Tuesday, 19 July 2022 00:00

The TLC War

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A Care Givers Company story

The TLC War

By Bek D Corbin

 

The small hauler coasted along a 15.7 degree tangent from the IG Farben refinery just outside the Belt to Paterson Outpost. It was burning enough hydrogen for a nice steady 10G acceleration, well within the capacity of its internal gravity compensators. But burning that much fuel, even if it's only hydrogen and dirt cheap, creates a nice bright spot where the fusion ball peeks out from between the steering vanes. The ISP Enforcer corvette would have picked up their arc of transit, even if the Farben refinery hadn’t announced its flight plan to Paterson, and so to all the world practically.

The corvette had no problem matching the hauler’s trajectory and catching up with it. The corvette’s power was only a few tons larger than the hauler’s, but it wasn’t dragging at least 100 kilotons of cargo. The eight huge cargo modules made the hauler dwarf the corvette chasing it, but the Enforcer ship was obviously the more dangerous of the two. The corvette wasted fuel that the hauler could never afford matching the cargo ship’s exact trajectory.

The dorsal turret aimed the Gravitic ‘lasso’ at the hauler and it created an intangible ‘leash’ that the hauler could never break, no matter how much fuel they burned trying to get away. Even so, two crude solid nickel-iron ‘slugs’ were loaded into the twin linear accelerators, and they were trained onto the hauler’s main propulsion module. Only when they firmly had the drop on the hauler did the corvette’s commander deign to contact the hauler. “Licensed Cargo Ship Richard Whittington, Registry Number: 34KL8442, this is the ISP Corvette SZ711, Lieutenant Commander Thurston Maddox commanding. Pursuant to ISP Navigation Regulations, I am ordering you to allow me to send a boarding party aboard your ship to check for contraband or signs of Pirate or Terrorist activities.”

The hauler captain replied, “Could you come back in an hour? We were in the middle of our annual Mardi Gras celebration, and the place is a mess!”

“What? It won’t be Mardi Gras for months!”

“What? Gee, you were right, Orlando! I owe you a fiver! Boy, do _I_ feel like a shmuck!”

“Stop stalling!” Maddox sputtered. “Transmit your entire Crew and Passenger list, so that we can compare that against a list of names and known aliases of fugitives.”

“Don’t ask much, do ya? Maybe you want to know what pattern dinnerware we have, so that you know what to get us for Christmas?”

Maddox strummed his fingers on the armrest of his command chair. These damn Spacer captains made a production of not being intimidated by ISP Enforcers, and it was a pain. Still, it was a ritual of sorts, and the Spacers could find ways of making the whole process even more of a pain if you didn’t allow them their pretenses. As satisfying as it would be to crack their hull like a walnut with the ’Finson Gun’ (as the Linear Accelerator weapons were called), the ISP wanted to control the traffic in the Belt, not shut it down. Still, the ‘Seven-Eleven’ was on the seventh month without leave of a nine-month cruise, and Maddox was getting as antsy as most of his crew. “Okay, okay! I’m real impressed by how independent and unafraid you are! Now shoot the Crew and Passenger list over, already!”

“What? You’re in a hurry to get to a party, maybe? You can’t stop and sit and have a cup of tea, like a human being?”

“The List - NOW. Pemberty, power up the Finson Gun.”

“Okay, okay! Don’t have a cow, already! Crew List - we’re not carrying any passengers on this haul - and the Cargo Manifest, which you were about to ask for, weren’t you?”

“How very gracious of you,” Maddox responded dryly.

Park, the Computer Officer, scanned the file. “Skipper, we have a hit. Masaryk, Gertrude, Lisl, Age: 43, Citizenship: The Czech Republic, Employment Status: Crewperson on contract from Care Givers Corporation. The Care Givers Corporation is on record as a Criminal Organization in flagrant violation of the Protection of Women Act.”

“Any other hits on the Possible Wants and Warrants?”

“Well, we've got a Damage Control Specialist who might be a guy who walked out on his back rent on Gugarin station.”

“Not worth the extra mass. Captain Tehama-”

“I ain’t Cap’n Tehama - he’s still bagging some Zees. I’m Leonard Slazeny, the OD.”

“How wonderful for you. Mister Slazeny, you have a crew-woman named Gertrude Masaryk aboard. You are in violation of the Protection of Women Act. This fact will be transmitted ahead to Paterson, where your ship will be fined accordingly. When we dock with your ship, in addition to searching your Cargo Modules for contraband, we will have additional boarding parties search your ship for any other personnel that might be in violation of the PWA, or any person that you might have forgotten to mention on your list. You will have Miss Masaryk waiting with her personal effects for transportation back to Earth, in accordance with the Recovery Provisions of the PWA. For the record, please be apprised that our Boarding Parties will be armed and will also be both ready and capable of protecting themselves with Deadly Force.”

“In other words, yer comin’ in, Armed and Armored, and you’ll blast anyone what looks atcha cross-eyed, right?”

“As long as we understand each other. Maddox, Out.”

The Corvette pulled up to the hauler and slowly synchronized their Gravity Walls, allowing the two fields to merge. The Corvette extended a Universal Docking Hatch, which formed a secure seal on the hauler’s access dock.

On the ‘safe’ side of the docking hatch, the ship’s ‘gunny’, Master Sergeant Armando ‘Tex’ Villarobles, addressed the three boarding crews. “Okay, guys, stay frosty. If this Masaryk broad is anything like that XX Flight bitch that we brought in two patrols ago, she ain’t gonna be happy about getting dragged off in the middle of her contract. On top of everything, since she’s in violation of the PWA, she’s the one responsible for not being able to complete her contract, so she won’t get paid for this run. AND, Spacers got that whole ‘I don’t wanna go back to Earth’ thing, too. So, just grab her and don’t take anything that she says is personal. But if she’s puttin’ out, the crew might get nasty. You just keep yer guns trained on the guys, in case one of ‘em does somethin’ stupid. It ain’t likely, but it does happen, especially if you get sloppy. So stay sharp! You got that?”

“Stay sharp!”

“What was that?”

“STAY SHARP!”

“One more time!”

STAY SHARP!”

“Okay, let’s do it!”

Villarobles hit the Go button, and the armored door slid open with a hiss.

The Gunny made a production of loudly chambering a round into his Mossberg combat shotgun. “Okay, people, we all know the drill here. Don’t give none and there won’t be none, Capise? First of all, where’s this Gertrude Masaryk broad?”

One of the seven crewmen in the access dock strolled forward. “Oh, Trudy had some last minute duty to take care of. You know how it is - something always pops up at the last minute.”

“Lissen up, here’s the procedure - FIRST, we secure all the Wants & Warrants. THEN we search the ship for anyone that just may have slipped yer mind. THEN we search the Cargo Modules for contraband and any *ahem!* ‘stowaways’. THEN, we search your exterior hull for ‘irregularities’, and then FINALLY, we let you go. You ain’t makin’ any money cruisin’ along here, so why don’t you just get Step One over with, and hand the bitch over?”

There was a general murmur of ‘Bitch?’ One of the younger looking Hauler crewmen stepped forward, but a calmer hand restrained him. The spokesman rocked on his heels. “Well, Hoss, y’know there ARE procedures that gotta be followed here,” he said suspiciously gently. “For one, the captain has to be here to formally permit your boarding. After all, if you force your way aboard without his permission, and then y’all don’t find nothin’, well then we have a nice little lawsuit agin’ ya, us bein’ good, law-abidin’ citizens and all.”

Villarobles took a deep breath and let it out. It was starting already. “Okay, you got us on that one. So, where’s your captain? Still asleep, I assume?”

“Oh, Hell no. Leo woke him up, first thing as soon as yer skipper killed the connection. But he’s, ah, kinda preoccupied right now. But don’t you worry, he’ll be along just as soon as he’s finished.”

Villarobles snarled under his heavily armored faceplate. The thick yellow line that legally separated the ‘legal common area’ of the entryway from the legal property of the Owner/Operator seemed so ridiculous. But as a mere NCO, he couldn’t order his men across without either the Owner’s express permission or some sign of willful disobedience. “And what’s he so busy with?”

“Oh, he’s sayin’ goodbye t’ Trudy.”

“He’s saying goodbye to the Ship’s Whore?”

The spokesman took three sauntering steps forward, to the very edge of the thick yellow line. He glared at Villarobles through the thick bulletproof glass of his visor. “Lissen up, Cowboy - Trudy ain’t no whore. Now you watch yerself with her, y’hear? Bad things happen t’ fools what don’t treat a Care Giver with respect. You remember that.”

“Are you threatening a Law Enforcement Officer, in the commission of his legal duty?”

“Nope. Not a bit of it. Just givin’ you good advice, Hoss. You’d best listen to it.”

The Marines tensed at the implicit threat, and there was a definite sense of a confrontation brewing. Then the hatch of the one of the Emergency Decompression Shelter ‘coffins’, which were all too often used as a place to grab a little shut-eye in the middle of a long shift, opened up. A pair of hands gripped the swing-in bar and a young woman swung herself out. As soon as her traction slippers hit the deck, she turned her back to the assembled men and finished zipping up the front of her pink flight suit. That done, she turned back to face them.

Villarobles paused for a moment. The woman may not have been an ethereal vision of loveliness, but she was definitely all woman. She looked to be in her mid-20’s, and in very good trim. She was long and lithe, with really nice curves that showed well through her hot pink flight suit. Her VitStats had her at 43 years old, but she couldn’t have been out of her twenties. Her hair was honey blonde, and done in a long braid that fell down her back to between her shoulder blades. Her hair had bangs that emphasized a large, almond shaped pair of smoky gray eyes over very high cheekbones. Her face was long and angular, with a long straight nose and a wide expressive mouth with a full lower lip. Her eyes regarded them with cool amusement, and she had the ‘cat that’s been at the cream’ smirk that Villarobles tended to associate with a woman who’s just had her ashes hauled, but good.

“Oh! Hey, Joachim, they’re here!”

Right after her, a heavyset man of Filipino extraction leveraged himself out of the ‘coffin’. His jumpsuit was also askew, but he made no attempt to tidy himself up. He strolled up to the sacred yellow line, and gave the boarding party a blasé once over. Then he stuck an imperious hand out to the crewman who had given Villarobles the ‘good advice’. “Harley, the paperwork.”

Harley slipped a clipboard into Tehama’s hand. Oh, God, no! Villarobles thought to himself. The Fiends! They’re resorting to--- Paperwork!

“Okay, this one on the top gives you my express written permission to board and search my ship, but by signing it, you recognize that we are willingly cooperating with the ISP. The next one is already signed by Trudy, stating that she is willingly coming with you in obedience to the Protection of Women Act, as adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in-”

Villarobles grabbed the clipboard with a snarl, and rushed through signing and initialing all fourteen separate documents. As he signed each one, Captain Tehama passed the page over to Harley, who notarized it. “There!” Villarobles finished with the very last document. “Now, about this Masaryk broad-”

“Hey, Trudy!” Tehama yelled over his shoulder, “You done yet?”

“Not quite.” Trudy was going down the line of the crewmen, distributing hugs and tearful goodbyes. She gave one young crewman an extra-long hug and kiss goodbye. “Now, I don’t wanna hear that you got in a fight with these yahoos, Mateo. They’re bigger ’n you are, and they've got guns.”

She finished up and walked over to the yellow line, where Captain Tehama handed her a set of copies of the documents. <sigh> “Well, Joachim, it’s been fun, but we always knew that we’d get boarded eventually.”

“Yeah, I hate to lose you, Babe. Worse, now that we’re on ISP’s ‘Known Abetters List, CGC probably won’t negotiate for a replacement.”

“I’m not even gone, and you’re already thinking of replacing me?”

“Only to fill the hole in our duty roster, never the hole in our hearts.”

“Oh, I’m gonna miss that silver tongue of yours, you lyin’ sunuvabitch.” Trudy turned and grabbed a hot pink EVA suit that was lying near a pile of baggage.

Villarobles stepped forward. “What are you taking THAT along for?”

“It’s my EVA suit.”

“You won’t be needing it.”

“Oh? You can guarantee that your boat won’t pop a leak and suddenly decompress? Listen up-” She peered at the deep blue stenciling on Villarobles’ armored EVA suit, “-Tex, I haven’t had this thing where I couldn’t get at it for fifteen years. I can’t sleep without it. It’s like my teddy bear. You wouldn’t ask a girl to be without her teddy bear, would you?”

“Hey, mass is at a premium on a Corvette! We can’t afford to-”

“Not while I’m aboard the ship, it isn’t! According to Standard ISP Operating Procedure, once an interceptor has taken a woman aboard pursuant to the PWA, they are to immediately alert their Tender ship and schedule a rendezvous, where said woman will be transferred to the Tender for transport back to Earth. Said interceptor is NOT to engage in any other Search Missions while the woman is aboard. You’ll be heading to your refit and re-supply ship, and not chasing anyone, so fuel won’t be an issue.

“Besides,” she pulled out one of the recently signed documents, “you just signed off on the fact that I willingly surrendered to you, and as such I am guaranteed full protection of ISP Law. Which that means that, since the PWA was signed to protect women, that I won’t be victimized by having my means of earning a living taken from me.”

“But the PWA specifically forbids women from working at any hazardous labor, which includes anything that would require an EVA suit!”

“True, but this suit cost me $5,000 right off the shelf, and it cost me another $7,000 to get it customized to where it was comfortable. Even with the hideous devaluation that I’ll get, it’ll be worth at least $8,000 to me when I get back to Earth! Are you telling me to just leave Eight Grand behind?”

Villarobles gritted out, “No,” between his teeth.

“Good!” She shoved the EVA suit into Villarobles' arms. “Here, you take this, you’re not doing anything important. You, ‘Slim’, you pick up that tool dolly.”

“Now, wait a minute!”

“Hey, those are MY tools, they’re MY property, and I’m used to them! You wouldn’t ask me to use just any tools, after I’ve gotten used to these. Now, I wouldn’t ask you to go and use just any gun off the rack!”

Villarobles shifted his Mossberg 500t uncomfortably. The weapon had ‘Wrangler Jane’ engraved on one side of the stock, and a laser engraved cartoon of a sexy cowgirl twirling a lasso on the other. He just wouldn’t be comfortable with another gun. 

“Okay, now, you here, be very careful with this.” She draped what appeared to be an oversized suit bag over Okesson’s arm.

“What IS it?”

“It’s my formal kimono. Gently! That’s genuine Szechwan silk! It wrinkles if you even look at it wrong, and it’s a bitch to get right again! Okay, now you-” she handed Tran a guitar case, “-careful now, that’s real Spanish wood, it breaks real easy and real wood is a bitch to get. Now, you-” she handed Calhoun another smaller instrument case, “-that’s not as delicate, but still don’t drop it.”

“How many instruments you GOT?”

“Four - Guitar, Keyboard, Flute and Harmonica. Hey, as The Bob said, 'Specialization is for insects.' Hey, it could be worse! Y’know, I hear that there’s a girl out here who plays the Glass Armonica? The Glass Armonica? That isn’t an instrument, it’s a party trick that your friends hope you don’t break out, after three Shnapps!”

After getting all her clothes and accessories bags taken care of, Trudy picked up a dolly stacked with boxes.

“Hold it!” Villarobles stopped her, “What’s that? Your collection of fashion magazines?”

“No, Silly, that’s my food.”

“What, ISP Enforcer food isn’t good enough for you?”

Gaaah! Mother of God, NO! Heck, I’ve seen the slop they feed you Patrol Dogs, and I wouldn’t feed it to a real dog! But then, I suppose they feed it to you to keep you mean. Now, me-” she opened up one of the boxes and pulled out a short vacuum packed can with a pull-top. She opened the can with a *whoosh!* of incoming air, and dropped a tantalizingly fresh looking red apple out of the can. She bit into the apple with a crisp *crunch* and chewed. “-me, I have higher standards. And if you’re thinking of ‘confiscating’ it-” she help up her copies of the documents that Villarobles had just signed and shook her head.

Trudy gave her shipmates a fond last wave goodbye and wheeled the dolly through the hatch. As the dock sealed itself, Trudy saw one of the boarding party looking at the apple with a sort of stunned gaze. She sighed and tossed the mostly uneaten apple to him.

Trudy took a deep breath. “Wow, I’d bet that none of you guys have had your ashes hauled in about a year!”

‘Slim’ Watanabe lifted the visor of his helmet and stared at her. “Why would you say that?”

“The smell. Desperate men give off a really distinct stink. Man, you could cut the desperation in the air in this place with a knife!”

“Hey, this ship does NOT STINK! We keep this place spick and span!”

“Sweetie, Air Scrubbers can’t get rid of this smell. And even if it could, you guys still reek of it.” Trudy settled her food dolly inside the entry dock. “Well, where do I bunk?”

Villarobles pulled his helmet off. “Well, protocol states that you gotta be debriefed by the Skipper before we get you stowed away.”

“Very well, where is Himself?”

“He should be on the bridge. I’ll go get him.”

“Why take up his time? I’d be perfectly happy to go and see him.”

“Regs say that no prisoner-”

“I’m not a prisoner. Prisoners are women who shoot at boarding parties, hide, or otherwise resist being taken off their ships. I’m a transportee. Transportees aren’t barred from the bridge.”

“You watch yerself. The Skipper ain’t one for legal niceties. If he says that you gotta stay here, then you stay here.”

“Oh well, go get him. I can live for a few more days without seeing the bridge.”  

Villarobles shucked out of his EVA suit, stashed it and ‘Wrangler Jane’ away in their locker, and hit the intercom. “Hey, Skipper, Villarobles here. We have that truant Masaryk aboard.”

“Yeah. And?”

