"Fuck it, I'm off duty," Jeri said as the holoscreen filling one wall lit up. Her locker was third in the row, and clattered on its hinges when she slammed it open.
"The Charmer has to be repaired," her supervisor, Tim, told her. His pinched, frowning face filled the screen as she unzipped her blue coveralls. "You're authorized for overtime on this, it's got highest priority in the docks."
"What part of 'fuck it' did you not get, Tim?" She pulled her arms from the sleeves. Her tank tee radiated sweat and the morning's coffee stains. "Ken can handle it. He'll have to cut off the whole fucking pod and bioweld a new one on. It ain't gonna match the paint job, but that's all there is to it. Vice prezzy will just have to tell the visitors what a shitty hotrodder his son is."
"Ken hasn't come in yet," Tim said.
Jeri hesitated, frowning suspiciously. Hovering in front of her locker, since the yacht docking bay lacked gravity, she took the deodorant stick from inside and swabbed her pits. It helped, but she hadn't had the credit for a shower this week. "He will be," she said, even though he was already fifteen minutes late. Ken was a reliable nose-to-the-grindstone sort, like her, tough for a softie who'd never left Alexandria station. The two of them took good care of the station's corporate yachts and shuttles, Jeri on the night shift, Ken on the graveyard.
"Jeri." Her p-dac-Eliot, in the person of a moon-eyed robot-spoke up timidly. "I've got a call. It's Ken."
"Shit," she muttered, shoulders wilting. Turning away from her locker on one hand, she said, "Run it."
Ken's broad, brown face appeared in a subset window next to Tim's on the screen wall. He backed away from the camera, and she knew just by the knit of his brows that he was calling off for the night. "Jeri? I can't come in," he began, sure enough. "I really can't. Penny's sick, and I don't want to leave her alone."
"Penny's sick?" she echoed.
"She really is, I swear. Here, look." Ken indicated the sofa, where his daughter was bundled up in a fuzzy blanket covered with pink bunnies, her button-cute face slack in snot-laden misery.
Jeri had the nurturing instincts of a rock, but despite herself cooed, "Oh, poor Penny. I hope she feels better."
Penny made an indistinct noise and started coughing. "We're going to have soup and watch the Pussycat show," Ken told her, appearing in the picture again. His lover was off-station on business, she knew, so he had no choice. "I'm sorry, Jeri, I really am. I'll pull a double whenever you want, to make up for it. Deal?"
Defeated, she agreed. "All right, all right. Next week."
"You're the best, Jeri, thanks!"
"Yeah, yeah." Her voice fell to a mutter as she pulled the coverall's sleeves back on. "Never fucking mind Faye's birthday party. Never fucking mind the beer and the stripper I chipped in for. Eliot, go get that spare engine. Meet you at the Charmer."
"Okay," her p-dac agreed blithely, and jetted out the door on buzzing turbofans.
"Shut up," Jeri told Tim before he could start.
Sounding as annoyed as a desk-jockey supervisor could, Tim said, "This complaining isn't you, Jeri. You never complain about overtime."
"Tonight's Faye's birthday party," she grumbled, knowing Tim wouldn't care about a girls' night out. Zipping the coveralls up, she eyed the mirror in the back of her locker briefly and pulled her cap off, gathered her short, black hair up in a fresh twist and settled the cap over it.
As she did, her supervisor said, "You'll be getting double pay for this shift. And the rest of the roster is just scheduled maintenance."
Light work. "Yeah, yeah," Jeri said, using the effort of slamming the locker door shut to propel her toward the doorway. "Send the fucking check to my credit line." There was no escaping the credit department in Alexandria Station.
Gripping the doorframe, she halted herself there. From the central docking stalk jutted Alexandria's dozen or so corporate yachts and shuttles, like oversized Christmas ornaments. The dockyard was contained by a cylinder and atmosphered but didn't rotate; the rest of Alexandria spun around the central stalk, but the not hangar at the ass end. It made docking and working on the yachts simpler. The elegant, pigeonblood-red Ferrari, the Charmer, with the blown engine hung on the stalk below the locker room door. Beside it, a set of docking clamps that usually stood empty held a newcomer. "Who's that in number ten?" she asked Tim.
