81 \ 169

“I’m lining up our next paid gigs,” said the short-haired blond woman in the co-pilot’s chair. She was scanning messages displayed on the infosheet statically attached to the wall next to her.

“Cool,” said Toller as he concentrated on being a successful student driver. Pilot. Driver-pilot. Wendel called it driving as often as she called it flying, something about being in the profession.

She laid it down bluntly. “Having you along means a different kind of picking and choosing – but it narrows things toward my preference, anyway. I still consider you an asset onboard.”

“I believe that I can be,” the boy said with equal bluntness. “If I’m not, you just boot me right away.”

“I would, and I hope you wouldn’t take it personally.” She smiled fondly. “But you’ve already turned things around for me once. After that it’s just about anything you need, friend – I’ll stick up for you. Your limits are my limits, which are honestly good for me.”

She propped up her feet on the corner of the controls and continued musing aloud. “No official contracts that don’t include personal appointment or come from close enough to allow clauses. We’ll only accept under-the-table work for a while. I’m fine with those clients and that shift in the balance now, after my stint as a big-scene chauffeur.” Wendel covered her face with both hands, something she would do in reference to that time. For a quiet moment of driving they both stared straight ahead.

The captain turned and flattened a wrinkle in the kerchief-weight infosheet against the wall. She tapped through and wrote some replies. The lad held his silence while she expounded. “Everything can take as long as it needs to. Partly because I want to keep teaching you, but also because I don’t want some of the patchwork on here fraying untimely.” Her eyes pointed around the ship. “No hurry jobs.”

As he kept even progress, Toller noticed her assess him sidelong. “So… there’s under-the-table, which you know about, and there’s hidden, which you shouldn’t. Hidden jobs often aren’t planned for. They’re bonus. I may not let you know they’re happening, though you may suspect. I may not even actually know, myself. One of the cautionaries of being an independent contractor. Hidden should stay hidden, more or less, if you know what I mean. We’re not in the business of judging.”

“I know I’m not.”

Wendel snapped a finger in front of her face to break her focus from the infosheet, and she relaxed back into the co-pilot’s chair. “We’ve got one probable, which is enough forward thinking for now.” She nodded to the boy. “We’re already on course. You’re doing very well! Oh hey, wait…” Toller kept his cool and kept his course, letting her explain. “There’s an assistance flag for this occupied sidespace. We’re about to pass it, but don’t alter too quickly. Just start removing top speed factors, and we’ll see if we can get a good look.”

As they passed, Wendel captured a direct view. “Weird, it looks like a life raft. We can come back around. I’ll let you do this – take a side lane, keep slowing down, and listen as I talk you through.” The student pilot did so.

“Add three planes and take an outer tangent. Then a reverse reverse-acceleration parabolic, RRAP, which spells Wrap, which is not done in reverse -“

“- I remember -“

“- And then we have to overshoot to use the correct traffic entry for the sidespace – remember, in space there are no roads, only rules – then minus a plane, take a minor tangent, then Wrap, and we’ll descend in. We call that a cloverleaf.”

Toller nodded as he assembled these directions in his mental picture. “I can technically do each of those things.”

“Now do them one after the other. I believe in you,” said the captain, shooting her protege an adventurously reassuring smile. She supplied reasoning for the detour: “I’ve got most of the tools, and I’ve practically stitched two halves of a ship together, so I stop for people in the drifts when I can.”

“Drift 9?” he asked, referring to the ship’s name.

“Drift 9. Do you remember how I showed you to turn this on?” Toller looked over to where she was moving the spherical toggles of the photon-particle co-disruptor, the PPCD, the C-D bands.

“Uh huh,” he murmured, eyeing her actions. Wendel used a fold-out keyboard to send a symbol flag, which she dictated for his benefit: “Offer of Assistance.”

“Did you really total your ship nine times like you said to your friend?”

“Not exactly, but in manners of speaking.” She viewed another capture as they passed close visibility again in the opposite direction. “That is a weird thing to see in vacuum space. Someone’s just standing on it, looking comfy. Seems like they could use some help, though.”

A reply returned to them. “Assistance Offer Accepted. Wanted: Fuels, Charges.” Toller started executing his second Wrap. On the co-pilot monitor, Wendel scrutinized what she could see of the strange little ship. “I’m not sure what types of fuels that uses, but I’ve got some kinds. My charge modulator is a good one, anyhow.

“Stop in that zone ahead.” She pointed toward the indicator on his display. “I’ll take over from the descent. I’m not going to quiz you, but I want you to pay attention. I’ll tell you things as I do them.”

In the captain’s chair, she settled into her straps and rapidly readjusted her settings. She also received standard ship spec dimension readings and fed them to her specs. “Would you use that keyboard control to select spaces A5, E7, and B1 on that grid?” He deftly manipulated the PPCD. Stating the message, she recited, “Hold space adequate. Encapsulate? Confirm.” Drift 9 lowered gently into the wide field by the other vessel.

The simple reply bounced back: “Confirmed: Encapsulate,” Wendel read aloud.

Soleil watched the ship’s large door approach and open, like the maw of a fish to a floating tidbit. The craft was in good repair, with emphasis on repair. She could have been more nervous about the encounter, but she wasn’t. The boon felt effective as she used it, as surely as her hand could move. She engaged it with certain details: appearing as self, well-kept; wearing Zero-Clearance no-questions flash-display credentials, the signs of official covert business; with personal cam-jam. It would work because she could tell it was working.

As Moonshadow was about to be swallowed, she looked around to no sign of Garlic. “Garlic?” she called aloud. No Garlic. With that, they were inside the vessel. The door closed, and they settled into gravity.

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