One by one the party members return from their travels back to Unguin’s Princess. Autumn was the first to return, resplendent in the latest Glisten fashions, the wardrobes of the stateroom that she shares with Jie practically bursting at the seams from all her new dresses and shoes.
Taeva is next back. She spends a while going through the inventory of all the new items that she ordered for the ship to ensure that everything was delivered and that everything is in perfect working order. Once Grim has returned a little later, the pair of them take the robots out of their boxes and start to program them before letting them loose around the ship. Afterwards, Grim shows Taeva his new GelCloth crew coat, modelled on hers, but with the addition of Chameleon coating, allowing Grim to wear it in either pink or burgundy. He also keys over 20k CrImps back to her from his 100k payout, saying with a smile, “please add that back into the operating fund, Roberta.”
“Max thinks it’s best we keep our own accounts, Grim. He says we can kick in later if the operating fund gets low.” replies Taeva as she cancels the transfer.
It is later in the evening when Will finally arrives. Walking into the crew lounge on his hands. He performs a double backflip before landing neatly in his chair.
“So the operation was a complete success?” Autumn asks.
“it certainly looks that way,” Will replies somewhat smugly as he starts juggling six apples from the fruit bowl.
“So what did the rest of you get up to while I was recuperating?” he asks.
While the party members fill one another in on their adventures and misadventures over the previous four weeks, Autumn prepares a welcome dinner for everyone and everyone retires to the grander surroundings of the passenger lounge to eat.
“So what are we going to do for the next three weeks while we wait for Max to recuperate?” asks Autumn. “We could make a quick jump somewhere and be back just inside three weeks, but I’m not sure that it would be worth it just for passenger revenues alone.”
“Actually I need to stay here a while longer,” Will interjects. “I have been invited to the GLIPS Planetological Society Forum meeting in a couple of days by my mentor, Dr. Amrish Van Donkersguud. I need to help him defend his thesis on Zhodani terraforming methods against our arch-nemesis, Dr. Anders Joshey, who is seeking to discredit the work of both of us.”
“I have five free guest passes with free accommodation and food included if you would all like to accompany me. I can understand that it might not be the most riveting form of entertainment in Glisten, but it would be good if Dr. Donkersguud had a few friendly faces in the audience.”
“I’d be happy to attend, Capn’” says Grim.
“So this Lecture Will. Is there a Bar?" asks Taeva.
“Of course there’s a bar,” Will replies. “You wouldn’t get people travelling twenty parsecs to the Forum without a bar. In fact they’ve hired the whole Grand Plaza floating hotel and resort complex and repositioned it in orbit above Wua-hin just for the event.”
“You better get ready for some pretty mad and wild partying when us Planetologists get together and let our hair down – we can get completely CRAY-ZEEEEEE!!!!”
“Hum yes. I imagine Jie, Autumn and I will be the only women there then,” Taeva asks.
“Well, you are right that women aren’t going to be in the majority there,” Will admits. “I’d get ready for a fair few jokes about there being some ‘heavenly bodies’ in the room. That’s just one example of the crazy and wacky humour us Planetologists have in common.”
Jie shows up a little later and nods to everyone with a tired smile on her face as she boards the ship. Once she decided not to partake of New You’s wares she withdrew some credits then spent most of her down time in the outer Pluvis asteroid belt. (That was after she texted everyone with Grims now famous photo, of course.) She takes an interest in the new robots and especially likes the dog one. She meanders through the cargo bay and really loves the cargo walker. It warms her heart that Tae..er.. Roberta put a bow on it. After she raids the kitchen for some Saleng sausage, she meanders to her and Autumns room.
It looks as if a rainbow puked all over. Jie stands at the door afraid to step inside. The small room was covered in every kind of clothing from sweat shorts to ball gowns of every possible color. Autumn pops out of the closet with a sheepish grin, both hands trailing wispy scarves.
“Oh, I’m sorry Jie, I thought you weren’t returning for a day or two. I’ll get my new packages off your cot. Wait a minute… Something’s different about you…Let me see. Oh! You’re not wearing your Flak Jacket! You always wear that beat-up thing. What’s up?” she says as she reverently lifts her goodies off the bed so Jie can set down her back pack.
Jie is now grinning from ear to ear, like a kid who just got a coveted piece of candy.
“I gave that away to Mr. Slagg because I purchased something way cooler!”
She stands back and focuses her attention on the back pack on the bed still smiling satisfactorily. She crosses her arms and admires the firm sided pack as if it were a piece of art.
Autumn stands beside Jie, switching her gaze between the back pack and Jie. “Mr. Slagg?”
“After withdrawing my 225,000 credits of Collace investment funds from the local bank, I headed off to a grungy side of the Pluvis belt, very near the Naval base stationed there. In its large shadow, so to speak. I looked for someone to teach me how to use my laser carbine better and I could think of no better place than in the flotsam and jetsam left over from the titanic eddies made by the flow of military personnel coming and going from that huge base. I spent 3,000 credits to rent out a berth on a gutted out Fat Trader that was turned into a ‘Bed and Breakfast’. It was OK only if I didn’t eat or sleep there. In fact, as a condition to my stay I had to evict the former resident of my room for not paying his rent. Then I had to clean up the blood. Anyway I asked around for Ex-Military types and eventually dug up Mr. Slagg. (That’s not his real name though, just like Taeva he is a little shy of the lime light) He was an Imperial Vargr who has been in the Scouts for about 40 years. He was old, almost enfeebled. Almost. He knew everything to know about the carbine and was willing to take on a student for a few weeks. We agreed on a payment plan of 7,500 credits up front and services rendered on an as needed basis”
Jie breaks her stare from the oriental decorated back pack to look at Autumn. The stewardess is looking at her with half concealed shock and horror, as Jie looks back, not quite understanding what Autumn is all upset about.