"Came in a few hours ago." She'd been deep into the dismantling of the Ferrari's ruined engine, but remembered the sirens going off before the dock depressurized and the bay doors opened. She'd put on the oxygen hood attached to Eliot and worked right through it without looking up. "Lost power, he said, just needed a spot to put up and work on it. Public hangar was full."
The ship was a classic flying wing design, forty feet wide, twenty long, eight thick, an engine at either end, two stacked in the middle, and looked like a dingy bucket of bolts next to the pampered yachts, even the ruined, plasma-scarred Ferrari. Instead of a glittering finish, the newcomer was paneled with black heat dissapation armor and that was streaked with greys that spoke of several trips in and out of planetary atmospheres. "Or," Jeri considered, under her breath, "a few hits from a laser cannon."
"What's that?" Tim asked.
Asshole softie. Louder, "What's her registration?"
"The Cassiopeia, out of Ceres," he said, with a snort of contempt.
Ceres was in the asteroid belt, the most legitimate of the free ports. She'd grown up a week's crawl into the backwater from Ceres, in Rustworks, which was not something to tell your boss if you wanted to keep your good job. Station livers all knew that free port booters were pirates, inbreeders and anarchists. Curiosity tweaked, Jeri crouched down on the sill and leapt off toward the Charmer, eyeing the newcomer as she went. The registration number painted along the leading edge of the right side was consistent with a Ceres ship, she knew. Her name ran in a scrawl, though, as if hand-sprayed on, and half obscured by a streak of grey corrosion.
Eliot waited at the Charmer, a new pod and engine loaded onto the flatbed tug he had led over from Supply. Tethering herself on the Ferrari's slender wing, Jeri called over the cutting platform and set about amputating the ruined limb. The hybridized polymer steel screamed as the plasma blade cut, geysering sparks and tainting the air with an acrid stink. The biowelder was worse; the designer microbes that laid down a polymer seal between the body and its new pod gave off several nasty gases in the process. Jeri wore the oxygen hood as she hosed hot ions, the food of choice, onto the slimy smears of microbes. A grappling arm lifted the new engine-easily thrice her mass-from the truck into the pod, and she spot-biowelded the appropriate places. Then, with Eliot's help, she hunkered down and began connecting the new heart to the body.
That was a considerably quieter process, only a matter of grafting data and power lines together, then checking on the pilot program's adaptation to the change. Straddling the slender wing of the Ferrari, Eliot displaying the code responses on his belly screen, Jeri distinctly heard someone yell, "What the fucking hell shit didn't you tell me about!"
Eyebrows perked, she looked toward the Cassiopeia. The ship hung, her point held in the docking clamps' mouths, to the side and slightly below her. From that angle, the dock's spotlights caught on a few details that held her gaze. Along the trailing edge of the flying black wing, four spheres were embedded, two on each side of the stacked engines. The same black as the heat armor, she could make out the curved seams, in that light. She'd seen plenty of things mounted in armored spheres when she was a young mechie booter in Rustworks. Softies used them too, for more ordinary things like sensor arrays. Whoever had been swearing, there was no sign of him from her angle, so she shrugged and went back to work.
She and Eliot were hunting down errors when a second yell echoed across the bay. "We could've fixed this in Tycho, Cassie!"
Tycho was the largest city on Mars, the planet Alexandria Station orbited. "Someone's p-dac screwed up," Jeri murmured, smirking. That his p-dac would have the same name as the ship wasn't odd. "Give me one percent output, Eliot."
Most engines in runabout-class ships couldn't turn over for less than five. The Ferrari's engines were so delicate that they could whisper along at half a percent, if asked. She watched the codes and signals closely as it powered up. Didn't need no softie sensors to tell her the exhaust plume of superheated plasma shimmering in the air was in perfect form, though. Jeri nodded, pleased in spite of herself.
