Then I cordially invite you to Yotori Station to speak with Ship Mother Olivia Hammond. She is in charge of new hire relations and we have a complete Training Flight about to graduate. You’re just in time.”

“Thank you very much, Yoko. I appreciate your help.”

“It is an honor to be of service. May I place you on Mother Hammond’s calendar for your meeting?”

“I ought to be through with the Harbor Master by ten. Would eleven be alright?”

Her eyes flicked away to read a computer screen off the camera. “It would be. Shall I have a shuttle pick you up?”

Tasker was impressed; that wasn’t a small offer. He wasn’t looking forward to paying for a hop from Port Sheppard out there. Bad enough the boys were going to be stuck on the station and as he’d be the first to admit, he was a Spacer. Spacer’s didn’t part with money they didn’t have to. “I’d be obliged for the service,” he told her.

“I will see to the arrangements with Port Sheppard Harbor Control. Welcome back to Earth.”

Not welcome home, the Captain thought to himself as he looked at the company’s logo, still spread across his screen. Oh well, nothing else for it. The handset once more in his ear, Tasker flipped the switch to the all call circuit. “Listen up, boys. I need everybody except the watch officer to meet me in the galley. Bobby, rig up a circuit so you can listen in too. I’ve got bad news and we might as well hash it out all at once.”

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She was having a bad day.

It wasn’t that things were going especially wrong, only differently from how she had planned for them to. Her opponent had a confident smirk, knowing she had already lost one match; a single elimination was all that remained to end the tournament for her. A part of her subconscious was beating her up over the mental slip that had cost her the second match of the tournament and try as she might she couldn’t quiet the mental voice to keep herself focused.

She began to worry the match was lost before it even started.

“Rei?” The voice of the team captain cut through her private worries and fears, snapping her back to the here and now. “Rei, it’s your match.”

The young girl sighed as she stood and nodded. Like the rest of her team she was dressed only in a sport bra to keep her modesty more for anything else and the traditional belt and loincloth of the sport. Her voluminous hair was the color of midnight, and were it free it would hang to her waist, but it was confined to a braid and coiled like a black serpent about her head. She was a lovely young woman, barely twenty with a grace and poise she walked with subconsciously as she carefully mounted the clay steps of the dohyo.

The dohyo was a perfectly square mountain of clay that held the position of honor in the precise center of the Station’s main auditorium. It lay nearly a meter tall and almost four wide. In the center of it a perfect circle had been etched into the clay and then further demarked by clay filled reed baskets. It was as close to the ancient battlefield of sumo as could be had on a space station that floated miles over the nation of its birth.

“Semi-final match four,” the Gyoji or referee was informing the audience. With a gesture he indicated Rei’s opponent, a svelte blonde from Alabama who up until the last three years of her life had been a boy. You would never know it to look at her now, and it wasn’t only the full, nearly perfect bosom that strained from its own confinement in the sports bra that held them close to her breast. Indeed, from her head, crowned with a page boy of hair the color of summer straw to the tips of her red painted toe nails, there was nothing masculine about her. “Daughter Lillian Beauregard, Training Flight Nineteen from Montgomery, Alabama, USA,” intoned the Gyoji.

In turn, Lillian raised each leg and stomped her bare foot into the clay, her eyes never leaving Rei’s.

Rei plucked a handful of salt from a bamboo basket that was held by one of the Gyoji’s assistants to spread in a single cast into the ring. The Gyoji turned, his splendid silk kimono flashing through intricate patterns of light with his movements. “Daughter Rei Yotori, Training Flight Nineteen, from Tokyo, Japan.”

The two combatants entered the ring, a pair of panthers each looking for a point of weakness in the other; some opening they could exploit. The paper fan of the Gyoji interceded their direct lines of vision, but Rei’s mind painted Lillian’s face in perfect detail behind it. The blue, doe like eyes filled with an intense concentration that disrupted the image of bubble headed blonde she sometimes affected to throw others off balance.

The fan flashed away as a pair of fists touched the clay at the same moment. There came a rush of moment, a gasp from the spectators and a lifetime of struggle compressed into a trice of seconds. The clay of the dohyo proved an unyielding stop as Rei contemplated the inner top of the wooden swept roof that was held by wires over the mound.

She had lost.

Lillian’s face filled her field of vision, both flushed with the thrill of victory and concern for her friend. Rei took the hand she offered and was back on her feet. “You ok?” she asked in furtive whisper over the crowd’s accolades.

Rei couldn’t keep herself from hugging her conqueror. “Congratulations, Lil,” she told her with all the conviction she could place in the words. The two broke apart as Rei hurried to fulfill her obligations as the bouts loser. From a bucket and ladle, both made of bamboo by the side of the dohyo she scooped a draught of water that she brought back to Lillian and offered with a deep bow.

The blonde accepted the drink as the ceremony was completed. The two left the clay mountain together and now that she had been eliminated, Rei found the great weight she had been struggling with finally lifted. “Hey, you’re still top of the class,” Lillian chided her with a lopsided smile. “It’s not like you can be perfect all the time.”

Rei smiled indulgently at her friend. “Perhaps,” she murmured.

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“What’d a mean the leave’s been canceled?” bellowed the overwhelming voice of Terrence Biggs, easily the largest, loudest and quite possibly the meanest member of a crew that anyone of which could hold his own in a barroom brawl. “They can’t do that!”

“It’s done,” growled Simon, not daring to take his eyes from the outraged face of the other man. “Ain’t no use arguing about it and I ain’t gonna shout over every rough necked rock jock to be heard so sit down and shut up!”

“But that ain’t fair, Cap’n!” protested the slight and bookish Johnny Walsh. Of course, in this profession, slight and bookish were relative terms. “We done our share and then some; over time and over worked, we got this time off coming!”

Biggs at last took the hint he wasn’t going to stare down the captain and so turned away. Simon kept his sigh of relief quiet. “I shouldn’t have to connect the dots for you on this, boys. Avalon has found a rock three miles wide that’s damn close to eighty percent nickel/iron. What ain’t nickel/iron is tin and every man here knows what that means.” Tin had its own industrial uses, it was an excellent alloy material and in high demand for a number of purposes. It was also a tell tale marker of the presence of other heavier metals, chiefly silver, gold and platinum. “Avalon can’t claim the whole rock by herself so every ship the company’s got that isn’t already working a rock is getting sent there. Most of them are getting sent hot, right out of the barn and with precious little detail about whether our boys have got everything they need.”

“And they can’t send a freighter to re-supply without giving away the location of the mother load,” finished Walsh with a sigh. “So we get to play freighter, Cap’n?”

Tasker nodded. “While the tech’s push us through our overhaul like a house a fire, Walsh, you and Jenkins are going to be fitting a fifth wheel over the drill bit. We’re gonna be hauling about ten standard containers that are gonna link up there. Food mostly, some air bottles, spare parts and the usual, but that’s not what I called this meeting for.”

Confusion played across the face of every man present. “We got our budget numbers back from corporate and we’ve been expanded for an extra hand. I’ve already called ahead and have an appointment to talk with Ship Mother Hammond over at CGC.” The captain couldn’t continue for the cheer that broke out and didn’t let up for nearly a solid minute.

“Knock it off!” bellowed Biggs, catching the Captain’s eyes as the cheer subsided. Tasker wasn’t exactly sure he liked the glance he received, but as they were on the same side for now he decided he’d let it pass. “So, who picks this girly girl we’re getting?”

“Right now we’ve got bunk space for a pilot and a med tech,” Simon replied. “So their qualifications will pick them. But, there’s another problem, boys; there’s ten of us and the ladies over at CGC tell me a crew of this size must have two Care Givers.”

“And that’s a problem?” laughed Cookie with what he thought a very gallant smoothing of his dark Van Dyke beard over his swarthy skin.

“You know how expensive a Care Giver is?” shot back Walsh. “We got budget for two girls, Cap’n?”

“Nope,” Simon told him with heavy regret. “Barely have enough for one and if there’s a bidding war most likely we won’t win. But, my boys, I have a plan. I’ll tell you up front, you aren’t going to like it, but if every man here will get behind it, I think we’ll be able to have our pilot and our med tech and they’ll both be wearing pink jumpers.”

“Why do I get the feeling this is about to hit us where it hurts?” drawled Biggs.

Captain Tasker removed his pay and earnings certificate from a pocket of his flight suit. “This is my bonus voucher, boys. If every man here will throw in their bonus with mine, I think we can pick up two ladies.”

Biggs chuckled darkly, “Yep, the wallet.”

A whisper of conversation ran through the crowd in front of the Captain. What he was asking was no small thing. The boys had worked hard to make that bonus; there wasn’t a man there who didn’t have some pet plan for that money. Finally Walsh swore a long string of profanity. “I’m in,” he said finally. “It’s only money, right? Ain’t like we can’t go out and earn more.”

The truism opened a flood gate leading to a collection of pay vouchers returning to the hand that had passed them out. Bobby had promised his from the intercom and that just left one. “Biggs?” asked Captain Tasker as he cocked his head to look up at the big man.

“It ain’t like I don’t have plans for this,” the other man declared, brandishing the voucher. “I almost lost a thumb earning it too!”

“Every man here worked hard, Terry,” Simon told him.

“Hell,” Biggs swore, shoving the paper into the captain’s hand. “But I’m coming along,” he said quickly. “That’s a lot of money for one man to be walking around with.”

Simon smirked. “Figured to ask you along any how. For the time being, we’re eighteen hours out port and we ain’t even close to being ready. Let’s all turn to and get her ship shape. We got a hard boost as soon as we get signed off on and more than our share of chores to do between then and now.”

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Captain Tasker fumed as he sat in the departure lounge of Port Sheppard. He had an excellent view of the circular two hundred meter bulk of the Archimedes as she was being swarmed over by a small army of pressure suited technicians that had begun to see to her refit almost before the docking had been completed. They were not the cause of the Captain’s ire.

The Harbor Master’s office held that position.

Between the fees, duties, inspection costs, gas dock space and the other little costs what ten years ago would have been a fairly inexpensive reconditioning were rapidly adding up to a major expense. Archimedes had only five years on her space frame, she was one of the newest vessels in Kennecott’s fleet and Simon knew it was a compliment for him to have been chosen to be her skipper. It didn’t change the fact that these costs were going eat very deeply into the ship’s profit margin for the next year, if not beyond.

To his mind, there wasn’t really a reason for it, either.

It wasn’t like this out in the Belt, that was certain. Sure dipping into Mars could get expensive, but if he had to pick and choose, he’d pick Mars over having to come all the way to Earth any day of the month. This was probably the reason the bureaucracy mandated every ship capable of making the journey come back to Earth to be re-certified. It was a nice little shot in the economy every time someone with a mind to be successful had to hemorrhage some cash to keep his livelihood.

Days like this were the reason Simon Tasker didn’t work for himself.

Keeping Corporate happy with the bottom line was bad enough. He didn’t want to think about the amount of stress he’d be under if the Archimedes was his ship and this was all coming out of his pocket. Still, it galled some unnamed portion of his mind for these want-to-be Spacers that never left Earth-Moon space to be so gleeful about their highway robbery.