“Well, the Regs say that you gotta debrief her before we assign her a room.”

“Why bother assigning her a room? Just chuck her in the brig, and I’ll get to her when I get to her.”

“Ah--- we can’t, Skipper. She isn’t a prisoner, she’s a transportee.”

“Come again?”

“Well, the Whittington’s Crew didn’t resist, but its Captain only gave his Permission to Board after I signed-”

“YOU Signed? Since when do you have authority to sign anything?”

<Ahem!> “Lieutenant Commander Maddox, as the Senior NCO aboard this ship, I have full authority to sign routine documents in your stead.” Villarobles’ voice suddenly took a formal tone, and gained an edge of steel. “As the lead man on the boarding party, I was in position to make those commitments.”

“Watch your tone, Villarobles.”

“SIR! Yes Sir!” But there was no change in Villarobles’ voice. “I signed the routine boarding documents as part of my duty as the man on the scene. Among these documents was an affidavit recognizing that Miss Masaryk came in obedience to the PWA. That means that she’s a transportee, not a prisoner. The terms of the PWA are very exact on the protection of women under ISP transportation. If YOU want to buck the Regs-”

“ENOUGH! I’ll come down and ask the old bag the usual questions! Maddox, out.”

Villarobles shut off the intercom. “He’s coming down. I feel so safe.”

Maddox shut off the intercom with an irritated jab. Shit. The Spacer bitch was trying to play it strictly by the book. Hell, out here, the Law was what the Captain said it was; the bitch had been out here long enough to know that. Oh God, like he needed this! Gertrude Masaryk, Czech, Age: 43. He could just tell that she was going to be a pudgy, middle-aged battleaxe whose face was probably as sour as her nature. God, he wished that he could get his hands on whoever came up with all those stupid stories about beautiful Spacer women who had no problem with sleeping with the entire ship! The last two women had been hysterics who’d locked themselves in their cabin and insisted on having their meals brought to them. Like a stringy skank like that Salvatore bitch had anything to worry about.

Oh well, might as well get it over with. Just keep in mind that they had to take her in to the Pournelle, the Seven-Eleven’s Tender ship. The DSC whores might not be real women, but they’d still be better looking than Masaryk was.

Maddox hit the button for Sedgewick, his exec. “Sedgewick, get to the bridge.”

“I’m in the middle of something here,” came Hasting’s clipped British accent back.

“So what else is new? Get up here, I need someone on watch. We have a femme pickup, and the Regs say that I gotta ask her the usual pinhead questions.”

Maddox could hear the martyred sigh through the intercom. “Very well, I’m on my way.”

Five minutes later, Sedgewick took control of the bridge and Maddox was free - if that’s the word - to take care of the Masaryk matter. Maddox made his way through the cramped passageways of the Corvette, and went down to the Boarding Dock.

Moving through a spaceship is always cramped, but it was only usually crowded when the Marines were playing basketball in the Utility Room, and the others were passing the time watching. But for some reason, the passageways around the Boarding Dock were packed thick, and they only got thicker as he got closer.

Then the men suddenly formed a solid wall, and Maddox had to push his way past. “Make way! Coming through! Get the FUCK out of my way!”

The men weren’t paying any attention to him, and Maddox forced his way through. Suddenly, he found himself face to face with a woman. A Real Woman, A Real Beautiful Woman. The woman was seated on a trunk, and looked as if she’d just been interrupted in the middle of a pleasant bit of chit-chat with DeForrest, the Second Computer Officer, by Maddox’s sudden appearance. She raised an amused eyebrow. “Oh? And who are you, Sweetie?”

When he managed to get his mouth closed, words became possible. “Y-you’re Gertrude Masaryk?”

“Call me Trudy,” she purred, pouting her lips around the vowel in her name to mime a kiss, and her cosmopolitan European accent made a coo of it. “You’re the Captain?”

“I, ah, I’m the Commander of this Vessel. Lieutenant Commander Maddox.” Then Maddox managed to pull himself together a bit. “Let’s see now, where’s the Standard Intelligence Inquiry sheet?” Villarobles handed him a clipboard with a SmartPaper sheet on it. “Thank you, Gunny.” Maddox keyed the clipboard for the SII sheet, and started reading off the questions, paying the sheet of SmartPaper much more attention than it normally warranted. “Let’s see now, you’re Gertrude Masaryk?”

“Didn’t we just cover that?”

“This is for the record.”

<sigh> “Very well- Masaryk, Gertrude, Lisl. Personal Identification Number-” Trudy reeled off her base vital stats, from memory. “Able Bodied-” Trudy grinned as she was interrupted by a storm of whistles and grunts, “-Spacer, Rating Four, with a Specialization in Environmental Engineering, and a concentration in Hydro Systems.”

“You’re a Plumber?”

“Well, let’s just say that I’ve had to deal with more than my share of drips. I also do Air Conditioning and Recycling, as well as the usual maintenance work and other things. So, once I've gotten stowed away, where do you want me to report?”

“Report?”

“What work station?”

“Work station?”

“Is there an echo in here? When I start, what work station and what shift do you want me to take?”

“Why would a Ship’s Whore do work shifts?”

Trudy’s hand lashed out like a snake and grabbed Maddox by the collar of his flight suit. “I’m only going to say this once - I’m not a whore, I’m a Care Giver. Care Givers don’t sit around eating grapes while men do all the work. I _earn_ my passage, Schatzi.” Then she let go of his collar, before anyone could completely react. “SO! Where do I bunk?”

Maddox pulled back. He was getting the worse of this exchange, and he had a feeling that a change of venue was called for. He turned to DeForrest, and told him, “Go get Mr. Singh and Mr. Tam. Tell them that they’ve had Singles long enough, I want Mr. Singh to move his stuff into Mr. Tam’s double.” Maddox hefted the SII clipboard. “We’ll continue this in my cabin, after you’re stowed away.” With that, he pushed his way through the ring of men.

Trudy turned to Joe Okesson. “Why don’t we get my food to the galley, while your Misters Singh and Tam get themselves sorted out?”

“Asshh—sure. This way.”

As Villarobles pointed out to the gathered men that if they didn’t have any work for them to do, he damn well would FIND some, Trudy and Joe wheeled the dolly laden with her food down the corridor. When they were - at least in theory - out of earshot, Trudy asked, “So, what’s your Skipper’s problem? Other than not being used to being celibate.”

“Well,” Joe offered, “he’s got a lot on his plate.”

“Hmm…by the way, why are you guys so hard up? I mean, I can understand you guys not getting any women on these tubs, but don’t you at least have the odd shower-room romance?”

Joe hissed her to silence. “NO! The Regs come down real hard on stuff like that!”

Trudy almost broke out laughing. “And since when did the Regs ever slow anybody down from doing what comes naturally? Heck, most of the Spacers that I know share a bunk with a buddy on a regular basis!”

Joe looked around furtively, leaned over and whispered, “Zamp.”

“Come again?” 

“Zamp. The ‘Loyalty Officer’. He makes sure that the Regs get followed. All of 'em. Back in the 20th Century, the Nazis and Soviets used to send ‘Political Officers’ out on subs and the bigger ships, to keep the officers and crew from getting ideas about defecting. The Russkies used t’call ‘em ‘Zampolits’, and it sorta got shortened to ‘Zamp’.”

Trudy looked at Joe poleaxed. “You’re kidding! And you put UP with that?”

“It’d be nice t’have a choice.”

“So, who’s the ‘Zamp’ on this ship?”

“I dunno. Nobody knows. If we did, he’d ‘accidentally fall out of an airlock’ in a second. The point is, last patrol, we had two guys, good men, knew their stuff - they started goin’ at each other. And they was real slick about it, too; I never heard a peep about ‘em. But the Zamp still found out, and they got booted and drummed out of the Service.”

“Why would this Zamp care? If they don’t tell, why would he ask?”

“Well, the Word is, the Zamp gets sort of a bounty for every court-martial that results in a conviction that he brings up. Cash, perks, brownie points toward a promotion or a command, I dunno. There’s a rumor that the Skipper was the Zamp on the Decatur, and got the Captain and the XO booted for ‘dereliction of duty’. How they were ‘derelict’, I dunno, but that’s supposed t’be how he got this command.”

Trudy paused and raised an eyebrow at Joe. Then she shrugged, which did very interesting things to her chest. “Well, I suppose that we all have our own rows to hoe.”

A ship’s galley is, by definition, a cramped affair, and a galley aboard a ship that puts a premium on speed, such as a Corvette, is even more so. There was room for three men to move without hurting themselves, if none of them was all that fond of their own cooking. And neither Ship’s Cook Arvid Calloway or Cook’s Assistant Philo Adasanan were that fond of the food to be found on the SZ711. Calloway paused to see who was crowding up his kitchen. “What the fuck?” He dropped the pan that he’d been scouring.

“Jeezus!” Adasanan sputtered, “Watch what yer doin’, Arv! What do you-” Adasanan trailed off as he saw what Calloway was looking at.

“Hey!” Trudy said with a cheery wave of one hand. “Where are the empty food lockers? Oh, never mind, I see ‘em.” She opened one of the refrigerated lockers and started moving what food which was still on them over to another locker.

“Hey! What are you doing?”

“Putting away my food.”

Joe cleared his throat. “Ah, Cookie, this is Trudy. She’s the woman we just took offa that hauler. She brought along her own food.” Then something crossed Joe’s mind. “You were expecting to get picked up, so you had your own grub on hand?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Trudy said as she kept opening the boxes and stowing away their contents. “We realized that there was a chance of getting pulled over on every trip, so Joachim and I had an agreement that I’d get some of the food from the Whittington’s pantry to tide me over.” Trudy paused to take a look at an opened can and read the ingredients on the side. “Mother of God, you guys eat this?”

Calloway grabbed the can away from her. “Listen up, I am NOT cooking special meals! I had enough of that from that last XX-Flight bitch we took in!”

“Oh, I don’t expect any special considerations. I’m perfectly happy to fix my own. And I’m not XX-Flight.”

When Trudy had finished stowing away her provisions, Joe said, “Well, Mr. Singh and Mr. Tam should be all moved out by now. Let’s get you moved in, okay?”

“Sure, just two more things.” She placed a blank label on the locket door and wrote ‘Trudy’s Food! Keep Your Paws Off!’ on it with a marker. Then she pulled a very thick padlock out of one of the pockets on her flight suit and secured it on the locker door.

Calloway glared at her. “What’s the matter? Don’t you trust us?”

Trudy took the can from his hand, and spared a glance at ingredients. Then she cocked an eyebrow at Calloway, handed him the can, and left it at that.

Maddox looked around his cabin. The stateroom wasn’t the largest chamber on the ship, but it was easily three times larger than the next largest private room on board. Besides a bed that you could actually roll around in and a private shower, the stateroom had one of the most valuable commodities to be had on a spaceship: elbow room. You could stand up and move around and not have to worry about tripping into things. You were finally free of that all-pervasive cramped in feeling. And best of all, this was his space; he wasn’t just the Commander here, he owned this space. The simple statement of dominion in this place should give him the psychological edge that he hadn’t had on the Boarding Dock.

Oh Yeah, he was getting’ some nookie tonight!

Then there was a knock on his door. “Yes?”

Okesson stuck his head in the door. “Skipper, Miss Masaryk is all stowed away. You wanted to ask her a few questions?”

“Very good. Send her in.”

Okesson opened the door, let Trudy in and then followed her into the cabin.

Maddox fixed him with the cold fish eye. “And what do you think you’re doing?”

“Ah, hum. Well, Sir, it sorta strikes me that it might be a good idea if you have someone on hand, to verify that this is all on the Up n’ Up.”

“I don’t need anyone to protect me from the big bad Care Giver,” Maddox replied icily.

Joe started to say something, thought better of it, and left without a word.

Maddox turned his full attention to Trudy, who was standing and giving his cabin a good once over. A good sign. “Very well, would you like a seat?”

“No thanks, I’m fine.” She continued to casually examine the cabin. “My, you certainly have a lot of room in here.”

“Yes, well, Rank Hath Its Privileges, and all that.”

“Yes, I’ve heard that before. Still, it’s not a pretty sentiment. So, you want to know something?”

“Yes. <ahem!> First, you’ve been a working member of Care Givers Corporation for fifteen years. The UN ratified the Protection of Women Act eight months ago. Why did you remain in space, in defiance of the PWA?”

“Because I was under contract to the Whittington, and leaving the ship to comply would have broken my contract.”

“Yes, but you’ve still technically broken your contract, since you were forced to be arrested-”

“I wasn’t arrested, I surrendered myself willingly to your men. I have signed documents to prove it. And since you’re winding yourself up to make the point that I’m still reneging on my contact, since I was technically afoul of the Law, and thus am technically responsible for any repercussions, I’m not. My contract specifically states that I am not to be held liable for the contract being voided by any Third Party.”

Maddox raised an eyebrow. “That was a pretty damn good contract you had.”

“Yeah, it was a good berth. And Care Givers has very good lawyers working for them.”

“Ah yes- Care Givers. You ARE aware that Care Givers is listed as a criminal organization?”

“Yes. And?”

“As a member of a criminal organization-”

“I am still a Legal Citizen of the Czech Republic, and am enfranchised with all the rights and privileges thereof. And I have-”

“You have documents signed by Gunny Villarobles recognizing that.” Maddox finished for her. <sigh> So much for that tack. God, she smelled good. He forced himself to focus. “Next question: Have you ever been to any free-floating Habitats that were not, to your knowledge, registered with the ISP?”

“To my knowledge? No.”

“Do you have reason to believe that you were on a free floating habitat that wasn’t registered with the ISP?”

“Well, it was sort of understood that Tortuga, Baritaria, Zanzibar, Tripoli and Hole-In-The-Wall weren’t registered, but I don’t recall anyone ever coming out and saying that they were outlaw posts.”

“Very good. Now, where exactly is Tortuga?”

“I dunno.”

“But you just admitted that you’ve been there.”

“Yeah, but I wasn’t the Navigator on that trip.”

“But it says that you have your basic Nav Certification.”

“Yeah, but I wasn’t at the Com when we pulled in.”

“But you have a rough idea.”

“Yeah, and in these parts, a ‘rough idea’ covers a spherical area larger than EarthSpace.”

“What were the approach protocols?”

“Well, as I remember, Joachim pulled over, honked the horn, and waited for curb service.”

“Excuse me?”

“We entered a rough target area, stopped dead in our tracks, broadcast a signal on a frequency that I personally don’t know, and waited for Pilot Boats to come out and bring us in.”

“So, in other words, Captain Tehama probably doesn’t know the exact whereabouts of Tortuga either.”

“I rather doubt it. And they change the frequency real often.”

Maddox noted this down on the sheet. “What do you know about the disappearance of the RG921, the HE787, or the DE525, or any other Enforcer vessel that may have disappeared in the last two years?”

“Oh, have Enforcer vessels been disappearing? I haven’t heard anything about it on the news.”

“Just answer the question.”

“Gee, what could take out an Enforcer interceptor? These ships, were they interceptors, like this one, or some other kind of vessel?”

“That’s none of your business.”

Trudy walked over to one of the shelves and picked up a scale model of an Enforcer Corvette. “This is the SZ711? It’s a Starwolf Class Corvette, right? First, the  Starlion, then the  Startiger; when are they going to produce the  Starweasel and the Starshrew?”

“Would you answer the question?”

“Well, to the best of my knowledge, the Corvettes are still the fastest, most heavily armed vehicles in these parts.”

“And what does that mean?”

“Well, Common Sense says that the only reason that an ISP interceptor would disappear would be that it met something faster and better armed than it was. And, to the best of my knowledge, the Corvette is still the meanest, nastiest ship around.”

“So you’re saying that you don’t know what happened to them.”

“Well, according to you, it’s none of my business if anything DID happen to them.”

God, this was maddening! The last woman that he’d been with was one of those DSC sex-changes, and ‘she’ had acted like ‘she’ was doing him a favor! Maddox changed his tactics again. “What do you know about the Crucible incident?”

“Only what I hear on the tube - that some grounder company put up a refinery near the Belt, and it blew up.”

“It was attacked.”

“Yeah, well, that’s what the news heads are saying. But Central Navigation Control says the only ships that came anywhere near that pile were some unscheduled shuttles, and they were well gone and away before Crucible went critical.”

“Crucible was attacked by Spacer pirates.”

Schatzi, do you have any idea how hard it is to hide a ship’s drive out here? And what would an Nth rate refinery like Crucible have that pirates would want?”

“It was producing quality ore in competition with Spacer owned refineries!” Maddox hissed. “Damn greedy Spacers want to bleed Earth for as much as their damned ores as they can get away with! Crucible would have made the damn Spacers compete for their profits!”

“As opposed to Grounder corporations who jack up the price of the alloys that they compound from those ores? Schatzi, if anyone’s bleeding the Earth of money, it’s outfits like Koss-Macklin, or Kyoji Chemicals, or Jin Ryun Sho.”

Maddox resumed the questioning, and kept trying to get Trudy off balance, or get her into a corner, where she’d need a ‘friend’ on her side. Trudy kept answering the questions, but they never went anywhere that Maddox could use.

Finally, Maddox gave it up. He vastly preferred to deal from a position of strength, but there wasn’t anything about what she'd so far said that suggested that she wouldn’t be reasonable. After all, for all their blither, the ‘Care Givers’ were just a bunch of out call hookers with a really large red light district to cover.

Well, enough fencing, Maddox thought to himself, time to get down to the nitty gritty. “Well, Miss Masaryk, that’s enough for now. You know, you’re in a rather tough spot.”

“Oh? How so?”

“The ISP is really cracking down on Care Givers.”

“Tell me something that I don’t already know.”