Eliot said, "Three thirty-five."
"Faye didn't call to ask about me, did she?" Her p-dac had standing orders not to interrupt Jeri while she was working, not for anything less than imminent depressurization.
"No calls," the moon-eyed robot replied.
"Bitches're probably too drunk to miss me," she said, tossing a leftover piece of patch into the mouth of the scrap truck. "Lucky bitches. Shit." She was getting wasteful, throwing away patch like that, turning into a softie. "What's next on the roster?"
Eliot rattled off a list of ordinary maintenance, and as he did Jeri's eyes drifted back to the Cassiopeia. Reaching overhead, she stretched her tired back. Someone had opened the external service panel on the top of the rightmost engine pod, she noticed. From that distance, she couldn't see much detail. Letting her arms settle down from stretching, she swung her leg over and dismounted the slender limb of the Charmer. "Eliot, close up the pod for me," she told the robot, absently.
"Where are you going?" he asked when she unhooked her tether.
"For a look," she answered vaguely, and gently pushed off.
A minute later, her hands touched the leftmost engine pod and she braced herself to a stop. Close, there were scratches and pits dotting the heat armor's surface, scars of years of hard wear. The mouth of the engine under her hand was grimed with residues that she knew came from impurities in the plasma plume. Glancing under, Jeri saw that the Cassiopeia's belly was covered with more heat armor, as she had suspected. Softies saved money by only putting the armor on one side. Booters couldn't afford to limit their options like that.
Maybe he was a booter. The ship certainly was.
"You've wandered long roads haven't you, girl?" she murmured, skimming hand over hand across the surface of the wing. Jeri took a seat beside one of the spheres at the trailing edge, dangling her feet over the side. Cassiopeia reminded her of the home she'd left. Jeri might've held that against the ship, but just then she felt more nostalgic.
"Is there something unusual about this ship?" Eliot asked, jetting over on its little fans. "It seems to be poorly maintained."
"She looks that way," Jeri nodded, surveying. Below, Cassiopeia's cargo gate was shut, as was the human-sized hatch in the gate. Less careful visitors might've left it open. Alexandria was a safe station. "But she's a booter ship, I'd bet my overtime. Underneath, she's probably hand-customized." Tapping the armored sphere, she heard hollow space underneath. That meant little, by itself.
"Booters? Like in Neptune Outpost?" The robot touched down lightly on the black wing.
She laughed. "Booters aren't really like that, that's only a show." Considering the raised engine panel at the far end of the wing, Jeri told her p-dac, "Go back to the break room, Eliot, and wait for me in the locker. Booters like their privacy."
Behind her, matter-of-factly, "That, they do."
Jeri twisted, looking up, as did Eliot. He stood on the Cassiopeia barefoot with his hands casually stuffed in the pockets of black suit pants. The high-cut vest with the silver buttons matched, and under it he wore a blindingly white dress shirt with a band collar, sleeves rolled up. A silver loop pierced his right eyebrow, distracting the eye away from a nose Jeri thought was a little too sharp for his face. His hair, though buzzed short except for the top of his head, was a rich, royal blue.
Pulling her chin back indignantly, she started to say, "Like you'd know a damn thing about..." but his bare feet made her pause. She'd gotten used to wearing shoes on the job, but she'd apprenticed barefoot, in Rustworks. "Go, Eliot," Jeri shooed, instead, and stood up, hooking the toe of her boot against the ship's edge to keep from drifting away. When Eliot was out of range, she said, "Never saw a booter dress like that."
He indicated after the robot and asked, only, "Eliot?"
Booters always gave their dacs celestial names. "Look, I had to buy a new one," she told him. Remembering Halley always soured her. Adding, "Keep your fucking nose out of my business," she took a step toward the edge, meaning to leave.