A soft tone proceeded a male voice cycle through English, Japanese and Spanish in his announcement. “Care Givers Company Runabout, Mae Jemison arriving at gate fifty three.”

“That’s us, boss,” Biggs told him with an elbow to Simon’s arm for emphasis. The big man stood and clapped his hands together in glee. “You think those rumors about Yotori Station are true; a whole station full of lovelies all looking to prove they’re the Spaceman’s Best Friend?”

“Terry,” growled the Captain as he got wearily to his feet. “If you embarrass me over there, God as my judge you’ll be out the first airlock I come across.”

“What?” replied the other with a frown. “Can’t a man get excited about getting his pecker wet?”

“That’s the kind of talk that will get the girls rates shot right up out of our range. Do you want to go back and tell the boys we have to boost empty handed ‘cause you couldn’t keep a civil tongue in your head?”

“Well take the fun out of everything why don’t ya?” Terry responded in a far more subdued tone. “Besides, you can’t tell me just ‘cause you get saluted every time you pass a fart don’t mean you ain’t looking forward to this as much as me; been a year and a half since any of us got our wicks dipped.”

“Talk like that will make it three years,” Simon replied as he walked over to the Lexan view port to get a good look at the Mae Jemison. Like any other Port Runabout she was a pretty ugly ship, built predominately in hard, boxy lines that were space efficient, but even efficiency couldn’t disguise the hot pink paint that covered her from one end to the other. A bulbous crew compartment dominated her bow that tapered down to a tubular steel framework that connected it to an engine pack at her stern while serving as the attachment point to a variety of standard containers.

The one she wore held view ports, giving it away as a passenger module.

Just aft of the nose docking coupler, beside the sun dominated flag of Japan was a portrait of a young looking African-American woman wearing a red old style NASA pressure suit. She was a very lovely woman with a wide smile that seemed natural on her face beside which the legend of the ship had been lettered in both English script and kanji.

The gate attendant seemed satisfied that the docking had been successful as he un-dogged the hatch and locked it open, out of the way. This revealed a regal looking woman whose chestnut brown hair was bound in a braid that slipped over her shoulder as she ducked her head to enter the station. “Permission to come aboard?” she asked the attendant who nodded his acquiescence before turning back to his console. She flowed onto the station proper with a grace that set Simon’s heart to pounding.

Between the diamonds the size of his thumbnail on her shoulders and the name tape over her breast, the Captain realized his appointment had come to him. Her hand was cool, firm and offered without a moment’s hesitation; this was a person who was extremely confident of who and what she was. “Captain Tasker, I presume?” she asked with a smile that shaped her contralto with the care Da Vinci must have taken on the Mona Lisa.

Simon finally found his tongue. “Ship Mother Hammond, it’s an honor to meet you.”

“It’s only Olivia, Captain Tasker,” she assured him, offering her hand to Biggs once Simon could remember to release it. “How do you do?” she asked.

“Big diamonds,” drooled Terry, whose comment struck the Captain like a fist to his guts. However, before he could even being to fret about what kind offense had been tendered, Olivia’s laugh floated from her throat. He was almost glad the big oaf had put his foot in it to get to hear that sound. “Terry Biggs,” he finally managed.

“You can have them, if you like them so much, Mr. Biggs,” she told him with a smile. “I’m afraid they’re not worth anything other than what they symbolize to my company. They’re manmade and glow rather brightly under ultraviolet light. How long has it been since you boys have been back to Earth?”

Simon purposefully trod on Terry’s foot. “It’s been the better part of three years since Earth for most of us, ma’am,” he told her over Biggs’s gasp of pain. “And a year and a half since we’ve been in port for anything other than a quick re-supply.” She frowned and the Captain began to wish he could go back in time to prevent himself from causing her dismay.

“Kennecott is certainly getting their money’s worth out of you boys then. It’s unfortunate they’re so pressed but I like to think we can do something that will help make that time a bit more bearable. If you’ll come aboard we can talk about it.” She led the way back into the Runabout, the two men eager on her heels.

The Mae Jemison’s interior was as efficient and business like as her exterior had been. This first chamber was a utility deck, octagonal in lay out at the center of which was a ladder well leading up to the flight deck. At the rear of this was an airtight hatch that gave way to the passenger module, and it was in here that efficiency gave way to comfort. The module was built from burl wood, camel colored leather, love and comfort. It was easily the nicest accommodation Simon had ever set foot on.

Behind them the airlock back onto Port Sheppard clanged shut before either man could realize Olivia had been about the tasks. “All clear and buttoned up, Julie,” she called up the ladder before joining the two men in the passenger module.

Before she could say anything the intercom burbled to life. “Lady, and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We’d like to welcome you aboard CGC Flight 2244 to Yotori Station; or as it’s otherwise known heaven. For those of you enrolled in our Frequent Flyer program you’ll be earning nine thousand miles this afternoon. The current time on Yotori Station is 14:23, or thirteen hours ahead of Port Sheppard so adjust your personal time keepers accordingly. Our total flight time with be twenty minutes and as we’re now clear of Port Sheppard Control we’ll be boosting shortly. Please have your seat backs, tray tables and fly zippers in the fully up and locked position and as always, enjoy your trip with us.”

Ship Mother Hammond rolled her eyes before turning to call over her shoulder, “You’re a pilot, Julie, not a comedienne. Stay with what you’re good at.”

Over the intercom a chuckle drifted from the speakers. “Thank you, you’re a great audience and I’ll be here till Wednesday. Don’t forget to tip your server and try the veal!”

“I’m liking this trip already,” remarked Terry with a lecherous grin. The trio got themselves seated to creak of Corinthian leather and braided ballistic nylon. Olivia had rotated her seat to face the two men and was comfortable with smooth, practiced motions.

“So, before we get too far underway, can I offer you gentlemen some refreshment?” The Mae Jemison lurched slightly as she came loose from her berth and began to drift lazily away from the sprawling center of space industry. Simon shook his head as he couldn’t help a final look out the view port at the Archimedes. The gas dock loop was nearly spread, a massive bag of a woven Kevlar derivative that was nearly a million times stronger than its bullet proof cousin. It would allow the techs to pump in an atmosphere to speed up their work on the craft, unencumbered by the bulk of a pressure suit. “So, Captain Tasker, what are you looking for in a crew member?” Olivia asked him, drawing him back into the cabin.

Thoughts of home would have to wait. “Well, currently we’ve got a need for a relief pilot and a medic. We lost both of ours to a micrometeorite hit out in the Belt. They both pulled through, but they’re going to be laid up for six more months easy from the decompression.”

“I see. Yoko tells me you would like to inquire about a waiver for hiring a Ship Mother. The Archimedes has a crew of, what? Ten?” Simon nodded to the welcome return of her smile. “Yes, I think I agree with Yoko, what you need is not a supervisor but a pair of solid hands who can pull their weight. Once you file your flight plan, and of course you’ve negotiated a contract, I’ll have the girls report to the closest Ship Mother at one of the Belt Refineries.”

“We do most of our smelting at Borneo,” supplied Simon.

“Ship Mother Kurosawa is in charge of Borneo,” she replied. “I’ll send her an email once we have things a bit more finalized. As Yoko said we have a training flight just graduating tomorrow. You’re in great luck. Thus far, none of the girls have been posted yet so you’ll have the pick of the litter.”

“Posted?” asked Terry in, for once to Simon’s relief, a respectful tone.

Olivia’s smile was of the sardonic variety. “I don’t want to bore you lads with a history lesson, but, our Founder was a retired geisha. She had some rather firm ideas about how the new should incorporate the old. What it means is you’ll be able to talk with all the girls who are rated in the specialties you’ve requested and once you’ve found a pair to your liking who are also fond of you, you’ll be able to place a bid for their contracts. The contract terms are for five years, longer with negotiation. The base fee is for the complete salary for that time period. A third up front and then the next two payments spread out.”

“We pay her?” ask Biggs, but Olivia shook her head.

“No, you pay CGC. Our employees remain our employees. There are some standard contractor provisions you’ll need to be aware of and they’ll be provided to you in the contract. As you boys run a fairly small ship you’ll have to look for girls specifically restricting their bids to small ships. Keep in mind that’s the base rate. That is the minimum you’ll be required to pay. Your negotiation leverage comes in a number of angles, not necessarily restricted to cash. Just about anything desirable can be offered, bonus shares, time off, living conditions, you’re only limited by your own imaginations. Keep that in mind.”

“We…well at the risk of sounding like a skin flint,” stuttered Simon, “we couldn’t just hire two at the base rate?”

Olivia chuckled and shrugged her shoulders. “Anything is possible, Captain Tasker. I understand you boys are on a budget, but you have to understand our girls are in great demand. You’ll need to be thinking of ways to convince them to take your offers as opposed to someone else’s.”

Tasker couldn’t keep his eyes from rolling. “Great. I’ll be honest with you, Mother Hammond, the boys and I saved pretty hard just to come up with what we’ve got. What’s the likelihood of our being creative going to net us two?”

“If I didn’t think you boys had a shot, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking with you,” she replied with a smile to soften the words. She produced a sheaf of smart paper and laid it flat on the small table between them. After a tap or two, she had called up a list of names under smiling portraits of young women. “I’ve take the liberty of restricting this file of the flight to the girls who’ve specialized in your needed fields who have also restricted their contracts to small ships. Pilots are on this column, medical technicians on the other.”

The two miners bumped heads as they leaned into get a better look. Captain Tasker glared at the bigger man who grinned a sheepish grin and leaned back to give him complete access. “Can’t blame a guy for looking, can ya?”

“Well these are some impressive credentials,” Simon admitted after a moment gazing over the smart paper. “Three full fledged MDs, a liberal sprinkling of PhDs and a slew of other folks with more letters after their names than I can noodle out.” He shared a glance with the smiling Olivia across the compartment.

“We go out of our way to make our training as through and varied as possible. Take Lillian there for example. She comes to us with a Masters Degree in pre-med and is a certified Emergency Medical Technician. We’ve made arrangements for a distance learning course for her doctoral work. She would require a number of leaves of absence during her internship period once she has completed the theoretical studies, but we have a preliminary understanding with the University of New Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital for that internship. If you read her introductory letter you’ll note that she is only holding the contract for the time she is actually on service. So a five year contract will likely expand over seven years. She is very eager to find a berth that can offer her that level of flexibility.”

“Ain’t hard on the eyes, either,” put in Biggs to a withering glance from Simon. “Well, she ain’t.”

Captain Tasker started to apologize but it was waved off by a smiling Olivia. “You needn’t worry quite so much about hurting our feelings, Captain. We wouldn’t have the market share we have if we wilted every time we heard a less than polite word. Besides, it’s not talked about much, but no woman ever gets tired of being reminded she’s beautiful.”

“You’ll forgive me a sigh of relief just the same, Ship Mother,” he said with another glare in Biggs’s direction for good measure. “Sounds like she’s right up our alley medic wise, does she know her way around a ship?”

