"Therny, you awake up there?"
That was Gwiver, his supposed assistant, and emergency back-up, just like in the rule book, with the exception that "assistant" and "emergency back-up" were supposed to be two separate bodies. Any wise, it was a silly question, even given Gwiver's standards, since he'd seen Therny Chirs squeeze his long and lanky self into the pallet lift maintenance bay a ship's hour ago, and it wasn't like there were two ways out.
An hour he'd been working on the double-dorfle-damned thing, not in the cargo master's job description, not by a long Jump, it wasn't. Ought to have a real mechanic at the job. Mechanic? Engineer! He slanted a look at the several pieces of metal that weren't suppose to come loose from the main housing. Horrifying as that discovery had been, it wasn't really surprising. Not having a proper mechanic on-board—just one more way that the line cut corners, and saved itself, so the story went, a goodly amount of money.
Therny Chirs shook his head, only half at himself and his jerry-rigged repair, then he punched the button that, in theory, cycled the lift door to full-open.
This time, for eighteen wonders, the door did open. To a point.
Chirs's helmeted head was pressing against the putative ceiling of the bin and his eyes a hands-width above deck level. He could, this time, actually see out, onto the dock, the slight breeze going past his ears letting him know that the ship’s proper over-pressure was at least functioning.
He watched as several pairs of legs passed close, pushing a cart, probably cutting corners across what was marked out as their private work area. Out on the dock’s main way, half a dozen pilots, arms and mouths in motion as was usually the case with pilots in a group, strode by with a will. Probably coming from the bar, or maybe from the regional cruise ship that taking up four gates at once and making the working ships crowd hard into the rest of Codrescu Station's ramps.
In the wake of the pilots came a smaller figure, small enough that Chirs's small window on the dock drew its attention. He thought it was a child, even as it bent closer and he saw its eyes—as knowing as any of the pilots’, those eyes, and looking at him with interest. It came closer, the shadows shifting over the oddly-shaped face—
He felt shock then, the eyes having fooled him, for his auditor was not a child, after all, but a . . . creature, with a fur-covered face, and—
"Hevelin!" shouted a voice.
The . . . creature turned, there was the sound of running steps, a pair of legs rapidly coming into Chirs's view, and a large pair of hands scooping the creature up, and away.
"Shoulda taken you right back to the garden!" The voice said, the tone somewhere between scolding and laughter. "Don't you gimme that sad—"
A loud BEEP BEEP BEEP drowned out the voice. The half-open hatch rumbled, the readout on his belt chimed, all telling the same story. Safety auto-close had kicked in.
The view went away, the breeze stopped. Therny Chirs did not swear.
"Therny, are you up there?" That was Gwiver, again. "Did I hear something working?"
He took a careful breath.
"Yeah, it was working. It’s not working right now, though. I’m . . ."
"Chirs, we got to make up some time here, you know. Get it moving!"
That was not Gwiver. That was the captain himself, the line's representative, and therefore the author of this particular set of problems.
Fringe Ranger should have had a major refit done five Standards ago. When Therny Chirs came aboard as cargo master, three Standard Years back, he'd been promised that the ship was in line for refit in two Standards. They'd promised other things, too, like apprentices for Cargo Master Chirs to train, who would then be promoted to cargo masters of their own ships, while more 'prentices came to the Ranger to learn. That had been the hook for Therny Chirs: Teaching. Students . . .
All dust and ice. Instead of doing anything they'd promised, or even following their own damn rule book, they kept saving the wrong credits and insisting that you got profit out of cutting corners, instead of good maintenance, full crews, training up the next generation, and delivering goods on time . . .
"Chirs, we’re almost on schedule. You're supposed to start unloading in three hours. You’ve got another half-hour to—"
He took a deep, deep breath, and let it, carefully, out.
"Captain Jad, this one can’t be hurried," he said, just stating facts. "It ought to be fixed if you expect to be carrying break freight handled through a cargo tube. Fixed, Captain, or maybe replaced entire."
"Replaced, at Codrescu Station's prices?" the captain said, outraged. "Just get it working!"
