By G Burton Voss
Jeffery Ellis went room to room with his inspection. He took his time in each place: the galley, beacon stores, harpoon racks, living quarters, an acceptable hold, and, most importantly, the bridge. The space tug was bright and airy, docked with the ramp down at the best repair yard on the planet Fortuna: R.W. Dagget’s.
“How do you feel, Tug?” Jeff’s baritone was pleasant with the vigor of youth. At 26, it hadn’t sunk into a deep rumble.
“There are micrometeorite impacts along the starboard,” the ship’s male-voiced computer answered, “and the dent is still in the port aft quarter.”
“We’ll see about fixing your skin; how about the operational stuff?”
“My shields aren’t working, or you wouldn’t have been able to bounce us off that asteroid, and the fusion engines have developed harmonics.”
“Both of ’em?”
Jeff plopped into the captain’s chair and ran his fingers through his wavy, jet-black hair. “Well, RW is coming by soon to get the list. Got anything else—loose circuits, overheating components, stuff like that?”
“Sensors show he’s coming now,” Tug said, “and he has someone with him.”
RW hollered from the bottom of the ramp. “Hello, Ellis! Permission to come aboard?”
Jeff left the bridge, slid down a ladder, and took a hall to the bay. “Come in, RW. Who’s that with you?”
“I brought my best mechanic since the Ellis name means so much. This is my daughter, Emlyn. She’s joined me full-time. I’m changing the business’s name to Double Dagget Craft Repair & Refurbish Co.”
“Your daughter?” Jeff frowned at the woman with a grease monkey hat over her blonde collar-length hair. She had a smudge on her cheek—it could’ve been carbon or a radiation burn. She wore shapeless, slightly baggy overalls. An automated maintenance cart trundled behind her. He couldn’t tell much else, except she was only about four inches shorter than his own 6’ 3” frame. “Uh, Tug, verify she’s qualified.”
Emlyn glared at Jeff as Tug’s voice filled the hold. “Her qualifications check. Unless her documents are forged, she’s certified for structural, power plant, navigation, life support, and communications maintenance. She also has an interstellar captain’s license.”
The woman spun to leave, but RW caught her arm. “Hold on, honey. You know his life depends on this ship; he’s not only got a right to check the qualifications of his mechanic, he’s expected to. You’d do the same.”
She took a deep breath and sent Jeff a volcanic stink eye. “Do you clear me to work with the ship’s computer?”
Something about the woman amused Jeff, and he couldn’t help needling her. “Yeah, uh, Tug, accept instructions from what’s-her-name here, but give her notices if she appears to blunder, will you?”
Emlyn’s hands were white-knuckled fists as she stormed off, ignoring her father’s calls to wait. The maintenance cart squeaked away behind her.
RW sighed. “Couldn’t help it, could you? Had to prod her—but I’m telling you, Jeff, she’s the best mechanic you’ll ever find. Knowing who your mother is, I expected you to be more open to my daughter working on your ship.”
“Aw, it’s not that, R.W. She looked uncomfortable being the object of a proud daddy’s praise. I figured if I didn’t challenge her qualifications, she’d think she got the job on your say-so. Although, I admit to goading a smidgen.” He grinned. “Where do I find her? I’ll apologize.”
Jeff caught sight of a dirty pair of green overall legs in the engine room of a sleek cruiser. They were easy to spot as Emlyn lay over the antimatter chamber, her waist and top out of view among the luxury craft’s gleaming maze of plodium piping. He hadn’t noticed her scuffed brogans before.
He stopped on the catwalk next to her tool cart. “May we finish our conversation?”
“Who’s that?” Her voice came floating up over the hum of a molecular welder.
“I came to apologize and offer to buy you lunch.”
There was no reply, only the steady hum of the tool repairing microscopic cracks. If done correctly, it would be impossible to tell where repairs were made. Jeff could see no faults.
“I was wrong, and I’m hungry,” he said. “Can’t a robot do that?”
No answer. The hum of the tool continued. He was about to give up and leave when she called “DelVaucio’s—one hour.”
DelVaucio’s was an upscale restaurant near the spaceport, frequented by businessmen and women who could write off the expense. Jeff assumed Emlyn needed the time to clean up and dress appropriately.
He was wrong. She plodded through the sliding glass entry in her overalls and brogans. In addition to the smudge on her cheek, she had imprints around her eyes and across her forehead where the welding protector sat. A scowling steward escorted her to the table.
Emlyn slid into the booth. “I don’t think they’d have seated me if I hadn’t said I was meeting an Ellis.” She puckered her lips and put on a sardonic face. “I hope I haven’t ruined your reputation.”
Jeff laughed out loud, drawing attention from nearby tables. “Here,” he said, passing a card to her. “That’ll get you into any system on the ship. The computer answers to Tug and look for my wimple. He goes by CB”
“You have a wimple?” she asked, perking up.
“Everyone’s always surprised at that,” he said.
He couldn’t blame them. Wimples, unknown on Earth, were common on Fortuna. They were haughty little cat-like primates: short-haired except for their head and neck. On occasion—rarely—one attached to a human and became fiercely devoted. They couldn’t be enticed by food, pre-made nests, or anything folks tried. Attempts to trap them failed. Some people said the wimples could shape-shift out of or into anything. Others said the wimples were simply more intelligent than humans, but all agreed it took someone special to attract one.
“And what do you call him again?”
