83 \ 171

Princess Soleil stepped forward off the platform, one hand held up for credential activation with a genteel smile.

Wendel Harper, the ship’s captain, instantly understood what she was looking at, from the possible credential encounters section of her training. Zero-Clearance means that no one has authorization to question this matter. There was a film named Zero-Clearance. She’d never seen it in person before, but nothing else looked like it. The instant display was sharp and high-definition. The captain clearly recognized the Princess, with a special-model ship. “Greetings, Princess Soleil. I understand that you are on undisclosable matters. My name is Wendel Harper, captain of this ship. May we be of assistance?” The Princess nodded, looking relieved. She put away her credential, standing at ease to face the captain.

Before anything evolved, Wendel divulged. “I have one other shipmate. Would you like to meet him up front? He’s temporarily keeping my seat.” Her arms gestured toward their causeway. She had no idea about proper forms of address, so she just cut the crap. Whatever needed to happen, she wanted Toller’s presence to be accounted for.

“Yes, okay,” was the young woman’s reply. Wendel led her to the cockpit, where the teenaged boy appeared patient and passive in the pilot’s chair. The whole happenstance felt more weighty than a quibble over having someone young minding the controls, so Wendel made no issue over presentation. “Toller, our passenger wants to meet you.”

“Hello, my name is Soleil.” She didn’t bother with title or credential, allowing a simple encounter.

To the boy she was strangely familiar, though he was unsure how. He replied with frank and open glibness. “Okay. I’m Toller. Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you,” she said with an easy nod.

The captain instructed him. “Hold the seat while I help her out, alright?”

“Sure.” As he assumed the responsibility, Soleil connected her previous maneuvering observation with the boy in the chair, novice pilot recognizing novice pilot. She inwardly approved more of this captain, having been a learning prodigy allowed exception to age restrictions. It made sense that they were on one of the longest and least populated thruways of the Pan-Galaxy. Wanting no inquiry, she too inquired as little as possible, following the captain back toward Moonshadow.

Wendel addressed her in the hold. “Your message read that you need fuels and charges?”

“Exactly,” said Soleil. Though they had not been parked in totally dire circumstance, she’d asked Moonshadow what it might need if they could get it. She was given some manageable requests, and decided that if it were possible to use authority loyalty or service in lieu of currency, she should obtain things at soonest opportunity. “I’d also like to fill my drinking reservoir,” she said as it additionally occurred to her; vapor collection had been reliable, but this was the time for wise considerations to surface. “I’ll show you the details on my display so you can see what you might be able to spare me. I appreciate your time and effort.”

As they walked toward the vehicle, Wendel zipped up any questions, just letting herself behold this never-before-seen tiny marvel. This alone might be one of the reasons the Princess was wearing Zero-Clearance. She wondered if there were any more of these out there. Was the Princess still reported missing? And, as she hadn’t used her title, did Toller even know who he’d just talked to?

Soleil brought Wendel to face the outer front display, showing a clear language-and-symbol list. “I can use any of these seven reagent powders, some deionized water, and perhaps drinking water.”

“I have both kinds of water to share. Will it help if I can supply a handful of each of these three?” Wendel touched the screen to indicate, and each item highlighted itself, the combination registering a positive sign in an upper corner.

“Yes. Is your mixer working?”

“It is, I’ll get them mixed up for you. I only have a standard spouted feeder bowl…”

Soleil nodded that this would be fine. “While you do that, can I use your air brush?”

“Sure. It’s a little big for that.” The smallest spacecraft anyone expected to service was at least twice the size of this funny sled.

“That’s okay,” replied the Princess. Harper went to detach the airbrushing unit from the hold’s inner wall, and rolled it over.

“Enjoy. There’s a com over there you can use if you need to call someone in the next ten minutes,” said the captain, pointing toward the corner by the entry bay.

The airbrushing unit was the size and weight of a large greatsword, nearly the length of Moonshadow itself with nozzles along one side. Soleil gained her balance with it, orienting toward the field curvature, and turned on the machine. Legs braced wide, she hosed the activated field with high-pressure streams. The field bubble sparkled under the airflow. Moonshadow played a little light around its platform, expressing enjoyment. Though it hadn’t made a sound, Soleil hissed, “shhhh.” She wasn’t sure how people would react to evidence of its consciousness. Moonshadow went back to being surreptitiously unresponsive.

Wendel returned, feeder bowl in hands, containing mixed fuel powders. She approached once Princess Soleil finished the last of the airbrushing. Soleil extended a finger-width retractable hose that initiated intake when brought close enough to the powders. Wendel pointed to the spout, which would fit the hose inside, and Soleil nodded. Placing the hose through the spout, Soleil let Wendel steadily shake the powders toward the intake, while she gestured that she would be checking around the rest of the vehicle.

After peering at a reading and looking under a flap, Soleil overcame a hesitation. “I don’t want to hold you up here any longer than I should. May I know where it is you’re going?”

“Sure, no issue. The planet we’re heading towards at the other end of the Brave Crossing is Primatris.”

Soleil attempted approximation. “That’s about a day from here?”

“A day and a half, in this ship.”

“It would serve me well to stay on board with you, if you feel comfortable continuing involvement for no assured reward. I could then also use a flushing canister, some Mist 5, and your power radiator for a while.”

Wendel took in a breath. “During your occupancy, would we be under aegis of your Zero-Clearance?”

If this credential were legitimate, the answer would be yes, so Soleil replied, “Yes.”

The captain nodded with consideration. “Can I bring Toller in here to give you our decision?”

“Certainly,” replied the Princess. “Can I have half a bucket of DI water to feed up while you deliberate and return?” Wendel agreed, and carried that over before exiting.

In the time it took for Moonshadow to drain the bucket, Captain Harper returned with young Toller. With a shy smirk and the same no-nonsense attitude as his captain, the boy asked, “Before I give my decision, can I look at that?” His eyes were pointed toward the curious vehicle in the corner.

From a closed smile, the Princess said, “Yes, but I’m not answering any questions about it.”

With an assumed scholar’s air led by glittering eyes, Toller approached with hands clasped behind him, bending his benign scrutiny towards Moonshadow. “Hmmmm… Hmm.” After twice around, he nodded soberly to Wendel.

“We’ll help you,” she said to Soleil.

 

82 \ 170

“Easy cruisin, constant movin.” Derringer coined this phrase a while ago for certain recurring job phases – times when he was supposed to come up with something out of thin air with no clue. Well, the air gets thinner when he leans into the wind. Inspiration was free to arrive, so long as he kept attention on his main motivation.

He chose the Brave Crossing to pass his time, one of the longest and least traveled interplanetary causeways. Few went that way anymore since gates became an option on that route, and it was no less risky than ever. Hence, the name. One has to really enjoy the wilderness to go that way. Derringer did occasionally enjoy a little time in the wild.

He knew this way well already. Getting lost wouldn’t be a distraction. He could meditate, and let things percolate. He had supplies. He knew how long it would take, and where he could stop and drift.

Speaking of drifts, he was passing one now on the opposite directional path. A Bluebird Mark 7! Those were so useful. This one came from the years they were built with maximum function and pride, rather than the subsequent popularity. Derringer slowed enough to grab a capture so he could admire it. Yup – personal battleship, industrial enough for deliveries. As he scooted around in an undesignated premium government vehicle, he allowed himself a moment of envy for the owner of that fine model, kept fairly classic.

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.