“Lillian is fully rated for long duration EVA, holds an emergency surgery license from NASA, is a competent wielder and makes probably the best peach cobbler the Station has ever seen. You won’t need to hold her hand while you’re on the job,” the Ship Mother told him with a smile that was ever so slightly smug. It was becoming obvious Olivia savored the look of male shock and enjoyed causing it at every opportunity.

The intercom over head crackled to life once more to the soft tones of the so-far unseen Julie. “Docking warning, folks; let’s get strapped down if we’re not already. We’re on final so disembark in about two minutes.”

“Julie,” called Olivia, one ear still cocked towards the speaker. “Are you set up for the docking rings or the main hanger?”

“Main Hanger, ma’am,” she replied. “It’s not too late to shift over to the ring if you’d rather.”

“If you would please,” the Ship Mother said with a wink in Simon’s direction. “Captain Tasker still needs a pilot and I think I know just the right girl for the job.”

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Rei cast a final, somewhat emotional glance into the locker that had been her one island of privacy through out the final year of her training. It was empty now, thanks to a half hour she’d spent packing her personal effects; empty, save for a small, framed photograph that hung over the mirror that had been placed on the back of the door. The photograph was, in fact the somewhat faded cover of an issue of Good Housekeeping magazine now nearly eleven years old. In it a breathtakingly beautiful Japanese woman sat at the crowded controls of a Henry-class personal space craft, twisting slightly in the seat to favor the camera with her dazzling smile.

The photographer had managed to make the woman seem so at home with all that technology, as though she had been born with a flight yoke in one hand and a tray of sake in the other. Rei remembered differently, remembered being a wide eyed nine year old who had been doing her best to see everything at once on that unseasonably warm afternoon in July as they had toured the Ford Aerospace factory in Detroit. She also remembered how uncomfortable her mother had been, sitting at the controls of so expensive a craft.

Indeed, as she recalled, the only thing Mary had been comfortable with was the hot pink flight suit she wore that had become the calling card of the company she had founded. Exclusive space living special issue, the cover proclaimed in bold print. Care Givers Company Founder Mary Yotori talks about our future amongst the stars and what our homes there will be like!

Did you know you only had two years left to live, mother? Rei wondered briefly as she took in the familiar lines of her mother’s face and the smile she never seemed to stop wearing.

“Empanada,” called a dusky voice dripping a heavy Los Angeles accent from behind her. “I can always tell when you’re thinking wrong.” Rei spun, startled from her melancholy to drink in the form of the ever so slightly heavy set Hispanic woman who was waggling her finger in disapproval. “You’re not too big to take over my knee, Empanada,” she chided but there was no real venom in her words.

“Corazon!” exclaimed the girl as the older woman swept her into one of her all encompassing bear hugs. “When did you get into port?” she demanded, as she hugged back with all her might.

The Spanish woman kissed her forehead with a ferocity Rei remembered fondly from her earliest memories. “Oh just coming up from the dirt ball,” she said with a smile. “Been on leave and seeing to some family business.” For a moment the grin dimmed at some painful memory before it was pushed aside to brighten once more. “And I couldn’t miss seeing my favorite God-daughter graduating from training, now could I?”

A cloud passed over Rei’s oval shaped face. “I lost the sumo tournament,” she admitted as though her conscience was weighted down by a string of ax murders. Corazon’s eyebrows ascended her face in shock. With great delight she affected a poise of abject devastation.

“Lost? My dear Rei has lost a contest she entered? She has fallen from the star lit perfection we have come to know and love?” Rei felt a giggle attempt to work its way up from her gut. “Why, whatever shall we do?” continued Corazon, clearly warming up to her sarcasm. “To have to settle for a Rei Yotori who’s only…dare I say it? Human?”

It took a mountain of will power to set her face into a frown while keeping her giggle fit inside. “I trained very hard for that match,” she protested.

“Mi amiga,” Corazon soothed, placing a motherly hand on the young girls shoulder. “You train very hard for everything you do. You train so hard that you have a wealth of accomplishments and no life to show for them. So you graduated from high school at fourteen?” she asked, making a dismissive gesture. “Eh. Top of the class from the University of Tokyo at seventeen. Eh. And now, now my little girl has done something. She went after what she wanted and she failed. Did you shirk…what am I saying? Of course you didn’t shirk your training. Was there anything you could have done differently?”

Rei paused for a long moment of reflection. She knew that she could offer up her own lack of mental discipline, just as she also knew it would be waved away. After a long moment she slowly shook her head. “Not really, no.”

“Then your opponent was simply better than you. That is one of the great facts of life, my girl. High time you learned it. Now, what will you do with the knowledge of a mystery of life?” The young Japanese girl gazed with some confusion into the eyes of her Godmother. “What have you learned?”

“That there are times where all the preparation in the world won’t make a difference,” she admitted slowly.

“And?” prompted Corazon.

“And that I should stop worrying over things that are beyond my ability to control?” she asked. The sun blossomed across the dusky face. She caught sight of the picture, still adorning the interior of the locker door standing open.

“Mary,” she exclaimed at it. “You stubborn goat, your daughter has become a woman at last!” The serene face in the spaceship continued to smile out impassively. Chuckling at her own humor Corazon gave her Goddaughter a sidelong glance. “She’s proud of you, you know. Somewhere, she’s serving sake and pointing you out to everyone who will listen.”

“Thanks,” muttered the girl with a wry smile. “That image will keep me from masturbating for at least a month.” Corazon’s eyebrows ascended her forehead.

“Only a month?” she asked mischievously. “Has someone special entered my Goddaughter’s life?” Rei couldn’t keep the blush from coloring her face. “What?” chided Corazon. “No one receives the marks you did from PI without some diligent extracurricular study.”

“Not so special,” managed Rei around her blush. “I simply remember the crew of the Raven very fondly is all. What about you? Are you on your way back to the Philadelphia?” It was no secret that of all the Care Giver’s in service, the one employee the company was most proud of was Ship Mother Corazon Gutierrez for her posting aboard the flag ship of the Apollo Freight fleet. But the Hispanic woman shook her head.

“No. Camel Laird and Sons’ have a new, bigger class coming out. Fred is going to buy six of the new Royals. Apollo’s first will be his new flag ship as it were, the Prince Albert. I’ve already received orders to meet the ship at Mars, but the papers won’t be final until she’s delivered in May, next year. So, until then, I’m a free immoral agent.”

Rei couldn’t repress a snort of derision at her Godmother’s humor. “You are probably the most moral person I know. What are you doing after we graduate?”

“Oh, I thought I’d spend some time with you and then see about getting a lift out to Mars. With any luck I’ll beat the old goat there and be able to rub his nose in it,” she said with a chuckle.

Before Rei could respond the two were interrupted by a knock on the door. Standing there was Ship Mother Hammond, who Rei knew from filling out the forms for her letter of introduction and the other preliminary paperwork of being posted. With her was a pair of men, both in the copper flight suits of Kennecott Geophysical. The shorter man seemed to be in charge if Rei was interpreting his insignia correctly. Not a handsome man by any stretch, but Rei found herself drawn to his kind eyes. “Corazon!” exclaimed Olivia in surprise. “What a pleasant surprise. Captain Tasker, Mr. Biggs, may I present Ship Mother Corazon Gutierrez? Cora, it is my pleasure to introduce Captain Simon Tasker and Terry Biggs.”

“Charmed,” Cora told both with a firm handshake of each. She cocked her head up to meet the larger of the two men in the face. “Mr. Biggs, you have the look of a man with serious anger issues,” she observed casually.

“I ain’t said nothing,” muttered Biggs with an uncomfortable look in Simon’s direction.

“You didn’t have to, amigo. It’s written all over your face. How long has it been, hombre?”

“A year and a half,” admitted Biggs. Corazon turned to Captain Tasker with frown on her face, but before she could upbraid the man, Biggs quickly assert, “Ain’t the Captain’s fault. We’ve all been working hard.” The man’s voice took on a tone of sympathy it obviously wasn’t used to carrying. “Hell, been longer than that for the skipper I’d bet.”

Corazon nodded knowingly. “Captain Tasker, do you require Mr. Biggs’ presence for your negotiations?” Tasker shook his head which was all Corazon needed. She had Biggs by the hand and was leading him up the corridor. “Page me when you’re done, then Olivia. You’re coming with me, hombre, and you’re going to like it.”

“Yes ma’am!”

After managing to wipe the smile off her face at both men’s expression, Olivia returned her attention to Rei. “Daughter Yotori, would you please join Captain Tasker and myself in Study Room Four?”

“Yes ma’am,” Rei replied, diligently following the two the short distance to a comfortably appointed room currently still configured with its comfortable chair and sofas for the Ethics of Physical Intimacy class that was normally taught there.

“Captain Tasker has need of a relief pilot for his miner the Archimedes, a ten berth vessel,” Olivia told her. “As I know you were interested in serving aboard a small ship, you immediately sprang to mind as just the girl for the Archimedes.”

“I’m flattered you think so highly of me, Ship Mother.”

Olivia couldn’t keep in a chuckle at the younger woman’s modesty. “Don’t be fooled by her,” she told Simon with a wink. “Rei is at the top of her class.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he told the younger woman. “Please forgive me if I’m being a bit forward, Miss Yotori, but is that a common name in Japan?”

“My mother was Mary Yotori, the company founder, if that’s what you’re getting at, Captain,” Rei answered simply. Captain Tasker tried, and failed to puzzle that out without having it show on his face. “Nothing is placed without being earned in my Mother’s company, Captain. Following her…” and the words closed over her throat briefly before she could speak again. “…her death, the board elected Mr. Fuji Nagamora Chief Executive Officer and if I may say so, he is performing admirably for having such large shoes to fill.”

“Nagamora-san has done very well,” Olivia put in more than a small helping of respect in her tones. “His ascension was a difficult turning point that he handled with a delicate touch that Grand Mother Mary would have been proud of. Please, make yourself at home, Captain Tasker. May I get you anything to drink or eat?”

“No, thank you.”

“Then I will leave the two of you alone. You may use this room however long you require it. Good luck to you, Captain.” And with that, she was gone. Simon let loose a long, heartfelt sigh of admiration.

“Quite a woman,” he thought out loud.

“She is indeed,” agreed Rei.

“You’ll forgive me, Miss Yotori, if I’m a little unsure of myself. It’s the first time being here for me.”

“Of course,” she replied quickly. “Please call me Rei. Is there anything I can do to help you feel more at ease?” The Captain blushed fiercely to Rei’s soft smile. “That too if it will help you?”

“No, thank you, well, I’d just like to get to brass tacks if that’s alright with you.”

Rei nodded thoughtfully. “Of course. There will certainly be time after.”

Simon felt his face get redder and managed to keep what was left of his dignity by joining her in his ignorance of it. “Well, Rei, it’s like this. The boys and I scrapped together and we’ve got enough to cover two of you, but not much else. I won’t lie to you, Rock Jocking is a pretty hard life, but the pay is square. The boys and I pooled our bonus money to pick up two of you.”

