By Kay Keppler
He looked great.
Of course he would.
And he looked as out of place as a—well, as a white-dress-uniformed, shiny-medaled, crispy-postured Central Command Elite Air Corps major could look in the dark, dingy, small, crowded and cheap All Galaxy Air garage.
He was looking at her. She wondered what he saw. She knew she looked different. Thinner. Tougher. Of course, she had good reason to be thinner and tougher.
“What are you doing here?” Minka asked.
If it were possible, Reyne—no, the major—stiffened further.
“I’m here to escort the Central Command cargo,” he said. “Who did you call a dung-eating general?”
Minka blinked while Anjali broke into a grin.
“Actually, it’s obstinate son of a dung-eating general,” she said. “But that’s—”
“Inexcusable!” the major said.
“—the ship,” Anjali faltered, “not a person. What?”
Minka felt a lump the size and weight of her ship’s air anchor settle into her stomach. She turned to Anjali.
“I believe what the major is trying to say is that he didn’t just bring the cargo to us. He’s planning to go with us to ensure its safe delivery. And some people might think that he could appropriately be called dung-eating. Am I correct, Major Jallomy?”
He hesitated. “I’m not a general,” he replied finally.
Minka raised her eyebrows. “But the dung-eating part—”
“I’m sorry, Major,” Anjali interrupted, “but you’re not on the flight manifest. However, I assure you, we have a perfect delivery record. Your cargo will be safe with us.”
“And besides the issue of how we can’t carry anything that’s not on the manifest, we’re not licensed to take passengers,” Minka said. “Either your cargo goes without you, or you’ll have to find another carrier.”
“You don’t need a passenger license for this trip,” Jallomy said.
Minka turned to Anjali. “What was I just saying about Central Command before the major so abruptly reentered our lives?” she asked. “This is what I was talking about. The other shoe.”
She turned to Jallomy. “No. We’re not licensed. So we won’t take passengers.”
“I’m telling you, by the power of the Middle High Authority of the Central Command, you are authorized for this flight.”
“Show me the paperwork then.”
Jallomy was silent.
Minka shook her head. “Just as I thought. The trip’s off the record. You want me to do something illegal, unethical or both. So today you’ll authorize me. Tomorrow you’ll hang me out to dry. No dice, Major. The ship is full. Anjali will arrange for a refund.”
“This trip isn’t illegal or unethical. It’s secret.”
“Yeah, got that. Now please leave. I have work to do.”
“The ship’s not ready?”
“Of course it is.”
“The hagiographic output is off,” Anjali put in.
“Anjali, I love you, but shut up,” Minka said.
“What is the hagiographic output?”
“Nothing that you need to know about,” Minka said.
“The hagiographic simulator is part of our defensive system,” Anjali said. “It throws out multiple images of us. Makes us look—well, like there’s more of us. Like there’s an excess of us.” She beamed at the major. “Minka just needs to get the bolt off the resistor plate. Then she’ll be able to fix it in a jiffy.”
“Anjali, you’re fired,” Minka said.
“You can’t fire me, boss. I’m your partner. Plus, I won’t go.”
“We paid for passage,” Jallomy said. “How did you think you were going to get this tub in the air if this—what did you call it?—hagiographic simulator wasn’t working?”
“I was planning to fix it,” Minka said.
“Maybe with a robot,” Anjali said.
“Anjali, seriously, we are not talking to him.”
“May the gods give me strength,” Jallomy said. “And you give me the damn wrench. I’ll take the bolt off.”
“No,” Minka said, just as Anjali said, “Great!”
Minka glared at her partner.
“He’s cheaper than a robot,” Anjali said, not looking at the major. “And we don’t have to go looking for him, like to rent or borrow. He came to us. So we might as well let him try. We don’t have to fly his cargo.”
Jallomy looked horrified, and Minka almost laughed, wondering if Reyne—no, the major now—had ever before been compared to a robot.
“You will be transporting me and the cargo,” Jallomy said, shrugging off his uniform jacket. “We must get to Keltainen on time. The mission is critical, that’s all I can say. So it would be in my best interest to get that bolt off. Do you have coveralls? I’d rather not get my pants dirty.”
“You can try one of Tex’s coveralls,” Anjali said. “Something of his might fit you.” She pawed through some clothes hanging from pegs in the walls and handed him the best of the dirty bunch. “How will that work?”
Jallomy took the soiled garment with distaste. “It looks small.”
“Then wear those dress whites. That’ll be better,” Minka said.
“It’s the best we can do,” Anjali said.
Jallomy exhaled and put one foot through a leg.
In a few seconds, Major Reyne Jallomy of the Central Command Elite Air Corps was wearing a coverall that was about four inches too short in the leg, two inches short in the sleeve, and four inches too tight in the chest.
Minka laughed. She couldn’t help it; he looked ridiculous.
“Just show me the damn bolt,” he said, sounding annoyed. “Now that I’m dressed for it.”