“You could be looking at some real hard time.”

Trudy grinned. “Oh, I’ve heard stories.”

“A few good words from the Commander would probably do you a world of good.”

“I don’t see how.”

Okay, Maddox thought, so much for that. What did this bitch want, an engraved invitation? Try another tack. “And what do you think of your quarters?”

“I’ve slept in worse.”

“Hmm...maybe, but there’s a possibility for--- roomier quarters.”

“Oh? I understood that it was an Officer’s single. The only living quarters larger would be---”

Maddox leaned forward and purred, “You know, Trudy, you must be tired. You’ve been running through my mind all day.”

Trudy stifled a guffaw, and then let it out. “Oh, thank you, THANK you, Commander! After the day that I’ve had, I really needed that! You must have run into some real idiots to have heard that line!” She got up and headed for the door. Just before she left, she turned and said, “And you know the really funny thing? I’ve had guys use that, and they WEREN’T joking! Can you imagine?” Breaking out laughing, Trudy strode out into the corridor.

“No, Commander, we CAN’T have her confined to her cabin,” Lieutenant Sedgewick patiently explained. “She’s a transportee--”

“Yeah, I know, but she’s distracting the crew.”

“Skipper, given the strain that the men have been under, some distraction may be just what the doctor ordered. And we don’t have cause.”

“Okay, but I want an order issued that she is NOT to be allowed anywhere near any of the repair jobs underway. There’s no telling what she might pull.”

“Sir, she’s got qualified ABS papers from the Independent Spacer’s Guild-”

“I don’t care if she’s got papers from the Lollipop Guild! If anything, that just makes her more dangerous!”

“Sir, she’s on the same ship as us! What’s she going to do, empty out all the air, killing herself along with the rest of us?”

“Hey, who knows what kind of brainwashing those Care Giver wackos gave her?” Maddox leaned in and whispered, “Y’know, I’ve even heard that some of ‘em aren’t even women? They’re men that they change with some kinda nanite transformation doohickey!”

“Actually, according to the ISP file on the Care Givers Corporation, it’s estimated that up to 75% of the Care Giver personnel are transformed males.” Sedgewick’s polished British Public School accent made him sound like an University Professor discussing some trivial point of medieval history. “There’s a 17 Million Euro bounty for anyone who can come up with the secret of the nanite suite. Besides being able to turn full-grown men into women, it’s supposed to be capable of a general metabolic upgrade and even rejuvenation. It’s a Class B-7 priority.”

“Okay, now I KNOW that I don’t want that freak anywhere near anything important!”

“Do you want me to give Calloway and Adasaman orders to prepare her meals for her?”

“Why? Those two have their hands full ruining OUR food - let the bitch fix her own grub.”

Trudy was up and in the kitchen just as Arvid and Philo were coming off the Graveyard shift’s dinner and gearing to set up for the ‘Morning’ shift’s breakfast.

“Good Morning, Boys!” Trudy said chipperly as she opened her locker and pulled out her fixings.

The two cooks said absolutely nothing to her as she produced some reasonably fresh looking eggs, and started doing them sunny-side up.

But Trudy wasn’t anywhere near as silent. “Do they actually like that?” She jerked a head at the huge powdered egg mix that they were stirring up.

“Hey, we don’t get any complaints,” Calloway grumbled. Adasanan gave him a sideways look. “Shaddap.”

Trudy looked at the pale yellow paste in the bowl. “My, doesn’t that look--- tasty.”

Calloway put the bowl down with a thump. “Hey, this is what we've got to work with. It would be easy to make something that tasted good with fresh eggs and vegetables and real meat, but we gotta be out here for six months at a stretch, usually longer. In order to last, it’s gotta be preserved ‘til it’s got the shelf life of cardboard!”

“And the taste.”

”Oh, I suppose that you could do better!”

Trudy scooped out a bit of yellow <ahem!> ‘egg’ with her fingertip, tasted it and grimaced. Calloway crossed his arms defiantly. “Okay, big shot, YOU do better with what we've got on hand! I bet you! Let’s see you whip up something that these mooks will eat without gagging! But if you lose, then we get your stash of goodies!”

“And what do I get if I win?”

“We’ll serve you your meals in your cabin.”

“Oohh, there’s a real incentive!”

“Oh, and whaddya want to bet?”

“If I prove that I can produce better eggs than you can, then _I_ call the shots in this galley.”

“Why would you want that?”

“Your fearless leader won’t let me do any work around here. I’m getting’ cabin fever. I’m a Spacer! I gotta DO something!”

Calloway smirked superiorly. “Sounds like a bet to me. BUT, you gotta use the stuff that we have on board, none’a that food that you got locked up.”

“Well, of course! That was the bet.” She turned to Adasanan. “And you? I don’t want to win this, and then you give me guff about not making any bets.”

Adasanan nodded.

“Well, then! It sounds like we have a bet!” Trudy strode out of the galley and disappeared. She came back a few minutes later with two cardboard boxes. From these, she pulled two squat cylinders and racks of squeeze bottles. She put the cylinders in their own pan and squeezed off a few drops from different bottles into them. Then she took out a can of cooking oil and poured some of it into the top of one of cylinders and then some vinegar, which she poured into the other cylinder.

When the amounts had seeped through the cylinders, Trudy poured the vinegar into the ‘egg’ mixture, and stirred it vigorously. Eventually, a thick ochre film formed at the top, and Trudy picked it off with some tongs.

“What’s that?” Calloway asked.

“Believe me, you don’t wanna know.” Trudy finished off by beating the resultant mess to a froth. Then she added the processed cooking oil to the can of congealed animal fat that the cooks kept to prevent the pipes from getting clogged.

“Ooohh--- LARD!” Calloway mocked. “Yeah, that’s really gonna perk up those eggs!”

”Watch and learn, Junior.” The gunk in the can separated, and Trudy poured the stuff at the top into the frothy egg mix. She beat the mixture to a much different looking paste than before and poured a small dab on the heated griddle.

The yellow mass sizzled for a while, and started to look suspiciously like scrambled eggs. When it was cooked, Trudy scooped it up with a spatula and offered it to Calloway. Arvid took an experimental nibble. His eyes popped open.

“What ARE these things?” Calloway picked up one of the cylinders.

“Nanite re-assembers.”

“WHAT? You put Nanites in the food?”

Trudy sighed and rubbed the bridge of her nose. “These two things are Nano-tech filters for the plumbing. They consist of layers of nanite disassemblers, separators and factories. They use the gunk that you find in different parts of the ship’s plumbing to create nanites that break down the raw sewage so that it can feed the algae and make oxygen. These-” she held up the plastic bottles, "-contain chemicals that ‘dope’ or slightly change the nanites, usually to re-adjust them after they’ve run into something that they’re not programmed for. By putting these drops into a clean filter, I changed the nanites so that they’d change the cooking oil and vinegar when I passed them through. They became single-shot nanite agents. The cooking oil nanites changed your powdered mix by removing some of the preservatives and chemically 'opening up' the mix to the next solution. The vinegar nanites changed the lard so that certain specific animal fats were released. When I poured the animal fats into the altered ‘egg’ mix, they re-created the combinations that you find in real eggs.”

Arvid took another nibble. “The taste is a little off.”

Trudy shrugged. “So, it isn’t perfect. The bet wasn’t that I could make perfect eggs, it was that I could make better eggs.” She ‘doped’ the cooking oil nanite filter with another bottle and passed the remainder of the separate from the cooking oil through it. “So, wanna see what I can do for your coffee?”

Sedgewick strolled into the mess hall and stopped in his tracks. The morning shift was eating breakfast, as expected, but they weren’t talking. Instead, they were concentrating intently on eating. Breakfast usually consisted of enduring the bland, chemical laden food with muttered complaints. But the men were shoveling the food into their mouths with nary a word to the guy next to them, as if they were finally getting something that they’d needed for the longest time. They were even knocking back the coffee with gusto.

Then Sedgewick saw something unprecedented on the SZ711- one of the men finished off his plate and went back for seconds!

Sedgewick ambled up to the food counter. Calloway was leaning over the trays, engrossed in the contents of a clipboard of SmartPaper. “So, Cookie - what’s all this? Don’t tell me that Villarobles' grunts <ahem!> ‘liberated’ a couple of boxes of fresh food stores from that hauler we pulled over?”

Calloway snapped out of his reverie. “What? Oh, no! We’re, ah, just trying a few new, uhm, recipes! Yeah, that’s it.”

“And exactly where did you get these new, ‘recipes’?” Sedgewick took the clipboard from Calloways’ hand. “ ‘Cooking with Nanites’? ‘Alternative Uses for Common Ship-board Nano-technology’? What’s this?“

“Well, Trudy-”

Trudy?”

“Ah, MISS Masaryk, that is - well, we had a bet on that she couldn’t make better egg’s ‘n Philo or I could. She won.”

“And what did she win? 

“Ah, well, she said that she was getting’ bored--”

“So she ‘won’ being able to work in the galley as her prize?”

“Well, sorta. But me an’ Philo been doin’ all the real work, she’s just been showin’ us new ways of doin’ it! And she knows all kinds’a Spacer tricks!”

“Such as putting nanites that could kill us all into the food?”

“Naw, I had Philo take some over to the Doc, an’ had it checked out. All the stuff that we been usin’ won’t affect living tissue, and it doesn’t produce any toxins.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“The Doc’s been sending back for seconds on ev’rything we send ‘im!”

“Maybe, but you do realize that this is against the Regs.”

“Nope, the Regs say that a Transportee can’t be put to work against her will, but there’s nothing in the Regs that says that a Transportee can’t volunteer to help out in non-security sensitive areas. And the Skipper never said that she couldn’t work, he just never put her on a Work Station.”

“How do you know this?”

“Well, Trudy sorta mentioned it. Here, try some of the coffee.”

“Well, that’s as may be, but-” Sedgewick took a sip of the offered coffee. His eyes popped open. “Where did you get this coffee?”

Calloway grinned. “It’s another one’a the tricks that Trudy showed us. It’s just a matter of blending in vegetable oils the right way to get the proper texture.”

“More nanites?”

“Nope, Trudy pulled this one off using a fresh osmotic filter and passing the whole mess through a 15G Wave. She has a whole bag of rule of thumb tricks. The Spacers don’t always have the stuff they need on hand, kinda like us. So, they improvise a lot, using stuff like passing stuff through heavy G waves, low pressure and extremes of heat to make what they need.”

“How did she get at a 15G wave?”

“She cut some sort of deal with the Chief, and he warped a wave just for her.”

“Without clearing it with the Skipper or me?”

“Hey, it was no big deal, we figgered why bother you? I mean, if the Chief Engineer thinks that it’s cool, isn’t that enuf?”

“Somehow, I really doubt that the Skipper will see it that way. And where is the oh, so accommodating Miss Masaryk right now?”

“Well, she said that the coffee, and the rest of the food too, would taste a lot better with pure water, so she’s talking with the Chief again.”

“What does she expect? We’re Seven months out! All of our water is on at least its 16th use!”

“Hey, don’t ask me, I only cook the food. And apparently, not very well. But I’m getting better.” Calloway returned to the SmartPaper text. “Whoooaaa… ‘Using the ‘Green-27 Sewage nanite and the Blue-14 Toothpaste nanite, you can cause an amount of Instant Potato mix to acquire the taste and texture of a passable grade of Cinnamon, at a ratio of 127 units of potato mix to 1 unit of Cinnamon. Cinnamon…I wonder what we could trade Trudy for maybe a couple of tablespoons of Cinnamon…”

Sedgewick stirred Calloway from his calculations by requesting a re-fill of the coffee, and then left the cook to his deliberations.

“Okay, that was a pretty good trick with the coffee and the Grav Wave, but I don’t see what you want me to fabricate a whole new section of pipe for.” Chief Engineer Ghutra was the ‘hands on’ kind of Engineer who didn’t believe in running his section from the bridge, the way that some Chiefs did. He preferred to be as close to the engines as possible. He was also, with cause, quite proud of his ability with a Parts Fabricator. But he wasn’t going to do what promised to be at least a five hour job on a whim. 

“Okay, here’s the thing. What I want to do is arrange a Gravitic Osmotic filter by passing a section of the Main Plumbing Artery through a 16G standing wave. This will cause the yuck to separate along lines of Specific Gravity, and the 16Gs should kill any bacteria as well.”

“Yeah, yeah. Well, we already got a functioning Water Purification system.”

“Yeah, and I’ll lay you odds that it’s on its last legs. I’ll bet that your algae is running yellow, and that you’ve probably had a couple of bed units go south on you. You’ve got a 160,000-gallon algae tank, but you’ve probably had to rotate it at least twice a week for the past few months, and the tenders are getting crusty. Also, I’ll wager that you’re getting alkali scoring on the ionic plates in the air scrubbers.”

Ghutra arched an eyebrow. “And how do you know all that?”

“Hey, they didn’t keep me on the Whittington, just ‘cause I’m cute! Well, they did, but not for just that reason. I’m a certified Environmental Engineer, with a specialization in Hydro systems; I know what to look for. My guess is that the saline in the algae tanks is being overwhelmed by bacteria and uric acids, turning the water brackish, and preventing the weeds from getting enough light. You’re probably going to have to shut down all water systems for at least five hours, pump the overage into the emergency reservoir, shorten the cycle to its bare minimums, and maybe crop off the dead tops.”

“Hey, that is a LOT of work to do on the fly. We should just wait until we hook up with the Pournelle in a couple of weeks and do it in the flying drydock.”

“Oh, very good, delay essential repairs and wait for someone else to do it! Well, tell me, what are you going to do if the Pournelle has to travel in the other direction, or this crate gets holed by something before we can get there?”

“Hey, why should you care? We’re an ISP ship.”

“Yeah, an ISP ship that _I’m_ on! Besides, we Spacers have this idea that shoddy work endangers everyone. Look, Ghutra, if we get holed, we are going to lose at least 10,000 gallons of air, and the system is going to automatically try to replace it by drawing it from the algae tanks, SOP. That kind of pressure and oxygenation drop will probably kill at least 15% of the algae that’s still alive, if not more. Then you have an escalating cycle of dropping air quality, draw on the tanks, algae death, bacterial breeding on the dead weed, and increasing brackishness. Once that starts, IF you start doing exactly what I just recommended, then you should only lose 40% of your algae. You might be able to make it back to the Pournelle if you shut down 20% of the ship. IF the Pournelle is exactly where you think it is. And IF you have enough Hydrogen to both fuel the fusion drive AND be burned for oxygen.”

Ghutra didn’t look happy. ”And why should we expect to get holed? We have a standard 20 Gee-Wee around us.”

Trudy folded her arms across her impressive chest. “Look, the Third Commandment of Survival in Space is: ‘Prepare for the worst that you can imagine; the reality will be worse, but you can fudge it from there’.”

“Yeah? What’s the First Commandment?”

“’Never fuck with Life Support. Ever. Even if it seems like a good idea at the time’.”

Ghutra shrugged and nodded reluctantly. “Okay, and what does this pipe that you want me to fabricate for you have to do with anything?”

“Well, the problem with just running a conventional width of pipe through the proper density G wave is that that pipes we have that are the proper bore have too thin walls, while those that have thick enough walls have too small a bore. If we pass water through the G wave in a pipe with too thin walls, the pressure will rupture the pipe. If we try it with a pipe with too small a bore, the pressure will cause the uric acids and other inerts to compact into forms that are too dense for the nanite filters to deal with. With this combination of proper width and bore, we should be able to separate the clean water at a faster rate, and cut down the stress on both the algae and the nanites. Though it wouldn’t hurt to double check the nanite filters throughout the system. And, that field-stripping that I recommended, of course.”

Ghutra strummed his fingers on a console. “Yeah. Right. And what’s in all of this for YOU?”

“Why, showers of course! With your current layout, you only have enough water - such as it is - for a shower every three days. Now, maybe you testosterone types might feel that you’re being all manly by going around smelling funky, but _I_ personally happen to like being fresh and clean. And clean water! The stuff you’re piping now is disgusting! It kills the taste - what there is of it - of all the food! I had to centrifuge and filter the water for the breakfast coffee! When I take a shower, I want nice, clean water helping me get all - soapy,” Trudy’s voice went deep and voluptuous, “making all sorts of suds that cover every part of my wet, slick, glistening skin, and I run my hands all OVER my body…”

By the end of this, Ghutra and the Marines on duty assisting him were looking at Trudy with a dazed, almost hypnotized stare.

“AND, I need nice, clean water when I make THIS-” Trudy reached into her cleavage and pulled out a packet of Djarling Tea, and handed it to Ghutra.

Ghutra looked at the packet. Five bags of real leaf Djarling blend. The corner of his mouth twitched.

Then he reached for a phone. “There’s only one way to deal with this kind of crass bribery.” He punched in the code for the command chair. “Hello, Sedgewick? This is Ghutra. Get the Commander for me.” There was a pause. “Hello, Commander? Ghutra here. We have a problem. A Big problem. The algae tanks are severely stressed by an over-concentration of ammonia and uric acids in the water. Yes, there’s ammonia and uric acids in the water, the algae is supposed to deal with it, but they can’t handle that much of a concentration. We’re probably going to have to shut down all water systems for at least five hours, pump the overage into the emergency reservoir, shorten the in-ship water cycle to its bare minimums, and maybe crop off the dead tops. I can arrange a purification system by running some pipes through a Gravity wave, and replace the worn out nanite filters, but that shut-down HAS to happen, and it should happen soon! Yes, I know that I’m a Fusion-drive man, but I have a certified Hydro systems technician with me. How long? Well, I could do the Gravity wave filter arrangement and nanite replacement first; that should take a few hours. That should give you enough time to take care of anything that you have to do.”