And that was the break point on the pullion screw, so there was no use crying about it or pushing past it. Down . . .
He took a particular breath, counted himself lucky he knew that relaxation technique, and moved things so down was possible.
It was shimmy, and bend, and back, and back, and watch the head, and pull the tub of tools around with him and down, and not drop them on the captain’s deserving head.
"My suggestion, Captain, is that you show an engineer what I’ve got here. I’m two hours past regulation shift end and that puts me in the redzone for safety—my light’s been flashing like a pulsar for the last hour! Just you—and an engineer—look at this!"
The final four feet wasn’t that bad, except that Captain Jad had no sense of self-preservation and had almost managed to get his shoulder shlagged by the tool tub anyway. Chirs was the skinniest man on the ship, but not weak, and that was a bonus for sure for the captain whose hat still had a place to sit.
Chirs pulled the work helmet off once the tub was settled safe, meaning the sweat was free to run down his neck now.
He pushed the dupe button, watched the amber lights flash three times, and pulled the duplicate chip out of the helmet control bar and tried to hand it to the captain, but ended up giving it to Gwiver since the captain was sucking on his trucafe like he did when he got nervous. Damnnnity well ought to be nervous!
"Take a look. And here, I brought ’em out because there was no way I was going to be able to put them back on."
Gwiver took them, too, after managing to hand off the recording to the captain.
"There’s metal missing, sir. There’s grooves in thing that oughtn’t be touching anything, sir. There’s a spot of something that’s flaking and several things that are bent. I’ve been measuring and checking and . . . I’m done with this until it gets fixed, sir."
Probably he’d been overdoing the sir, Chirs realized, but if worse came to worser and the captain put him on warning he had a lot of stuff to go against a complaint. In fact, for backup, he slipped a chip he owned into the slot, duped it while the captain watched him, and shoved that down into his personal work-wallet.
"The cargo master reports and certifies to the best of his abilities that the inner lift assembly is out of true and that he will not utilize it for any purpose until it is repaired by a technician fully pedigreed to fix and certify it right."
"We’ve got to move that . . ."
Chirs pulled a ’sorb sheet out of his pocket, and wiped his forehead. He nodded, rubbed his hair down past his ear, and threw a pilot’s “I can do it if we have to” hand-sign at the mechanism, at the captain, at Gwiver . . .
"When I come back on duty we can do an eval. That’s ten hours, regulation, before I can come back on duty. There’s a way to do it—open hold—with a rent-boat. It’ll take losing some air, and you’ll have to cut grav, but the ship will let me peel it out of there pretty quick as long as you get the pod-packs tethered and secured ahead of time. Gwiver can do that while I take my break."
"Open hold. That’s pilot work, Chirs."
"Yessir, and that’s why the line hired me, wasn’t it? I got a secure Pilot Third and you don’t have to void any of the contracts by having outside haulers involved. I’m good for it. That lift’s not good, and that’s a fact."
"I hear your suggestion, Chirs. I’ll take it under advisement if we can’t get the lift going while you’re on break. I’ll note the cargo master’s scheduling issues for later discussion."
The glare was so cold it was hot, but Chirs strode away, wondering if he could recall where his Third Class certificates were.
He lost a little bit of heat on his way across to the station, official IDs and records to hand, found right where he’d thought they should be. Doubts about things—Fringe Ranger was making him doubt what he was doing more each docking.
He was a very good cargo master all the time and just about a decent warehouse-grade in-system pilot, on an average day. He knew it and the pilot’s guild knew it . . . and his certificates were perhaps, maybe, just a little, on the wrong side of the re-up date. With luck, he could point to the routes they’d been on and sweet talk the rules and get this port done.
It would be a long walk from here to Skaller Three if he couldn’t.
The Pilot’s Guild office was bigger than he’d expected, given the overall size of the station. It was crowded, and it was also noisy. His plea went to the first person who recognized what he was saying. Not that his Trade-talk wasn’t good, but an on-going lament from someone claiming a stolen first class license and jacket had a couple of people’s attention, and there was some other ruckus to be heard through an open door to another room, some of it the lilting sound of Liadens speaking at speed. Doubtful ID seemed to be the gist of the situation, and he guessed he wasn’t supposed to know about it.