"I didn't mean it that way," he said. "Not my business what you had to do. And it's not your business what's in those pods, either."
Jeri folded her arms across her chest. "Shit, a few laser cannons aren't any of my business, are they?" she bluffed, in return. "Not on a civvie-registered ship. And she's booter work, even if you ain't, so I'll have to ask how the fuck you came by her."
His eyes were brown and hard around the corners. He hadn't done more than turn toward her when she slid to a stop on Cassie's wing, but she knew he wouldn't let her go if he thought she'd rat him out. Jeri had a knife in her boot, in case he thought she was just a softie he could rough up a bit. "I bought her fair and square," he said, "when I did what I had to do to get out of Ceres. Had to leave some things behind. You might know."
It would sound vague to anyone else but she knew he meant there'd been something to run from and if he'd had to leave things behind, it had been something both personal and unpleasant. Which pretty well described her leaving Rustworks, too. "Yeah, I know," she said. An uncomfortable pause followed. "So what's your engine trouble?"
His name was Shen, and Cassie had a slow coolant leak which had eroded away half of a cable and caused a whole cascade of errors and shutdowns. Two minutes under the panel and Jeri knew she'd been right about the Cassiopeia being hand-customized-customized and half jury-rigged. She found parts that had been put to novel uses, and some that had been put together from scratch. And it hadn't been Shen's doing, she quickly determined. He knew how to maintain Cassie, he knew how much the new cable was going to cost him, but he wasn't the gearhead responsible for the engines.
"I can't open an account here," was all he said when Jeri offered to fix it. He'd kept checking the time on his dac's handheld extension, and now he looked again, with a grimace. "I'm supposed to be somewhere at eight..."
It was almost four, by then. She took a deep breath, surveying the hodgepodge engine in the pod. The yachts were expecting to have their pristine fluids exchanged for more pristine fluids because it had been two months since their last change. Cassie was a booter's hardworking girl who just needed one new cable. He had his reasons for not wanting to draw financial attention, and that wasn't her business. Booters didn't turn their backs on each other. Lowering her voice, she said, "Well, it's been three years since I left Rustworks. I haven't gone soft in the head, yet," Shen had one hand on the rim of the hatch, hanging in the air casually as only a low-geer could. He returned her smile. "Let me see what I can do for Cassie."
They talked easier, then, as she called over the scrap truck and scavenged through what remained of the Ferrari's blown engine. He'd left Ceres four years ago and sometimes stopped in booter ports, so he could bring her up to date on a few events but he said he didn't get involved anymore. He mentioned having usually resupplied out of Danae, when she said she was from Rustworks, but didn't add any more. Jeri told him about learning mechanics from her uncle and cousins as she hooked in the scavenged cable, but didn't go near why she'd left. He didn't ask, as she didn't ask about Ceres or Danae.
As she crouched over the open panel, checking the last few connections for snugness, Shen leaned deliberately close to her ear. Jeri froze, breath catching, when she felt him murmur, "Do you miss the free life?" A tingle arced around the rim to her earlobe. For a moment, she remembered another voice, laden with venom that warned her to dodge the fist that would follow.
Then Jeri blinked, and she was back in Alexandria Station, three years free and happy in the soft, safe world of civvies. "Some things," she stumbled, in reply. "Some things. Not others."
He retreated. From a safer distance, he said, "I owe you, for this."
Cassie interrupted, from the handheld at his belt. "Shen, call for you."
Jeri straightened up as Shen checked the time again. It was quarter past five in the morning. "I have to take this inside," he apologized. "Won't be long."
"Sure," she said, and watched him smoothly skitter across the black surface of Cassie's wing on bare hands and feet. Then she let the shiver race down her spine, and put her teeth on her knuckles. Three years. In Alexandria, she'd bought Eliot, gotten a good job and bit by bit let the softness, as booters called station life, seep in. She couldn't get out of bed without coffee anymore. She loved having an apartment to herself. Some of her boyfriends had never done a day's real work in their lives, by her standards.