“That is very generous. If I may, Captain, please allow me to present my credentials?” Simon nodded, causing her to fish out a small hand computer she placed on the coffee table between them. “My name is Yotori Rei, currently a Daughter in the Care Givers Company. Before any contract between us is made final I will be promoted to the rank of Sister. Before joining CGC I graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University of Tokyo where I majored in Economics and Business Management. I hold a Journeyman Spacer’s Ticket from the FASA rated for IFR and VFR multiengine space craft, long duration EVA, and general ships’ maintenance. I play the cello, violin, banjo and I also dance.”

Simon held up his hand, somewhat over awed. “I’m sorry, did you say banjo?” Rei nodded with a slight smile. “Why did you learn the banjo?”

“It’s hard,” she answered simply. “I must admit to being only a fair cook, specializing in Japanese traditional cuisine, though I am proud of my Kaiseki-style cooking.” She paused for a moment to gauge the reaction she was getting and felt more than a touch flattered by the naked admiration on his face. “As you mention two of us, Captain, whom, if anyone did you have in mind for your second choice?”

“Well, other than a pilot, we need a medic. We lost ours to a micrometeorite hit. He’s made it, but he’s laid up and we can’t really wait. Miss Hammond had suggested Lillian Beauregard.” Rei’s face broke once more into a smile at the mention of her friend’s name that served to reinforce the decision Simon had made to pursue the other young woman. “Friend of yours?” he asked hopefully.

“Yes, although I owe her a toss for beating me in the Sumo Tournament yesterday. Would you like to speak with her?” The Captain nodded quickly, pleased things seemed to be going so well. Rei touched a small device built into her flight suit that Simon had taken as a bio-med monitor. “Lillian Beauregard.”

“Hey, Rei!” a clear soprano floated from the device. “What’s up?”

“I’m in Study Room Four with Captain Simon Tasker of the miner Archimedes,” she said with a wink. “He’s looking for a relief pilot and a medic and Mother Hammond recommended the two of us. Would you care to join us?”

The door slid open to reveal the blonde Simon recalled from the smart paper. She was even more stunning in person than she had been in her photograph. “I surely would,” she declared with a smile before favoring the Captain with a deep bow. “Watashi wa Beauregard Lillian desu. Hajimemashite dozo yoroshiku.”

Simon was not prepared for Japanese with a thick Southern drawl. “Um, it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance,” he told her with as many manners as he could call up. “Won’t you join us?”

“Thank you,” she said on the rise from her bow. Lillian carefully chose a third sofa with in conversational distance of the two at a neutral angle. “Have you had a chance to read my letter of introduction, Captain?” she asked as she got comfortable.

“I was given the high lights by Ship Mother Hammond,” Tasker replied. “You’re looking for a berth that will allow you a good bit of time off for your doctoral work, is that right?” She nodded.

“I know that’s a tall bill when a boat needs a medic, but I’d really like to get my MD before my first contract is up. There would be plenty of notice up front and I won’t finish the distance learning for three years at least.”

Simon kept his smile from his face. He was almost certain he had Lillian on the hook if he could cut her a break for her studies. That didn’t really cost him anything and would make him very attractive to her. Perhaps he could use her to get Rei along as well. “It’s hard to cut that kind of a deal out in the Belt,” he started, watching the disappointment settle on her face just long enough to be felt. “However, I think I can juggle things with Corporate to come up with it. If you’ll sign on, that is.”

“I’m sold,” she said quickly, offering her hand. “Just let me know where and when.”

“Well, I get the feeling Miss Yotori and I still have some haggling to do,” he said around her surprisingly firm handshake. He let his eyes drift over to the Japanese woman and at once became a bit nervous. The look on her face was best described as the last glance the cat gives the mouse when play time was over and it was time for the meal.

“You are quite a sly negotiator, Captain Tasker,” she said in an almost blasé voice. “I must congratulate you on your technique.”

“Uh, thanks,” stuttered the Captain in his unease.

“You’re very welcome. Now, as I recall, you seemed to want to get down to the brass tacks. Allow me to oblige you. I am interested in a five year contract, standard company rates for a Sister, full share bonus for both myself and Sister Beauregard. I shall require unrestricted control of the galley Friday nights, and Saturday nights for Lillian.”

“What for?” demanded Simon even as he winced at the reaction the boys would likely have for having to cut both girls into the bonus program. “We’ve got a cook.”

“I’m sure he’s a fine one as well. However, familiarity breeds contempt. Your man could probably use a break, your crew could use some interesting new cuisine two nights a week, and I am far too fond of Lillian’s peach cobber to do without it for more than a week. Further, I should like the responsibility of keeping the ships’ books.”

Simon felt his temper flare for the first time since he’d seen Ship Mother Hammond through the hatch “Are you trying to imply I’d try to pull a fast one and cheat you two out of bonus?” Rei was contrite at once.

“Certainly not, sir,” she said quickly. “Nothing is further from my mind! However, I do have degrees in economics and business management. I’ve made a number of demands upon you and, in the interest of fairness, I’d like to see if I can’t stream line your operation and save you some money.”

Simon blinked in absolute amazement. He’d been rough necking the Belt for nearly twenty years and this was the first time he could recall someone going out of their way to do him a favor. In spite of that, however, he knew he’d been had. A long, careful sigh escaped him as he surrendered to the inevitable. “Where do I sign?”

“There is just one more thing, if I could?” she asked so sweetly Simon braced himself for the worst as he nodded. “Ship Mother Gutierrez needs a lift out to Mars. She would insist on paying her own way, of course, but I would consider it a personal favor that I promise you I will remember when it comes time to re-negotiate our contracts in five years if you could make the Archimedes available?”

“We’re not going to Mars directly,” he said slowly. “We’ve got a standard container drop at a big rock my company is trying to claim to re-supply the boys already there. If she doesn’t mind the detour, I can give her a lift. Call it, two thirds the going rate for the inconvenience?”

Rei’s cat-like face was in the cream once more. “I’m sure that would be more than satisfactory, Captain.”

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All good things come to an end; Simon Tasker had come to learn. As was business as usual in his experience, that end came in a lawyer’s office. Gordon Everett, esq. had been working for CGC for a number of years based on the well lived in condition of his office. It was bedecked with awards, letters of commendation and photographs on every surface that would support them.

He was of the same indeterminate age that Simon himself wore and while he disdained the flight suit of the career Spacer for a polo shirt and chinos, there was something about his eyes and the firmness of his handshake that tipped the Captain off that he was in the presence of a man very much at home in his environment. “My congratulations on your new hires,” he’d commented as Simon neared the summit of the small mountain of paperwork that granted him rights to the next five years of Rei and Lillian’s lives. “Hiring a Care Giver is the wisest choice many a Spacer has made.”

Simon couldn’t quite keep in a chuckle as he initialed the contract addendums Rei had stipulated. “Where’s that traditional Japanese modesty and respect for the competition?” he asked with a sidelong glance. The lawyer was dismissive.

“Truth be told, Captain, CGC has no real competition. We have something of a friendly rivalry with XX Flight, but if you compare rating for rating, the greatest bargain for the money is CGC. Our girls fill a broad spectrum of ratings on board a ship. You came to us needing a medic and a pilot. If you had gone to XX Flight you’d only have gotten your pilot. As for Deep Space Comfort, well, my mother always told me if you can’t say something nice about someone, better to say nothing at all.”

“I get a copy of all this paper, yes?”

“I can have it printed if you’d like, however our standard copy procedure is a digital format copy we can download directly into your ship’s main frame, or in a number of hand held formats if you’d prefer.”

“There’s some weird medical clauses here I’m finding a little hard to get around,” the Captain remarked from the final portions of the contract. Gordon waved the complaints away with a soft chuckle.

“A yearly flight worthiness physical is surely not that inconvenient for you, is it Captain? There is a three month window on either side so that shouldn’t give you too much concern. We just like to make sure our girls stay at the peak of their game. The physical only takes a day and in the unlikely event of a problem, we can either terminate the contract without penalty, or supply you with a fully rated replacement for the amount of time required to make sure both Rei and Lillian get to one hundred percent.”

“It’s this blood clause that’s giving me trouble. If one of your girls has the same blood type as one of my men and they need that blood, barring them from donating it might mean my man dies. I didn’t think either girl was the squeamish type around needles.”

Gordon’s face clouded over. “They’re not, I assure you. However, we have some patented biomedical procedures in all our employees to assure their health, longevity and peak performance.”

“It’s a patent issue?” demanded Simon with more than a touch of anger.

“No, it’s a safety issue. The procedures and nanites we employ are not compatible with males. Period. While the likelihood of transference is small to the point of vanishing, we want our contractors to understand our precautions.”

Despite his own personal misgivings, Simon Tasker signed.

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The graduation ceremony was probably the most beautiful thing either miner had seen in their lifetimes. Except for the mildly discordant, hypnotic music it was held in silence. It was more of a dance recital than a traditional cap and gown affair to the stately strains of Pomp and Circumstance.

While the symbology of the flashing silk kimonos each girl wore was lost on both Simon and Terry, its beauty was not. Each girl remained absolutely still, seated on the floor of the stage before the lightest touch of eldest of them brought them to life in a swirl of color and light. The dance was more complicated and intricate than anything either man had ever seen.

For the briefest of moments, the audience was lost in the precise chorography of timeless, traditionally Japanese instruments. The moment passed, the music gave way to silence and the dancers to the stillness of their most modest bow.

A new flight had taken wing, taking with it an eternal space at which there was only beauty. But the moment was gone, eyes to be dried and work to be done.

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Port Sheppard was a sprawling combination of airport, seaport and frontier town floating two hundred miles above the country that had constructed it; a brave toehold in high Earth Orbit. A central hub provided the core of the facility from which long, nearly brittle arms stretched out around which whisked the insect like small craft going about the hectic business of space commerce against the logo festooned backdrop of the berths that had been leased long term by the various ship building companies.

Rei was moderately glad she didn’t have to struggle with all of her luggage as she waited in the Customs line. Lillian, being a Native American, had gone with their new employers and Ship Mother Corazon through the Citizen line, leaving the young woman alone to wait her turn in the perennially understaffed Foreign National queue. Captain Tasker had sprung for a pair of carts for his new crewwomen which made the transportation of the gear easier.

Rei’s cart was overflowing with suitcases, the protective cases for her instruments, her pressure suit not to mention her small supply of Japanese spices and cooking utensils. “Next!” called a handsome, though harried looking young man who was obviously over worked. Rei pushed her cart up to his window and presented her passport. “Hello Miss Yotori,” he told her, managing a smile after a quick consultation of her documents.

“How do you do?” she asked with a short bow.

“What is the length of your stay in the United States?”

“Just passing through,” she told him with a smile. “I’m bound for the miner Archimedes, berth 427 on the Orion Wing, under the command of Simon Tasker. I’m his new pilot.”

“I see. You’ve been in possession of your bags your entire trip?” Rei nodded. “Any fruits, meat, live animals or other items you wish to declare?”

“I have two kilos of various, pre-packaged Japanese cooking spices and ingredients, all sealed in their factory containers, all bound for the Archimedes. A little taste of home you might say. Here are the temporary importation documents to certify them as personal use only,” she told him, presenting the waiver Mr. Everett had provided.

