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Cultural Exchange - Part 1 

It was an old hull. An old Zhodani design scavenged from the last war, no doubt. You could tell it had seen action on account of the scorch marks and pressure welds snaking across its surface like so many scars. It sorta looked like of an old whore standing in the shadows....used up. But to me, she was a thing of beauty.

I was about to go to inactive reserves with my best friend, Friedrich, and I guess we had done the service right proud during the last series of Vargr incursions, so the service was going to let us have her with orders to refit and refurbish her. So ,you see, she was mine, ours really, in a certain way. But she was still an old whore. Its gonna still cost us; credits and sweat, before she'll perform like she promises. Especially as she had been gutted of most of the gear and fittings she had carried. Oh well. That just means a clean slate and heaps'o job security.

The hanger was as loud as always. The scream of hydraulic pumps drowned out all other noises. A dull gray, needle floated over my head on the gantry crane. At nearly 50 meters long, she looked like she should've been doing a healthy percentage of c , she looked so fast. Sixty years ago, she'd been a jump-5 fleet courier for the donnies. That's fast. Our budget and superiors both nixed the idea for bringing her back up to original specs. But she'll still be fast...one way or another. At 150 dtons, we'll have plenty of room for that. Even after I convinced ol' Kugi to beef up her insides. She should be able to handle 8g's straight without so much as a creak in her bones. I was so busy watching the crane operator drift my baby into an open fitting cradle that I didn't notice I had company.

Friedrich slapped my back and was grinning like an idiot on juice. Kugi, the dumpy, old master hull tech, scowled as usual and waved us over into his office. There's no sense trying to outshout pumps, welders and hammers. I could use a hot cup of tisane anyhow.

"You owe me big time, Ishmael! I got reamed for doing you that favor. "

I'm glad his back was facing me. He sounded as hot and as bitter as his brew. After filling his cup from the pot, he tossed his clipboard angrily on his desk.

"Geez...at least let me get in door the first...." . At least let me draw a breath, buddy.

"Someone in command really has it out for you, ya know. I just spent two hours getting drug across the carpet for even just looking at your ship. It ain't right! I just did check-outs on a good half dozen Sulieman's and they still gave you this hunk of crap! Tell me. Who the hell did you piss on ?"

"Beats me.. You know I am an upstanding citizen." I gave him my best 'I iz inocent yo' honor' type grins and shrugged my shoulders.

"Besides", I said in a more serious tone. " Maybe the upstairs butlers actually have a real reason this time."

"Yeah! Last time wasn't our fault! You see, That wasn't us. We weren't even within 3 jumps when ....".

Friedrich's voiced trailed off as I glared at him and Kugi walked around to his desk with his hands over his ears. As good of a friend as he was, he wasn't ready for the truth and we weren't ready to tell him about our last poke at the commander nor what we used to poke him with, so to speak. The old bastard blamed us for being assigned to a class 5 desk scan. With great power comes great responsibility. I think I'd rather stay irresponsible.

"I don't want to know. All I do know is that it cost you a good type S. Instead they gave you ..that".

The way he said 'that' made me think that he was almost ready to puke as he gestured roughly toward my baby. He was front line during the war. Some things, you can't forget so I don't really blame him.

"A goddam donnie ship....."

A dark scowl crept across the old engineer's scarred face. He wiped his hands absent-mindedly on his coveralls; an obsessive-compulsive thing, I guess, and I'll be damned if the fabric wasn't worn thin where he rubbed nervously.

Friedrich elbowed me hard and nodded in Kugi's direction. We both knew it could get rough if Kugi decided to run and hide in his own mind. He'd done it before. He was beginning to do it now. So I spilled my hot cup of tisane down the front of his collar. However much it burned, it couldn't have been near as bad as what them mind-rapers had done to him. Anyhow, we needed him back here and now.

My partner had clapped his hands over his ears and held his mouth open, like a cannon grunt, ready for the yell that was sure to come, and I crouched, all wide-eyed with fear, looking for a place to duck'n'cover. Years of welding with a fusion torch can give a man chunks of iron for hands, and my jaw wanted no part of that stuff. I'm the brains of the outfit, so let Friedrich fight if'n he wants. After all, What are partners for?

The only sound in that room was the sound of teeth clinched so tight they were like rocks rubbing together. His manic wiping was now directed to the front of his uniform. I guess it worked and he was here and now.....not catatonic. Friedrich shrugged and I tried to stand as if nothing had happened. Effin meow.

"What in hell didja do that for?" he growled.