It was a good life, but it was on the bland side. She'd thought about going back to Rustworks, once or twice, just shucking off and leaving. There were things she didn't want to go back to, or wasn't sure if she did. Jeri was not the same Jeri who'd desperately hitched a ride on a caravan, paid for it in blowjobs, and slipped off at Alexandria when nobody was looking. She was stronger for having broken her own path. She could go back on her own terms, set up a shop and handcraft her own ships.
But going back to booter life meant going back to booter men and freestyle. She still remembered the bruises, three years later.
Closing the engine pod's access panel, she crossed the length of the wing-shaped body and sat on the edge again, over the cargo doors. Jeri remembered the day she'd decided she wasn't going to take any more of Tal's beatings or his freestyle. She'd packed and run that very night. He'd been her first and only. Since then, she'd settled in with softie sex. It was good, in its way, but... soft. She'd looked into the fetish clubs, but hadn't found a good replacement for freestyle. It wasn't something a softie could be expected to easily understand. And Jeri hadn't met a booter she liked in the last three years. Now, this. He was cute enough, if snobbily dressed. He wasn't a hardcore booter. He, of anyone, might understand.
The hatch in the cargo door opened, and Shen looked up. He'd taken the vest off, and his shirt was pleasantly rumpled. With a foxy bit of a smile, he asked, "Could I offer you a shower?"
"A shower?" Jeri's brows rose. As good a job as she had, showers were still expensive. Water was pricy on any station, softie or freebooter, nothing new there. She shared them with her neighbor and her neighbor's five-year-old boy. Offering one without discussing the price first implied suds, sex and maybe breakfast afterwards. Aloud, she reasoned, "I've done two good deeds, today. A shower would be great."
As she dropped her feet over the side, Shen reminded her, "I need to be ready to go by seven thirty."
Smirking, Jeri put out a foot and caught herself on the doorsill. He stepped back to let her in. She clucked a finger under his chin, in passing. "That's two hours," she said. "Two hours in the shower is long enough for anybody, I'd think."
She liked the sly look he gave her, at that. "On the left," he said.
One hallway divided Cassieopeia in two. On the left, the doorway at the end was open, and led into what had been set aside as the living area. Shen had crammed sleeping, eating and washing into a single fifteen-by-twenty space. A breakfast table was bolted to the floor in front of the inset cooler and cooker. In one corner stood the exercise machine. Opposite the door was the entertainment holoscreen. The sleeping hammock was set up in another corner, and the curtain dividing off the bathroom hid the fourth corner. Everything was unapologetically plain, dark faux wood or fabric or brass. Behind the dark green curtain, Jeri found a rippled-glass, family-sized shower stall and standard zero-gee toilet fixtures. And it was all reasonably clean, smelling faintly of bleachy cleanser. He was a clean booter, at least.
"I don't have many guests." Shen broke the silence, leaning against the open doorway. "Not much to look at."
Jeri shrugged one shoulder. "You don't live here, it looks like."
"Just when I'm out and about," he said. "Help yourself to the shower. I'm just going to check on a few things."
She looked toward him and he hesitated in pushing off from the door. "Sure," she said, after a moment. He went. Jeri pulled the curtains open wider, glanced around and spotted clothes clamps on the wall. A brass handle opened a cubby that contained towels and washcloths, wetwipes, toilet paper, ordinary stuff. Undressing, she clamped her clothes to the wall-hesitated a moment and took the knife from her boot-took a washcloth and opened the shower door.
The control panel lit up for her, offering temperature and volume controls. At eye level, she found a row of six rainbow-colored pump bottles in a rack. Under them was another brass-handled door behind which she found a curious mix of ordinary toiletries, hair dyes, bleach, brushes and industrial cleansers. Shrugging again, nosiness satisfied, she closed the panel and turned on the water. Her knife she stuck behind the row of bottles, hilt jutting out where she could grab it but unobtrusive enough to overlook.