The young man stamped her passport. “Welcome to the United States.”

Rei’s smile was broad. “Thank you.”

From Customs there was the long walk down a narrow, featureless beige hallway that would have been at home in any airport anywhere in the world, to the more brightly lit and lively area of the concourse that was jam packed with various eateries, book stores and sundry suppliers hawking their wares in the press of humanity in space.

The others were waiting for her at the end of the hallway. “Here she is!” exclaimed Corazon, “safe from the clutches of bureaucracy once more.” Rei padded up to the group as quickly as she could. “When are you going to take my advice and change your citizenship, Rei?”

“When places like this come to their senses and have queues for Grounders and Spacers,” she retorted with a smirk. “My mother would spin in her grave if I became an American.”

“Well, we mustn’t disturb the rest of the dearly departed,” replied Corazon with a chuckle. “Though, if you manage to rework the organization of government that way, my hat will definitely be off to you.”

“Ladies,” interrupted Captain Tasker as smoothly as he could. “Time’s money I’m afraid.” The three women chatted animatedly in a succession of languages that blurred seamlessly in no particular order Simon could work out on his own. He was very much aware of the envious glances the two men and their three women drew as they made their way from the commercial concourse to the less crowded, though no less active service concourse.

Finally they arrived at a long, wide window that offered a splendid view of the Archimedes, still incased her gas dock bag. A small army of techs were crawling, ant-like over her; their shouts drifting through the open air lock that made Tasker’s skin crawl. “Home sweet home, ladies,” he called to them over his shoulder as he walked up to the airlock.

After a few unsuccessful attempts to re-secure it, Tasker ducked his head through to shout into the dock with considerable volume. “What idiot has locked these doors open?”

At his shout a broad, surly looking fellow wearing a FASA logo-ed flight suit pushed away from what he was doing and drifted over to the scowling Captain. “Step away, sir,” he snapped as he grabbed the railing and reacquainted himself with gravity. “This airlock is for official use only.”

“This airlock will be the death of us all if this bag gets pierced and no one can secure these doors!” fired back Tasker.

“Mr.” and the official paused to read the Captain’s name tape from his suit. “Tasker, if I have to ask you again to step away from this lock I’ll have you arrested.” Simon would have continued, hotly, but the meaty hand of Terry Biggs had gotten a hold of the Captain’s collar and was dragging him away from the other man before the Captain’s temper could get the best of him.

As the Captain and his man sorted themselves out, Ship Mother Gutierrez gracefully interposed herself between them. “Excuse me, Officer, I think what Captain Tasker was trying to do was a very civic minded gesture. You’ll have to forgive his temper as his crew’s leave was canceled before he got into port.”

“Be that as it may…”

“And,” interrupted Corazon smoothly, all smiles, “of course I don’t have to remind you that there are flight recorders all over the station for our safety and security that even now are recording us.”

“Now see here…”

“And so, having done his civic duty to remind you, sir, of this very serious breech of safety protocols I’m certain your superiors will be anxious to commend you as the officer in charge that made certain this situation is corrected and everyone’s safety is assured.” Cora favored the man with her brilliant smile before bowing shallowly from the neck.

“Ur, thank you, Ship Mother…” the man was finally able to manage.

“It is an honor to be of service,” she replied before stepping back through the airlock to her cart. “Lovely ship,” was her only comment to the men as she pushed the cart down the corridor.

Terry and the Captain stared at each other for a moment after the women departed in the direction of the main boarding tube. “Cap’n, I’m not entirely sure we’re up for what we just got into.”

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Rei made herself comfortable at the pilot’s station of the Archimedes, taking a small note of pleasure at how well made the chair she sat in was while she got her harness settled. That task accomplished, she got her head set where she wanted it on her ears and began to double check the position of the controls in front of her. The station consisted of a joy stick and thruster knob in a timeless arrangement harkening back to the days of NASA and Apollo. Six screens were designated for her personal use two of them on adjustable arms that she soon had where she wanted them.

The remainder of the pilot’s station was of a more permanent nature but was nevertheless well designed. Rei found she liked the layout and placement of the various controls and readouts. This was obviously a craft made by engineers who understood the needs of the people who would be working their creation. “Feeling at home?” asked Captain Tasker’s voice from behind her.

“Very much so,” she told him with a warm smile. A flick of her wrist changed the channel to the out bound frequency. “Port Sheppard Departure this is KG Miner Archimedes checking into your net, requesting Engine warm up and pre-taxi vectors to the initial, over?”

“Archimedes this is Port Sheppard Departure, roger your request you are go for engine warm up. At release come to 187 mark 220, and climb to 110 miles, relative. Maintain port speed and hold short of marker Papa Sierra 1284.”

“Understand 187 mark 220 at 110 miles to Papa Sierra 1284. Archimedes is warming up for departure.”

“Port Sheppard Departure clear.”

Rei favored the pad of notes she had on her knee a glance, scribbled out on the tablet that had been built into the flight suit for ease of use. “Mr. Walsh, you may begin your umbilical disconnect sequence and, at your convenience please bring the reactor to operational level one.”

A rather long stretch of silence brought Tasker’s gaze to his engineer who was staring, perfectly enraptured across the bridge. “Walsh…?” prompted the Captain with a chuckle.

“Oh, right, sorry,” stammered the younger man. “Reactor is at operational level one, thermals steady at one thousand degrees. Moorings and umbilicals are clear; we are on our own power.”

“Departure warning, Miss Yotori,” ordered the Captain as the final of his warning lights at his own console went green. Rei’s hands continued their ballet across the panels, each occupied with a different task.

“Now hear this, Kenecott Geophysical Miner Archimedes is departing Port Sheppard. Departure warning, all hands,” she announced as her hands finally finished their dance. “Port Sheppard Departure, this is Kilo Gulf 42871 at Station One, requesting clearance to taxi on pre-filed flight plan and boost, over?”

“Kilo Gulf 42871 this is Port Sheppard Departure, you are cleared to taxi on pre-filed flight plan. Taxi and hold short of marker Papa Sierra 1284; be advised your closest traffic is Pan Am 431Heavy at your ten o’clock relative at fifty miles. We’ll be right with you.”

Rei couldn’t resist a smile at the droll humor of flight traffic controllers as she keyed up her mike once more. “Roger your vectors, Sheppard Departure, Kilo Gulf 42871 is thrusting to hold short of Papa Sierra 1284 and standing by. You boys know it’s not nice to keep a lady waiting?”

“We’ll see if we can rustle up some chocolates and nylons for you, Kilo Gulf 42871. Sheppard Departure clear.” Rei’s fingers danced across the board once more, pausing to vent the last of the air in the forward docking collar into space before she disengaged the clamp and Archimedes was floating free in space. A soft caress of the thruster knob began to move the miner backwards at a lethargic meter a second.

“Are we loose?” called the Captain’s voice from behind her. Rei kept her smile of triumph from her face.

“Floating free and withdrawing from berth, Captain. GDC Align is on your board.”

“I didn’t feel a thing,” muttered Walsh. “Not even a ripple in my coffee.”

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It had been an uneventful month since their departure from Port Sheppard, and Simon was using the time to go over some of Rei’s suggestions of the Ship’s books. The miner tried to keep his dander up about this particular demand of his new hires, but he had to admit it was nice to only have to approve her work instead of worrying over it himself. That and, he had to admit, the little lady was good.

She found expense write offs and accounting wizardry that he wouldn’t have known existed. As it stood right now, the Archimedes was only in the red for the year for the paltry sum of eight hundred dollars. The refit had cost nearly one hundred times that and Tasker had written off bonus for the year because of it. Now not only was the bonus attainable, it was very much within reach.

Rei had written off all the consumables for the ship, to include the fuel they were burning now, found lost productivity credits, rules that let her spread the refit costs out over several years as well as a host of other tricks Simon had trouble following. Never the less, the young woman had already paid her own salary for two years in savings.

“I will be dipped in shit,” muttered the Captain to himself as the interphone by his desk started to buzz. “Tasker,” he told it, not able to take his eyes from the spread sheet.

“It’s Bobby, skipper, we got a problem in the mess hall.”

The worry in the younger man’s voice was enough to pull the Captain from his admiration of mathematical wizardry. “What’s wrong?” he asked quickly.

“Cookie tells me the girls have locked themselves in the mess hall and won’t let anyone in.”


“Cookie tells me…”

“I heard you the first time, Bobby,” snapped the Captain. “We know anything else?”

“No sir.”

“I’m on my way.” The ship’s keys rattled as the Captain opened his safe and removed the snub nosed revolver he kept there. The gelatinized plastic bullets the pistol was loaded with wouldn’t pierce the hull, but would still do what they needed to against a person. Simon hoped desperately he wouldn’t need it as he tucked the pistol into a pocket on his flight suit as quickly as he could.

He wasn’t sure what had caused the girls to lock themselves into the biggest room of the ship, but his own ideas were enough to make him glad of the weapon. His feet took him quickly to the hallway outside the Mess Hall door where it seemed most of the crew was crowded into. “Gangway!” the Captain shouted. “What’s going on here?”

“I was coming to finish up some cleaning, Skipper,” supplied Cookie. “Door’s locked tight and my over ride won’t work. It’s like the panel’s been disconnected on the other side.”

Tasker set his face into an angry frown as he scowled at his crew. “Who set them off?” he growled. His demand was met with a chorus of denials of knowledge from the men. Before he could cajole them further, the clatter of the door unlocking and rolling open interrupted him, followed hard by the melodious voice of Ship Mother Gutierrez.

“Ah, everyone’s here just about, good.”

Simon turned to inquire about what had disturbed the Care Givers when her attire stopped him dead in his tracks, his voice gone like a summer breeze. The Ship Mother was wearing a kimono whose soft brown silk had been decorated with a resplendent tree that clutched perilously to the edge of a cliff, its limbs ever straining to reach her rich, black hair, currently piled on her head in the most complicated pattern the man had ever seen.

From the gasps behind him, Simon was certain not a man there had ever seen such finery. She bowed deeply, her dusky face enriched by her warm smile. “Welcome, gentlemen, to the Archimedes Casino and Resort. It’s Vegas Night!” She stepped aside to show that a set of holographic emitters and view screens had been set up to decorate the normally drab mess hall in the rough approximation of a casino hotel. A buffet table had been set up along one wall, loaded with various snacks and goodies and a punch bowl fountain that was its centerpiece.

Rei and Lillian were standing behind the two other tables in the room, both wearing white tuxedo shirts and arm bands capped off with green tinted visors. Green felt cloths had been spread over the collapsible tables that had card game markers painted onto them, black jack for Rei and poker for Lillian.

“You’ll need chips,” continued Corazon as she began to hand out the neatly stacked disks to each man as he wandered in. “And if there are musical requests, please let me know.”

“Ship Mother,” said Tasker as he found his tongue once more. “While I appreciate all the work that must have gone into this, gambling is strictly against regulations.”