"Accident", I mumbled and did my innocent shrug again. Inwardly, I let out a breath of relief. He didn't even know what had happened. Too busy outrunning memories.

The old surplus chair creaked under his mass as he sat down, his hand scooping the clipboard up, off the desk. He used it to wave us to a ragged couch near the window overlooking the hanger. I leaned forward to listen and Friedrich leaned forward to stare at the pin-up calender. To him, Miss January was much more interesting than this technical stuff. He was bored by it all, but as the ship was half his, he felt compelled to stay and pretend to listen. Kugi flipped a couple of pages over the top of the clipboard before he began.

"I take it you read my preliminary report off the server? Right then. Here goes. Jump grid's damaged and can't be rated past 2.3, but that'll be good enough. It's slightly better than a new type 's', so you won't get any longer legs anyhow. As per your request, she's been retrofitted with bracing good to 8.2 g's linear, but only 1.5 g compensation. You wanna burn, then you're gonna get heavy. I suggest g-suits, unless you like to black out. Armor-wise, she's sweet. As much as I hate to say it, them zho's did a good thing there. Low-tech 'n' expensive for them, but a good thing. 17cm of ceramic laminates. Strong and light. The Chatl class was their fleet courier so they built her to run. One hardpoint; unused. The chameleon coating is shot, so you're going to hafta use an old-fashion method of adding markings. Have fun painting her boys .....hahahha" .

Great. Toxics and elbow grease. He probably won't have any colors except pink, just out of spite. I know he won't have anything decent if I raise a fuss just so he can have a good laugh. Except for registration markings and saftey tags, there isn't any special regs for coloring because there are some races who don't even see in visible wavelengths anyway. But who wants a pink ship? With a wink and a nod to my partner, so he won't fly off the handle, I chose to ignore Kugi's laugh.

"What internal systems are on line? Can we live in her yet?"

The IISS doesn't exactly have a big budget for 5 star rooms in its dormatories. And I want peace and quiet while working. It is our job, now, to get our ship flight worthy. The sooner the better.

"The basic life support ; ventilation, plumbing, and simple power is in place and on line. You'll have to run your own data network and control harnesses yourselves, though. We can't do that until we know what sort of systems will be used. Its all in the final report. I'll uplink it to your system once I get it finished. I'll also add some drawings and specs I dug up on this class ship. We'll have it dollied over to berth 23 and shore facilities hooked up by tomorrow."

Heh. He's all business now. He almost wigs out, then goofs about paint. I guess that's just how he is, always has been... lousy with people, but talk about machines, he turns into a bowden's cat.

I twisted around on my ass without getting off the couch and gazed out the window toward the sweeping sides of grey bolted firmly in its cradle. After a minute or two, I nudged toward the door.

"I guess that's it then ,till some parts get here.", I said as I followed Friedrich out into the noise. I made a promise to get revenge if all he gets us is pink.

"So what do you think? ", Friedrich asked as we strolled down the long concrete passage leading away from the hanger. The echoes of water dripping from coolant pipes, and our footsteps made it hard to hear him. He said it again louder to be sure I heard him.

"What do you think?"

"About what? The fact that we got a one-of-a-kind ship?...or that we get to outfit it for ourselves, however we like? Seems kinda sweet to me, either way." I tried to sound cheerful about it, but it was like a faint smell that you weren't sure if you liked or not.

Friedrich's reply made it clear that he did not like the smell of it at all.

"Do you honestly think that Scolpenis would authorize a one-of-a-kind ship unless he had a one-of-a-kind mission for us? He hates us you know, so he'd shaft us if he could."

"And why not? Haven't we always finished our jobs? Always!"

Paranoid bastard. He would happily seed clouds, just to make it rain on somebody's parade. Why did he have to do it to mine today. I was happy just 2 hours ago in the hanger, watching my dream be born. And now, his words are making me think it could be a nightmare. All I ever wanted was a ship to wander around in, and not have to answer to nobody except sometimes in emergencies. All expenses paid to boot.

"Maybe the one-of-a-kind mission for us is to fail."

That made me stop in my tracks. I just stared at him with a mix of anger and despair. When he turned to face me, with an evil smile on his face, I slugged him hard in his arm. That'll leave a bruise. I'll apologize later. If I think about it. That's what partners are for. In the meantime, I guess that I'll just walk down this corridor and squash any bugs that I see on the floor. He continued to mock me.

"Ree-ree-retard" he laughed. He swung his arm in one circle then raised both arms over his head.

"I am Obnoxo! I am Eenveencible. Hahahahaha"

I hated to admit it, but he was right.

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