Ghutra put the phone down, and looked at Trudy. “You’d better be half as good as you seem to think you are.”

Trudy grinned. “Just let me go get my tools. While you’re waiting, here are the blueprints for the helical electrolytic filter that’s going to have to go inside that pipe.” 

Maddox prowled through the corridors, snarling at the noise that the Marines were making as they trenched out the algae tank. And the smell was even worse! The smell was so bad that the jarheads had to put on emergency breathers, and even then the stench was a constant source of very loud commentary. But then, they had to speak loud enough to get past the breather’s ear coverings. Then the tenor of the conversation changed.

“Hey, Trudy - howcum yer doin’ this?”

“Because I happen to like showering with clean water!” came her clear contralto voice from within Tank C.

“No, I don’t mean helpin’ us clean out this glop. I mean, howcum you were crewin’ on a hauler in the first place? I mean, a class bit like yerself could’a had any any one’a the fat cat Spacer Owner/Op’rators! That lot’s got more money than the Arabs ever did!”

“Well, first of all, the competition's a lot hard’n you may think. Also, rich Spacer Owner/Operators are fewer and further between than you’ve been lead to believe. Most of the Spacers that I’ve met, even the Oh-Ohs, either have both hands full keeping their dodge on the rails, or they’re scrimping to get one dodge or another on the tracks.”

“You’re putting me on. Ev’ryone knows those bleeders are makin’ it, hand o’er fist!”

“Must be nice to think that.”

“If they ain’t floatin’ in it, then howcum they won’t let reg’lar folks invest in those refineries and ast’roid mines a’they’rs?”

“Are you joking? You go into a Spacer bar, and the number one gripe - after the lack of women, of course - is the screwing that the Dirtside banks are giving them!”

“Well, then why don’t they just float a bond or tap into an Investment Group or something?”

“Have you ever seen the restrictions and regulations that the UN has put on Outer Space investments? The further out you are, the more hoops both sides have to jump through to get the UN Financial Board’s okay, and the bigger the bite they take in taxes and tarrifs.”

“Hey, don’t slam the tax man - he pays my wages, and he pays for the ISP housing that my family lives in!”

“Oh, you’re married, Nigel?”

“Yep, and Miriam an’ me are waitin’ for this TOD to be over, and we can get our Pop-Auth license.”

“Pop-Auth?”

“Pop’lation Author’ty. The Yew Kay passed mandat’ry contraception implants for ev’ryone on the dole. In order t’have a kid, y’gotta get permission from Pop-Auth. When I finish this TOD, I’m headin’ back t’ Mater Terra, an’ startin’ a fam’ly.”

“Must be something that went down after I took the High Road. So, subsidized family housing, breeding permits, the usual medical benefits and such - the ISP really looks after you grunts.”

“Yah, but they’ll take it away quick as wink, if we don’t keep our noses clean. And the Zamp gets a bounty for ev’ry bloke what he carps on.”

“Now, now, I know that these long patrols are hard, but they can’t be THAT worried about you Cowboys going AWOL.”

Maddox climbed up to the rim of the tank and stuck his head down the hatch. And immediately regretted it as the full force of the disgusting algae/ammonia reek hit his nose. Keeping his lunch down, he yelled, “What’s this, Masaryk? Trying to spread seditious propaganda among my crew?”

Trudy looked up at him from the ladder that she was standing on. “What are you talking about? We were just talking about Nigel’s family. What’s so seditious about that?”

“You suggested that ISP Enforcers were going AWOL!”

“No, _I_ said that they couldn’t be worried about it. YOU were the one saying that Enforcers were going AWOL. Yelling it, even. You must be very sure that the Zamp isn’t listening. He’d probably love to bag an Enforcer Commander. He’d probably get a command of his own for it.”

Maddox opened his mouth, but couldn’t think of anything to say. And then the fumes got to him and he had to head to the nearest toilet.

Trudy sighed, “That man needs to get laid, BAD.”

The shift was long and boring. Restoring water to the sections of the ship that had been cut off was a long and tedious process, and as the commander who had okayed it, he had to sign off on all of it. He wished that Sedgewick had pointed that out to him. Sedgewick was a Brit, so the ‘Black/White’ tension shouldn’t have been an issue. But Maddox couldn’t help but feel that Sedge was setting him up somehow. That crisp Public School accent coming out of that classic African face just put Maddox on his guard. Finally, the very second that he could legally leave his post without being derelict in his duty came, and he was out the door.

He headed to his cabin, looking forward to a nice long shower. He’d had a special water reserve and filter built into his shower, so he could shower every day. Hey, RHIP and all that.

But when he went to his door, one of the Marines, Joe Okesson, was standing beside it.

Okesson snapped to attention when Maddox walked up, but didn’t move.

“Exactly what do you think you’re doing?”

“ah, Tr- Miss Masaryk is in there, using the shower, Sir.”

“What? I never gave my permission for her to use my shower!”

“Well, sir the only alternative is for her to use the men’s shower.”

“And?”

“Well, there was never any provision made for privacy in the design of that shower. If she used it, she might start a riot.”

Maddox could see the logic in that, but he would have rather cut out his tongue than admit it. “Very well,” he said through clenched teeth, “I’ll take that up with Miss Masaryk, myself.” He moved for the door.

Okesson moved to block him. “I’m afraid that I can’t allow that, Sir.”

What? That is MY cabin, Marine!”

“Yes, but Miss Masaryk isn’t through taking her shower. ISP protocol is very specific on respecting a Transportee’s right to privacy.”

“Right? Privacy? That-” before Maddox could finish, the door opened, and Trudy walked out in a pale blue bathrobe and her hair wrapped up in her towel like a turban.

“All finished! Though I don’t think that Commander- Oh! Commander Maddox! How nice of you to let me use your shower! Believe me, your men will be a LOT happier now that they can shower and be really clean again!”

“I- didn’t- LET- You didn’t-”

“Well, you must be positively aching for a nice shower yourself! Don’t worry, I didn’t use up all the water in your private reservoir! Come along, Joe!” She started down the corridor, the Marine close behind her.

When they were out of earshot of the commander, Okesson asked, “Exactly what do you need ME for now?”

“My hair, of course! You can’t expect me to comb out my hair all by myself, now do you?”

Joe Okesson had at least five inches and sixty pounds on Trudy, but she pulled him into her cabin like a toy duck.

Once Joe was safely inside, Trudy bent over and pulled out and opened a toiletry box. It was pull of different combs and brushes. She handed him a stiff brush. “What am I supposed to do with this?” he asked.

Trudy undid her towel turban, and let her wet honey blonde hair spill, until it reached the middle of her back. “Why, brush my hair, Silly! The guys on the Whittington used to help me with my hair all the time!”

She perched on the edge of the bunk with her back to him. “Well?”

He sat down and began brushing. “I hope I’m doing this right. I’ve never done this sorta thing before.”

“What? You never brushed out your wife’s hair, Joe? Pity, it can be very relaxing, for both parties.”

“How did you know that I have a wife?”

“Well, I figure that all the guys on the Seven-Eleven are either married, or they have some kind of family back on Earth that are depending on them. It’s the only way that Earth could expect to keep you Cowboys reined in.”

“Yeah, they do, don’t they? But hey, why should you care?”

“Why shouldn’t I care? I’m a Care Giver, that’s what I do.”

“Yeah, but ain’t ‘Care Giver’ just a fancy way of sayin’ – ah -- ‘fancy girl’?” Joe tried to soften the insult with a Romance Novel term for a whore. Trudy’s smell was making him a bit giddy. Women spend billions of dollars every year on scents from flowers, herbs, chemicals, the sphincters of animals and the bellies of whales; ironically, the most potent scent is just that of a freshly washed, healthy, fertile woman.

“No, Joe, it’s not. The Care Givers Company was created by Rei Yotori, one of the most successful Geishas of the century. She modeled what we do on the services of the Geishas, with a side order of Spacer training.”

“Yeah, but weren’t Geishas just-”

“No. That’s still the common western notion, but that’s because Gaijin just don’t get something about NihonjinNihonjin have a tendency to ritualize and formalize things until they drop over. BUT, they also like to enjoy themselves, just like everyone else. So, they need someone to liven things up, and get the party going.”

“Sort of like a professional ‘Life of the Party’?”

“Close enough, Joe. But they also have to observe the formalities. It’s sort of like the Japanese Tea Ceremony: the point to the practitioner’s art isn’t their adherence to the rules; it’s their spontaneity and genuineness of their presentation of the tea, using the rules, while not being strangled by them. With Geishas - and Care Givers - the point is to bring life and joy into what are normally cramped and difficult situations. When things are going well, we blend into the background, playing our instruments and keeping an eye on things. When things get difficult, we insert ourselves into the situation and restore harmony and joy.”

“But where does the SEX come in?”

Trudy gave a deep throated laugh. “Why is that ALWAYS the question? Yes, Sex comes into it. Sex is a part of life! Unless you’re a disciplined ascetic, you need sex like you need water. But neither Geishas nor Care Givers just spread for every guy with a fist full of dollars.”

“But those DSC chicks-”

“Deep Space Comfort girls are professional Sex Workers. Having sex with whomever pays for it is what they are trained to do. Along with some basic repair skills.”

“But those XX-Flight girls we-”

“Like DSC, XX-Flight was created by people who wanted to muscle into Care Giver’s markets, but didn’t really GET what CGC is about. XX-Flight trains women to be Pilots and Astrogators, but sex isn’t part of the package.

“No, as I was saying before we got off on this tangent, Care Givers don’t just have sex with whoever asks for it. We can’t afford to do that. Whores can have sex with anyone, but in order to do that, they shut themselves off from their customers. We Care Givers don’t - can’t do that. We have to care about the men with whom we have sex.”

During this conversation, Joe had been dutifully brushing Trudy’s hair. Her hair was redolent with her smell. It was getting hard for Joe to concentrate. “ah, uhm, Trudy --- Do you --- care --- about me?”

Trudy moved back through Joe’s arms until her back was pressed against his chest and his arms were around her. She turned her head and looked up into his face. “Would I let you brush my hair, if I didn’t?”

Joe dropped the brushes, wrapped his arms around her and bent his mouth to kiss hers. Finally.

Later, his bunkmates knew instinctively that something had happened with Joe. They clustered around, their eyes wide. It rather reminded Joe of back in High School, with the younger boys wanting to know about the mystery that was women. “So? How was it?”

Joe paused. “Well, y’know back when you’re a kid, just into yer teens, and you think a LOT about sex? Y’know, what you think it’ll be like, until you actually get yer first piece?”

“Yeah? It was THAT good?”

“Nope. It was BETTER.”

Calloway and Adasanan gingerly put the experimental ‘hard boiled egg’ into the microwave. If they had done it right, the gelatin ‘mold’ around the ‘egg’s’ white would melt away, leaving the perfectly round ‘egg’. The ersatz egg had been created using the principle of Specific Gravity, though it was actually formed in Zero G. Four long minutes dragged on, and finally the timer pinged.

Calloway pulled the tray out.

A perfectly round white ball stood by itself on the tray in a shallow puddle of liquid.

Adasanan reverently pulled the ball off its ‘stand’ and held it for a second. He sniffed it. Then he took a hesitant bite. He chewed. He offered it to Calloway.

Calloway took a bite. “It’s an egg. It’s an EGG! It’s a real EGG! Or at least as close as we’re gonna get!”

Then Trudy came waltzing into the Mess Hall, with an array of thin pipes under her arm and carrying a large clothes bag. “Hey, boys! How are you doing?”

“It’s an Egg, Trudy! It’s a real Egg!”

Trudy poked her head over the counter into the galley. “It is? Bien Seur! You’re coming along nicely!”

Calloway and Adasanan glowed at the praise. Then Calloway saw what she was carrying. “Hey, what’s that, Trudy?”

“Oh this? Well, this is real China silk, and if you don’t let it drape, it gets all wrinkly. I don’t have any room to let it stretch out and drape in my cabin, so I thought that I’d keep it in trim and liven up this drab dreary place a little.”

Trudy put the clothes bag down and set up a frame from the pipes. Then she gingerly removed the kimono from the bag and carefully arranged it on the frame so that the embroidered scene on the back could be seen.

Gunny Villarobles entered the Mess Hall. “Hey, Cookie! Waddya got for us t’day? I hope you understand that we’re holding you two to actual STANDARDS now, now that we know that you can actually -- cook --”

Villarobles stopped in mid-harangue when he spotted the kimono arranged against the Mess Hall wall. It was Royal Blue satin, of a shade that would compliment Trudy’s dark blonde hair perfectly. Across the back, sewn in golden thread was a scene of a field. A bevy of quail were bursting forth from a patch of grass and taking flight, the lead birds flying up into the sleeve. Somehow the embroiderer had captured, as only a camera or a true artist can, a fleeting moment of wildness, innocence, freedom and flight. It hurt to think that something could be that wild, or innocent, or free.

Despite Maddox’s protests, the kimono remained on display. And while many laid a reverent hand on it, as if to somehow confirm that something this fine and beautiful could really exist, they always carefully wiped their hands as not to soil or stain it. And in the weeks that it was there, no one EVER dropped so much as a single splatter of anything on it.

Computer Officer Kelsey DeForrest excused himself from the bridge. “Damn air systems are reaming out my sinuses! I gotta go get something to clear them out.”

Maddox growled at him, but didn’t snap at him to stay at his post. He just snarled at Sedgewick to relieve DeForrest.

DeForrest trudged down the corridor and pushed open the door without knocking. “Hey, Doc! My head is killing me! You got anythi-”

DeForrest shut his mouth immediately. Doctor Harding and Trudy were crammed into his bunk, and her flight suit was draped over a chair. Harding looked at Trudy. “I thought you locked the door!”

“I thought YOU did!”

DeForrest was out the door in a flash. Harding said, “Shit!” and started to climb out of the bunk.

Trudy grabbed him. “And where are YOU going?”

“I’ve got to stop him!”

“Oh? You’re going to chase him down the hallway in the all together? Remember, Schatzi, those floors are cold!” Trudy pulled him back to her. “Besides, what's he going to do?” she purred. “Rat you out? I’ve talked with Kelsey, and he’s not foolish enough to piss off the man who controls the medicine.”

Harding looked at the door. Either way, it was already too late. Oh well, you’re just as dead if you’re hung for a bull as you are for a calf…  He climbed back into the bunk with Trudy, and quickly forgot about DeForrest, or the Zamp, or the fact that he was a stinking Ship’s Doctor, while his snot nosed brother was raking it in as an Allergist.

However, nothing really came of it. DeForrest kept it to himself, and somehow the Zamp never got wind of it.

Arvid Calloway looked around the galley, at all the pots boiling, all the meats seeping in preparation, all the projects only in the first parts of being completed. If the ship hit anything right now, he and Philo were fucked. He grabbed the bottle of cheap vodka out of its hiding place. He’d found recipes for compounding simulations of whiskey that would put the stuff that they sold in the Officer’s Clubs to shame, but their mood called for cheap booze.

The bottle in hand, he slid down to the floor, next to Adasanan. “Philo, we are SCREWED.”

“Yup.”

“Man, this is so much work!”

“Yup.”

“And if anything goes wrong on the ship, we are seriously fucked. We’re really cutting into our food reserves for this stuff.”

“Yup.”

“But I can’t go back! When I look back and think of the crap that I was ladling out, EVERY DAY, I wanna Puke!”

“Yup.”

“I mean, this is what finding God must be like. One day, you’re just another average slob, getting by as best you can. Then, suddenly, you know that there’s more to life, something better. You know that you’re better than you thought you were. But you can’t keep slacking off and screwing around like you used to, ‘cause you’re better’n that. You could go back to being what you were, but you just can’t stand the thought of it.”

“Yup.”

Calloway took another slug of vodka and looked at Adasanan. “Jeez, Philo, what are you looking at?”

“Yu- I mean, nuthin’.”

“My Gawd- Philo, didn’t Trudy tell us not to read those chapters? We’re not ready for that yet!”

“Yup.”

“Jesus, Philo, stop ‘yuppin’ me! Aren’t we in enough trouble here? I mean, look at this? Now you wanna go reading ever MORE and stir up more problems?”

Adasanan said nothing and just took another slug of vodka.

“Philo, what did you read?” Adasanan said nothing. “C’mon, you know you wanna talk about it!”

Finally, Adasanan sighed and grunted, “Pastries.”

Pastries? Are you NUTS? You know how long it took us to make a simple EGG, and now you wanna go trying to make Pastry?”

Adasanan just took another slug of vodka.

There was a long awkward silence, broken only by the bubblings on the stove and the slosh of vodka as the bottle was passed back and forth. Finally, Calloway couldn’t stand it any longer. “Philo --  what kind of pastry were you looking at?”

<sigh> “Linzertorte.” He keyed the SmartPaper and handed it to Calloway.

“Oh, Philo --- that’s beautiful!”

“Yup.”

“Oh, we could never make this! The flour and the sugar wouldn’t be any problem-”

“Nope.”

“And we could kludge together an acceptable butter substitute.”

“Yah.”

“And the chocolate would be a bear, but we could handle that.”

“Right.”

“But even if we could somehow synthesize a substitute for the raspberries, it just wouldn’t be right!”

“Blasphemy.”

“Doing something like this with anything but fresh raspberries would just be plain wrong!”

Adasanan said nothing. He just started crying silently. Calloway tried to comfort his friend but he knew that it was no use. While he might feel the siren call, he knew that his laconic friend was in the grip of a full-fledged passion. Philo Adasanan’s soul would know no peace until he had made a linzertorte with a flaky golden crust that was lush with butter, stripes of bittersweet chocolate across the top, covered by powered sugar and cinnamon, and a rich filling made of juicy fresh raspberries.