“Yes, Captain, gambling for money is strictly against regulations, you are correct,” she replied, her smile never waning. “Look closely at your chips.”

Simon brought the disk up to his face to find it stamped, ‘Septic Dump’. Another was labeled ‘Dish Pit’. “What’s this?”

“Chores,” she replied, continuing to pass out the chips to the other men as they filed in. “No duty is repeated and they’re all onerous, but they have to be done. Having the chip buys you out of it to whoever you present it to. The only rule is once you get the chip from someone, you have to do the chore for that time span. I think you’ll find that doesn’t violate any regulations, unless I’ve miss read your hand book?”

Tasker shook his head and had to laugh at the woman’s ingenuity. “Ship Mother, I believe we waited a damn sight too long to hire you ladies.”

“Better late than never,” she told him with a smile. “Come on,” she said, linking his arm with hers. “I’ll let you beat me in a hand or two of black jack.”

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Corazon had no trouble finding the Captain’s Cabin from the Double Berth she and the other Care Givers had pressed into service as a triple. Indeed, from the time she had stepped on board Captain Tasker had been trying to give his quarters to her. He seemed to think her polite refusals were her just being coy and had kept asking for nearly a month before she’d threatened to punch him if he didn’t stop it.

Violence was a universal language every Rock Jock could understand.

Not that his cabin was any significant improvement over the double. The two were the same size, but with the addition of his fold up desk, ship monitoring controls, his safe and the other bits a Captain needed ready access to, he actually came out the worse in space. Still, Cora was a little concerned by the Captain’s terse request to see her at her earliest convenience. Something was doubtlessly amiss and, if he wanted her opinion on whatever was wrong, it must have something to do with the girls.

Cora thought back over the comments the two had made in their spare time around her. Rei, used to being around the Ship Mother was of course the more comfortable speaking than Lillian, who was still new enough to only see ‘superior’ whenever Cora was in the room. Cora smiled; confident the young New Girl would eventually relax in her profession and lied to herself that Lillian didn’t remind her of someone Cora faced in the mirror every morning. Nothing they had spoken of seemed untoward, with the exception that neither of them ‘knew’ the Captain as yet.

“Come,” drifted the Captain’s voice through the door in response to her soft knock. Simon was seated at his desk, literally next to the door and was obliged to stand and stow the seat to make room for her to enter.

“You wanted to speak with me, Captain?”

“Yes, I did, Ship Mother.” Cora paused, practically nose to nose with him as she slid the door shut.

“My name is Corazon,” she told him. “Cora, when we’re not being formal,” then she leaned forward and kissed him softly to let him know she preferred things less formal. Before he could become embarrassed she withdrew deeper into the small cabin and sat on his bunk. “What can I do for you?”

“I have a problem with Rei,” he finally managed, making himself as comfortable as he could in the chair.

“While I am not Rei’s supervisor, I’ll be happy to do what I can,” she replied, taking the hand computer he handed her and reading over the email.

The screen displayed a short, delicately worded request from Rei to perform an EVA to inspect all of the docking systems prior to them being put to use in as rigorous a fashion as their delivery schedule demanded for the ships already working the Big Rock, as Avalon’s find had come to be known. It referenced, but did not quote the safety regulations of Kennecott Geophysical as well as Harland and Wolfe, the builders of the Archimedes. “What’s wrong with this? Seems like a good idea to me.”

“What’s wrong with it?” sputtered Simon. “Her going out side is what’s wrong with it! We’re in the Belt now! I shouldn’t have to tell you how much higher the impact averages went up, Cora.”

“And your point would be…?” she demanded, frowning a bit. Before he could answer, she cut him off. “Rei is fully qualified to both inspect the systems as well as work EVA. In fact, I believe she holds a Journeyman Ticket which rates her for ten hour stretch EVAs. She’s a brilliant accountant and she minored in physics so I’m certain she knows better than you what the averages are about a strike. So what? Would we be having this conversation if Mr. Walsh or Mr. Biggs were requesting an EVA to check a critical system before it was to be put into vigorous use?”

“Sexism has nothing to do with it,” the Captain muttered. Corazon frowned and was about to hotly debate the issue until he raised his hands to calm her and continued. “Rei is a fine girl and I’m sure she’s more that capable of doing this. My issue isn’t what she wants but who she is.”

“She’s one of your Care Givers,” replied the Ship Mother. “As such, she is expected to pull her weight and do her job.”

“What would I say to her father if I had to…her father is still alive, isn’t he?” Corazon nodded guardedly. “What would I say to her father if I got his daughter killed out here in the back of beyond?”

“Simon,” Cora said, her voice notably softer as she began to understand the man’s reluctance. “You’ll tell him the same thing you’d tell any other member of your crew should the worst happen. That they died doing what they loved and wanted to be doing. Rei knows what’s she’s asking for. She understands the risks, and she accepts them. Don’t worry what you might have to tell N…him” The Ship Mother’s teeth snapped so quickly did she cut off her slip.

“N…?” puzzled Simon, his sharp eyes drawn to her face looking for clues. When she steadfastly refused to give him any Simon wished mightily his cabin was large enough to throw his arms out in disgust. “Are there any choice little secrets you’d like to make me aware of?”

“What ever you guess,” Corazon told him softly, “I would appreciate it if you kept them to yourself.”

“This is why her next of kin lines are blank on the application, aren’t they?”

“Rei doesn’t know who her father is. And that is how he wants it. Is that too much to ask for?” Simon rubbed the bridge of his nose in frustration.

“Look, Cora, I can only guess what it must have been like for Rei when Pan Am 1088 came down. I just like to know who I have working for me. I know exactly who to call if Walsh or Jenkins or Biggs buys the farm.”

“If the untoward should happen, you may call me,” she replied quietly. “I am her Godmother. Now, I have two requests of you Captain. First that you allow Rei to do the work you are paying her to do; with out regard for who her parents were and are.” Simon wasn’t sure he liked the arraignment but nodded his acquiescence any way. Cora smiled as she let her hair down out of the braid she wore it in. “And two, I’d like you to spend some time with me.”

“What has that got to do…?” he started.

“I already know you haven’t been with either Rei or Lillian,” she scolded him. “And it wasn’t for a lack of trying on their part, either.”

“A captain shouldn’t be too friendly with his crew,” Simon replied primly, forcing a ragged sigh from Corazon.

“That’s part of the reason they’re here, Simon. They both know you’re approaching the end of your rope. It shows. Do I have to relieve you of duty to make my point?”

“You don’t…”

“There you would be mistaken,” she interrupted sharply. “I hold a Master’s Certificate from FASA. Under the articles of Space Commerce and Transport, a rated Master is not only authorized, but required to relieve a Captain of duty, if, in the opinion of the holder the Captain is unfit physically or mentally to carry out his duty.” She smiled to soften the rebuke as her free hand slowly unzipped the front of her flight suit. “Besides, the Captain is the prerogative of the Ship Mother or senior Care Giver on board, and I would be both.”

Simon found himself transfixed by the dusky skin that appeared behind the pink jumper. Somehow, surrender had never seemed so desirable until now.

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The warmth of the coffee bulb was welcome to Rei’s mouth as she made her way from the galley towards the forward docking collar. Cookie’s constant flirting warmed her memory as the coffee warmed her belly. And, she had to admit the young man wasn’t all talk and no follow through. The machismo was backed up with a tender, passionate pair of hands when the hatch was closed. Still thoughts of after duty enjoyment would have to wait. If Bobby’s calculations were correct, they’d be arriving at their target asteroid sometime today or tomorrow. That meant it was time for the EVA Captain Tasker had so grudgingly approved.

On arrival at the airlock, she found Mr. Biggs working on a latch on one of the lockers that seemed to be out of alignment. “Morning, Terry,” she greeted as she made her way to her own locker where her pressure suit was hanging.

“Is it?” the man asked sleepily. “Been working third watch myself.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she replied, extending her coffee bulb in his direction. “Would some coffee help?”

The big man laughed without mirth. “I’ll try anything at this point,” he said, taking the bulb and drinking deeply. “Ah, the great tastes of Joe and plastic.” The caffeine worked its way through the big man’s system and let him realize she had her locker open as was prepping her suit. “What’s going on?”

“Oh, just have to take a walk and check the docking collars so they’re up to scratch for the deliveries we’ll be making. I read from the manifest we’ll have to make nearly thirty docks while we make the rounds. It should be pretty interesting.”

He frowned as she took the helmet from its cubby hole and began to inspect the seals. “That don’t mean you have to go out there. I’ll go get Walsh or…”

She smiled up at him to soften cutting off his protest. “That’s very sweet of you, Terry, but its all part and parcel of a pilot’s job. This won’t be the first time I’ve gone walking you know.”

“Sure, I’ll bet you’ve walked all over that station back in Earth Space. This is the Belt though. Between the dust and the rocks the chance’s of getting holed are a lot higher than anything down in Earth orbit. That’s how we ended up hiring you two, remember?” He took the helmet from her and returned it to its cubby. “I’ll go.”

“Terry, that’s very kind of you, but it’s my job.”

“Don’t want to hear another word,” he replied, thumbing open his own suit locker. He didn’t see the angry frown that set on her face, nor her hand’s ball into fists that she set on her hips, so he was somewhat taken aback when next her voice drifted through the compartment.

“You gonna wipe my ass for me when I take a dump too?” He turned back to continue the argument and was more than a little surprised by her sudden change in demeanor.


“Then quit trying to do my work. I don’t tell you how to turn the screwdriver; you don’t take my lumps for me.”

“You’re not going out there…!” he yelled, more than a bit confused as to how he had gotten into this argument. Even if Terry hadn’t been tired, as fast as she moved he wouldn’t have been able to follow it. She darted to his side before a white hot ball of pain exploded in his knee from her strike. No longer supporting his weight, he began to fall, arms flaying for something to grab onto to arrest it. She grabbed one and twisted it up behind his back as he landed painfully on the knee she’d struck, expanding on the agony it was already screaming about.

“Mother Hammond warned me about the thick skulls of Rock Jocks,” she hissed in his ear, her grip on his arm keeping him immobile. “She said I’d probably have to knock some sense into half the crew before they’d let me do my job. Imagine my surprise Terry when everybody else seems to get that I’m qualified to do my job and let’s me. Everybody except you.”

“It’s dangerous…” he gasped around the pain she kept him in, just enough to stop him squirming out of her grip.

“Of course it’s dangerous,” she snapped. “It’s outer freaking space, Biggs. But it’s a lot more dangerous letting a pipe fitter inspect a docking coupler when he has no idea what the frag he’s looking at! Now, I’m going out there to do my job. I can do that with or without breaking your arm.” She tugged, adding a bit of pain to emphasize her point. “Your choice, Terry, which is it?”

“Ok, ok!” he gasped, “I give, just let go!” She released him and stepped back so quickly Terry actually finished his fall to the deck. As he tried to massage some of the feeling back into his arm he glared up at her for a moment. “You aren’t going out there alone, that’s a violation of safety and you know it.”

