"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?"
.... There is more of this story ...