Sedgewick steeled himself to enter Maddox’s cabin. Dealing with the Commander was always a bit of a chore, but he was getting worse. Maddox was pacing up and down his cabin like an angry tiger. “Do you know what I found, down in Stores, Sedgewick? Do you?”

“How can I know, until you tell me?” Sedgewick said evenly.

“I found one of the crew, Hamaturan, lying there naked and unconscious, with one of the biggest fool grins you ever saw on his face!”

“Oh. Well. He-”

“He’d been with that slut, Masaryk!” Maddox rolled right over Sedgewick’s comment.

“Well, Sir, was he on duty at the time?”

“No, but-”

“Well, Sir, there’s absolutely nothing in the Regulations against consorting with women during off-duty hours.”

“Well, there damn well is Now! I’m issuing a direct order stating that the passenger Gertrude Masaryk is strictly OFF-LIMITS to all SZ711 personnel!”

“Even you, Commander?”

“And what’s that supposed to mean?”

“Only that this is a small ship. Miss Masaryk doesn’t seem to be inclined to stay in her cabin. Also, she’s made herself extremely useful, helping with the algae tanks and-”

“She is disrupting morale!”

“Oh? On the contrary, I‘d say that she’s been a wonderful influence on the men. If anything, I’d worry about having to go back out to finish up our last two months.”

“That’s Exactly my point! The more she gets them used to having a whore on board, the worse it will be when she leaves! So, I’m issuing a blank order - there is to be no direct contact with the passenger Masaryk. Anyone caught having sex with that wh- -- with her will be subject to administrative discipline!”

“Well, you’d better find someone else to keep tabs on her, because even if I could be bothered to, I simply don’t have the time. As a matter of fact, Commander, there are several things that I should be seeing to.”

“Such as?”

“Such as the routine systems check that you were supposed to do. It’s got to be done, and as usual, it looks like it’s up to me to get it done.” With that, Sedgewick left the Commander’s cabin without being excused. Maddox just added that to the growing list of things for which he’d get even with Sedgewick.

The Mess Hall was designed to be a General Purpose area. The tables and chairs folded up and could be stashed up against the wall, and the floor was cleared. The basketball hoops had been pulled out, and they had the good ball.

Back before the Duke-Brannick gravitic flux capacitor, there had been some futzing around trying to find a good active game that Spacers could play in Zero G. Most of them were absolutely awful. When the Duke-Brannick flux capacitor became standard issue, the point became moot, and basketball became the way that Spacers blew off steam.

Many people regard basketball as the perfect Spacer’s sport. It doesn’t require a lot of room or equipment. It’s very physical, very aerobic, it can be done with however many people as you have, and it’s a good spectator sport as well.

The Marine ‘Morning’ squad was playing the ‘Afternoon’ squad. Normally, the inter-squad games are pretty low-key, just a matter of a bunch of guys throwing the ball around. But this time, it was different. Trudy was there, cheering them on. Just the fact that a woman was there put a whole new spin on the game. Suddenly, it wasn’t just putting a ball through a hoop. Now it was war. They went at it with everything they had. They pushed themselves further than they thought possible. Every pass was break for glory, every opening an opportunity for heaven. Every time someone made a goal, Trudy squealed and jumped up and down. In her tight, hot pink spandex halter and skirt.

Basketball is also a spectator sport, and several of the crew were hanging around, watching the jarheads go at it. Markovich, one of the engineers, leaned over to Sedgewick and said, “Nice show, hunh?”

Sedgewick nodded, not taking his eyes from the game. “Yes, they’re certainly showing a lot more spirit than they usually do.”

“Who’s talking about the Gy-Renes?” Markovich leered, and jerked his head in the direction of the squealing cheerleader.

“Yes,” Sedgewick drawled, "there is that.” He spared Markovich a glance. “Is it my imagination, or is your uniform pressed?”

Markovich blushed. “Yeah, well, you know how it is…”

“You know, the Commander’s issued specific orders against having <ahem!> ‘physical relations’ with Trudy.”

“Yeah, well, the Skipper could also order the tide to stop comin’ in, but that doesn’t mean that he ain’t gonna get his feet wet.”

“Really? I didn’t know that they taught the legend of King Canute at Moscow University.”

“Well, they had to - none of the Tsars was fool enough to give an order that stupid. Well, Stalin might have, but he had more important things to worry about.” Markovich stopped and thought for a second. “So, how long until we rendezvous with the Pournelle?”

“Well, the last estimate was nine days, but we just got a message that suggests that the Pournelle might take a few more days overhauling the TI437, so they’re recalculating the rendezvous point. It may be a couple of weeks.”

“Oh Wow, I didn’t see that coming, did you?” Markovich sneered. “I’ll bet Himself was pissed.”

“Oh, beside himself.”

“Is it just me, or is the Skipper the only one not in a much better mood these days?”

“No, you’re pretty much on the mark. And that worries me.”

“You think he’ll do something stupid?”  

“It’s not the Commander I’m worried about, Marko. It’s the rest of the crew. When we reach the Pournelle, we’ll have about a week of new faces, access to new movies, and a larger gym as the Seven-Eleven gets re-stocked and checked for loose threads. Then we pull out again, for another two months, until we’ve filled out our Patrol Schedule. But we’ll be leaving Trudy on the Pournelle. I’m worried about what will happen when the men realize that they’re going to lose Trudy. And, even if they accept it, I worry about what’s gong to happen to morale for those two months until we can finally get some bloody Shore Leave.”

“Yes, there is that.”

“Oh? You have another worry?”

Markovich looked at his shoes for a bit. “Sedge, what’s gonna happen to Trudy?”

“Oh, she’ll be transported back to Earth, according to Regulations.”

“And then what?”

“What do you mean?”

“Trudy’s a Care Giver. Even though she surrendered willingly, and her crew didn’t put up a fight, she’s still a contract employee of the Care Giver Company, which is legally listed as a Criminal Organization. What are they going to do to her, once she gets to Earth? Throw her in jail? For how long?”

“Well, I’m sure they’ll take her record and her condcut aboard the Seven-Eleven into consideration-”

“In other words, you don’t know.”

“Well, it can’t be al that bad. Look at Trudy! She probably knows better than either of us, what’s waiting for her back home, and she doesn’t seem worried.”

“Sedge, Trudy’s a Czech. Czechs just let everyone roll over them. The Bohemians, the Austrians, the Germans, the Nazis, the Soviets - Hell, even the fucking Poles overran them once! And Poland is the fucking doormat of Europe! They just lie back and let it happen, and don’t fight it too hard.”

“Well, that’s a survival tactic, I suppose. Especially since neither the Czech Republic or Slovakia have the kinds of agriculture to support major populations that could field armies to protect the area.”

“Yah, I suppose it is. But it can bite you in the ass, too. Back during the Great Patriotic War - what you would call ‘World War II’- the Nazis took over Czechoslovakia, pretty much just for Prague and the Skoda works. The rest of the country? They raped it. That guy Hitler sent to oversee the job, Heydrich? He was such a screaming asshole that he’s the only person the Western Allies ever admitted sending in assassination teams to kill. He was such a bastard that they claimed Justifiable Homicide, and no one argued.”

“And your point is?”

“My point is, what kind of asshole are we sending Trudy to? I mean, we’re supposed to be doing all of this to protect women! Sedge, what do they do with captured Care Givers?”

Sedge looked around. “You know, you’re talking some very dangerous questions, Marko. You’d best be careful that the Zamp doesn’t hear that.”

The basketball game finished up. Trudy took Suarez, a Venezuelan Marine from the Afternoon squad, who seemed to have pulled a muscle out of the hall. To the Infirmary, for some ‘TLC’, she said. Markovitch watched as Trudy helped Suarez out, his arm over her shoulders. “Thanks, Sedge. You answered my question perfectly.”

The chairs and tables were back in position in the Mess Hall, but Dinner was going to have to wait. Maddox had the men lined up, and he had Suarez standing facing them.

“Men, as much as I hate to say this, there has been a serious breach of discipline! This man-” he pointed at Suarez, “-was, against Direct Orders, found in a compromising position with the passenger Gertrude Masaryk!”

“Woo-hoo!”

“Way to GO, Miggy!”

“How was it, Miguel?” Suarez said nothing, but the satisfied look on his face was worth a thousand words.

SILENCE! Suarez, are you aware that you could be court-martialed under Article 412 of the UCMJ?” Article 412 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice said who and what you could and couldn’t have sex with while being a member of the Armed Forces.

Suarez raised an eyebrow. “Oh? And how do you figure that?”

“Well, I just happened to check ‘Miss’ Masaryk’s records. According to her medical file, she was born Anton Vladislav Masaryk.”

“And?”

“And? So, she’s really a MAN! And, as such, having sex with her is in direct violation of Article 412!”

Segdewick cleared his throat. “ah, Commander? A word in your shell-like ear?” He gestured Maddox aside.

“What IS it? I’m in the MIDDLE of something here!”

“Well, before you commit yourself, I’d like to point out one or two minor logical inconsistencies with your charge.”

“Such AS?”

“Well, first, the very reason that Miss Masaryk is aboard the Seven-Eleven in the first place is that she’s in violation of the PWA, right?”

“Yes! So?”

“If she’s a woman, then Suarez can’t be in violation of Article 412 for having sex with her. If she’s a man, then her presence on this ship is illegal, because we removed her from her ship under false pretenses, and since she was removed by your order, you are liable for false arrest and forcing her to violate the terms of her work contract.

“Second, as I remember, on our last - in the distant past - furlough, you spent a LOT of time with a certain ‘Melinda’. You know, the DSC redhead with the <ahem!> ‘prominent features’?”

“Yeah? So? Deep Space Comfort is sanctioned by the ISP!”

“Exactly. And the reason that the ISP sanctions DSC is that all of their ‘girls’ are surgically altered Transsexuals. As Transsexuals, they are legally considered Male, and not prevented from being in space by the PWA. Since DSC is sanctioned by the ISP, it follows that having sex with an altered male isn’t regarded as being in violation of Article 412. And, even if it were, as I remember, you didn’t just buy ‘Melinda’ a few drinks. If Suarez gets kicked out of the ISP on an Article 412, then so will you. AND me, and at least 97% of the force.”

Maddox gritted his teeth.

“And lastly,” Sedgewick sailed on smoothly, “we are on the last few months of our SECOND rotation out here in space. Our rotations are SUPPOSED to be: an Earthside rotation with our families, then a rotation in Orbit, with weekends at home, then a rotation out here, and then back to Earth. We have been out here for FOURTEEN MONTHS. And the crew is getting worried that the brass is going to stick us with a third rotation out here. So, if you hammer Suarez on an Article 412 charge, then he will be transported back to Earth - with Trudy - when we get to the Pournelle. If he seems to be getting a free ticket back groundside, we could very well have men rutting in the halls, trying to sent home on an Article 412 rap.”

Maddox wiped the metaphorical egg off of his face. “Well, I did issue a direct order to avoid intimate contact with Masaryk. Does that still stand?”

“Oh, the Disobeying A Legal Order While In The Field charge? Oh yes, definitely. Especially given the harsh circumstances we face here. Discipline must be maintained. But I suggest that, in order to avoid a mass migration of troops, that we handle it ‘in-house’ as it were.”

Maddox trudged back in front of the assembled men. “It seems that Article 412 does not apply in this situation. However, Suarez still disobeyed a direct order. Gunny, I want Suarez put on 100 hours of whatever’s at the bottom of the Discipline List. And, all of you, I want it understood that that will go for anyone breaking my ‘Hands Off’ rule! Dis-MISSED!”

‘Hands Off’ was a lot harder than Maddox made it sound, Tran thought. Not when the body that you’re supposed to keep your hands off of is sitting right next to you, showing you new, <ahem!> ‘fingering’ techniques for the guitar. Well, it helped that there were five other guys there, and that she had her keyboard across her lap, and that you had a guitar across your stomach.

Well, it helped a little.

Still, it was hard, sitting there, smelling her --- femaleness

Then, there was a sudden shock.

“Maybe the Duke-Brannick box is mis-cycling?”

That theory went down the tubes as the Alarms went off and the Condition Alert lights went Red. “All hands on Alert! This is NOT a drill, I repeat, NOT a drill.” Sedgewick’s crisp British accent said in that calm, controlled manner that the English do so well. “We have been hit by an unknown object. The board is showing a hull breach in Section 11/E, and we are losing air. All personnel in Sections 11/A through G will immediately don EVA suits. Be aware that all automatic pressure doors are sealing off that area. The Marine squad on duty will go to Full Combat Alert. We are tracking the trajectory of the object, and will amend the Condition Alert as appropriate. All other hands will initiate the Emergency Decompression Drill.”

Sedgewick only said the part about going for the EVA suits as a matter of form. Everyone in the room - which happened to be in Section 11 - immediately scrambled for their EVA suits.

The first EVA suits had been complicated affairs that had taken the better part of an hour to get on. Modern EVA suits were designed with the idea that the wearer had to get the thing on and pressurize it under conditions of extreme danger, in a great screaming hurry. The Marines had bright red EVA suits with strategic armor plating, and non-Reg appliques of ‘cowboy’ motif decals. The Bridge Officers had bright neon blue suits. The non-Marine ratings had bright yellow suits. By ancient sacred tradition, all Marines are riflemen, whatever their specialization. By less ancient, but just as sacred tradition, all Spacers are mechanics.

As the Marines headed toward the airlock that would get them into the sealed off part of Section 11, there was a new color in the crayon box - Hot Pink.

“Trudy? Is that you? What are you doing?”

“I’m knitting a sweater! What do you THINK I’m doing?”

“Get back to your quarters! This is dangerous work! If the pressure in that room isn’t let out just right-”

“I know, I know, it will rip open an ever wider hole in the outer hull. Teach your Grandmother to suck eggs, why don’t you?”

Villarobles was about to ORDER Trudy back to her quarters when Suarez cursed. “Cobrone! The airlock’s misinterpreting the pressure gauge! It’s reading the pressure in the compartment beyond as the pressure within the lock! It won’t open until it thinks that the pressure on our side is the same as inside the lock. Fucking cheap lock!”

“We’ll have to cut through. Fuck! That will take hours!”

“How many times have you guys had to handle hull breaches in real life?”

“Oh, lesse now – I’d say twelve.”

“Count yourself lucky, Junior. Stand aside, I’ve had to deal with temperamental airlocks before.”

“Hey! What are you doing?”

“Just stand back and watch - I’ll explain as I do it. As Miguel, pointed out, this whore won’t spread her legs until she thinks that the air out here is the same as it is in there. But this is one stupid whore - all I have to do is inductively feed enough electricity to the far side of the pressure gauge, and it thinks the air pressure is building, and viola! We’re in!”

The airlock hissed open. Since the idiot airlock already thought the pressure was the same in the far chamber, they managed to pass through without a hitch.

Most long range space ships are designed so that the chambers right next to the outer hull are storage compartments. This so that if the hull is breached, the damaging object and the resulting blow-out damage replaceable goods instead of delicate equipment. The SZ711 was built along those lines. The other side of the airlock was a wind tunnel as the air roared out an open hatch into one of the storage compartments.

“Shut that fucking hatch!”

“No good, Gunny! It swings inwards, to keep the corridor clear!”

“What’s in there, anyway?”

“Lesse now…boxes of toilet paper. Three-quarters used up already.”

“Damn. Nothing in there that would block the hole for more than a couple of seconds. And look at the size of that thing! It’s almost the size of a quarter! There’s no way that we can glob that thing shut.”

“How about plating it from this side, and letting the air pressure hold the plate while we weld?”

“No good. There’s no way that we could fit these plates through this stupid hatch. Even if we could, that compartment’s too small for us to get in and work.”

“Could we just plate over the hatch?”

“Too much pressure for a hole the size of that hatch. It would buckle before we finished welding it.”

Kaustmeyer looked at the hot pink EVA suit. “Trudy, what the hell do you think yer doin’?”

“Oh, just mopping up the problem.” Trudy had opened a cleaning closet and pulled out a bucket and two mops. She filled the bucket with water and put the mops in. “Now the trouble with you Space Cop types is that you have to go by the book. We real Spacer types have to learn to wing it.”

She wheeled the bucket over to the hatch and handed a soaked mop to Kausteyer. “Okay, Alfie and I are gonna try and maneuver these mops into the whole. It should only last for a few seconds, but we can glob the edges from here, and the mop will give the glob something to work on. Once the mop is securely globbed in, plate the hatch. The water in the mop heads will be sucked out by the vacuum, creating a low pressure area inside the compartment. That should create a buffer zone between the hard vacuum and the pressurized interior. The buffer area should be so weakly pressurized that it won’t blow the mop out, but pressurized enough that the plates should hold while we do a proper plate and weld from the outside.”

“It sounds like the lady has a plan!” Villarobles said. “Sealant guns ready, Hombres?”

They lowered the mops down. The first one against the hole was sucked halfway through, but they had the second one against that immediately. Taking advantage of the temporary stop in the wind, the Marines began sealing the edges of the mop. When that was secure, they slammed the repair plate over the hatch and began welding like fiends. There was a bad moment as the plate started to buckle, but it managed to hold.

“Well!” Trudy said brightly. “That should hold it until we can properly weld a plate on the other side!”

“What’s this ‘We’, chiquita?” Villarobles said as he cleaned out his sealant gun. “I’m gonna catch enough hell from the Skipper as is. Hull-dancing is way over the line. You go to your cabin and stay in that suit until the All-Clear.”

“Aaawww…” Trudy slouched toward the air lock. “You never let me have ANY fun.”