"Pilot, you have a date issue here . . ."
He’d caught the attention of a uniformed woman hurrying past the desk, who’d listened to him, looked at his info, and looked at him, suspiciously. Her name tag read “Sterna” and her rating was . . . First Class Provisional. A Jump pilot.
"I’m on Fringe Ranger." He jerked his head in the general direction of the docks, "and they don’t give me much time to . . ."
She looked up; her mouth was borderline grim.
"So why haven’t you taken this to Second?" she asked. "You’ve had ten years."
He grimaced, tucked his annoyance away where it wouldn’t show—it was a good question, after all. Not really her business but . . . there, straight was the best answer.
"No time for hobbies, Pilot. Started in with cargo twenty Standards ago—just exactly what I wanted to do. The third class, that was an afterthought; it'd be useful to me, in my work. Hard to carve out the time, truth said, but I did get it, and I was right—real useful to have."
She blinked, then, grudgingly, smiled.
"There's a reminder for me. Not everybody wants to be a master pilot!"
She waved at the noise around them.
"Here's our problem. You showed up here in the Guild Office in person. If you'd filed from your ship, I could've given you a flight-length extension, so you could get your cargo settled. Since you came in, that means a re-test to fresh up the ticket."
She frowned, her nose wrinkling slightly.
"You’re not looking for up-grade?"
He shook his head, and she nodded.
"You'd never know it, with all this drama going on, but we've got the resources available right now to do your physical, and the sim. Take a few hours. Then we’ll see what the boss wants to do about a ship-test. How’s that?"
It was fair, Chirs thought. More than fair, from her point of view. Unfortunately, he doubted Captain Jad would waste a day, waiting for his cargo master to freshen up his pilot's license.
"I was hoping to be able to rent a local to do some transfer that’s come up . . ." he said, omitting the potentially troublesome news that the ship at the dock couldn’t open the main internal hold.
Sterna sighed a real sigh then.
"Oh, dreamer, dreamer, dreamer. Codrescu Guild Hall is hosting the annual members meeting. You'll have noticed we're a little pilot-heavy, and they're all here on business. I doubt you could hire much more than a hand cart and a part-time handler right now."
Chirs sighed, and turned his hands palm up.
"Right," Sterna said. "Sometimes the route flies you.
"Let’s see what we can do about your first problem, then we'll know what we can do about the second. Can’t always cut corners, pilot."
He’d done well enough on the sim tests to see that he could pass a live-board test—and to see that he was rusty and ought to get more ship time. But there, the line’s officers had been promising ship time, too . . .
Chirs shook his head. Past was past. Right now, he needed to focus on the fact that, despite all the unruliness caused by pilots with too much off-board business to do, Sterna had managed to put together a live-board test for him.
"We've got a local switch-tug that can use some side-work, but isn’t certified for the higher class ships. We’ll give you a testing key and the captain will let you get your two hours in—enough for you to pick up another couple years of cert. You in?"
"I'm in," he said.
The switch-tug was called Beeslady, under the command of owner and Third Class Pilot Giodana Govans. She'd clearly been purpose-built to handle one project—now long done—then sold off to the scrap-yard, where it was duly bought and unscrapped by someone with more guts than gudgeons.
She was a serviceable ship, solid to Chirs's eye, but rough. There’d been no need to blast clean the welds and joins, so they hadn’t been; the work was thorough though, and the nameplate was neatly done in Terran and transliterated into both Trade and Liaden. The call letters were clear, the lights bright and accurately timed. A surprising array of antennas spider-webbed the hull.
Inside, the control deck was the tiny ship’s whole; two seats in front of the surprising dual control panel—one standard and one indecipherably custom— a berth to the left of the controls with a combination head and shower beside it, a galley of sorts to the right. He’d seen cabins with more room than this, and Captain Govans apparently lived aboard! That sense of a homeplace was reinforced with the scent of—must be coffeetoot, baked breads, and spiced yeast quite at odds with the transparent overhead canopy and front ports showing cold stars as gleaming as the ceramics of the station’s outer panels.