“Since you insist,” Minka said, sitting down on the floor and pushing herself underneath the ship. Jallomy dropped down on the creeper, lying flat on his back the way Minka had done. Minka was somewhat surprised that Reyne—the major, she’d have to remember that—knew what a creeper was for. It wasn’t as though pilots did any mechanical work at the Academy. The major gave a push and scooted under the ship, joining her at the resistor plates.
“Where?” he asked.
She handed him the wrench. “That one. I got all the others.”
He put the wrench to the nut that secured the last bolt to the resistor plate and turned.
He turned the wrench again, straining this time, really putting some muscle into it. Minka heard him grunt.
“It’s coming,” he said.
“I won’t take passengers,” she said.
Jallomy gave a huge yank on the wrench, and the nut loosened. “There it is,” he said, turning it firmly, watching it come out of the thread.
“I loosened it up for you.”
As the bolt came loose, Minka put her hands on the resistor plate to prevent it from falling.
“You can slide out now,” she said. “I’ll take it from here.”
“Protecting that hagiographic simulator?” he asked, but he shoved against the hull to propel the creeper out from the underside of the ship. Minka waited until she saw him stand and then turned her attention back to the hull. She lowered the resistor plate to the floor and checked inside the cavity. Yup, there it was, just as she’d thought. A leak had damaged the connection.
She asked Anjali for the parts she needed, and when she’d made the repairs, she put the resistor plate back in place and bolted it in. It went a lot more smoothly this time.
When she slid back out, the major was eyeing the contents of the food dispensary with distrust.
“I’m sure the Corps will have something more suitable for you to eat,” Minka said. “You’re leaving now, anyway.”
“I don’t want to go any more than you want me to, but the cargo and I must get to Keltainen,” the major said. “And you’re taking us.”
“What part of no don’t you understand?” Minka planted her hands on her hips. This was the best reason to be out of Central Command. She didn’t have to take irresponsible orders from the likes of Reyne Jallomy, even if he was a major.
“The part that doesn’t apply to me. Stop wasting time, Shokat. The hagiographic simulator is fixed. Are you ready to fly or not? Put us on. Take something else off if you have to. But I’m not listening to any more of your crap.”
“And I’m not listening to any more of yours. Go back to Central Command. Fly your cargo yourself. I won’t risk my ship and my crew with an unauthorized flight for you. So get out of here.” She turned to the ship.
Jallomy clenched his jaw. “Stop right there,” he said, his voice low and lethal. “You do not have a bargaining position here.”
Minka glanced back. He brandished a personal weapon at them, and she realized that she hadn’t even known he was carrying. She must be losing it.
“The other shoe, Anjali,” she said, struggling to control her anger and fear. And where was her weapon when she needed it? Locked in their business drawer, that’s where.
“What I was just saying. Give them an inch, and they goose-step all over you.”
The major looked at her coldly, his weapon leveled at Minka’s chest. “So, we have a deal.”
“I can’t believe I ever slept with you.” She took the wrench she was still holding and hurled it toward the far wall. It missed the major’s head by inches and smashed into the metal bulkhead, leaving a dent and falling to the floor with a clatter.
The major stared at Minka in fury and disbelief.
“Oops,” Minka said. “Slipped.”
Anjali closed her eyes.
Minka, her back straight, her chin up, looked into the major’s eyes.
A shadow crossed the threshold and went directly into the small storeroom to the right.
“Minka, come see, you would not believe the shuttle that’s outside! It must be for a general at least, if not for the Imperial Potentate himself,” a man’s voice said with a laugh. “Anjali, sweetikins, I found those weird, I don’t know, substances you wanted, and the magnetic gloves, but I could not find the oxygen reduction catalyst at the junkyard, so I just broke down and ordered one. I’m sorry. Take it out of my next paycheck.”
Tex was back. The gang was all here.
Tex had been moving around putting things away as he talked; they could hear doors open and cupboards close. Now he entered the hangar space.
“So what’s going on? Why’s everybody so quiet? Well, hello, tall, dark and awesome.”
The major looked at the slim man who’d come to stand next to Minka and who paid no attention whatsoever to the weapon pointed at her.
Minka turned to the newcomer. “Tex, this is Major Reyne Jallomy, who will be accompanying some Central Command cargo to Keltainen once we figure out what has to come off the ship to accommodate his ridiculous, outrageous and unethical, if not illegal, demands. Major, this is Tex Arcana, our ace mechanic.”
Tex waggled his fingers at the major. “Fantastic! Three’s company, four’s a party.”
“Tex!”Anjali shrieked, now taking a good look at him. “You’re wearing my boots!”
Minka looked down. Even in the dim and dusty light of the dingy hangar in late afternoon, the fringed, pink boots on Tex’s feet glowed like a seventeenth-century sunset.
“Oh my God,” the major said, shouldering his weapon.
“Girlfriend! We’ll have such a good time!” Tex said, beaming.