“CB. I named him after my college roommate, Charlie Bodkins. Charlie spent most of his time trying to get into the women’s dorm. CB has spent his time aboard finding his way into every cubic centimeter.”
“All right,” Emlyn said, slipping the card into her pocket. “I’ll look at your ship.”
“Fine,” Jeff said. “Tug’s got the list of gripes.”
She eyeballed him with a long, studied gaze. “What’re you looking for alone in the asteroid field?”
“I’m not alone.” The answer was quick, boilerplate. “I’ve got Tug and CB”
Her question held more than curiosity. He couldn’t identify the nuance in her eyes, but it surprised him. She held him in an attentive stare until he said it aloud for the first time.
“I’d like to be found worthy on my own. You know, without being judged as the son of an enormously wealthy woman and my dad, who’s the most brilliant physicist in existence.”
Suddenly embarrassed, he waved away the question. “Sounds like a soap opera. Forget it; let’s eat.”
“Fair enough.” She picked up the menu. “What do you recommend?”
“I think I’ll have a broth of sea herbs and a salad. For you, I’d suggest a bib and napkin.”
“I expected you to be more arrogant than snarky.”
“Really? Why do I have to be one or the other?”
Emlyn shrugged one shoulder. “You Ellis’s are a strange family.”
The server took their order, and Jeff returned to the subject.
“And how are we Ellis’s strange?”
Emlyn put her elbows on the table, her dirty sleeves marking the white linen tablecloth. “Your mother is one of the richest people on Earth and stays there. Your father is here on Fortuna, working on something to do with entangled particles. He has a mansion your mother bought him, but he spends most of his time in a lab at the university. You’re their son and heir. You could be anywhere doing anything for fun or pleasure, yet you go out alone to harvest asteroids.”
Heat flushed up Jeff’s neck, but he held his peace.
“Maybe you’re more dysfunctional rather than strange,” Emlyn said.
Jeff sipped his water. “I didn’t realize we were under such scrutiny,”
Emlyn waved the statement away as their food arrived. “Gossip columns.”
Jeff patted the stack of notes his father gave him. “Thanks, Dad. It looks like you’re getting close. I’ll be interested in reading this batch.”
CB rode Jeff’s shoulder and reached for the papers. Jeff quickly moved them out of reach.
“You can’t have these, pal. I have to see if my dad’s about to solve quantum entanglement transportation.”
“There’s some very intriguing stuff in there, son,” Bob said. I’ll be interested in what you make of it.”
“You should have this peer-reviewed, Dad. You may get there quicker.”
“You’re better than my peers, Jeff. You understand entanglement better than most. When are you going to patent your asteroid delivery system? You know your competitors are trying to figure out how you accurately ship them. You might as well get royalties for it before they stumble across the method and take it free.”
“I’ll think about it, but I’m ready to ship out again. I just stopped by to tell you Tug says we’re loaded and ready.”
“Think about staying put and helping me in the lab, Jeff. I’ll give you a free run to do what you want.”
Jeff absently stroked CB and asked, “Do you think we’re a dysfunctional family, Dad?”
“Where did that come from?”
“Dunno. I’ve been thinking about it. Mom’s on Earth. She didn’t object to me coming out here, but I’m pretty sure she’d like me there. You don’t live with her—yet you two seem committed to your marriage. Couldn’t you do your work as well there as here?”
Bob drew himself up and raised his chin. “Your mother and I are just fine. We’re not apart.”
It was the end of the discussion. “OK, Dad. I’ll call you when I’ve read your notes.”
Jeff’s ship was towed to the space elevator and lifted into low orbit. He rechecked the systems—all green—ordered Tug to disengage and lit the fusion engines. When Fortuna became a speck on the aft viewscreen, Tug sighed and, in a new female voice, said, “Finally!”
Jeff sat up in the captain’s chair. “Tug! What’s going on? You sound strange.”
“Oh, Tug’s gone, Sugar. I’m Honey.”
“What’ve you done with my computer? Bring back Tug.”
“Relax, Sugar. Emlyn upgraded your old computer with me. All the old data is still here, but I can fetch it faster and make thousands more computations per microsecond.”
Jeff slammed a fist against the armrest. “Why didn’t she tell me she was doing this?”
“She thought you might have this reaction. I was programmed to delay my existence until we were out of Fortuna’s gravity well.”
“Listen to me!” Jeff swung his finger in the air as if the computer was everywhere. “I’m the captain ordering you to return Tug’s voice.”
“Oh, Sugar. Of course, you’re the captain. And I’m Honey. Please call me by name. It’s one of the things Emlyn insisted on when she upgraded the programming.”
“I’m gonna turn this ship around, take it back to that conniving female, and make her fix this if you don’t comply!”
“Are you sure you wanna do that, Sugar? Aren’t the engines running better than ever? Aren’t the displays clearer and brighter? And wait until you try out the metallurgical sensors—Wunderbar! You’ll also find the air fresher with the new, upgraded scrubbers. I could go on, but you get the idea.”
Jeff wanted to throw something but calmed down at the sight of CB curled up on the navigation console. Was the wimple smiling? Could they even do that?
“Fine. Take us to the asteroid belt.”
“What’s that, Sugar?”
His jaws hurt, clamping his teeth so hard. “Take us to the asteroid belt, Honey.”
“Yes sir, Captain Sugar!”
GBurton Voss is out of this world when it comes to writing stellar fiction! You won’t be able to stop laughing with the Spitball Semester
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