"We gets you some credit here, Mister Pilot. Beeslady done this kind of work for a bunch of folks, been thirny years and some."
The pilot—captain that would be—was small, skinnier than him, and barefoot when he was introduced at the freight gate. Her hair was short and colorless and her uniform the soft sheen of old cloth, long used. For all that she was Terran her diction was her own . . .
"Cargo master, good job that to be, and knowin’ what a pilot knows, that’s bonus for all an eny, I betcha, ain’t it?"
He’d agreed and she pointed him to the seat—
"In luck, that’s you are. ’at seat got less than ten hours in it, ought’n be fine and dandy—saved for two years for it! Sit, make it fit, and then we get you to stand up and start the test with a sit down. I don’t go easy on no one—this place out here’s nowhere to be easy ’boutn. We’re quick and tidy; I got all standard latchlocks and we’ll have you test a couple, like you’re ’sposed to. Don’ worry—if you’re up to it, you’re fine."
He sat, found the seat a high end fit and wondered if was one of those thing that were said to have dropped out of a hold . . .
"Mr. Chirs, here we go. Sit and do."
He’d seen the outside of the ship and the first fifteen minutes were taken up with checking gauges and comm lines, being sure of clearances, and he’d done that all in sim not two hours before so he was fresh. The pilot sat at her board and he saw that she wore it more than sat at it; there were pedals and switches in odd places and once away from the station’s light artificial gravity she clearly fit it perfectly. His own seat was comfortable, and the two screens good.
"First mission is to take us out to Yard Three; it’s netted so you gotta look sharp. Mind the cross-traffic; keep a special close eye on Flingwagon down there on the cruise docks."
Flingwagon was tied tight and going nowhere; the cross traffic consisted of a couple space suited figures attached to an antenna rig in and a two-person jitney. The netting, now, that was a new one to him, but the little ship’s manual controls were relaxing to operate after the broken lift work on his own ship, and he entered the area with no problems, the markers obvious and with plenty of clearance.
Captain Govans had him rotate the ship, pull it to a dock, leave the dock and rotate it again, lock to centered mass of metal stanchions, every bit of it copied to his test-key.
"Now take us out twice as fast, and go high on the station so the rotation’s under you, spinward."
Not as easy as it sounded; the net looked more like a tunnel at this speed, and he had to spin the ship and . . .
"That’s the slow way, but it’ll do. We’re looking for doin’ at all 'stead of best 'fficient, 'specially in the nets. Gotta know Beeslady got no big meteor shield, so we won’t bounce if you hit 'em."
He mentally allowed that she was right—all he wanted was the certificate. He listened in to the port chatter, some of it aimed good-naturedly at Beeslady.
"Hey 'Lady, you running in your sleep?" And . . . "Hain’t the way you showed it to me, slowship . . . "Gonna take you a long time to Jump Point that way, ain’t it?"
"Beeslady going to Codrescu azimuth, Pilot Third Class Chirs is PIC."
He’d switched that to a broader band than he ought maybe, but no one said anything and they all knew what he was doing.
After a few seconds, the chatter started again.
"You take care o’that ship, PIC Chirs—she still owes me a tow and a tug," and "That’ll do it, put some guy half her age in there and it’ll slow the whole yard down . . ." and "Don’t need amateurs in my space, Govans!"
The captain was quick over more chatter: "Don’ mind dem; most don mean nothin’ and some think dey’re better ’n dey are, as you kin hear. So’s everhead else hearnin’ too!"
"Twenny clicks above station, then you gonna come down back along to the main arms and follow in over Flingwagon at ’spection speed and level, be so kind, headin’ hub to out."
"That’s pretty close, I’ll need to . . ."
"You told ’em you’re PIC, and so less’n I pop the switch das da plan I know. You do what you need, I do what I need."