“What were the… services you had to do?” She asks, almost not wanting to, but too enthralled to not know.
“Oh, shake downs of the local businesses. Sometimes body guarding a underworld Don as he visited his territories. Once I acted like a stripper to sneak two extra-large grenades into a bar that was targeted for demolition…that kind of stuff. Anyway, the hardest part was lack of armor. I couldn’t wear my flak jacket and even when I roamed around in Ablat I would draw too much attention, and as I said before, Mr. Slagg don’t like attention. It was after one of the last grueling training sessions when he showed me…” Jie looks to the back pack reverently “this!”
A long pause ensues as both girls stare at the pack on the bed.
“Does it do tricks?” Autumn asks.
“Yes!” Jie picks it up and dumps its assorted contents on the bed. Then she reaches inside and twists her arms. The sturdy seeming pack falls apart, held together in large, curved pieces by what looks like titanium steel alloy mesh. She dons a solid plate of polymer plastic to her chest then another to her back as straps click into place and the fibrous carapace-like panels cover major arteries and vital organs. Jie connects an armored facemask and half helmet to the hardened body, puts them on and snaps the last of the buckles. In 30 seconds Jie went from unarmored to wearing an Advanced Poly Carapace.
“It’s not as strong as the real thing but better than the old Tech 11 crap. When it’s in pack mode it just shows up on scanners as a very durable back pack. And it only cost me 100,000 credits!!”
Jie is ecstatic about her new toy. Autumn is less enthused. She goes back to hanging her resplendent clothes up on hangers.
Eventually she says “At least it didn’t come with an extra set of boobs.” Autumn and Jie lock eyes then burst out in girlish snickers.
The two girls head back to the lounge where Will tells Jie that all have been invited to attend the Planetological Forum.
Jie quirkily grins and nods with enthusiasm at Will. Then looks to the rest of the crew with an expression that says she thinks that the upcoming event will flop like a turd party. She is glad to know however, that there is a bar there. While she trained for four weeks with a trainer, she was forbidden to alter her mind with artificial stimulus. This will be a nice night out getting drunk with friends as long as all the talk about planets doesn’t make her head explode. Jie volunteers to bring any brainy paper work or video from Wills’ travels in her back pack. She suspects that nothing says ‘cool’ to these guys then firsthand seismographs of the border worlds we visited in the last year or so. Jie searches for an Ablat evening dress to wear with shoes to match.
“Oh, and you might want to bring your data pad. I’m sure you’ll want to take notes. And your camera for photos of the famous scientists. I heard a rumour that Herr Dr Model is coming all the way from Zhodane,” Will says, with a wink to Jie. “And there will be an actual fossil octodon from the core worlds. You’ll need your wide-angle lens for that one.”
“And don’t worry about the girl quotient,” he adds. “Most of the grad students these days are women. I imagine they’ll be all ears for tales of derring-do from adventurers like Taeva. If you really want to fit in Jie, take your fancy hammer and have fun passing it off as the latest geologist must-have.”
“Oh, and Taeva, I did get 5 doses of Fast for the pharmacy. But of course I’m sure we could always use more. I’ll post a list of the pharmacy contents on the computer shortly.”
Meanwhile, in the engine room, Grim looked at the Princess’ Jump Drive with dismay.
‘That isn’t right’, he thought, ‘the jump grid overlay is a good two microns out of synch. And, look at that! The power fluctuation limiter for the capacitor is all dirty.’
‘Guess I’ve got my work cut out for me…’ he mused as he cleaned and calibrated, thankful that he’d paid the seventy five hundred credits for the four week intensive Jump Drive Course at Glisten’s famed Upaius Engineering Technical Academy and Culinary Institute.
Oh sure, he knew they were a diploma mill, but the instructors hadn’t been too bad once they realized he understood what they’d been talking about and so he had learned a bit after all. That, and the food at the cafeteria had been pretty good. Not up to Autumn’s standards, which said something about the student chefs from the attached Culinary Institute, but not bad. And then there’d been the coeds, of course…
It’s getting late in the evening now and the party members are relaxing with a few bottles of whisky that Max had removed from the cargo that they shipped halfway across the subsector.
“So we’re all agreed about going to the Planetological Forum?” Will says, hardly able to contain his excitement. “Complementary shuttle tickets are included in the comps I have. There’s no point in moving the Princess from her long-term berth just for the hop to Was-hin and it will be quicker to get there by 3-G shuttle than at the Princess’s slow but sure 1-G. The approach to Was-hin is hard work in any case – I’m more than happy to leave it to someone else to get us there.”
“I suggest that we head there mid-afternoon tomorrow so that we can check in before the welcoming banquet tomorrow evening. So if there’s anything anyone needs to do before we head off, there’s still tomorrow morning to do it.”