“I do, and I won’t. But it won’t be you out there. You’re on over time as it is.” She extended a hand he reluctantly took and got back up to his feet. “You need to go hit the rack and get some sleep. I’ve got Jenkins coming to buddy with me while I’m outside.”

The numbness was clinging tenaciously to Terry’s arm, despite his rubbing. “Where’d you learn that?”

“Finishing school,” she told him with a sardonic grin. “If you’re a good boy and go get some sleep I’ll come kiss it and make it better later.”

He finally relaxed a bit into a grin and ran his good hand through his hair. “Guess I was being a bit of an ass, huh?” She smiled but didn’t nod. “Say, you drink much?”

“Sake mostly, why?”

“Well, I got some scores to settle in a couple of bars on Borneo and I was thinking…”

“Terry, are you inviting me to a bar fight?” The man’s sheepish grin did his confessing for him. Further conversation on the topic was halted, however, by the arrival of Jenkins, the ship’s Carpenter’s Mate to the lock.

“Bar fight?” he asked jovially as he squeezed into the tight space towards his own locker. “Where is there a bar within a couple of million miles of here?”

“Just thinking ahead to Borneo,” supplied Terry. To Rei, he said, “Take care of him; he’s still a wet behind the ears kid.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” she replied around a chuckle. “Go! Sleep! Or I’ve got plenty more of where the first came from.”

“Yes ma’am,” was Biggs’ tame rejoinder as he meekly left the airlock.

Jenkins stared after the larger man for a moment before turning back to Rei. “Either he’s on some fairly major tranquilizers or I’d say you must have handed him his ass.”

“Neither would be your concern, would it, Mr. Jenkins?” she replied with a smile as she returned to her locker.

“Point taken,” laughed the Carpenter’s Mate. The two finished donning their pressure suits in silence, each making sure of the other’s seals before they trundled into the airlock and it began to cycle. “Outer door is open, Bobby,” called Jenkins’ tinny voice over the comm. link as the two blinked against the light and pulled down their tinted visors.

The airlock happened to be on the core-ward side of the ship and Sol shone in the doorway in all her golden glory. Rei stepped up to the hatch and found the safety rail to clip her line to. “Safety line attached,” she said, making sure to catch Jenkins’ eye and the thumbs up he gave her for the radio check. “Stepping out now.”

“Let’s all be safe,” whispered the voice of Bobby over the radio.

“No other way to do this,” chuckled Rei as she adjusted herself to the sudden difference between one gravity and none across the threshold of the hatch. “Hatch closing now, seals look good from here.”

“Confirmed.” Rei paused for a moment, concerned at the amount of static that had crept into Bobby’s voice.

“Archimedes, this Rei, how do you read me?”

Bobby’s voice was replaced by Captain Tasker’s on the line. “We’ve got a little static, Rei, but we’re still reading you alright. Something wrong with your comm. gear?”

“There shouldn’t be,” she replied in a puzzled voice, turning to be able to see the face plate of Jenkins behind her. “It’s brand new.”

“I’m getting the static too, Skipper,” put in Jenkins.

“We’ll track it from in here,” Simon finally decided. “Continue with your EVA unless we lose you completely. If that happens, you are to abort and return inside, acknowledge.”

“Acknowledged,” the two walkers replied in chorus.

“It’s the third rule of Space,” chuckled Jenkins as he followed the pink pressure suit in front of him towards the bow. “Nothing ever goes like you planned it.”

“True,” admitted Rei. She crested the ridge of the Archimedes cylinder shaped hull to the conical nose that sloped to the point of the bow docking collar. Set into the artificial hill were the thick, narrow ballistic glass view ports of the bridge. Rei paused to wave, noting that Ship Mother Corazon had decided to join the bridge crew for her first dance on the hull.

She decided to take the nod the Ship Mother gave her as a sign of confidence and continued down the rail line to the collar. “I have arrived at the bow coupler.”

“Roger that, Rei,” Bobby’s voice told her in her ear. “And we’re reading you much clearer now.”

“Odd,” puzzled the young woman as she punched in her access code to the maintenance panel which dutifully swung open. “I have the access panel open. Lubrication lines are in good shape, oil is clear. I don’t see any foreign material in the lines.”

“Hydraulics look good as well,” added Jenkins from his side of the collar. “Clamp hooks are all in line with no damage.”

“I’m moving down to the umbilical connectors.” Rei suited actions to words as she lowered herself a bit on the line for a better view. “The connectors all seem to be in alignment, the posts are shiny and are not deformed. The quick release springs are tight and resist movement.”

“Looks like we got our money’s worth from Port Sheppard, Skipper,” Jenkins finally concluded. “Everything out here looks brand new.”

“Is my pilot satisfied?”

“Roger that, Captain,” Rei answered him with a smile. “Pilot certifies docking collar fit for operations.”

“Good, let’s get those hatches buttoned up and get back inside. No sense tempting fate.”

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Lillian was waiting on the two dancers when the air lock finished cycling and let them back into the environmental suit locker. Her medic bag sat on one of the benches which told both she wasn’t just there to help them stow the suits. Rei couldn’t help rolling her eyes about the coming physical. The young blonde settled her stethoscope around her neck and planted a hand on one hip. “Are we having fun yet?”

“Loads,” chuckled Jenkins once he’d gotten his helmet off and in his locker once more. “There ought to be a law against it.”

“Be careful what you wish for,” replied Lillian as she hooked up a hand computer to the download port of his suit’s onboard computer. “Well, your suit says you’ve survived, but I don’t trust machines. Hurry up and strip down so we can do things the old fashioned way.”

“If I didn’t survive would that mean I’m a zombie?”

Rei snorted as she got the seals of the upper and lower suit disconnected. “You’re not cool enough to be a zombie, Jenkins.” The Carpenter’s mate witty rejoinder was cut short by the sudden introduction of a plastic tongue depressor into his mouth.

“Say aaaah,” prompted Lillian. “So, I hear there was a little excitement out there?” she asked, tilting her head slightly for a better look down Jenkins’ throat.

“Yeah,” agreed Rei as she locked the upper onto its hanger and squatted to wiggle her way out of it. “There was some weird static over the comm. system in certain places on the hull, not enough to worry over really, but odd.”

“Maybe something from the ion drive?” hazarded the young woman as she connected the reader to Rei’s suit and set it to download.

“We never crossed the event horizon for the drive,” corrected Jenkins. “While there’d be some static from it, it’s directional aft. Shouldn’t have been a problem.”

Rei shrugged as she opened her mouth to accept the recently disinfected tongue depressor. “Second Law of Space,” she mumbled.

Lillian nodded sagely, “There’s always a glitch.”

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Simon breathed a sigh of relief as he made his way back to his cabin. Thus far, Rei was back inside and so, he presumed, all was relatively safe. That took a large load off his mind. While he could understand Ship Mother Corazon’s arguments, he didn’t really believe that she understood where he was coming from. “I’m getting too old for this,” he muttered to himself as he finished the climb down the ladder to the crew living deck and turned towards his cabin. As it stood, rendezvous with the Big Rock was scheduled for about five hours which in Spacer terms meant time for a cat nap.

As he rounded the curve of the ship to the hallway that held his cabin, he realized he was being something of a fool.

Rei was waiting by his door.

“What can I do for you, Rei?” he mumbled as he fished out his ring of keys to open the door.

“Captain, I wonder if I might trouble you for a few minutes?” she asked in that soft, respectful tone that began to ring the alarm in the back of his head. The door open, he paused to stare at her for a few minutes to make her continue. “I’ve been thinking about the bonus numbers,” she went on haltingly. “I think I’ve come up with something that will help everyone make a larger bonus this year.”

With a resigned gesture, Simon had her precede him into the tight space and slid the door shut once more. “I’m listening,” he replied, sinking with great weight into the chair.

“As I understand things, it’s your intention to find an open plot on the Big Rock and start drilling once we’ve completed the re-supply work, is that correct?” Tasker nodded.

“That’s how we make money on this ship, Rei.”

She had the grace to blush softly under her translucent skin. “I imagined so, sir. But we’ll have all those standard containers still attached to the drill bit that will be empty.”

“It’s my intention to have you put them in a stable orbit around the Big Rock and we’ll use the skiff to ferry loads of ore out to them as we fill the hoppers. We’ll be able to haul quite a bit more than we usually do back to Borneo that way.” She nodded.

“That is quite a good idea, sir, except, while I’m still learning the ends and outs of this job; I understand that will take quite a bit of time. It’s May now and with the fiscal year only getting shorter that doesn’t leave much time to get the load to Borneo. Now, if I read the company’s policies right, even if we arrive at Borneo before the End of Fiscal Year date, only the ore that Borneo takes possession of counts towards bonus. Is that correct?” Tasked nodded, not entirely sure where she was going with this.

“You’re correct and I haven’t forgotten about getting Ship Mother Corazon to Borneo if that’s what you’re worried about. She can catch a liner to Mars from there without any difficulty.”

“True, sir, but, won’t the hoppers on the ships already at the Big Rock be full now?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“If they stay and continue to work the veins they’re already working, that’s more efficient. We could back fill the standard containers and our hoppers as we re-supply each ship. If we give them a thirty percent credit for the ore we take on to Borneo we’ll still book three to five times the amount of ore the Archimedes is normally rated for. That will automatically qualify the ship for bonus, as well as all the other cutters working the Big Rock. You could either sell or continue to haul the standard containers for the added cargo space back to the Big Rock.”

Simon scratched his chin, intrigued. “A thirty percent cut is pretty steep…”

“But it’s fair to the other ships. Without their cooperation, this won’t work regardless.”

It was a long shot, Simon had to admit, but it was extremely clever. “I imagine Kennecott is going to have to re-write the entire policy manual because of you, little lady,” he said at last. Rei blushed once more.

“I can’t think why, Captain. Kennecott is getting more ore in a timelier manner to turn a higher profit. Is it not fair that those of us out here working for them share in that profit?”

Simon chuckled, deeply amused. “I’m sure they won’t see it quite that way, but best to strike while the iron is hot. I’ll make some calls and see what I can get set up, Rei.”

She bowed. “It is an honor to be of service.”

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Simon hadn’t gotten his nap. He’d spent the entire five hours before the Archimedes had gotten into visual distance of the Big Rock haggling with the various Captains’ already working the rock. There had been more than one heated call about the idea for a start, the percentage in general and Simon’s own trustworthiness in making sure the tally was properly credited. Still, only two ships had opted out of the Care Giver’s idea, which wouldn’t be enough for the proposal to fail.

Still, revenge was at the very least the Captain’s prerogative; he’d overruled Rei’s efficiency objection by ordering the ships that had opted out to be the next to last and next to next to last re-supplied.

The next forty eight hours were something of a blur to every member of the Archimedes crew. Despite the long hours, and flaring tempers, Simon had never been prouder of his boys. By the book, the transfer should have taken the better part of a week. But forty seven hours and twenty three minutes beyond the Archimedes flood lights first shining on the Big Rock, her ion drive was pushing them away, holds and containers stuffed with precious cargo.

Simon chuckled to himself even as he snuggled a bit closer to Ship Mother Corazon in the crowded bunk they were sharing. By his calculations, the bonus he’d be due would be sufficient to buy the Archimedes out right.