And so what he did was rotate the craft when he’d hit the theoretical spot above the station. Next was to contact station Ops with the plan he’d been given, and with that go-ahead "You have any problem, you defer, PIC—Beeslady’s good close in but we don’t know you. Proceed."
"Fumfingers! Dint have no need to tell you dat—we doin' fine."
Govans muttered and he realized she wasn’t duplicating his screens now, instead, she was watching where he was supposed to go and . . .
"Flingwagon, PIC Chirs here on Beeslady, I’m on a recert test and need to do a flyby. Kindly keep your RF and shield low and I’ll do the same . . ."
He glanced away from his screen, saw Govans nodding in the near dark of her seat, "Thas good boy, thas how . . ."
"No permission here, Beeslady! Stay away. This is a passenger ship! You’ve got to stay fifteen seconds away and . . ."
"Docked!" Chirs knew those regs and once docked the distance regs were the same as for the station—maintain way as posted . . .
"Hold steady, boy! Steady steady steady steady steady on that course . . ."
Steady was easy enough—the craft was tiny and nimble to manual controls, with the cruise ship glowing in dock light in the artificial below. This side of the ship was a nearly blank wall of hatches, antennas, and working rigs that the passengers would never see.
"Das stupid! Shootin’ plastic whipline in a place this crowded."
Whipline was high tension restraint, printed with a bias that let it curl into a neat bundle when released but capable of being made into polarized nets and containment units. It was often used as a guideline to snake goods or tools across short gaps but had to be watched since it was invisible to most radar. Because of that bias to curl it could foul equipment and because of the high tension and near invisibility, it could slice a non-hardened spacesuit to pieces.
Nothing showed on his screen, but on the captain’s screen there were four bright lines . . .
"Gonna go where we was goin’, just twenny-fi meters ta port. 'Lady’ll go where you point her, so point her good. I got good visual on this, and we’re recording, ’cause of the test here, and so . . ."
Chirs muttered under his breath and Govans laughed out loud.
"We alweys is right dere, duckin the big shots. Too bad we ain’t got a really big boat in here right now—hardly get enny, so I guess he’s figuring he’s the big mass in da’ orbit. Listen at ’em plainin’ left and . . . sumbith! Half speed and ten meters off tha’ deck, now!"
The ether was full of complaints from Flingwagon, with the bridge, security, and hospitality all chiming in, but Chirs ignored the complaints in favor of live orders and his own screen. Govans’ screen now . . .
He dared not look at it again, one glance showing bright tangles and tiny bunched pods almost as bright; and there, space-suited figures with no beacons.
Chirs eased the throttle even more, felt the response in his guts as the little craft responded neatly. Even his sensors were showing minute reflections this close—it was like they were flying beneath a flock of ghostly birds.
Govans did something and he had an overlay on his screen of whatever she saw.
Indeed, hazard. A jumpship would never have made it, but the warning was sufficient for him to slow to walking pace and weave through a knot of strings and wires moving slowly away from the docks. The ship twanged once, twice, three times but he steadied the heading automatically. The hazard had vanished again from his screen, but there, some bits of wire flapped at the front screens and flipped across the canopy. Then they were past Flingwagon, the rest of the arm brightly lit by open ship bays.
"Beeslady," he said into the mic, "hazard nearport, hazard nearport. We’ve been struck by debris and are returning to dock for inspection."
"Sorry, Captain, I didn’t mean to . . ."
"Hush dat, boy. Smugglers not usual on dis test. Take us in an' I’ll sign for you, sure."
Chirs sat close to dozing in an inner office, momentarily forgotten in the rush of the guild office gone on alert. There were two screens here, no doubt sharing external feeds with the station, and every third view on one showed a twin of his initial sighting of Flingwagon, except now there were traveling lights and numerous small craft about—whatever the station could raise to study the issue and clear the whipline.
The other screen was quieter, showing Borjoan’s Repair and Salvage’s scaffold rig nearly enclosing Beeslady and beyond, accidentally in view, Fringe Ranger, no activity at all but the normal dock lights.
An intern brought him a meal and lots of real coffee, and Guildmaster Peltzer himself stopped by to shake his hand, promising to quickly sort everything out, and not keep him overlong . . .