“What were you THINKING?” Maddox raged at Villarobles. “She could have crippled us! That bit with the mops could have been a ploy to rip a hole the size of a manhole cover in our hull! For all we know, that ‘meteor’ was a little gift from her Spacer buddies.”

“Not very likely, Jeffe.” Villarobles handed him a broken off spindle shaped piece of rock with roughly the diameter of a marble. “We found that in the wall opposite the compartment that got holed.”

Sedgewick nodded. “Yes, and remember, we back-tracked the trajectory? Nothing in that vector that could have potted us with even a One-In-A-Million shot. And Diard says that at the time, there were disruptions in our Gee-Wee that were probably a flight of those things. There were probably thousands of them, but that one was the only one at exactly the proper angle to avoid deflection.”

“Hey, Jeffe, think about it - she’s on the same ship as us, and an EVA suit only has enough air for five or six hours. It would take DAYS for anyone to get to us. Whatever you wanna say about Trudy - she ain’t stupid and she ain’t suicidal.”

“Maybe, but don’t expect me to be pinning any medals on her.”

No, Trudy didn’t get any medals for her part in patching the hole. But then, she enjoyed the rewards that she got from the crew a lot more than any bit of metal and scrap of ribbon. The bit of rock became sort of a Good Luck talisman for the crew - it was the ‘bullet with their name on it that didn’t kill them’.

“Dammit, Marsangar, I thought I made it clear- Hands Off the Pris- Passenger!”

The Engineer snapped to attention. “What are you talking about, Skipper?”

“I have footage of you and Masaryk fu- violating my direct orders, in an empty supply closet! I’m issuing Administrative Punishment! You’re going to do 200 hours of checking the outer hull for leaks!”

“Hey, where’d you get that? I mean nobody saw – us --- ” Marsangar shut up as he realized that he’d just admitted to the charge.

Maddox paced over to his Command chair and settled in. “This is getting ridiculous!” He punched a button and activated the General Address system. “Gentlemen, this is your Commander. I regret to inform you that another crewman has decided to ignore my orders regarding the passenger Gertrude Masaryk. In case you idiots need it spelled out for you, NO ONE IS TO HAVE SEX WITH TRUDY! I hope that I have finally made myself clear.”

In a cramped Emergency Decompression Shelter hutch, Trudy paused in her passionate coupling with Villarobles. She looked up at the speaker and said, "Y’know, he really takes that ‘a captain is God while at sea’ bit WAY too seriously.” The she planted a hot kiss on Villarobles’ mouth and they resumed.

If there’s a ship, no matter what kind, there’s a card game of some sort. The crew of the Seven-Eleven was reasonably proud of the fact that only the recent decompression emergency had kept their game from becoming a fleet contender for the longest non-stop running in the Corvette fleet. Trudy had bought in with a few items from her munchie stash that Calloway and Adasanan still hadn’t managed to replicate.

The game was Gin. Trudy had a tune playing from a Retro-Bop revival that was already out of fashion, but she was fond of, playing on a sound system. The men had just about run out of reminisces of their families, so Nelder decided to broach a topic that they’d been tip-toeing around. Best to get it out in the open, and get it over with. “So, Trudy - you’re taking going back Home pretty much in your stride.”

“Hey, there’s nothing that I can do about it, so why make a big deal about it? I was as good as back on Earth the second that the Gravitic lasso latched onto the Whittington.”

“Maybe. But I still think that you’re pretty damn calm. The XX-Flight broads that we dragged off’a their ships damn near slit their wrists. I mean, what’s so fucking great about Outer Space?”

“The Scenic Ocean-front view.”

“Hey, Trudy, going back to Earth isn’t so bad.”

“Well, I guess so. I mean, every girl is supposed to want to marry a rich and wealthy multi-millionaire.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Haven’t you heard? The latest Power Accessory among the Corporate Elite is a Care Giver trophy wife. All the bigwigs are getting them these days.”

“What? How can they just auction you off? I mean, if you don’t want to marry a guy, how can they make you?”

“Well, as I understand it, it has something to do with being placed on ‘Probation in the custody of a husband’. Of course, if you’re not married, or if your husband - or husbands - are Spacers, then you’re not eligible. But there always are Oh So Concerned lawyers and judges willing to ‘introduce’ you to a ‘suitable prospective husband’ - and arrange nice discrete divorces and annulments - so that you can go on Probation. And if you are so ungrateful as to say ‘no’, well a couple of decades working on the Kelp barges or being pumped for restorative nanites will teach you the error of your ways.” Trudy melded nines.

“You don’t really believe that, do you, Trude?”

“That’s the buzz on the byways, boys.”

There was an uncomfortable silence. Johns asked uncertainly, “ah, Are you married, Trudy?”

Trudy smiled, and reached over to tweak Johns’ cheek. “Not to worry, Schatzi.”

The men quickly changed the topic to the on-going speculation as to the identity of the ‘pirates’ who attacked the Crucible ore refining platform. The identity of the ‘Crucible Raiders’ was an on-going subject of popular speculation, much as the assassination of American President Kennedy had been. “So, Trudy, what’s the ‘buzz on the byways’ as to who hit the Crucible platform?”

“I was at the Dow Chemicals outpost at the time.”

“I didn’t ask you that.”

“Hey, c’mon Truder,” DeForrest prompted, “the Spacers must have some idea of who might have done it!”

“Guys, why would anyone blow up a refining platform?”

“Because it was undercutting Spacer prices for semi-refined ores!”

Trudy smiled archly. “Let me guess - you were an investor.”

“Along with several million other people!”

“Kelsey, would you happen to have a Crucible Project brochure?”

Weeelll...I think I may have a few old files on it in my PDA...” DeForrest pulled out his PDA, rooted around in it for a while and produced a hologramic image of the doomed platform.

Trudy took the PDA and looked around. “Ah. Here it is. Okay. See here? It says that the Crucible Platform was 350 meters long.”

“Yeah. So?”

“Well, if you look here, if you use the rest of the platform for scale, you’ll see that the Solar Furnace Reflector must be somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 meters in diameter.”

“Yeah? So? That’s the diameter for all the Orbital refineries and forges,” Lermontov said.

“Pavel, those are the dimensions for a Solar Furnace Reflector --- In Earth Orbit! The Belt is somewhere in the neighborhood of one quarter BILLION miles away from Earth! A Solar Furnace Mirror would have to be at least Three and a half times that diameter, in order to be competitive with Spacer refineries. Even allowing that it was supposed to produce semi-refined ores for transport to EarthSpace for final refining and alloying, the stuff that it produced would be so crude that it would be barely an improvement over the raw stuff. You wouldn’t lose any mass, so it would be just as expensive to haul, and lightening the load is the entire point of semi-refining.”

That stopped the conversation for a full minute.

“But, then WHY did the Crucible Project people put a mirror that was too small for the job on it?”

“Come to think of it, what do Spacers do to power their refineries, use really BIG mirrors?”

“Hell, no - too expensive, too fragile, to likely to float into the path of a rock. Spacer platforms use good old fashioned fusion plants. Hell, hydrogen is cheap enough.”

DeForrest shrugged. “Yeah, well, that still doesn’t explain who blew the damn thing up.”

“Yeah, and maybe that picture is just an artist’s rendering. Y’know, for the investors?” Johns postulated. “I mean, most people would look at a 350 meter mirror and say ‘that’s just too big’.”

“Yeah. And maybe it was some Yahoo lookin’ to put his own bootleg refinery up and wanted to trash Crucible for scrap. That way, he wouldn’t piss off any of his Spacer buddies. I mean, we all know how cheap those high flying Owner/Operators really are.”

Trudy cocked an eyebrow. “And how many O/Os do YOU know, hunh? And what makes you think that they’re cheap?”

Perdto, if they weren’t cheap, then howcum they keep freezin’ small GroundSide investor groups out of Deep Space projects? I mean, those things are fucking licenses to print money! But can the little guy back on Earth get in on the action? Hell, NO!”

Trudy shook her head, laughing sadly, and then knocked back a little of the ‘beer’ she was drinking. “Sweet Mary, Mother of God, do you know what the main complaint is in Spacer bars? Aside from the lack of women, I mean. You go into a Spacer bar, and I can guarantee that you will find at least one guy pissing and moaning about how he can’t get some blood-sucking DirtSide bank or investment group to loan him enough money to get this project or that off the rails, unless he signs over like 70% of control of the project over to them.”

“Yeah? And?”

“Old Spacer saying, Leon - ‘I didn’t come all the way out here to make someone ELSE rich.”

“Well then, if they’re so hard up for cash, why don’t they float a Bond or talk to one of those Mutuals that handle money for small investors? Let the REST of us on the fucking gravy train?”

Schatzi, right at this moment, there are, to my best knowledge, no less that 300 UN, USA, Brit Commonwealth, Common Market and Asian Coalition, trade and International Finance regulations that put so many shackles on ‘Long Range Investments’ and ‘Unsupervised Developments’ that Harry freaking Houdini couldn't get loose from them. The International Finance community has it rigged so that the only ones who can get money out here, are them that are plugged into their machine, seven ways to Sunday.”

“Why would they do that?”

“You said it yourself - a Deep Space refinery or mining operation is a cash cow! And they aren’t going to let OTHER people milk it, not if they can hand-cuff themselves to the bucket!”

“But ---  I keep hearing about guys like Fred Hastings and Yosuke Matsuoka, who are so fucking rich that they could buy freaking London out of petty cash?”

“Because obscenely rich Spacers like Hastings and Matsuoka make better press than struggling pioneers eking out an existence ‘cause they won’t play the game by Wall Street’s rules. Sweetie, for every guy like The Fred or Yosuke-sama, there are a few thousand guys running a laser’s breadth ahead of Chapter 11.”

“Well, then, if Wall Street’s got the scene out here so well sewed up, why did they let that investment group put up Crucible, hunh?”

Schatzi, that is a VERY good question. I myself have spent more than a few evenings discussing that very point.”

“I still think that Hastings, Matsuoka, and those other fat cat Spacers are trying to freeze the people back home out of the Deep Space markets,” DeForrest maintained.

“Why? It doesn’t make any sense. Okay, some of the refineries might have to compete, but why would Hastings or Matsuoka or Cekosky? For Hauling firms like Apollo Freight and Cekosky Drayage, the more people out here, the more freight to haul. And Midori Produce & Seafood? The more people out here, the bigger their profits.

“Okay, let’s say that these guys are stone cold, ruthless Greed Heads. Guys like that ain’t fool enough to try and build major Deep Space projects with their own money! No, they use other people’s money to do it. Maybe they float a really Hyuuuge Bond issue, and get several million small investors to put their money into it. After all, all the faceless little suckers are all panting to get in on the Uber-Profitable Deep Space markets, aren’t they? They, of course, issue themselves enough voting stock to maintain real control. But once it’s built, why have all these pathetic little losers nibbling away at THEIR pie? After all, they did all the real work, getting the whole package together, why shouldn’t they make some real money on it?

“Heck, why not build a really shabby platform way out in the back of beyond? Something that would never be able to actually produce what you claimed that it would. Who’s gonna know? Why, if it fell apart, or even blew up, then you could tell all your investors that it was something like a meteor strike, or a pirate raid or something. There’s no way that those little ants could make you pay them back, if it were something like THAT! They’d think that their money was down the drain, and they’d have this mysterious band of motiveless ‘pirates’ to blame and hate. Why, you could even over-sell the bond and pre-disassemble the valuable parts, like the Platform Spine. Then you could re-build the manufacturing platform somewhere else, and keep all the title - and profits - for you and your buddies. And it wouldn’t cost you a fucking cent.”

“Yeah, well, you can’t say that those dead bodies they found in space weren’t real!”

“Hey, I’m not making any accusations. I’m just pointing out that if you were a hard-nosed, cold-blooded Spacer greed-head, that there would be much better ways of making a killing than trashing the Crucible platform. Hey, I could be wrong.”

“I don’t believe this!” Maddox grated at Ahn-Pak, the third shift Astrogator. “Ratings, I can understand, but you’re an Officer!”

Pak smiled serenely at Maddox. “An Officer. And your point is?”

“You willfully disobeyed my direct order against consorting with that woman!”

“‘Consorting’? Commander, Trudy is all over the place. She’s organized ping-pong tournaments, Tae Kwan Do matches, sing-alongs, and even corridor painting competitions. Right now, I believe she’s helping the Swing shift squad Marines upgrade their EVA suit decorations. Commander, not ‘consorting’ with Trudy is practically impossible on this ship.”

“That’s not what I meant!”

“Then what did you mean?”

“You had SEX with her!”

“Prove it.”

“I have confirmation from a reliable source!”

“Who?”

“I’m not at liberty to state.”

“Commander, unless you can provide some concrete evidence that I actually did what you say I did, then there’s not much point in taking this discussion any further.”

“Oh? And what would you say to Video footage of you and Masaryk doing the ‘Thailand Tangle’?”

“aaahhh...I’d say, ‘which corridor would you like me to begin mopping?’”

Long patrol ships do take into consideration the fact that the men on board those ships do need something to keep their minds busy. It wasn’t like there weren’t plenty of diversions about the SZ711. There were movies, music, games, and even Virtual Reality. But almost the entire off-duty crew that wasn’t sleeping, nearly half the crew, chose to be sitting in the Mess Hall, listening to Villarobles tuning Trudy Masaryk’s guitar.

“Hey, Gunny! Where’s Trudy? She said that she’d be here.”

“I dunno,” Villarobles said as he sounded around a slightly sour C string. “But if I know Trudy, she’ll come in with a big smile on her face.”

Maddox stalked down the hall to his Exec’s cabin. They were three days away from their rendezvous with the Pournelle, and By God, he was gonna spend those days in a semblance of peace of mind! He’d fucking weld the puta into her cabin, if he had to! Hell, even the fucking Air was against him! He took one whiff and he just knew that fucking everyone on the ship had had sex with Trudy Masaryk, but him!

Maddox pounded on Sedgewick’s door. “Sedgewick! I know that you’re in there! I don’t care WHAT the Regs say, I’m confining Masaryk to her quarters for the rest of the trip! Sedgewick!”

“Okay, this is getting ridiculous!” Villarobles said. “I’m giving Trudy a buzz.” He pulled out his comm-link and punched in Trudy’s code.

Mmmrrppphhh...waddizit?” came Trudy’s rather blurry voice.

“Trude! Where are you? We have a date for a sing-along, remember?”

“Oh, Mother of God!” Trudy’s voice was suddenly alert. “I got all wrapped up! I’ll be right there! Thanks for calling me!” She cut her link with a snap.

“She should be here in about five minutes,” Villarobles assured his audience.

“Sedgwick!” Maddox thundered, “Open UP, Dammit!”

The door opened, but it wasn’t Sedgewick. Instead, Trudy Masaryk pushed past Maddox. “Scuze Me!” she said as she paused to zip up her flight suit, “Gotta go! I have a Sing Along!” She hurried down the corridor.

Poleaxed, Maddox looked after her as she skittered down the corridor. Then he put his head in the door of Sedgewick’s cabin. The cabin smelled like sex. And there, sprawled out naked on his bunk, was Maddox’s Exec, Sedgewick, with a blissed out smile on his face.

‘Sedgewick? She slept with Sedgewick? She screwed SEDGEWICK, that pompous, tea-swilling phony, and she wouldn’t even LOOK at ME?’ Maddox raged internally.

Trudy ran into the Mess Hall. “Sorry! Sorry, I got sort of wrapped up in something.”

“Or someone,” somebody in the audience said, which was met with laughter.

“Okay, are you all tuned up, Gunny?” Villarobles nodded. Trudy sat down on the floor, tailor-style and picked up her flute. She nodded at Johns, who was using her harmonica, and Aghoda, who had her keyboard. “Okay, I’ll play the first part by myself, and you guys pick up when you get the sense of the melody. This is called ‘the Ballad of Corazon’, and it’s very important to us Care Givers.”

Trudy never was able to explain why it was so important, because just as she was about to, Maddox came storming into the Mess Hall. “MASARYK! You filthy, back-stabbing, little whore!” Maddox pulled her up from her squat and slapped her into the bulkhead.

The Mess Hall erupted.

Maddox was surrounded by a maelstrom of fists and hands, and eventually, knives. The ISP Marine knife is designed to cut through EVA suits and slip past ceramet plates. The knife - exactly whose was never found out - slipped easily through Maddox’s ribs, and punctured his left lung.

Trudy screamed and tried to pull the men off of Maddox, but it was no good. Even as she tried, Trudy knew that there were some things that you simply can’t stop, once they get started.

Maddox was still wrapping his head around the idea that someone had stabbed him, when he suddenly realized that he was inside an airlock. The mechanism cycled, and as he was being blown out into cold hard vacuum, the last thing that crossed ISP Lieutenant Commander Thurston Maddox’s mind was, ‘But I never got a chance to fuck Trudy!’

Villarobles looked at the monitor and the realization of what they’d done settled in his gut like a brick. “Somebody go find Sedgewick. He’s in charge now.”

‘We are completely and utterly reamed,’ Sedgewick summed up to himself. “Wake up the shift that’s sleeping and tell Calloway and Adasanan to whip up a LOT of coffee. Then get the word around that there’s going to be a Ship’s Assembly in the Mess Hall. I want everyone either there, or linked in and listening. We have some heavy decision making to do.”

The tables were folded up against the wall and the chairs were formed into a crude squared-off circle. Except for the five officers working the Bridge, the entire ship’s company of forty-two men were present. Oh yes, and the sole female passenger, as well.

Sedgewick paced around the empty central area. When the final crewman showed up and took a place against the wall, Sedgwich began. “Very well, for those of you who may not know, Lt. Commander Maddox is dead.” Sedgewick outlined those details as he knew of the incident. “Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, everyone who was part of that mob is equally guilty of Assaulting a Commanding Officer and Murder. There’s no way under God’s Heaven that I could place over half the crew in the brig, even if they’d sit still for it. But that’s not the real problem.