“What’s so funny?” she murmured sleepily.

“I’ve never won a bet in my entire life,” he whispered into her shoulder. “Until we gambled last year’s bonus to hire those girls. I might even retire off this check Rei’s set up for me.”

She rolled over to face him, her dark eyes nearly lost in the gloom of the cabin. “Liar,” she replied, her white teeth lighting up the cabin with her smile. “The only way you’ll leave this ship is when they carry you out feet first.”

“How do you lot see through us so easily?”

“Great numbers of us used to be men,” she whispered. “So we already know how you think. For the rest, there’s a class; Applied Leverage to Bull Headed Spacer Men 101.”

“You know, I took a whole semester in college of women’s studies, just on the off chance I’d get to figure women out. The only thing it did was add to the confusion, but the scenery was quite nice.”

She rubbed her face into his chest to get a bit more comfortable. “Go to sleep you old letch before your mouth gets you into more trouble.” Tasker smiled down at her for a moment as her face relaxed into slumber and her breathing slowed.

“Sleep well, Mother,” he whispered before his body would tolerate his own lack of rest once more and he joined her.

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The pleasant, lilting voice of Rei took the Engineer’s dreams into an entirely new direction. “Walsh, are you awake?”

“No,” the engineer muttered as he swept his pillow into a passionate embrace. “I’ve died and gone to Care Giver heaven.”

“I don’t think you’re Muslim,” chuckled Lillian as she shook Walsh’s foot. “And in any event neither Rei nor I are what you’d call virgins.”

Finally the bookish young man was roused from his sleep and sat up in his bunk, rubbing the sand out of his eyes. “What?” he whispered hoarsely, trying to be mindful of the two other men who shared his cabin. “What’s wrong?”

Normally, Walsh would not have been upset at all to have woken up at the beck of two beautiful young women, but as one was still in her flight suit, and the other was wearing a pressure suit liner, neither of which would be considered flattering. Rei spoke first after a cautious glance at the bunks where Jenkins and Bobby snored. “We need a senior officer to approve an EVA,” she whispered.

“What, the frag, do you want to make an EVA for?” demanded Walsh.

Jenkins’s snoring altered pitch for a moment, bringing a fearful glance from Lillian before she answered. “Come out into the hall.” The Engineer scrambled out of his bunk and followed the two women out into the corridor, shivering slightly as his bear feet communicated the cold of the deck plating to his spine.

The door to his cabin secure, Walsh crossed his arms over his T-shirt as one part of his mind hoped that his boxers hid his waking predicament from the two women as he demanded, “What is this all about?”

“Rei caught a flash of what could be a drive signature on the spectrograph,” Lillian told him with great weight.

“So what?” demanded Walsh. “There are a lot of ships out here and more every year…”

“I called ahead to Borneo on a tight band,” interrupted Rei. “They have no ships on a filed flight plan within a billion kilometers of us.”

“Not everybody files a flight plan, Rei,” muttered Walsh.

“Just people who don’t want to get killed!” the diminutive Japanese woman fired back. “Sure, there’s a lot of free form traffic down in Earth space, they have traffic control nets sufficient and are close enough to mount a rescue. Flying out here with out the closest station knowing where you are is suicide!” Walsh rubbed his chin as Rei pressed her point home. “Remember that interference Jenkins and I ran into on my EVA? When I saw that drive signature…”

“Alleged drive signature,” interrupted Walsh.

Rei rolled her eyes. “Alleged drive signature and got word from Borneo there shouldn’t be anyone out here with us I remembered that static and I got suspicious. I started fiddling with using the S Band Antenna and the Spectrograph array as a pair of triangulating antenna. I found that that static is concentrated on the K-band and is emanating from somewhere in the vicinity of panels 29 and 30.”

Sleep disappeared from Walsh’s mind as a schematic of the Archimedes opened for his mind’s eye. “Panels 29 and 30 cover the hydrogen flow meter assembly into the reactor.”

“What would happen if that meter were damaged?” asked Lillian significantly.

“The system would automatically shut down the reactor which would kill the main drive…”

“And reduce us to short range on all the scanning gear and batteries for life support and internal power,” finished Rei. “It’s the perfect place for someone to plant a sabotage device with a radio tracker on an old radar frequency nobody uses anymore.”

A cold dread began to fill Walsh’s spine. “How far away was that drive signature?”

“Nine hundred and eighty million kilometers, but I didn’t get enough of a signal to track a trajectory.”

“Bullshit,” muttered Walsh. “If you’re right they’re coming here, and it’s not Avon that’s gonna be calling. I’ll get my liner, meet me in airlock two.”

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Tasker was nine different kinds of enraged as he took in the view from Rei’s helmet camera on one of the view screens on the bridge. Both Rei and Walsh stayed clear enough from the circular device to avoid any booby traps that may be equipped with it, but there was no mistaking the fact it should not be there. “It was put here so that when triggered it would make it instantly impossible for us to run without at least a day, maybe two of EVA repairs,” Walsh was saying. They had strung a line from the aux microphone port of his suit back to an input by the airlock so that their conversation was not broadcast to whom ever might be listening.

“Who, the fuck, put that crap on my ship?” growled Tasker.

“It had to have happened at Port Sheppard, sir,” Rei replied, also tied into the line. “Someone at the yard must be in league, or getting a kick back from some of the belt pirates out here to disable ships with valuable cargos.”

Simon swore with the strength and color only a Rock Jock can. Ship Mother Corazon rolled her eyes at the man’s display and cut him off. “You can vent your spleen later, Simon; right now we have to get that thing off the ship before it goes off.”

“I wouldn’t recommend trying to remove it, Ma’am,” Walsh replied. “If I had built that thing you’d better believe I’d put in tamper proofing.”

“It’s set right across the lip of the two panels,” Rei commented thoughtfully. “Walsh, how do these panels lock shut?”

“There’s a locking bolt there,” he said, pointing to it a scant two meters from the device. “And another in the same place aft, then those two hinges on each side.”

“If we work together we could pull the hinge pins, then unlock the bolts and both panels will drift up, right?” she asked.

Tasker held his breath as Walsh calculated out the Care Giver’s plan. “If there’s a gyroscope in it, it might still go off as the attitude changes…”

“No,” cut in Tasker quickly. “If there were it would have gone off when we were docking and re-supplying the other ships at the Big Rock. We changed attitude, what, Rei; forty, fifty times?”

“Yes sir,” the pilot replied. “We ought to have a couple of Payload Assist Modules in supply. We could strap one or two on put it at a different angle and boost it while simultaneously killing our main drive. It would look like we picked up the pirate and started running to a bigger port.”

“Rei,” Ship Mother Corazon ordered, her voice steely with command. “Get your butt inside and start working out those numbers.”

“But, I’m already on station here, Ship Mother…”

“No arguments, Sister Yotori, that’s an order. I’ll be out there in fifteen minutes to relieve you.”

Tasker’s eyes shot up at this and his mouth opened in protest, “You’ll do no such thing!” he declared. “Not pregnant, and not as a passenger on my boat!”

Silence fell across both the bridge and the two hull dancers outside. Walsh, ever one to live up to the awkward stereotype of the engineer broke it with a slightly muted, “Congratulations, ma’am.”

Corazon chuckled ruefully. “Thank you, Mr. Walsh.” Then the Ship Mother’s gaze became hard as she locked wills with the Captain. “I may be a passenger, and I may be pregnant, but I am also an engineer, the only other engineer on this ship who is both EVA rated and not intimately familiar with this vessel.”

“Jenkins…” started Tasker, but the Ship Mother cut him off.

“Is familiar with your ship, meaning if both Walsh and I are killed is capable of filling in as your Chief Engineer as far as the next port. It would take me months to get up to speed on the particulars of this ship, months we don’t have if we’re about to be in a fight for our lives!” Her tone softened a bit and she rubbed Simon’s arm in condolence. “Face it, Simon, Rei will have to coordinate the shut down and new flight path. She has to come in and I am expendable.”

The small part of Simon Tasker’s brain that was still thinking logically and not listening to the screams of denial from his heart forced his head to nod. Cora rubbed his face softly before reaching over and hitting the ship’s intercom. “Mr. Biggs, would you meet me in air lock 2 please? I need to get into my pressure suit in a great screaming hurry.”

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“Well, it was touch and go for a bit, wondering if our unwelcome friends would take the bait Rei made for them. But, as you can see, here we are.”

Ship Mother Kurosawa stirred her tea absently with her spoon as she paused to take an appreciative sip. “Sounds like you had quite an eventful trip out, Cora.” The Spanish woman across from her quickly cleared her own mouthful of tea and smiled.

“I think I need a vacation from my vacation,” she said with a rueful laugh. “It was rather cozy, though, I haven’t been on a ship as small as Archimedes in a long time. It was nice knowing all the hands again. I rather envy Rei and Lillian their posting.”

The senior Care Giver of the refinery Borneo smiled as she handed a film of smart paper across the desk to her peer. “Funny you should put it quite that way,” she replied coyly. Cora read over the letter quickly before shaking her head in exasperation. “Captain Tasker must have been up a number of nights digging through Care Giver regulations to have put together a properly formatted Protest of Posting challenge. I’m sure that one hasn’t been filed in years.”

“That sweet, pig headed, stubborn old goat,” chuckled Cora. “Who would have thought Rock Jocks could be so romantic?”

“That’s a very generous offer,” commented Kurosawa over her tea. “Better than twice what Commodore Hastings is paying you on the Prince Albert, isn’t it?”

Corazon sighed as she returned the smart paper to the desk. “Fred will never believe I didn’t set Simon up to this. I belong on the Prince Albert, Neiko, you know that. Besides, it wouldn’t be fair to take advantage of him this way.” She sighed again when no answer was forthcoming from her hostess. “Rei and Lillian will do fine over there; they really don’t need a Ship Mother on a ship that small.”

“Now who are you trying to convince?”

“No one,” countered Cora. “There are just times it’s hard to let go of people you’ve grown to care for, even when you know you have to move on.”

Neiko Kurosawa smiled a private smile for her friend, knowing exactly what she meant and was glad to have finally found a home for herself in the hollowed out asteroid known as Borneo. “You’re expecting again,” she commented, sensing Cora would appreciate the change of topic. This is what, your third?”

“Fourth,” corrected Cora, one hand absently rubbing her ever so slightly distended belly. “My son,” she said softly. “We’re going to name him Geraldo. Sam was on Earth helping me with the funeral and, well, we’d been talking about another child for a long time.” Cora smiled a private smile. “Sam knew it would cheer me up.”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t attend myself, your mother was a very special woman.”

“Everyone dies,” Cora told her softly. “But, mama, she truly lived. What better way to be remembered, no?”


* finis *
Read 1090 times Last modified on Monday, 14 August 2023 22:11


E. E. Nalley
E. E. Nalley
1 month ago
Leave me a comment here or in the forums!
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1 month ago
I always enjoyed the Caregivers universe, and hope for inspiration to strike anyone willing to add to this amazing collection of stories.
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