The doze had deepened into sleep. He knew this because he was dreaming about the creature with the wise eyes that he'd seen on Ranger's dock, only that morning . . .
Here and now, in the dream, the creature was helping itself to the local vita-greens Chirs’d left untouched, all the while studying Chirs as if he’d been talking in his sleep. There seemed to be a matter of credentials to solve. He tried to explain that he had gotten that straightened around, but he was distracted by a flurry of pictures.
Pictures of faces.
Captain Govans he knew, and Sterna, and Guildmaster Peltzer, and the intern—Jon had been the name on his badge.
A man with a lean pirate's face and black eyes like ice picks was a stranger, as was the sandy-haired woman beside him. A woman with slanted blue eyes, and green hair; a child's liberally freckled face; a grey-haired man with an augmented eye; a—
Why was he dreaming the faces of strangers? Chirs wondered, and in the wondering woke up. Standing on the chair next to him, murbling over the greens with clear satisfaction was the creature from the docks.
He sat up fast as the door to his little private space opened.
"Oh, I’m sorry!" Sterna said. "Is Hevelin bothering you? Besides eating your dinner, I mean." She bent forward to address the creature.
"You have perfectly good fresh greens in your own garden!" she said sternly. "You don't have to steal from Pilot Chirs!"
There was a protest that Chirs felt more than heard, regarding both the greens and an exciting new friend.
"I don't eat much grass, myself," he told Sterna. "If he likes it, he can have it." He frowned. "Seems he just said it was good."
She laughed, lightly.
"Did he show you faces?"
"I thought that was a dream."
"It might have seemed like that," she allowed. "Especially if you're not used to talking with a norbear."
"Don't think I've ever . . . encountered a norbear, previously."
"Well, you have now. It's a pretty small club. I've only met two. Hevelin . . . travels with Guildmaster Peltzer, and helps him with guild business. They've been together for ten or twenty Standards, since back when the guildmaster rode circuit."
She sighed and shook her head.
"I wish I could figure out how he opens the doors. On the other hand, Hevelin more or less gets what he wants."
Chirs had the feeling that Captain Govans's face had come back to view, then faded into another, similar face, accompanying a sense of sadness.
"Yes, he was on Beeslady," said Sterna. "But he’s new here, Hevelin. This isn't his regular route. He wouldn’t have met Marg Addy—she lived here her whole life!"
The sense of sadness pervaded the room, radiating from the nearly expression-free face of the norbear.
"Yes, it is sad. I really don't think Pilot Chirs has met many of your friends. Now, I need his attention; maybe you can talk to him later."
Petulance? That was the feeling Chirs had as the norbear reached over, patted him on the knee, and jumped down, taking care to gather up the greens in their packing and carry them away with him, through the open door.
Chirs reached for the coffee mug and found enough to chug before it slurped empty. The room certainly felt as empty as the cup, now that the norbear was gone.
"So, pilot, I personally ran your route in sim, and talked to Captain Govans. Here’s your new docs, and a five year all ports certification, with a ten-year rider—so if you come through again we’ll recert up to that limit as long as your medical’s good."
He received his credentials gingerly, as if there might have been an error.
"Me aborting to the dock, that didn’t get me in trouble?"
She shook her head, Terran-style.
"Not here it didn’t. You ran most of the route and played the anomaly perfectly. No issue there at all."
His relief echoed through the room. Not only did he sigh, he felt as if the relief was palpable, affecting the pilot as much as him. He watched her face, feeling there was something more she was going to say about how glad she was.
Instead she turned toward the still-open door and snapped her fingers.
"Hevelin, if you’re going to listen at doors I’m going to put you in the garden alone for a week!"
The doorway seemed abruptly full of blustering norbear, but the thing was only pocket high. How could it—he—
Sterna laughed. The norbear sidled a half step into the room, shrinking his bluster, and radiating self-satisfaction.
"How’s he doing—whatever it is he's doing? I feel like—"
She smiled down at him.