“The real problem is that we’re all going to take it in the neck for this. There’s never been a mutiny or uprising against a captain on an ISP ship before. The Top Brass is going to have to come down hard, just to maintain discipline in the ranks. Several Corvettes and a few Cruisers have gone missing recently, and no one knows what happened to them. With an actual Mutiny on the dock, the Brass is going to be out for blood. The men who actually chucked Maddox out the lock are going to die, no question about it. The men who attacked Maddox, but didn’t actually do the chucking, will be lucky to get Life Imprisonment at Hard Labor. The rest of us, those that can PROVE that they weren’t in the Mess Hall at the time, are also screwed. The officers will be up on charges of Criminal Negligence leading to the death of a Commanding Officer; we’ll be lucky if we only get Ten Years at Hard Labor. The Ratings will get off the lightest - if they’re lucky, they’ll actually get off with only being drummed out of the Service with no benefits. And, of course, the chances of getting anything like a decent job with a blood Mutinty on your chit are absolutely Nil. And the Dishonorably Discharged aren’t eligible for any Dole anywhere on Earth. And, of course, our families will be chucked out of Service Housing the second that the Brass gets the news, and all other Service Benefits will be history.”

Zaharakis, who had just woken up, and was thinking clearly asked, “Couldn’t we just say that Maddox had an airlock accident? I mean, they happen all the time!”

Markovitch, the ship’s cynic, sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Milos, no one is going to believe that any Ship’s Commander, even a loss like Maddox, is going to be in an airlock without an EVA suit. Boje, Maddox was so paranoid that he never even went near an airlock without an emergency breather. When a Ship’s Commander has an ‘accident’ like that, they triple check all the recording devices. And they know all the tricks for doctoring the logs. And, even if they were inclined, there’s still the Zamp.”

A chill went around the room at the mention of the ship’s fink.

“Think about it,” Markovitch continued, “Maddox is supposed to have gotten this command by turning in the Decatur’s captain and XO. The mind boggles as to what they’ll give our Zamp for an entire ship.”

“AND,” Sedgewick cut in, “Maddox kept a log of every infringement and suspicion that he had. It’s in a black box, and it can’t be gotten to without breaking at least a dozen security seals.” He turned his gaze to Trudy. “Unless you know some Spacer trick for getting past security seals.”

“Don’t look at me!” Trudy said cautiously. “Joachim may have done business on some <ahem!> ‘off the beaten track’ outposts, but we were mostly a law abiding ship. I don’t know anything about beating security seals.”

“Just a thought.” Sedgewick sighed. “Very well. Just for form’s sake, let’s put it to a show of hands. Who wants to go in and take what’s coming at us? Show your hand.”

Sedgewick paused and looked around.

Everyone just glowered at him.

“Thought so. Officers on the Bridge?”

There was nothing from the Bridge.

“Well then. It’s unanimous, isn’t it? No one wants to take it in the neck, just because that fool Maddox finally got what was coming to him. Very well. What ARE we going to do?”

“That’s a rhetorical question, isn’t it?” DeForrest, the Second Computer Officer said. “We head out into the Deep Dark, and hope that the ISP never finds us. If we just...disappear...then we’ll be listed as ‘Missing In Action’, and our families will at least get Survivor’s Benefits.”

“Yes, yes, that’s obvious - but, once we hook up with the Pournelle and get refueled and restocked, where do we GO? We’re an ISP Enforcer Corvette - we’re not exactly beloved by the Rock Rats. Those that wouldn’t shoot us on general principles, or gleefully turn us in for the no doubt Huge reward, would cut our throats to get the ship! It seems that our only recourse is to ‘go pirate’ and start raiding ships for food and supplies. And as romantic as hauling up the Jolly Roger may sound, all that it really means is that we’re stuck out here forever, without furlough.”

“Hold On!” interjected DeForrest. “We may not be sitting pretty, but we DO have options.” He turned and looked at Trudy. “Trude, you’ve let slip that you know about unregistered outposts and habitats.”

Maaayybeee...what’s your point?”

“What are the chances that you could arrange some sort of, y’know, amnesty for us?”

Amnesty? Kelsey, governments give amnesty. The best that the hidden habitats could do would be hide you.”

“Hey, Trudy,” Villarobles said, “in case you haven’t noticed, it’s not like we've got a lot of options here. At this point, we’ll jump at damn near anything that you can throw our way.”

“Let me think this over for a bit.” Trudy sat back and thought hard, as the men sat around and watched her do it.

Finally, she sat forward and stood up. “Very well, this is the best that I can come up with. There’s an outpost relatively near here, called Baritaria. I know a few people there, and I _might_ be able to arrange for something.

“Maybe.

“BUT, there are a few conditions that you’re going to have to know, before this goes any further.” Trudy paused for any complaints. “Very well. First and foremost, you’re going to have to give up the ship.”

The Mess Hall exploded in complaints. The Seven-Eleven was their main asset, and they knew it. Trudy waited silently for them to get it out of their systems.

“Finished? Good. Now, think about it - do you honestly think that Bariatria’s Port Master is just going to let a crew of ISP mutineers - and if you go along with this, it IS Mutiny - just fly around in an armed interceptor? Do you think the Spacers are just going to leave a loose cannon like the Seven-Eleven rolling around on their decks? Of Course Not!”

“But you’re asking us to just GIVE the ship away?” Ghutra sounded like she was asking him to sacrifice his first born son.

“GIVE the ship away?” Trudy laughed. “Mother of God, no! No Spacer would ask you to just GIVE the ship away. No, I’m asking you to sell it.”

“SELL it?” A murmur went around the Mess Hall. Suddenly, the prospect of profit had popped up, and their future was looking much rosier.

“Hold on,” Sedgewick said. “You know people who would be willing to buy the Seven-Eleven?”

“Well, more to the point, I know people who know people who might be interested, and it would probably be more in the nature of Credit than actual coin, but Yeah.”

Sedgewick’s eyes narrowed. “Why would Spacer High Command be interested in obtaining an ISP Enforcer Corvette?”

<Pfaaauuggh!> Trudy shook her head in disbelief. “Oh Please! There is no such thing as a 'Spacer High Command'! We don’t have a government, per se. We just have groups of men and women who have earned a lot of respect, and people tend to listen when they say something. Not only don’t we have a ‘High Command’, we don’t even have a fleet for there to be a ‘High Command’ OF.”

There were a few mutters wondering why anyone would want to buy a heavily armed interceptor, but the real question on everyone’s mind was: ‘How Much?’

Trudy whipped out her calculator. “Lessee now...these things set the UN back 7 Billion per...allow for depreciation and mileage...limited market...it’s hot as hell...I figure that I could set a reasonable asking price of maybe 200 Million Euros. Split 48 ways, that’s roughly Four and three-quarter Million a head.”

Four and three-quarter Million Euros. Each. Even with prices the way they were on Earth, it was still more money than any of them had ever seen in their lives.

“Wait a minute,” Markovitch said, “_48_? There are only 47 of us.”

“Oh, I’m counting myself in as an equal partner.”

“What?”

“You’d prefer that I charge a standard 5% Broker’s fee? After all, you NEED me to get you into Baritaria and get you in touch a buyer. Very well, but I warn you, at five percent, I’ll be making almost double what I would as an equal partner!”

“Okay, very well, equal partner,” Sedgewick agreed. “What’s the next condition?”

“You guys can’t stay together. When we get to Baritaria, the Spacers will be almost as nervous at having squads of armed ISP Marines there as they would at having an armed interceptor there. Once the Independent Spacer’s Guild issues you your new identities and you get paid your share for the Seven-Eleven, you guys will have to each go your own ways.”

There was an uncertain rumble at that. There was a group loyalty that had been forged by two years of close quarters and a shared mutiny.

“You’ll be allowed to keep your EVA suits, tools and weapons,” Trudy continued, “but as soon as you can get a berth on a hauler out of Baritaria, you guys split up. But don’t worry about finding a berth. With Four and three-quarters Million Euros, you may not be able to buy ships, but you should have lots of offers from Owner/Operators to go partners on cargoes. The berth should come with the cargo. Just be real careful about the contract that you cut. Some of these O/Os are real sharks.”

Calloway yelled out from behind the counter, “Hey, Trudy! What if some of us don’t wanna go our separate ways?”

Trudy smiled. “Well, I doubt that anyone will have any problems with teams of two or three staying together. I’m more concerned about entire squads and things like that.”

Villarobles nodded his head. “Okay, I can see that. What’s the next condition?”

Trudy was suddenly very serious. “Trust. Absolute Trust. When we head to Baritaria, _I_ am going to be in command. Period. This is not negotiable. I will navigate the ship to the rendezvous area. Except for my navigation computer, all other computers will be shut OFF. Period. There will be NO taking notes of our trajectories, or arcs, or velocities. When I say ‘Stop’, we stop. When I say ‘Wait’, we wait. For as long as it takes. Also, all communications dishes will be taken off line until I tell you to put them back on line. Boys, my good standing - and from there, your reception in Baritaria - will depend largely on keeping Baritaria’s whereabouts a close secret.”

The officers looked around at each other. This condition affected them the most. They would have to spend a long time, days, maybe weeks effectively flying blind. The Pilots, the Navigators, the Comm Officers, the Computer Officers, even the Engineers, would have to endure being locked off of the Bridge until Trudy needed them for something.

Wordlessly, they debated among themselves. Her reasons were clear, and position was understandable. But no one likes being led around blindfolded. The officers on the Bridge broke the silence. “We’re cool with it.”

Sedgewick took a last silent poll of the remaining officers. “Yeah, we’re cool with it, too. Any other conditions?”

“Yes. Next, we’re going to need a happy-happy.”

“A what?” 

“A Happy-Happy! You know, a gift! Guys, you have to wonder that you have absolutely NO credit with the people with whom we’re going to have to deal! If anything, as ISP Enforcers, you’re deep in the Red. You can’t go in there empty-handed. You need to bring along something of some kind of value.”

“Like Communications protocols, ISP patrol schedules, Computer Security codes, and like that?” Sedgewick asked dryly.

“Oh, Mother of God, NO! We can get those any time we want. Your security sucks. I’m talking about EarthSide supplies. You know, things with actual value?”

“Hey, Sedge!” Calloway called from the galley, “we’re rendezvousing with the Pournelle anyway - why not raid their stores for those carniform things that they grow that vat meat for the Cruisers in?”

“Okay!” Trudy cheered. “The guy in the apron has the right idea!”

“And what about finished repair parts?” Chief Engineer Ghutra added. “I can make up a list of replacement items that the Spacers are always asking for. We should be able to provide Baritaria with a nice little Care Package. But all this assumes that we can sneak all of that out of the Pournelle’s stores.”

“Why sneak?” Villarobles asked. “If you’re going to hoist the Jolly Roger, do it right! We wait until the Pournelle’s techs are through patching up our hull, and then we go in with guns! It’s the last thing they’ll expect!”

“Marines...” DeForrest muttered. “And then we alert ISP High Command that we’ve gone renegade. The whole point of this is that we’re trying to keep our families’ Survivor Benefits, remember? Not to worry. I know Carl Westerfeldt, the First Computer Officer on the Pournelle. I should be able to slip past him on the Pournelle’s system, no problem.”

“Then why didn’t you computer jockeys snag us some primo chow before?”

“Getting the stuff out of Stores is one thing, but once they did an inventory, they’d know exactly who took it. But, since we’re going over the hill anyway...”

Sedgewick nodded. “Okay, then DeForrest and the other Computer Jocks load our stores with the best trade goods that we can hustle out of the Pournelle’s stores. Anything else, Trudy?”

“Just One. I want you guys to vote.”

“Vote? On what?”

“On whether or not you’ll actually DO this. Let’s face it guys, if there’s even ONE of you who doesn’t want to do this, then we’d have to be watching over our shoulders every second of the way. We have to have a unanimous vote for this plan. If there’s even ONE GUY who’s against it, then we have to scrap all of this, and start on a new course of action.

“Besides, if we don’t’ do this exactly right, then it’s Mutiny. And Spacers get real nervous around mutineers. Even with your cash out from selling the Seven-Eleven, you guys are gonna find getting berths real hard, if word gets around that you mutinied.”

“And how’s the vote gonna avoid that?”

“Well, Sedgewick is the new Commander of this tub, but he can’t order you guys to go over the hill. And even with a vote, a clear majority can’t make a minority desert. BUT, if it’s a clear unanimous vote, then it’s not mutiny, but a Command Decision with the full support of the crew. Or at least, that’s how we’ll sell it at Baritaria.”

“Very well,” Sedgewick said, taking charge again, “a crew vote. Cookie, get a cloth sack. Here’s what we’re gonna do.” He held up his identification ‘dog tag’, and slipped the metal strip out of its holder. “We’re gonna give Trudy the cloth sack. She’s gonna go around the room and up to the bridge with the sack. Each of us is gonna reach his ID tag into the sack. If you’re for the plan that we’ve come up with, keep your tag in its holder. If you oppose it, then drop your tag in. If you vote ‘Nay’, then Trudy will return your tag, and I think that we can all trust Trudy to keep that secret. And in the meantime, you can only tell if the holder’s empty if you really look. If the sack is empty when Trudy comes back from the Bridge, then this plan is a Go Ahead. Are we agreed?”

There was general assent around the room and from up on the Bridge. Cookie came up with a thick cloth sack. If more than one person dropped a tag in it, there would still be no noise.

Trudy took the sack around the room, and one by one, each man reached his tag into the sack and pulled the holder back. Each guarded his holder so that no one could see how he voted. Trudy completed the round in the Mess Hall with Sedgewick. Then she went up to the Bridge. When she came back, she emptied the sack onto a table.

There was nothing. The vote was unanimous.

Sedgewick walked up to Trudy and snapped a proper British Navy salute. “Very well, Ma’am, I officially turn over command of the SZ711 to you. What are your first orders?”

Trduy smiled. “Well, first I order Calloway and Adasanan to break out that good whiskey that they’ve been hiding, for a celebratory drink! And then, we get to work on exactly how we’re gonna rip off the Pernelle.”

The Seven-Eleven pulled up to the Pournelle without undue incident. The Pournelle’s Skipper, Captain Beldridge, had met Maddox a couple of times before, so like any sane human being, he was only too happy to accept it when ‘Maddox’ begged off on the courtesy visit, sending Sedgewick instead. Fortunately, Maddox had put off the order to transmit the notification of Trudy’s ‘rescue’ to the Pournelle, so there were no complications there.

The Pournelle was more than just a space-going delivery truck. It was also a flying repair shipyard. Even without cargo modules, it was huge, and it dwarfed the SZ711. It was equipped with an abbreviated ‘cage’ that wrapped around other ships to form a ‘flying shipyard cradle’. This allowed the Pournelle’s technicians to affect repairs on the Corvette’s outer skin and other systems. While the restock only took a few hours, the repairs and maintenance took the better part of five days. Five, very long, very stressful days.

Trudy was even busier than the men. In addition to keeping them on a very tight schedule, so that no one of them would be alone with any of the Pournelle’s crew and maybe crack, she was in charge of helping them deal with the stress. She had all four arms (the two that most people have, and the extra two that all good maternal figures get) full, but she never let it show. Instead, she allowed herself short little cathartic panic attacks when she was alone.

Finally, the outer hull was completely and certifiably bubble-free, the maneuvering vanes where stress-checked, the retro-rockets were de-gunked, the Duke-Brannick box was fine tuned, the ionic pulse thrusters had been synchronized and the main fusion drive’s magnetic bottle was glitch-free. Oh yes, and the section of the outer hull that had been holed had been completely replaced. All that had to happen was for DeForrest and the computer jocks to pull their little last minute switcheroo, and the Seven-Eleven could be over the hill and far away.

Trudy looked at the schedule and double checked that everything was going as planned. “Hey, Sedge - we have about three hours before we pull out. I wanna bag a short nap before DeForrest and his boys put on their show. Would you let anyone asking for me know that I’m in my cabin?”

“Anyone is particular that you’d like me to tell that to?”

Trudy smiled wearily. “Not this time, Schatzi. Momma needs her rest.”

But as tired as she was, Trudy didn’t go to her cabin. Instead, she stepped into a storage room. In a baggage net, she found Maddox’s abandoned neon blue EVA suit. She quickly stepped into it. It was a particularly bad fit, and her armpits and crotch were chafing like no one’s business. Still she made double sure of the seals, and screwed in an extra air bottle for good luck. She fitted her tool belt onto the suit and picked up a spray can of hull primer.

No one stopped to talk to her as she made her way to a particular airlock. One guy in an EVA suit looks very much like another, and the officers didn’t go for the identifying decals the way that the Marines did. Once in the airlock, she made sure of the hidey-hole that she’d arranged. Then she attached a rather comical looking extension gizmo to the spray can, pulled down the helmet’s visor, and began to spray the EVA suit with the primer. Now, even if anyone looked at the hidey-hole, she would blend in with the rest of the airlock. And her bunny wasn’t about to go turning on any lights.

Trudy was obscurely grateful for the suit’s bad fit. The discomfort helped keep her awake while she waited.

Finally, he came. He entered the airlock, bypassing all the normal safety measures to ensure stealth. However, he forgot to turn off his interior helmet lights, so Trudy got a good look at his face as he passed.

He stepped out of the airlock into hard vacuum. Trudy was only a few minutes behind him. From the cover of the edge of the airlock, Trudy watched as he slipped a keycard into a secure lock and squeezed through the exterior hatch of a crawlway. Now, if she had him figured right... She scurried over to the hatch and tried it.

