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Smoke Test: Once In A Blue Moon - Chapter One

Jai Hanuman gyan gur sagar Jai kapis tihu lok ujagar.

A policeman stopped Vishnu Lubbock at the entry to the Grendelsbane's berth. "Captain Lubbock?"

"For Good and bad." The policeman drew a notepad from his pocket and consulted it. "We are looking for two females. The human is about one and a half meters tall with a bowl-cut hairdo dyed pink."

Lubbock nodded thoughtfully as the policeman described the Grendelsbane's First Assistant Engineer. "Doesn't ring any bells."

"She was in the company of a Vargr female of approximately forty years of age with a limp."

"I have no Vargr in my crew." The last time I checked. "What did they do?"

"They were allegedly involved in an altercation that caused severe damage to the 'Bar None,' not to mention the Duke's peace."

"Well, if I spot either of these dastardly villains I'll be sure to contact the Whipsnade Planetary Police at once."

The policeman stared at Lubbock with a critical eye, as though he suspected sarcasm. Lubbock tried not to sweat.

"That would be appreciated." He snapped his notepad shut and tapped it to his forehead in a salute. "A good day to you, Captain."

Lubbock flipped a hand up in a casual farewell salute. I'm going to ask Chief Garcia to install a plank in the airlock and then make Pepper walk the frapping thing.

The civilian guards placed at the berth's dockside doors by Grendelsbane's client confirmed Lubbock's identity and allowed him entry. He could hear the work crews onthe far side of the Beowulf class ship fitting a pair of small docking arms at the starboard cargo hatch. Other crews inside the ship labored to install the probe cradle and the laboratory module. Vaughan-Payne Reasearch & Development, Inc., a local firm here in Larsen system, needed to retrieve a survey probe orbiting a large moon of the outermost gas giant where it'd spent the last one hundred twenty days performing an extremely detailed survey and analysis of the moon's geophysical nature. Vaughan-Payne R&D stood to make billions from licensing fees and sales if the test model of the firm's new autonomous, orbital, geophysical surveyor proved successful. Following the age-old principle that it takes money to make money, Vaughan-Payne had offered Grendelsbane a very lucrative contract to ferry a technical team out to the probe.

The Captain fought down the urge to go and watch the workers. Instead, he sauntered up the ramp to the open personnel airlock and went into the ship. At the end of the long corridor he turned left and passed through the crew lounge and into the control room.

Two signs hung from the bulkhead beside the main console. The first said, "HAIL HANUMAN," the monkey god being the patron deity of travelers. The other read, "Where Ever You Go, There You Are." First Mate Mohammed Ivanovitch Smith had the watch. While in port, the watch commander mostly had to monitor communications and keep track of the comings and goings of the crew and civilian workers. A tall and broad-shouldered man with sandy hair and a trim mustache, Smith's hobbies included vodka and trying over and over to beat the ship's computer at 3-D chess. He was losing a game right now.

"How are things, Moe?"

"Ah, Captain! We are far ahead of schedule. The lab module is all set, and the cradle is nearly ready."

Lubbock hesitated a moment, then took a deep breath and blurted out the question uppermost in his mind. "Pepper back aboard yet?"

"Yes. But, Captain, she bring Vargr comrade aboard. With luggage."

Luggage? Crap. "I'm not surprised. The police are looking for the two of them."

"Pepper damn fine brawler, but cannot hold her vodka. They went to the galley for breakfast."

Lubbock glanced at the chronometer built into his thumbnail. The time was 12:06 hours. Breakfast? "I better go read her the riot act."

"I do that for you, Captain, if you like. I yell louder than you."

"No, I want to see this Vargr for myself. Catch you later."

Lubbock went back through the crew lounge and took the stairs up to the passenger level. To his left, in the galley, Steward Isabelle Nguyen argued menu with Second Assistant Engineer Fu Quan. It was an on-going battle. Nguyen specialized in stir-fried French cuisine and experimented a lot -- her meals varied between bliss and blah.

Pepper Sprey and the Vargr were seated at a tables at the far end of the passenger lounge. Lubbock strode up to them and loomed over the table with fists on hips. The small, wiry engineer, dressed in a crumpled jumpsuit, shot to her feet. The Vargr followed her example, but more slowly because of hre bad leg. The alien, who stood half a meter taller than the engineer, had short, rust-colored fur and a long tail ending in a flaring brush.

"Captain, I -- "

"That's quite a shiner you've got there, Engineer. I'm astonished that I haven't had to bail you out of jail."

"That's because of Arghaz here, sir. Captain, this is Arghaz Grurrdzarg. She came to my aid and got me out of the bar. She's a Vargr, sir."

"I'm glad you told me that, Engineer. I might have mistaken her for a hamster." Sprey's face reddened. "So, you at least had the good sense to come straight back to the ship."

"No, sir. That is, Arghaz helped me scrounge up a new phase inducer and a water pump. Saved us a bundle of money, sir."

/I am not going to ask where they stole those things from. I am not going to ask where they stole those things from. I am not going to.../ Lubbock turned to the mangy looking Vargr and nodded his head in a bow. "You have my thanks."

"Captain, she's looking for working passage out-system."

"No doubt, with the police on her heels and all. But we're not going out-system for quite a while yet. Have you forgotten our contract."

"Captain Lubbock," said Arghaz. "I work hard. I scrounge good. Room and meals and passage is all I ask." Her words were half a growl, half a plea.

"Captain, may I speak to you privately?"

"Certainly, Engineer. Freelady Grurd, Gru -- "

"Grurrdzarg, Captain."

"Freelady Gruurdzarg. Why don't you go to the galley and help yourself to seconds?"

"Thank you, Captain Lubbock." The Vargr female walked away from the table with a noticeable limp. Lubbock claimed her seat.

"Captain," The First Assistant Engineer said as she seated herself and leaned towards him. "Arghaz has had a rough life. The rest of her litter died at birth. She's been slightly disfigured since then and considered unlucky by her clan. They eventually drove her out. She's spent the past twenty years or so just traveling around."

"I'd consider her being the sole survivor a stroke of good luck, not bad. But she's, what, forty? Do you want me to take on a forty year-old apprentice spacehand?"

Sprey set her jaw firmly. "Yessir. She's worked dockside and tramp freighters. She has basic skills in computers, vacc suits, grav vehicles -- "

"Scrounging."

"Yes, scrounging. And infighting. She's a walking terror in defense of her friends. She has some weapons skills, too."

"Just how long have you know this Arghaz?"

"About twenty-six hours, sir. We did a lot of talking before the fight started."

"And a lot of drinking. Just how did the fight start?"

"A group of Nihon men came over to our table and started to hassle us. 'Hey, pretty girl, dump the dog and come party with us.' Well, there are four levels of politeness in Nihongo. I used level one -- the most familiar and rudest -- and addressed their spokesman as 'You Fellow.' He said something equally unkind to me, so I busted my chair over his head."

Lubbock held up his hands. "I don't want to hear any more. Not another word." He lowered his hands and rubbed them across his face. Pepper owes this Vargr a favor. Pepper is one of the best engineers and hardest workers I know. And I owe her a favor or two. "Okay. We'll take her on, but she's your responsibility."

Sprey gripped one of Lubbock's hands in both of hers. "Thank you, Captain. You won't regret this."

"I know I won't. You might, but I won't. He rose and started to leave, paused and turned back to Pepper. "You can tell your new apprentice that I said I think she'll be good luck for us."

Lubbock headed to the galley for a sandwich to take back to his quarters. He needed to finish the books for the month. He also needed to figure out exactly how he was going to inform the rest of the crew about their new lucky mascot.

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