"He’s an empath—all norbears are empaths. He can feel your emotions, and manipulate them, a little. He also collects—connections between people."
He found himself smiling up at her.
"The catalog of faces."
Chirs looked to the norbear.
"He can manipulate emotions, you said. Does he always get his way?"
"No, he doesn’t. But that’s the problem. Some planets have banned them outright, some even send out hunters. Afraid they’ll take over. A little too much getting their way and they’re seen as dangerous."
She paused. He—wanted to stay in the chair and talk with her more, but—well, she had work to do, with all those pilots on-station, and the meeting. And he—needed to get back to his ship.
He put his hands on the arms of the chair, sent a last glance at the screens—and froze.
Beeslady had moved. She was clearly between the pod mounts now, engaging the pressure panels on Fringe Ranger’s hull. Exactly the idea that had gotten him into this long day that ended with empaths, good company, and a fresh ticket . . .
"What's going on?" he asked Sterna.
"Beeslady is moving those loads that were stuck—turns out there’s no one on station certified to work on those lifts. Captain Jad was raising a stink, I’m afraid, and says he can’t wait three weeks to get out of here."
"Three weeks?" he did quick math, though, and saw the chance of Jad paying for a technician at express rates was slim to none.
"Actually, I think that’s twenty-four days, going by Eylot’s week. We’re going to have an inquest, you see, and it’ll take at least that long for everything to be put together. So Jad’s worked out a deal to get his cargo off."
A chill went down his back about the same time the norbear pulled on Chirs knee and managed to climb onto his lap.
"I really ought to be out there. I’m cargo master! I’ll . . ."
Hevelin was a nearly immovable weight on his lap now. Sterna sighed.
"I’m afraid not, pilot. That inquest, that’s about smuggling, you see. You’re the principle witness. You’ll have to stay."
The inquest had been a joke, with no one being held entirely responsible: clearly that much effort would have taken more than one person, clearly the purser had not rigged all of those whipline ejectors nor connected those multi-kilos of super grade vya, nor fronted an operation of a scale that must have had multiple ships waiting, hidden in the confusion of ships at dock for the members' meeting.
A fine was imposed, and paid off. In due time, Flingwagon departed the station; the probable couriers for the vya no doubt slipping away, still covered by the crowd.
The hospitality of the pilots had not been a joke. They’d let him bunk in a unused pilot’s ready room, feeding him, and treating him as well as they did the First Class and Master pilots, for all of his lowly third class status. Several of the advanced pilots expressed appreciation for his run, the sim being available on station, and almost everyone sympathized with the slow grind of officialdom.
He’d managed, after several days, to relax. Yes, in effect he had quit Fringe Ranger when he’d walked out, if that's how the captain wanted it. Yes, he’d been paid full rate for the voyage, anyway, more than one new friend pointed out—the ship hadn't been safe. He's was better off away from it.
He had in his pocket a pilots guild chit good for one trip somewhere, practically anywhere, he wanted to go.
Probably that chit would stay in his pocket; it had no end date, after all.
Today, though, he would be gathering his effects and heading down to Eylot for the in-person interview of a job application he’d made. Angligdin Academy was expanding, and they’d wanted an experienced Cargo Master to teach a few courses. Apparently the fact that he spoke formal and colloquial planetary Terran was good, even if he wasn’t exactly from this region.
He heard a low voice, not amplified by Hevelin’s assistance. Hevelin had finally agreed to stay in the garden of a night.
"Therny, are you awake?"
He was still deciding the answer to that when Pilot Sterna asked again, this time with a nip of his ear included. Well, she was off today, too, for a year-long run. She was provisional First Class, flying for the leather jacket and all the glory of a Jump pilot.
And he? He was going to teach, after all.
He turned over, slowly, and she sighed.
"The pilot wakes," she acknowledged. "Let us perform a preflight check. No cutting corners."
Copyright © 2017 Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
Sharon Lee and Steve Miller are the creators of the best-selling Liaden Universe® series of science fiction novels. Their latest entry is The Gathering Edge, out in May. Sharon and Steve maintain an active and entertaining presence on the web at Korval.com.