Yes! He’d been in such a hurry, no doubt a hurry created by her scheduling, that the weasel left the hatch open! She wriggled through the crawlway as well as her EVA suit would let her, and caught sight of a pair of neon blue legs pulling into the crawlway’s interior airlock.

Okay, she knew where he was and she knew what he was up to. He was in a hurry, so the odds were that he was going for the bait. But then, he could also just be in a screaming hurry to be off of a ship in the middle of a mutiny. A quiet mutiny, but still a mutiny.

Trudy made an extremely cramped U-turn and looked at the schematics of the crawlway printed next to the exterior hatch. Yes! Score! Double Score! Both of her objectives were accessible from this very crawlway. But then, this WAS the Ultra-Secure Access Crawlway, accessible only by the Captain, the XO, the Chief Engineer --- and Zamps, who needed a hidden way on and off ships.

Trudy figured that she only had fifteen minutes before the Zamp came back. She scurried down the crawlspace to the Nalley Rod drawer on the Duke-Brannick box. The drawer wouldn’t open all the way, so she had to choose among the Nalley rods that she could get at. She wanted Rod #23, but she decided that Rod #27 would do. It would be messy, but it was better than the #11-15 or #41- 45 Rods. She carefully pulled the Rod out, clumsily reversed it, and replaced it in the drawer. Then she shut the drawer and went to her next target.

Using her toolbox, she bypassed the communication dish’s main power coupler. Then she inserted a capacitor component that she brought along just for this purpose. The first time they powered up the dish for a long range communication, the capacitor would store up electricity until it had a large enough charge to destroy the dish’s wiring, which would destroy the coupler and the capacitor as well. They might figure it out - IF she gave them the time, and she had no intention of doing that.

The extreme discomfort of the suit was the only thing keeping Trudy awake by the time that the Zamp reappeared.

Trudy barely caught a glimpse of his bright neon blue legs as she popped out of the hatch. Lovely, Trudy thought to herself, I’m in a race with a man that I can’t let know I’m racing. She hurried along the side of the ship, just managing to keep him in sight. She had a good idea of where he was headed, but she couldn’t afford to waste time finding the exact location of what he was going to hide.

Still, she smiled as she finally got a good look at what he was carrying. Perfect. He fell for it. She watched as the Zamp clumsily attached the directional radio beacon to the squared outer corner of the maneuvering vane. It was one of the few places where a signal would be hidden from anyone aboard the Seven-Eleven, but would still get through the ‘noise’ of the ionic thrusters and the fusion drive.

Now, finally, Trudy had the time to be patient. She waited until he was back in the airlock that was obscured from outside observation by the placement of the ‘shipyard cradle’ and the door had sealed. He was just the sort of weasel that would take a last look. He was in. Then she went over and detached the beacon. Hitching it to her back, she carried it over to the waste disposal bin and just as carefully attached it there. The signal would still get through, but she had other plans for the beacon.

That done, she finally went back into the Seven-Eleven. She even managed to get to her cabin without anyone noticing her. ‘Well,’ she mused, 'at least I managed to get a little real work done. All these weeks of ‘protected leisure; have been exhausting!’

DeForrest’s sleight of hand show went off without a hitch. Well, there were a few empty boxes that were supposed to be full, but that’s to be expected with stored luxury items.

The Seven- Eleven pulled out to complete the last two months of its patrol. It was noteworthy, in that there were absolutely none of the usual last minute hitches and hiccups. It slid out of the cradle, as smooth as silk and lit out at a comfortable 25 G acceleration. And everyone aboard the Seven-Eleven heaved a mighty sigh of relief.

Sedgewick turned to Trudy. “Okay, ‘Captain’, now what?”

“First, we kludge things so that I can fly this crate by myself for a while. Then we shut down all the Nav sensors and Com arrays, so that no one can try and take notes of our course.”

“And then?”

“And then? BASKETBALL GAME! Bridge Officers against the Marines!”

The Seven-Eleven flew blind for four days. Then, suddenly the Crash Alert went off. Cursing loudly, Sedgewick and most of the other Bridge officers scrambled to the Bridge. “Dammit, I KNEW something like this was going to happen when we shut off the long-range sensors!” Sedgewick said as he climbed into the Navigation station. “What are we going to hit?”

“Nothing.” Trudy said calmly. “We aren’t going to hit anything. Gentlemen, if you check your stations, you’ll find a very specific protocol laid in. Follow that protocol to the letter, and the worst that should happen is that the algae gets a little mixed up.”

“What the hell IS this?”

“Now, now - Total Trust, remember?”

For the next hour, the Bridge officers toiled, and everyone else sweated. The main fusion drive was shut down, and a partial braking maneuver was implemented. Even with the internal compensator going full blast, everyone felt the incredible ‘snap’. Then, suddenly, everything was all right.

“WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED?”

“Oh, we just executed a sharp 42 degree turn.”

“FOURTY-TWO DEGREES? But that’s impossible!”

“No, hardly impossible. Not highly recommended, but possible. Still, I’ve always wanted to pull off a Jarred Turn.”

“What was all THAT for?”

“Oh, to throw off anyone trying to follow our vector. Like you, most people don’t think that sharp turns are possible in space. So, even if they have a vapor trail to track, they won’t be expecting this.” Trudy got up out of her chair. “Okay, now we handle one of the reasons why Spacers don’t use the Jarred Turn very much.”

“Besides the strain on your fillings?”

“No, the strain on the plumbing. Markovitch, I want you tracking down signs of breaks and leaks along all water systems.”

Four days later, after puttering along at the paltry 15 Gs that the ionic thrusters could achieve without the main fusion drive, Trudy called a Complete Stop. She addressed the entire crew. “Okay, guys, here’s the situation. We are in the rendezvous area. But, I don’t know the contact frequency. So, we’re going to do a five-minute burn with the main fusion drive while doing a braking maneuver, once every two hours. Hopefully, they’ll spot us and come to find out what we want, before we run out of fuel. Get comfortable guys - we could be here for a while.” 

Three days later, Trudy was showing Joe Okesson the intricacies of the ‘Crouching Leopard’ position. Just as they were building up to the second climax, her comm-link buzzed. “Trudy! This is the Bridge! We have a hail, and they want to know our business! We need you on the Bridge to explain this to them ASAP! There are at least six of them, and they’re loaded for Bear!”

“Oh, fucking classic,” Trudy muttered to the Universe.

It took some doing, but Trudy managed to convince the Pilot Boat leader that she was indeed both a contract employee of Care Givers Corporation and a dues paying member of the Independent Spacers Guild, and that that she was indeed in command of an ISP Corvette. The fact that the Finson Gun was empty and the communications dishes were silent helped a lot.

One of the Pilot Boats pulled up beside the SZ711 and a Pilot went aboard to check out the situation. The Pilot reported with the appropriate response codes that everything was kosher, and took the helm of the ship. An hour later, the Pilot steered the Seven-Eleven into an odd cluster of asteroids. The cluster was basically a hollow shell of floating rocks that were kept in place by a low power Gee-Wee. The ‘shell’ served to conceal a Byzantine arrangement of connected asteroids and domes. The Pilot locked into a docking sequence, and turned in his chair to face the Bridge Officers. “Lady, Gentlemen, welcome to Baritaria.”

The Tulane Dome was a heady experience to men who had not only spent the better part of the last two years in cramped quarters, but the SAME cramped quarters, day after day. But then, that was probably the idea. Ironically, in Space, space is a luxury. The Tulane Dome made the most of that luxury.

It was designed to give the impression of wide-open spaces. Under the dome, the buildings were landscaped with grass, shrubs and trees. Hydroponic railings were everywhere, simultaneously providing food, oxygen, and decoration. They also helped to soften the artificial light, giving an impression of natural sunshine. Crystal’s Arbor was a popular dining establishment. It was technically a penthouse restaurant, situated on a major building, but it was built around five large trees that grew atop the building. The enormous cypress-based tree that Trudy, Sedgewick and Villarobles were seated under also acted as a ‘host’ for various food plants that were grafted onto it. Small crab-like robotic drones crawled through the branches, keeping the food production as decorative as possible.

Sedgewick and Villarobles tried not to gape at the food in front of them. The bass and lobster weren’t a surprise, they knew that the larger ships grew krill and larger sea life as a measure to keep the algae from outgrowing its tanks. But the vegetables were fresh, and the fruit was in season. The dishes made Calloway and Adasanan’s best efforts seem barely edible.

Then they pulled their attention back to Trudy and Monsieur Montesquieu. While Sedgewick was ostensibly there representing the entire crew, and Villarobles was there representing the interests of the Ratings as opposed to the Officers, Trudy was the one doing all the dealing. Trudy had been arguing with Montesquieu for the better part of an hour, and while they never raised their voices, the intensity was blistering. Montesquieu argued that an interceptor was practically worthless, less than worthless, a liability! Trudy replied that the Structural Spine was Mil Spec and Earth-Orbit forged, the power plant was twenty-five percent larger for its scale than any hauler working and refitting it for cargo would be a snap. Montesquieu twisted the deal in every way imaginable: amount of payment, schedule, form of payment, fees, duties and the list went on and on. The combinations became kaleidoscopic, each change altering the entire structure of the deal. Finally, on some unheard cue, they came to an agreement and shook hands. The final arrangement was rather elaborate, involving large up front payments, further installments, investment options, and a large Mutual Fund for all the crew members that would allow them to pool their resources to for large investments.

Villarobles shook his head. He couldn’t see it, but he had the overwhelming impression that he was being had somehow.

Montesquieu printed out a hard copy of the final agreement and slid it over to Sedgewick. “Since there are so many parties to this, I must insist that every member of your crew signs. Pass copies of this around among the crew, and when they’re ready, they can sign. However, I warn you that too many revisions of this preliminary agreement will require a complete re-negotiation.”

Sedgewick jumped on this. “Ah! Now that you mention it, we will have to come to some kind of agreement as to how we are going to find berths or other accommodations for all our crew.”

“It shouldn’t be that hard,” Trudy breezed. “Most of them are ISG competent. It will probably take a few months for all of them to pass their boards, but that up front payment should handle their room and board in the meantime. Mind you, there are a few that I’d rather see shunted from Habitat to Habitat until they find their niche...” She rattled off a short list of names, along with ruthless critiques of their strengths and shortcomings. “Oh, and of course there’s the minor matter of the Zamp.”

“Have you identified him yet, Trudy?” Montesquieu inquired mildly.

“Of course.”

“What?” Sedgewick and Villarobles blurted out together. “Who is it?”

“Why, DeForrest, the second Computer Officer, of course.”

“How can you be sure of that?”

“Well, first, it was obvious from the level of surveillance that the Seven-Eleven was under that the Zamp had not only access to the ship’s computer system, but very high clearance and an excuse to be working with it at all hours. The Computer Officers come immediately to mind. Secondly, I arranged a trap for him with the Doctor. I had spotted the hidden security video pickup in the Infirmary, so I blocked it just as the Doctor and I were getting...uhm...close. Sure enough, five minutes later, Computer Officer DeForrest shows up with a bogus complaint, just in time to catch us en flagrante delicto.”

“But I don’t’ remember the Commander ever hearing about that,” Sedgewick protested.

“Of course. DeForrest never ratted anyone out that he’d directly witnessed straying from the straight and narrow. He wanted to stay as far under the radar as he possibly could.”

“Why didn’t you SAY anything?”

Schatzi, there’d already been one death on that ship. I didn’t want another death making an already tense situation unbearable.”

Sedgewick and Villarobles sat back and looked at each other. This was obviously part of Montesquieu’s price. “ah, Tell me, M. Montesquieu,” Sedgewick said blandly, “are there any airlocks on this habitat that I, should I be out taking a walk, should make a point of avoiding, because they have a reputation for malfunctioning?”

“Oh, one or two,” Montesquieu returned mildly. “Mostly in the more remote and lonely stretches of the automated loading docks. Why, you could fall out one of those airlocks or be stuck in a decompressing one, and, well, no one would know about it for DAYS! I can provide you with a map.”

Sedgewick and Villarobles took the contract and thanked Montesquieu for a pleasant spot of business. “Will you be coming back to the hostel with us, Trudy?”

“Well, I might drop by and see how you all are getting along. But not to worry, there’s a Care Givers hostel here on Baritaria, so I’ll have a place to stay. OH, and you are more than welcome to come and visit me there, as well.”

“Excuse me,” Villarobles barely managed to keep from gaping, “but did you say a Care Givers hostel?”

“Yes,” Montesquieu murmured suavely, “a very nice place with a transient population that usually number about, oh, between twenty and thirty unassigned Care Givers at any time.”

Villarobles and Sedgewick walked away, thoroughly croggled at the though of twenty or thirty Trudy Masaryks.

Montesquieu sat back down and looked at Trudy. “Not a bad bit of business, Cherie. Over forty trained technicians and Flight Officers. I really must remember to write a nice note to the UN, thanking them for assuming the expense of training our reinforcements.”

“Yes, well, I won’t be the first to remark on the irony of training men to be de facto Spacers, and then sending them into Deep Space to punish Spacers for the crime of being Spacers. So, I won’t.

“Oh yes! I just remembered! I didn’t want to say anything in front of Sedgewick and Villarobles - men upset so easily - but the ISP has lost another ship.”

“Oh? Which one?”

“The Pournelle.”

Montesquieu racked his brain for a moment. “The Interceptor Tender? What happened to it?”

“Well, I sabotaged their Duke-Brannick matrix.”

“But how? The Gravity flux capacitors are the most closely guarded part of a spaceship! How did you even get NEAR it?”

“Okay, but that’s gonna take some telling. Do you remember that Zamp, DeForrest? Well, when Maddox took a big bite of hard vacuum, he was genuinely upset, but not for the same reason as everyone else on the ship. You see, a ‘Loyalty Officer’s’ real duty isn’t to rat out other members of the crew, it’s to prevent things like Mutiny and the crew murdering the captain and such. So, DeForrest was sweating bullets. Even if he ratted out everyone on the ship, he was still twisting in the wind. BUT, there was one thing that he could bring home to the brass to save his hide.”

“Which was?”

Trudy gestured grandly around them. “This. Baritaria. If he could deliver a whole hidden - and highly illegal - habitat, then he had a good chance of walking away with a whole skin. So, he played along, and even smoothed things over with the Pournelle’s captain, Beldridge, so that we could ‘sneak’ all those high-end items out of Stores.”

“What does that have to do with how you got to the Duke-Brannick box?”

“Well, you see, DeForrest couldn’t just walk over to the Pournelle and talk to Beldridge, or call him up on the phone. I arranged it so that all the lines were being watched at all times. So, he had to sneak over the hard way. I forced a very narrow window of opportunity for him to do this, and I followed him in through a small hidden exterior hatch. One that just happened to be the Ultra-Secure Access Crawlway, which gave me a clear shot at both the Gravity Flux Capacitor box and the Long Distance Communications dish. I rigged the comm dish to blow as soon as they tried to put in a call to the ISP base at Shepard Point. And, as I said, I jimmied the Duke-Brannick box.”

Montesquieu sighed. “Pity that you couldn’t bring that one in, somehow. Besides weakening the entire Interceptor deployment plan, it would be very useful to have a ‘flying shipyard’.”

“Oh, that can be arranged.” Trudy smiled a cat that’s been at the cream smile.

“Oh? How?”

“Well, you see, DeForrest didn’t know where Baritaria was; I made damn sure of that. So, in order to find this place, he arranged with Captain Beldridge to follow a radio beacon that he promptly placed on an inconspicuous spot on one of the maneuvering vanes. As soon as he was out of sight, I relocated that beacon on a waste disposal bin. During my ‘evasive maneuvers’, I arranged to lose that waste disposal bin by shedding all the inertia from a Jarred Turn, throwing it into a very large dust cloud.

“So, when Captain Beldridge tries to call Shepard Point to get them to track the beacon, his dish blows out. He can’t just waste a week or so getting to Shepard Point, and lose track of that beacon, so he powers up the Pournelle and goes screaming after us. BUT, when I was monkeying with the Duke-Brannick box, I reversed the #27 rod. So, when the Pournelle hits 25Gs of acceleration-”

“The Nalley rod will snap under the strain, the internal Gravity Flux will collapse, the internal compensator will fail and everything inside the Pournelle will suddenly be hit with 25Gs of force,” Montesquieu finished for her.

“Going from 1G to 25Gs in a split second,” Trudy went on, “they’d be lucky if mold survives on that ship. Mind you, even if anyone does manage to survive, they won’t last long. The shock will ruin the Life Support and Hydro systems, and even if they manage to keep that running, without the algae, it’s all wasted effort anyway.”

Montesquieu smiled at Trudy over a cup of tea. “And you just happen to know the exact vector that the tracking beacon was shunted off on, and therefore the vector that the Pournelle would have been following when the internal capacitor failed, Ne?”

Trudy nodded with a sight smile.

“My, my.” Montesquieu sighed. “Another Corvette and now an Interceptor Tender. A few more Corvettes, and we’ll have a full compliment. Keep up the good work, Trudy.”

 

FINIS
Read 733 times Last modified on Monday, 18 July 2022 02:12

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Monica Rose
2 weeks ago
When I started this story, I was put in the mind of a Cary Grant movie where he was dealing with one comedic situation after another. It kind of took a left turn when Maddox got spaced, but it wasn't surprising.

I'm still not completely sure if Trudy was only an extraordinarily smart person or if she was actually an operative whose job was to subvert the men who had captured her. It was fun seeing Trudy taking control of the situation and they never realized that they were actually trapped on the ship with her instead of the other way around.

I hope that we see more of the Caregivers Intelligence Corps.
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